Never Wager with a Wallflower by Virginia Heath (Excerpt)

Never Wager with a Wallflower by Virginia Heath

Chapter One NOVEMBER 1830 … “Do we have an accord, Mr. Sinclair?” As Lord Mallory was still talking to his back, Galahad wandered over to the farthest window to inspect the flaking wall and allow the silence to stretch a little bit longer. It was a tactic his grandpa had taught him back home in New York to encourage others to nervously fill the void and bare their hand. His companion didn’t disappoint. “It would be prudent to shake on it today, Mr. Sinclair, as I doubt these impressive buildings will take long to sell on the open market.” Gal rapped the most precarious-looking crack on the wall with his knuckles and, as he had hoped, a huge chunk of plaster slipped and shattered on the floor by his feet. For good measure, he kicked the rotting piece of baseboard he had selected on purpose beneath the leaking window frame, and it instantly splintered into dust, too. That was when he shook his head. He didn’t speak. Didn’t need to. Because his wily grandpa also taught him that sometimes no words worked far better than all the clever words in the world. He didn’t need to turn around to know that despite the cold, the seller was sweating as he awaited his verdict. So profusely he could almost hear it leaking from the man’s pores. “I could drop another five hundred, Mr. Sinclair, but that is my absolute limit.” Which miraculously put him at the absolute top end of Gal’s. “You’ll be getting a steal for that price. An absolute steal. I doubt you’ll find anything any cheaper in Covent Garden.” It might well be pushing the limits of his pocket, but a “steal” didn’t even begin to describe it. Three adjacent four-story town houses in the beating heart of London’s pleasure capital, for just shy of six thousand pounds, was the deal of the century! Neglected empty husks they might be, but the shells were as sound as sound could be. He’d been hunting for a year for a property like this, and everything he’d seen had been smaller, twice the price, and nowhere near as well situated as this trio of matching beauties. He had never been one for dancing, but while his expression remained blandly unconvinced, inside he was twirling pirouettes while his mind was already adjusting his original plans and drawing up new ones. Because as his canny grandpa also often said, plans, like dreams, should never be set in stone but rather allowed to shift with the tide, so a wise man kept them adaptable. Especially when the opportunity exceeded all his expectations. And boy, this did! Three buildings! All in a row! Five minutes in and his whirring mind knew already that he had to knock them all into one grand space. A unique theme for every floor. Music, singers, dancing girls, and a bar that never ran dry on the bottom level to attract all the fun lovers as they tumbled out of the nearby theaters. Gaming tables on the second and third floors. Affordable and raucous on two for the occasional gambler or those with limited budgets out for a good time. Higher stakes, more exclusive and intimate on three so that those serious about their wagering wouldn’t have to waste time with the hobbyists. That floor would be the holy grail. Swanky and luxurious and by invitation only. Served by a separate guarded but gilded staircase that rose majestically from the lobby for all to see—but for only the chosen few to climb. Something to aspire to, because the British loved nothing more than to feel superior to their fellow men. Or women. He intended to buck the usual trend and throw his doors open to anyone with a purse stuffed with jangling coins. Gal didn’t care who his future customers were so long as they spent their money. Never mind that putting the cat among the pigeons in the stuffy, and often suffocating, confines of English society like that also warmed the egalitarian American half of his blood. He’d snag the entire attic for his own office and apartment because he was all done with temporary lodgings. After more than a decade of roaming, he wanted his own place. His own walls to do with as he pleased. His own décor and furniture. That sense of hearth and home, which had been missing for too long. Even the Albany, where his aristocratic cousin had somehow managed to finesse him a suite of well-appointed rooms, had too many rules and caveats for Gal’s liking. And it was too constricting. Too … English. Mallory’s feet shuffled, his obvious impatience marking him as desperate. “I must warn you—I do have other interested parties.” Gal quashed the urge to roll his eyes and give this hapless lord a friendly lecture on the dark art of negotiation, because they both knew he was currently the only ready buyer. Mallory’s widowed and childless aunt hadn’t been dead more than a few days, and because she had passed miles away in her seaside house in Brighton, the news of her death hadn’t yet reached the capital’s newspapers, so nothing had been advertised. Never mind that British politeness dictated that any potential rival would feel duty bound not to inquire about the future of her extensive and lucrative property portfolio until she was safely ensconced underground. Thankfully, not hailing from these parts had always been more beneficial than a hindrance, so he wasn’t similarly afflicted, and, as the Brits were so fond of saying, the early bird always caught the worm. That’s why he had taken it upon himself to call on her only nephew himself bright and early this morning, fresh from his own long and hasty journey back from Brighton last night, to be the first to offer his condolences. Then he’d hinted he might be in the market for some property in Covent Garden if Lord Mallory happened to be in the market to sell off some of his fresh inheritance. Cash, of course, because