Authors: Barbara Metzger
Jack of Clubs
Book Two of The House of Cards Trilogy
By Barbara Metzger
Copyright 2011 by Barbara Metzger
Cover Copyright 2011 by Dara England and Untreed Reads Publishing
The author is hereby established as the sole holder of the copyright. Either the publisher (Untreed Reads) or author may enforce copyrights to the fullest extent.
First published in print by Signet Eclipse, 2006.
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This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to the living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Also by Barbara Metzger and Untreed Reads Publishing
Ace of Hearts, Book One of The House of Cards Trilogy
Queen of Diamonds, Book Three of The House of Cards Trilogy
And Angel for the Earl
A Suspicious Affair
JACK OF CLUBS
Book Two of THE HOUSE OF CARDS Trilogy
A Regency-Set Historical Romance
To all the readers who have given me so much love and support through the years.
The Honorable Jonathan Endicott, or Captain Jack as he was known, was finally home from the wars.
Six years of war had been hell, terrifying and tedious in turn. Peace was simply boring. The first peace, the false lull between the Corsican's exile and his return, had been a pageant. Jack had thrown himself into the festivities with the same fervor he'd ridden into pitched battles, with his heart leading the way. Wine, women, and who cared what song they were playing if he could hold a sweet-smelling lady in his arms?
Jack's older brother had even traveled to the Peace Congress with his bride to reunite their small family, making the celebrations more joyous yet. Everyone knew Ace had to take a wife, for he was Alexander Chalfont Endicott, Earl of Carde, with a succession to ensure, the poor blighter.
If Jack had thought about it, he would have guessed Ace would hide behind his spectacles, studying the field of possibilities, researching their pedigrees, examining each filly for temperament and soundness before making his choice of countess. He was that meticulous and logical about everything else and always had been. Who would have thought he'd fall arse over Adam's apple for skinny little Nelly Sloane, their deceased stepmother's young cousin? Why, Ace had helped Jack put frogs in Nelly's bed, although he had drawn the line at snakes down her back.
Of course Nelly, who insisted upon Nell now that she was Lady Carde, was not little, skinny or merely someone's poor relation. She was all grown up, gorgeous in looks and giving in nature, great of heart. In other words, Nelly was everything Jack would have wished for in a wifeâfor his brother. The best of brothers, Ace had been Jack's anchor since they were orphaned as boys. He deserved nothing less than the perfect bride, his own true love.
The love Ace and Nell shared glistened more than all the jewels at all the balls in Vienna, and softened the hardest hearts, turned to stone by years of war. Some day Jack would find a woman like thatâafter he had waltzed and wined and wooed his way through the ranks of warm and willing womanhood.
Vienna had been as glowing and glorious as a springtime rainbow, but it had been as fleeting.
The current victory celebrations in London were a travesty, abhorrent to Jack. The country should have been in mourning for all the men they had lost, for all the blood shed at Waterloo. Instead they were holding fireworks and festivals in the streets of London, sparing no expense while the returning veterans were begging in the alleys.
Jack took part in as few of the events, public or private, as possible. He sold his commission as soon as he could, refused a position at the war office despite the promise of a knighthood, and burned his uniform. He locked his pistols away, vowing never to kill another man, and gave his sword as a belated christening gift to his brother and Nell's first born son, Jason, named after the previous earl, Jack and Alex's father.
Jack was six and twenty, home to stay, his life ahead of him. So what was he going to do with it?
“You are always welcome here,” Alex said when Jack traveled to Carde Hall in Northampshire. Nell was breeding again, and feeling too ill to travel to London. They had begged him to come to Cardington to visit. Or to stay, making his home with them. Jack thought he'd sooner rejoin the army than sit by while his brother and sister-in-law made sheep's eyes at each other and cooed over their young son. How many times could even a doting uncle chuck a babe under the chinâunder the four chins the little dumpling seemed to haveâbefore going cross-eyed? And with another bratâbabyâon the way, Jack would feel like a trespasser, a voyeur, if he did not go batty from boredom.
“You could take over some of the duties of the earldom,” Ace proposed, while Jack pondered how soon he could make his departure. “Act as overseer for me. I hate to leave Nell and the baby to travel to all the properties and holdings. Appearing in Parliament is duty enough.”
“I know nothing of crops and cows. And wish to know less.”
