Wager with a Siren Chapter Two Excerpt

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Chapter Two

 

Next day

Julian had awakened at seven o’clock in the morning with the single-minded intention that The Archangel would be his first stop of the day.

The more he thought about the odds on Filthy Habit, the more he was bothered.

Why were the odds so poor?

Filthy Habit was an elite Thoroughbred who had placed second in the Two Thousand Guineas. Not some sway-backed nag slogging through Wednesday afternoon races in Yorkshire.

However, The Archangel was a gaming hell. It wouldn’t be open at seven in the morning—or seven in the evening, for that matter. The business of a hell was conducted in the deep indigo of night until dawn’s first rays straggled into the sky to announce the arrival of day.

So, he’d taken his new hunter Belladonna for a ride in Hyde Park so they could become acquainted before he had her walked to his family seat and racing estate in Suffolk—Nonsuch Castle.

Which was how Julian found himself entering the unhallowed walls of The Archangel at two in the morning.

As gaming hells went, The Archangel was a sophisticated one. Its exterior plain and tastefully in keeping with the row of Mayfair townhouses to either side. In striking contrast, rich woods from exotic locales and sparkling crystal chandeliers imbued the interior with a lavish, comfortable opulence. One could almost forget this was a gaming hell at all—if not for all the gaming tables and half-foxed lords shambling about.

But the gaming tables couldn’t be denied—neither could the aristocrats gathered for a spin of the Roulette wheel or a toss of the Hazard dice. Lords congregated with the communal intent of making merry. After all, they’d paid their dues the prior evening by attending musicales featuring tone-deaf sisters or supper parties thrown by one’s in-laws who’d always harbored the not-so-secret belief that their only daughter could’ve married a duke, if she’d only set her mind to it.

With the time gone well past midnight, the wives lay tucked away in bed for the night.

The night was for the husbands.

They’d earned it.

However, if one peered more closely at those aristocratic faces, it wasn’t joy or genuine delight one found behind their smiles, but rather a hollowness—even desperation. Those lords assembled around gaming tables weren’t men making merry. They were men wretchedly attempting to stave off the soul-crushing boredom of their lives, because no one had ever taught them how to create a point to their existence… how to find a meaning in life.

To ask, what was it all for?

And strive to find an answer.

Nay.

It was better to pass out dead-drunk than to lie in bed awake, stone-sober, alone with such wonderings.

Julian stopped himself there.

He wasn’t here to muse about the meaning of life—that was for his own stone-sober self in the dark dead of night.

He was here to talk about a horse.

A topic less fraught with the question of one’s own existence, to be sure.

As he made his way through The Archangel, greeting one and all as he went, it was the same faces as ever, whether at Tattersall’s, White’s, or Newmarket on race day.

Always the same faces.

’Twas a small, predictable world occupied by the ton.

He appreciated the predictable part—after all, hadn’t humans been trying to create certainty in the world since the beginning of time?—but the small part could grow dull.

As he cut across the central aisle separating the Hazard from the Roulette tables, he kept an eye out for The Archangel’s owner, Gabriel Siren.

Except the man wasn’t Gabriel Siren anymore. He was the lost Seventh Duke of Acaster, recently found. The news had spread through society like wildfire.

Julian stepped into the card room. A quick scan revealed no Siren there, either. He found a quiet corner, propped a shoulder against the wall, and waited. A few minutes later, a server appeared with a silver tray bearing a tumbler of whiskey.

“From the Earl of Clifton,” intoned the man.

Julian lifted the tumbler off the tray and smiled at the earl, who toasted him silently from across the room. Julian brought the whiskey to his mouth…

And didn’t drink.

As ever, he only gave the appearance.

With what ran below his surface—the propensities and proclivities bred into him—he knew that if he stumbled a little and fell, it wouldn’t be a small tumble.

It would be a complete and total dive into the sea of iniquity.

No half measures for the Marquesses of Ormonde.

Sure, he’d be able to hold his head above water, just as his father had. But one could only tread water for so many days… months… years.

The sea would eventually claim its due.

As it had done with his father.

He should vacate The Archangel and leave the matter of Filthy Habit’s odds be. So his racehorse wasn’t getting the respect he deserved off the course. What did it matter? Filthy Habit would hit his stride at the Derby.

He should simply sit back and let it happen.

But the principle of the matter had him between its teeth.

He couldn’t let it go.

A woman entered the card room—strode through.

Julian knew her—knew of her, more accurately, for they’d never crossed paths. She was the only woman allowed within the masculine confines of The Archangel.

Tessa Siren.

Nay.

