Authors: Jade Lee
Copyright © 2014 by Jade Lee
Cover and internal design © 2014 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Anna Kmet
Model: Crystal McCahill
Photography by Jon Zychowski
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Wendy Drew clutched the small satchel tight to her stomach. She held it as Freddie pulled open the heavy office door. Then he gestured her inside, a smirk on his thick, flat face.
She ignored it. After all, she’d been coming to this gambling hell for months. Or was it more than a year now? It didn’t matter. Her time here was done, and she felt a surge of mixed feelings at that.
Part of her would miss the excitement of the gambling hell. The thick air, the turn of a card, and the rattle of dice had their own allure. Money, desperation, lust—all those intense emotions—had played out a nightly drama before her, enticing enough that she’d been tempted to play as well.
She never did. She was there to work and to pay back her idiot brother’s debts. But now she had the money in hand. All of it.
She and Bernard were finally free of Demon Damon. Or at least they would be the moment she handed over her satchel of coins. So with a surge of relief, she stepped into the luxurious office. Damon was there, his hair dark, his body languid, and his smile like a temptation from the devil himself.
Wendy wasted no time. “I’ve got it all,” she said clearly. “I’m here to pay back everything Bernard owes.”
If anything, the man’s smile widened, though there was something horribly feral about the look. “Really?” he drawled, and Wendy felt a shiver of excited fear skate down her spine.
“Yes. Right here.” She showed him the small stack of coins.
“Then by all means, my Wendy, come closer. Show me exactly what you have, and I shall tell you if it is enough.”
She didn’t hesitate. To pause in front of the Demon was asking for disaster. So she walked confidently forward, though her heart was pounding in her chest, and began to neatly line up her coins on his desk. It was all there. And in case he questioned her, she also set down a page of foolscap with the debt, her payments clearly marked. It included the money Bernard made in his job as a footman for the Demon and her own work at his vingt-et-un table.
He raised his eyebrows at that, and perhaps she caught a flash of admiration in his eyes. She hated that his approval could spark happiness inside her. She knew Damon’s true character. Had since she’d been a young woman. She knew better than to want anything from the man.
“Sorry, luv,” he said, deliberately making his accent coarse as a way to remind her of their shared childhood. Like her, he could use the King’s English or the roughest cant. “But you’re one hundred twenty-four quid short.”
“I am not!” she snapped as she thrust forward her page of accounting.
He smiled, then pulled out the ledger kept locked in his desk drawer. He opened it easily to the page detailing Bernard’s debt and turned it for her inspection.
Everything was there, identical to hers, except for two things. The first was obvious, and she pointed to it immediately. “What is that?”
“Your brother’s dinner for the last two nights. Added to his tab.”
She shook her head. “I told him I won’t pay another quid more than his original debt.”
She watched the Demon’s eyebrows rise in surprise. “You won’t pay for his meals?”
“Or his gambling or his clothes or his women. The original debt. Anything else, you take up with him.” She lifted her chin as she said it. A sign of clear determination, though inside she shook. It was a hard thing to cut off her brother, but she would not be held hostage to the Demon. Not any more than she had to. And that meant standing strong for any extra debt—including something so small as Bernard’s meals.
And while she thought on the responsibilities of a sister to her younger brother, the Demon carefully crossed out the dinner tab on this sheet and created another for Bernard.
“I won’t pay any more of his debts,” she said clearly. “You cannot get to me through him anymore.” She had little reason to suspect that Damon had used Bernard to get to her. After all, he had dozens of women for the asking. But lately, she had begun to wonder. And certainly the way the Demon looked at her made her think that he wanted something specific. Something dark and exciting.
“There. That’s done. A hundred twenty-one quid short.”
She shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s in the interest payments,” he said, his accent now as fine as brandy. “You rounded down, whereas I rounded up.”
“To increase the payment.”
He didn’t bother to deny it.
She bit her lip. She didn’t have it. It was breaking her to give him this much. “How many more days work to pay that off?” This schedule was crippling her. She was the seamstress and co-owner of A Lady’s Favor dress shop, but she’d been skimping there to work here.
“One night,” he said softly.
