How to Best a Marquess
Book II, Raven Club Series
When a handsome boxer kisses Lady Ellie Swift for good luck during a match, it turns her world upside down. Because the rogue isn’t just anyone…it’s the Devil Marquess returned. Thanks to Hugh Vere, Marquess of Deveril, Ellie learned at an early age that men are more trouble than they’re worth. Now, instead of a husband, she wants to take over her brother’s infamous gambling club—the Raven Club. And apparently the devil wants it, too.
From the moment Hugh sees Ellie again sparks fly, but battle lines have been drawn. Whoever is the most successful overseeing the club in one month’s time will win. And Hugh intends to win. And he intends to stay very close to Ellie to make sure she follows the rules. What he discovers, though, is that Ellie is no longer the sweet girl he knew years ago—and winning won’t be easy. But the nearly combustible chemistry between them is hard to ignore, and soon the club is not the only prize he wants…
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The Raven Club
An Undisclosed Location in London
Grunts echoed off the paneled walls.
The sickening sounds of flesh hitting flesh.
Ellie Swift’s breath stalled in her throat. From the look of things, the boxing match would soon be over. In the center of the large room was a square ring roped off with stakes anchored to the hardwood floor at each corner. In the ring, the two opponents circled each other, rocking back and forth with nimble footwork. Both men were bare-chested and bare-fisted. One fighter was huge, a towering hulk of a man—a well-known pugilist aptly called Bear. The other’s back was to her, smooth muscle and bronzed skin glistening beneath the blazing candlelight of the chandeliers. He was tall, just over six feet, but standing in the same ring with Bear seemed to diminish his size.
The crowd cheered, and one could feel the vibrant energy among the gathered spectators as wagers were swiftly made and money exchanged hands. As far as Ellie could discern, most of the wagers were in favor of Bear.
“Who is he?” Ellie strained to see the mysterious fighter’s face from her vantage in the crowd. Her fingers itched to remove her feathered mask to get a better look. But her mask shielded her identity. All the women who attended the Raven Club wore them, especially the wives of wealthy aristocrats who frequented the casino or had a preference for the boxing matches in the back room adjoining the gaming floor. She was drawn to the fights even though her brother, the owner of the club, did not always approve.
She watched, enthralled, as sweat glistened on their brows and backs and ran into the band of their trousers. She’d observed matches before and had seen men’s naked chests. She’d roamed the gambling floor and seen her fair share of the pugilists in the boxing room. At twenty-three, she was five yearspast her first Season, and she’d heard many whispers that she was on her way to becoming a spinster. The whispers hadn’t bothered her. She’d much rather spend time in her brother’s club than at a ball. Still, despite attending more matches than any young lady should have, she found herself studying the unknown fighter.
“He’s a blue blood,”a man with a gold front tooth, standing to her right, said.
Nobility? Ellie shifted, but she still couldn’t make out his face through the throng of people. Something was familiar about the way he moved—powerful, purposeful…elegant, but she couldn’t place him. He had dark hair and broad shoulders. Not uncommon.
“A marquess who likes adventure. Bad that he chose Bear to challenge,” a bearded man to her left said.
Yet, as she watched, the man’s footwork was as swift as his fists. He ducked and wove and avoided blows that would surely have felled any man if Bear’s fists had made contact.
The nagging in the back of her mind continued. What was it about him?
Determined to find out, Ellie wove through the crowd to get closer to the ring. Just as she reached the front, a gasp and shout aroseamong the crowd. Bear’s uppercut connected with his opponent’s chin. The dark-haired man’s head whipped back, and he staggered, then stumbled forward to catch himself on the ropes.
For a heart-stopping moment, he was inches from her face.
Recognition jolted through her.
Along with a deep-seated dread and a maddening pounding of her heart. The vibrant green of his eyes, the divot in his chin, the full lips, and—
“A kiss from a lovely lady for luck,” he said, breathing heavily.
Before she could blink, those perfect lips pressed against hers. Hot. Swift. Over in seconds, he turned to face his opponent.
Ellie, on the other hand, was not as quick to recover.
Oh my God.
It was the devil returned.
Her only consolation was that he didn’t recognize her with her mask.
She turned and fled into the refuge of the casino.
There was something about her.
Hugh Vere, the Marquess of Deveril, did not consider himself a superstitious man. But the lady’s kiss had surely turned luck in his favor.
He’d defeated the monster of a man named Bear soon after he’d kissed the lady. Landing a blow to Bear’s right temple, his opponent had dropped like a stone.
