Wager with a Siren Chapter One Excerpt

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Chapter One


London

May 1822

Tattersall’s on a Monday was a necessity for any gentleman of the turf with an eye toward maintaining his competitive edge.

Lord Julian Batchelor, Fifth Marquess of Ormonde was no exception—and as he stood nearly head and shoulders above the excitable fray, he had a view of it all.

Of course, it wasn’t only gentlemen who filled the auction hall for the dispersal sale of the late Earl of Dutton’s famed stable. Here was a gathering of military men, and there stood a gaggle of raucous lordlings. That man could’ve been a duke, and the man shoulder-to-shoulder with him a jockey. Of course, tulips, swells, and dandies abounded, too—men who knew not a jot about horseflesh, but followed the scent of a fashionable gathering like hounds to the hunt. And scattered throughout were the stable lads, grooms, and tidy helpers who served to shuttle the proceedings along, efficiently leading one horse in and another out as the auction moved forward.

From his place at the edge of the crowd, Julian noted the gray hunter, Belladonna, being led into the hall. With her strong walk and gentle demeanor, the bidding would be fierce for the two-year-old filly, but Julian held a slight edge over the others, for he possessed a power unmatched by any gentleman here.

He was liked by everyone—without exception.

He’d happened upon this power early—likely when he was still in leading strings, for he couldn’t remember back to a time when he wasn’t in possession of it. Perhaps it was to do with the clarity of his blue eyes or the boyish amiability of his smile, but people generally took one look at him and liked him.

As a result, people wanted to see him win. A prized horse could incite a riot of emotion. Duels had been fought. But when Julian prevailed and won the horse of his choosing—as he usually did—it wasn’t held against him. In fact, people were usually only too happy for him.

“Now, gentlemen, here we have a special filly for your consideration,” came the auctioneer’s rat-a-tat voice.

All eyes landed on the gray hunter, and a buzz heightened the air. “A right beauty she is,” said the young viscount to one side of Julian.

The young earl to his other side leaned forward. “Too bad you lost your Scottish estate in that card game last week and no longer need a hunter.”

The viscount groused and grumbled and scuffed his feet against cobblestones, but didn’t deny it. The loss of an estate during a night of gaming was a common affliction amongst a certain fast set of the haut ton, most of whom also shared a penchant for quality horseflesh.

“Can we start the bidding at one hundred pounds?” boomed the auctioneer.

A high opening bid, to be sure, but one that suited Julian as competitors would be few. He lifted a finger and made eye contact with the auctioneer. The man nodded and the bidding was off to a flying start as another three lords entered the fray, including the Duke of Richmond, a tough competitor both on and off the turf, as the bidding quickly flew up to £200.

Soon, it was only Julian and Richmond driving up the price, the lively crowd quieting to a muted roar as a duke and a marquess battled it out, revealing the bottomless depths of their renowned coffers. £300… £400… £500… They weren’t even bothering to meet the eye of the auctioneer, but only each other’s as they drove up the price of the filly, both focused on victory—but each in a different manner.

Richmond revealed his intensity and determination in the scowl on his face and the tension of his shoulders.

Not Julian.

Though he held as much intensity and determination within him, his exterior revealed none of it. His eyes remained bright and open and his lopsided smile amiable.

The familiar light sheen of competitive sweat pinpricked his skin as the bidding raced up to £850. After a slight hesitation, Richmond chose not to lift his finger. Instead, he gave a shake of his head and lifted one corner of his mouth, which was as big of a smile as one was ever to get from the duke. Those gathered released their collective breath and sent up a buoyant cheer.

Such was the power of being well liked.

“A grand show, old chap,” came a congratulation from Julian’s left.

“Just a bit of luck,” he demurred, modest as befitted a winner. No one liked a chap who flashed his win about.

Another lord sidled up to him. “Let me know when you want that filly covered. I have a stallion who wouldn’t mind getting in there,” he said with a wag of his eyebrows.

“Ah,” said Julian, noncommittal. He had no intention of taking up that offer. He made informed and calculated decisions regarding breeding in his stables.

“Couldn’t you have let Richmond take the win?” groused the young viscount.

“Why should I have done that?” asked Julian, though he had his suspicions.

A shuffle of sheepish feet. “It’s just that Chudleigh and I had a little side wager going.”

“And you bet Richmond would prevail,” Julian finished for him without taking offense, his feet already on the move to arrange payment for his new filly and get on with his Monday.

For all his amiability and well-liked status, the truth was Julian didn’t count any of these lords as friends. A friend was someone who knew not only his light self—his sun-kissed exterior the world saw and gravitated toward—but also the self that skulked within the murk of interior depths.
Julian’s truer self.

The self only a select few knew.

