Darcy Burke

Excerpt: Insatiable

Book 8: The Phoenix Club

Chapter One

 

London, February 1816

“I…would like to participate in the Season.” Kathleen Shaughnessy perched on a chair in the drawing room of her brother’s house, her hands folded demurely in her lap and her gaze fixed placidly on her brother and sister-in-law who occupied the settee opposite. She knew her request would shock them, but that wasn’t why she was making it.

Her sister-in-law, Cassandra, or Cass as Kat, and most other family and friends called her, spoke first. “You would?”

“You’re surprised,” Kat said.

Cass’s dark brows arched briefly. “Given how vehemently you opposed attending nearly every Society event you were invited to last Season, yes, I’m surprised.”

Ruark, Kat’s older half brother and the Earl of Wexford, narrowed his blue eyes at her. “Why do you want to participate in the Season?”

Kat expected his skepticism. He knew her better than almost anyone and was well aware of her aversion to large social gatherings, because he cared to. She was not an easy person. Or so her mother told her.

There was no way she could tell him the truth, that it was the best, if not only, way she could conduct her research. What better place to observe human mating rituals than the London Marriage Mart? Actually, in the past, she would have told him precisely what she planned, but she’d learned that could get her into trouble. Besides, Ruark was married now with a child on the way, and she wouldn’t involve him in her schemes.

Schemes? That was something her and Ruark’s mother would say.

It was good their mother wasn’t here, that she’d allowed Ruark and Cass to take Kat in. Nothing Kat did was what her mother wanted or hoped for. Kat was far too interested in wildlife and documenting her observations in both writing and drawing. Mother would say, “You’ll never find a husband doing that.” To which Kat would respond, Then I won’t find a husband.”

Lifting a shoulder, Kat tried to appear indifferent while answering Ruark’s question as to why she wanted a Season. “It will make Mother happy.”

A sharp laugh bolted from Ruark’s throat. “That is not why you’re doing this, so don’t try to sell me that nonsense. Have you decided to wed?”

That seemed the best answer, and if she said yes, hopefully, he’d let the issue rest. “I’m considering it.”

“That is quite a change,” Cass said. Now her gaze had turned dubious.

Kat threw up her hands. “I thought it would please you that I wished to join the Season, but if you’re going to interrogate me and be suspicious, then perhaps I shouldn’t bother.”

Ruark waved his hand. “No, it’s fine. It’s quite good, in fact. You’re right that our mother will be pleased, especially since we had to convince her to let you return to London with us.”

“I don’t understand why she required persuasion,” Kat said. “My reputation in Lechlade isn’t exactly pristine.” That was because she’d moved on from observing the mating rituals of wildlife to humans and conducted an experiment in which she’d kissed a gentleman who was betrothed. Since he was already spoken for, Kat had deemed him the perfect research object. She certainly didn’t want to wed anyone.

However, despite Kat’s careful planning to kiss him in the dark garden at the assembly, they’d been seen. Mother had whisked her away from Gloucestershire before scandal could bloom. Not that it hadn’t taken root—indeed, while the gentleman was now wed to his bride, Kat was still not entirely welcome by everyone back home.

“It’s not ruined either,” Cass pointed out. “But I do understand why you prefer to be here.”

Kat loved London. After the “scandal,” her mother had dragged her here in order to marry her off. Instead, Kat had spent last Season with Ruark and his new wife, Cass. “There are endless entertainments,” Kat said. As well as a much higher likelihood of conducting her research more anonymously.

“Do you want to be presented to the queen?” Ruark asked. He looked to Cass. “Does she need to be?”

“Ideally, but it’s not completely necessary,” Cass replied. “Your mother ought to come for that, but I can act as sponsor.”

Kat’s insides somersaulted. “Must I? I don’t feel a need to meet the queen.” She offered them what was probably a tepid smile. Alas, it was the best she could muster. The thought of garbing herself in a ridiculously old-fashioned costume and curtseying to the queen was vastly unappealing in every way.

“If you’re invited to do so, you’ll have no choice, I’m afraid,” Cass said sympathetically. She was the best sister-in-law Kat could have hoped for. She was kind, witty, and incredibly supportive of Kat’s…quirks. She didn’t care that Kat didn’t enjoy dancing or shopping for clothing or that she adored museums and bookstores. She also didn’t harangue Kat if her fingers were stained from sketching or writing. “But we’ll do our best to keep you from drawing notice.”

