Series: Shadows and Silk #4
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Lord Percival Bretagne is used to playing games. He survived being a spy for a decade using his wits alone. But that was just life and death, now he’s playing for the most important prize of all—love.
He’ll Stop at Nothing……
Ten years after his family gave him up for dead, British spy Lord Percival Bretagne is back home, but his mission is far from over. Playing the aristocrat in London gambling dens and at country house parties is just a cover for Percy's real quest. He's hunting the man who stole everything from him—his family, his marriage, even his identity. And this time nothing, and no one, will stand in his way.
She’ll Risk it All…...
But one night with Isabel Galante changes everything. She’s willing to gamble a woman’s most intimate prize in order to save her imprisoned father, but she didn’t expect a devilishly handsome opponent with a dangerously attractive wicked streak. Isabel would do anything for her family, including betraying Percy, but she has no idea that she’s stumbled into the middle of a decade-long quest for revenge.
Who Will Win in the Game Called Love?
Percy has been betrayed before, and now the man who destroyed his life is using Isabel to strike again. With the fate of the government and his new life in the balance, he’ll have to keep Isabel seductively, scandalously close. They begin a passionate game of truth and lies, deception and dalliance, uncovering the heart of who they really are and realizing that winning might mean losing what matters the most—each other.
"The attraction between Percival and Isabel is a naughty page-scorching romp readers will truly savor ... Ms. Darling delivers a fabulous story of two characters willing to go all out for settling of scores, family loyalties, and a love too passionate to deny!"InD'Tale Magazine, 5 Stars and Crowned Heart for Excellence
"A wonderfully written historical romance that will delight any and all readers with its action, suspense, and irresistible romance!"The Genre Minx Book Reviews
20 June 1826
Lord Percival Bretagne stepped into a room alive with the vibrancy of a young night and grasped in an instant that he would be known.
This gaming hell was exclusive, a playground for the ultra-wealthy. Here, the son of a duke—even a younger one, like himself—would be hard pressed to remain anonymous. Society circles ran small and tight in London. He should have stuck to the dicier hells. But in those places the stakes were too low, and he needed to strike his enemy where it hurt: deep in his banking account.
From finely woven Persian carpets to walls bedecked with gold-shot silk brocade up to the high ceiling lit with crystal candelabra, bright opulence winked optimistic light and beckoned Percy to follow its uncertain promise. Impassive male servants circulated through the crowd, champagne and spirits balanced on trays polished to high shine. Strumpets, clad in diaphanous fabrics that left naught to the imagination, tripped through the room on light feet, flirtatious laughter trailing in their wake, laughter that didn’t quite reach their eyes.
Percy’s gaze narrowed on Number 9’s patrons, seated at various gaming tables that offered any man with the right amount of wealth or family connections the opportunity to test his luck. To a one, they wore the specific look of the well-heeled and moneyed, an air of Eton and Harrow hanging about them, half an eye on the gaming, the other half on the female flesh.
Percy descended three quick steps and entered the fray. A few faintly curious eyes glanced up, only to return to their game the next moment.
“Champagne, milord?” inquired a plaintive cockney whine at his side. He was about to decline the offer when he found a pair of familiar eyes the hue of a turquoise stone staring up at him. “Follow me,” she said, low, her voice again her own. She led him to an alcove hidden behind a large curtain that she must have already scouted. Hortense was ever prepared.
“Where did you procure that?” Percy indicated her costume of gossamer silk that left little to the imagination. He didn’t like her wearing such revealing clothing.
“From the doorman. He knew Nick.”
Hortense didn’t need to elaborate further. During their years in France and the Continent, Lord Nicholas Asquith, their handler and friend, had been expert at securing favors here and there, names and places passed along on the breeze, this or that useful bit of intelligence in exchange for a scrap of coin or safe passage across the Channel. This French doorman must have been quite useful to Nick for him to be in London.
Serious blue eyes snapped at Percy. Hortense had the sort of gaze that could see past skin and muscle, down to the marrow of bone. “Are you certain about tonight, Bretagne? This Savior of St.
Giles business has taken on a life of its own.”
Percy snorted. “The Savior of St. Giles? What foolery. The gossip rags have outdone themselves with that one.”
“You can’t go around bankrupting gaming hells and not expect anyone to notice.”
“There is only one man whose notice I care to attract.”
“Well, you’ve single-handedly shut down two of his hells, so you can feel confident on that score. But the papers have noticed, too. You’re becoming a bloody folk hero.”
Percy waved off Hortense’s concerns. “Is that all?”
She persisted. “You’re open to exposure. It can be used against you.”
Her jaw set in determination. Percy had come to know that look from years of working by her side on the Continent, cracking codes and gathering information for Crown and Country. She was like a terrier with a bone once she got something between her teeth, and she wasn’t letting this go, which, of course, was why he’d involved her in the first place. In truth, she was the most perfect agent he’d ever known.
