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An Innocent at the Gentlemen’s Club

Written by Christine Merrill

Chapter Four

There was trouble in the gaming room.

It was not an uncommon situation, for the rules at Vitium et Virtus were more strict than many members might wish. No credit was allowed, since there was no real amusement to be had in watching a man who had lost all his money betting himself to ruin with a stack of unsupported markers.

But that meant drunken losers were forced to stop playing just as they thought their luck might turn. It made them far more difficult to handle than the amiable sots found in the rest of the club. By the time the dealers decided to summon Ben, the situation was already out of hand.

And, as usual, the problem was Mr Danvers, the heir to the Marquis of Wycliff. Ben’s evenings would be free of incident, if not for Danvers and his equally detestable friend, Nash Bowles. The pair of them were teetering on the edge of a permanent ban from the premises.

Tonight, Danvers was pounding the table so hard that the drinks were spilling, demanding paper and pen to write an IOU.

Ben stepped forward, offering a firm but deferential smile. ‘I am sorry, sir. The game has ended. But there is food, wine and entertainment in the next room.’ He gave the man a gentle pat on the shoulder.

‘I do not want to go to the next room. I want to play another hand.’ He shook off Ben’s friendly gesture and lunged for the cards.

‘You knew the rules when you sat down at the table. Your money is gone.’ Ben changed his tone to the one that usually brought an apology from anyone not tall enough to look him in the eye. ‘You have to leave.’ Then he let his hand fall more heavily on the man’s shoulder, waiting for some sign that the young man understood he had no choice in the matter.

Instead, Danvers pushed it away.

Ben sighed. It was rare that the members continued to resist after the second warning, but not unheard of. Still, it was nothing he could not handle. He thrust his hands forward suddenly, catching the fellow under the arms, lifting him up and kicking the chair out from under him. Then he carried him like a doll, letting Danvers’s expensive boots dangle several inches off the floor, and turned to walk towards the exit. The crowd parted before him and footmen rushed to open the door.

‘Put me down, you nobody.’ Danvers thrashed helplessly, trying to find his footing.

‘I am sorry, sir. It is time for you to leave.’ Ben ignored the insult. Now that the worst was over, he changed to the soothing tone that worked equally well on children, animals and drunkards.

But his current problem was having none of it. ‘I said put me down, you gutter dweller.’ The man’s hand swung wide and his elbow hammered back to catch Ben across the nose, drawing claret.

‘Hell.’ Ben’s hand was in the air to deliver an answering blow to the back of the fellow’s head before he remembered the folly of such a thing. It would not matter if he struck in self-defense. If he valued his freedom or his neck, a man of his station could not afford to hit the son of a peer. It was doubtful that even the Duke of Westmoor could save him if Danvers decided to cry assault and have him arrested.

He pulled the blow at the last second, and said, ‘Ow.’ His cry of pain sounded more like a statement and not the least bit convincing. But it gave him a reason to lose his grip on the young man as he reached for his injured nose with both hands.

Danvers’s blow was the last hurrah of a man too drunk to remain conscious. Rather than use his new freedom to launch another attack, he slid to the floor in an unconscious heap.

Ben nudged him with a toe to make sure he was dead to the world, and was met with no response. Then he stared down at Danvers with a smug smile and wiped the dripping blood from his nose on the cuff of his shirtsleeve. ‘Nobody, am I?’ He snorted, trying to clear his head. ‘So I may be, but I am still standing and you are the one on the ground.’

There was a soft, feminine squeak from the doorway.

When he looked up, Paulette was staring at him, her lovely face twisted in a grimace of disgust.

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About the author

I live in rural Wisconsin, about ten minutes outside of pizza delivery...

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Christine Merrill

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