“Ormonde,” said a lord in passing.

“Billingsley,” Julian returned, mildly, without a flinch, even as the fine hairs of his neck prickled to a stand.

Ormonde.

Julian’s name to the world these last three years.

A name that wasn’t supposed to have been his for another thirty.

Ormonde.

Each time the name was lightly tossed his way, two figures flashed through his mind in the split of the second it took to blink.

Clarissa… Father.

Her wasting death… his quick suicide.

Although those two events occurred twenty years apart, they were bound together.

And that left Julian as Ormonde—the marquessate he’d inherited upon Father’s death.

Linked in life… linked in death… linked by blood… linked forever.

But in moments like this—when he was in public and getting on with his day—a flash was all it was. No one would’ve noticed the flicker that passed behind his eyes at the name—his name—Ormonde.

On Mondays, Tattersall’s was only the first stop of his day. Now, he was off to White’s Club, where he would peruse the betting books to see what outlandish wagers had been recorded this week. Lord Byron was always a popular subject. Once it had been speculation about his next mistress; now it was whether he would remain in Italy or return to England or go somewhere altogether different. One never knew with Byron.

But it was the sillier and more outlandish wagers that Julian enjoyed most. Once, on an ordinary rainy day, a lord had bet one hundred pounds as to which raindrop would reach the bottom of the club’s famed bow window first. Over at Brooks’s, Lord Cholmondeley bet Lord Derby £500 that he would one day tup a woman in a hot-air balloon one thousand yards up in the sky.

As yet, that wager was still outstanding.

Julian was just tucking into a light repast of tea, cold meats, a chunk of Stilton, and a dense slice of bread, when a matched pair of young bucks—upon reaching his thirtieth year, he’d stopped being able to tell them apart—lowered themselves into the leather armchairs opposite, their eyes bright with possibility.

“My lords,” he said by way of greeting.

The bolder of the two shifted forward. “I say, Ormonde—”

Julian didn’t flinch—as ever.

“—are you filling in the numbers at Almack’s tomorrow evening?”

“I’ll need to consult my diary,” he said, crossing his fingers that it was full.

A bachelor marquess had certain responsibilities. That he frequent Tattersall’s and gentlemen’s clubs, even the occasional gaming hell. That he accept invitations to exclusive soirées and attend balls where he would dance with, at least, three young ladies. That he help fill out the numbers for supper parties.

Julian accepted these duties as part of the life of a gentleman.

Except he had a line—one he would never cross.

Those young ladies with whom he flirted at a ball or soirée… he never committed more than an evening’s flirtation to them. His heart remained solely an organ useful for the pumping of blood through arteries—and his hand remained determinedly devoid of a wedding ring.

As he was thirty years old, it hadn’t been remarked upon. A gentleman of thirty years yet had wild oats to sow. However, by the time he reached his thirty-fifth… fortieth… fiftieth years, the excuses would’ve become stale. Society would begin to view him askance and wonder what had gone amiss with the Marquess of Ormonde. Some with long memories might connect him with his utterly debauched wastrel of a father. But when they looked at Julian and saw the opposite sort of man, society wouldn’t understand that Julian’s debauched wastrel of a father, actually, had everything to do with it.

Or rather it was the blood of Julian’s debauched wastrel of a father flowing through his veins.

Such tendencies ran in the blood, and Julian wouldn’t carry it forward.

The family line stopped with him.

Now, the other lordling shifted forward. “Is it your Filthy Habit running the Derby in two weeks’ time?”

Julian nodded. “He is.”

“Same horse that took second place at the Two Thousand Guineas?” asked the first lordling.

“One and the same.”

The two lordlings exchanged glances that set Julian’s teeth on edge before the bolder of the two asked, “Was he injured recently?”

A groove dug into Julian’s forehead. “No.”

Julian didn’t like the direction of this conversation. Racing ran rife with injuries to horses—be they accidental or deliberate. Did they know something he didn’t yet?

“Why do you ask?” he asked, slowly.

“The odds for Filthy Habit are ten to one at the Derby.”

Ten to one?

“You must’ve got the wrong horse.”

The lordling shook his head. Too definite for Julian’s liking. “That’s what I thought at first,” continued the increasingly irritating man, oblivious to the storm brewing inside Julian. “But, no, it’s Filthy Habit.”

“Where did you see these odds?”

“At the Subscription Room at Tattersall’s today.”

Blast. Julian knew he should’ve popped his head in before he left.

“But that’s not where the lousy odds for Filthy Habit originated,” chimed the other lordling.

“How do you mean?”

Most betting ran through the Ring at Tattersall’s, as it was the Jockey Club’s only chance of exercising a modicum of control over the corruption inherent in the sport of horse racing—not that they found much success.