A few months ago, before he’d caught wind of his enemy’s illicit activities, Percy might have paid her worries more attention. But, tonight, he would allow her qualms no air to breathe, not when he had the scents of peril and possibility in his nose. Since stepping foot on English soil, he’d been most alive on these nights when he actively worked toward the destruction of Lord Bertrand Montfort.
Somehow, somewhere along the way, Percy had lost the talent for the aristocratic London life he’d once been so exceptionally good at living. A life he’d shed a dozen years ago on a scarred Spanish mountain pass that had been blown to bits by Napoleon’s army.
It was Montfort who had, at last, found Percy, his memory ripped to shreds.
And Montfort who had ensured it stayed that way, as that version of Percy had perfectly suited Montfort’s purposes.
With Percy returned to England, Montfort’s account had come due.
“We shall have everything we need on Montfort tonight, if all goes to plan,” Percy said. “Then you can return to spying on rich men’s cheating wives.”
“Don’t forget rich ladies’ cheating younger lovers.” Hortense shrugged one shoulder. “It pays well.
Still, it has felt good these last few months, getting back into the thick of an operation.”
Percy loosened the constrictive silk cravat at his neck before adjusting one, then the other, of the cuff studs at his wrists. It had been some time since he’d dressed in evening blacks. “Do I look the part?”
“Of debauched, entitled lord determined to fritter his life away on a single roll of the dice?” Hortense’s mouth twitched. “Aye, I’d say you’re hitting that nail on the head.”
Percy chucked her beneath the chin. “Cheeky.”
The seriousness returned to Hortense’s eyes. “I’ll be waiting in a hackney cab behind the building until dawn.”
Percy lifted an eyebrow. “I doubt—”
“I’ll be there.” Hortense deposited the serving tray onto the nearest table with a loud clank and disappeared into the crowd, this role complete.
Hortense’s concerns vanished with her as Percy stepped from the alcove and considered the room. He was champing at the bit to dismantle this place by using its own vices against it.
“Why if it isn’t Lord Percival Bretagne,” came a public school drawl.
Percy stopped dead in his tracks and met the gaze of one booze-soaked Lord James Asquith, Earl of Pembroke, standing at a hazard table, one hand braced on green baize, the other idly curled around a crystal tumbler of brandy. The man was heir to the infamous Marquess of Clare and older brother to Nick. Blast. London could be small as a country village.
“Pembroke,” Percy acknowledged. “Hazard’s your game?”
Pembroke gave an indifferent shrug of the shoulder. “The game hardly makes a difference. In search of a little oblivion, like everyone else.” He craned his head and fixed cold gray eyes on Percy. The same eyes as Nick’s, but not the same at all. Pembroke’s were dissolute, jaded, and utterly, utterly bored. “Seeking the same?”
Percy nodded. It was clear Pembroke hadn’t a care, but the man was Nick’s brother, and Percy couldn’t just leave it. He angled his body so only Pembroke could hear his next words. “You need to clear out of here.”
A sardonic eyebrow lifted. “Concern about my moral well-being? From you, of all people?”
“Hardly,” Percy said, ignoring that last bit. His licentious reputation didn’t bother him as much as Society would like. “This night will have consequences. You won’t wish to become embroiled.”
Pembroke shot Percy a glance, surprisingly penetrating and sober. Then he returned his attention to the table action for a few more tosses of the dice that lost him an additional fifty quid before draining his tumbler in two great swallows. He gathered up his remaining counters and, without another word to Percy, shambled his way through the room, nimbly avoiding every strumpet who threw herself into his path. Percy slid into Pembroke’s vacated spot and set his ivory counters onto green baize. The night was set to begin.
Of a sudden, the hairs on the back of Percy’s neck prickled, and he felt it, someone’s gaze upon him. He followed the feeling around until he located the source on the far side of the room: a woman, veiled and dressed in all black. Number 9’s madam, presumably.
Unease began a slow crawl through him. Most of the madams he’d encountered in his short tenure as the Savior of St. Giles possessed a certain bearing, a brazen flash of the eye, a daring pout of the lips, and a view toward the winning angle. None of them hid behind layers of black lace.
Yet he detected a litheness to her figure suggesting freshness and, confoundingly, youth. In his experience, madams were neither fresh nor young.
The prickling sensation spread. It could be interpreted as a physical response to intrigue, but, in truth, it felt not unlike the initial stir of desire. He instantly tamped it down and pursued the other interpretation. What was her game?
Dingo. His nickname from long past Eton days. Blast.
He half pivoted to find Chauncey Talbot-Spiffington, otherwise known as Runt, waiting with an expectant look on his face. When Percy glanced back, he found the woman gone.
