The Wicked Earls’ Club – Tammy Andresen, Maggie Dallen

The Earl of Coventry had a secret. Some days this secret proved to be a burden, but tonight…well, tonight it amused him to no end. The next stage of his plan would be begin as soon as he completed his correspondence. Sitting behind his massive mahogany desk, he signed his name with a flourish as the voices of several men and a few women wafted through the halls of the Wicked Earls Club. He couldn’t make out any individual words, just the tone, but the conversation seemed pleasant, the mood light, his earls content. Many of them had already left the club for the evening to participate in the social gatherings of the ton, but this club was for the activities best kept out of the public’s eye and quite a few were still in attendance. He’d bet his fortune he knew who was still there, lingering over their whiskeys and settling in for one last round of cards before heading off to fulfill their social obligations. It was always the same crowd who lingered here until the last possible moment. The worst of the worst, the most wicked of them all. As if summoned by his thoughts, the Earl of Davenport appeared in the doorway to his study. Coventry laughed softly at the sight of him. “Speak of the devil.” The other man glowered at the jest. The Devil of Davenport. That was how the ton referred to him behind his back and the young earl seemed to go out of his way to live up to the name.

“You requested I inform you when the clock struck nine,” Davenport said. Coventry smiled. Ah yes, he’d nearly forgotten. Of course, Coventry had a pocket watch. But for reasons that were his own, he’d wanted Davenport close tonight. Davenport, like all the rest of the earls who haunted the halls of this club, was not used to doing favors or following orders. But when Coventry asked something of one of them, they were sure to comply. Why? Because he was the man who’d given them salvation. With this club, he offered these nefarious gentry refuge. A place where they could revel in freedom and operate beyond the strictures of society.

Or so they thought, his simple foolish boys. Coventry hadn’t founded this club—oh no, this elite society had been around long before he was born. Originally formed as a guild of earls, it was intended to be a place where the country’s most prominent and powerful could meet in secret, to make deals and curry favor without facing the public’s judgment. But somehow over the years, the club had turned corrupt. The earls who graced its halls no longer came for business, but solely for pleasure. No, Coventry had not founded the club, he’d merely changed its title. He renamed it for what it had become rather than what it should have been. A society for the wicked. A refuge for rakes and scoundrels with too much unchecked power and too little love. The earls in his club were not evil, but they needed guidance.

A helping hand, a nudge from someone who saw their true potential. Someone like him. Coventry had given them their moniker, just as he’d taken the defunct guild and turned it into a brotherhood. After all, if there was honor among thieves, surely there could be loyalty among earls. But creating a safe haven, a place where these powerful men could find the support and solace they so often lacked—that had merely been the start. Coventry had more in mind for these gentlemen, and that…that was his greatest secret and his most important undertaking. His earls would flee like rats from a fire if they knew what he had in store for them. He nearly laughed aloud at the thought but tamped his enthusiasm as he rose from his desk. “Thank you, Davenport.” Standing behind the desk, he donned his tailcoat.

“I’ve hired a lovely new girl, Miss Hart.” Coventry reached for his walking stick that hid a knife just beyond the handle. “I am sure she could use a turn about the property.” Davenport gave him a cold smile that would have made another man cower with fear, but Coventry knew better. With a final salute, Davenport turned and exited the room. Coventry’s eyes followed him down the hall. His errant earl would remain here this eve, just as he’d wished. For this one night, at least, his wayward young friend would stay out of trouble. Soon enough, he would find Davenport the right woman to tame his dark side, but until then he’d settle for keeping the beast in his cage. Leaning over his desk, Coventry took one last look at the letters he’d been drafting.

The first was to the Marquess of Rangely, the parents of the Earl of Sussex. The second was to the Duke of Waverly, father to one Lady Tabitha Riley. In the contents of these letters held his true aim for the wicked earls… redemption. The word alone would make his earls recoil. For these men were powerful beyond belief, and that sort of entitlement had skewed their priorities. Each earl in his club had an overwhelming sense of duty but no clarity of purpose, an abundance of land but no true home, plenty of money but no loving family with whom to share it. Coventry planned to change all that. Locking his office, he made his way down the darkened hall, passing the large sitting room where the earls congregated. Several of them sat in small groups, drinking their beverage of choice, talking amongst themselves. The ladies that served within the club joined the conversations, adding wit and charm to the atmosphere.

Only one man sat alone, Luke Bentley, the Earl of Sussex, surveying the scene just as Coventry was. He didn’t seem himself this evening. Normally he was the first to partake in liquor or women, most likely both. While it was out of character, Coventry allowed himself a small smile. It was a good sign, indeed. Coventry gave the other man a nod and he rose to join him. “Our fearless leader.” Sussex gave him a dashing grin as he lithely crossed the room. No wonder the ladies found him so appealing. “Good evening.

