“Hellfire, that one’s got the luck of the devil tonight,” Andrew Wentworth, fourth Earl of Dartford, remarked to one of his companions. Andrew didn’t know the gentleman currently scooping up his winnings, but he was causing a stir.
His friend, Edgar Charles, nodded. “Never seen him before. You?”
Andrew shook his head. The gentleman looked young, his fresh face framed with dark sideburns that cloaked the upper edge of his jaw.
The banker, one of the fairer as far as gaming hells went, nodded toward the young man as he finished paying out his winnings.
The lad’s gloved fingers, slender and long—almost graceful—swept the bounty across the table and scooped it up. He stashed the profit inside his coat, perhaps in a pocket sewn into the lining. Everyone in the room would know exactly where to find it, should they wish to rob him outside.
Andrew glanced around at tonight’s visitors—young bucks and rakes, a few working men. He didn’t think anyone would accost the man, but he also doubted the fellow’s ability to defend himself. He was on the shorter side and a bit thick. His legs were long, however, so perhaps he could outrun trouble if necessity required.
Charles gestured toward the table. “Again?”
Andrew was more interested in this mysterious gentleman than in continuing his own play. But then gambling was not his favorite pastime, as it was Charles’s.
The banker called for the next round, and the unknown gentleman went in again, placing his bets on the various cards. It was a game of chance, yet the man looked as though he had a strategy. That alone was enough to pique Andrew’s curiosity. He watched as the round started up. Immediately, Charles began to lose heavily. The unknown gentleman, however, continued to have incredible luck.
By the end of the round, Charles was lamenting his misfortune. “Do save me from myself,” he said to Andrew and the rest of their group.
It was a commonplace plea from their friend, and one of the reasons they ventured forth as a group. Each had their vice and relied on the others to keep them in check. Except for Andrew. His only vice was that he’d rather be out, be doing…anything but staying home alone.
Was that really a vice?
Of course it wasn’t. For Andrew, though, it might be termed a compulsion.
The portly young gentleman appeared to be without company, which was odd, and not just because Andrew would never dream of spending an evening thus. Again, he scooped up his winnings, but Andrew noted he stashed them in a different pocket within his coat.
Horace, the banker, looked up at the young man. “You finished?”
The man nodded. “Thank you, sir.” His voice was surprisingly deep, with a hint of gravel.
Horace grinned, revealing a gold tooth. “Come back soon. I need a chance to win my money back.”
The stranger’s mouth tugged into a half smile, but he quickly masked it. Though not before a flash of awareness curled up Andrew’s spine. There was something about him…
The lad turned and left the salon. Charles was still bemoaning his losses, but their friends had rallied around him. It was time to go. Knowing they would be right behind him, Andrew quickly departed.
He strode to the entry hall, where the burly footman was just showing the unknown gentleman out. Andrew nodded at the footman as he moved outside and followed the man down the short flight of stairs to the pavement. The man moved at a sprightly pace, differently than Andrew would’ve thought given his girth.
“‘Evening,” Andrew said. “I’m Dartford.”
The man turned, but his features were shadowed by the brim of his hat and the fact that the streetlamp was behind him. “‘Evening.” His low, almost steely voice caught Andrew off guard even more than it had inside. There was something…off.
Curiosity burned through Andrew. “It would be polite of you to introduce yourself as I’ve done.”
“Ah, of course.” He coughed. “Smith.”
Andrew moved so that the man had to turn, which brought him into the splash of light from the lamp. “Indeed?”
He gave Andrew a furtive glance, his long, dark lashes sweeping down over his eyes. “Davis Smith.”
“Pleased to meet you. Come, meet the others.”
Smith tipped his head up, and his eyes widened briefly. “Others?” He looked down at the street and tugged at the brim of his hat.
Andrew nodded toward his small group of friends as they joined them on the pavement. “Gentlemen, meet my new acquaintance, Smitty.”
Pleasantries were exchanged, and then Roderick Beaumont, a young viscount whose preferred vice was that of the flesh, looked around at everyone. “Another hell, or is it time for Mrs. Longley’s? I’m sure you know my vote.” He grinned, and there was no doubt he would end up at his favorite brothel—either now or at some point later.
“Longley’s,” Charles said. “I can’t afford another hell tonight.”