Lady Tessa Calthorp—sister of the recently elevated Seventh Duke of Acaster.

Of course, Julian had taken note of her on the odd night he’d visited, even if all she ever offered of her presence was a flash. Lady Tessa was not only a woman on the move, but a decidedly unconventional one, if her mode of dress offered a clue to her inner workings.

The bottom half of her was standard enough with its modest black bombazine skirt. But it was the top half that arrested the eye and surely made more than a few brows, both masculine and feminine, crinkle with bemusement. She wore a white linen shirt, white silk cravat, and lilac watered-silk waistcoat that would strike a chord of envy through the heart of the ton’s most discriminating dandy.

But the woman—Lady—herself didn’t exude a fussy air. Rather, she kept her head down and eyes averted, discreetly and efficiently dashing from card table to card table to confer quietly with the dealers. She listened and nodded, all the while writing notes in the small book she carried with her. Then it was on to the next dealer, a quick conference, and she was gone from the room, her presence hardly noted.

But Julian was left with a furrow trenched into his brow.

Lady Tessa was a beauty—a fact the strawberry-blonde hair tightly knotted at the base of her neck and stern, mannish mode of dress couldn’t obscure. In fact, all it did was incite various wonderings in the male mind: How far down her back would those strawberry-blonde tresses fall, unbound? What curves hid beneath layers of mannish clothes?

Wonderings she likely thought she was preventing, rather than provoking.

Oh, how little the feminine mind understood of the masculine.

Julian tucked those wonderings away. He didn’t allow himself such wonderings about women in general—and ladies in particular. A discreet, well-chosen mistress on Monday and Thursday afternoons was where he focused such energies, a solution to his nature that provided the needed outlet and served him well.

Right.

Best he find Acaster, sort out the odds for Filthy Habit, and see his way out of The Archangel.

And leave all wonderings regarding the provoking Lady Tessa within these four walls.

***

Tessa had had better nights.

In life, in the general sense—and at The Archangel, more specifically.

Take the bellicose aristocrat currently staring her down.

Well, he would be staring her down if it weren’t for her height.

Anyway, his eyes were flashing with the utter and complete indignity—his words—of having a woman—a woman!—handle a problem of masculine honor for him.

“I would speak with the duke,” he demanded, frigidly.

The duke.

Improbably, her brother.

Oh, she’d known Gabriel was her brother all her life.

It was the duke part that had come as a surprise.

A week ago, they’d been informed that the late Sixth Duke of Acaster had not only been their long-lost, paternal great-uncle, but had also died without legitimate issue, leaving Gabriel—unbelievably—the Seventh Duke of Acaster.

Which, equally improbably and unbelievably, made her Lady Tessa Calthorp… No longer Miss Tessa Siren.

Her… a lady.

Life never had proceeded in a straight line for her and her siblings, but that twist couldn’t have been anticipated.

Tessa waited, and, at last, the lord heaved a long-suffering sigh. He would have to settle for her… a woman. “Five markers are missing,” he repeated, as if she hadn’t heard him the first time. “That’s five hundred pounds.”

Tessa shook her head. Here, she stood on firm ground. “Only in the context of this game.”

Her logic found no purchase, for the lord repeated, “Five hundred pounds.”

Apparently, she wasn’t only a woman, but a simpleton, too.

She tried again. “But only because that’s the value assigned the markers in this game. You could move to another game at another table, and the markers could be worth five pounds.”

“But they’re my markers.”

Tessa understood this man was an aristocrat… a lord… the core of The Archangel’s business… But, oh, how she longed to call him a dull-witted dunderhead.

A temptation she would resist, of course, but, oh, how it cost her a bit of her soul to keep that truth inside. Still… “If you would care to clarify for my simple woman’s mind, exactly what reason would our card dealer possibly have to steal your markers?” She really, truly tried to keep the sarcasm from her voice.

Really, truly, she did.

And no doubt failed.

“Well… well…,” blustered the lord, growing increasingly red-faced. “They’re mother-of-pearl.”

Tessa saw no way out of this without a concession. “Of course, it would be The Archangel’s pleasure to provide you with a new set of markers.”

A canny light entered the lord’s eyes. “They’re one of a kind.”

One of a kind, Tessa’s sweet arse… “Then we shall find another one-of-a-kind set of markers—”

With a greasy, smug expression on his face, the lord lifted his tumbler of whiskey and stopped the words in Tessa’s mouth. There, where the tumbler rested only seconds ago, lay the five markers. Unbeknownst to him, he’d been using them as a coaster. His eyes lifted and met hers.

She wouldn’t gloat… she wouldn’t gloat…

“I take it this business has reached a satisfactory conclusion?” she said in a voice well-versed in keeping clear of all emotion.

