<My Once and Future Duke>

My Once and Future Duke

What happens at the infamous Vega Club …

Sophie Campbell is determined to be mistress of her own fate. Surviving on her skill at cards, she never risks what she can't afford to lose. Yet when the Duke of Ware proposes a scandalous wager that's too extravagant to refuse, she can't resist. If she wins, she'll get five thousand pounds, enough to secure her independence forever.

Stays at the Vega Club …

Jack Lindeville, Duke of Ware, tells himself he's at the Vega Club merely to save his reckless brother from losing everything, but he knows it's a lie. He can't keep his eyes off Sophie, and to get her he breaks his ironclad rule against gambling. It he wins, he wants her—for a week.

Until now.

A week with Jack could ruin what's left of Sophie's reputation. It might even break her heart. But when it comes to love, all bets are off …

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Inside the Story

Reviews & Honors

★ "Romance readers will not be gambling at all in choosing RITA Award–winning Linden’s latest as she once again delivers another impeccably executed, witty, and sensual Regency historical." —Booklist

"[C]redible lovers and honest emotions… silky smooth sexual chemistry. Regency romance fans will enjoy the unmistakable air of intensity and wistfulness…" —Kirkus

"A spunky heroine, an uptight hero and a dangerous wager add plenty of heat to a steamy scenario … What a promising start to an enjoyable series!" —RT Book Reviews

Desert Isle Keeper! "It’s a book I absolutely could not put down, and I can’t wait for others to read it and love it as much as I did." —All About Romance

"[A] tempestuous, funny, sweet romance." —PW

Inside Story & Bonus Features

The first in the Wagers of Sin series. The second book, An Earl Like You, will feature Eliza.

The hero of this book, the Duke of Ware, has been with me for a long time. He was a secondary character in my very first novel, What a Woman Needs, and he popped up again in What a Rogue Desires. In the years since then, I have received more email asking for his story than for any other minor character I've ever written, and I'm so glad to have his story for my readers at long last.

Given the connection to my early novels, I included mention of some other characters. Jack pays a call on the Duke of Exeter, the hero of What a Gentleman Wants, and towards the end Anthony Hamilton, infamous gambler and hero of A Rake's Guide to Seduction, makes a brief cameo as well.


<My Once and Future Duke>1807

A whisper went around Mrs. Upton’s Academy for Young Ladies soon after tea. A new student had arrived, and she must be of rare family and fortune. One girl caught a glimpse of the carriage waiting outside, glossy black with an escutcheon on the door, and soon the whispers grew fevered: it must be a duke’s pampered daughter, or even a foreign princess.

They were wrong. Twelve-year-old Sophie Graham was an orphan, and she was the granddaughter of Viscount Makepeace, not a duke or a foreign dignitary. She also wanted nothing to do with him, and the viscount returned the feeling in full. Within a week of her arrival at his gloomy manor in Lincolnshire, he’d declared that she must go to school as soon as possible. Now she stood silently in Mrs. Upton’s office, listening as her grandfather tried to browbeat the headmistress into accepting Sophie.

“The trouble is, my lord, I do not usually accept new students midterm,” Mrs. Upton tried to explain. She was a moderately tall woman, fashionably dressed in subdued colors and devoid of embellishment, and she seemed utterly unafraid of Makepeace. Sophie respected her instinctively for that.

“You must. Her parents died of some gutter-borne fever.” He glared at Sophie, who gazed back without expression. “They left nothing for her, but abandoned her to my charity. She needs feminine influence and proper instruction in some decent trade.”

“Sir, we are an academy for young ladies,” replied Mrs. Upton, laying a delicate stress on the last word. “We do not instruct students in trades, but in fine arts and social graces—“

Makepeace waved this aside. “I don’t care what you teach her. She’s a wild thing, neglected by her no-account parents. I have no use for a hoyden.”

The headmistress glanced at Sophie, who remained still and quiet. She was not a hoyden, and her parents hadn’t neglected her. But she did want very much to be accepted by Mrs. Upton, and so she did not argue with the hateful lies her grandfather was speaking. “My lord, our students come from the finest families in Britain. Our reputation rests on my personal assurance that every young lady here is of the best character and demeanor, in need of the instruction we offer for her future life.”

The viscount barked with angry laughter. “I see your point! My son ran off with an opera singer—French, no less! Is that what you want to know? Good blood never does mix with common stock. Well, the girl is half wild and there’s nothing to be done about it, but she bears my name and that, madam, is superior to whatever standard you maintain.” He glanced around the understated room in obvious disdain. “Your establishment was recommended to me, and I wish to be done with the business as soon as possible. Name your price.”

<My Once and Future Duke>Mrs. Upton’s face had grown expressionless during his tirade, but now she took another, more measuring look at Sophie. In the end, something—either in Sophie’s expression or in her grandfather’s final words—overcame the headmistress’s doubts. Sophie was sure it was the money. She didn’t blame Mrs. Upton; in fact she hoped the woman extorted an enormous price. Makepeace would pay anything to be rid of her, as she had learned quite explicitly in the three weeks since she’d been left in his care, and she hated him enough to savor him being rooked for every farthing.

“Thirty percent, my lord,” said the headmistress. “For a thirty percent premium on our usual tuition, I believe I can make room for her.”

“Done.” Makepeace reached for his walking stick and heaved himself out of his chair. “Her trunk is outside.”

“Would you care to see the grounds?”

“No.” The viscount led the way to the carriage, where Sophie’s small trunk had already been removed from the boot and left on the gravel drive.