“That means you’ll need to be on your best behavior,” Ruark said. “No clandestine meetings in gardens with gentlemen who are already betrothed.” His tone wasn’t one of scolding but of pleading.

Kat looked him in the eye. “I promise I will be a model of grace and propriety.”

“Then I suppose we must go shopping,” Cass said, smiling. Unlike Kat, she loved to visit the modiste. And the milliner. And everything in between.

“Must we?” Kat already knew the answer.

“I’ll have the modiste come here.” Cass gave her an understanding smile. “Would that make you more comfortable?”

Again, Kat appreciated her sister-in-law’s kindness. “Yes, thank you.”

“We’ve been invited to a soirée tomorrow evening,” Cass said. “Do you want to come with us?”

So soon? Kat had thought she’d have a few days to acclimate herself to the idea of being amongst crowds of mostly simpering people. While she wanted to do this for the sake of research, she also knew she’d be uncomfortable, at least some of the time.

“If you tire early, we can send you home in the coach,” Ruark offered. He knew Kat could grow weary of social events, especially large ones.

“Then yes, I’ll go with you.” Kat would make sure she was ready. She glanced toward Cass. “Surely I have something to wear that will suffice?”

“More than likely. If not, my maid may be able to alter something of mine.”

“Really?” Kat was a couple of inches taller than Cass’s five feet and four inches.

“Stenby is a master with a needle,” Cass assured her with a smile.

“That’s settled, then.” Kat started to rise, but the butler came in and announced they had a visitor—Lord Lucien Westbrook.

“Send him in, Bartholomew,” Ruark said.

Kat pressed herself back into the chair. If the guest had been nearly anyone else, she would have left. However, she liked Cass’s brother. Everyone did.

Lord Lucien was nearly thirty, two years older than her brother, Ruark, with dark hair, thick brows, and captivating sable eyes. Kat didn’t use that description—captivating—lightly. She employed it for certain animals she studied, those with an aura of confidence and demonstrable intelligence. It was sometimes difficult to gauge those attributes in a goat or a cow, but not impossible. Kat was nothing if not a patient and thorough observer.

It did not take patience to assess Lord Lucien. At first glance, he was aggressively attractive and charming. There was simply no ignoring the magnetism he possessed—everyone could sense it. If one couldn’t, they ought to make sure they were still breathing. Tall and white, he possessed alluring laugh lines around his eyes and mouth that lured all he encountered into his orbit. She tried not to fixate on the latter of his features and failed. Ever since the abysmal kiss with Hickinbottom, she’d focused on men’s mouths—well, some men’s mouths—and wondered if any of them could perform better. Or perhaps it was just that Kat hated kissing. She rather assumed that was the case, since every woman she’d asked about kissing had told her how thrilling it could be.

Could be.

And that was why Kat needed to conduct more research. So, it was perfectly fine that she was staring at the contour of Lord Lucien’s lips, at how the lower was slightly plumper than the upper. She licked her own lower lip as if to determine whether hers might be the same.

One of Lord Lucien’s brows ticked slightly up, his gaze fixing on hers for a fleeting moment. Had he noted her attention? Did that matter? Some would say yes, but Kat didn’t care about such things. She did have a good reason for studying him, and she’d tell him so if necessary.

Because she was inspecting him, she noticed something she hadn’t seen before—a faint pucker between his brows. Was he troubled about something? She’d presumed he was impenetrable to worry.

“I apologize for intruding,” Lord Lucien began, “but I’m afraid I need to speak with Wexford.” He gave his sister an apologetic glance.

“Phoenix Club business.” Cass pressed her lips together. “That I cannot be privy to.”

“Or me, apparently,” Kat added, not that she cared. Lord Lucien owned a popular membership club, and while it was probably the one place in London where Society gathered in which she felt most at ease, it was still typically full of too many people. But then she was only allowed to visit the weekly assemblies on Fridays during the Season because she was not a member and those were a crush.

