Rules for Heiresses by Amalie Howard
Antigua, West Indies, 1864
Lady Ravenna Huntley, unwed sister to the Duke of Embry, was in the biggest pickle of her life, and that was saying a lot, considering she’d been a fugitive on one of her brother’s ships across the Atlantic. Now, she was about to lose a substantial fortune playing vingt-et-un while disguised as a man…unless she did something she’d never considered before.
Unless she cheated.
This win was a matter of survival. She was almost out of money, barring her last pair of earbobs. Notwithstanding her previous exploits, her brother would have her hide if his precious sister ended up getting thrown into the stocks on an island in the British West Indies.
But she wasn’t a cheater and never had been. Ravenna could understand how desperate times made people consider unpalatable options because at the moment, she truly was out of options. She hadn’t fully thought through her plan. Yet again.
She could win if she bluffed her way through it, but if she lost… Well, better not think of that. Why was it so bloody sweltering? It felt as though sweat was pouring down her back in rivers. She eyed the men gathering around the table in the gaming hell at fashionable Starlight Hotel and Club and tugged at her collar.
Jump first and think laterhad served her marginally well over the past six months.
Not now, naturally.
Her overwarm skin itched beneath the scratchy fabric of her clothing. Men’s fashion, while practical, chafed unbearably, especially when sweat was involved. And right now, she was boiling like a hog farmer on a blistering day. A part of her—a sad, whimsical, minuscule part of her—missed the silks and the satins of her gowns, but those times were behind her. These days, she went by Mr. Raven Hunt, young nob and ne’er-do-well who enjoyed a spot of gambling…especially when finding his amiable, charming self in need of quick, easy coin.
Though said coin at the moment was neither quick nor easy.
She’d lost count of the cards ages ago…because of him.
Ravenna gulped, her heart kicking against her ribs, currently restrained beneath a starched band of linen. Despite its functional purpose of keeping her identity as a female hidden, the stiff, restrictive layer made it quite hard to breathe. And at the moment, she needed to capably inhale, exhale, and focus, mostly because of the inscrutable gentleman across the felted table who watched her with hard, piercing eyes.
Mr. Chase. Shipping magnate. Undisputed local sovereign.
Ruthless, cold, powerful.
Her one remaining adversary.
His sinful looks didn’t help. Lips, luscious and wicked to a fault, were framed by a square jawline covered in a dusting of dark shadow, and an aquiline nose was drawn between high-bladed cheekbones. A pair of thick slashes for brows sat over an onyx gaze that was so mercurial it was impossible to read. His eyes reminded her of a churning ocean at midnight, lightning flashing over its surface. Those storm-dark eyes were a study in temptation alone—she’d only ever seen such intensity in one person before. She shook off the unwelcome near miss of a memory. It had been a very long time ago, and that boy was dead and gone.
This man made parts of her sit up and take notice.
Forget his looks, you twit, and think!
Ravenna shook herself hard, hoping to knock some sense into her own head. What were the odds that he would be at her table, over this pot? As far as she knew, Mr. Chase wasn’t known to frequent the exclusive gaming rooms of the Starlight Hotel. On occasion, he’d have dinner at the exclusive restaurant there, a beautiful woman on his arm, but Ravenna had only glimpsed him from a distance.
It would be impossible to live on an island and not know who wielded the most influence here or the man who ran most of the trading ports in the islands. But powerful people made for powerful enemies, and she’d hoped to avoid him and escape his attention.
No such luck, however.
He did not resemble a soft, displaced Englishman in the least. Ravenna narrowed her eyes and fought the urge to yank on her sweltering, suffocating collar. While he didn’t seem to be an expert gambler, she could tell he wasn’t used to losing. She frowned. Had he meant to play poorly early on so she wouldn’t suspect him…and then lure her into this final snare? Or was she reading into things?
Blast, her own sharp instincts were failing her.
She peeked at her excellent hand—possibly a winning hand—unless her opponent held a natural of twenty-one. The last round had seen all of the other players overdrawn, except for the dratted Mr. Chase who claimed he was content with his two cards. Ravenna eyed them and ground her jaw in frustration. She was so close. She needed the money for lodgings and food, or even passage back to England. And besides, Mr. Chase didn’t need it. He was richer than Midas, or so the rumor mill proclaimed.
A bead of sweat rolled down her skin, beneath the linen drawn mercilessly across her breasts. She wished she’d left an hour ago, her pockets well lined and heavy. But no. Greed, overconfidence, and plain stupidity had taken over.
And she might as well admit it: smitten lady parts.
Not just because Mr. Chase was beyond a shade of a doubt unnervingly gorgeous, but because her shocking attraction to him—to any man—was something she had never, ever experienced. His arrival had thrown her off her game.
Ravenna didn’t fancy gentlemen; she didn’t fancy anyone.