A beat of silence went on a tick too long. Runt’s bushy eyebrows drew together and released. The man’s feet shuffled with unease. “Just arrived in Town, have you?”
“It’s been a few months.”
“And you didn’t call on me?” Runt asked, hurt running through the question.
Percy barely contained a snort. He hadn’t the time or inclination to soothe a grown man’s wounded feelings.
“Your scar,” Runt began and trailed.
Percy felt himself go tight about the mouth.
Runt, ever the sensitive one of the old Etonian pack, must have noticed, for he continued in an obsequious rush, “It’s quite fashionable and . . . and da-dashing!”
Percy wouldn’t touch his fingertips to the scar, its silvery length running along the ridge of his right cheekbone, put there by the single slash of a French saber, his last memory before a well-aimed—or poorly, depending on one’s point of view—cannon shot blacked out his world.
“Of course, we’ve all heard tattle about your exploits, Dingo.” Runt’s expression turned commiserative. “Wouldn’t have expected such behavior from Olivia, though.”
Percy clenched his jaw. Olivia. The woman who had once been his wife. The wife he’d left on this side of the Channel for a dozen years, letting her—and the world—think him dead. Once she’d been alerted to his continued existence, she’d petitioned Parliament—with the assistance of his own father, the Duke of Arundel—to set the marriage aside and succeeded, rendering the daughter he’d never met, Lucy, a bastard.
The pang of guilt hit Percy with its familiar swift, sharp jab to the gut, as it always did when he thought of his daughter.
No, Percy wouldn’t be discussing Olivia or any of his family with Runt. He would only have to defend them—for they were absolutely in the right. Runt was determined to revisit the past. So, let them, and be done with it. “Where is Chippers?” Percy asked. This was the nickname for Lord Phineas Featherstone.
“Checking the betting books,” Runt supplied.
Percy plowed on with his line of questioning. “And Bongo?” Lord Jarvis Smythe-Vane.
“Oh, he didn’t come out tonight. His gout, you know.”
Percy hadn’t, but no surprise there. “And Tuppy?” Lord Harold Ponsonby.
“Tupping a wench upstairs, what else?”
Right. “And Bumpy?” Lord Basil Arbuthnot.
Runt jutted his chin toward a point behind them. “Passed out in a chair.”
Percy glanced back and spotted the unconscious man, a thread of drool hanging from his open mouth.
And that was the old Eton tribe accounted for.
To survive Eton, a boy needed a tribe, and they’d formed one based on their shared status as younger sons, spares to the heirs. With no expectations placed upon them, they’d been free to be useless to a one, and they’d run with it, Percy included. In fact, as the younger son of a powerful duke, he’d been their leader. And they were exactly who he would have become had he not sped off to the Continent and war on a wave of misguided foolhardiness. Reckless vainglory had its uses.
But Runt and his cohort weren’t the worst part of his past. Not even close.
Across the hazard table, the croupier caught his eye. “Your toss, monsieur,” the man called out in a light French accent.
Percy found a pair of dice in his hand and gave himself a mental shake. Tonight, he had an opportunity to send the worst part of his past to the devil. It was time to get on with it. “Stay if you like, Runt, but I have work to do.”
“Work?” Runt asked, as if startled by the very concept. “This is pleasure, old man.”
One hour later
Oblong green baize stretched ahead of Percy, a pair of dice rattling in his hand. Gathered round this hazard table stood a moneyed, bleary-eyed crowd breathless in anticipation of his next cast.
“Dingo,” whined Runt’s voice beside him, “haven’t you had enough?”
Percy smirked down at the man. When had Lord Percival Bretagne ever had enough of anything? Never once in his life had he been able to resist raising the stakes when the opportunity presented itself.
Again, he rattled the dice, this time for effect. Another thrill of anticipation shimmered through air dank with bodies long in need of a wash and a sleep. He opened his hand. “Blow on my dice for good luck.”
The ever-faithful Runt heaved a resigned sigh before doing as his old leader commanded. “Aren’t you happy with your winnings?”
“Happy?” Percy scoffed.
Happiness had become an abstract concept the day he’d engaged in his first battle on the Peninsula, acrid cannon smoke filling his lungs, rifle bullets whizzing past his ear, and the realization sunk deep into his bones that they weren’t playing toy soldiers. The stakes were infinitely higher, of life and death, and Death wasn’t playing around. In fact, judging by the broken, bloodied bodies strewn about the ground in twisted poses of which only contortionists and the dead were capable, it had become clear that Death was winning. Death always won. It was simply a matter of putting off the inevitable for as many seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years as one could manage and somehow make a difference in lives in the meantime.
How was happiness possible after one had come face-to-face with this reality?
Percy didn’t place much value in the concept of happiness. It only mattered what he did, not how he felt. Feeling had only gotten him into trouble in the past.