Hugh wiped his brow with a towel and dipped a dented metal cup in a bucket of water. The cool drink eased his parched throat. He hadn’t been in the best position to study the woman closely. His teeth had rattled in his skull after Bear’s fist had made jarring contact with his jaw. She’d worn a peacock-feathered mask, and he hadn’t made out the color of her eyes. But he had glimpsed her hair. Had it been as vivid a red as he’d thought?
Could it be her?
He’d only known one female who’d had that hair color. The young girl from his past would be a woman now. His brow creased as he tried to recall the details of the masked female he’d kissed moments ago.
He remembered her lips. Soft and inviting. His daring kiss had paid off in a win. Had she stayed to watch?
He tossed the towel to a boy, one of many he’d noticed working at the Raven Club. “The lady with the peacock mask. Who is she?”
The lad shrugged slender shoulders. “No one asks at the Raven, me lord. The ladies wear masks to gamble and watch the fights.”
Hugh knew secrecy was prized at the club. It was one of the numerous reasons the place took in a fortune in coin every evening.
“Where did she go?”
The boy pointed to a set of doors at the far end of the cavernous room. “Back to the casino floor.”
Hugh had business to conduct at the casino. If he was lucky, he’d spot her on the way and offer his thanks.
The doors led from the boxing room to the main casino floor. It was an ingenious design, in Hugh’s opinion. Every vice resided beneath one roof. Almost every vice. From what he’d been told, the Raven Club did not offer demimondes. Only bored widows looking to gamble and some seeking to engage in a night of physical pleasure.
Not much difference in Hugh’s estimation. He’d enjoyed the attentions of willing widows and actresses since his return from war months ago.
The casino was busy tonight. Every table on the floor was filled with gamblers hoping to win at a game of chance. The crack of the dice across the green baize of the hazard table drew his eye. The sound of the roulette wheel as the little white ball spun and spun combined with the excited shouts of the players and the call of the croupiers. Men and women gazed at their cards in avaricious intensity at the whist, faro, and vingt-et-un tables. Liveried servers with an embroidered R on their waistcoats delivered tumblers of amber-colored alcohol on trays to the gamblers. The scent of cigar smoke wafted to him.
He recognized many of the spectators from the boxing match, now eager to spend their winnings on games of chance. Most would lose. Another efficiency of the club he admired. Have them wager on the fights, then pass through the doors and turn around and give their money back to the club at the tables.
“Lord Castleton is waiting for you upstairs,” a tall, broad-shouldered man with a brick-like chin said. Hugh had learned his name was Brooks and he was the head guard on the casino floor.
Hugh scanned the room for the red-haired woman in the peacock mask, but she was nowhere to be found. He followed Brooks up a winding staircase to a second floor. The man opened the first door on the right.
It was a spacious room with an oak desk, matching leather chairs, and a thick Oriental carpet. Papers beneath polished stone paperweights and leather-bound ledgers were piled upon the desk. A globe rested on an end table in the corner.
Hugh turned at the sound of a throat clearing to find the earl and his countess standing atthe sideboard in the corner of the room.
“Welcome, Lord Deveril. It is a pleasure to see you again.” Lady Castleton came forward and curtsied. She was an attractive woman with dark hair and blue eyes. She was also large with child. Her husband, Ian Swift, the Earl of Castleton and the owner of the Raven Club, stood beside his wife.
Hugh hadn’t expected the countess to be present. He’d just stepped out of the ring, so he hadn’t bothered with a waistcoat and cravat. He wasn’t properly attired to meet her.
Hugh bowed. “Thank you, my lady.”
“Congratulations on defeating Bear,” Lord Castleton said.
Hugh didn’t try to hide his surprise. “News travels that quickly?”
“I know everything that happens in the Raven soon after it occurs.” Lord Castleton waved toward a window overlooking the casino floor. “I may not be able to see the boxing room, but my workers below deliver messages with simple hand motions. See for yourself.”
Hugh walked to a window in the paneled wall that overlooked the casino floor. He could see everything clearly from this vantage point—the flurry of the dealer’s hands, the slight sheen of sweat on the gamblers’ faces as they placed their wagers, the painted lips of the masked women as they coyly smiled and flirted, and even the satisfied expression of a waiter who received a gold coin after delivering a whisky to a lucky winner.
He was fascinated. It was like a play, the most absorbing performance of human behavior and emotion he’d ever witnessed. It was intoxicating to gaze down and simply watch. No wonder Castleton was considered one of the most powerful men in all of London before he’d inherited the earldom.
