UNMASKED BY A DEVIL
Zachariel Deville thought life had not taken a turn for the better as of late. He was listless, something he rarely experienced. He was currently wandering aimlessly down a street toward an unknown destination, pondering his life.
“Hand over your money.”
Two men appeared before him, and Zach could make out the glint of a knife blade in the weak lamplight.
“And if I say no?” he enquired, settling his weight evenly on the balls of his feet.
“Then we’ll slice you and take it anyway,” one of them said.
Even in the gloom, Zach could make out the larger bulk of the man speaking. The other was leaner but no less mean.
“Well then, you leave me no choice.” Zach kicked out with his left leg and dislodged the knife the bigger man held. “Much better, now we’re even,” Zach said.
Zach felt a surge of energy as the men rushed him. This had been missing in his life as of late. Excitement. He jabbed with his right and then swung with his left, and the first man fell. The second followed shortly. Looking down at the crumpled forms, he noted they were still breathing. Stepping over them, he walked on.
“Well now, nothing like a little altercation to get the blood flowing,” Zach said as he took stock of his surroundings.
He’d left a soiree when boredom had forced him from the Lester home and had started walking aimlessly. His brothers had not been in attendance, and for the first time in many years, none of the beautiful young women there had managed to lift his lethargy.
Looking at the road he was currently heading down, he noted it was close to the gambling establishment he and his best friend Warwick Sinclair often frequented. Had often frequented, he amended. He hadn’t been there in months. In fact, he’d not been to many of the places he and his friend had once ventured into regularly.
And doesn’t that make me a maudlin individual.
And therein lay the first reason for feeling dissatisfied with life. Warwick had recently come to the realization he loved a woman he’d known since childhood, and consequently, they were now wed. His friend spent his evenings with his love. Which was entirely understandable but unfortunately left Zach rudderless.
He was happy for Warwick, really. It was just that suddenly he seemed the only person in his life who was not in love. Which said what about him?
“Am I unlovable? Or am I incapable of love?” As no one answered, he kept walking.
His brothers, three of them, and a cousin, were also now living in connubial bliss. Sighing at his family’s situations and his inability to lift the fog of malaise that was currently cloaking him, he reached the corner of the street where a large brick building stood. Several stories high, it had ivy choking it from two sides.
Zach thought he may as well win some money. That could improve his spirits now the initial rush of excitement after the fight had faded. Plus, Mr. Thompkins always had the best brandy, which was brought in from the coast, where it was smuggled into England from France.
Zach knew a great deal about people.
He knocked on the front door and waited. It opened, and the large, brute of a man standing there allowed him entry. A prizefighter before coming to work with Thompkins, the goliath was a gentle soul but had the appearance of a bear, which was often all that was needed to dissuade those who wanted to cause trouble from doing something they would usually regret in the clear light of day.
“It’s my hope your evening is going well, Pollock?” Zach asked the man.
“Very well, thank you, sir.”
Zach walked down the long, narrow hallway after depositing his hat and greatcoat and through another door. The noise hit him from all sides. The clink of glasses, sounds of raised voices. The aromas of spirits, perfume, and body odor mingled to fill the air with the familiar scents of both desperation and elation. A few hours here and he could go home and fall into bed to rise tomorrow and repeat the entire process.
When had his life become so unfulfilling?
Decorated in the deep rich colors of green and burgundy, the room was opulent with gilt mirrors and gold trimmings.
“Good evening, sir.”
“Mr. Thompkins.” Zach nodded.
Short with small, round, wire-rimmed spectacles, Thompkins had not a stitch of hair on his head. Always immaculately presented, he looked like a solicitor and in fact was a shrewd businessman who’d started this establishment some ten years ago.
“How is Mrs. Thompkins?”
“Very well, sir. She is to have our first child any day now.”
“I shall look forward to hearing about the arrival.”
Zach’s eyes scanned the tables for one that he wanted to sit at, with the faint hope that idiots were not seated there. He recognized most of the men. He stopped searching when he saw the lady at a table with six men, one of which was Lord Plunge. He’d never seen the man at a gambling establishment before.
“Who is that woman, Mr. Thompkins?”
Not overly tall, she wore a black turban, and her face was covered with a veil. If it was not unusual enough to see a woman gambling here, the veil only added to that. Interest stirred inside Zach.