Makepeace yanked on his gloves, his thick white brows bristling in a ferocious scowl. “I’ll pay the tuition until you’re of age,” he growled at Sophie. “Not a moment longer. You’d best try to learn something of value here, for you shan’t be my responsibility.”

“I never asked to be.” She raised her chin and met his stare. “Goodbye.”

He stared at her a moment before giving a contemptuous sniff. “A proud little thing, are you? You’ve no grounds for it. If you didn’t bear my name, you’d be as insignificant as your mother.” The viscount climbed into his carriage and snarled at his coachman to go. The carriage started with a jerk immediately. At no moment did Lord Makepeace look back.

“Let me show you to your dormitory, Miss Graham,” Mrs. Upton said in the awkward silence. The pity in her voice was faint but detectable. Sophie had heard that before, but this time she also heard sympathy. “I’m certain your grandfather will relent once he sees how diligently you work to become accomplished.”

“He won’t. Nothing I ever do will please him, and I’m glad he’s gone.” She watched the carriage pass through the tall iron gates to be certain that he was in fact gone. “I wouldn’t mind if he were waylaid by highwaymen and shot.” She turned her forthright gaze on the shocked headmistress. “Thank you for accepting me, ma’am. I promise to be a very good student.” And she dropped a flawless curtsy, worthy of the finest ballerina in Moscow—indeed, that was who had taught her.

Mrs. Upton took her inside and sent a teacher to fetch Miss Eliza Cross and Lady Georgiana Lucas. “You shall share their room this term,” she told Sophie. “They are both kind and well-mannered young ladies.”

“Are they my age, ma’am?” This interested her intensely. She had rarely had the chance to make friends with girls her own age.

“They are both in the second form. The girls your age are generally in the fourth form, but since I’ve had no opportunity to assess your education thus far, it’s best if you begin there.” She gave Sophie an uncertain glance. “I presume you have had some education, Miss Graham?”

“Yes, ma’am.” It stung to be placed in the lower form, but Sophie refrained from informing the headmistress that she spoke fluent French and some Italian, that she loved math and geography, that she knew how to dance and had been playing the pianoforte since she was four. She intended to win over everyone at this academy, and it wouldn’t hurt to hold some pleasant surprises in reserve.

Lady Georgiana arrived first, as tall as Sophie but fair and fine-boned. Miss Cross hurried in after her, breathless and a little flustered. She was shorter and plumper than Lady Georgiana, and every bit as ordinary in features as Lady Georgiana was beautiful. Sophie smiled at them both. “It is my great pleasure to make your acquaintances,” she said to the two other girls. “I hope we’ll be friends.”

<My Once and Future Duke>Miss Cross smiled nervously and Lady Georgiana gave her an appraising look, as if to say we’ll see. Sophie didn’t mind. She would be circumspect in the other girl’s place, too. But Sophie had inherited her father’s charm and her mother’s drive, and so she set about befriending them.

She needed to. Under no circumstances was she going back to Makepeace Manor, where her grandfather ruled in surly silence. Her youth had been spent in the capitals of Europe, following her operatic mother’s career. Her parents’ deaths had upended that happy if unsettled life, leaving her at the mercy of a grandfather who seemed determined to hold her accountable for every sin and slight her parents had ever committed—and in his eyes, they were legion. Sophie soon divined that dying was possibly her father’s worst sin, as he had named the viscount her guardian in his will. If there had been a way to break that will and wash his hands of her entirely, Sophie was sure Lord Makepeace would have done it. Sending her away to school was the next best thing.

A young ladies’ academy might not be as exciting as Europe, but it offered the one thing she hadn’t had in all her twelve years: a fixed home. On the interminable drive to Mrs. Upton’s, Makepeace had informed her that she would board at school during holidays if she didn’t get invited home with another girl. Sophie could endure holidays at school, but she yearned for friends.

Eliza and Lady Georgiana had great promise in that regard. Eliza was shy and sweet, the sort of girl who would always be steadfast and loyal. Sophie admired that. Lady Georgiana, on the other hand, appealed to her high-spirited side, the sort of girl everyone else admired and looked up to. It didn’t take long to discover that Eliza was the only child of a man with wealth but no connection, while Georgiana was from one of the most august families in Britain, being the much younger sister of the Earl of Wakefield.

After dinner the students retired to their rooms to study. Sophie was reading the French lesson—her mother’s language—and feeling relieved there was one class where she wouldn’t be behind, when her new roommates’ whispering caught her attention.

“Try again,” Georgiana urged. “You can learn this.”

“I’m trying,” said Eliza in anguish. “I am, I just can’t—“

“Is it sums?” Sophie asked, spying the page in front of them.

“It’s so difficult for me,” whispered Eliza, shame written on her face.

Sophie smiled. “I can help.” She rummaged in her trunk and drew out a pack of cards.

Lady Georgiana raised her brows. “Gambling?”

<My Once and Future Duke>Sophie scoffed. “It’s not gambling if there’s no wagering. But cards are an excellent way to practice sums, and odds, and all sorts of mathematics.” She dealt some hands. “This is a game where you add the value of the cards. You must do the sum very quickly and quietly, and decide whether you’d like to add another card.”

“Ladies aren’t supposed to play cards.” Lady Georgiana came to sit on the end of her bed, studying the cards with fascination.

“Truly?” Sophie was surprised. “All the ladies in Paris play. And in London—my father said the only people more passionate about gambling than English ladies are English gentlemen.”

Lady Georgiana snorted with surprised laughter. “No!”

