The Duke is Wicked – Tracy Sumner

Dying was going to be easier than he’d imagined. Sebastian Fitzgerald Tremont plunged his hand through the thin layer of ice and into the frigid fountain. Biting his lip until he tasted blood, he closed his eyes to the pain, his body shifting from hot to cold and back again so quickly he felt faint. He’d long ago surrendered to his skin going numb, rain and mud seeping through torn buckskin where he rested against the fountain’s rough stone. Long ago surrendered to wondering when, exactly, his father would succeed in killing him. Long ago yielded to his hatred. “This time, keep it there. Even if your skin turns blue,” the Duke of Ashcroft snarled. “And then we’ll see about these bloody fires you’re starting. The third one this month, my boy, and the third is going to be your last. With her death, I promise until mine, it’s your last. No son of mine will suffer this misfortune.” Sebastian lifted his head, focusing a gaze close in color to the inferno that had ripped through the gamekeeper’s lodge two hours ago on the duke. He’d only gone there to mourn his mother in private, to rage over what could not be helped. As if he would suffer this misfortune if there were any option not to.

“Don’t make me think about the fires, Your Grace,” he forced past lips clenched tightly to contain the tremors rocking his body, his vision spotting at the edges. If he passed out, his threat would go unheard. “You know what will happen if I do. I can see your coat going up in flames. Your bedchamber.” He jerked his shoulder toward the magnificent dwelling behind them. “This entire estate.” His father gasped and stumbled back through the slush, filth splattering his fine woolen trousers. He pointed at his son, the ruby in his signet ring glinting in the moonlight, the crest of a lion with bared teeth leaping into the night. “No, you little spawn, you won’t touch me.

You won’t! You killed your mother this very morn with this alchemy, put her in an early grave. Weak from dealing with your curse, she couldn’t survive. She nor the babe. Both lost to me.” He pounded his chest, three hard pops. “She loved you more than life, shielded you to the end. When I should’ve shipped you to the estate in the Highlands the moment I realized what you were. Somewhere so remote you’d never make it back.” In a fury, Sebastian yanked his hand from the fountain and closed his eyes, let his fingertips heat, his mind sizzle. Fires raged in his dreams and out of them, smoke choking him, flames licking his skin.

Forests ablaze, the world one fierce, glowing ember and him, the speck of life within it. Ribbons of crimson and gold and indigo flooded his vision. With his father’s wail, he blinked to find flames ripping across the fountain, water bubbling and churning. The rain had turned to snow, sticking to his lips, melting when it touched his cheek, an arctic slide into his collar—when all around him was blistering heat. It was hell on earth in the middle of a Mayfair winter. Hell on earth in his mind. Hell on earth in his life. His father backed up, tripped on a tree root and tumbled to his bottom. “You’ll die alone, do you hear me? Like I will, without my beloved. Alone.

A lowly third son. I’ll make sure of it. No one can love a devil, Sebastian. Destroying everything he touches. No one can be expected to.” Scrambling to his feet, he backed away as if singed, when the fire was confined to the fountain, as Sebastian had intended. Exhaling sharply, he cleared his mind and the firestorm faded. Only air thick with the scent of charred stone and despair lingered. And in the distance, the piercing fragrance of the Thames and the city he loved. He would die alone, he agreed, and slumped to the frozen earth, watching his father stagger down the gravel drive and into a home in which Sebastian suspected he’d no longer be welcome.

Maybe he had killed his mother. Not a breech baby, as the doctor had suggested. Tears leaked from his eyes, and Sebastian scrubbed them away. He’d live a solitary life, he vowed, mired in misery and mud, the chill in his heart penetrating deeper than winter could. A humble third son. A firestarter. A demon. Cursed. Unloved. Unwanted.