If the lord felt at all chastened, he didn’t show it. Instead, he grunted and tossed two markers into the pot for the new hand just starting.

Tessa turned on her heel. Oh, the vicissitudes of the life of a gaming hell owner—if only she could call such dealings a rarity.

Dull-witted dunderheads abounded in this world, that was a fact.

As she neared the staircase to head to the second-floor gallery, Monsieur Ricard, The Archangel’s doorman and general man-about-the-club, met her at the foot of the stairs. “A lord wants to speak with you.”

“I just finished with him.”

A wry smile formed at the corner of Ricard’s mouth. “A different lord.”

Tessa sighed. “They’re all lords, aren’t they?”

Ricard nodded. “They are.”

“Which one, then?”

“The Marquess of Ormonde.”

Tessa’s eyebrows lifted. “Not just any lord, but a marquess. And he wishes to speak with me?”

Of course, she’d noted the marquess on a few occasions. She made it a point to connect the faces with the names of all their patrons. She’d even noticed him in the card room tonight. With his height and breadth and general air of golden-lord-of-the-ton, he was a hard man to miss.

“Actually, he asked to speak with the duke.”

Of course.

Which was how Tessa preferred it.

“Did you tell him Gabriel will be gone for the next few days tending…”

She was stumped. What was it dukes did, anyway? She’d only ever seen them toss Hazard dice or play lousy hands of Macao.

“I did,” said Ricard. “Then he asked to see our oddsmaker.”

“Is that so?” Tessa’s curiosity couldn’t help perking to life—and that was her mind made up. “I’ll deal with him.”

Relief shone in Ricard’s eyes. One—even one built as solid as a medieval castle wall, like Ricard—wouldn’t be keen to tell a marquess to go about his business.

“Is he still in the card room?”

Ricard nodded, and that was Tessa off to talk sense into yet another dunderheaded lord tonight. Was it a full moon?

Oddsmaker.

The word piqued Tessa’s interest.

Whatever business the Marquess of Ormonde had with The Archangel, it would be related to the horses. She knew it in her bones, even as she slightly resented it.

It was Gabriel who had gotten them mixed up in horse racing and now the Race of the Century business. For her part, she’d advised against entangling The Archangel with anything related to horse racing. But he’d insisted it was a safe investment. A diversity of interests was how he liked to put it.

A bloomin’ headache was how she liked to put it.

With its corruption and general danger, best to leave the Sport of Kings to others.

Tessa entered the card room—or rather sidled into it, head down, eyes casting about to ensure all was well. She never stepped into a room in a manner that made her an object of attention. She was here for business. That was all.

Well, now, she was here for the Marquess of Ormonde.

And there he was, propped against the same wall where she’d last seen him a quarter of an hour ago. The man was impossible to miss. At a glance, she’d known him to be tall and, well, massive. But now that she was actually looking at him straight on, he was even more so everything in all areas. More tall… more massive… more handsome… His long sun-streaked hair tucked behind his ears. His smile more, too. He had the sort of smile that likely made every recipient of it feel that all was right with the world if such a man was smiling at them—even if he did have the look of a Viking, for ancient Dane blood surely flowed through his veins.

His gaze shifted, and their eyes met—and held.

His eyes… the open blue of a summer afternoon sky…

It was only when Tessa’s step faltered that she realized she’d forgotten to release her breath. His head cocked subtly, and his amiable expression shifted into one inscrutable.

And she understood why.

He was trying to read her just as she was trying to read him.

Then her sense of purpose returned, and she jutted her chin, indicating he follow her into the study. It was The Archangel’s quietest room with several groupings of overstuffed leather armchairs where lords could sit and peruse the paper or converse in private groups.

Tessa took a seat in one such armchair and Ormonde lowered himself into the chair opposite.

“How may I help you, Lord Ormonde?” she asked, her demeanor all brusque impatience.

His amiable smile didn’t falter. “I’m here to speak with The Archangel’s oddsmaker.”

Tessa spread her hands wide. She and Gabriel didn’t advertise the fact, but they were equal partners. “Again, how may I help you?”

A bemused line formed between Ormonde’s eyebrows. “You are going to help me?”

Tessa decided she would take no insult. Men simply never saw her coming. “Perhaps. Once you state your purpose.”

Actually, in truth, she was irritated. She had a night to get on with.

The marquess shifted in his chair and crossed an ankle over a thigh. A rather thick thigh, one couldn’t help noticing. “The Archangel keeps giving my Thoroughbred Filthy Habit poor odds, which is influencing the other legs to give him poor odds.”