In London, suitor after suitor had been foisted upon her—rich, titled, handsome fellows—and she’d felt nothing. Even when offers had been made, she had found a way to thwart them.
After all, she’d been engaged twice and almost compromised into a third betrothal.
The first had been arranged in her infancy, but that betrothal had been squashed by her father when her future groom had taken off for parts unknown without so much as a by-your-leave. Ravenna didn’t know what could possibly have made Cordy do such a thing, but she hadn’t dwelled on it. She’d been glad to be rid of the pesky menace!
Over the years, the two of them had been occasional friends but mostly enemies, having childhood adventures between their adjoining country estates in Kettering. He had been obnoxious and arrogant, and he had thrown it in her face that when they were married, she would have to do everything he said. He’d sported a blackened eye for weeks after that declaration.
Much later on after his disappearing act, she’d been saddened to learn from his brother that he’d perished from illness.
Betrothal number two had been a momentary blip in sanity. After her brother Rhystan’s love match, Ravenna had felt the first stirrings of indecision. Didn’t she want a family of her own? She would have to wed…eventually. Perhaps she could attract the ideal sort of gentleman: old, bored, maybe on his deathbed, and willing to let her live her life. Lord Thatcher had ticked all the boxes—widower, older, quiet—and after he’d proposed, she convinced herself she might have been content. But in the end, Ravenna couldn’t go through with it.
Her third and final almost engagement, though it could hardly even be called that, had caused her to flee London on her brother’s ship. Ever since her come-out, the Marquess of Dalwood had been persistent in a way that had made her skin crawl. She’d barely escaped his slimy clutches.
“Are you going to play, lad?” The low, lazy drawl drizzled through her chaotic thoughts like thick, smoky honey.
She peeked up at Mr. Chase through her lashes and grunted a noncommittal response. Drat, he really was stunning…stunning in the way she imagined a fallen angel would be. A sultry, terrible, beautiful angel meant to lure poor innocent souls into doing depraved things. Her skin heated with what could only be a surge of primitive lust. Ravenna opened her mouth, not even sure what was going to come out—a breathy Take me now or a much smarter I withdraw.
“What’s it to be then?” Mr. Chase asked, idly tapping his long, elegant, tanned fingers against his cards in a repeated sequence that made her stare. His little finger tapped followed by the ring finger, then the middle, ending with his index finger. Those hands looked familiar and strange at the same time. Ravenna felt she might be hallucinating. His voice recalled her with a snap. “I haven’t got all night.”
“A man has to think.”
“I could have sailed to England in the time it takes you to think.”
The other gentlemen at the table had long since backed out, and now it was down to the two of them. He reminded her of a proud, terrifying dragon sitting atop his treasure, daring anyone to come take it. And here she was…attempting to do just that. “You can forfeit if you’re in a hurry,” she grumbled.
“Why would I when I have the winning hand?”
“I’m sure you think you do, especially as quite a bit of money is at stake,” Ravenna remarked, keeping her naturally husky tones low. A man like him missed nothing, and while her disguise of a young, rich, well-born chap had served to fool many, she had the feeling it would not trick him so easily. She had the advantage as dealer, but if she took one more card, she could easily overdraw and lose. Twenty was solid and she doubted he had a natural. Those two cards under his drumming fingertips taunted her.
Mr. Chase peered at her. “What are you called?”
Hiding her sudden dread, Ravenna sketched a cheerful bow from her seated position, hand tipping the brim of her hat. “Mr. Raven Hunt, at your service. Seventh son to a seventh son seeking his fortune, friendship, and a fine adventure.” She cringed. It was a smidge too dramatic, but she held on to her charming grin as though it were a shield.
Eventually, one side of his full lips curled up at the corner into a half smirk. “You’re barely wet behind the ears. What’s a whelp like you doing here?”
“I’m old enough to seek my own way.”
“Is that what you’re doing?” She was still contemplating how to respond when he leaned back in his chair. “I make it my business to know everyone who comes onto my island.”
“Is that a fact, Your High-Handedness?” she shot back.
“Careful, puppy.” His lips tugged into a full smile, though it didn’t make her feel any better. This one was a downright threat. Ravenna bristled. No one, not even Rhystan, had ever spoken to her with such condescension. Who did he think he was?
A duke’s heir, her brain interjected. If local gossip was to be believed anyhow. But the rumor mill on the island was unreliable at best. He had money, certainly—the cut of his clothing revealed that—but Mr. Chase didn’t carry himself like elitist British nobility. Notwithstanding the delicious layer of scruff covering that hard jaw, his attitude was relaxed and unconcerned as though he didn’t need an English title to flaunt his power. No, that came from within…from someone who had earned his place in the world and reveled in it.
