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Page 1

Chapter 1


He doesn’t have the ace.

Daniel Mackenzie held four eights, and he’d backed that fact with large stacks of money.

He faced Mortimer, who was ten years older and had a face like a weasel. Mortimer was pretending he’d just been given an ace from the young woman who dealt the cards at the head of the table, completing his straight. Daniel knew better.

The other gentlemen in the St. James’s gaming hell called the Nines had already folded in Fenton Mortimer’s favorite game of poker. The entire club now lingered to see the battle of wits between twenty-five-year-old Daniel Mackenzie and Mortimer, a hardened gambler. So much cigar smoke hung in the air that any consumptive who’d dared walk in the door would have fallen dead on the spot.

The game of choice at this hell was whist, but Mortimer had recently introduced the American game of poker, which he’d learned during a yearlong stint in that country. Mortimer was good at it, quickly relieving young Mayfair aristos of thousands of pounds. And still they came to him, eager to learn the game. Eleven gentlemen had started this round, dropping out one by one until only Daniel and Mortimer remained.

Daniel kept his cards facedown on the table so the nosy club fodder wouldn’t telegraph his hand to Mortimer. He gathered up more of his paper bills and dropped them in front of his cards. “See you, and raise two hundred.”

Mortimer turned a slight shade of green but slid money opposite Daniel’s.

“Raise you again,” Daniel said. He picked up another pile of notes and laid them on the already substantial stack. “Can you cover?”

“I can.” Mortimer didn’t dig out any more notes or coin, obviously hoping he wouldn’t have to.

“Sure about that?”

Mortimer’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying, Mackenzie? If you’d like to question my honor in a private room, I will be happy to answer.”

Daniel refrained from rolling his eyes. “Calm yourself, lad.” He lifted a cigar from the holder beside him and sucked smoke into his mouth. “I believe you. What have you got?”

“Show yours first.”

Daniel picked up his cards and flipped them over with a nonchalant flick. Four eights, one ace.

The men around him let out a collective groan, the lady dealer smiled at Daniel, and Mortimer went chalk white.

“Bloody hell. I didn’t think you had it.” Mortimer’s own cards fell faceup—a ten, jack, queen, seven, and three.

Daniel raked in his money and winked at the dealer. She really was lovely. “You can write me a vowel for the rest,” he said to Mortimer.

Mortimer wet his lips. “Now, Mackenzie . . .”

He couldn’t cover. What idiot wagered the last of his cash when he didn’t have a winning hand? Mortimer should have taken his loss several rounds ago and walked away.

But no, Mortimer had convinced himself he was expert at the bluffing part of the game, and would fleece the naive young Scotsman who’d walked in here tonight in a kilt.

A hard-faced man standing near the door sent Mortimer a grim look. Daniel guessed that said ruffian had given Mortimer cash for this night’s play, or was working for someone who had. The man wasn’t pleased Mortimer had just lost it all.

Daniel rose from the table. “Never mind,” he said. “Keep what you owe me as a token of appreciation for a night of good play.”

Mortimer scowled. “I pay my debts, Mackenzie.”

Daniel glanced at the bone-breaker across the room and lowered his voice. “You’ll pay more than that if ye don’t beat a hasty retreat, I’m thinking. How much do ye owe him?”

Mortimer’s eyes went cold. “None of your business.”

“I don’t wish to see a man have his face removed because I was lucky at cards. What do ye owe him? I’ll give ye that back. Ye can owe me.”

“Be beholden to a Mackenzie?” Mortimer’s outrage rang from him.

Well, Daniel had tried. He stuffed his winnings into his pockets and took his greatcoat from the lady dealer. She helped him into it, running her hand suggestively across Daniel’s shoulders as she straightened his collar.

Daniel winked at her again. He folded one of the banknotes he’d just won into a thin sliver, and slipped it down the top of her bodice.

“Aye, well.” Daniel took his hat from the slender-fingered lady, who gave him an even warmer smile. “Hope you can find tuppence for the ferryman at your funeral, Mortimer. Good night.”

He turned to leave and found Mortimer’s friends surrounding him.

“Changed my mind,” Mortimer said, smiling thinly. “The chaps reminded me I had something worth bargaining with. Say, for the last two thousand.”

“Oh aye? What is it? A motorcar?” The only thing worth the trouble these days, in Daniel’s opinion.

“Better,” Mortimer said. “A lady.”

Daniel hid a sigh. “I don’t need a courtesan. I can find women on me own.”

Easily. Daniel looked at ladies, and they came to him. Part of his charm, he knew, was his wealth; part was the fact that he belonged to the great Mackenzie family and was nephew to a duke. But Daniel never argued about the ladies’ motives; he simply enjoyed.

“She’s not a courtesan,” Mortimer said. “She’s special. You’ll see.”

An actress, perhaps. She’d give an indifferent performance of a Shakespearean soliloquy, and Daniel would be expected to smile and pronounce her worth every penny.

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