“Madame Lucienne. This is her second visit. She’s French and has created quite the stir, as our clientele are mostly gentlemen. But she was insistent she play, and after some discussion, I agreed for now. It is not something we nurture, you understand. A woman should not be in such a place, but then she is French, and Lord Plunge vouched for her,” Mr. Thompkins said, sounding like it was a crime she should be tried and hung for.
“Is there a rule concerning women gambling here?” Zach asked.
Thompkins frowned. “We’ve never needed one before, sir.”
“I’m sure her money is as good as the next man’s,” Zach said.
“She certainly has a great deal of it to throw around,” Thompkins said. “I heard she is a widow. Her husband died recently and left her a great deal. There was also the rumor that she is a famous courtesan, hence the veil, as she has no wish for any of her wealthy clients to recognize her.”
People sometimes forgot just how much Thompkins saw and heard. He could be a very dangerous man if crossed.
“I’m sure it is a fleeting thing, and soon she will leave and the memory of a woman inside these hallowed walls will fade.”
Thompkins frowned. “I’ve had a few complaints, but as Madame Lucienne has lost a great deal of money, the men are willing to tolerate her for now.”
“Excellent, now if you will excuse me, I shall find a seat,” Zach said.
He wasn’t sure why she intrigued him, but just looking at her had something stirring inside him that he labeled anticipation. Odd. Not much excited Zach like that these days.
His eyes went to the others at her table and watched Plunge laugh like a braying donkey.
“Mr. Robertson is leaving, sir, if you would like a seat?” a waiter said as he approached the table the Frenchwoman sat at.
“Thank you. I will.” Zach moved to place a hand on the back of the now-empty seat as Sir Giles North stepped up to claim it. “Sorry,” he said with a lack of sincerity. North glared and then walked away.
He was now across from Madame Lucienne and on a slight angle from Plunge. Both looked up at him. He couldn’t tell what the woman was thinking through the veil, but Plunge frowned briefly. It was such an odd expression from the man who the majority of the time walked about smiling like a fool and spouting ridiculous sentences that made Zach want to punch him. He was, to Zach’s mind, a nobleman with too much money and too few brains.
“Plunge,” Zach grunted.
“Mr. Zachariel Deville!” Plunge got off his seat and stumbled in the ridiculous heels he insisted on wearing. He only just managed not to go down by grabbing the back of the chair of a man behind him.
“I say, Plunge, have a care!” the man said as his chair rocked.
“Oh, do forgive me, Lord Cavalier.” Plunge righted himself and bowed. He then straightened the lapels of his pink satin jacket and tweaked the lace that hung from his cuffs.
“Effeminate fool,” Zach muttered.
“We find such dress very inspiring in my home country, sir. You English are a staid lot with little flair for fashion.”
She’d spoken in French, and her tone was a deep, husky purr that had Zach’s body stirring to life. He could smell her. The scent was thick but not cloying. An elusive musk that seemed to wrap around him.
“My dear Madame Lucienne.” Plunge fell back into his seat at her side. “Please allow me to introduce you to Mr. Zachariel Deville, one of society’s most sought-after bachelors. His eldest brother is the Earl of Raine—”
“Yes, thank you, Plunge, that will do.” Zach cut him off before he could recite his entire family history.
“Madame Lucienne.” He bowed and then sat.
“Mr. Zachariel Deville.” She lowered her head once.
She wore a deep shade of gray, which would give some credence that she was in mourning. The fabric shimmered when she moved her shoulders. The dress was cut low at the bodice and showed an enticing amount of flesh. The curves of her soft, pale breasts rose above the material. The sleeves were capped and exposed long, slender limbs. Her gloves reached her elbows, and around one wrist was a band of rubies and diamonds. Zach knew jewels, and with just a look, he could tell it was extremely valuable.
Perhaps here sat the very person Zach needed to pull him from his mood. A distraction. If she was a widow and wished for a dalliance, he could provide it. Of course she was also in mourning, and therefore, she could conceivably have loved her husband, and yet he doubted she’d frequent a gambling establishment if she was broken-hearted.
“How long have you been in London, Madame Lucienne?” Zach asked as his cards were dealt.
“I have been coming here for many years.” She turned her head slightly so he could only see the side of her veil covered face.
He wanted to see her. The urge to reach across the table and raise that veil had his hand clenching.
“Lord Plunge has been keeping me company.” This time she spoke in heavily accented English.
That surprised him. He’d never known anyone who willingly kept company with the man. Except Mary. Lately, she appeared to have formed an attachment that Zach could not understand. Just thinking her name made him want to snarl. The woman had been a sharp, pointy thorn in his side for years. Mary Blake had a mouth that could eviscerate a person in seconds. The stab of pain under his rib had him rubbing it. Just thinking about her made him uncomfortable. He’d never understood why she’d evoked such a strong reaction in him.