The group consensus was quickly made—Longley’s was their destination.
As they started along the street, Andrew looked at Smith. “You should come along with us.”
“To a brothel?” His deep voice had climbed a bit on that last word.
Andrew laughed. “Why, Smitty, are you a virgin?”
“No.” The answer came too swiftly to be believed.
“Then you should definitely…come.” Andrew looked at the young man’s face to see whether he registered the double entendre, but there was no indication.
“I don’t think so. I need to get home.” Smith turned from him and started to walk away.
Andrew caught the shadowed movement near the hell they’d just left. He reached out and snagged Smith’s arm, drawing him back. What he felt beneath the sleeve was soft but not fleshy. And the gentleman was not as heavy as he looked, for though Andrew hardly exerted any effort, the man came crashing into Andrew’s side. His head tipped back, and the full illumination of the lamp spilled over his features.
Those ink-black lashes curled away from moss-laden hazel eyes, and the gasp that leapt from the too-supple lips gave the man away completely.
“Damn me,” Andrew breathed. He kept his hand firmly clasped around the woman’s elbow and tugged her along with him as he followed his group of friends.
“I’m not going with you.” Her voice had gone low again as she yanked the brim of her hat down.
“You’ve no choice.”
She tried to pull free of his grip. “You can’t force me.”
Andrew stopped, and she nearly tripped. He held her upright. “Should I let you wander off alone? There’s a man—perhaps more than one—waiting for you back by the hell. He’s probably going to rob you, and when he finds out you’re a woman, I daresay he’ll do far more.”
She gasped again, and this time when she looked up at him, her face was scrunched into a scowl. “How did you know?”
“I’m very observant.”
“Damn.” She brushed her fingertips against what had to be fake sideburns glued to her face. “I worked so hard.”
She probably would’ve succeeded too, if Andrew hadn’t taken an interest in her. But he was glad he had, or she might find herself in dire straits indeed. “Come on.” He pulled her along again, but she tried to resist.
“I am not going to a brothel.” She didn’t bother lowering her voice anymore, but it was still deeper than most women’s. It possessed a dark, raspy quality that stirred Andrew’s interest. The curiosity he’d felt at the hell intensified.
“What the devil were you doing in a hell?”
She looked up at him, blinking, with a saucy curve to her mouth. “Winning.”
He laughed, loud and boisterous. He liked her instantly, even if she was as foolish as she was alluring. Alluring? Yes, because any woman who would dare to venture into a gaming hell alone was a mystery Andrew wanted to unravel.
The small group of men stopped at the street corner. Charles called back, “Dart, you coming?”
Andrew started forward, but she dug in her heels. He backed up and looked at her. “We aren’t going to the brothel, but I need to part ways with them. Just follow my lead.”
This time when he moved ahead, she went with him. Still, he sensed her reluctance. He let go of her as they approached his friends.
He gave them all a jovial grin. “Smitty and I’ve decided to find another game. Perhaps his luck will rub off on me.”
Beaumont snorted. “As if you need it. You’re one of the luckiest bastards I know.”
Not always and not when it mattered, but Andrew wouldn’t illuminate them. “See you tomorrow.”
“I’ve got quite a wager on you,” Charles said, his dark gaze piercing him. “Don’t let me down.”
Andrew grinned. “When’s the last time I lost?”
Charles smiled in return. “Never. But there’s a first time for everything.”
“Do me a favor.” Beaumont dug around in his coat and beckoned for Andrew to come forward. “Have your friend there place a bet for me. I want some of his luck too.” He tossed a few guineas into Andrew’s hand.
Andrew tucked the coins into his coat. “Now do me a favor and don’t allow the fair Mrs. Longley to abuse you overmuch.”
Beaumont flashed a toothy smile. “But I like that.”
Andrew rolled his eyes as he turned back to Smith, or whatever her name was. Only she wasn’t there.
He turned his head to look up and down the streets. They were at an intersection, so she could’ve departed any number of ways. Silly chit.
One of his friends pointed down the street they’d just come to. “He went that way. Looked like he was in a hurry. Maybe he’d rather be alone. Just come with us, Dart.”