This was about the odds on a horse? Spoiled lords and their horses…

Truly.

“If you’re a betting man, Lord Ormonde,” she began, determined to be diplomatic, “that would only work in your favor if he wins.”

“I don’t gamble.”

The statement emerged with such finality that Tessa felt her brow furrow. What was the point of racing horses if one didn’t gamble? Wasn’t that the entire point of it? She supposed, in theory, some were in it purely for the sport. But she’d only encountered that possibility in theory—not in practice.

“It’s the principle,” he continued.

Principle?” This marquess kept following one confounding statement with another. “I wasn’t aware principle played a role in horse racing.”

Her words almost returned his smile to its place. Almost. He was still trying to work her out. “Filthy Habit is going to win this season.”

“Is that so?”

“What are you basing your doubts on? The Archangel didn’t start bookmaking until this season.”

“A valid point,” she conceded. “But I’m not one to commit to an enterprise blindly. I did my research, and—” Oh, he wasn’t going to like the next words out of her mouth. “I’m basing my doubts on you.” Into the stunned silence that followed, she added, “My lord.”

Ormonde’s eyebrows looked as if they might fly off his forehead, even as his summer-blue eyes went thunderous. “Me? You and I have never met.”

Tessa suppressed the sigh that wanted release. “When my brother decided to take on this Race of the Century enterprise”—she almost said nonsense—“I studied the racing calendars from the last five years.”

“Industrious of you.”

Was he patronizing her?

She couldn’t abide patronizing men. Except in this case, it only made it easier to say… “And I noticed some patterns.”

“Which were?”

“Of the winning stables and the losing stables.”

He didn’t blink. “My stables don’t lose.”

“But they don’t win, either, do they?” She settled back in her chair and shrugged. “They place or show, but never win.”

The evidence was indisputable.

The marquess went still, a stunned air of incredulity radiating about him.

A petty part of her wanted to dig in a bit more—to tweak the nose of this golden lord. “You are content not to win,” she said with the vocal equivalent of a shrug.

“I’m not out there running on two feet, you know. It’s the horses.”

“But you are the owner.”

“Indisputable fact.”

“It’s down to you to put the fire in the belly. But you don’t seem to have that.”

She was all but calling him an insipid lord.

Objectively, this was no way to be speaking to a peer of the realm. She might’ve been getting carried away.

“You don’t know me or anything about me.”

She shook her head. “There, you’re wrong. It’s all laid out on the turf and writ in the racing calendars, plain as day. You’re complacent, Lord Ormonde. So, your bosom friend Rakesley wins all, and Ormonde takes second or third. Complacency doesn’t win races.”

Again, she shrugged. His jaw clenched and released, irritation clear. Fortunately, as a woman who had been operating a gaming hell these last few years, she was accustomed to spoiled, irritated lords who hadn’t gotten their way.

“Will that be all?” she asked.

The loudest silence she’d ever heard expanded between them.

“I have one of the best stables in England.”

“Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, too, undoubtedly.”

Oh, she was piling it on, wasn’t she?

And she must stop.

She wasn’t a cruel person. She was simply annoyed with spoiled lords presently and this spoiled lord was bearing the brunt of all that irritation.

Which wasn’t quite fair.

As she stood, her gaze caught on a shadow on his jaw.

Except it wasn’t a shadow… “Is that a bruise?” she asked without thinking.

A trace of opaque emotion passed behind his eyes. He settled back into his chair and closed in on himself.

Tessa suddenly felt conscious of herself in a way she never had in all her five and twenty years.

“If that will be all, Lady Tessa,” rumbled from the depths of his chest.

He didn’t stand.

And he should have—as a gentleman.

The fact only just registered in Tessa’s mind.

She’d been dismissed.

Somehow, a shift of power had occurred—and she hadn’t the faintest idea how he’d done it.

Behind his summer-blue eyes and lopsided smile, this spoiled, golden lord of the ton contained hidden depths… calculation.

Equal parts intrigued and annoyed, she pivoted and strode from the room.

Just as she began to ascend the staircase to make her way to the second-floor office, Ricard, again, intercepted her. “Can we have a private word?”

Oh, what now?

Still, whatever Ricard had to say would provide a welcome respite from her desire to stew and mull over her puzzling interaction with the Marquess of Ormonde.

She didn’t like that he contained hidden depths—and had a bone to pick with her.

She’d only taken a few steps before she stopped and turned to Ricard, who, though two steps below her, was nearly at eye level. “Let’s shorten the odds on Ormonde’s Filthy Habit to five-to-one.” She hesitated. “Make that three-to-one.”

