Beyond Scandal and Desire (Sins for All Seasons #1)(8)

By: Lorraine Heath

“Although it’s quite possible you saw me in passing at the Cerberus Club. It seems to be a crossroads for the various stations in life, a place where the upper and lower classes don’t mind mingling because their common interests override all else.”

“Hardly likely I’ve seen you there, as I haven’t garnered a membership.”

Mick was well aware Kipwick had been making inquiries about the club, knew he’d never been. The establishment was merely a lure, the first step in guiding the earl toward his downfall. “Membership isn’t required. Merely a hefty purse.”

He was acutely aware of the earl coming to sharp attention. Disappointment washed through him. He’d anticipated a bit of a challenge, had hoped Kipwick would at least resist being led to slaughter. Nothing in Mick’s life had ever come easy. He didn’t want revenge handed to him on a silver platter without his having worked for it.

“To be honest,” Kipwick said hesitantly, “I wasn’t certain the place truly existed. No one of my acquaintance has ever admitted to spending time at the gaming hell.”

“I’m not surprised. Most of the aristocrats who frequent the place have been barred from the more respectable clubs. Admitting to frequenting Cerberus hardly improves one’s reputation.”

“You think I’ve been barred?”

The cutting edge to his voice indicated he’d been insulted. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so easy after all. “No, my lord. I was trying to offer a suggestion for where we might have possibly crossed paths. You strike me as a man with a keen intellect who would have success at the tables, and a bit of an adventurer who might be in search of various types of entertainment. I suspect you bore easily.”

“You deduced all that from a chance meeting?”

No, he’d deduced it all from months of research, but he needed to squelch the earl’s suspicions. “Quite right. Simply because I enjoy the more daring environs doesn’t mean all men do.” Especially ones who were spoiled and pampered, who’d lived in privilege, a privilege Mick should have enjoyed, at least partially. A proper school, proper house, proper food, proper clothing. He didn’t mind making his way as a man, but as a boy he shouldn’t have had to do the things he’d done to survive. However, he didn’t allow the seething fury to rise to the surface, to inhabit his stance or his voice. “My apologies for believing we had something in common.”

“I didn’t take offense. I’m merely curious about your knowledge.”

And apparently not very trusting. He wondered at that. “You come from a storied family. I’ve read accounts in the papers.”

“You pay attention to all families?”

“I pay attention and remember everything. I’m a businessman. I never know where an idea or opportunity for a new venture might appear. I’m also very skilled at quickly judging a fellow’s worth, so I don’t take on an investor I ought not.”

“Now, I must be the one to apologize. I have on occasion had men strive to take advantage of my position. It makes one wary.”

“It is always good to approach strangers with caution.”

Kipwick scoffed. “These were friends. Or so I thought. I must admit to being curious about the Cerberus Club. But as I understand it, its location is a closely guarded secret.”

Mick shrugged negligently. “Meet me at the entrance to these gardens tomorrow night at ten and I’ll take you there.”

The earl’s mouth shifted up into a smile. “I may just do that.”

He would do it. His debt had caused him to lose his membership in one gentlemen’s club, and he was on the cusp of losing it in another. The earl had a penchant for gambling when he ought not, for raising the stakes when the odds were not in his favor. Apparently he was an atrocious cardplayer, unable to divine when fortune had turned against him.

An explosion rent the stillness of the night and only then did Mick notice the red and green blossoms filling the sky. He heard Fancy’s startled gasp. She no doubt didn’t remember he’d shown her a fireworks display when she was four. Sitting on his shoulders, she’d cheered with glee then, her enthusiasm knocking aside his hat. Now she clapped with a bit more decorum but her elation wreathed her face.

What surprised him was how delighted Lady Aslyn appeared. He’d had to shift his stance slightly and inconspicuously in order to still view her profile. With the colored flares dancing over her features and the brightness of her smile, she was beautiful in a way he’d overlooked before. Childlike in her joy. He was suddenly struck by how young she appeared, not much older than Fancy. Innocent. He suspected she’d never sinned in her life.