A s had become a nightly ritual, Lady Fortune was brimming with London’s wealthiest and finest females in search of diversion. Perfumed and powdered, masked and bang up to the mark in exquisite gowns, and each of them ready to wager their pin money or their husband’s fortunes on the next turn of a card. It was a beautiful sight to behold. Demon Winter circled one of the faro tables at his sister Gen’s exclusive ladies’ gaming hell, on his way to the private room where a patron had requested to meet him. He was well accustomed to the lingering stares and longing looks the club members sent his way. But this—a demand to meet with him alone—was new. In truth, the lady in question—number one hundred four, by club records—had asked for the owner of Lady Fortune. But as the bride to the Marquess of Sundenbury and a future duchess, Gen was keeping her identity as the owner of Lady Fortune a closely guarded secret. Which meant Demon would be meeting with number one hundred four instead of Gen. It was a nuisance he had not needed on a night that was already laden with problems. The Madeira shipment was late. Their resident scamp Davy had been caught filching a fan from number two-andtwenty. Gen’s new pup had shat in the kitchens, much to the outrage of their chef. Demon sighed, then forced a smile in the direction of a brunette lovely who was attempting to catch his eye. At first, becoming the face of Gen’s gaming hell had seemed a rum lark.
Leave his position at The Devil’s Spawn, a men’s gaming hell, for an establishment overrun with ladies? Hardly a sacrifice. However, there were nights like this one when Lady Fortune lost its bleeding luster. Another few steps brought him to the door which led to Lady Fortune’s private rooms, where its patrons could clandestinely engage in games with higher stakes. Or take dinner or tea. Whichever they preferred. He reached the first private room, knocking before entering. “Come,” called an unfamiliar voice from within. Number one hundred four was unknown to him. A relatively new patron. Demon opened the portal, then crossed the threshold, closing it discreetly behind.
Her back was to him, giving him a unique vantage point. In the low, intimate light of the room, her copper hair shone from its confinement in an elegant chignon. Her neck was creamy and elegant, enhanced by a golden necklace. Her shoulders were bare, making his gaze catch on one of his favorite places on a woman’s body—that secret space where her neck and her shoulder met. She turned, and his breath caught. For a moment, his annoyance fled. Even obscured though much of her countenance was by a gold mask, she was beautiful. “Sir.” “My lady.” He bowed.
Demon Winter may have been born in the rookeries, but he knew what was expected from him by the quality. She curtseyed, and it was then that he noticed the tremble—albeit slight—in her gloved hands. “Thank you for agreeing to an audience with me.” He nodded, wanting her to get the bloody hell on with it. “Of course, my lady. It’s my duty to make certain the members of Lady Fortune are well pleased.” Pink stole across her cheeks. Fancy that, a lady who flushed. Interest flared despite himself. He had not intended those words the way she had interpreted them, but somehow, it no longer seemed to matter.
“So I have been told,” she said, her blue gaze dropping to the floor, as if she were afraid to hold his stare for too long. He found himself drawing nearer to her without realizing what he was about. She smelled bloody good, like something rare, floral, and exotic. He wondered where she applied the scent. Behind her ears? The hollow of her throat? Her inner wrist? The possibilities were as endless as they were delicious. Oh, what the hell was he thinking? He needed to rid himself of number one hundred four so he could make Davy clean up dog shit. Demon stopped short of her. He knew his boundaries. “How can I help you, my lady? Say the word, and it shall be yours.” She wetted her lips with her tongue, then inhaled sharply.
“I am in need of your assistance.” His assistance? The petticoats at Lady Fortune were an interesting blend of dedicated sinners and bored women in search of entertainment. They had made all manner of requests thus far—hothouse pineapple, gin to supplement the Madeira, lewd publications, and the list went on. Never, however, had anyone asked him for assistance until now. Demon could not deny he was intrigued. “I am listening.” She hesitated. “The matter is…a delicate one.” “What matter isn’t?” he asked, impatience growing. The evening had only just begun, and already, he had tarried here too long, tempted by a lady he had no business being drawn to.
Gen had made it clear as a window pane that the members of her establishment were not his for the tupping. Her lips—a full, lush mouth, he noted, made for kissing—tightened in displeasure. “Indeed.” He was not telling her what she wished to hear. That much was apparent. But how was he to know what the devil she wanted? Standing there, looking so lovely, smelling so damned delicious. Tempting him. Christ. He had no doubt Gen would tattoo his face in his sleep if he attempted to bed any of her fancy clientele. He had to force the woman to bloody well spill whatever it was she needed to tell him so he could carry on with the evening.
