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The Last Wicked Rogue (The League of Rogues Book 9) by Lauren Smith, The League of Rogues (1)

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League Rule Number 1:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Nor can our friendship. We must stand together, or divided, we fall.

Excerpt from the Quizzing Glass Gazette, December 11, 1821, the Lady Society column:

The Quizzing Glass Gazette regrets to inform readers that there will be no Lady Society column this week. We trust her readers will understand and hope she will return to us in the near future. We know many of you have written to Lady Society regarding the fate of Charles Humphrey, the Earl of Lonsdale. We hope and pray that Lady Society returns with news regarding this particular bachelor.

Dear Lady Society,

It is a national tragedy that your column has been suspended at this particular time as it is with great curiosity and much trepidation that I write to you in horror of what my dear husband witnessed last night while returning home to me from a business meeting near Lewis Street. While strolling along the roadside, my dashing husband happened upon a disheveled lady in a striking red gown who was, according to my stalwart husband, running away from—and this is most unnerving, Lady Society, but she was trying to escape Lord Lonsdale!

It pains me to say this, but I do believe the incident with the swans alluded to in your column is not the only rakish behavior of this rogue! Indeed, my charming husband insisted Lord Lonsdale was most pressed in the middle of the night, looking for this lady who was running about barging into sober men of consequence like my husband!

And indeed, Lady Society, that wasn’t even the most unusual bit of information my husband relayed to me! He did recall seeing, after the lady disappeared and Lord Lonsdale was already on his own way (home, I presume, to make himself suitable for courting), a most dangerous-looking bloke who skulked after Lord Lonsdale rather menacingly. What a horror!

Obviously, the only solution is to get Lord Lonsdale wed as soon as possible! If you could work some of your magic, Lady Society, as you have with his friends and others before him, I do think Lord Lonsdale needs your help about now.

Also, if you could point him in the direction of my lovely second daughter. She is quite adept at the piano, and her needlework is impeccable—though do not bring up her French, for it is abysmal.

Yours,

A Desperate Society Mama

* * *

Charles leaned forward in his chair, two rows back from the front of the audience, listening to Miss Matilda Brower sing, plotting how he might find a way to have the pianoforte beside her mysteriously drop out the nearest window onto the street below.

As she warbled the notes to some atrocious melody, Charles could actually feel his mind atrophy from a lack of proper stimulation. There were a dozen other things he could be doing right now, a dozen other women he could be seducing, including that lovely young widow Mrs. Forsythe, who was eyeing him over her fan just one row behind and to the left.

He shot the naughty widow a wink, and her fan fluttered a little faster. But there was no way he could simply stand up and walk out of the room, not while Miss Brower was still performing her impression of someone strangling a cat with a set of bagpipes.

Bloody musicales.

There were easier, more merciful ways to kill a man than forcing him to sit through a performance by a number of young ladies who had not an ounce of talent between them. He clenched his fingers around the evening’s program and stifled a groan. He needed to escape, but that would require a distraction.

One row in front of him, his close friend, Godric St. Laurent, the Duke of Essex, was nodding off. How the man managed to fall asleep during the high-pitched warbling, Charles couldn’t begin to fathom.

Charles carefully picked up the cane propped against the chair beside his. The cane’s owner, Cedric, Viscount Sheridan, was staring off into empty space and didn’t notice its absence. With a gleeful grin, Charles positioned the cane under the seat of Godric’s chair and gave it a hard thwack!

Godric leapt off his chair as though bitten by a viper. “God’s blood!” The dreadful cat-strangling sounds died off abruptly as everyone turned to stare at him.

“Er…I…say…bloody good music.” Godric cleared his throat and sat back down, smoothing his waistcoat, his face now ruddy. Charles snickered to himself, but it was loud enough in the sudden silence that he was heard. The auburn-haired beauty sitting next to Godric turned to glare at him, violet eyes blazing.

“Keep it up, Charles, and I shall make it my priority to get you married. If only to put a leash on your behavior.”

The woman, Godric’s wife, Emily, had never made a threat she did not carry out, which was a great feat for a nineteen-year-old duchess.

“Not likely, my lady,” he snorted. “If I stopped being myself, then you would all be bored to tears in a fortnight.”

Emily arched a brow in challenge, and then the dreadful caterwauling began again.

Well, he’d had quite enough of this. Distractions be damned. Charles ignored the shocked gasps of those around him as he hastily exited with a rakish grin at the startled Miss Brower. Once outside, he leaned back against the wall, his palms pressed against the blue satin wallpaper.