“One night?” she gasped.
“In my bed.”
She reared back. Even knowing that he wanted her—he’d made no secret of his desire—had not prepared her for such an offer. One night. A hundred and twenty-one quid. Exorbitant. “I’m no whore. Not for you, not for Bernard, not for anybody.”
He reached for her face, his long finger smoothing her cheek. At first, she had hated that her skin prickled with awareness whenever he touched her, but it wasn’t his touch—or at least, not only his touch. When she was in the Demon’s presence there was danger, almost a visceral thrill, and she knew other people felt it too.
She flinched back.
He let his hand drop to his side, his lips curved in amusement. “Very well, then. Man the table every night for a month and—”
“No.” She couldn’t do that. She’d collapse. She was already so tired she struggled at the shop to see her own stitches. She caught herself just today sewing a line in a gown that weaved like a drunken sailor. “I’ll give you another option. Dinner. At my table. Every night.”
That would declare her as his mistress for all the world to see. She might not care for herself. What did it matter what the world thought so long as she knew the truth? But the toffs who came to the gaming hell would know. And they might tell their wives and their daughters to stop coming to the dress shop for their clothes. No one wanted a fallen woman sewing the dresses of their virginal debutantes.
So she and Damon set to dickering. The Demon seemed to like a good bout of bargaining. Sometimes, she did too. There was always a way to balance the scales that would work for both sides, but the exhaustion was wearing on her. She just wanted this done. In the end, she agreed to four
dinners and another seven nights as hostess in the gaming hell. At least he hadn’t demanded that she work at any of his half-dozen brothels.
Once the bargain was sealed, she turned to leave, but his words stopped her cold. He spoke casually, as if just remembering something. But Wendy knew it was a ruse. The Demon did nothing casually.
“I was sorry to hear about your lodgings. Where will you live now?”
She froze, feeling an icy shiver down her spine. “There’s nothing wrong with my home.” She and her mother had lived there for years since the building in which Wendy had spent her childhood had burned to the ground.
“Oh, perhaps I heard it wrong then.”
She turned, anger making her fists clench. “Tell me, Damon.”
He leaned back in his chair, a feral grin on his face. “I’m sure I heard it wrong—”
She spit out a curse, a word she hadn’t used in a decade. “I am too tired, Damon. What have you done to me now?”
He frowned, and for a moment he looked confused. As if he hadn’t realized that she was at the last of her strength. “It’s that blighter Lord Idston. He’s declared you unsuitable tenants.”
She shook her head. She and her mother were the
suitable tenants there! They paid their rent on time, brought some respectability to the building, and kept an eye on their neighbors.
Damon simply shrugged. “You should go home and check. But first…” He stood from behind his massive desk, moving with that grace he’d had since he was a small boy. She waited in silence, knowing he would tell her what he wanted in his own time. Demanding answers only made him draw out the tension simply because he could.
He stopped directly in front of her, his smile gentle—an obvious lie.
“I have a set of rooms that would work for you and your mama. Close by, but still safe. Just two blocks from here. It’s a grand sight more plush than what you’ve got now.”
She shook her head, wishing she could avoid getting deeper into this man’s clutches. The way he looked at her—like she was a sparkling prize set before him—was in its own way heady. No other man looked at her that way, and the Demon always made it easy to give in to his offers.
“I can show it to you. The rent’s fair, and I’d have my men help you move.”
“How fair?” she asked before she could stop herself.
He shrugged and named a reasonable rent given the location. But she just shook her head. “I don’t want to move from where we are. I don’t—”
Her words cut off as he stroked her neck. Again, he used only one finger, but the touch went from her jaw, down her neck, and to the edge of her bodice. A slow, feathered stroke so light she might not have noticed, except that she saw him do it. His eyes darkened, his nostrils flared, and she saw triumph in his gaze when she didn’t flinch away. How could she? If she weren’t looking right at him, she wouldn’t have been sure he touched her at all.
“You can’t seem to get ahead, can you?” he asked, his voice thick. “Just when your business begins to profit, your brother acts the idiot, your rooms get taken, and now you mistrust every boon as if it contained a hidden snake.” He shook his head. “But this one doesn’t. I have a place to let. You need one.”