“Then you could handle some of the financial affairs.”
Jack used a word he should never have uttered in front of a gently bred female. “My apologies, Nell. I have been too long out of polite society.”
Nell nodded graciously, turning back to embroidering tiny roses on a tiny white gown for the daughter she hoped to have this time.
“But we both know I have no head for investments. I let you handle my own accounts, don't I? By the way, thank you for making my inheritance grow, far more than I could have hoped. The only numbers I am good with is gambling odds.”
“You have the wit, just not the patience. As always.” Alex wiped his spectacles while he considered his sibling's future. Jack was taller, broader, far more muscular than Alex was, but he was still his little brother. They shared the same dark hair, although Jack's was curlier, and cut longer. They had the same brown eyes, but Jack's vision needed no glasses. Unfortunately, they had the same nose. Lucky Jack had his broken, more than once, it seemed, so the Endicott eagle beak was not as prominent. Alex said a silent prayer skyward for his future daughter's feminine features, then turned his attention back to Jack.
Alex wanted his restless brother here, safe, but he knew the decision was not his to make. “You do have that piece of farmland in Kent from our mother,” he reminded Jack.
“What, I should sit back and watch the turnips grow?”
Alex's gaze traveled to his wife's burgeoning belly. “There are worse things.”
Not for Jack, there were not.
“Then go back to London and take up the high life. Your bank account can stand the expense, and the estate can afford the rest.”
“What, I should live on my brother's largesse? What do you take me for?”
“A hero, that's what,” Alex promptly replied, and Jack felt his cheeks grow warm, knowing his brother believed it.
“Go on, I just did my job like everyone else.”
“And the country owes you for it. You deserve a life of leisure.”
“What, become a Bond Street beau on the strut? Set up a racing stable and a mistressâSorry, Nellâand attend all the balls? Then go on drinking and gambling through the night so I can sleep through the day? Fuss with my clothes and flirt with the debutantes? What kind of life is that?”
“One many men pursue,” Nell said, “or wish they could.”
Jack shuddered. “I do not.”
Alex was not finished. “What of politics? You could have the seat for Cardington in the Commons.”
Jack grimaced. “The war could have been over years ago if the pettifoggers stayed out of it.”
“I have broken more than my fair share. Do you recall the night weâ”
Alex cleared his throat.
“Right. Not the law. Or the church, before you mention that. If my prayers had been answered, Bonaparte would have been trounced two years ago.”
“What about travel, now that the Continent is safe? Although I would hate to see you so far away again.”
Jack frowned at the glass of brandy in his hand. “I have heard enough foreign languages to last a lifetime. Your heir's babble is the only tongue I want to hear, other than the King's English. We are working on Uncle Jack although ânuh-nuh' seems the best we can manage.”
Nell tried to hide her smile. Her brilliant son used his one word to call for his nursemaid, his breakfast, and his favorite blanket. “Didn't you always want to own a string of race horses?” she asked now, recalling how the young Jack and his pony had been inseparable. Her husband smiled at her, as if she'd made an outstanding suggestion, but Jack shook his head.
“I have spent six years of my life on the back of a horse. That's enough.”
The only sound in the room was the crackling of the fire in the hearth as they all tried to think of ideas for Jack's civilian life. Nell thought he should find a nice girl and settle down, but she was too wise to say so. Alex had heard that advice too often himself to think of offering it to his brother. When the time came, Jack would know it. Until thenâ¦
“You need a quest, like a knight errant,” Alex offered.
“Do not harp on that knighthood business again, brother. I told you I was not interested in any title. I never wanted yours, and I surely do not want one granted in return for your paying another of Prinny's debts.”
Alex held up his hand. “I truly meant a knight of old, damsels in distress, sworn oaths and chivalry, the tales we used to read as boys.”
“Speaking of damsels in distress, what news is there of the search for our half-sister?”
Nell excused herself. She could not bear to hear the conversation about Lottie, her cousin Lizbeth's child, not when her own older brother had been behind the little girl's disappearance fifteen years ago. Phelan Sloane had hired someone to stop the coach, in a misguided attempt to keep his beloved Lizbeth from leaving their home. He had been too obsessed with Lizbeth to acknowledge her eagerness to return to her own husband, the former Earl of Carde, father to Alex and Jack. The carriage had gone over a cliff, however, killing the young countess and the servants. Little Charlotte was never seen again, but Phelan had bankrupted his estate and stolen from Alex's to pay his hireling blood money to keep her alive. Or so they all hoped.
