LONDON: THE GILDED GULL
No one was supposed to know who Jack Donovan was.
Ethan Darus Gray, Earl of Ashebrook, wasn?t just anyone; he had his own ways of ferreting out his adversaries. He stood in the entrance of the Gilded Gull, his cold glance scanning the empty room. He walked past the bar toward a rear hallway and down the darkened corridor. He pushed open a nondescript door with enough force to make it slam against the wall. An echoing crash sounded when the barkeep lost his hold on the glass. Ethan found himself facing the equally hard green stare of radical reporter Jack Donovan when he stepped inside the back room of the gaming hall.
"Ever heard of knocking?" Jack Donovan ground out, shoving on his Hessians. He?d obviously been lying on the leather sofa from the rumpled pillow and clutter of magazines and papers around it.
"Yes," Ashebrook replied.
This man who managed to anger the House of Lords and most of the ton with his inflammatory articles looked nothing like they speculated. Donovan was dressed like many of the young rakes about town in black trousers and rumpled white silk shirt. He had dark looks, swarthy skin and?hell, he was young. Ethan hadn?t bought the theory that the power behind the pen was one of their own writing under those various pseudonyms Jack used. Only a man born without wealth and title could put so much deadly contempt behind the words.
He?d once respected Donovan as a political adversary. That changed the moment he?d discovered Jack digging into his own life. The sarcasm in Ashebrook’s voice obviously annoyed Jack. Their equally frigid gazes held, but it revealed what Ethan intended it to; he didn?t have to be bothered with politeness.
"This isn?t some gentleman’s club." Jack went over to pour a whiskey. "At my home, you knock."
"Excuse me," said a female voice behind Ethan.
He felt a light touch on his shoulder and moved aside catching the alluring scent of roses as the lady swept in. His connoisseur’s eye slid down her as she moved across the room. Close-cropped black hair, a petite body gowned in green silk. She was no doubt Jack’s kin. She was young, but she was certainly a woman. The gown clung in all the right places, the straight lines and modest cut innocently provocative. Ethan prided himself on his discriminating tastes in all things. He was partial to tall blonds with the right social connections. The little tease of arousal he felt when the woman passed by was promptly ignored. She was short, had the look of a pixie, and when she leaned against the table, he saw dimples in her cheeks.
"What does he want?" the woman muttered to Jack. She poured herself a cup of coffee, then held the cup in her palms, eyeing him in a manner few would dare.
"This is Ashebrook." Jack waved a hand then resumed his seat propping his boot on a table. "I have no idea what he wants."
Ethan kept his features impassive. As one of the creme de la creme, he was not used to being so rudely treated. In fact, there were two reactions he was used to: intimidation and fear.
"I?d like a word with you," he told Jack, in his most chilling tones.
"I can?t be bought, if that’s what you?re after." Jack shook his head. "I know the thing I did on Lord Laporte had half the ton trying to find out who I was." He swirled the whiskey in his glass. "How did you, by the way?"
"Viscount Kane," Ethan supplied.
"Vince. He told you?"
"He was assured of my ability to keep quiet." Ashebrook shrugged.
"Well, I bloody well ain?t," Jack grated. "However, you will explain your intrusion since you are obviously here."
Ashebrook’s back stiffened at the sneer in Donovan’s voice, but he had come this far, he was not leaving here without some answers.
"Sit down, Ashebrook," Darbee Donovan motioned him to a chair to Jack’s left. "Coffee, brandy?"
She nodded toward the containers on the desk, calculating as she spoke. Jack had told her Ashebrook’s name solely for the earl’s benefit; they both knew who he was. What the bloody hell was Viscount Kane doing giving him Jack’s address? Kane was one of Jack’s most trusted sources. Ethan declined the offer.
"Thank you, no." His gaze swept over her in a revealing manner.
Darbee could see anger and surprise. He would really have been amazed to know the train of her thoughts. Like any good reporter she was assessing her facts. Not in awe of the ton, she found society pages more amusing than the humorous rags. That tendency to look down their nose at people, as Ashebrook was doing now, rubbed her the wrong way, but he was on their territory and it was nice to be on the other side of the fence, so to speak. Jack wouldn?t worry too much about these types revealing his identity; they had too much to lose.
