Copyright © 2012 by Grace Callaway
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All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
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The light of morning filtered through the office windows. Despite being occupied at his desk, Gavin Hunt noted the way the rays radiated across the sitting area, gleaming off the mahogany furniture and gilt accents. He liked light. Craved it, for all the years he’d gone without. Even with his current success, he still conducted most of his business in the dark. Above the marble fireplace, the gold ormulu clock chimed the hour as eleven, the pleasant sound obscured by the chamber’s other occupant, who was bent over the short end of his desk.
“That’s it, Hunt, plow me ‘arder.” Panting, Evangeline Harper looked back at him over her bare shoulder. Brassy curls framed her sharp, feline face, and she tugged suggestively at the rope that bound her wrists at the small of her back. “You know I like it rough. I want to feel ev’ry monstrous inch o’ your prick.”
“Then take more of it,” he said and obliged her with a deep thrust.
Her spine arched in ecstasy, the hills of her buttocks jiggling as he pounded into her. At one time, these games they played had excited him; at the present moment, however, he almost wished she hadn’t shown up unannounced and randy for a tumble. Though his body was going through the motions, his mind resisted participating. It had been doing that a lot lately; ’twas as if he’d lost interest in all his vices. God help him, even fucking had become routine.
Evangeline moaned, pushing back against him. On the blotter beside her writhing form, his lucky dice rattled in their cup. Two sixes, face up.
Gripping her hips, he pumped harder. Mayhap he’d just been working too hard. As owner of The Underworld, the most notorious gaming hell in Covent Garden, he existed in a savage, cutthroat world. Two months prior, a fellow proprietor had wound up dangling from a tree. The cove’s tongue had been cut out, his hands and feet missing. No culprit had been found, but everyone in the stews knew one of the rival houses had done the deed. Besides The Underworld, there were four other prominent establishments. All of them were run by men powerful and ruthless enough to kill.
After the last customer had left this morning, Gavin had planned on meeting with Hugh Stewart, his mentor and trusted overseer of the club. They had much to discuss due to a recent attack on patrons of The Underworld. But then Evangeline had shown up, flashing a big smile and equally sizeable tits. Gavin had thought a fast, hard plowing might do him good before settling down to business as usual.
“Don’t stop, I’m close, I’m going to spend so ‘ard—” she wailed.
The dice continued to jump in rhythm to their coupling. Moaning, Evangeline gyrated her cunt against the wooden edge as he fucked her. If her hands were free, he was certain she’d be frigging herself with abandon. She was as efficient about her pleasure as he was about his. Her eyes were closed, her thoughts concealed. For the two of them, sex was always this way: an activity done together yet separately. Like him, Evangeline had come from the rookery, and they shared a survivor’s philosophy.
Be in control. See to your own interests. Reward loyalty … and punish betrayal.
At the thought of betrayal, a muscle ticked in his jaw. The small movement caused a twinge along the right side of his face. The scar that ran from cheek to chin was the memento of a man who’d survived hell—and who now ruled it. The popularity of his establishment had brought him wealth and connections; he now possessed the power to pursue the one goal that had sustained him through his darkest hours.
He’d lived for the promise of vengeance, and it would soon be his.
That got his juices up. Holding her steady, he shoved his cock harder, deeper, each thrust an assertion of dominance. Control. All those who owe me will pay. Scarlet dimmed his vision.
“Mary’s tits, I’m comin’ …” she cried.
Release boiled up his shaft, and he, too, spent himself with a shudder.
After a moment, he untied her, and they each set about tidying themselves. By the time he’d rid himself of the French letter and fastened his trousers, she was fully dressed. A habit of her profession, he supposed, though he knew she styled herself as an actress these days. Not that it mattered to him. Like a cat, Evangeline landed on her feet, and he respected that.
“Will you stay for coffee?” he asked.
She smiled. Some of her paint had worn off, revealing the thin outline of her lips. “Cor, what would we talk about, Hunt? The bleedin’ weather? Nay, I think we’ve done our business together an’ done it well. Best be on my way now.”
“Before you go, I have something for you,” he said.
Opening one of the desk drawers, he removed a filigree locket. A lordling had wept as he’d handed over the family heirloom. All Gavin had cared about was that the piece would fetch a pretty price. While he had no use for sentiment, he did believe in fair exchanges. He dangled the necklace in front of Evangeline.
“Oooh, that’s pretty,” she cooed. Slipping the chain over her head, she wiggled her shoulders until the locket slid into the deep crevice between her breasts. “How does it look?”
