Early Spring London 1818
Raithe, the Baron of Balstead, watched as his last two victims walked through the door. Good. They were all here.
He’d carefully chosen this cast of characters, his soon-to-be house guests. He needed them for a very particular purpose, though he had no intention of telling them what that purpose was.
This was a situation where it was best to lie.
He found many situations were that way. Not all of them, of course. But here, at his gentlemen’s club, where drinking and gambling were the primary activities, it was all about the bluff. Just to his right sat three friends. Lord Dashlane, Lord Crestwood, and Lord Craven. They were his first three potential…guests.
Craven was one of the few men in England that actually frightened him a bit. Quiet and sullen, he was also tall and well-muscled. He looked quick as a snake and equally as deadly. Then there was Dashlane, blond with a flashing smile, he was a charmer, to be sure. Crestwood was dark-haired and handsome. All three liked their fair share of women and liquor but he’d seen them defend a group of harlots that another band of ruffians had attempted to rob and that put these gents on his list.
“Are you going to tell us what this is about?” Dashlane asked, bringing his whisky to his lips.
“In a minute,” he answered, holding up a finger. A wide range of patrons/guests crowded the club tonight, seats limited, which worked for him. His last two players had entered the club but hadn’t picked him out of the crowd yet.
The Duke of Rathmore made his way through the mash of people and stopped directly in front of Raithe. Rathmore turned to his cousin and best friend, Lord Hartwell. “Don’t you love the smell of leather, cigars, and good whisky?”
Hartwell rolled his eyes. “I prefer brandy, and thank goodness we missed the speaker,” he quietly announced as he brushed back his rich brown hair. “I’ve no appetite for politics today.”
Rathmore raised his brow. “What’s gotten into you?”
“Charlie.” Hartwell grimaced, his mouth tightening.
Raithe’s insides tightened. Charlie was short for Charlotte, Lady Charlotte Rainsville. She was Rathmore’s cousin and Hartwell’s sister. As vivacious as she was beautiful, she’d come out the season before. Fearless and outspoken, many had said she should have been born a man.
Not that her strong personality stopped her from garnering male attention. In fact, Charlie had been the premiere debutante last season with droves of men following her about, but she’d yet to choose a husband. Raithe had not been one of those men. He stayed away from respectable girls as a general rule and Charlie in particular. Something about her beauty made her difficult to even look at. A man might lose his head and he couldn’t afford to do that now.
“Are you worried for the upcoming season? I know you were beating men off with sticks and clubs.” Rathmore chuckled.
Hartwell’s grimace turned into a full-on spasm. “Worried doesn’t begin to cover how I feel. And sticks and clubs were the least of the needed weapons. I had two incidents that involved a sword and one that required a pistol.”
Chase clapped his cousin on the back. “I’ll help you.”
Hartwell gave him a light shove. “You said that last year too. But we both know you’re too busy to help me keep Charlie out of trouble.”
“Busy doing what?” Raithe asked, a light grin playing at his lips. He knew full well what sorts of illicit pastimes the duke engaged in that kept him occupied.
Both men turned to look at him. Hartwell appeared leery while Rathmore crossed his arms over his chest. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“I didn’t sneak.” His grin broadened. “I’ve been sitting here the entire time. Isn’t that right, Dashlane?”
“Are they who we’re waiting for? Can we get on with it then?” Dashlane cracked his knuckles. “I’ve got a lovely brunette waiting for my attention.”