cash was always king no matter what a man’s rank or nationality, and he had it on good authority that Mallory was strapped for it. Many suspected the reckless young lord might not have two ha’pennies to rub together, a quaint English colloquialism that he loved and used often, but he knew it without a shadow of a doubt. Mallory was up to his eyeballs in debt and trouble, and with some nasty characters, too. The sort who owned the most debauched hells in the capital, which catered to the most base and hedonistic clientele. The sort who beat you to a pulp first then asked questions after. Absolutely not Gal’s sort of business at all, but as gambling was his stock-in-trade, he kept his ear to the ground for just such an eventuality. Another one of his grandpa’s invaluable tenets. A good businessman had to go find his own opportunities first, then make damn sure he seized them at the opportune moment before somebody else did if he wanted to get ahead. Moments certainly didn’t come more opportune than this, and for once he could not see any catch when there was always at least one. Always some fly in the ointment to spoil complete perfection and force you to grind your teeth. “Double that and I’ll shake on the deal this second.” Galahad turned smiling and held out his hand even though he knew he was pushing his luck. He’d always intended to buy one big building, not three, and renovating this vast space on what was left of his budget would take some serious juggling. But fortune favored the brave, or so the old proverb claimed, and when opportunity knocked on your front door, only a fool didn’t fling it open in welcome, so Gal would make this work. No matter what it took. Mallory blinked, then swallowed, so he knew he had won before the fellow lunged for his hand. “All right!” The relief on his face was palpable as he cranked his arm like a pump handle as if he hoped water might miraculously shoot from Gal’s ears. “On the proviso that the funds will be transferred with all haste, as we discussed on the way over, Mr. Sinclair.” That the money-hungry lord had dragged Gal to Covent Garden almost as soon as he had called at the fellow’s house was his first mistake; discussing the swift exchange of any fee so hot on its heels was his second, because any idiot surely knew that when you appeared too eager to sell, you lost all the power in a negotiation. That rookie mistake had turned a speculative visit by way of a rumor into something so tangible and real he could smell it, while also giving Gal all the best cards. Which made this the perfect moment to play his ace. “You can have it all tomorrow if your solicitor draws the papers up quick.” He winked at the man, who was now practically salivating at the seductive thought of a lifeline of unexpected cash so soon. “In my experience, it is staggering how rapidly something can happen if you offer to pay a man double his usual fee.” Not to mention that an expedited sale worked in Galahad’s favor, too, when the truth was three adjacent four-story town houses in the beating heart of Covent Garden were also rarer than hen’s teeth. The last thing he wanted was some other entrepreneurial type swooping in and stealing this sweet opportunity away after he had waited so long for it. “Greasin’ the wheels also gives me less time to come to my senses and change my mind about buyin’ this rickety ruin so far away from home.” Experience had taught him to over-exaggerate his accent at moments like these to highlight the sense of otherness that naturally made people wary, making sure he used enough charm to soften some of the intentional sting in his words. So he laughed as he slapped Mallory on the back, ensuring his expression showed enough ambiguous insincerity to sow the seeds of doubt that he might very well change his unfathomable foreign mind if the solicitor dallied and take his huge bundle of cash elsewhere. With perfect timing, which he had to stifle the urge to cheer at, another precarious piece of plaster chose that exact moment to crash to the floor beside its twin, causing Mallory’s eyes to widen. “I shall pay him triple, Mr. Sinclair—and will begin the rapidest of processes this very morning.” Eager to get going and get those papers drawn before the rest of the walls collapsed and his shady associates murdered him, Mallory pulled up the collar of his coat and strode toward the door. Once outside, he used an enormous rusty key to lock the building, then pocketed it before he shook Gal’s hand again. “I shan’t keep you, Mr. Sinclair, as I’m sure a busy man like yourself has better things to do this dour Tuesday morning than freezing to death.” He gestured to the icy street and the filthy piles of slush clogging the gutters. “It’s cold enough to freeze your knackers off.” Mallory scurried off to his carriage without offering him a ride back to Mayfair, no doubt already mentally divvying his windfall among his many creditors, leaving Gal standing on the steps of what he hoped would one day soon be London’s biggest and brightest gaming club. Cold enough to freeze your knackers off. Another quirky new British saying to add to his ever-increasing lexicon of conversational oddities. Four years on since he’d crossed the Atlantic and still half the things that came out of his new countrymen’s mouths both baffled and amused him. So many he collected them like curios to ponder when the mood struck, or practice when the moment called for it. People liked people like them, after all, and sometimes it paid to blend in as much as it often paid to stand out. Besides, for better or for worse, London was home now. There was nothing left for him across the ocean except memories, and he had brought all of those with him—the good and the bad. The family business was gone. The family house he had spent his