Disowned, disgraced, and with nowhere to turn, Tom Drake is willing to barter anything — even himself — for a reprieve from starvation and despair. Years spent lying to protect his secrets have left him longing for someone to value him, even if it’s only for his body and the blessing of his patron goddess.
Mal Leighton’s cousin and heir is dying. Only a miracle can save him — and if a miracle doesn’t appear, Mal’s damn well going to create one. Marrying Tom for his blessing is his last desperate hope to preserve his family. And if Tom happens to be as irresistibly seductive as he is untrustworthy? Well, Mal can focus on more than one goal at a time.
Tom doesn’t fall in love, and Mal knows better than to believe he’s the exception. But when Tom’s blessing doesn’t provide the quick cure they’d hoped, it’s clear that the goddess expects them to have a marriage in more than name. To save Mal’s family and find their own happiness, they will both need to sacrifice their pride and risk their hearts.
“Well, well,” drawled a voice Tom knew and detested, a voice that raised all the fine hairs on the back of his neck. Why here, goddess, why now? Tom had come to this loud, smoky gaming hell in the least fashionable part of town specifically to avoid anyone he might know. “Tom Drake, as I live and breathe. Thought you were rusticating.”
Face frozen in a rictus of a smile, Tom turned away from the faro table to face the owner of the voice, slapping his hand down over the two pitiful guineas left of the forty-three he’d had to his name when he stepped through the hell’s doors. One of the coins went flying, pinging onto the floor and immediately disappearing in the chaos of the gaming room. His chest clenched, and he barely stopped himself from diving after it.
An ill-natured chuckle drew his attention back up. “Had a bad night, Drake?” The florid, grinning face of Marcus Leighton came into focus, far too close. The Leighton family tree had more twisted branches than a hawthorn. Must it really have been this member of their gods-forsaken family to pop up where he was least wanted? “Lost more than you could afford to?”
Everything he had, in fact, and more than just money. A hysterical laugh bubbled up, and he forced it down, letting out a cough instead. “Not at all,” he said, his voice ringing distantly in his ears. “Just a trifle.”
Leighton snickered, glancing down pointedly at the death grip Tom had on his one remaining guinea. “So I suppose you wouldn’t mind buying an old school friend a brandy, eh?”
The man standing behind Leighton, until then in conversation with someone else, turned around to face them at that. “I wouldn’t drink the brandy here, Marcus. Or should I say, the dyed gin?”
And that was simply the outside of enough, the final blow to bring Tom to his metaphorical knees. His real knees, too, had he not been still sitting on the faro-table’s stool. Marcus Leighton had tormented him throughout his school days, mocking him for his enjoyment of books, his blue eyes, the way he shivered in the cold, and anything else he could think of, logical or not. His presence here, well, that was almost to be expected, given Tom’s run of ill-luck. But his cousin Malcolm, the man beside him, had never taken the trouble; far worse, he had never seemed to notice Tom at all. That Malcolm Leighton of all men should be witness to his final, degrading mortification was — beyond anything Tom could have imagined.
Malcolm Leighton’s cool, faintly amused expression didn’t alter a whit as he looked Tom up and down, examining him as one might a not terribly interesting insect. “Drake, isn’t it? Arthur Drake’s brother?”
Tom flinched, cut to the quick. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t possibly know. At that moment, Tom was certain that he did, that his blasted cousin did, that every man in the room was laughing at his ruin and whispering over his estrangement from his family.
He rose abruptly, knocking into Marcus and making the man stumble and shout; he shoved past Malcolm and blindly forced his way through the crowd, leaving curses in his wake. Too many bodies, and faces, and the nauseating smell — harsh spirits and the reek of cigars, unwashed flesh and beneath it all, the rank scent of despair rising from too many men watching their fortunes and futures disappear.
Tom reached the door at last and burst into the comparatively quiet hallway, only a few men speaking discreetly here and there, either arranging assignations or discussing their debts. He bypassed the cloakroom and rushed past the mountain of a man guarding the front door, out onto the street.