A horror, all told. But at least he wouldn’t add the burden of being a duke to that life. Chapter 1 A raucous gaming hell in a ghastly part of town London 1872 “I get into a brawl every time I come here,” Sebastian Fitzgerald Tremont, fifth Duke of Ashcroft, muttered against the embroidered handkerchief he held to his jaw. A jaw that had taken a solid clip after he’d stepped between an inebriated baron and an earl’s second son who’d made the mistake of sleeping with the baron’s rather voracious wife. Two overturned faro tables and six broken glasses later, he and his friends tossed the baron and second son into the Blue Moon’s dank alley, closed the establishment and retreated to the private salon. “I should have stayed home. Or better yet, stayed in Oxfordshire,” Julian Alexander, Viscount Beauchamp, grumbled from his sprawl on the settee. His shirt was ripped, the sleeve hanging at an awkward tilt off his shoulder. His cravat had been used to mop up brandy, his coat lost somewhere in the shuffle. His supernatural gift of touching objects and seeing images connected to them often left him dazed, and he wore a familiar, fatigued expression.

“Aside from the five of us coming to blows in your hell, Finn, what’s this about? I’m missing time with my wife and children for this stimulating gathering. Too, did you douse the lamp outside? We’ll have men beating on your door all night if they think there’s still gaming going on.” “I turned it down. This isn’t Crockfords.” Finn Alexander, Julian’s half-brother, and arguably, the most handsome man in England, removed a bloodied compress from his knuckles and wiggled his fingers with a grimace. “Don’t be fooled, gentleman. His Grace loves to brawl. In fact, he comes here for the danger. I’ve read his mind enough times to count this as fact. The ducal contingent guarding the front and back entrances could’ve taken care of this little tiff in seconds.

He didn’t engage them for a reason.” “And that is?” Sebastian asked, though he’d rather not. When Finn was right, and they all knew it. “I’m simply letting you have your fun. Running you like I would a prized stallion. As a friend, as a neighbor.” Sebastian peered at his face in the grimy window before him and flexed his jaw with a pop. He’d recently purchased a ramshackle castle in Oxfordshire next to Finn’s—mere miles from Julian’s—when he needed another property like he needed a proverbial hole in the head. But this one, Adey Castle, was his and his alone. No bitter memories of growing up under a brutal hand to taint his love of the place; no ghosts, except the usual kind, waiting to spring at him from every dark corner.

It was true. He and Finn were neighbors. And friends. Sebastian smiled but kept it between himself and the leaded glass, the marvel of having friends still a wonder. Puzzling, this feeling of contentment, because he was surrounded, as most titled men were, by people. The higher the title, the larger the crowd. Former soldiers from his regiment. Women of varying levels of availability and consequence. Sycophants, servants, solicitors, tenants, beneficiaries. But never friends.

He shook his head and swiped his thumb over his battered bottom lip. Nay, the four men in this room were more than that. They were brothers. The only ones who understood who he was, what he was. They accepted him without question because they were, except for Humphrey, the gentle giant who played anxious papa to them all and now sat brooding in a gloomy corner of the salon, similarly cursed with a mystical gift they neither wanted nor could completely control. Julian had created a League of Lords for this very reason, to bring together the mystical misfits. Sebastian had happily joined the underground organization, for those locked in a supernatural world, the moment he’d been invited. Still, even with his modest satisfaction of late, a victory in a life filled with chaos, Sebastian realized he was lonely—an ache he couldn’t soothe. Persistent and resounding as a bell ringing through his soul. With a sigh, he palmed his chest to contain it.

“You took a couple of hard knocks, Your Grace.” To calm himself, Julian had retrieved the pencil and paper he carried everywhere and was madly sketching. The scrape of charcoal on vellum circled the room. “Stepping between a cuckold and his betrayer is never a brilliant idea. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were inviting unrest into your life.” “My face is going to bruise, a story I’ll have to explain all over Town, when your brother’s is the one in need of diminishing return,” Sebastian murmured, the scent of macassar oil, tobacco and liquor, standard gambling establishment aromas, undercutting every shallow, pained breath he took. He’d received a blow to the ribs as well, damn this night. Turning, he perched his shoulder against the window frame and reluctantly settled in. “It’s an excellent question, Finn, friend and neighbor. Why are we here?” Humphrey took a swig straight from the gin bottle and skipped a pair of dice across the scarred table beside him.