Perhaps that would appease the man.

Ricard nodded. “Wise move.”

It wasn’t wisdom guiding the move, but rather a feeling whirling through her gut like a dervish. That fire she’d said the marquess lacked… Well, she wasn’t so sure she hadn’t seen a spark of it a few minutes ago.

And the thing about sparks was all it took was a single gust of wind to light it into a roaring conflagration.

A result best avoided with the Marquess of Ormonde, to be sure.

Upstairs, she opened the office door and let Ricard enter before closing the door behind them. Strictly speaking, she was a lady now, and it wasn’t proper for her to be alone in a room with a man. But others had foisted that title upon her, and she had absolutely no intention of leading the life of a lady.

She’d rather deal with spoiled aristocrats as a gaming hell owner than as a lady any day of the week.

She propped a hip onto the solid oak desk and crossed her arms over her chest. “What warrants a private word?”

“Jagger paid us a visit.”

A different sort of tension entered Tessa’s body. “When?”

“While you were engaged with Lord Ormonde.”

Blaze Jagger.

This was Gabriel’s doing.

When he’d involved them in the Race of the Century, he’d insisted they cut the Ring and its blacklegs out of the betting post on race day.

Which wasn’t going down well—at all.

Tessa had known it was only a matter of time before blacklegs began stirring trouble. Blaze Jagger was a young upstart on the rise in London’s underworld dealings, his fingers in multiple enterprises of the criminal variety. He had a reputation to prove and build.

Tessa understood there were few people more dangerous in this world than young men with something to prove—and nothing to lose.

Now, he’d made the first move, and they would have to deal with the rogue.

More accurately, she would have to deal with him. Gabriel was now all tangled up in this duke business. It would be down to her to solve this.

“And his purpose here?”

“He asked to join the club.”

Tessa let that unexpected morsel of information settle for a long moment. “Join The Archangel?” She needed to be clear.

“I sent him packing.”

A bad idea—a very bad idea. Tessa could feel it in her bones. “If he comes back, let him join.”

Ricard cocked an ear, as if he couldn’t have heard her correctly. “Pardon?”

“You heard me.”

“He will lower The Archangel’s reputation.”

“Sometimes, it’s best to keep one’s enemies close.”

Ricard snorted and shook his head. “As you please.”

Tessa knew Jagger wouldn’t return.

Well, that wasn’t precisely true.

He would return.

But next time, he wouldn’t be asking politely. He had something to prove on the London streets. With The Archangel cutting him out of the betting post for the Race of the Century, they were endangering both his money and his reputation. His rivals would be watching to see if he let it stand.

How easily this could turn into a turf war.

She hoped there was time yet to avoid it.

***

As the sun began transforming the horizon from gray to gold, Tessa crept across the threshold of the Knightsbridge townhouse she shared with her three siblings—Gabriel, Saskia, and Viveca—careful to keep quiet and not disturb their sleep.

Though for not much longer, she suspected.

It was this duke nonsense that had been thrust upon them. Gabriel would, of course, take up residence at some dukely residence, and since by the letter of the law he was Saskia and Viveca’s guardian, they would surely follow.

But not Tessa.

That wasn’t her life—or the life she wanted to lead.

But she saw the wisdom in Saskia and Viveca joining Gabriel and becoming ladies, for they led entirely different lives from hers and Gabriel’s—which was very much by design. They had absolutely no involvement with The Archangel. Even if the Archangel was London’s most exclusive gaming hell that catered only to aristocrats, it was still a gaming hell—a den of iniquity and vice… an institution of London’s underworld.

Tessa was under no illusions about that.

Saskia and Viveca were intelligent and innocent and they would have the best of whatever sort of lives they chose. Tessa was determined it would be so.

Which was what nagged at her about this Race of the Century and Blaze Jagger business. By dabbling in horse racing, Gabriel was only looking at pennies and pounds and disregarding the larger picture, which revealed the world of horse racing to be a dicey proposition full of dangerous characters.

And Gabriel had centered them dead in the sights of one of London’s most notorious blacklegs.

It couldn’t stand.

If Jagger came after The Archangel, Tessa would handle it.

Saskia and Viveca would be protected.

Tessa crawled into bed, dawn fully risen.

Not that she would know it.

The first change she’d made when they’d moved into the Sloane Street townhouse was to have all her bedroom windows fitted with special interior shutters that blocked the daylight.

As exhausted eyes drifted shut, her last waking thought, however, wasn’t of family or criminals.

But of a spoiled lord with summer-blue eyes.

A lord who wasn’t quite who he presented himself to be.

A lord who might intrigue her.

Irritating, that.

 


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