The old earl had died of a lung congestion and a broken heart. The kidnapper, Dennis Godfrey, was long dead, and Phelan was kept in a secluded inn, where he could not harm anyone else, or himself. Nell could only pray for him, and for Lottie.
After she left and the two men had resumed their seats, Alex said, “We have not discovered much since I wrote to you last. We found that Dennis Godfrey's sister suddenly had a child no one knew about. She had been a seamstress who occasionally worked at Drury Lane, but she left London less than a fortnight after Lottie went missing. No one knows where she went, or what name she used. Actors are an unsteady lot at best, their careers not long-lived, and the theater itself has undergone several transformations. After all these years, few people there even recall Molly Godfrey. She must have picked up Phelan's money at the bank, but no one there can describe her, and the funds have not been withdrawn in three years now.”
Jack took a sip of his drink. “I have a mind to find Lottie.”
“What, because you are at loose ends?”
“No, because I promised our father that I would never stop looking for her.”
“Jack, you were eleven years old!”
“And you were fourteen, but you have not given up.”
“No, and that is why I have two Bow Street Runners in my employ looking for traces of Molly Godfrey everywhere. We fear she has died or left the country. What makes you think you could discover more than they can?”
Jack smiled, showing a dimple in one cheek. “Because they have to obey the laws they are sworn to uphold. I do not. And, remember, I am used to giving orders and being obeyed.”
“That's rubbish. Actors and dressmakers and the like are not going to salute when you walk by. They will not talk about one of their own kind, not to an officer or a gentleman. You'd be wasting your time.”
“I have nothing but time. And who says I am a gentleman, anyway?”
“You were born and bred one. You cannot be anything else.”
“Odd, all of our nannies called me spawn of Satan and the Devil's Cub. The men under my command never worried what title my father held, not when they were following me into bloody battle. No, you are the gentleman, Ace, raised to be just what you are, a pillar of the community, a conscientious, compassionate upholder of the values this country needs and respects.”
“Bah, you make me sound dull.”
“Sometimes I envied you that respectable dullness, waiting to be ambushed in the Peninsula. Not that I would have chosen any other course but the army, but it changed me from a tame little member of polite society.”
Alex laughed. “You were never tame, brother. The army was the only place for your hey-go-mad escapades. But you are older and hopefully wiser.”
“Ah, but I am far more useless. I was the spare, the dispensable second son. Now you have an heir of your own, with another on the way, perhaps.”
“I pray this one is a girl, for Nell's sake. As you said, second sons can be the very devil.” Alex raised his glass. “To little girls.”
Jack lifted his. “Like Lottie.”
Alex knew there would be no dissuading his brother from whatever route he chose. “What will you do, then?”
“Why, I believe I shall become one of that shadow class where information can be bought and sold, where a man is judged by his wits, not the height of his neckcloth or the length of his pedigree. I shall go to London, of course, where everything has its price, even the women. Especially the women. That is where pretty young women come to make their fortunes. More than that?” He shrugged broad shoulders. “Who knows?”
“I pray Nell never does. She'll have my head on a platter for not urging you into a respectable career and a chance to meet respectable young ladies. You do know, don't you, that your actions might set you beyond the pale of what is acceptable in polite society, even for a second son? You will always be welcome at Carde Hall, of course, but be sure what you want before you slam other doors in your own face. You might never again be invited to those balls you disdain now, or the gentlemen's clubs.”
Jack raised his glass again. “So what?”
Nell and Alex were better off not knowing Jack's plans, he decided. Big brother had always been a worrier, and poor Nell was scarcely recovered from her own brother's shame. They would not be in London anyway, not with the new babe imminent, so Jack could set the town on its stiff-rumped rear if he wanted. He wanted.
He wanted to establish the flashiest, most fashionable gaming house in the city. As he'd told Alex, he did have a head for gambling odds and the pasteboards. He intended to bring in the wealthy swells, and he intended to hire the prettiest females he could find to serve them. The money he madeâand he figured it would be considerableâwould go toward feeding hungry soldiers and their families, and to finding Lottie.