“My lord?” a footman inquired. Charles glanced at him.

“Fetch my hat and coat. Bring a coach around.”

He had to get out of this bloody house, get away from all this nonsense with balls and parties. The social amusements he’d once enjoyed were losing their appeal by the day. His breath shortened as a wave of panic flared to life. This past year he’d watched his friends all marry and start having children. They were moving on, leaving their days of being young and reckless behind.

They’re leaving me behind.

The thought of facing the rest of his life alone had never bothered him before. He’d always had his dear friends, the League of Rogues, at his side. In that bloom of youth, he’d never once considered that he would be the last bachelor standing. Now, with marriages and christenings filling up his days, the pace of his life had been dramatically disrupted. And one thing had become startling clear. He was alone.

A hollow ache of loneliness descended upon his shoulders. There was not much he could do about it of course, except find a young wife and sire heirs. But Charles had seen the outcomes of men choosing their partners poorly and had hoped to avoid that fate.

He’d also never experienced the dreaded sensation of being a fool in love. It had turned his friends from rogues whose behavior was tolerated only because of their wealth or standing into gentlemen almost overnight. That transformation terrified Charles but also intrigued him. He may not want to fall in love, but he damned well wouldn’t marry unless he was. Better to be a besotted fool who loved one’s wife than the alternative.

Emily could tease all she liked about getting him married, but it wouldn’t happen, not with any woman he knew in London, and he knew them all.

He closed his eyes a moment, dispelling his anxiety before he headed to the front door and met the footman who’d retrieved his hat and coat.

He left the townhouse and headed for his waiting coach. His valet, Tom Linley, would normally be waiting for him, but he’d given Tom a much-needed evening off. Given Charles’s strained relationship with his own brother, the boy had become something akin to family over the last year. Someone he could trust with anything. With the gap between him and his friends ever widening, Tom was fast becoming the only one he could trust.

He couldn’t help but wonder what the lad did when he wasn’t tasked with following him about. The boy’s shyness precluded any notion that he would be visiting a house of ill-repute or a gambling hell. More likely, Tom had spent the day with little Katherine. With a baby sister to care for, much of his spare time no doubt centered around her.

“Where to, my lord?” the driver inquired.

Charles glanced about the wintry roads. There was only place he could go to clear his head.

“Lewis Street.”

The driver’s brows rose, but he didn’t object. It was a rather dangerous part of London, and most men avoided it. Thieves, murderers, and all manner of evil-minded men dwelt in the tunnels below Lewis Street.

In the past, Charles would have headed to a pleasure haunt, the rest of his friends in tow, and they would have spent the evening drinking and carousing in the company of London’s finest courtesans. But everything had changed. Now they wouldn’t come with him even if they wanted to. The despair of that thought, of being abandoned by them, made his throat tight. A recklessness soon possessed him. He knew he shouldn’t go to Lewis Street alone, but he didn’t care.

He climbed into the coach, and it jerked into motion soon after he took his seat.

It was late, half past eleven when the coach stopped on Lewis Street.

“Shall I wait for you, sir?” the driver asked.

“Not with a den of thieves nearby.” Charles knew that the rookeries near the tunnels were full of men who would slit a man’s throat if they thought they could get a penny for it. He was sure that when he was done, he could walk a few streets away and hire another coach to get home.

“Very good, my lord.” The driver flicked the reins, and the two dappled grays rushed away, leaving him alone.

He straightened his hat, and with a dark grin he ducked into the shadow of the nearest doorway. He rapped his knuckles on the ancient, weathered wood. A panel at eye level slid open, and a burly man with a thick beard and hard, dark eyes scanned him from head to toe. The panel slammed shut and the door opened, the burly man allowed Charles to brush past him. From the street, the building looked like a small warehouse, but it was in fact a portal to a massive underground world of tunnels that led to rooms where men could box and wager without rules or interference. Even the Bow Street Runners feared coming down here, and they only ever did so in force.

Charles had been coming here more and more of late, the wild atmosphere and chaos feeding something dark inside him that he couldn’t explain. Every rage, every fear that built up inside him, he could turn loose here. And then, for a brief few days, he would feel free.

“Ring three is available,” the doorman said as they traveled deeper through the craggy walled tunnels, which were said to date back to the Tudors. The main cavern held three large boxing rings, two currently in use.

In the third, a tall brute with meaty fists roused the crowd as he called for a challenger to face him. He was a thick-necked man with hair cut almost to his scalp, and his thick lips were evidence of a face that had been taking hits for years.