“It started at The Archangel last week,” chimed a third lordling, who had joined their group without Julian noticing. Truly, they were indistinguishable from one another.

“Since Gabriel Siren—”

“That’ll be the recently minted Seventh Duke of Acaster to you,” cut in a cheeky fourth lordling to a round of guffaws.

“Well, since Acaster became involved in the Race of the Century, The Archangel has been making odds on the season.”

Annoyance struck through Julian, though his exterior air of affability remained solidly in place. He even laughed, as if it were no matter of importance—as was expected of him. Why should such trivialities concern the Marquess of Ormonde?

A fifth lordling laughed along with him. “So, you reckon Filthy Habit will take the Derby?”

Julian bit back the reflexive yes perched on the tip of his tongue. It was early in the racing season, but Filthy Habit was a goer. He would win—it wasn’t a matter of if, but when—and the Derby was where Filthy Habit would claim his first. The Derby track was the perfect distance for the Thoroughbred to hit his stride.

But Julian didn’t like to tempt Fate, so he gave a noncommittal shrug. “Let’s see how the day goes.”

Though it didn’t matter in the general scheme that The Archangel was giving the Thoroughbred lousy odds, it was the principle.

Filthy Habit should have odds closer to two-to-one.

Lordling upon lordling continued to gather around, and the conversation moved along—but Julian didn’t. In fact, an idea began to solidify into resolve within him. Tomorrow, he would pay a visit to The Archangel and have a chat with their oddsmaker.

He pulled a gold pocket watch from his waistcoat. Half-past noon.

He unfurled his long form and came to his feet. Time to leave for his next Monday appointment, if he was to make it by one o’clock. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I must be getting on.”

Within minutes, he was pulling his carriage door shut and relaxing back against leather squabs, taking in the city as it rolled past his window. He was on his way to a different side of London—the side well away from the prying eyes of the ton.

As a marquess, he had access to every bit of London’s myriad offerings—from the highest echelons to the lowest dregs. Whatever tickled his fancy on any given day. Not that he was a capricious lord—but he could be if he chose, and that was rather the point.

If a man could relate himself to a city in an interior sense, he related to London thusly. There were the external trappings that everyone liked. Impressive squares, like St. James’s and Grosvenor… parks, like Hyde and Regents… cathedrals, like Westminster and St. Paul’s… For those in Julian’s social set, that could be all London was, if they chose to leave the exterior façade undisturbed.

But another side of London lurked in the shadowy spaces just beyond—places of honest work, dishonest work, poverty, and vice. Places that, in fact, constituted the majority of London. Here, Julian related to the city at its core, for it reflected his own duality, as well. An exterior self—the one everyone gravitated toward—and an interior self… The larger part of him that if ever exposed to the light would send everyone fleeing in the opposite direction.

And so it was that his coachman knew to take him out of the pretty, ordered environs of Mayfair and across Town toward Cheapside, a respectable enough neighborhood with St. Paul’s Cathedral looming in the near distance and the goldsmiths plying their wares, but not a place where anyone would expect to find the Marquess of Ormonde.

Which was why he’d chosen this area for his two Monday afternoon appointments.

The carriage rolled to a stop, and he jumped to the cobbles. “I can make my way for the rest of the day,” he called up.

The coachmen nodded and flapped the reins to urge the horses on, having expected as much.

Surrounded by environs that had grown familiar over the last year, Julian entered Brewster’s Boxing Salon, housed in a nondescript building with gray paint flaking off its moldings and steam clouding its few windows. It was the smell that always hit him first. Sweat, humid and ripe, and the specific aroma of male musk—the sort that came from exertion mixed with fear.

A year ago, after a dull afternoon spent politely humoring two ancient old lords, one Tory and the other Whig, as they battled it out over whose vision best suited the future of England, Julian accompanied a group of young bucks to Gentleman Jackson’s boxing salon for a lark. Just to see what all the fuss was about. Julian wasn’t a violent man, so he’d never understood the sport’s appeal.

Until he’d stepped into the ring with Gentleman Jackson himself and took a bare-knuckle punch to the face.

And he was hooked.

Since, Julian had been getting punched in the face once a week. Not at Gentleman Jackson’s. He didn’t like the idea of boxing at a fashionable salon, so he’d arranged with one Mr. Brewster to have his salon cleared out for one hour on Monday afternoons—for a pretty penny, of course.

But everything exacted a price, didn’t it?

It was simply a question of how one chose to pay.

In Julian’s experience, money was the simplest and cheapest form of payment man or universe could exact.

