The Wedding Wager by Eva Devon

 

Chapter One

Derek Marcus Andrew Kent, the Duke of Chase, did not usually consider murder.

Tonight was an exception.

As he stood near the fireplace, leaning against the marble mantel, sipping his brandy, he watched the events unfold with a shudder of horror.

He had seen many a shocking thing in his time. Men gambling their entire fortunes away, destroying their families on the toss of dice or the turn of a card. It was part of life when one had more money than one knew what to do with. More often than not, instead of doing something sensible or productive for all, some did things that were absurd.

Tonight was the most absurd of all.

As he watched Lord Craven and the Marquess of Halford tossing dice from a cup in the candlelit room, he swallowed the acrid taste of disgust crawling up his throat. The scents of cologne and courtesans’ perfumes wafting through the air did not help.

Even through the loud, boasting roars of the men and ladies of the night winning and losing at the tables, he couldn’t tear his gaze away from Craven and Halford, a man he’d always thought decent.

What was transpiring this night was not typical.

And because of the shocking nature of it, a crowd of bucks, dandies, rakes, and rogues gathered about, hanging on each roll. Those gentlemen stood with eager anticipation, smoking cheroots, drinking their brandy, laughing, guffawing, and making loud noises of shock and amusement as the dice rolled.

The wager was a lady, and not just any lady. A young lady. The Marquess of Halford’s eldest daughter.

Chase could scarcely believe it was truly happening, but happening it was. A wave of disdain for the men cheering and laughing as if the young lady was nothing more than a broodmare at market swept through him.

He shouldn’t have been shocked. It was a general attitude of many gentlemen regarding the ladies of their family. They were nothing more than pawns to increase wealth, power, and lands.

It was, of course, illegal to wager a daughter, a sister, a wife, but illegal to aristocrats often meant nothing, as he well knew. The truth was, there was a precedent in it.

After all, the Duke of Richmond had lost his own son’s hand in a gambling wager, and that son had had to marry a young lady over that wager. Thered been no choice for the young people. Oh no. Honor dictated the bet be upheld.

Honor.

Chase took a long drink, unable to resist the tug that he do something. Anything to end the inhumanity.

It was as if history was unfolding right here, but what the devil was Halford thinking? He was a scholar. A lover of artifacts and history. He had no great reputation for lechery or misdeeds. He was more likely to be seen in a quiet corner, sipping brandy and reading. Not wagering his fortune, let alone his daughter.

On the other hand, Lord Craven had a reputation of being an absolute bounder. Everyone knew this. Yes, he had wealth, but no one liked him. He was not a man of substance. As a matter of fact, he was older and had a reputation for leering at the young ladies.

Chase had heard of Victoria Kirby, daughter of the Marquess of Halford. Her reputation was all but legend in the ton. She was difficult, unpleasant, and unattractive—according to popular opinion. It was a reputation that she had gained for herself, because, well, when one apparently was not a diamond of the first water, sometimes one’s tongue was the only weapon one had.

He’d never met her himself, but he rather admired that fortifying reputation she’d developed.

Unfortunately, it seemed that her father had grown tired of her marriage-less state and was taking matters into his own hands. Halford was important enough that a man like Craven would be thrilled at the familial attachment…and Craven definitely had a gleam in his eye that suggested he quite liked the idea of winning said young lady, as if she were a pile of coins.

Craven was all but salivating as he clutched the dice cup in his ringed hands. The lech clearly knew he was about to gain a young lady of great fortune, good family, and a wife who would hate him. A young wife he could break like a filly.

A terrible thing that some men seemed to enjoy.

A young lady of Victoria Kirby’s reputation would certainly hate a man like Craven. She had a reputation for intelligence, for wit, and for the ability to cut a gentleman down—something, once again, that Chase admired.

Something Craven would love to blot out.

Blast, he could take it no longer, and before he could think another thought, his feet were guiding him over to the table.

He stood between the two gentlemen and placed his snifter down, declaring his intention to stay. “This is a devil’s bargain,” he drawled.

Halford shrugged. “Devil’s bargain it may be, but happening it is.”

Chase ground his teeth but asked with deadly calm, “Are you truly gambling your daughter away?”

You have eyes and ears, Your Grace,” Halford stated, lifting a brow, completely unashamed.

It was all he could do not to throttle the man. But that would not aid Lady Victoria in the slightest. Instead, he gave a cold smile. “Then I shall wager.”

“Shall you, Your Grace?” Halford said lightly, though there was a sudden brightness to his gaze. “I am most surprised. I heard you’ve no interest to marry.”

“I have no interest,” he agreed, pulling back the chair before him and sitting at the table. “But I cannot wait by and witness this unfold. Since no one is going to step forward and rescue the lady, I find that I must.”

Craven gave him a dark stare. “Your presence is not required, and I am about to win.”

“Not while I’m here,” Chase replied evenly, though his insides coiled. Bloody hell, he wished he could smash Craven’s face against the table. But dukes didn’t do that. Oh no, dukes used other weapons of destruction.