“Like it’s found an enviable home,” he said.
She laughed and gave him a saucy wink. “‘Til the next time, eh?”
After she departed, he rang for coffee and returned to his desk. Knowing the troublesome business that awaited him, he couldn’t summon the wherewithal to search out Stewart. Instead, he picked up the pair of dice, tossing them from hand to hand. He felt on edge, sated yet somehow empty. He was stifling a yawn when the knock sounded. The coffee, about bloody time. When the footman scurried in, a harried look on his face and no silver pot in hand, Gavin scowled.
“S-sorry to trouble you, sir,” the servant stammered. “There’s a gent ‘ere, askin’ for you. Says it’s urgent.”
“Who is it?”
“Gave the name Fines, sir,” the footman said.
Paul Fines. Gavin sat up straighter in his chair. “Young toff, dressed to the nines?”
“Sounds like ‘im, sir.”
“Send him in,” Gavin commanded.
He let the dice fall onto the desk, smiling with grim satisfaction as they rolled up sixes. For months, he had bided his time, waiting for the opportunity to take Paul Fines down. The fool had already been barreling down a path of self-destruction, and a game of faro had delivered the finishing blow. Yet instead of fetching the deeds to Fines & Company as he’d promised, the blasted cull had reneged and done a flit. Gavin’s men had been searching for Fines for days.
With Fines’ shares, Gavin could gain control of Nicholas Morgan’s company and set the wheels of vengeance in motion. Because of Morgan, Gavin had spent ten years in the hulks for a crime he did not commit. The ever-present tide of darkness rose within him; he held it off with a familiar barricade of rage. Anger had given him the power and will to survive, and it would help him see justice done.
With simmering anticipation, Gavin watched as the door opened and a figure entered the room. He registered the slight build, the way the overly large green cutaway coat flapped around slender legs. The brim of a hat curved low over short brown curls. The fellow looked up, and Gavin felt an odd jolt in his gut.
The eyes that met his were wide and thickly lashed and the color … he’d never seen eyes so blue. Vivid and pure, the shade of a summer sky in a painting. Befuddled, he took stock of the rest of the face: fine contours, pert nose, and a bushy mustache that overshadowed the small, neat features. A stranger—and definitely not Paul Fines.
“Who the bloody hell are you?” Gavin demanded.
The youth seemed to hesitate on the threshold. Then he straightened his shoulders and came toward the desk, each step infused with coltish energy. He stopped on the other side of the polished mahogany; his head tipped to the left as he perused Gavin, his gaze catching on the scar. Gavin expected the usual averting of the eyes, signs of fear or disgust, yet the clear blue orbs did not waver in their bold assessment.
Devil take it, he was being sized up. In his own bloody office and by a cheeky chap not half his size.
“Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Hunt.” Despite the soft and rather musical voice, there was no mistaking the other’s determined manner. “My apologies for calling uninvited. I had no choice, you see—”
“Piss on the song and dance. I want to know who you are and why you lied about being Paul Fines.”
The oversized patch of hair trembled upon the lad’s upper lip. Not with fear, as one would rightly expect, but with … indignation? “I did not lie, sir. My name is Fines.”
Gavin’s eyes narrowed. “Who is Paul Fines to you?”
“He is my brother.” The little chin went up. “And I have come on his behalf.”
Did the greenhorn take him for a fool? Beneath the desk, Gavin’s hands curled into fists. He’d made it his business to know the ins and outs of his enemy’s adopted family. Jeremiah Fines, the patriarch and founder of Fines & Company Shipping, was dead four years. He’d left a widow, Anna, and two children. The heir and eldest was Paul Fines, and he had no brother. Just a spoiled hellion of a younger …
Bloody fucking hell. It can’t be.
Gavin pushed to his feet. At the sound of the skidding chair, Fines gave a start, hands flying instinctively to his chest. Those fingers, Gavin saw, were slim and dainty and tipped by neat, oval fingernails.
“I’ll have your name,” Gavin said, his jaw clenched.
A cough, followed by a gruff reply. “It is Percy, sir.”
I’ll be damned.
He rounded the desk. “Percy … short for Percival, I assume?” he inquired in silky tones.
“Everyone, um, calls me Percy. You may call me Fines, if you like.”
“Well then, Percy,” he said deliberately, noting the flush creep up those milky cheeks, “what is it that I can do for you today?”
“I have come to discuss my brother’s vowels. To negotiate their release, in point of fact.”