He made his way through a warren of narrowing dark corridors to a small room set aside for dressing. He stripped down to trousers, even removing his boots and socks. Then it was a barefoot walk down another corridor which opened into a large open room, a ring for boxing marked out in the center. Brewster stood in the middle, his meaty hands clenching and unclenching in anticipation of the bout to come. “Ready?”

Julian gave a curt nod. “Aye.”

That was the full extent of their greetings. In the ring, Julian didn’t have to be amiable or liked. In fact, it was better to be neither, for boxing stripped a man down to elemental parts. The mind and all its busyness could slip away for this blessed hour in the ring—his favorite hour of the week.

The hour that offered him oblivion and relief.

He held up his hands and went light on his feet in a side-to-side hopping shuffle, as Brewster had taught him. The men came within punching distance but didn’t start brawling straight away. Instead, Julian delivered light jabs to work the muscles and get them ready for the bout to come. This went on for about ten minutes, long enough to get the blood pumping and the anticipation building. An elemental stirring began to take over, where he became one with his body in a way he never experienced outside the ring.

“Let’s go,” said Brewster.

Julian circled his head around, cracked his knuckles, and nodded.

And so it began—two men locked in battle, each intent on pounding the daylights out of the other. If his lordly peers saw him now, they would place bets and cheer him on, but also, they would wonder about the Marquess of Ormonde. His focus and intensity… his drive. For when Julian was in the ring, gone was the marquess they knew.

After their first few bouts, Brewster called Julian a natural boxer, and he couldn’t help feeling the truth of those words. He didn’t mind getting punched in the face or meting out the same to a skilled opponent. The rules were clear. Besides, Julian was a sizeable man. He could take the punishment. Brewster, too, was a big man, so Julian felt no qualms about giving it.

But this hour in the ring was more than punishment.

It was a cleansing.

In boxing, there were the big, showy hooks to the face—the ones that produced bloodied noses and cracked jaws. But there were others, too. The jabs delivered to the body. One had to move close to dispatch them—the relentless ones that wore an opponent down. The ones that made him vulnerable to those big, showy blows.

For that was the thing about boxing, it was almost like chess. One had to think three moves ahead and march with bold intent into the plan. Sometimes it worked; others it didn’t. But once one committed, one didn’t back down.

And yet…

No matter how he tried every Monday, the impurities running through his blood wouldn’t be pounded out.

Debauchery… vice… morosity… They yet flowed through him—and ever would.

He understood this at a cellular level.

But during the Monday bouts and for a few sweet hours afterward, he experienced the absence of those impurities, for—blessedly—he felt nothing at all.

Only one other act made him feel so—his next Monday appointment.

The hour flown by, Brewster lowered fists that had delivered quite the pummeling this afternoon.

Perhaps he, too, needed to exorcise some demons of his own. Julian’s jaw would be smarting for a few days.

“Until next Monday?” asked Brewster, unwinding linen wraps from his hands.

“Aye,” Julian tossed over his shoulder, his feet already on the move.

And there was the extent of their interaction, aside from the pouch of coin Julian never failed to leave in the dressing room.

Now, he was off to his next Monday afternoon appointment, only a few streets over. After he’d taken up boxing at Brewster’s, he’d purchased the townhouse for its walking-distance proximity to the salon.

He turned off Cheapside Street and onto Basing Lane, then again at Little Thomas Street, to a nondescript black door. He turned his key in the lock and turned it again once inside. In the second-floor bathing room, he found the tub already filled with steaming hot water.

For the second time today, he undressed. But now to the skin—and with more deliberation, his body bruised, but more alive than it would feel until next Monday’s pummeling. Before lowering into the tub, he knotted his unfashionably long hair on top of his head. Then, gradually, he slipped into the water, relaxing his head back, eyes closed, heat penetrating through skin to muscle and on to bone, his mind still blessedly blank.

The water had begun to cool when he heard the downstairs door open on quiet hinges and click shut. Soft footsteps padded up the stairs and turned directly into the bedroom.

Careful not to anger bruised muscles, Julian shifted forward in the tub. The time had arrived for this second Monday afternoon appointment.

He stood and toweled himself dry before shrugging on a dressing robe. Feet bare, he padded into the next room. On the bed, she sat, fully dressed, awaiting instructions.

With a simple nod of greeting, he stopped before a locked cabinet, key in hand. There were many such locked cabinets in his life. He opened the door, and a quick scan revealed the small mahogany box he sought.

He turned to find her watching him, her bottom lip between her teeth, a saucy light in her brown eyes. “Do you have a new toy for me today, my lord?” she asked.

Julian opened the box and pulled a long, cylindrical object from its blue velvet seat. “I thought we would revisit an old favorite.”

Her eyes went dark with anticipation and no small amount of desire.

Debauched blood running riot through his veins, he said, “Undress.”

Who was he to think he could ever escape it?


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