Halford gave him a quick, nervous look, then passed the dice and cup over to him. “We’re playing best two out of three, Your Grace. If I lose, Craven wins her. Are you throwing your hand in?”

“It seems so,” Chase stated. Halford’s strange determination to play this out struck him as odd. The whole situation was sick. Particularly since he felt certain that if Halford won this round…he might simply wager Lady Victoria again this night.

He felt confidence combined with anger as he eased back in his chair.

Luck had always been on his side. Even when the darkest day of his life had unfolded, Lady Fortuna had laid a gilded carpet before him for his feet to tread.

Chase didn’t lose at cards or at dice, not when he chose to play. All his life, he’d been an incredibly lucky individual, whether it had been on the battlefield or in the halls of power. He always succeeded, and he knew he would succeed again now. He had to.

A young lady’s life was on the line. He had vowed never to have an heir and avoided matrimony. But if he was going to marry someone…

Victoria Kirby would do very well.

And he sure as hell wasn’t about to let her go to someone like Craven.

He took the cup, shook it, and rolled the dice. A general sound of excitement and interest went up around them. He had rolled an eleven.

Craven let out a curse. “She was mine until you sat down.”

“More pity you,” Chase said. “But I have not won yet, have I?”

“Indeed, you have not,” Halford said.

Craven narrowed his dark eyes, picked up the dice, shook the cup, and rolled a nine. Craven cursed at the sight of the black dots on the white ivory squares. Halford, on the other hand, gave the strangest look.

One that Chase couldn’t quite read.

Halford picked up the dice himself, rolled, and made a six.

Chase let out a derisive sound. “You really would lose her to Craven, wouldn’t you?”

“Take care, Your Grace, or I shall call you out,” Craven gritted.

“Oh, do,” Chase said with a hard stare. “I should be happy to face you on a field and ask which area of your body you’d like to receive a wound.”

Craven paled.

Chase’s reputation on the dueling field was well known. He hated duels, but every now and then he did have to fight them. It was all part of his reputation, all part of the life he’d chosen not very long ago—to develop a reputation as a rake and a wastrel.

It had taken him time to build said reputation, but build it he had. And now, men were generally terrified of facing him on the field.

No, he only faced enraged husbands, and Craven was not an enraged husband. All others didn’t dare challenge him.

Chase took up the dice, put them in the cup, and shook. The crowd around them veritably held their breath.

He rolled.

The dice tumbled over the surface.

And rolled an eight.

His own tension began to build.

He prayed to God his winning streak did not end here. But in this particular circumstance, he had no idea what was about to happen. He noticed Halford put the dice back into the cup and pass them to Craven.

Craven picked them up, shook, and rolled. His breath caught in his throat as he waited for the two rolling dice to come to a stop.

A seven.

Halford looked at Chase. “You’ve won my daughter, Your Grace.”

A bitter triumph laced through him, and he turned to his future father-in-law. “What if I do not wish to take her?”

Halford’s face tightened, and he cleared his throat before stating, “Then Craven will do the job.”

Chase’s lip curled. “Are you so determined to get rid of her?”

Halford made no reply. A look of determination shone in his silvery blue eyes, as if he knew he was playing with fire but refused to back away to safety.

This was an odd game. Chase sensed it in his gut.

He wanted to rail at the man. To set him down before all. But he had a more important mission at hand—securing Lady Victoria from any more potential abuse from the man who was supposed to protect her.

He understood how so-called great men could be so brutal, so selfish. And he would fight against it until the day he died. With every fiber. With every breath.

“Fine, then,” he stated. She is mine.”

“Glad to hear it,” Halford said as he poured himself a glass of wine, his hand shaking ever so slightly. “I shall break the news to her this morning. No doubt she’ll be delighted.”

Chase shoved back his chair, barely able to hide his complete dislike for the two men.

Craven was staring at him as if he was a veritable demon he wished he could banish to Hell.

It was Craven who was the devil, of course.

Chase stalked away from the table.

There was really only one thing he could do now: go immediately to his future wife and tell her what had occurred. He needed to arm Victoria Kirby with the truth, because when her father came home, Chase had no idea how she would react, and he had no idea if Craven would behave honorably.

For he was not a man of honor.

Now, Chase had one duty, to protect Victoria Kirby from her father. And protect her sister, too, because Victoria’s young sister was beautiful, and Halford was on some strange tract, gambling away his daughters, making certain that he was a man without the responsibility of finding good husbands. No, Halford had picked to wager them in a gambling club instead.

And given his own vow to never have an heir, this was a difficult situation.

As he headed through the crowded room, ignoring loud bellows of congratulations on his pending marriage, and braying laughter at the horror of him having to marry a woman like Victoria…he realized Victoria Kirby truly was the perfect choice for him.

She was everything that he needed in a wife, someone he would never want romantically, someone he would never desire intimately, and someone he could allow to do exactly as she chose.

Now, he had to pray that she’d see he was the perfect husband for her in turn.