Even now, a muscle in his jaw flexed with impatience, a slight tell that there was a good chance he was bluffing and held nothing. Besides, she had three of the aces and the last had already passed. Hadn’t it? Angry at herself for losing the count in the first place, she considered the odds. There was no way he had a natural. Even if he had twenty, she would still win as ties paid the dealer.
With a grand flourish, Ravenna set down her cards. She shot him a wink. “What do you know, old man, you just got trounced by a pup.”
* * *
Courtland Chase sat back in his chair.
Old man?The lad had balls, he’d give him that. Word of the boy’s winning streak had filtered up to him, mostly from grumbling members. This was his hotel and his club, and he made it his business to know what went on. At first, he thought the boy a cheat, but his skill with the cards was extraordinary. Closer scrutiny revealed that the lad didn’t need to cheat to win; he simply kept track of the cards that had been dealt. It was bloody genius.
A fascinated Courtland had kept a watchful eye on the young man from afar for a few weeks, the boy’s natural baby-faced charm making him a popular addition to aristocratic circles. There was something uncannily familiar about that stubborn jaw—the arrogant tilt of that head—but Courtland couldn’t figure out what it was.
The lad was so young he barely had any hair on his pallid chin, but aside from his skill, something about him had rubbed at Courtland. It wasn’t anything more than a feeling that something was out of place, but his instincts had never served him wrong. The boy was hiding something. Not that many of the gents here didn’t—half of them had run from responsibility or duty in England.
Technically, Courtland himself had been run off, but what was in the past was in the past. This was his life now and this was his domain.
Which brought him back to his current predicament.
Disappointment warred with admiration. Skill didn’t mean the boy hadn’t practiced some clever sleight of hand. Nine cards adding up to twenty was incredibly lucky. Or extremely resourceful. Courtland didn’t know how, but the more he thought about it, the more it was likely that the boy had probably cheated. He had to set an example or thieves would run roughshod all over him. No one had that kind of luck.
Courtland set his cards down—without disclosing them—and steepled his fingers over his chest. “We don’t abide cheaters at the Starlight.”
“I’m not a cheater.”
Courtland’s brows rose in challenge. “Aren’t you?”
“Nine cards and not overdrawing is more than sheer skill.”
“Sore loser?” a confident Hunt shot back. “I wouldn’t have countenanced it.”
Courtland blinked. What an odd choice of phrase. It tickled at his memory. Not that the local toffs didn’t speak the Queen’s English, but it wasn’t as common a saying on the island. It was a pretentious expression, typically wielded by some censorious tongue in a London drawing room. His own stepmother had been fond of it.
A boy like you, better than my Stinson? I couldn’t countenance it.
Swallowing hard, he shrugged off the old anger and rush of unworthiness. His mother had been born a free woman of mixed heritage. His father, a duke’s spare, had loved and married her and, when she died in childbirth, brought his infant son back to England to be raised in his family home. When Courtland was barely a few months old, his father had remarried—most likely to secure him a replacement mother—but it became apparent by the time he was five that his new stepmother didn’t care to raise another woman’s child.
Who his own mother had been didn’t signify…until it did.
Until Courtland was deemed a hindrance to the new marchioness’s ambition.
And once his father died, she’d made it her mission to get rid of Courtland. It was obvious she wanted the dukedom for her own son, born shortly after him, though Courtland couldn’t imagine how she intended to accomplish that, short of murder. Primogeniture was a devil of a thing.
She resented that he was heir as the firstborn male and despised him for it.
Her son too.
At home, his younger half brother had made life intolerable, and when they were away at Harrow, life had become unbearable. He’d fought and was bloodied every day by his so-called peers, including Stinson, whom Courtland suspected was behind a lot of the hostility and certainly relished his older brother’s torture. He’d defended himself. Who wouldn’t? Eventually, they’d kicked him out at sixteen, citing rebelliousness and belligerence.
The marchioness—by way of Stinson—had offered him passage anywhere he wanted and enough money to live on and support a small retinue. He was young, but he did not return to London or to the ancestral seat in Kettering. He’d boarded a train to Europe instead. He’d then apprenticed to a Spanish railway industrialist and paid his own way to finish his education at the Central University of Madrid.
Blessed with a keen mind, he invested heavily in shipping and trade, and he eventually migrated to the West Indies to see if he could locate any of his maternal family. When he had arrived, it’d been a shock to his system. A wonderful life-changing shock—one he’d sensed in the air he’d breathed into his lungs and felt to the marrow of his bones. This was home.
The British gentry had welcomed him with open arms, but they’d always been swayed by pretty faces and prettier fortunes. The islanders had taken longer, but he’d been determined to earn their trust. And he had. Now, Courtland belonged here. He’d built his fortune and reinvested in local infrastructure. The Starlight was his kingdom, and here, he reigned.
This bold, cocksure boy who was testing his patience needed to know his place.
“I never lose,” he told the smug Mr. Hunt.