childhood in was long gone, too, and the only blood tie he had left was to his cousin Giles who was born and bred here. That had been as good a reason as any to put down roots in this strange land when he’d had nowhere and nobody else to anchor him to a place, and he still didn’t regret it even if he was certain he would never fully fit in here. But such was life and his, all things considered, was currently very good indeed. He had enough money saved in the bank for this venture, he had a head full of plans he’d tinkered with for a decade, and now, apparently, he finally owned the property to carry them all out in. Best of all, there wasn’t a single fly to be seen anywhere to sully his ointment. Grinning, he wandered down to the street to survey his new empire properly and metaphorically patted himself on the back as he did so. It might well clear him out of every cent of his hard-earned savings, but this was an excellent location on the busy thoroughfare of Long Acre, blessed with more passing trade than he had ever envisioned. The first of his three identical new buildings on the end of the row of terraced town houses sat on the corner of Mercer Street, which would be the ideal place to have the entrance because the comings and goings of his boisterous clientele would affect none of his neighbors. It was close enough to the Rookery of St. Giles to be disreputable without being dangerous, and near enough to Drury Lane to draw the respectable theater crowd, who did not know it yet but would be his bread and butter. He measured out the entire breadth then length of his three properties using strides that were as close to a yard as he could get them, then did a pleasing calculation in his head confirming that he had twice as much floor space as he had originally envisioned. Which meant this place had the potential to earn him twice as much money as he had hoped, allowing him to swiftly refill the hole in his bank balance. So all in all it was perfect. More than perfect. Utterly perfect in fact. After four solid years of relentless work near the bottom of the ladder he was going to climb up the damn thing, and he intended to do it in style. If there was a drawback to his purchase, or an annoying little catch somewhere beyond the enormous cost, he certainly couldn’t see it. He spun a slow circle on the boundary of the third and final house, noticing that it sat beside a fourth that occupied another corner, so he took a moment to contemplate that, too. Although clearly occupied, this identical building wasn’t in a better state than the three of his. The window frames were rotted in places where they hadn’t seen a lick of paint in years. Like asymmetrical freckles on a face, many of the rectangular leaded panes within them were boarded where the glass was missing. Those mismatched splats of wood announced to the world that the owner had to count his pennies. The misaligned front door had seen better days, as had its dull brass work and dirty façade. A quick scan of the roof showed tiles to be missing and broken pots on the chimney. The more he looked, the more he saw there was an air of dilapidation about it hinting that the owner was really struggling with the place. That made the cogs of his resourceful mind turn some more. There was another potential opportunity here—he could smell it. Not now, perhaps, as he didn’t have the ready funds for another building yet—but in a year or two, when his coffers were replenished, this would be another sound investment to make an offer on. To own the whole block would be magnificent. The possibilities … A carriage pulled up alongside, distracting him from his thoughts. One he recognized only too well. The door opened and a certain someone emerged, clutching one of the ever-present books she carried and the smallest, silliest little reticule he had ever seen. A bag that would barely hold a few coins, let alone anything useful, and which was completely at odds with her practical, no-nonsense character. Just one glance his way was enough to make her simultaneously purse her plump lips and look down her nose as she inclined her head in disapproving greeting, hugging the book to her middle like a shield. “Galahad Sinclair. What on earth are you doing in Covent Garden this early in the day? Or should I not ask because this is Covent Garden and you are … well … you?” Never had one insignificant three-letter word been filled with such unsavory implication. She was always testy with him. Always had been in the entire four years he had known her. For all that time, he had walked on eggshells around her. Never quite feeling comfortable in her presence despite her sister being married to his cousin Giles and their colliding infrequently as a result. They had never taken to each other. Always tacitly avoided much in the way of interaction. Even when they had both been made godparents to little Giselle—Giles and Diana’s cute-as-a-button daughter—they had maintained a wary six feet of distance while standing at the christening font. He blamed the way they had met, which to be fair to the both of them had been the most unconventional meeting of two people possible. One minute he had been snooping around his cousin’s moonlit grounds waving a lamp, pretending to be the dumbest intruder who ever walked God’s earth. The next flat on his back in the mud after being floored by a raving banshee in a nightgown screaming blue murder in the loyal defense of her family. He didn’t mind admitting she had scared the bejesus out of him that night. Still left him unsettled, truth be told, although hell would have to freeze over before he ever admitted that aloud, so he doffed his hat with the lazy smile that was guaranteed to vex her. Copyright © 2023 by Susan Merritt

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