“Are you unwell, sir?”
He shook his head at her words.
“Quite well, thank you, madam.”
The cards were dealt.
“I heard that Robertson has not offered for Miss Wright as was expected, which leaves the playing field open for us, Deville,” Sir Simon Hampton said to his right.
“Perhaps Miss Wright may have no wish to wed either of you?” Madame Lucienne said.
Hampton laughed. A simple fellow with a pleasant enough manner, Zach had never had an issue with him other than he had a feminine giggle, which could not be helped as he’d been born with it.
“You jest, Madame Lucienne.” Hampton scoffed.
“Do you believe all men with a title and fortune are irresistible to women, Sir Simon?”
Her tone was pleasant enough, but Zach had a feeling she was far from amused.
“It is the aim of a woman to wed just such a man,” Hampton said, looking smug.
The slender hand that reached for her cards stopped and curled into a fist. Zach was right—Madame Lucienne was not impressed.
“And why is that do you believe?” she asked.
Hampton glanced at Zach and the other men at the table.
“As you clearly have no answer, allow me to enlighten you,” she said, unclenching her fist.
She wore two rings. One a large ruby, the other a gold band that was engraved with words that he couldn’t make out.
“Men have made it such in this world that women have no recourse but to wed for money. They rarely find love or even respect in a husband. It is purely and simply a business transaction for them.”
“Oh come now—”
“Men have the control, sir.” She cut Hampton off. “Women have none, and men like it that way because if the opposite were true, they would not cope with the fact that women are in fact the superior species.”
Zach wanted to see her face and the fire that was now in her eyes. The woman was in a towering rage was his guess, and he was desperate to get close to her. He needed to know the color of those eyes and if her lips were bow-shaped or the top one heavy. What color was her hair?
Hampton laughed along with the other men at the table. Only Zach, Plunge and Madame Lucienne did not.
“You cannot be serious. Clearly a woman needs a man to direct her, or she will be lost,” Hampton said.
“Don’t you live with your parents, Hampton?” Zach asked.
“Of course,” he said, like that was obvious.
“So your mother runs your household. Your staff feed you and ensure your life flows smoothly, most of whom are women. What is it you actually do, Hampton?”
The silence that settled at the table after Zach’s words was so loud, others seated nearby looked their way.
“I am a man!” Hampton stated loudly. “As such it is a woman’s job to see to my needs.”
Madame Lucienne spat out a volley of French insults before rising. “Excuse me, I shall return shortly.”
Zach watched her leave. Back stiff, skirts of her dress swinging seductively.
“Hampton, you are an idiot,” Zach said as they continued playing. “Perhaps if I may suggest, in the future, you actually think before speaking, or I fear your mother will have to run your life until she is well into her dotage because no woman will have you.”
“I say, sir, that was harsh,” Plunge said. “Hampton—”
“Plunge.” Zach raised his hand. “Not now if you please. I came to play cards, not verbally spar with idiots.”
After a lot of muttering, they started to play again. Several hands later, Madame Lucienne had not returned.
“I’ll bid you good evening, gentleman!” Plunge roared. He then fell off his chair.
Zach got out of his to help him rise. “Need me to support you out to your carriage, Plunge?”
“No indeed! I am quite steady on my feet!” He tottered away, colliding into patrons as he went.
Zach stuck his finger in his ear and shook to stop the ringing. The man couldn’t speak in a normal tone if his life depended on it.
“I too will leave,” Zach said. He gave a short bow and followed Plunge.
Where was Madame Lucienne?
“Have you seen Madame Lucienne, Mr. Thompkins?” Zach asked as Plunge walked out the door.
“She has left, sir.”
Zach felt a stab of disappointment. He got his hat and coat and left too. There were no carriages on the street. No sign of either Plunge or Madame Lucienne.
Which was probably just as well. That woman was far too intriguing.
He decided on walking home. Yes, it was late, and yes, likely there were more nefarious people about lurking in dark corners. But Zach could look after himself, and he felt a need to ease some of the excess energy that consumed him.
“Madame Lucienne,” Zach said slowly. He hadn’t been that interested in a woman for quite some time. Smiling, he thought perhaps tomorrow he would investigate her and see if he could locate where she was staying. Then he’d find a way to lure her into his bed.