As a young unmarried lady, she was not allowed membership. However, if she became a spinster, it seemed she could garner an invitation. If the membership committee deemed her appropriate. Or something like that. Kat didn’t follow the specifics very closely, not like Cass and her friends did. Her closest friend, Fiona, was married to another of Lord Lucien’s friends, Lord Overton. He was also involved in the club, as was Ruark. Which was why Lord Lucien was here. While Kat didn’t follow gossip or Society happenings, she was aware that there was some sort of scandal surrounding the club.

That had to be the source of Lord Lucien’s consternation.

“Forgive me,” Kat said, pinning her gaze on Lord Lucien. “Is something amiss with the club? I’m afraid I’m not up on the latest news.” They’d only just returned to London about ten days ago after spending the holidays and the entire month of January in Gloucestershire.

“It’s, ah, complicated,” Lord Lucien said.

Kat ticked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes. “Are you trying to say I wouldn’t understand? Or that you’d rather not share the particulars?”

“I would never insult your intelligence, Miss Shaughnessy,” he said quickly—and earnestly. “I rather assumed you would find this, dare I say, boring?”

He knew her that well? Perhaps he was also an excellent observer. He rose in her esteem. “Typically, yes, but I know how much this club matters to my brother and to Cass. And to you, I’m sure.”

He laughed softly. “Yes. It is of critical import to me. Unfortunately, there are problems.” He flicked a glance toward Ruark. “But I’m certain we’ll overcome them.”

Ruark frowned. “Did something else happen?”

Lord Lucien made his way to a chair angled near the settee where Ruark and Cass sat and lowered himself to the edge of the cushion, as if he didn’t plan to stay long. Or was, himself, on edge. “Evie left town today. She and Gregory are traveling to Oxfordshire where they will wed.”

Cass’s eyes sparked and her mouth rounded before spreading into a happy grin. “Truly?”

“Yes, and I convinced her to remain at the club.”

“Good,” Cass said firmly.

Evie—rather, Mrs. Renshaw, as Kat knew her—managed the Phoenix Club and was a close friend of Lord Lucien’s. Kat now recalled that she was the reason for the club’s current notoriety—or at least part of the cause. “Again, I haven’t paid close attention,” Kat said. “Why did you need to convince Mrs. Renshaw to stay?”

Ruark exhaled. “It’s a somewhat unseemly story. I’m sure Lucien would prefer we didn’t discuss it now. Cass can explain later.”

“Well, that makes me feel like a bothersome child,” Kat muttered. She rose. “I shan’t burden you with my presence, then.”

“Don’t be like that,” Ruark said, scowling. “You’ll lose interest halfway through the story. This isn’t the sort of thing you give two figs about.”

That was true, so why was Kat even asking? “You’re right. I suppose I was just trying to be supportive.” Her mother often told her she should take an interest in other people’s concerns, and once in a while, Kat remembered to do so. She started toward the door, stopping at Lord Lucien’s chair. “I’m sorry you’re having trouble with your club. I’m sure things will improve.” She offered him a smile before leaving the drawing room.

Kat climbed to the second floor, where her bedchamber was located, her mind quickly moving on from Lord Lucien and the Phoenix Club and returning to the matter foremost in her mind—her research. Tomorrow, she would attend the soirée and begin.

She’d start with observations as she normally did. However, she acknowledged the fact that she needed to once again insert herself in the investigation, just as she’d done back home in Lechlade. She’d make sure that this time there was no possibility of getting caught.

Closing the door behind her after entering her chamber, she went to her desk and opened a drawer to remove the most recent book she’d acquired. She retreated to the cozy chair near the hearth where she kicked off her slippers and sat, curling her feet beneath her in the manner that would draw her mother’s disapproval. “Kathleen, you’ll ruin your gown!”

Kat hardly thought wrinkles would ruin a garment, but that never stopped her mother from insisting so. Pushing thoughts of her mother from her mind, Kat opened the book, A Lady’s Guide to Matrimonial Duties. It contained mostly boring information about how to manage a household and behave socially, but there was a chapter on “Wifely Duties” that was pertinent to her research. It was, unfortunately, shorter than the rest of the chapters, but included several pages on how to be attractive to one’s husband and how to submit to him in the bedchamber. There were even a few illustrations.