But this . . . A wicked smile curled up one side of his mouth . . . This was mindlessness, a state he could slip into only too readily. How he’d missed it. He let it take him into its embrace and suck him inside as he glanced down at his stacks of winnings. It did appear he might have enough to get management’s attention—and, from there, Montfort’s—yet . . . Percy wanted more.
Percy pushed his winnings, every last farthing, forward, eliciting a chorus of startled gasps, raucous yeahs!, and whistles that split the fuggy air. The only way to have enough—to have everything—was to risk everything.
Percy met the croupier’s gaze across the table. Even as the man appeared to blanch at Percy’s stake, he nodded. The odds were no friend to the reckless aristocrat on this roll, and they both knew it.
The blood whissed through Percy as he stood on the precipice of the unknown. At this moment, his purpose wasn’t solely to wreak revenge and justice upon Montfort. A wickedness flowed in his blood, one that he’d only ever been able to control when he starved it completely. Once fed, even a scrap, it took on a life of its own.
His hand began a slow, relentless shake. With every rattle, the volume of the crowd increased until it crescendoed into a loud roar. The night had been building up to this one fateful toss.
He’d neither nicked nor thrown out on his last roll. If he rolled the main, a seven, the house would win. Sevens were always the best odds.
If he rolled an eight, both the chance and the worst odds in hazard, well, matters would take an interesting turn. He would most definitely gain Montfort’s attention.
Percy flicked his hand open and let the dice fly. Across green baize they hopped, skipped, bounded, and rolled, a series of gasps following their every rotation as they bounced to a stop, their numbers staring up for the world to see.
Percy’s heart galloped in his chest, and he felt as out of breath as if he’d just run a mile at full tilt. He lifted his gaze to meet that of the croupier across the table. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of the man’s face, the smile on his lips turned rictus.
Percy almost felt badly for the croupier, for the man would have to answer to Montfort. Then Percy considered the lives this place had despoiled and destroyed, families ruined as men were reduced to paupers and women to whores. This man was part of that life.
“I’ll settle up now,” Percy spoke through the charged silence.
The croupier’s throat undulated with a hard swallow. He and Percy both knew that he didn’t have the cash on hand to pay out. He would have to summon his superior. This was the exact series of events that Percy had hoped to set in motion when he’d walked through Number 9’s front door tonight.
He was close, so close his fingers twitched with anticipation. So close was the proof he needed against Lord Bertrand Montfort, younger son of the Earl of Surrey and long-standing servant of Crown and Country. It had taken a few months of poking around to catch the whisper that Montfort had been silently investing in gaming hells and brothels around London. Once he’d held this dark, slippery bit of information, Percy understood that if he kept pursuing this path, he would eventually hold the key to Montfort’s ruin. In their rarefied world of wealth, excess, and privilege, reputation was life, and Percy would see Montfort’s destroyed. A little quid pro quo.
The croupier’s gaze shifted and widened on a point beyond Percy’s left shoulder. That was when Percy felt it: a change in the air, an electric current that rippled through the room as it passed from person to person, brightening eyes and heightening smiles. He pivoted and followed the general gaze until he found the veiled woman, her attention fixed on him.
The world stretched away, receding to a great distance. A path parted for her, she one magnet and he the other. Although he could see nothing of her features beneath the veil, her focus never wavered as she moved forward . . . toward him.
With only a few feet of Persian carpet separating them, she stopped, her lush figure—waist cinched tight, breasts pushed up—somehow on full display beneath all that black lace. Through dense air fogged by cigar smoke and brandy, he caught her scent. Honeysuckle. Another word came to mind. Sunshine. How was it possible a gaming hell madam smelled of summer at its sweetest?
At last, she opened her mouth to speak, only to hesitate at the last moment. No, not hesitate. Women like her didn’t hesitate. She’d paused for effect. “Shall we play for higher stakes?”
Percy blinked. Her voice. It was husky, a lower register than he would have guessed. Further, it held a foreign accent. The night grew more interesting by the moment.
Montfort had sent her. Percy knew it in a flash.
What he didn’t know was why.
Familiar anticipation charged through Percy, urging him on, toward the edge of the precipice that would drop him into the thick of whatever this night—and this woman—held for him. As a spy, he’d loved nothing better than a path that bent at sudden angles.
“Lead the way,” he replied, only just containing a cynical snort. What did Montfort think sending him a whore would accomplish? If this was a stratagem to catch him unawares, it was for amateurs.
The crowd, which had quieted to take in the exchange, burst free and broke into rounds of leers, hoots, and rowdy whistles. The frisson of unease returned and snaked through Percy, as if an unconscious part of himself understood that within this woman lay something he shouldn’t get tangled up in. Except . . .
When had he ever let such a feeling stop him? When hadn’t that feeling, instead, pushed him into the thick of it?
Whatever game Montfort had planned for Percy, he would play.
And he would win.