Darbee had an entirely different advantage over the earl. She watched him take a seat in one of the comfortable, overstuffed chairs. He was handsome; she?d give him that. She had seen him many times in Hyde Park with the haute ton on most evenings. Riding the Ring or strolling the tree-lined circle was as famous as rotten row and the serpentine to the rituals of the marriage mart. Like Almack’s it was a preening spot for the higher-ups.
Ashebrook owned his own gym and trainer, which his tawny skin attested to, though not of the sporting set. Most swells were pasty and pale, the fashionable snug trousers looking worse on their paunchy frames. Not Ashebrook; he was muscular, his face a pure-blooded aristocrat, from his strong jaw to his haughty nose and arched black brows, and those jet lashes made his silver eyes all the more piercing-a detail that cropped up when one heard of the disdainful lord-those arctic silvery eyes.
He owned businesses handled by managers and secretaries leaving him plenty of time to see to the social obligations of the season. His every attendance at some rout or ball was dutifully noted and reported in the social columns. He was the kind the young bucks emulated. It was amusing after some crush to see them sporting silver neck-cloths, or the custom made boots he had fashioned for riding. Most young men could not carry it off.
Darbee called a halt to her mental sifting and admitted her curiosity. She settled in to hear his reasons for seeking Jack out. All right, so she was more than curious. He couldn?t know about the information she?d gathered on him, could he? Vince Kane was a man they both trusted. He didn?t send lords like this to the door every day. In fact, this was a first.
"I need some assistance," Ashebrook began, seeing that neither had any intention of initiating conversation. They seemed content to stare at him with matching arched brows.
"You got the wrong man then." Jack tossed back his whiskey. "I?m into exposing your sort, Ashebrook, not helping you. Though I believe you are good at keeping your private life private, I am not interested in digging in your back yard, neither will I help you bury the skeletons someone else uncovers."
"I?m aware of your work, Jack." Ethan used his first name on purpose. "It’s not my favorite read, but neither am I disturbed by it."
"I lose sleep thinking you might be." Jack’s smile was tight.
"This is a delicate matter. I was under the impression you wrote unbiased articles, that you exposed corrupt factory foremen and baby sellers, and what you view as the hypocrisy of the ton. My impression was that you didn?t do personal work-wouldn?t relish being an underling of some lord."
Jack grunted. "Do you know how many politicians try to find out who I am, so I can dig up dirt on their opponents? I?m not a puppet. I am a reporter. When I get to the point where I am working for money, I?ll quit."
Ethan eyed him hard. "Yet you are in possession of some damaging information concerning me. Are you not?"
"You, and half the upper crust." Jack shrugged. "I?m not into blackmail. Naturally, I run across a loose tongue in my business. That I hear it doesn?t induce me to write a story on it. Your set is too afraid of scandal for your own good."
Ethan rubbed his jaw, resenting Donovan’s blas? attitude. "I am 36 and have waited a long time to settle down and beget heirs. I carefully chose my future wife for her breeding, rank, and wealth. I am sure you are aware it’s the way things are done with my sort, as you call it. The reasons it works so well is not something I care to expound on. But suffice to say that I have, and the announcement is forthcoming."
"I am not going to expose your dirty laundry." Jack poured another drink. "Whoever told you that I was in possession of it, though, I?d like to have his name."
"What made you lower your standards for Leverton?" Ashebrook wanted to know. "That my future father-in-law had me looked into is no great blow, however high my reputation. I am aware it is done all the time. What I wish to know is what you may have told him?"
"I told him you were a wealthy bastard whose reputation was as pristine as that ivory coach you ride in. I told him there was nothing to look into."
"What made Leverton able to sway you, Jack? Did he pay you well?"
"No money changed hands, but you?ll have to ask my sister, Darbee." He nodded. "It was her call, and her case; she worked on it. I haven?t even read the entire thing."
Darbee murmured, "Surprised? I am sure Lord Leverton would be, too, seeing as how he detests those progressive females." She laughed. "A bit of my morbid humor induced me to take the case. Jack wrote the final report based on my observations."
"It was a one-time thing." She shrugged. "Old Leverton isn?t my favorite person; in fact, his superior male views make it difficult for me to like him, but Jack and I owed him a good turn."
"Is he one of your informants?"
