The Lyon’s Den in Winter – Whitney Blake

“MAL, I DON’T know why you’re surprised Viola has taken after you.” Mrs. Bessie Dove-Lyon’s black-gloved fingers counted his qualities one at a time. “Stubborn, cunning, prone to disguises, sneaks about.” “I’m not surprised. She got herself robbed. I’m pure livid.” Malcolm’s left hand fidgeted. “She did not get herself robbed. Women are not to blame for the terrible things men do to them. Besides, I think you’re worried about something else.” Malcolm scoffed. He agreed with her, of course. At least about the prior statement. “I do wish you’d remove your obtrusive face covering.

You’ve nothing to hide from me. There’s no need to pretend you’re the grand dame of the demimonde when we’re just amongst ourselves.” But he wagered Bessie would not lift her veil. Not even for him, an old friend. It was her battle armor now. Well, I say friend. They’d once been lovers. It hadn’t lasted long. That was for the best. He was certain they might have ended up destroying half of London or owning all of it.

But they were friends, too. It had been a natural alliance for them, the reformed gambler and the clever widow. To him, she was usually Bessie, and to her, he was generally Mal. They did not see much of each other now, and indeed could never have lived in marriage or even under the same roof. Nonetheless, they were on a pet-name basis. She’d determined catering to the rich’s seedy whims was the way past her late husband’s debts. Malcolm would never take credit for her work. He’d just advised her on a handful of things. How to spot sneaks, how to tell if a man was an easy mark, how to make strong drinks that confounded without injuring. The rest of the Lyon’s Den was purely her design.

Especially the bespoke matchmaking. True, it was usually mothers who came to her, not fathers. But Viola had no mother, and Malcolm could think of no more expedient a solution than to ask Mrs. Dove-Lyon for her expert services. Thanks to some blasted, mysterious notes, he feared Viola was in trouble. She shook her head. “It would never do to expose myself.” He was sure she played with him. “But let us be frank. You want Viola married.

Otherwise, you wouldn’t be seeking me out.” “I need Viola married.” His Viola should have been born a man with the way she carried on. It would have made things simpler. For one, he would have felt better telling her the truth about what he still did for a living. Half a living, at least. He did not worry about her judging him. But he did worry about her being judged. He was also worried that someone might use her as leverage. He had ruffled enough feathers that it was hard to count the people who disliked him.

If she were biddable and never raised a fuss, she might be all right. She was not biddable in the least. “Look at these. They’ve been left at my office. Sealed, of course, so the secretary doesn’t think anything is amiss.” Malcolm drew several scraps of paper from his waistcoat and passed them to Bessie. She read the scribbles upon them and sighed. “Marrying her off might protect her,” she said. “I believe I see your logic. These are troubling.

” “You do not have to tell me.” Pretty little thing going from the house at all hours, said one. She looks like her mother, said another. Malcolm did not recognize the hand, but that was to be expected. No one worth their salt would give away their identity while playing a game like this. But the references to Viola’s mother made him think it was one man in particular. One whom he’d crossed on a personal, not professional, level. During normal trading hours, Malcolm was a solicitor. At his leisure, he was an advisor of sorts, drawing upon his knack for winning at card games and wagers of all sorts. He helped proprietors of various venues to turn a profit off unsuspecting patrons with the money to lose.

If Viola were judged the product of bad stock, her prospects would be ruined. If anyone found out what she did to amuse herself, she might be lost. Those were his tamest concerns, in a different category from the idea that one of his disgruntled old colleagues might see fit to harm her. Viola was a writer of plays and, evidently, she was considered a good one. Perhaps it was in the blood and taking another form. Her mother, Iris, had been a performer. It was true that Viola was no debutante, no lady who would have a Season. But as a supposed solicitor’s daughter, she still had little room to be anything society said respectable women should not be. A wealthy woman from a respectable family and with good connections might be forgiven eccentricities. Viola wouldn’t be.

She was not wealthy enough, though Malcolm had plenty of money. Her father was from Glasgow, and her connections were neither good nor respectable. Men were cruel. Men of the ton or of other means were not excepted from the rule. They could never know that Mr. Malcolm Black had a deft hand in managing some of the most lucrative gambling hells they frequented. He no longer played in the hells like he once did, but he still advised and accounted and suggested. He provided cover stories and genteel assurances. When legalities were so gray, a genteel veneer was of the utmost importance. Some called him the Silver Tongue of Whitehall, just as Bessie was the Black Widow.

It suited him that his clients of a certain kind thought he was dangerous and, in a way, he was. Preying on Viola was different from preying on him. As a woman, she was more vulnerable. “Have you told her? Do you have any idea who could be leaving these for you?” After a sigh, Malcolm said, “No. And, yes.” He had an inkling—his longest-standing enemy was not his enemy because of business. Rather, the man who called himself Everett was Malcolm’s enemy because between the two men, Iris chose Malcolm. Malcolm would have preferred business was the cause. It was much simpler than matters of the heart. “And have you never thought of marrying her off before?” “I enjoy having her at home.