” Coventry returned the greeting. “It’s unlike you to be alone on a night such as this.” Sussex grimaced, a shadow passing over his face. “It is, but I find myself alone nonetheless.” Coventry raised his eyebrows, wondering if his friend might finally be ready to settle down. It was a question best not answered now, however. They had other business to see to. “I’ve an event I must attend. Would you care to join me?” Sussex gave him a questioning gaze but nodded his affirmation and fell in step beside him. “I must admit my curiosity is piqued.

” Coventry raised one eyebrow. “It is a mundane party, like every other of its kind. Hardly worth mentioning.” He was never one to give much detail. It colored others’ opinions. Better for them to experience. Besides, it was at the home of Lord and Lady Ashford. If Sussex had one weakness, it was for beautiful women who were unhappily wed. “But a brother of ours may be in need of our assistance.” “Well that certainly doesn’t raise more questions than it answered,” Sussex replied drily, but he continued to walk down the hall towards the door.

A chuckle escaped Coventry’s lips. Little did Sussex know, but the lady Coventry had chosen to marry the errant earl was also quick-witted. He thought again to the letters he’d left on his desk. It was most decidedly time to send those. Climbing into the carriage, the two men rode in silence as they crossed to a more respectable part of London and joined in a line of carriages waiting to usher the most elite of society to the Viscount of Ashford’s home. The gala was in full swing when he and Sussex entered the foyer. Coventry frowned. Perhaps he should have come earlier. Aside from taking care of one of the wicked earls, he had a meeting of an illicit variety, and the fairer sex did not like to be kept waiting. Gesturing to the side, he and Luke skirted the crush.

“I am not fond of these events,” Sussex muttered. Coventry was inclined to agree. The room was uncomfortably warm in a way the Coventry could barely tolerate. Moving to the side, he nearly stepped into the path of the Duchess of Waverly and next to her, her daughter, Lady Tabitha Bentley. His eyes flitted over the girl. Men were fools not to see how attractive she was. Beautiful, well endowed, and intelligent, she would make a fine wife. It was the perfect opportunity for Sussex to see the same. Known to her mother, he made his greetings and turned to Sussex. “Lord Sussex, may I introduce Lady Tabitha Bentley.

” “Charmed,” Sussex replied halfheartedly, his tone implying none of the interest Coventry would have expected. Coventry blinked. How could the man not see the beauty in front of him? But as his eyes followed Sussex’s gaze, Coventry realized the man hadn’t looked at Tabitha at all. Instead, he was ensnared by Lady Ashford’s coquettish gaze. Lady Tabitha cleared her throat. “We’ve been introduced previously.” Coventry watched as her fan flicked in her hand, tapping her hip in annoyance. “It was a remarkably similar introduction.” Coventry met her clear blue eyes. It seemed they too had taken note of Lady Ashford’s gaze upon Sussex.

Coventry dropped his voice. “Lady Ashford was there, I take it?” Sussex seemed none the wiser, his attention focused across the room on the other woman. Lady Tabitha sighed. “No, another lady entirely. Same experience, however. Good evening, Lord Coventry.” Then he watched as she disappeared into the crowd. With a notable sigh, Coventry pulled on Sussex’s arm. “We’re here for a purpose, if you’ll recall.” His words were sharper than intended.

Sussex had just ruined what could have been the most important event of his life. Fool. But tonight wasn’t about Sussex, not really. If Luke had opened his eyes and seen what was right in front of him without further interference, he would have been lucky indeed. But Coventry hadn’t expected this to be easy. His wicked earls were nothing if not stubborn. He let go of Sussex’s arm. If his friend wanted to make a fool of himself over Lady Ashford this evening, so be it. He had other priorities this evening. Leading the way through the crowd, Coventry found the man he was looking for.

Lord Harrington sat exactly where Coventry would have expected him: at the gaming tables. The young earl had only just come into his inheritance and was intent upon pissing away whatever was not entailed. Most likely to spite his grandfather, The Duke of Southington. While he understood the motives, Coventry simply couldn’t allow that to happen. Harrington had potential, a capacity for giving, and an edge hard enough to make him a leader, if he chose to embrace those qualities. “Coventry,” Harrington slurred. “What are you doing here?” Coventry took a quick sweep of the table. Despite his intoxication, Harrington appeared to be winning. What was curious were the guests who had joined him for the game. Two of them did not belong at the party.

They were rough-looking men, more suited to a gaming hell than a soiree. In addition, they appeared sore at the idea of losing, and even more put out by the prospect of losing to a drunk. Coventry turned back to Harrington. “My wife insisted I come. I should find her, make an appearance, but Sussex will take a seat at the table.” He heard Sussex grumble behind him. “I’m to be strapped with an infant earl?”

.

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