The drawings were somewhat vague: a man and a woman embracing, lying together in bed, and finally, the man atop the woman as she stared up at him. The descriptions were more detailed as far as what was happening with certain body parts, but even they were lacking…something.

Something indescribable. Something Kat would have to experience for herself.

#

Lucien settled back in his chair despite the tension squeezing him from within. He glanced toward his sister and hoped she couldn’t see it. His agitation was from more than the problems with the club. A good portion of it was due to their bloody father. He and Lucien had always had a contentious relationship, but today, it had reached a new level of discord. While Lucien was typically able to shrug their interactions away, today’s would stay with him for quite some time. And he simply couldn’t think of it as just another quarrel.

“I’m glad you persuaded Evie to stay at the club,” Ruark said, interrupting Lucien’s thoughts, which he appreciated. “Not just because she belongs there, but how would you run the damn place without her?”

“That was not a small consideration.” Lucien snorted. “It wasn’t easy to get her to agree, but Gregory helped.”

Cass smoothed her skirt. “I’m so pleased they are to be wed. When she returns to London, she’ll be Lady Evie. Unless…” Cass hesitated. “Will she still go by the name Evie?”

Evangeline Renshaw wasn’t her real name. She’d been born Mirabelle Avenses in France during the Terror. Her mother had fled to England with Evie and her older sister and a maid, leaving behind their father, who’d been imprisoned. “Yes. The biggest news of the day is that her father has been found. After he was released from prison, he made his way here to find his family.”

Both Cass and Ruark leaned forward, their expressions rapt. “Extraordinary,” Ruark said in his Irish lilt, his blue eyes piercing with intensity. “How did that happen?”

“There’s a group here that works to reunite families separated in the Terror.” Lucien hadn’t been aware of them until today when Evie and Gregory had come to tell him the news on their way out of town. Lucien wasn’t going to tell Cass that their father was part of that group, that he’d helped to bring Evie and her father together because Lucien still couldn’t believe it was true. Their father, the Duke of Evesham, didn’t help anyone unless it served his self-interest. His actions raised the question of what he would gain.

Cass put a hand to her chest. “Evie must be overjoyed. I’m doubly thrilled for her—she’s found her father and she’s to be wed. I do hope that makes up for the scandal.”

The scandal was Evie’s past, that she’d been a courtesan before reinventing herself as widow Evangeline Renshaw and becoming the manager as well as a patroness of the Phoenix Club. She’d been Lucien’s mistress before he’d founded the club. When she wanted to retire, he’d offered her a job managing the club and suggested she leave town, then return as someone new. Someone who would have the respect of Society. So, she’d become a widow whose fictional deceased husband had been an old friend of Lucien’s.

“I don’t think anything can do that.” Lucien was still so angry that her secret had been exposed. All because a selfish, sniping member of the club—Lady Hargrove, another of the patronesses—didn’t like that her suggestions for members and other matters were usually ignored. She’d uncovered Evie’s past and had delighted in every detail being published in several newspapers.

“The gossip will fade,” Cass said with a confidence Lucien didn’t share. “Her marriage to Lord Gregory will help.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Cass’s brow furrowed, her sherry-colored eyes clouding. “Who are you? Where is my optimistic brother who can fix anything?”

Lucien exhaled, but it didn’t dispel his frustration. “I can’t fix this. Everyone knows about Evie.” The scandal had been publicized two days ago.

“And they know about you,” Ruark said in a low tone. “That you were her keeper.”

“I don’t care that they know that about me. You can’t think that matters? The news that I kept a mistress is neither surprising nor interesting, nor would it prompt people to resign from the club.”

“Have they?” Cass asked, her features creasing with worry.

Lucien nodded. He didn’t want to get into things too deeply, especially in front of Cass, who wasn’t part of the membership committee. Indeed, she’d only been a member since wedding Ruark. The club didn’t allow unmarried women unless they were firmly in their spinsterhood. That was one aspect Lady Hargrove had complained about. She found it unseemly that any unwed women were allowed at all. Hell, the entire notion of a membership club that included women was seen as unseemly by a great many people, and that was why the Phoenix Club wasn’t for everyone. If someone couldn’t support a diverse membership that included working men, unwed ladies, and all other manner of people who weren’t welcome at other membership clubs, they didn’t belong in Lucien’s club.