Hugh coveted the man’s good fortune. As well as his dark reputation. Hugh had forsaken his own reputation years ago. After learning of his father and brother’s deathsfrom pneumonia, he’d resigned his army commission and returned to town. He may have taken his place as the Marquess of Deveril, but he no longer cared what others thought, including his miserable mother who currently resided in the country and whom he’d long ago dismissed from his life. When he’d heard rumors that the Raven Club was for sale, he’d reached out to Castleton straightaway.
The door opened, and Hugh turned away from the window.
He froze as the lady with the peacock mask entered. He was able to study her in detail now. Her eyes were a piercing blue from behind the mask. His initial guess had been correct.
Ellie Swift was here. And her ringside kiss had given him the luck he’d needed to defeat Bear.
“Ellie,” he said aloud before he could stop himself. He experienced a tumult of emotions—joy to see her again, an ache of desire that had never dulled, even through the years, and a heaviness in his chest for all that was lost between them.
Her reaction wasn’t as pleasant. She stiffened and shot him a hostile glare. “Good God! What is he doing here?”
“Ellie,” Lady Castleton said, in an admonishing tone. “Is that a proper way to greet the marquess?”
Hugh was quick to intervene, and he stepped forward and bowed. “Please, do not make amends. It’s lovely to see you again, my lady.”
He hadn’t been a marquess when they’d first met five years ago. He’d been a second son, untitled and without a shilling to his name. The irony was not lost on him that he’d had to give her up because of his lack of fortune, only to unexpectedly inherit the title and the wealth that accompanied it years later.
Ellie glared at him, then reached up to remove her mask. It was like a punch to the gut. She had changed, grown even more beautiful. Porcelain complexion, red hair the color of a bright sunset, and blue eyes that could devastate a man. The sprinkling of freckles on the bridge of her nose remained. She’d hated them; he’d thought they only added to her perfection.
The last time he’d seen her they had both been eighteen. He’d broken her heart, and she’d fled the gardens of Lady Something-or-other’s home with tears in her eyes.
It was a moment he’d relived for years.
“We’ve asked Lord Deveril here to discuss the future of the Raven Club,” Lady Castleton said.
“The future of the club?” From the confused look on Ellie’s face, it was clear she had no idea. Why should she? She’d seen him in a boxing ring minutes before and now he was in her brother’s private office.
“Lord Deveril seeks to buy the Raven,” Castleton said without preamble.
A gasp escaped Ellie, and she pressed a hand to her chest. “You cannot be serious!”
“Ellie,” Lord Castleton said, his tone harsh.
She appeared panicked now, and Hugh could not grasp why she had such a strong physical reaction to the news. He knew she hated him, and for good reason, but the Raven Club was business, surely nothing that she should be concerned with.
Ellie’s gaze homed in on her brother. “You know I want a chance to take over the Raven. You promised.”
The Earl of Castleton raised a hand. “I made no such promise.”
Lady Castleton touched her husband’s hand. “We said we’d consider it. We know you are more than capable, and with Brooks’s continued help to oversee the casino floor, we know the Raven Club would succeed.”
Hugh’s brow furrowed, and he looked from Ellie to Castleton, then back to Ellie. He was shocked by this turn of events. The earl and countess couldn’t possibly consider allowing a young woman to manage London’s most notorious gambling club. “You cannot be serious,”he said, repeating her phrase. “Ellie is a…is a…”
“A what?” Ellie snapped.
“A lady.” The thought of her running the place was ludicrous. How long before someone recognized her behind the frivolous mask? It would be the scandal of the year. Her future would be ruined.
“Our first child is expected in a little over a month’s time. Once, we never thought to sell the Raven Club, but the years have changed our opinion. I wish to spend time with my wife and child, not a casino,” Castleton said.
“I understand,” Hugh said.
He didn’t. Not really. His parents had been distant to their children and cold toward each other. They had never shared a bedchamber. As far as Hugh knew, the old marquess had visited his wife twice, to have two sons, and never again.
“Whoever takes over must continue the charitable works from the profits,” Castleton said.
Hugh knew about the anonymous donations. At first, the earl didn’t seem charitable, but as Hugh became better acquainted with the man, he’d realized there was much more to Ian Swift than met the eye. The earl had secrets—deep-seated ones—but what was clear was the fact that he adored his wife.
Hugh had assured the earl and the countess that he had no qualms about continuing to set aside a portion of the profits for the orphanages and asylums for women as had been established. His reasons for wanting to purchase the Raven Club were twofold: he had a strong interest in boxing, and he had a sharp business mind and knew he could successfully manage the establishment. He valued control, to be in charge. His years as an officer in the military had been regimented, and he’d discovered he was a natural leader.