“Oh yes.” Sophie didn’t add that her father knew because he’d gambled with all of them. When her mother began to lose her voice to a suppurating throat condition, they’d left Europe and come home to England, where Papa put his charm and name to use playing at the card tables to support them. She’d helped him practice the art of appearing to play carelessly while actually calculating the odds of every move.

Eliza edged closer. “Will it really help with sums? I—I have such trouble.”

“Of course!” Sophie lined up the cards of one hand. “What is this hand worth? Add the numbers.”

“Six,” said Eliza, staring at the four of hearts and the two of clubs.

“And now?” She flipped down a seven of hearts.

“Thirteen,” said the other girl slowly.

“Good! Now?” An eight of diamonds appeared.

“Twenty…” Eliza hesitated. “One.”

“Very good.” Sophie beamed.

“That’s far more fun than totting up numbers on a page,” declared Lady Georgiana with a delighted laugh. “Where did you learn this?”

<My Once and Future Duke>“My father.” She caught the quick look the other girls exchanged. “He and my mother died,” she added. “My grandfather didn’t want me, so he brought me here.”

“Oh, how dreadful,” said Eliza.

Sophie mustered a smile. Her parents’ deaths were dreadful. Her grandfather was dreadful. Mrs. Upton’s was by far the least dreadful thing in her life at the moment. “I’d rather be here than with him. Would you rather be at home?”

“Oh.” Eliza looked startled. “My mother also died, when I was a child. My father sent me here to learn to be a lady. I miss him, but…”

“My brother wanted rid of me, too,” offered Lady Georgiana readily. “But like you, I prefer to be here. He’s an odd duck, my brother. I revel in being unwanted by him.”

Sophie grinned. “Mrs. Upton’s Academy of the Unwanted.”

Georgiana burst out laughing, and Eliza gasped. “That’s terrible…” But she joined Georgiana on the end of the bed. Sophie dealt more cards and they practiced sums in happy camaraderie. Gradually Sophie began teaching them the rules of the game as well, and then how to calculate odds. Eliza’s confidence grew until she was adding the cards almost as quickly as Georgiana.

“What should you do with this hand?” Sophie asked.

Eliza looked at her cards, a ten of clubs and a five of hearts. “Take another, because almost half the cards have values of six or less?”

“Precisely! You’re doing very well,” Sophie assured her, just as the door abruptly opened.

“Young ladies,” said Mrs. Upton, aghast. “What is this?”

Eliza went pale; Georgiana winced and gave an audible sigh. All three girls scrambled to their feet.

Mrs. Upton crossed the room and swept back the fold of blanket Sophie had instinctively tossed over the cards. “Gaming,” she said in a deeply disappointed tone. “This is improper behavior for young ladies.”

<My Once and Future Duke>“We were not gaming,” said Sophie. “None of us have any money.”

The headmistress did not look amused. “That is a very fine distinction, Miss Graham, and not one I accept. Not only is gaming immoral, it exposes one to people of low character and risks one’s reputation and fortune. No respectable gentleman will wish to be connected with a lady who gambles. He will recognize that she harbors a dangerous susceptibility to wickedness, and he will not want to be held liable for her losses.”

“What if she wins?” murmured Sophie.

Mrs. Upton gave her a look of warning. “Any gambler who thinks like that is heading for a loss. It is the lure of winning that drives people to risk ever larger sums of money until they have bankrupted themselves and their families. What are the chances of winning every hand, Miss Graham?”

Sophie said nothing. She remembered too well the nights Papa had come home late, in dismal spirits, not having won enough.

“Gambling has destroyed many a decent and eligible man,” continued Mrs. Upton. “You cannot begin to imagine how much worse it is for a female. Mind my words, young ladies—gambling is the path to ruin. Avoid it at all costs.”

“Yes, ma’am,” whispered Eliza tearfully.

“Yes, ma’am,” echoed Georgiana.

Mrs. Upton raised a brow. “Miss Graham?”

Sophie began to shrug, but caught herself in time. “Yes, ma’am.”

The headmistress surveyed them. “Since you are unfamiliar with our rules here, Miss Graham, I shall let this pass. But do not stray again.” She collected the cards and left, dousing the lamp as she did.

<My Once and Future Duke>“I’ll practice sums another way,” said Eliza as the girls got into their beds. “Papa would be so upset if Mrs. Upton wrote to him that I’d been gambling. He hopes I’ll marry a gentleman, which means I must be a lady. If only sums didn’t matter so much to gentlemen…”

“They don’t,” declared Georgiana from her own bed. “No gentleman I know can abide sums. They don’t even like discussing them with their secretaries, who do all the work.”

“A few hands of cards doesn’t hurt anyone. And we were not gambling.” Sophie said a silent prayer of relief that Mrs. Upton had confiscated her old deck of cards and not Papa’s deck. She would have fought like a wild animal to keep that deck—or any of her few reminders of her parents—and that might have got her tossed from school and back onto Lord Makepeace’s mercy.

A wave of heartsickness washed over her at the thought of her parents. Four months ago they’d been alive and well, their finances strained but their home happy. Then it all disappeared. Consumption, the doctor said; she was lucky she hadn’t got it, too.

Lucky. How she hated that word.

Sophie forced herself to inhale evenly and deeply. Everything in life was a matter of chance. Happiness depended solely on one’s own efforts, because Fate was rarely kind or generous. Sophie had learned that early, and she would never, ever forget it. One could never count on luck.

“But Mrs. Upton wouldn’t teach sums if they weren’t beneficial for ladies to know,” Eliza insisted, unaware of Sophie’s inner turmoil. “I’ll have to find some other way to learn…although I truly hope I don’t need to learn odds…”

<My Once and Future Duke>Georgiana giggled. “That’s because the odds are very good that you’ll find a handsome and charming husband, Eliza, and he’ll treat you like a duchess, whether you can balance your household accounts or not.”