"Good god, no." She snorted, amused at the assumption. "This goes way back when our father died. I doubt he remembers it, and he didn?t use it to get us to do a bit of checking up on you. He put the word out-we got it from a solicitor, who did not like you at all, Ashebrook." She set her cup down. "This solicitor was ready to drag you through the mud. It was easy enough to get him to sign mine, instead, though he never saw its contents."
"Why did you hold back on the report?"
Ethan studied her openly. Quite honestly he?d never met a woman who did not know how to gossip or use a juicy tidbit to her advantage. Nor did he know a reporter who was not panting for dirt. Somewhere his mind registered the fact that he?d never met a female reporter, and doubted another existed besides the type who did ladie’s magazines. The whole idea of female professionals outside of the stage was a bone of contention with politicians. Ethan knew that females had been progressing and turning out works under male names for years; it was simply now they wanted recognition. He rather liked them looking beautiful and feminine.
She said, "What do I care if Lord A weds Lady Q? I find it rather cold and calculating. What I discovered, as you know, concerned your father and stepsister, a senile recluse and a young schoolgirl. I didn?t think it relevant enough to pass on."
"Oh, it’s relevant." Ashebrook laughed grimly. "It could damn well destroy me. Society may seem frivolous to you, Miss Donovan, but it has teeth."
"Yes," she said, slowly. "The worst that could happen is that you are no longer the most influential and sought-after lord in England. You could very well have to wed a lady with a bit of taint clinging to her. Might lose your ability to leave the debs trembling and the young bucks stuttering."
Her contempt was obvious. Ashebrook wondered how at odds her appearance was with her sharp mind and cynicism. She looked younger than she was, which was 20 at the most. He wasn?t about to explain how fickle the ton was to the chit. His father’s mistakes could certainly reflect on his own character.
"I want that information destroyed."
"It has been," she said, then raised a brow. "Tell me something, why is it that the potential husband is not so curious about the prospective wife, so long as she comes with a huge dowry and high rank?"
"Are you implying something?" Ashebrook snapped.
She smiled. "Just curious."
He explained, as if to a slow wit, "Lady Pamela has been on the scene for many years. She is 22 and has an excellent reputation. What she does after presenting the required heir is her choice given that she is discreet." Ethan shifted in the chair. "But she is knowing enough not to engage in any sort of scandalous behavior before the wedding."
"How sad." She clucked her tongue. "Of course, her background is impeccable."
Ethan looked at Jack to find him laughing. It was plain he was laughing at Ethan, because her question had put questions in his mind. He was certain of Pamela’s reputation, of course he was. Otherwise, he would not have chosen her.
"I hate to break up the party, but I?ve got to run you both out." Jack rose. "I have an impending appointment."
Ashebrook stood looking around the interior that made up their home. Darbee was aware the eclectic, bohemian decor likely appalled a man of Ashebrook’s refined taste. Thick exotic screens separated their personal area; an artist friend had designed them to break up the warehouse look of the space.
She sighed. She and Jack had an agreement that they would take responsibility for their work. This was hers. The earl was aware of that thick file, knew that she had full knowledge of what lay behind his outward facade. To her mind that put her at an advantage. She knew Jack, too, and his casually knocking back the whiskey was a sign his temper was up. Her brother saw too much of what went on behind the ton facade to respect any of them simply because they were titled. He would not have taken the cold tone of the earl lightly had she not been there.
"I have an appointment also."
Darbee collected her cloak and book, which had blank pages for notes. Ashebrook followed her out, offended by their lack of good manners and angered by their condescending attitude. Standing in that hallway leading to the main rooms he assisted Darbee with her light cape and smelled that damned scent of roses again. He found himself trying to distract that hint of awareness by listing her flaws again. Her short hair was unfashionable; it was silky, cut to her ears in a blunt manner. She was petite; her head came to his lower chest. Of course, he wasn?t actually attracted, though she looked nothing like the mannish females he?d assumed her kind to be. The general picture among the ton of these progressive types was of sharp-tongued harpies with hard faces and narrowed eyes.
Ethan leaned against the opposite wall propping his boot sole against the surface and watching her check the hidden pockets for a hanky. "It’s an uncomfortable feeling having someone know all your secrets," he confessed.