It hadn’t always been this way for him. As a young man, his disciplinarian father had rigidly dictated his future. As a result, Hugh had left for the army, swearing never to allow another to control him. Since inheriting the title and returning from war, he had little patience for high society and had taken on a devil-may-care attitude when it came to the ridiculous rules of the beau monde. He wanted more out of life than to simply be a marquess and was determined to choose his own path.
“As I’ve assured you, I have no protest to donating to the charities. I still want to purchase the establishment.”
“No!” Ellie said.
To Hugh’s surprise, it was the countess who spoke. “We have considered both of you and have decided to see who would prove the ‘best man’for the club. For one month, you will both run the Raven Club.Whoever is most successful will have the establishment. If Ellie wins, she will have the freedom to manage it with Brooks’s aid. If Lord Deveril wins, then our solicitors will draw up purchase papers. Your endeavors will be recorded in separate ledgers.”
“You think to hold a competition?” Ellie asked in surprise. “That’s ludicrous!”
For the first time, Hugh was in agreement with Ellie Swift. He found it hard to believe the earl and countess would even consider such an idea. One look at Castleton’s tense expression and Hugh knew it was the countess who had convinced the man to agree to a competition.
Fine. Hugh’s gut tightened with a conviction. He’d always been soft where Ellie was concerned. But not in this. It was for her own good.
He would win.
“I accept,” Hugh said.
As soon as Hugh left, Ellie faced Ian with fists clenched at her sides.
“How could you do this?” she demanded as indignation swamped her. “You are my brother.”
“I wanted to say no. I still do. Grace convinced me otherwise,” Ian said.
Again, Grace placed a hand on her husband’s sleeve. The effect was remarkable. Ian calmed and smiled down at his pregnant wife.
A knot twisted inside Ellie. Once, she thought she’d found a man who had adored her as much as her brother loved her sister-in-law.
That man had been Hugh Vere, now known as the Marquess of Deveril. She’d dubbed him the devil marquess, for certainly that was an apt name.
What a fool she’d been. Only eighteen, she’d just had her debut into Society and attended her first ball. She’d met an equally young and handsome Hugh, second son to the Marquess of Deveril. He hadn’t minded her red hair, freckles, or her love of books. They’d been drawn to each other and had quickly fallen in love.
Or rather, she’d fallen madly in love with him.
“You know about our past,” Ellie said.
Her brother and sister-in-law knew most, not all. She could never confess every humiliating moment. She’d cried in private for over a year. Her younger sister, Olivia, had attempted to comfort her during many dark and lonely nights, but Ellie had wept until she’d been exhausted and fallen into a restless sleep. Even Ian and Grace had tried to cheer her on more than one trip to Gunter’s for ices but had been unable to pull Ellie out of her melancholy.
It had taken years to harden her heart.
“You are no longer eighteen. You’ve rejected suitor after suitor ever since,” Ian said.
“I will only marry for love. Just like you with Grace.”
It was an excuse. She didn’t want to marry. She wanted to run the Raven Club and become an independent woman. Only then could she continue to use her good fortune to help others—women who were at the mercy of men who were sworn to protect and cherish them, not hurt them. If she ever chose a husband, then she preferred one who could be easily managed and fooled, who would never be a risk to her heart.
“I support your decision to choose your own husband, but not in this.” Her brother waved his hand to the window overlooking the casino floor. “This is no life for a young lady.”
Grace cleared her throat. “Contrary to my husband’s opinion, I do believe a woman has what it takes to run the Raven Club.”
“I knew you would take my side,” Ellie said, hope lifting her spirits.
Grace was talented with figures and took over the bookkeeping soon after she’d wed Ian. She’d also been teaching Ellie, who much preferred numbers and books over balls and dandies.
And rogues like Hugh.
She’d heard rumors of him in the ladies’ retiring room since his return from the army and his ascension to the title. He rarely attended the same events she did, so she hadn’t seen him. But his reputation for scandal precededhim. Widows. Actresses. Dancers. The salacious rumors had confirmed everything he’d done to her.
Grace shook her head. “I haven’t taken anyone’s side yet. But Ian and I have reached a compromise. A test, if you prefer. Whoever is most successful in one month’s time shall have the Raven.”
“You would choose Deveril over your own flesh and blood?”
Ian let out a puff of air. “Cease the dramatics, Ellie. This is business. If not for my wife’s urging, I would have had my solicitor draw up the papers a week ago. Now do you accept or not?”
“Fine,” Ellie snapped. “I accept.”