“Everyone loses sometimes,” the lad shot back. “Get used to it.”
Courtland smirked. “Not me.”
“‘Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.’”
An unexpected chuckle burst out of him. “Let me guess, you forgot to mention you’re the seventh son of a vicar?”
From beneath the wild sprigs of auburn curls poking askew from beneath the boy’s hat, sharp eyes the color of polished pennies narrowed on him. They shone with intelligence and suspicion. Good, the brat wasn’t foolish. “Something like that. I’ll just collect my winnings and be off, then.”
Hunt stood and pulled his coat tight, his fingers darting up to the inside of his waistcoat. Courtland noted the garment was well stitched, though the edges along the coat cuffs had seen some wear. It seemed like normal wear and tear for such fabric, but Courtland suddenly felt sure there might be a card hidden in one of those sleeves. “Wait,” he commanded in a deadly soft voice.
The young man froze. Courtland could care less about the money, but the principle mattered. His gaze glanced to the crowd standing a few feet away and those seated at the table. If he didn’t act and Hunt had indeed cheated, it would encourage others, and that, he could not permit.
He nodded to one of the men behind him and the porter stepped up to the boy, grabbing him by his arms. Hunt tried to pull away without success. “Unhand me at once, sir!”
“Remove your coat,” Courtland ordered.
“What? No!” The boy’s coppery eyes rounded with panic. “What kind of establishment is this? I’ll have you know I will seek out the owner of the Starlight and have you thrown bodily from this hotel. How dare you, sir? You cannot do this.”
“You’re in luck, puppy. I’m the owner so feel free to state your grievance at any time. Now, remove that coat.”
“This is an outrage,” the boy insisted, his thin shoulders trembling with indignation.
His mouth opened and closed, a rivulet of sweat trickling from his temple to the hairless apple of his cheek. He was a baby. Courtland wouldn’t put him at more than seventeen, if that. The thin brown mustache over his lip seemed out of place on his face, and it also seemed to be traveling of its own accord and curling away at the corner. The more the youth struggled, the more it shifted. Courtland’s gaze narrowed on the brown stubble along the lad’s sloping downy jaw where sweat mixed in with the chin hairs.
What in the hell? Was that ink?
“Remove your coat or Rawley here will do it for you. Or break your arms if you don’t cease struggling.”
His man of affairs and second cousin, Rawley was a large local with a razor-sharp wit, a quick brain that outmatched many, and enough brawn to deter the most hardened of troublemakers. Courtland had hired him years before, and now, he trusted him with his life.
“No, wait,” Hunt pleaded. “Please.”
Someone in the crowd jeered. “If you have nothing to hide, take it off.”
In the next moment, Rawley yanked the coat off the boy’s shoulders, buttons popping. A high-pitched yelp tore from the boy as the plain waistcoat went next, leaving him standing there in a linen shirt, hastily knotted cravat, and trousers. His narrow frame shook, shoulders hunching forward, arms crossed over his middle.
“Please, cease this,” he begged in a plaintive whisper. “You don’t understand.”
Courtland hesitated at the hushed desperation in the boy’s voice. It wasn’t in him to publicly shame someone this young who might have made a mistake and could learn a valuable lesson, and besides, he liked the boy’s spirit. However, before he could order Rawley to take him to his private office, his burly factotum, Fawkes, shoved through the crowd. He was closely followed by a perspiring, balding, well-heeled man.
“What is it, Fawkes?”
“Mr. Chase. An urgent messenger has arrived.” The man was fairly bursting with news, and a dribble of unease slid down Courtland’s spine. “From London. From—”
“Your Grace,” the unknown man said in a loud voice, and every muscle in Courtland’s body solidified to stone. “I’m Mr. Bingham, the private solicitor of the late duke, your grandfather, His Grace, the Duke of Ashvale, God rest his soul. As your grandfather’s eldest heir, you’ve now been named duke. However, the will is being contested, claiming you are deceased, though clearly, my own eyes attest that you are not.”
Thunder roared in Courtland’s ears. This was not bloody happening.
For all intents and purposes, Lord Courtland Chase, the rightful Marquess of Borne and heir to the Ashvale dukedom, was dead. But the damage was done. Amid the chatter now soaring to the rooftop, he opened his mouth to say what Bingham could do with the title and the rest of his message, but was thwarted by the young thief who now seemed to have lost half his mustache and was gawking at him with wide, incredulous eyes that burned with an unnaturally disturbing degree of emotion. Not shock or wonder or even awe like everyone else in the room, but…recognition.
“Cordy?” the boy whispered.
Courtland hadn’t heard that name in well over a decade, but it was a like a punch to the chest, more powerful, deadly even, than the wallop about him being duke. No one had ever called him Cordy…no one except…
His jaw hardened, confusion pouring through him. “Who the fuck are you?”