“What do you have need of, my lady?” he asked, impatient. “If it is a fruit or some such you’re after, I will request it from the kitchens. If it’s a game, I’ll have it brought to the floor. If it’s—” “None of those things, sir,” she interrupted, her body as stiff as an icicle hanging from the eaves, her voice just as cold. “I’m not a soothsayer,” he returned. “Before I can give you what you want, I need to know what it is you’re after.” “This was an error on my behalf. Forgive me for importuning you.” Her voice had softened, and he thought he detected a tremble in her chin. “I told Octavia coming here was a mistake.
” The last, she muttered to herself. The woman grew more fascinating by the moment. “It’s my pleasure to see to the happiness of all Lady Fortune’s members,” he said, trying for a bit of gallantry and thinking Gen would be proud. “Don’t know who Octavia is, but I’m sure you being here isn’t a mistake.” “Never mind who Octavia is.” She caught her skirts in her gloved hands and moved to swish past him, dudgeon high. “I was wrong to seek you out.” He should allow this mysterious, alluring woman to go. Let her disappear into the fabric of Lady Fortune, where the sea of masked ladies rendered each indistinguishable from the next. And yet, Demon caught her elbow as she made to pass him.
She stopped, turning toward him. Her eyes, the deepest shade of blue he had ever seen, cut straight to the heart of him. He almost forgot himself, forgot it was he who had halted her. “I am here now, my lady. There is no need to run.” Her chin went up. “I am not running.” He dared to counter her. “Looks like you were trying to, doesn’t it?” What was the matter with him? He was not meant to defy the patrons. Gen would punch him in the eye if she knew.
Bloody good thing Gen didn’t know. She was in Mayfair this evening. Far from the edge of the East End, this meeting of realms where London’s elite came to play in decadence amongst the lords of the underworld. “Secrecy is essential,” she said. The warmth of her was seeping into him, so he released her, disliking the effect she had upon him. How long had it been since he had last bedded a woman? Too long. He would have to rectify that. Soon, if the tightening of his trousers had anything to say about it. “Upon my honor,” he reassured the masked lady who had sought him out. She didn’t need to know he possessed scarcely any honor.
He had what little his father had bestowed upon him. Curse Papa Winter to his lecherous soul. Still, she hesitated, looking torn. “You do not know who I am?” “Number one hundred four.” His response was easy—that was all she was to him. All she could be. Gen had developed an ingenious system for her membership, which had led to its rapid growth. The ladies were guaranteed their privacy. Each was assigned a number and nothing more. They entered Lady Fortune wearing masks and left wearing them.
The ladies loved it—from the private gaming hell that was theirs alone, to the assurance their secrets were safe. She rolled her lips, taking longer than necessary to answer him once more. At last, she spoke. “I require a lover.” Well, hell. That was decidedly not what he had been expecting. At all. Also, would it be wrong to suggest himself for the position? Demon could not stay the swift thought, but he promptly dashed it. Gen would kick him in the arse. “Here now.
” He frowned. “I ain’t a pimp.” Damn it—there went his efforts at speaking like a gentleman. He had been working on his unchecked tongue so well thus far. “It was not my intention to suggest you were.” He stroked his jaw, considering her, enjoying her feminine curves in that gown far more than he ought. “Explain, madam.” “This club’s attraction is its secrecy and circumspection.” Was it? “Hmm. I thought it was the hazard tables,” he said lightly, as if they were equals.
There was something about this moment between them that was personal. Intimate. Carnal, even. The air seemed charged and ready to combust. Or mayhap that was just him. Fuck. Was he flirting with her? Aye. That he was. And he had not an inkling as to her identity. She could be anyone.
A lady, a mistress. Hell, she could be a duchess. Not too goddamn likely, but the possibility remained. “Hazard may appeal to some. Not to me, however,” she said. “Finding a man to bed you does?” he asked, then cursed himself for the looseness of his tongue. Gen would bludgeon him with the nearest available object for this, if she were to ever hear of it. Number one hundred four pursed her lips. “You are being dismissive.” “Fancy words.
All I do is run a gaming house.” “You are suggesting I should not wish for a lover,” she elaborated, surprising him with her bravado. The word lover, spoken in her dulcet tones, was making his cock hard. Her voice wasn’t the only part of her having that particular, unwanted effect upon him, however. He shook himself from the spell she’d cast upon him. “Men like me don’t suggest. We say what we mean, and what I’m telling you is that Lady Fortune does not provide the kind of circumspection you’re after.” “I understand.” Her voice was cool, her demeanor icy. “Forgive me for my mistake.