Yes, that man would give him a good night’s work.

Charles cupped a hand around his mouth. “Oi!” His shout carried across the crowd. The man in the ring paused, and the crowd quieted as they all faced him.

“Two hits and you’re down,” Charles announced as he removed his hat and coat, giving them to a scrawny lad who stared up at him with wide eyes.

“Tuppence if you hold on to these for me.”

The boy nodded anxiously, and Charles patted his shoulder before he climbed up onto the platform of the ring.

“Two hits?” the man growled. “Bit cocksure, ain’t cha?”

“Absolutely, old boy.” Charles rolled up the clean white sleeves of his shirt, baring his forearms.

The man shrugged. “Yer funeral.”

“And the stakes?” Charles asked as he took his stance. He didn’t need money, but winning off these fools was intensely satisfying. He usually donated the winnings to a worthy cause, or on the rare occasion his doctor, who patched him up after the rougher fights.

The other man laughed harshly. “All right. Whoever wins can take that pretty bit of muslin over there home.”

Charles frowned. “Pardon?”

The man jerked his head to a woman who was suddenly pulled into the open as two men dragged her to the front of the crowd. This was not normal, even down here.

The woman wore a deep-red dress and had the most beautiful blonde hair he’d ever seen, caught in a loose Grecian style with ribbons threaded through it. Her creamy skin had been marred where it looked as though she’d been struck, and she had the purest blue eyes he’d ever seen.

Despite the red dress and the torchlit tunnels of this hellish hole, she looked like an angel. A terrified one. She struggled, but the gag in her mouth muffled her cries. Rage burst inside Charles, and he faced his opponent. His body spiked with a renewed vigor for the fight. He wouldn’t have wagered to win a willing woman, but to rescue an unwilling one? Absolutely.

“There are plenty of ladies on the streets. You had to go and take one that was not for sale?”

The brute nodded. “Much better to hear ’em scream. I like it when they fight.”

“Well, that does it,” Charles declared in a disgusted tone. “I was going to let you have it easy since I was bored, but now you’ve gone and upset me.”

The man leered. “The fancy gent thinks he can take me, eh?” The crowd around them roared with excitement, but Charles paid little attention. He instead focused on the man in front of him, the way he moved, the slightly uneven gait that forced him to favor his left leg, possibly an old injury. His breathing indicated he hadn’t fully rested from his last fight. These were useful things to know.

Charles let go of every thought outside of the ring and gave himself over to the moment. The brute raised his hands and without warning lunged for Charles, swinging a meaty fist. He wanted to end this quickly rather than study his opponent. Foolish.

Charles danced back, letting the blow pass. His opponent stumbled forward, and Charles gave his arse a hearty kick as the man stumbled right by him. The men in the crowd cheered for Charles, and this only enraged the brute, as it was intended to.

They danced, a mongoose and a king cobra, rounding each other counterclockwise, Charles carefully avoiding each blow, forcing the man to favor his injured leg, letting the man tire himself out as he stumbled again and again.

“Too much…of a bleeding coward…to hit me,” the man panted, wiping sweat from his eyes.

When the man came at him this time, Charles swung. Hard. His fist struck the man in the jaw, and he went down like a stone, landing in a heap in the wood ring. He didn’t move except for the faint rise and fall of his back as he breathed.

Didn’t even need a second blow, did I?

The crowds around the ring roared, and Charles waved them off as he climbed down the platform to free the woman. She was breathing hard, eyes wide. As he got closer, he noticed that there was something about her, like a half-remembered dream. He shot glares at the men still holding her, and their hands fell away. He expected the woman to melt into him and cover him with grateful kisses.

That didn’t happen. Instead, she struck out, kneeing one man in the groin before she punched the second in the throat.

This angel could fight—an archangel without the flaming sword. He was about ready to applaud her efforts, but then she whirled on him next. He barely caught her fist before it landed, and he tugged her against him, using his body to still hers.

“Easy, love, I’m not going to hurt you. I won’t let anyone here hurt you.” He gazed down into her eyes, feeling strange, like those twin pools were drawing him in. “I…” He cleared his throat and she looked away, breaking the powerful spell.

“I’m going to release you now. Please believe me, I mean you no harm.” He let go of her, and she withdrew from him. But she didn’t go far because of the lingering group of men around the boxing ring.

“I need to leave.” Her tone was breathy, reminding him of how girls often spoke during their first season in the ton, trying too hard to sound like they belonged. She tried to flee, but Charles caught one of her hands.