” It was the truth. “She is, what, almost thirty? Old enough to be considered a spinster by some. Most.” “You’re not sitting in Almack’s, Bessie. You don’t care about that. This is your den—well, your own parlor above your den. But you’ve never cared what people think.” “On the contrary, I care and I know how to manipulate it.” Malcolm smirked at the summation and said, “I am concerned that her attackers might not have been random. I don’t know for sure, of course.

” “Your instincts are usually good, though.” “And I won’t have her hurt by opportunistic numpties who favor blackmail or extortion. There are two things which worry me: her plays, and my second occupation.” “If she has talent, Mal, why can she not be an eccentric and make her way in the world? You can both be eccentrics together.” It was a valid question. He did understand Viola’s expansive spirit, if only because he possessed it, too. “I fear she will grow to resent her choices.” No, that was not really all. “That world can be a difficult one.” He thought of Iris as he spoke.

She died young and Malcolm didn’t wonder only a wee bit if her acting and singing had anything to do with it. It was not that he believed the life was immoral —it just left one open to instability and a lack of funds in exchange for often strenuous work. Their marriage had ended the instability, but it could not undo the stress of years of scraping by. “Iris would be proud of her.” “For dressing as a man and selling her words?” “That tone doesn’t fool me. You are proud.” “All the same. Will you not help me?” “I shall help you.” “But don’t saddle her with anyone…” “Trust me,” said Bessie. “I rate them as they come in.

I don’t bait the ones who do not pass muster.” “I do trust you.” “Good. I may have someone in mind, already,” said Bessie. “But he is only visiting his friend. A widower from elsewhere, you see. He is a mild gentleman, but I heard tell he might have something of a past.” He wondered if it would not be better for her to meet Viola properly before she said she had anyone in mind. Malcolm rubbed his temples with each of his pointer fingers. He adored her, but his daughter was more like a dram of whisky than a cup of tea.

Then there was the matter of introducing Mrs. Dove-Lyon to her. No doubt she’d heard of the Black Widow. She might have heard of the Silver Tongue. There was no accounting for what theater folk knew. “She won’t do well with a retiring type,” said Malcolm, before he could think better of nagging Bessie. “He isn’t retiring.” “Good.” “He’s older than her. By about a decade, I’d think.

No more than forty.” Bessie’s words were an aural smirk. “He’s very attractive.” “Perhaps you should marry him, you vixen.” “I do hope you don’t object to a suitor from north of the border.” “I won’t speak ill of my peers.” “Mal, try not to sound so dour. I can almost chew on your syllables when you are incensed.” He crossed his arms and sat back in his chair, studying the ceiling. He actually loved their repartee.

“You used to like the accent.” “I still do.” Bessie shook her head and the veil drifted with the movement. “Have faith. We will look after your Viola.” “His name had better not be Hamish, or Alasdair, or Duncan, or…” She must have been beaming. He didn’t quite see it, but he heard it when she spoke. Not all of her veils hid her entire face. This one did. “As a matter of fact, it’s Duncan.

” Malcolm reached for his tepid tea and leveled it back like it would intoxicate him. He should have taken her up on her offer of sprits when he’d first arrived. Bessie was, as ever, up to something. — Duncan hadn’t had a thing to drink since long before this visit south. It was best for his nerves to abstain, even if it was sometimes considered an odd choice. His father often teased him for it. Unlike some, he was not reliant on alcohol and he did not feel especially mournful without it. He just liked how it loosened his muscles for an hour or two. Thus, it was not difficult to refrain from consuming spirits. He could take or leave them.

But his normal ability to stay temperate left him as soon as he saw Watson again. It was an old habit when they were together, and their friendship was too long and storied to break it. Now, however, he found that imbibing as a man who was months away from forty was a far cry from drinking as a young buck. As soon as he levered himself upright and his feet were flat on the floor, the room tilted. He buried his face in his hands and contemplated whether a fall from a third-floor window would kill or injure him. Likely the latter rather than the prior. Then he would just be paying the price for his overindulgence with a few broken bones or a cracked skull. They might give you something stronger than spirits if you’re that injured. He glanced up, ruffling his hair, and tried to remember all that had happened last night. The woman, Violet—no, Viola.

She’d said her name was Miss Viola Black. A fairy of a woman. With excessive force behind her fist. He’d been too drunk to really feel it, but she’d landed a good punch to his sternum. Not that he could blame her. She’d just been assailed by two good-fornothings who’d taken her valuables. They hadn’t done worse than that, for which he was thankful. But then, they’d thought she was a young man. He smiled through his headache. They might have, but he hadn’t.