Lucien’s club.

He thought of it as his. Everyone recognized it as his. But the truth was that it didn’t belong to him. He only owned a minority share, and the majority, owned and controlled by the bloody Foreign Office which also employed Lucien, had the final say over the membership. The two anonymous members of the committee were their representatives, which was why they were unknown to the rest of the committee. Those remaining members were Lucien’s friends: Tobias Powell, the Earl of Overton; Dougal MacNair, the Viscount Fallin: and Ruark, plus Evie and the club’s bookkeeper, Ada Hunt, who was now Lady Warfield after marrying Lucien’s friend and fellow soldier, Max.

Ruark gave Lucien an encouraging look. “Those who resigned can’t be people we wanted anyway.”

They weren’t, in fact. They were people the Foreign Office had invited because they gave credibility and prestige to the membership roll.

Lucien was worried, however, that the departure of significant numbers of members would prompt others to leave—people they had chosen.

Cass rose, her attention on Lucien. “I am optimistic, even if you aren’t, that this will improve the club in the end, and this scandal with Evie will pass. I’ll leave you alone to talk, because I can see that you want to speak with Ruark.”

“Thank you.” Lucien gave her a grateful but fleeting smile. His siblings meant everything to him, though he and his older brother, the heir, had only managed to find a closer relationship within the last year. And now Constantine was a father, which had completely softened his harsher edges, and Lucien had been spared from being the spare.

Cass closed the door to the drawing room as she departed. Ruark stretched his arm across the back of the settee. “The number of resignations… It’s bad? Are we bleeding members?”

Bleeding… Lucien winced inwardly at that. The image dredged up memories—one in particular—of his time as a soldier in Spain. He shoved those away to the dark recesses of his mind where he’d mostly forgotten them. It was best that way.

“It was a dozen yesterday.” Which was more than Lucien had anticipated. “I expect double today as people likely gathered and discussed the matter last night.”

Ruark’s brows arched. “At the club?”

“There was hardly anyone at the club last night,” Lucien said sardonically. “I assume they discussed it wherever they were. It is the biggest gossip of the moment.”

“We stayed in last night, so I can’t offer any insight.” Ruark grimaced.

Lucien waved his hand. “I’m not asking for that. But I would appreciate you keeping your ears and eyes open going forward. I need to be able to mitigate this damage—if I can.”

“There are far more people who love the club and what it stands for than don’t. There is no other place where so many, myself included as a horrid Irishman, feel not just welcome but wanted. Inclusion and the idea of being chosen are almost primal in their effect.”

Ruark wasn’t wrong about that. Part of the reason Lucien had started the club was precisely for those sentiments. He’d often felt like an outsider because of the way his father favored his brother and sister.

“The anonymous people on the membership committee will not be happy that these members they suggested are fleeing en masse.” Lucien was already provoking their anger by refusing to expel Evie, which they’d demanded he do.

“Perhaps it’s time you expel them from the committee,” Ruark said darkly.

“I can’t.” Nor could Lucien tell Ruark the reason why. “They were…instrumental in the founding of the club. I may decide they should go, but I haven’t yet arrived there.”

The one person who knew that the Foreign Office was involved with the club, but not that they actually owned it, was Dougal MacNair, the new Lord Fallin. Dougal had also been a soldier in Spain, and he’d spent the last several years working in England as an agent for the Foreign Office. Until he’d left last year after becoming heir to his father’s earldom—and he’d also married.

They’d both been recruited in Spain, but Lucien’s appointment had come much sooner. He’d spied during the war until he’d been involved in a terrible incident. His friend Max had gone mad and retaliated against a squadron of soldiers for their brutal assault and murder of his betrothed. Lucien had covered up Max’s actions by planting a letter on the dead soldiers to prove they were involved in espionage. They’d both been wounded and sent back to England as heroes.

Lucien’s injury hadn’t been bad enough to warrant discharge, so he’d wondered if someone had somehow learned the truth of what happened. Back in England, Lucien’s work for the Foreign Office had included reviewing reports and overseeing domestic assignments, such as the ones Dougal undertook.