“I hope so,” said Eliza wistfully. “Since I haven’t got your beauty or Sophie’s cleverness, I can’t risk it.”

Sophie tucked the blankets under her chin as they debated the question. That simple comment, calling her not only clever but by her given name, caused an unexpected warmth inside her. She was all alone in the world now, with Mama and Papa dead, her grandfather an ogre, and her mother’s family a continent away. She vaguely knew she had an uncle or two, and perhaps even cousins somewhere, but none of them were coming to her aid.

She might not have any family worth knowing, but true and honest friends would be a good start. And she had a powerful feeling that she, Eliza, and Georgiana were destined to be great friends.

Chapter One



The Vega Club occupied a curious position in London. Tucked away on a dead-end street not far from St. James Square, it sat precisely midway between the wealth and elegance of Mayfair and the brutal squalor of the Whitechapel rookeries. It made no bones about catering to both extremes; it was said that anyone—duke or dockworker, lady or lady of the street—could apply to become a member. There were only two requirements of those fortunate enough to secure the stamped silver token of membership.

Pay your debts. Hold your tongue.

It was rumored that members were required to take an oath pledging not to reveal anything that happened within Vega’s walls. Rumored, because no one could, or would, confirm it. When confronted directly, members would claim not to know anything about it before quickly walking away. But since even the most determined scandalmongers were frustrated in their attempts to learn many details about the gaming club, the pledge of secrecy became part of Vega’s legend, whether or not it was true. And that encouraged the spread of all manner of stories about what did go on.

Jack Lindeville, Duke of Ware, knew all about Vega’s. It was the bane of his life even though he himself never went there. His younger brother, Philip, frequented the place, along with his crowd of friends. They invited him to accompany them from time to time, but Jack always declined. He knew why he was welcome at their tables, and it wasn’t for his charm and wit. Young men on fixed incomes, even generous fixed incomes, were always in search of someone wealthy to play against, and as Philip often reminded him, Ware was one of the richest dukedoms in England.

Jack interpreted that to mean that he looked like a prime mark for Philip’s friends with empty pockets. Unfortunately for them, he wasn’t fool enough to go. One bit of bad luck, and a man’s life could be ruined.

His lip curled at that thought as his carriage turned up St. Martin’s Lane on its way to the Vega Club. Bad luck, Philip claimed, had been the cause of his most recent downfall: the two of clubs, when all he needed to win was any card higher than a three. Philip was sure he had calculated the odds correctly and the dealer had made a mistake, although he dared not say so and risk his membership. But the result was that he had signed a note for almost two thousand pounds, which he could not pay.

Philip was penitent. He apologized for asking such a favor. He promised it would never happen again, even though it had happened several times before. But he also told their mother, who swept into Jack’s study in a storm of indignation and insisted he settle the debt to prevent Philip being humiliated or impoverished.

<My Once and Future Duke>At first Jack would have none of it. Philip brought it on himself, and if he was man enough to sign a note that size, he was man enough to work out how to honor it. But his mother argued, and then cajoled, and then she began weeping and bitterly accusing him of callous indifference to his family duty. At that, Jack relented. When the duchess made up her mind, there was no reasoning with her.

The carriage rocked to a halt. The footman opened the door and Jack stepped down. He’d pay this debt for Philip, but not without repercussions. His brother had an independent income—thanks to his mother—but he also drew an allowance from the Ware estates, which Jack controlled. For seven years he’d safeguarded those estates, and he’d be damned if his hard work would be siphoned off by Philip’s bad luck at the card tables.

Thin-lipped, he strode into the club. A burly fellow in impeccable evening clothing appeared before he’d taken two steps. “Good evening, sir. May I help you?”

“I’m here to see Dashwood,” Jack replied, naming the club’s owner. He drew out one of his cards and offered it.

“Is he expecting you?”

Jack smiled humorlessly. “I daresay he won’t be surprised by my arrival.” Philip was not shy about trading on the Ware name. If Mr. Dashwood were half as canny as his reputation suggested, he’d probably been anticipating Jack’s visit from the moment Philip scrawled his signature on that marker.

The manager gave him an appraising glance. “Perhaps not. Would you care to wait in the dining room?”

God no. He might see someone he knew and be caught in conversation. Jack wanted this over and done with as soon as possible, preferably with no one aware that it had happened. “I’ll wait here,” he replied in a tone that made it clear he did not expect to wait long.

The manager bowed his head. “Perhaps you’d rather play a hand or two in the meanwhile?”

Over the man’s shoulder Jack could see into the main salon of Vega’s. It wasn’t tawdry or garish, as he had somewhat expected, but refined; it looked like a normal gentleman’s club… except for the women. Not house wenches clinging to men’s sides, but society ladies. Jack’s brows went up a fraction as he glimpsed Lady Rotherwood, playing whist.

“Vega’s doesn’t exclude the ladies,” remarked the manager, following his gaze. “It’s a bit of a surprise to some gentlemen, but they soon see the benefit.”

Jack’s mouth firmed. Empty-headed ladies could lose a fortune just as easily as reckless young men. “No doubt.” He wondered if Philip had ever lost so dramatically to a woman and then decided it hardly mattered. Money lost was money lost.

<My Once and Future Duke>Still, it piqued his curiosity. Ladies, gambling with men. How novel. The manager left to inform Mr. Dashwood, and Jack took a step forward to survey the club through the protective screen of a tall stand of palms.