Not a chance. He looked back toward the hell, trying to discern if the man in the shadows was still there or if he was even now tracking down the enigmatic and excessively foolish young woman. “Thank you, but I must catch up to Smitty. Beaumont’s counting on us.” He tossed them a careless grin in the hope that they would just continue on their way.
Thankfully they did just that, and Andrew turned in the direction she’d gone. He walked quickly, his gait devouring the pavement in his haste. He scanned both sides of the street, reasoning that she had to have ducked in somewhere or turned a corner, because he couldn’t see her.
He detected something moving across the street and craned his neck to see if he could make it out in the shadows. Then he heard the cock of a pistol behind him, and he froze.
Very slowly, he turned, his hands outstretched. He carried a blade in his boot when they visited the hells. He’d whisk it out if necessary…
He exhaled because it wasn’t necessary. Smith—the young woman—glared at him from the alleyway he’d neglected to check while he’d studied the opposite side of the street.
“Stop following me.” Her words came out in a near growl. He was impressed with just how dark and fierce she could sound.
He inclined his head toward the pocket pistol in her hand. “Do you know how to use that?” He was surprised to find that she was armed, but at least she hadn’t been quite as foolish as he’d thought.
“Of course I do. And if I had a sword, I’d know how to use that too.”
He appreciated her bravado but wondered if she was exaggerating her abilities. “So you’re a gentleman in every way but the most”—his gaze dipped down her body—“fundamental.”
She scowled at him again. “Just turn around and go on your way. Catch up to your friends. It sounded as if you have quite an evening planned.”
Andrew dropped his hands to his sides and took a step toward her. He froze again as she aimed the gun at his chest. “I only want to help you, see you home at the very least. I mean you absolutely no harm. Wouldn’t I have taken advantage by now?”
She lifted a shoulder. “Rather difficult when I’m the one with the deadly weapon.”
He let a smile open his lips. “Just so.” He tried another tack. “Where are you going now?”
“None of your business.”
“I’d still like to offer my assistance—wherever you’re going. Please, I don’t know that I’d forgive myself if I let you go off alone into the night, even with a pistol at the ready. You can trust me. Will you?”
Her gaze was shrewd, skeptical.
A movement down the street lured Andrew’s attention. He couldn’t know if it was whomever he’d seen lurking outside the hell, but he wanted to get her away from this area. “Come on.” He grabbed the arm that wasn’t holding the pistol and turned her away from the man down the street. “We need to go.”
She wrenched her elbow free. “Don’t touch me. I could’ve shot you.”
“Doubtful. You’ll need to work on your reflexes as well as your distance. You were much too close. I could’ve overpowered you at any moment.”
She made a deep sound in her throat—somewhere between a dark laugh and a cough. He found it oddly enticing. “Then why didn’t you?”
“I’m not that sort of man.” He glanced over his shoulder and saw that the man was coming toward them, but not quickly enough to seem like a pursuit. Still, Andrew wanted to quit the street. “Let’s move. Where are you going?”
She started walking, straightening her spine as she moved. “I’m not telling you.”
He groaned. “I hope you aren’t married. If you are, I’ll need to have words with your husband, and then I shall extend my extreme condolences on his choice of wife.”
“Of course I’m not married, you imbecile.” She said this with such heat and vigor that he was sure he’d struck a nerve. Curiosity assailed him once more, but he didn’t pursue the topic.
“Are you going to tell me where we’re going? I’d like to move away from this neighborhood.” He glanced behind him once more and saw that the man had crossed the street and seemingly had no interested in them. Andrew relaxed slightly, but—noting that she hadn’t answered him—began to weary of her stubbornness.
He pulled her into the nearest alley, where he disarmed her. He turned so that she backed up against the brick wall. He loomed over her, frowning, and drawing a breathy gasp from her. “Confound it, woman. I’m helping you whether you like it or not.”
“I don’t like it one bit.”
He pressed the pistol back into her gloved hand and leaned forward, catching the barest hint of her fragrance. It was soft, and tellingly feminine with floral tones. How had he missed that before? Because he hadn’t been this close. “Will you trust me?”
He nearly laughed at the sudden ridiculousness of the question. For in that moment, with her body so near and the sound of her agitated breathing filling his senses, he wasn’t entirely certain he trusted himself.Return to The Duke of Daring