Darbee nodded. "I certainly like keeping mine." She leaned opposite and folded her arms. There wasn?t quite a foot between them. "Be satisfied I had the chance to destroy you, as you so dramatically believe, and did not. I am not likely to do so in the future. Like my brother Jack, I am un-bribable and I like not making enemies."
His silver eyes searched her face. Yes, she was blunt, and something made him ask, "You weren?t shocked, were you?"
"About your father? No. About your sister? I was a bit thrown. You haven?t seen the poor girl in four years; though, I haven?t proof you saw here then, only ordered some children’s clothing." Her eyes met his. "Your father is not able to, nor does he remember her. Now, your mistress-she’s not as pretty as I imagined a man so worried about appearances would chose. She’s no Lady P and I doubt you know her background, either, but I would probably like her were we to actually meet."
"You wouldn?t like Lady P?"
"I wouldn?t dislike her," Darbee said, tactfully.
His lips curved slightly. "But you would like my mistress?"
"I?m strange that way. I relate to someone with a thought in their head besides fashion and gossip. Lady P is too beautiful for any woman to like her."
He laughed a low chuckle that transformed his cold eyes and impassive face. "She wouldn?t like you, either," Ethan murmured, that smile lingering. "She is ever vexed by females trying to force society to educate them like men and make them work for a living."
"Just so. I have nothing against the ones who do not wish to, but for those of us who have no rich father or husband, some of us enjoy learning. Most of us like to eat at least once a day."
"May I buy you dinner?" Ashebrook inquired, to his own surprise.
"La, the tongues would wag, Ashebrook. You have that pristine reputation to consider. Can?t be seen slumming with Miss D; Lady P might get cold feet."
"Are you attached?"
Darbee frowned and then smiled. "What a word. I am not wed, but I am not looking."
"How old are you?"
"Hardly." Darbee looked away, and then glanced back, recovering from the shock of getting an offer to dine from Ashebrook. Avoiding looking directly at his silver eyes, she glanced in the vicinity of his shoulder. "You know, I have minimal interest in the ton’s doings, yet I found it interesting learning about your life."
Ethan’s brow rose. "Must be satisfying to find flaws among the roses."
"No, it wasn?t that. It was your aloofness, the fact that you have only one good friend. What was his name? Wynmoor, Richard, Marquis of Glynwood. But the same quote came up over and over; ?he’s a cold bastard, damned cutting and distant.? One would think with your mama dead so long and your papa quite ill, you would forgive your stepsister for being birthed by a poor Irish woman and form a bond with her."
"Lorie has everything a young lady of her station needs. She will have the best when her time comes; she will be presented to society."
"With her past covered up and her dowry double that of other debs?" Darbee finished dryly. "It takes an awful lot of energy to play that game, and what a pity she will not be able to turn to you. Were it not for Jack, I do not know how I might ha?" Darbee waved her hand. "Never mind that." No way was she going to expose her secrets to a man like Ashebrook.
"I assure you, Lorie will be seen to."
"And Lady P, who will be countess then, will bring her out unaware of her real birth?"
"No. My aunt will bring her out."
"Still, you are so much older than she is. You could be a father figure; at the least, you could help her be brave and mature enough to handle gossip should it leak out."
He was absurdly irritated by her reference to his older age, 36 in the face of her 19 was not that ancient by society’s standards. It struck a nerve.
He said, chillingly, "Do not concern yourself with my family, Miss Donovan."
Darbee muttered, "I see where your reputation comes from, Ashebrook. You have perfected that icy stare, have you not?"
Ethan pushed away from the wall. "I suppose I owe you for holding back on Leverton?"
"Not at all." Darbee straightened, too. "You sound so very depressed at the prospect of owing anyone anything. As my brother would say, I am too busy to lose sleep over it."
Standing so close, Ethan reflected on what he thought he liked, but it made no real difference. His senses were aware of her. He added to her flaws again: she was the extreme opposite of his taste, her entire personality and the kind of blunt speech and boldness not found in his crowd. The dimples at the edges of her pink lips were ridiculous. She looked too young, until she opened her mouth to speak--then there was nothing green about her. He could not imagine any female of the ton having a conversation with him. Pamela limited their interchanges to the weather of some on-dit concerning an acquaintance. Everything was polite between them; they observed all the conventions. There was no female in his memory that did not stammer in his presence; even his mistress knew the rules. Being vexed and intrigued at the same time was an entirely new experience. He more or less admitted it.