He recognized Angus Whitley and Fergus Fraser, some of Philip’s mates. They sat at a table with another man and a woman in a vivid crimson gown who had her back to him. Her dark hair was swept up in a twist, exposing her pale skin. She wore a thin black ribbon around her neck, tied in a neat little bow at her nape, and the loose end curled enticingly, tempting a man to tug it loose.

Jack’s eyes lingered on her. What sort of woman wanted to be a member of a gaming club? Every decent woman would shy away from the mere thought of it. Lady Rotherwood, for all that she was a viscountess, was known to be a bit fast. What were the requirements for membership, he wondered; did they differ for men and women? Not that Vega’s could be very stringent, as Philip had had no difficulty gaining entry. Philip, with only his illustrious name and considerable charm and abominable luck at cards to recommend him.

Whitley made an exclamation, tossing down his cards. Fraser laughed, preening in victory. He reached for the pile of money in the center of the table, but the woman stopped him by laying her fingers on his wrist. Jack had no idea what she said, but from the way Fraser’s face went blank with shock, he supposed it wasn’t good news. The other man laid down his cards and began to laugh, a hearty bellow that turned heads. Clearly the woman had trounced them all.

And rather than being dismayed at being the focus of attention, she responded to it. She said something that made Whitley give a shout of laughter, and fellows at the next table chuckled. Jack couldn’t see her face but he could tell she was pleased, just from the angle of her head, tipped ever so slightly to one side as she collected her winnings and Whitley shuffled the cards for another round.

No wonder Philip liked the place. Jack wondered if his brother knew the lady in crimson.

“Your Grace,” said a voice behind him. Jack turned, glad to shake off that thought. The manager was back. “Mr. Dashwood will see you.”

He led the way through a door set discreetly beside the palms, down a short corridor to another door. He knocked once, then swept it open and bowed as Jack went in.

“Nicholas Dashwood, at your service, Your Grace.” Dashwood bowed. He was a tall rangy fellow, his face all lean hard lines and angles. “I apologize for the delay. I didn’t expect you.”

“I’ve come about my brother’s debt.”

One corner of Dashwood’s mouth lifted at Jack’s cool tone. “He said you might.”

<My Once and Future Duke>Jack repressed a spike of fury that Philip had presumed that strongly enough to tell Dashwood. He should have known, though; Philip was shameless in getting out of anything unpleasant.

The club owner walked around his desk and picked up a paper lying on its surface. “Two thousand one hundred and twenty pounds.”

Jack took a breath to control his temper yet again. Philip had lied about that, too, claiming it was less than two thousand. “May I see?”

Dashwood handed it over with a faint smile. He must deal with this all the time. It took only a cursory examination to determine that it was Philip’s handwriting, promising the large sum to Sir Lester Bagwell. “Is it customary for you to guarantee debts for your members?” Jack handed back the note.

“I guarantee nothing.” Dashwood leaned against his desk. “Members are free to exchange notes or funds directly. On occasion they prefer to have me hold them—not as guarantor but as a favor. I am an intermediary, if you will. We have only a few rules at Vega’s, the most important of which is to pay your debts.”

Meaning Sir Lester feared Philip wouldn’t pay what he owed, and wanted Dashwood to enforce the rule of the club. Grimly Jack wrote a draft on his bank for the sum, mentally excoriating his brother. Without a word he offered it to Dashwood, who handed him Philip’s note in exchange.

“A pleasure, Your Grace.” Dashwood went to the door. “If you’re ever in search of a table to play, I hope you’ll return to Vega’s.”

Not bloody likely, thought Jack.

Dashwood escorted him back to the front of the house. On impulse he looked toward the main salon again, through the palm fronds. His brother had solemnly promised to give up the tables for a month in penance, to retrench on his spending and learn some moderation in his habits. Philip would not be here. But the lady in crimson… He had the strangest desire to see her face. Just to know what sort of woman joined a gaming hell.

To his shock, he did spy his brother’s dark head at the center of the room, in a small crowd of people gathered around a table. Jack stopped short. Already Philip was back at it, placing wagers he couldn’t afford, no doubt telling anyone who asked that his brother would pay his losses tonight, tomorrow, on into eternity. As he watched, a cheer broke out, and Philip threw up his hands and laughed.

Jack knew that mannerism. Philip was losing. He always lost with a laugh, a quip, a grandiose gesture. It was only later, when he had to contemplate the consequences of his loss, that he became contrite. Having just settled a very large gambling loss, Jack felt fully in the right dragging his brother out of the club before he could incur another one—which, Jack realized with fury, he was quite likely to do. Philip was playing hazard, a game of almost pure chance. He turned on his heel and brushed by Dashwood as he strode into the room.

“If I must lose,” Philip declared gallantly as he drew nearer, “at least I’m losing to the most beautiful woman in London.” The crowd around him laughed in boisterous appreciation.

Idiot, Jack seethed, barging through the crowd. You don’t have to lose, you just have to stop playing. Dashwood would cancel his membership if Jack refused to pay this debt. In fact, Jack would have no qualms getting his brother’s gaming privileges revoked across London. He had accepted that his life was to be given in service to the Ware estates, but damned if he’d beggar himself settling Philip’s debts.

<My Once and Future Duke>He reached the front of the crowd, unfortunately opposite his brother. Oblivious to his glowering presence, Philip gave an extravagant bow and held out the dice to a woman—the same woman in crimson who’d been playing cards earlier with Philip’s feckless friends.