Then someone from the Foreign Office had approached Lucien about finding a place where people of varying backgrounds could gather and where Foreign Office business could be conducted in secret. Lucien had already begun thinking of starting a different kind of membership club that catered to the less welcome in Society. The mix of members and guests at the club would be the perfect situation for people to blend in and go unnoticed. So far, it had worked exactly as they’d conceived it.

But now the club was at the center of Society’s attention, feeding its hunger for gossip. The Foreign Office didn’t like that, and so the anonymous members had insisted Lucien expel Evie. Pushing her out would distance the club from the scandal. In hindsight, Lucien wondered why they hadn’t asked him to leave too. Perhaps because all of London saw the Phoenix Club as his, and his departure would only increase the cacophony of the rumor mill.

“I wish you didn’t feel beholden to them,” Ruark said, referring to the anonymous members.

Lucien wished he wasn’t beholden to them or the Foreign Office. He also wished he could tell his friends the full truth, but the Foreign Office was explicit in their instruction that no one must know of their ownership and involvement.

But someone else did know. Earlier that day, Lucien had gone to see his father, swallowing his pride and disdain for the man, to ask for a loan to buy out the Foreign Office. The duke had warned Lucien when he’d opened the club to never come to him asking for money if it was failing. But Lucien had no other choice, and the club wasn’t failing. It just wasn’t under his control. He didn’t want anyone to tell him who could or couldn’t work at or belong to his club. And it was, without question, his, even if he didn’t own the entire bloody thing.

Lucien was not surprised his father had refused to lend him money. However, he’d been shocked when his father had calmly told him he could not buy out the Foreign Office. When Lucien had pressed him about how he knew about that, he’d only answered vaguely, that he was a meddler, like Lucien.

They were nothing alike.

And how the hell did he know about Lucien’s deal with the Foreign Office?

“Lucien?” Ruark queried softly.

Blinking, Lucien refocused on his friend, who was staring at Lucien with concern.

“My apologies. I had a rather disappointing interview with my father earlier.”

“Is there any other kind?” Ruark asked with a smirk. He and the duke had been at odds before Ruark and Cass had wed. The duke hated that his daughter had fallen in love with an Irishman. Eventually, he’d come to accept Ruark, realizing it was a gift that his daughter had found love. Or so Cass had said. Lucien couldn’t believe their father would be that sentimental.

“No, there is not,” Lucien said, shaking his head. Normally, he could joke about his relationship with his father, but not today. “What I need for you—and Cass—to do is to try to keep the membership intact. If you hear of anyone who is considering leaving, convince them to stay. And spend as much time as you can at the club. The first assembly is in less than a fortnight, and if it isn’t well attended, I fear how it will affect the club.”

Ruark nodded. “I understand. We’ll do what we can. Cass is quite popular, as you know.”

“Yes, as is Con.” Their brother circulated in a different circle and hadn’t initially been a member of the club. Only through he and Lucien growing closer last year had that come about, and Lucien was glad to have him. “In fact, I should speak with him as soon as possible. He possesses the status and prestige to convince those members who might think of leaving because they fear for their reputation to stay.” Keeping those people would allow Lucien to argue to the anonymous members that retaining Evie wasn’t a detriment and that the club would still operate as it always would, as the Foreign Office expected and needed it to.

“You truly want those people to stay? Can’t say I’ll miss the Hargroves, for instance.”

“I do want some of them, but you’re right, there are a number who can go. Indeed, those who resigned yesterday are no great loss. Still, it doesn’t make the club look good, and in the end, the Phoenix Club is a business that employs many people.” Membership fees were based on a person’s economic status—they were not the same for everyone. The wealthier members made it possible for people with less to join, and Lucien didn’t ever want that to change. “It can’t fail.”

“It won’t,” Ruark vowed. “There are far too many people who will ensure its success. Surely you know how much goodwill you’ve sown? You help everyone, and I’m confident anyone you ask would help you in return.”

“I appreciate you saying that. However, I don’t see my aiding people as transactional. I don’t expect anything in return.”

“Don’t be obtuse,” Ruark said drolly. “People will do it for the same reason you do—because they want to.”

“I suppose.” Lucien stood. He needed to speak with Con next. After he went to the club and assessed today’s membership damage. “I’ll see you at the club tonight, then?”