Gavin had to give the chit credit for her brazenness. For he had no doubt that Percy was none other than Paul Fines’ younger sister, Persephone. God’s teeth, she had a bigger pair of bollocks than most men. Brutes twice her size quaked before him and would sell their own mothers before they dared to deceive him. Yet here she was, masquerading in that ridiculous get-up and demanding to negotiate with him?
In most cases, he’d have quashed such impudence immediately. But this reckless hoyden … he did not know whether he admired her ingenuity or wanted to throttle her for it. While he made up his mind, he saw no harm in teaching her a little lesson.
“Something tells me I’ll want a drink for this discussion.” He felt her wary gaze follow him as he went to the liquor cabinet and filled two glasses. Returning, he held one out to her.
Taking it cautiously, she sniffed the beverage. Her nose wrinkled. “What is this?”
“Whiskey, of course. The beverage of choice amongst gentlemen.” He raised a brow. “Surely you’ve had it.”
Her lush, sable lashes swept up; he was once again struck by the radiance of her gaze. Bright as bloody sunshine upon a lake. With eyes like that, did she truly think that she could pass for a gent?
“Of course I’ve had whiskey. ‘Tis my favorite, as a matter of fact,” she said stoutly.
She was also a terrible liar, he observed; if she turned any redder, she’d be mistaken for an apple. Indeed, her cheeks had just the right curve to make a man want to take a bite. He found himself wondering what she looked like without the mustache and wig. Without the gentleman’s clothes, as well. Or any clothes, for that matter.
Hmm, interesting direction his thoughts were taking.
“Bottoms up,” he said, raising his glass.
Squaring small shoulders, she took a breath … and downed the drink in a gulp. The result was predictable though no less delightful for it. Her eyes watered, and she began to sputter.
“Like it?” he said.
“It’s d-delicious,” she choked out. “The b-best I’ve ever tasted.”
“Have another, then.” He made to take her glass.
She yanked it out of reach. “No! I mean, thank you, I’ve had quite enough.” She cleared her throat. “I wish to discuss the matter of Paul’s debt now, if you please.”
He waved her into one of the chairs facing his desk. He remained standing, leaning casually against the mahogany edge. “Discuss away.”
She sat, and he had to firm his lips at the way she crossed her Hessians primly at the ankle. “My brother is a gentleman of good character,” she began. “This has all been a terrible mistake. That night, when he got lured into your den of vice, he’d had too much to drink …”
Christ, the mercy approach. His eyeballs twitched upward. Given her show of resourcefulness thus far, he’d hoped for something a might more original.
“Gentleman or not, your brother knew exactly what he was doing when he wagered against the house,” he said. “You are familiar with the expression, one reaps what one sows?”
She frowned at him, the hairs of her fake moustache bristling like a porcupine. His fingers itched to rip off that despicable strip. To get a clear look at her once and for all.
“And there are no exceptions to that?” she asked. “Mr. Hunt, can you not find it in your heart to show a little mercy?”
“In a word? No.”
“Then at least give my brother time to pay off what he owes you.”
“He’s had his time.” Gavin studied the nails of one hand. “Now he owes me his shares of the company.”
“But the company is our Papa’s legacy. All that he worked for … and all that we have left of him.” Her voice hitched. “Please, sir, you cannot ask Paul to sign it over to you.”
The pleading expression in her azure eyes would melt any heart—any heart not made of stone. As it was, even he felt a slight and foreign twinge in the vicinity of his chest.
“Surely we can come up with an alternative?” she said.
“Can we?” He gave her a considering look.
Taking a breath, she said, “I’m assuming you’ve heard of the Marquess of Harteford?”
“I’ve heard of Harteford.” Though his insides roiled, he kept his voice even. “So?”
“Nicholas—Lord Harteford, I mean—happens to be a dear friend of my family. In fact, he’s practically a Fines. When Nick was just a young man, Papa mentored him in the business and later the two became partners. After Papa passed away, Nick tried to persuade Paul into taking over the helm, but my brother hasn’t any interest in the company … except for his share of the profits, of course. So Nick runs things and gives Paul a share of the dividends.”
“This Nick of yours sounds like a right upstanding gent.”
Apparently immune to sarcasm, she gave an enthusiastic nod. “He is the very epitome of a gentleman and truly like an older brother to us. In fact, he’s bailed Paul out of trouble numerous times. And if you agree to release my brother today, Nick might be persuaded to pay you,”—she inserted a dramatic pause—”… with interest.”