“Thank you, sir,” she said, her words colored with laughter. “It’s always a pleasure winning from you.” She turned to face the table and raised the dice to brush her lips over them. “Five,” she called, naming her mark and managing to make it sound seductive, before she made her cast. The crowd gave a boisterous huzzah, but Jack’s gaze was locked on her.

Not beautiful in the classic sense, but mesmerizing. Her face was a perfect oval, her eyes the color of sherry. A silver locket hung on the black ribbon around her neck, and when she leaned forward to collect the dice again, Jack got a glimpse of her bosom, threatening to spill over the crimson fabric. She straightened and gave Philip a flirtatious glance as she made her second cast. Jack managed to tear his eyes off her in time to see the focused interest in his brother’s face.

Two thoughts careened through his mind. First, that she was a siren of old, as brazen as brass and as wily as a serpent. Philip was so busy staring at her bosom he didn’t even notice how badly he was losing.

And second, Jack wanted her.

Chapter Two

The Vega Club was very nearly Sophie Campbell’s second home.

In fanciful moments she imagined Vega’s had once been the home of a gentleman, perhaps even an earl or a marquess. It wore its dark wood paneling like a comfortable suit of clothing, inured to the elegance of its crystal chandeliers and plush carpets. Other gaming hells had a closed-up feel, as if sunlight were some sort of plague to be avoided, but not Vega’s. Draperies were only closed at night, and there were windows built high into the walls to allow fresh air on warm evenings. Smoking was confined to a room at the back, and the dining room rivaled the one at Mivart’s Hotel, presumably so the female members were more at ease.

That was the most important feature of Vega’s: women were allowed. Not merely as guests of a man, but as full members in their own right. It was not easy to gain membership, but Sophie had recognized early on that it was the ideal place for her purposes. The Vega Club attracted all sorts of men, and they were all willing to lose to a woman. That was vital to her, for that was how she earned her living.

From the moment she arrived at Mrs. Upton’s Academy, Sophie had known that she would be entirely on her own when she was grown. The morning of her eighteenth birthday, Mrs. Upton had summoned her to gently break the news that Lord Makepeace would no longer pay her tuition. Since the viscount’s letter had arrived the morning of her birthday, Sophie could only imagine how long the bitter old man had been looking forward to sending it. The headmistress offered her a position teaching mathematics, but Sophie declined. At Mrs. Upton’s, her chances of making a good life were small; in the great world, who knew? She’d always been one to play the odds.

It certainly hadn’t been easy. Without funds, she’d taken employment as companion to a widowed viscountess. Anna, Lady Fox had been a revelation. She was unconventional and bold, generous and witty, and she planted the seeds of an idea in Sophie’s mind. Every woman needs a fortune of her own, she often saidmaking Sophie smile in wry agreement, wishing it were that easy. But Lady Fox meant what she said. When she died, she left Sophie three hundred pounds. A good beginning, she wrote in her will; a rare stroke of fortune, to Sophie’s mind, and not one to waste. With that three hundred pounds, plus her own small savings, she invented a dead husband, changed her name, and went to London at the age of twenty-one to put her Grand Plan into effect.

<My Once and Future Duke>It was a simple plan, really. Once she had secured her independence, she would be mistress of her own fate and able to chart her own course. If independence—which meant money—weren’t the key to happiness, it was at least a very great factor in it, and accordingly Sophie set about gaining it with her one profitable skill: gambling.

At times she felt a pang of remorse for living off others’ losses. She remembered well Mrs. Upton’s lectures against gaming, and she knew that the headmistress had been correct about it being dangerous and ruinous. Even though she had developed iron-clad rules to prevent herself losing too much, there was always the matter of her reputation… such as it was.

Her friends worried about that, too. Ever since that first day at Mrs. Upton’s over a decade ago, she, Georgiana, and Eliza had been inseparable. During the years when Sophie was with Lady Fox and her friends were still at school, their letters had flown back and forth weekly. Now that they were all in London—Eliza at her father’s home in Greenwich and Georgiana with her chaperone the Countess of Sidlow—they made sure to have tea every fortnight, usually at Sophie’s snug little house in Alfred Street.

“Surely you could invest some money as well?” Eliza often asked. “It must be safer.”

“Never,” was Sophie’s firm answer. “Playing the ‘Change is the riskiest gambling there is.”

“Papa does quite well, and he’s offered many times to advise you,” Eliza reminded her. Which was no solace at all to Sophie; Mr. Cross could afford to lose a thousand pounds on a bad stock, while she could not.

Georgiana thought she should make a different sort of investment. “What you really ought to do is make one of the gentlemen at Vega’s fall in love with you. Sterling says Sir Thomas Mayfield would be a brilliant match for you.” Viscount Sterling was Georgiana’s intended husband, and her most frequently cited authority on everything.

That made Sophie laugh. “Thomas Mayfield! A baronet? You must be mad.”

“Mad!” Georgiana widened her expressive green eyes. She turned to Eliza. “Am I mad to suggest she set her cap for a tall, handsome gentleman? The sort of gentleman who could make most ladies in London swoon with just one devilish smile?”

Sophie rolled her eyes as Eliza laughed. “You sound quite smitten with him yourself. Should we warn Lord Sterling?”

“Of course not. Sterling’s got nothing to fear. I’ve been in love with him for ages,” said Georgiana with a flip of one hand. Viscount Sterling, whose property neighbored that of the Earl of Wakefield, had proposed to Georgiana as soon as she turned eighteen, and been happily accepted. Lord Wakefield had dithered and delayed the match, but everyone knew he was an eccentric fellow, and her engagement left Georgiana free to enjoy two Seasons in London, buying an endless wedding trousseau while Wakefield and Sterling argued about the settlements.