Ruark also rose, rolling his shoulders back as he straightened. “Yes, but tomorrow, we’re taking Kat to a soirée. Can you believe she wants a Season?”

“No. She hates Society events.” Lucien had heard her say so plenty of times. The mention of Kat made him want to lick his lip. She’d been staring at his mouth and had licked her lower lip. It had been quite seductive—something he never would have expected from his friend’s sister. It was as if Lucien had seen her as a woman for the first time. And a very attractive one at that.

“She’s considering taking a husband.” Ruark sounded dubious. “I can’t believe that. But why else would she want a Season?”

Lucien shrugged. He was too consumed with his own problems to give that much thought. “It may be the truth. And now I get to watch you squirm as some jackanapes romances your sister.” He laughed tauntingly.

Ruark frowned. “I am not a jackanapes.”

“I thought so when you were running around stealing kisses and whatever else—oh, never mind, let’s not speak of it—with Cass last Season.”

“You expelled me from the club over it,” Ruark grumbled.

“You deserved it,” Lucien said. “Anyway, it wasn’t permanent.”

“Just long enough for you to recover from your fit.” Ruark smirked, and Lucien turned to go.

“I look forward to watching your fits.” Lucien put his hand on the door and looked back to Ruark. “Bring Kat to the assemblies. It was the place to be seen on the Marriage Mart last Season.” And Lucien needed it to be the same this year.

“That won’t be a problem. I believe the Phoenix Club is the one place she feels relatively comfortable. Pity she can’t be a member.”

If Lucien managed to gain full control of the club, perhaps she could. Allowing young unmarried ladies to be members would cause a cataclysmic stir, but Lucien felt certain they could set parameters, such as their sponsors or parents being members, that would be acceptable.

“You should come to the soirée tomorrow night,” Ruark said. “It might do you good to be seen out and about. Then you can also hear firsthand what people are saying. You say Cass is popular, but you are one of the most sought-after guests in London.”

“Only because I attend fewer events since opening the club.” Lucien let out a short laugh. “My infrequency of attendance has made me desirable.”

“It’s also a good opportunity to talk about Evie’s marriage to Lord Gregory. The sooner that’s spread about, the better, I should think.”

“Excellent point,” Lucien said, wondering why he hadn’t thought of that. “In fact, I should put a notice in the papers announcing their betrothal.”

Ruark moved toward him. “They won’t mind?”

“I can’t imagine they would, particularly when it will help Evie.” Would it, though? Lucien thought of Evie’s older sister, who’d also been a courtesan. She’d married her last protector, and they’d been shunned. It didn’t help that he came from a family whose fortune was made in trade. “It won’t hurt,” Lucien said firmly. “I’ll see you later. And thank you. You’re a good friend.”

Ruark clapped him on the shoulder. “I’m more than that, in case you’ve forgotten. I’m family.” He grinned at Lucien and walked him downstairs.

On his way out of the house, Lucien thought about that word: family. To him, that meant the people who supported him and with whom he enjoyed close, mutual bonds. It had nothing to do with blood. If it did, he’d think of his father as family instead of the man who’d just happened to sire him. For as long as Lucien could remember, he was never quite good enough in his father’s eyes, always falling short in some way, disappointing or irritating him. Before Lucien’s mother had died when he was fourteen, she’d often soothed Lucien’s hurt, telling him that his father’s words were harsher than his sentiment. And it wasn’t as if Lucien didn’t know he was demanding, even with Con and Cass.

But with Lucien, it was different. There was no discernible softness as he had for Cass, or pride as he showed for Con. For Lucien, he showed nothing but expectation and disdain, especially for the way in which Lucien cared for and helped others. Why, then, had his father gone to such lengths to help reunite Evie, a former courtesan he looked down upon, with her missing father?

Lucien hadn’t asked him when he’d gone to see him, not after the duke had shocked him with his knowledge of the Foreign Office’s role with the club. And certainly not after he’d once again shown his utter contempt for the Phoenix Club, basically telling Lucien, and not for the first time, that the place could burn to the ground before he’d offer help.

Lucien’s lip curled as fury raced through him. He’d never hated his father more.

Return to Insatiable

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