He regarded her silently, gears turning in his head. His original plan for vengeance was simple: destroy everything Morgan held dear. He could, of course, simply off the bugger, but what fun would that be? No, Morgan was going to suffer as he had. Gavin had identified his foe’s two areas of vulnerability: Morgan’s company and family. With Fines’ majority shares in hand, Gavin planned to execute the first part of his revenge by tearing Morgan’s life’s work apart piece by piece.
Next, Gavin had intended to get to Morgan’s wife, the marchioness. Seduction, mayhap, though the scheme would have its challenges since Morgan’s marriage was apparently a love match. Even so, women were fickle, unreliable creatures; Gavin had resolved to find the chinks in Lady Harteford’s armor. Now, however, he had a better, easier plan. Here was his enemy’s sister—clearly in heart, if not in blood—dangling like a ripe peach in front of him. The opportunity was almost too perfect. He could ruin the little hoyden while Morgan frolicked on vacation, helpless to intervene. Powerless, as Gavin had once been. The notion drove his pulse faster.
Who’ll be holding the knife then, Morgan? Whose throat will be exposed? When you plead with me, I’ll show you the same mercy you once showed me.
Despite his simmering rage, Gavin perused his quarry with cold detachment. If the rest of Percy was anything like her eyes, seducing her would be no hardship.
With a touch of nervousness, she said, “There’s one small problem. Not even a problem, really—more of a temporary snag. You see, at present Nick is travelling on the Continent. However, I’ll write him immediately, and I’m certain when he receives my message—”
“Then your precious Nick is not here, is he?” Aye, this new stratagem was falling neatly into place. “Nor is his money.”
“Not at the moment,” she said. “But he will be. And the Marquess of Harteford is not a man one would wish to make an enemy—”
Fury breached Gavin’s wall of control. “You think I’m afraid of that bloody bastard?”
“I never said—”
“I’ll take what’s owed to me, and I’ll take it now.” Pushing up from the desk, he stalked toward her. Threatening him, was she? And with Nicholas Morgan of all people—toting the backstabbing bugger like he was some sort of hero. By God, the reckless chit needed a lesson.
She jumped to her feet, backing away from him. She held her hands out as if she could ward him off. His blood fired. Nothing roused him more than a chase.
“Now, there’s no need to get hasty,” she said, her eyes wide. She’d forgotten to disguise her voice, her tones rising to the level of a squeak. “We can always negotiate further.”
Three more steps, and he’d have her against the wall. “I’m done negotiating,” he said.
Her hat toppled off. Before it hit the carpet, he had his hands planted on the scarlet damask on either side of her head. Trapped, she stared up at him, long lashes rapidly aflutter.
“Done with your games, too,” he added, reaching for the mustache.
He peeled it off in one swift motion.
“Ouch,” she yelped.
“That’s better,” he said.
Better than he’d even expected. With that nasty strip of hair removed, her features blossomed before him. Softly rounded cheeks tapered to a piquant little chin. Lips, rosy and full, parted on a breath, and he noted the bottom one had an inviting divot at its center. Unable to help himself, he traced his thumb over the reddened area where the mustache had been. Soft as down.
“Wh-what are you doing?” she stammered.
“Seeing who I’m dealing with. Now let’s have a look at what’s under here.”
He plucked off the wig … and the discovery slammed into him like a blow to the gut.
Sunshine tumbled down. Wavy locks ranging from pale to deep gold spilled into his hand, falling in tangled streamers to her waist. With her dark lashes and brows, he’d expected a brunette … not this. His fingers closed reflexively around a shining tress; it slipped like satin against the roughness of his palm. God’s teeth, he’d always had a liking for blondes and more so for the rare natural ones. And Miss Persephone Fines appeared to be completely natural.
“So you knew all along?”
Her breathless voice drew him back. Distracted him from the cockstand burgeoning in his trousers. With deliberate insolence, he tucked the strand of hair behind her ear, his knuckles grazing the tender shell. Satisfaction flooded him when she trembled in response to his touch.
“There’s little I don’t know, you naughty minx,” he said. “The sooner you understand that, the better things will go for you.”
Her eyes rounded, and she grew even pinker. Aye, seducing the impetuous little goddess would be a simple matter. Almost too easy. He didn’t know which would be the sweeter, having her or his revenge. In this instance, however, he wouldn’t have to choose.
By the time he was done with Percy Fines, he’d have his cake and eat it too.