“You do. Lord Idston will have served noticed to your mother this morning.”
She winced. “You did it. You made him do it.”
His arched his brows, his expression insulted. “I’m powerful, Wendy, but even I cannot predict the vagaries of the gentry.”
It was the way he said the word “powerful” that hit her. He slowed it down when he spoke, as if liking the taste of the word. She closed her eyes, cutting off the sight of his dark eyes and chiseled face. And in that moment—when her view was cut off—she felt a tingle in her left nipple. She gasped, her eyes flying open, but he simply stood there as if he hadn’t done anything.
“No,” she rasped as she backed away. “No!”
He smiled and shrugged, as if her answer meant nothing. The idea left her reeling. One minute she was his prize, the next she was less than nothing.
“As you wish,” he said. “Go home. See what your mother says. You can always come back to me. Though don’t dally. I can’t have the place standing empty on your pleasure.”
“I understand,” she lied. She didn’t understand any of what that man thought or did. And that was the worst of it. Because part of her truly did want to learn. After all, she was a woman six and twenty, never having been kissed by a man. Never touched the way a woman wanted.
Why not accept his moderately priced rooms? Why not have dinner with him? Why not spend one night in his bed for a hundred twenty-one quid? Then she would know what other women knew. Then she would understand the dark promise in his eyes.
But that way lay madness. And likely disaster.
So with a last shake of her head, she fled.
Radley Lyncott stood at the prow and closed his eyes. Weariness dragged at his body.
Moored at the London dock, he couldn’t hear his own thoughts, much less the soothing sounds of the sea, but he stood here nonetheless with Matthew beside him. The boy stood like a captain born, not an eleven-year-old cabin boy, and Radley couldn’t help but smile.
“You needn’t stay,” he said. “Your mother will be wanting to see you.”
“She’s busy,” was the boy’s terse reply.
Radley didn’t look at the boy, but he dropped a hand on the child’s shoulder. He felt the stiffness there and waited for the tension to ease. Then he spoke quietly enough for only Matthew to hear.
“Even whores love their children. And all ladies like receiving gifts. She made sure to give you a chance at life, Matthew. One that gives you a good future and a home on the sea. Don’t doubt her love just because you’re ashamed of her.”
Matthew’s shoulders tightened as he listened to Radley, but in time the boy’s shoulders sagged. “I’m not ashamed exactly.”
Radley didn’t answer. He had no right. After all, his parents loved him and had provided for him. There was no shame in his parentage—well, not for a few generations—and that made him one of the luckiest men alive. But he saw this struggle in many of his sailors—the shame and the hunger for a better past. “Show her how much of a man you’ve become, Matthew. Let her be proud of her boy.”
He felt Matthew twist to look at him. “You think so?”
The question was vague. Did Radley think he was a man? Did Radley think his mother loved him? Either way, the answer remained the same. “I do. Now go. I can’t leave until you do.”
The boy frowned. “But lots of captains leave the moment the watch is set.”
Rad shrugged. “Aye, but I’m not a captain yet. And this ship is a prize. Have to wait until Mr. Knopp tells me what to do with it.”
Matt straightened with pride. “You’ll captain it for sure, sir. You brought it in here limping along. No other man could do it better. Mr. Knopp’d be a fool to—”
“Yes, thank you,” he said, cutting off the boy’s rampant enthusiasm. The boy’s words were merely an echo of Radley’s private hopes. A captaincy. The chance to make his own fortune in his own way. He was more than ready for the challenge.
And while he shooed the boy off to see his mother, Radley’s thoughts turned to his own family. His father was gone now, so he had a mother, a sister, and a woman not yet his bride. She was almost more memory than real, a creation of nights spent dreaming. She had an elfin face and an adorably determined set to her jaw, and he’d wanted her since before she was old enough to be wanted by any man. Her name was Wendy Drew, and he had a fine gift for her in his gear.
It hadn’t been proper for him to court her before. And truthfully, he hadn’t wanted to brave his parents’ disapproval back then. But he was old enough now, as was she. And with a captaincy, he’d have the means to treat her as she deserved.