” She turned to go once more. For some reason, a reason that emerged from deep inside him, murky and indistinct and yet forceful, he did not want her to go just yet. “My lady.” She looked back to him. “Mayhap I can be of help to you.” MİRABEL WAS SWİMMİNG İN SHAME. Why, oh why, had she listened to her sister when Octavia suggested the owner of Lady Fortune could discreetly help her to find a lover? You’ll be wearing your mask, Octavia had said. Your anonymity is assured there, Octavia had said. It is better than going to a disreputable house where you can choose a cicisbeo as if you are choosing the color of your evening gown, Octavia had said. At which point Mirabel had demanded to know how her unwed sister was aware of such houses of ill repute.
Octavia had shrugged, offering nothing. But what neither Octavia nor Mirabel had considered was just how devastatingly handsome the owner of Lady Fortune was. He possessed the sort of masculine beauty that robbed one’s breath. That made one’s heart leap. That made one’s tongue feel as if it had been stitched to the roof of one’s mouth. She could go on, but he had just told her that mayhap he could be of help to her. She was humiliated enough to linger, despite the dreadful manner in which the interview had thus far unfolded. Partially because she wished the floors would open and swallow her whole. “Your help is no longer required,” she managed to say, sounding like the woman her marriage had forced her to become. The Duchess of Stanhope was a cold, emotionless, rigid apostle of propriety.
At least, she had been, when she’d had no other option. And she still was, according to all who knew her. The social circles in which she traveled were impeccable. Nary a hint of scandal had ever tainted her name. And that was why, now that Stanhope was gone and her period of mourning was at an end, a secret membership in Lady Fortune and the chance to experience everything she had missed had been decidedly, deliciously appealing. Appealing enough to risk everything for this meeting. There was some comfort in her anonymity, but the social damage which could befall her children should word of her indiscretion spread remained a terrifying danger. He stepped nearer to her, bringing with him the scent of citrus and leather. And bringing his impossible magnetism as well. The man was a walking, breathing invitation to sin, from the tousled mahogany waves of his hair to those dark, spellbinding eyes, to the fall of his cravat.
And that was to say nothing of his height, his broad shoulders, long legs… Lady Fortune’s owner raised an ungloved finger and dared to touch her, tracing the bare patch of skin beneath the gold-and-ruby necklace adorning her throat. That rough pad swept along her collarbone, sending a trail of answering fire burning straight through her. “Are you certain it is no longer required, my lady?” he pressed. “You are lingering.” Any woman would have tarried with this man, just to remain in his presence for another minute. But she did not say that, for it would be more foolish than all the revelations she had thus far made. “I am certain. Once again, I beg your pardon.” His finger was still upon her, tracing slowly, branding. “I could be your lover.
” His words shocked her. Someone gasped, and she knew it must have been her, yet she had no recollection of forming the sound, so thoroughly had he taken her by surprise. “You?” He considered her, that maddening forefinger hovering on her hungry skin. When was the last time she had been touched by a man for the sake of touching alone? She could not recall. Stanhope had bedded her out of necessity, and after she had given him an heir and a spare—three children later—he had never again visited her bed. His defection had been a relief rather than a disappointment, but now, she longed for connection. For this. With this man. “Me,” he said. Her every sense came alive.
“I…” “Need a lover,” he finished for her, smiling slowly. With wicked intent. She felt that smile in the ache that blossomed to life between her thighs. “Need seems a bit strong of a word.” “Require seems just as strong, no?” He was not wrong, and yes, that was how she had initially phrased her request. Had it been an ill-chosen word? Her head was muddled. Her tongue, tangled. Her body, aflame. “You are offering yourself?” she asked. His lips twitched, as if he found the situation—mayhap Mirabel—amusing.
“Aye. Myself.” What was she thinking? This man would never do for what she wanted. He was too strong. Too virile. Too handsome. Too…everything. She shook her head. “No.” His brows rose.
“Why not, madam?” “You are too young,” she said. “You look to be no more than five-and-twenty.” “Eight-and-twenty,” he countered. Ten years her junior and a rake by the look of him, she had no doubt. “Near enough,” she said dismissively. “Thank you for the offer, sir, but I must decline. I would also beg you to keep this matter between the two of us.” But still, he had not released her. Instead, his fingers circled the back of her neck, cupping her in a manner that was possessive and yet gentle. “Why must you? Decline, that is?”