“Fireball’s worried about Lady Nuisance getting a look at that bruised jaw and offering to kiss and make it better. How to escape that, the despairing duke wonders?” “You know what I think about that bloody nickname.” Sebastian shoved the soiled handkerchief in his trouser pocket, wondering who the hell it belonged to. “And that’s not it. Not at all.” “The girl’s right chuffed to see you, every time, while you scamper in the opposite direction. Then she gets angry and disappears, one of those lazy fades where you can still see part of her. What I’d call a flicker. Although, we’re trying to help her evaporate completely, like dew on summer grass, it hasn’t worked yet.” Humphrey rubbed his wrist over his lips, a weak effort to wipe away his sneer.

“Goddamn spooky. Although she would make the best duchess, the best wife, in England’s history. Vanish anytime she’s displeased. Or you are. Poof. Sounds like the type of wife I’d like.” “No one’s kissed the duke and made anything better in months,” Finn replied with another stretch and crack of his knuckles, his delight drenching the room like a rain shower. His wife, Victoria, had arrived in London from Oxfordshire two days ago, and he didn’t lack for anything, from the look of him. “His new nickname in the ton is the ‘duke of no one’s heart.’ Hasn’t been seen at an event in months.

” “Sod off,” Sebastian returned, because he had to say something or be eaten alive. At the very least, he should tell them to stop calling his possibly-maybe-likely intended Lady Nuisance. However, Honoria Hazelton was a nuisance. A brash, impulsive girl for whom he had no patience, no interest. When she’d too much interest for the both of them. A lovely young woman of noble birth, Honoria also happened to have a supernatural talent of the disappearing variety. Making the marital arrangement he was pondering a precise, practical tradeoff in their mystical world. His protection, his name, which she desired, for her ability to produce an heir, which he desired—even if he was scared to death a child would inherit his gift. Or hers. A fear which did not promote romance in any way, shape, or form.

Bracing his forearm on the window frame, London’s acrid, dull-gray deluge washed over Sebastian as he questioned how to bed someone he thought of as a sister. Stretching his shoulders in mental evasion, he avoided Julian’s knowing stare. Julian and his wife, Piper, were a love match of a fervent kind. The I-have-loved-you-forever kind. Even more than Finn and Victoria, whose marriage was so passionate they couldn’t keep their hands or gazes off of each other, it was Julian’s marriage Sebastian, in turns, rejected and envied. Humphrey snorted and dabbed at a splash of gin on the table. “Started playing the violin again after cutting the opera singer loose, didn’t you, Fireball? Seems a pansy hobby, but what do I know? If it soothes the soul like Jules with his doodling, keeps you from torching the West End, I suppose it’s a good thing.” “Don’t violin strings roughen one’s fingertips?” Finn steepled his hands together and propped his chin atop them with a wistful smile that only made him more painfully attractive. “I’d imagine that could be useful in certain situations.” “Christ, Finn”—Julian whipped his pencil across the sheet—“get your head out of your —” “Freezing in here,” a frayed voice stuck solidly between boy and man murmured.

Sebastian looked over his shoulder. Simon, home from Rugby for the summer. An ace sharper and skilled thief, he rested on the floor, legs that were getting longer every day stretched before him, shuffling a deck of cards at an astonishing speed, without once looking at his hands. The finest cutpurse in the city in his youth, and the only person in the League with the ability to communicate with the deceased, Julian had rescued him nine years ago, managing to turn an abused boy into a superb facsimile of a charmed aristocrat. Except for the startling conversations he conducted with the dead—and his inability to relinquish his larcenous ways. Sebastian ran his tongue over his teeth, holding back his grin. “You’re cold, lad? That it?” Finn swore, and Julian reared to a sit, the room falling into a charged silence. Humphrey dropped his head to the table while Simon continued to rotate the cards in an impressive array without a blink, never one who minded issuing a dare. Sebastian’s grin grew as he decided to accept the wager, a wicked reflection in the glass pane when he looked back at it. If this goes poorly, he decided, at least the fire brigade is just down the way.