“Perhaps that’s why you should leave Sophie in peace about him,” said Eliza gently. “You’ve found your hero so easily. Not all of us are as fortunate.”

<My Once and Future Duke>“Oh, but I want you to be!” cried Georgiana, contrite. She turned to Sophie. “Is Sir Thomas really that bad?”

“No,” she lied with a smile. “He’s just not for me.” She hadn’t missed how Sterling thought the baronet would be a brilliant match for her. Sir Thomas, with his wandering hands and flexible sense of honor, would be utterly unacceptable as a husband for Lady Georgiana Lucas, even for the heiress Eliza Cross. But for Mrs. Sophie Campbell, a supposed widow of modest means who spent her evenings at a gaming club, he’d be a marvelous catch. Sophie was not unaware of her standing in society.

“A younger son, then,” said Georgiana, undeterred. “Lord Philip Lindeville.”

“Who? No!”

“You must remember him, Sophie. You’ve been seen with him several times in the last month,” said Georgiana somberly. “Sterling says he’s a great fellow, and he’s devilishly handsome.”

“Papa says he’s a rake,” reported Eliza.

“In need of reform through true love.” Georgiana winked at her.

Sophie laughed. “Far too much trouble for me, I’m sure.”

Eliza looked shocked, and Georgiana snorted in amusement. “Only you would view a suitor as trouble, Sophie!”

“Lord Philip,” she had replied, “is not a suitor.”

For some reason that conversation stuck in her mind as she reached Vega’s that night. It was a cool and cloudy evening, with passing sprinkles of rain, and she wore her crimson gown, not for luck but for cheer; the bright cotton was her favorite. When Mr. Forbes, the club manager, carried away her cloak, she caught sight of herself in the mirror above the fireplace. She didn’t feel old, but at twenty-four, neither was she young. She didn’t want to turn up her nose at mention of a suitor. Sophie wouldn’t mind at all finding a gentleman who would fall in love with her and win her love in turn. If only the men she met were interested in the same thing.

Assuming she kept winning at about the same rate, it would take her another six years to reach ten thousand pounds, the amount she’d decided meant financial security. Six years plus ten thousand pounds equaled independence. That was the equation she should keep in mind, or she’d find herself at the mercy of lecherous baronets who weren’t even as handsome as Sir Thomas Mayfield. She squared her shoulders and strolled into the salon. It didn’t take long to find a table of partners, and she took a seat with a confident smile.

<My Once and Future Duke>At least an hour passed. She lost a little at first but then made up for it. She was ahead sixty pounds when someone exclaimed behind her, “Mrs. Campbell!”

Sophie started. She and her partner, Giles Carter, were happily trouncing Mr. Whitley and Mr. Fraser in a game of whist. Whist was not only perfectly acceptable for a lady to play, it was an easy game to win when one paid attention and didn’t drink too much. Mr. Whitley wasn’t paying enough attention, and Mr. Fraser was on his third glass of madeira. Lord Philip Lindeville’s delighted greeting interrupted a winning streak of six tricks.

“What a pleasure to encounter you here.” He gave her a neat little bow.

“And you, sir.” She smiled and inclined her head. Her friends’ teasing about Lord Philip wasn’t all wrong; he was one of her frequent companions. He was charming and amusing even though he was a little too sure of his own charm. Sophie had meant what she said when she called him trouble—as a suitor.

“Won’t you play a turn with me?” He grinned and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I vowed not to come tonight, but the chance of seeing you again was too tempting.”

“I wouldn’t want to tempt any man to break his vows,” she said with a teasing smile.

He laughed. “It was a foolish vow! Come, you shall probably beat me, and that will be my penance.”

“Oh, but we’re playing here,” she tried to point out, but Lord Philip had already exchanged a glance with his friend Mr. Whitley.

That gentleman promptly pushed back his chair. “Time for me to retire. You’ve routed me thoroughly, ma’am.” He bowed, and Mr. Fraser followed suit. Mr. Carter, her partner, hesitated, but Sophie knew when Philip was determined and would not be thwarted.

She tamped down her irritation and laid down her cards. “Mr. Carter, I hope you will play with me again. I do believe we are an indomitable team at whist.” As hoped, his face eased and he even wished her luck as Lord Philip tugged her away.

“I was engaged in a game,” she reproached him as he tucked her hand around his arm. “Patience is a virtue, my lord.”

Philip grinned. “No wonder I haven’t any! I only came to speak to Dashwood, but then caught sight of you and utterly forgot my mission there.”

“Should I be flattered?” The only reason to see Mr. Dashwood, the Vega Club owner, was to vouch for a new member or to see to a gambling debt—a large one. Twice Sophie had had the good fortune to be on the winning end of a wager significant enough that Mr. Dashwood had stepped in to oversee payment. Somehow she doubted Philip would have been so easily distracted if he’d come to collect winnings.

He looked down at her. His dark hair fell in romantic waves over his forehead, and a rakish smile tilted his mouth. “Yes. You should be very flattered. Tell me you are, and I shall be flattered as well.”

He was so handsome and charming, it was a pity she would have to discourage his increasingly obvious interest. She pressed his arm. “Flattery is lightly given and so easily repaid.”

“Not lightly given,” he returned. “And please do repay it.”

<My Once and Future Duke>She laughed. “I see you’re feeling lucky tonight. Shall it be hazard, then?” Hazard was quick. A few games and she would shed him, no matter what he said or did. Lord Philip had been growing too attentive of late.