"I am unused to trusting the female sex. That I must trust one I do not know is rather grating."
Darbee laughed softly. "Give over, my Lord. You at a complete loss? Something is out of your control. You are torn between offering me money, which would smack of blackmail, and seducing me taking advantage of my tender years."
"Tender, hell," Ethan murmured, close to smiling again. "You are too knowing by half, Miss Donovan. And far too correct."
That last part made Darbee flush. "I have an appointment, Ashebrook," she reminded him. "I fear we must conclude this conversation."
Darbee stepped around him. He walked behind her into the main rooms. For all it was no highbrow club the Gilded Gull wasn?t completely without appeal to jaded gamblers. Dark green carpet complimented the wine red paper and gold gilt mirrors on the walls; tables were set up in the room with well-padded chairs, though private rooms were available. A long mahogany bar took up half the length. The sea gull motif was on everything from the lamps to the glasses and chair backs. Heavy velvet drapes kept prying eyes out and cigar smoke in despite the wicker fans overhead. There was a full stage and a half dozen instruments there some of the curtained alcoves were for private tryst with the half dozen female employees. At the moment it was fairly empty except for a cleaning woman and a portly gent, Benny, behind the bar.
"Are you positive I can?t buy you a meal? I am sure you know half dozen discreet cafes."
"I have some work to do." Darbee shook her head. "Besides, there isn?t any point in becoming chummy, is there?"
"No." Ethan knew that was true. When he wed Lady Pamela his life would be twice as busy as it was now, and tongues would wag if they were seen together. Gossip was what he was here to prevent, not start. "Adieu, Miss. Donovan."
He nodded formally and departed. Ashebrook cursed while he walked toward his coach parked a discreet distance away. He had to trust Jack Donovan, he had to trust a 19-year-old chit with a impudent attitude. And he?d broken a hard, fast rule that had been so easy to keep since he?d started covering his past. He?d let himself respond impulsively.
"My Club, Stanford," he barked to the driver, and slammed the coach door.
He?d spent too damn long, sacrificed too much, to become the man he was today. No set of radical siblings was going to hinder the icing of the cake. Once he wed Pamela he will have reached the summit of his success.
Inside the gaming hall Darbee let her breath out slow and loud. She closed her eyes, thoroughly appalled at her attraction to the arrogant jackass. He was everything she detested in his crowd. That he was the first man in many years to prove that she could still be attracted to anyone really filled her with self-disgust.
She drummed her fingers on the table recalling she?d forgotten her gloves and parasol. She had a firm chat with herself, reminding her body that it would not do to be stirred by a tall handsome man with silver eyes and a title. No. She had another life that kept her pulled between London and Surrey. She was busy. She was wiser than before, and she was not about to get her emotions mixed up with a man as distant and detached as Ashebrook. The very thought was absurd. They were worlds apart. Darbee could picture his broad shouldered and erect form. Despite his age he was fit and healthy, and no cravat or clothing could hide real sinew, and his skin was tawny.
"?Ow ?bout a brew, Miss Don?O?van?" The barkeep plopped a mug on her table. "Ye looks as if ye be needing sompin?."
Darbee grinned and thanked him. "Something like a good swift kick to the hind-side."
He wiped the counter and winked. "That’s one lord what’s got more to ?em than look, eh? Got a gym, he does, and e? be known to ?ave a mean right hook."
"Yes, well." Darbee took a sip of dark beer. "He’s the top of the heap when it comes to confidence and arrogance. I?m sure you?ll find a way to alert Jack before another gets back there." She waved toward the back hall.
"I know ?ow to keeps me mouf shut, I do. ?E just told me ?e ?ad urgent business is all. I?ll not be lettin? another get past so easily."
She doubted the earl had told Benny anything judging by the red of the man’s face. Benny was loyal and she didn?t doubt that. He was looking out for himself and she couldn?t fault any man in his position for being intimidated by the likes of the earl.
"It’s all right, Benny." She sighed, knowing Ashebrook would have plowed his way if Benny had tried to stop him. "Thanks for the drink." She put some coins on the table and rose.
"You be careful out there, Miss Don O?van."
"I always am, Benny, thanks."