After all, Piper had told him he needed to practice. Closing his eyes, he pictured the hearth in the salon. The cast-iron frame, the tile insets running down either side, the marble mantelpiece spun in shades of ivory and caramel. The firewood piled high in a haphazard twist on the grate. Dear God, Sebastian, aim for that. His fingertips warmed, his heart bumped against his ribs, his breath bottomed out. At the last moment, disagreeably, a fragment of a dream from the evening prior slipped into his mind. The room, tiny. The woman, beautiful. The books, many.

Eyes the color of a tarnished silver coin capturing his. A muffled curse broke through his trance, a boot stomping the floor. Dammit, he’d missed his mark. Try again, he urged silently, rubbing his fingers together. The sound of parched pine igniting was as hushed as a fallen branch striking a snowbank. Sebastian braced his hand on the wall and exhaled gustily. Yanking his fingers through his hair, he turned to find his friends relaxing into their poses with corresponding expressions of relief as they watched flames gather in the hearth. Humphrey dusted the toe of his boot across the smoking edge of the Aubusson rug. “Close, the first try. Three feet away.

We’ve definitely seen worse.” I’m getting better, he wanted to tell them. I am. Nothing stronger than gin to assist in months. This unspoken avowal directed at Julian, who’d dragged him from a doss house with a promise it would be the last time he’d ever do it. Sebastian didn’t want to wage a war he couldn’t win. Certainly not with himself. He’d finally bestowed a value on life, currency he was unsure how to spend. But he was trying. “Spit it out, boyo,” Humphrey barked with a hot glance thrown Finn’s way.

“The duke is getting antsy, and we all know what that’ll bring.” Finn circled his hand in a theatrical gesture, then shook his head and began a circuitous trek around the salon. Twice, before Julian lost patience with a whispered oath. Halting in place, Finn shifted from one perfectly-polished boot to the other. He’d been through the same scuffle as the rest of them but looked like he’d just been released, with glowing approval, by his valet. “Last night, I finally saw her face.” Coming out of his slump against the wall, Sebastian took a halting step forward, ignoring the tingling in his fingertips. He’d known this day would come, known Finn’s dreams, his dreams, meant something. Known they were being directed to a person connected to the League. Known they were being directed, incredibly, to someone connected to him.

“Who is she?” “It’s not good. At least I don’t think it is.” Finn reached to straighten a cravat that didn’t need straightening, his words picking up speed as he explained, “Delaney Temple. I know the face because she about ran me down once, tearing through Hyde Park in her cabriolet. High-perch, no groom. The wind slapped my face, she got so close. Drives to the inch, she does. Imprudent chit. Unfashionably reckless. And I say this when my wife isn’t the most gracious herself, as you know.

” “Temple?” Sebastian frowned, pressing the heel of his hand to his brow, his head beginning to pound. “The eccentric American who’s said to assist Scotland Yard? The one with the twin brother who gets in his own fair share of trouble? What do they call them…?” “The Terrible Two.” Simon flipped a card in the air and caught it with a graceful snatch. “That ain’t all they say about her. Disguised herself as a page boy, snuck into White’s and beat the Earl of Essex at billiards. She wanted a horse he cut her out of at Tattersalls.’” Simon tucked the ace of spades up his sleeve, a smirk tilting his lips. “Rumored to be smarter than most men, which is unforgivable. But a man can forgive a lot, and I do mean a lot, when the chit is so flipping beautiful, she makes your eyes sting.” Sebastian grunted, unconvinced.

Simon was at an age where women were a fresh obsession, and what he discerned, he’d learned from lightskirts and pickpockets, experiences they’d tried over the past nine years to help him forget. The boy didn’t yet realize there were gorgeous women everywhere. “Her father was in trade, wasn’t he? Tobacco?”

.

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