It was unfortunate, that; unknown to almost everyone in the world, she was keeping an eye out for a husband, and it would have been very convenient if he’d been acceptable. Georgiana, for one, would have been so proud of her for snaring a duke’s brother.

But as much as she liked him, Lord Philip Lindeville was most assuredly not cut out to be a husband—at least not hers. During her three years in London, Sophie had honed some very specific matrimonial requirements, and Philip barely met any. He was charming, but reckless; he was good-natured, but cocksure; he was almost sinfully attractive, from his wavy dark hair to his tall, lean form, but he was far too aware of that fact, as was every other woman in town. And even worse, what made him so appealing as a partner at Vega’s—his utter indifference to losing money—was the very thing that made him utterly unacceptable as a husband. Sophie had no desire to marry a man who would gamble away their future. So despite his impeccable connections and unmistakable interest in her, she would have to turn him off.

Giles Carter followed them to the hazard table. She gave him a rueful glance as Philip called for dice. Mr. Carter was much more in line with her object. He was at least a dozen years older than she, but possessed of his own independent income. Philip, she knew, was largely dependent on an allowance from his brother, an income he thought insufficient for a bachelor, let alone a married man. Mr Carter knew when to quit the tables, although of late he had played longer than was prudent…at least with her. Sophie hoped that was a good sign. He always lost with excellent grace, and seemed almost chagrined when he won. Mr Carter would make an excellent husband, being neither cruel nor miserly nor ugly.

However, any hope of that would be irreparably scotched if she allowed Philip to tempt her across the line of respectability. Sophie knew she was clinging to the edge of it now, and she was determined not to slip off. She wasn’t above flirting with gentlemen while she won their money, but never to the point of letting them think she wanted an affair.

“What shall we play for?” Philip held out the dice, his dark eyes gleaming at her.

“A guinea per round?”

He pulled a disappointed face as he dropped a handful of markers on the table, belying his claim that he’d only come to speak to Dashwood. “Oh. Money.”

She made herself laugh lightly, aware of Mr. Carter at her other side. “What else?” Before he could answer, she turned to the table. “Seven,” she announced, tossing the dice.

Hazard was a game of chance. A player called his main, from five to nine, and then rolled the dice. If the sum of his roll equaled his main, he had nicked it, and won the pot. If he rolled a two or three, he had thrown out, and lost. The rules got complicated beyond that, with rolls of eleven or twelve being generally losing turns, but often a player had an opportunity to roll again and again, until he lost three in succession and was forced to yield the dice.

<My Once and Future Duke>It took her three throws to win. Lord Philip applauded. “A fine start!” He always lost so easily, as if he didn’t care about the money, and he quickly racked up two losses in two rolls. A flash of pique crossed his face but only for a moment. He took up the dice and rattled them for several seconds in his palm.

Years ago at Mrs. Upton’s, Sophie had figured the odds in hazard, burning her candle to a stub as she filled the back of her mathematics primer with calculations. After the headmistress’s stern words, she never dared gamble with other girls at the academy, but the boys in the stables were another matter. She’d learned many card games from her father, but in the stables she learned dicing as well. She knew the odds of every play and throw. She learned when to be cautious and when to risk it all, and thus far she had employed these tactics splendidly—to whit, a saved sum of four thousand pounds, amassed slowly and painstakingly over three years in London, thanks mainly to the Vega Club.

Still, hazard was a fool’s game…except against Lord Philip.

He never calculated anything. If he rolled too high in one turn, he called a higher main; if he rolled too low, he called a lower one. He would improve his lot considerably if he simply played the odds, as Sophie always did. She didn’t like taking advantage of him, but tonight she was a little annoyed he had broken up her game with Mr. Carter. If she won a good sum, he’d leave her be. Some nights people practically insisted she take their money.

Giving her a sly smile, Philip rolled again and didn’t lose. His eyes grew bright with triumph, even though he hadn’t won yet. He dropped another marker onto his stake and played again.

A small crowd gathered around them, with whispered side bets flying around behind her. Sophie kept her demeanor poised and easy, watching her opponent’s play. He was on the road to ruin, she thought. It was unfortunate but undeniable. Every toss of the dice exhilarated him too much. He raised his stake every time he didn’t throw out.

In the end, it was a rather impressive eight throws before the fatal nine came. A little cheer went up as Lord Philip put back his head and groaned. He scooped up the markers and presented them to her. “Play another with me.”

“You shouldn’t,” she tried to say, feeling a twinge of conscience, but he leaned closer and winked.

“One more? Be sporting.”

She hesitated. Philip would probably remain here all night, from the looks of things. If she didn’t win his money, someone else would. Perhaps after another round she could persuade him to try something less ruinous. “I’ll play one more—but only one more…”

“She’ll win one more, she means,” said someone nearby, to laughter.

Lord Philip shot the fellow a peeved look as he collected the dice. “If I must lose, at least I’m losing to the most beautiful woman in London.” He offered her the dice with an extravagant bow, ever the flirt.

<My Once and Future Duke>Sophie also knew how to play to the crowd. This time she kissed the dice before she rolled them, and this time she nicked it—winning on the first roll, earning a huzzah from the crowd. She offered the dice to Philip. “Your cast, my lord.”

His eyes were fixed on her in unblinking fascination, his lips slightly parted in awe. “Kiss them for me,” he said, his voice dropping a register. “For luck.”

From the corner of her eye, Sophie could see Giles Carter watching, expressionless. Drat. Philip was becoming a problem; she would have to start actively avoiding him. “Since you are in dire need of it…” She blew a kiss toward the dice. “Bonne chance, my lord.”

“Stop this instant!”

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