She wasn’t terribly injured, but she’d flung into him in a daze. He was heading back to Watson’s townhouse, deep in his cups, then quite out of nowhere—it seemed to him—there was a lady in a man’s hat, and men’s attire, crashing into his chest. “Out of my way,” she’d said. He should have been all too happy to let her go. But while drunk, his mind seemed to have more relaxed views on women and their company. After Annie, he hadn’t been very interested in serious courtship. He’d had a couple of nights with light-skirts, which suited him better than trying to navigate the whole complicated business of marriage. Not to mention pregnancy, which was a shame, as he’d envisioned himself with a family. Wrinkling his nose, he pushed that thought aside. It also wasn’t fair to Constance, because even if he wished to marry again, he would not want someone who didn’t fit their life becoming her new mother.

He’d taken an age determining her nanny and eventual governesses. Choosing anyone else to be near his daughter seemed a monumental decision. But his hands were on this woman’s forearms to steady her. His eyes took in her scuffed face, which bore bruises and scrapes that spoke of force. But it seemed she was just shaken rather than violated. Slurring his words, he’d said, “You should let me see to you.” “You couldn’t see to anybody. The blue ruin has made sure of that.” Then she hit him in the chest, and he let go of her arms with a cough. She didn’t get far before he spoke up, again.

He didn’t know what possessed him. Partially, he wished to know she was all right. “I might be drunk, yes,” he called to her retreating back, “but I’m also a medical man. A physician, no less.” Fat load of good it did Annie, he thought. He could only imagine what her death would have been like had they been in love. Crushing, probably. As things were, he was arbitrating guilt that he had not loved her more. He was not superstitious enough to think he’d caused her misfortune with his lack of romantic regard. But he still sometimes believed she’d deserved more than a best friend in a husband.

Particularly if, in the end, she was to die because of him. And of late, he was writing more than he was mending bodies. True, he never showed the tales to anyone, but he was fond of his words and the expression they allowed him. Viola’s footsteps slowed as she hesitated. “My father is expecting me.” “Your father knows you’re out this late, alone?” She did not answer him. He tried again. “He knows you’re dressed as a man?” She stopped walking, then charged right back to him. “So what if he does?” Duncan smiled. “Come, you really should have someone see to that cut above your eye.

” It was starting to drip blood down her eyebrow and onto her eyelid. He couldn’t tell if her eyebrow was split, or the cut was higher than the brow itself and simply oozing. “It will scar.” “I don’t care if it will scar,” she said, but there was no fight in it. She surveyed him. He was sure nothing could escape her notice. “I also shouldn’t go with a strange man to an undisclosed location.” “Says the woman dressed as a man with the scuffed-up face as she wanders the street after midnight. Alone. I’ve a pistol, if we needed it.

” She almost laughed but kept a straight expression. “I’m Viola Black.” Duncan didn’t trust himself to bow. His coordination was too clumsy. He’d also never make a proper shot in this state. But he inclined his head a little and said, “Dr. Duncan Neilson. I would offer you my arm, but I fear I’m a wee too wobbly for that.” “But not too wobbly to see to a cut that might need stitches? Or to shoot an aggressor?” “That’s an excellent point.” Duncan paused.

He remembered something Watson had mentioned about the hostess whose venue he’d just left. It was a risqué place, but he doubted a woman who seemed to possess Viola’s habits would take much issue with that. Watson said Mrs. Dove-Lyon was in command of some medical skill—Duncan didn’t have the slightest idea of what he meant. Nor did he know how she might have come by it, although he could have hazarded a guess. In his experience, the ladies who made it their business to provide pleasure also knew much about addressing common injuries. Men sometimes joked that they’d rather go to a courtesan than a doctor to be diagnosed with one of Venus’ ailments. The ladies were also usually handy with a needle and thread, as well as disinfection. He took a breath and said, “If you consent to it, I’d like to take you somewhere until you regain your footing. We can see about the cut, and perhaps look you over under better light, Miss Black.

” Viola hesitated. “Your home, Dr. Neilson?” “No.” “Where, then?” “It may not be the most illustrious of places, but I assure you that you will be safe.” “How ominous.” Smiling at her droll words, Duncan said, “Hardly. I just gather that it has a bit of a reputation.” Tiredly, fiddling with her lapel, Viola said, “I do not mind places with a reputation, but are you prevaricating?” He shrugged. “Not really. Have you heard of the Lyon’s Den, Miss Black? I was only just there, and I believe you would be able to take some refreshment and rest.

” Duncan stayed still. Instead of thinking about how the room swirled even with his eyes closed, he thought of Viola’s soft but decided voice and wondered what sort of woman she was. A couple of hours under Mrs. Dove-Lyon’s keen eyes hadn’t quite told him, and he could not banish the question from his mind.

.

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