“Not that way. Please, allow me to play the gentleman and escort you safely from this place.”

The woman looked away but reluctantly nodded, allowing him to lead her back the way he’d come. He curled his fingers around her slender hand and marveled at how wonderful it felt. No doubt this was all simply due to the exhilaration of having rescued someone, but he still intended to enjoy it.

He saw the boy he’d left his belongings with and waved him over, handing over the promised tuppence. He noticed the woman smile at the lad as he scampered off. Did his angel have a soft spot for children? He was much the same. The boys in the tunnels faced a hard and dangerous life. Every bit of coin mattered.

“You know the way out, sir?” she asked as they passed through the crowds, who were already waiting for the next match.

“I do.” They walked in silence through the now empty system of tunnels, but he kept alert in case the brute had friends who did not believe in the spirit of fair play. It was not easy, however, given how distracting it was to simply hold this woman’s hand.

Finally, they reached the steep incline that would return them to the surface, and a chill wind from the outside teased his nose. The gatekeeper was still at his post by the door to Lewis Street. He opened it without a word and allowed them to pass.

Charles blinked as they stepped out from under the eaves. Rain was misting down now, soft and icy. His angel had no cloak and wouldn’t get far in this weather without catching a chill.

“I’ll call a hackney to take you to wherever you wish,” he said as he offered her his coat. She waved it away, and in doing so deftly freed her hand from his. The loss of contact filled him with a strange desperation. He didn’t want her to leave, he wanted… What did he want? He wanted her, wanted to take her home, to warm her by a fire, to explore the mysteries gleaming in her eyes.

“Thank you for the rescue, but I really must go.” She wiped a hand over her eyes, dashing the rain from her dark gold lashes, and hurried away.

“Wait!” He ran after her into the street. “You must at least tell me your name.” He flashed her his most devastating smile, the one known to send flutters through any feminine heart within a hundred feet of him.

The melancholy expression she returned was like a punch to his gut. She seemed unaffected by him, or worse, unimpressed. She had just escaped a terrifying fate, he supposed, but still, it was not the reaction he’d expected.

She paused, the rain darkening her red gown into a deep berry color that clung to her skin. “My name…”

“My reward for your rescue,” Charles said, redoubling his efforts. “Though I could argue that was reward enough in itself.”

He swallowed down the shame that was growing inside him. After what she had been through, she needed a white knight on a charger to protect her, not a damned rogue. Yet he could not stop himself. She had bewitched him.

At last she broke the silence. “Lily.”

“Lily,” he echoed. The name was soft, delicate, and feminine, much like the way she spoke. “May I come to call on you? When…when you are suitably recovered from your adventure, of course.” The idea of letting this mysterious woman go didn’t feel right. He feared that if he let her go it would be the biggest mistake of his life.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea, my lord.”

“How did you know I’m a lord?”

She smiled again. “Your opponent was right. You are too fancy of a gent.” She let her words reflect the brute’s accent, and it made Charles laugh.

“I suppose I am.” He glanced down at the silver and gold embroidered waistcoat. “But I’d like very much to be your fancy gent.”

Her smile, so oddly bittersweet, tore at his heart. For a moment he thought she would run away into the night, but instead she caught him by the shoulders and kissed him.

He was startled, just for a second, before he gripped her by the waist and took control. It was a moment of fire and light, like a jolt to his system. He was a master of seduction, had built his life upon creating perfect kisses, and yet at this moment he felt like a boy fumbling with his first maiden. It wasn’t possible, yet here he was.

After a long moment their mouths broke apart, the rain still coming down in a light mist as she shivered against him. He rested his forehead against hers, their ragged breath matching in perfect rhythm. Every sense came alight as he struggled to burn this memory into his mind. Her body pressed to his, the blue of her eyes like sapphires, the velvet of her lips, and the rasp of her breath.

“There is your reward,” she said.

“Please, let me escort you home,” he begged. Charles feared that she would vanish if he let her go, that he had somehow lost his fight and this entire moment was but a dream as he lay knocked out on the floor. A woman like this could not be real.

She pushed away, glancing at something behind him, startled with fear. Charles turned to face the dark mews behind them, fists raised, ready to take on whatever might be coming after them from the Lewis Street tunnels.

But nothing was there, only darkness and rain.

He turned back and found the mews was empty. Lily was gone.

He glanced up at the skies, letting the icy rain coat his face. Perhaps it really had been a dream. How could a moment like that have been real? To find the perfect woman only to lose her the very same night.