“Sir? Are you taken ill?” the servant called out after him. Tom didn’t stop. He stumbled down the side of the dingy square, tendrils of foul mist wreathing about his burning face, until he found an alcove in the side of a building where he could slump unseen and drop his head into his hands.
As he did, the last guinea slipped from his sweaty palm and tinkled away into the fog. Tom groaned and rubbed his forehead. He’d be damned if he was going to scrabble around on the filthy cobbles. He might starve for it, but no. Let some street-sweeping urchin enjoy the find of a lifetime and feed his whole family on it for months. At least then Tom would have done something of benefit to someone else, even if accidentally.
Footsteps on the cobblestones of the square roused him from his fugue, and he pressed himself back into the alcove in panic. A lamp across the square did little to illuminate his corner; he was safe enough from anyone passing by.
Except that it wasn’t just anyone, and he wasn’t just passing by.
Malcolm Leighton stopped in the opening to the square, seeming to sense Tom’s presence; his silhouette, sinister in the mist, sent a shiver down Tom’s spine. But it was unmistakably Leighton, at least to one who’d spent years studying him surreptitiously from across school assemblies. He had a certain way of holding himself, both arrogant and graceful, that had always caught and held Tom’s attention — had made it so bloody difficult for Tom to hide the feelings he had to keep out of sight at all costs. What his father might have done had he discovered Tom’s leanings toward other men hadn’t borne thinking of.
When Leighton turned, his face was in shadow, but Tom could easily imagine his expression: one corner of his mouth raised in cynical amusement, the slight lift of his thick, straight black brows, and the shrewd gleam of his dark eyes.
As he stepped closer, Tom’s body tightened, every muscle and tendon quivering with the urge to run, to fight, to take some action. He was cornered and brought to bay, quite literally and in every other way. If Leighton had followed him with violence in mind, he would find that Tom was not quite the easy pickings he had been as a schoolboy. Leighton still had an inch or two of height and the same in the breadth of his shoulders on Tom, but Tom could hold his own.
But when Leighton reached out, he held something in his hands, and his movements were slow and easy. “Your coat, Drake. They said you didn’t have a hat.”
The tension bled out of him as quickly as it had built, leaving him almost shaking from relief, from an odd disappointment, from despair and drink. “You followed me to return my coat?” Tom’s voice came out all wrong, hoarse and dry. He reached out, took the coat, felt its weight in his hands as something unfamiliar and strange, now that it had been in Leighton’s possession even for a few minutes. “And — how did you know I’d left without it?”
“Half of the city saw you fly out the door as if all of Ingard’s hounds were on your heels,” Leighton drawled. “The gossips will be whispering of Tom Drake’s sudden fit of madness, this time tomorrow.”
“As though it matters,” Tom muttered. He wished it didn’t — wished he could be truly indifferent. He unfolded his coat, hands numb and clumsy, and nearly dropped it.
“Allow me.” Leighton swept the coat away so smoothly that Tom hardly realized it was gone. “Well?” Leighton said impatiently.
Tom left off gaping at him and turned obediently to allow Leighton to help him on with it, a task he accomplished as well as any valet Tom had ever had.
None of Tom’s valets had ever lingered so long on the task of smoothing the fabric down his arms, though, nor stroked their hands over his hips afterwards. Tom jerked away and spun to face Leighton.
“What the hell are you playing at?” he snarled. “If you think I’m the kind of man to fumble in an alley —”
“I know you’re that kind of man.” Leighton pushed forward, his chest brushing Tom’s and his face close enough that Tom could feel his breath. It was warm, and sweet with fine brandy, and nearly as intoxicating as the spirits Leighton had clearly imbibed. “But I’m not one to fumble, myself. There’s a place nearby. Rooms to let, short notice and short term. I had thought to take you there.”
“You’re not taking me anywhere.” Leighton’s other meaning belatedly sank in. “And I don’t fumble, in alleys or elsewhere, you arrogant, condescending, conceited arse!”
Leighton’s broad shoulders moved slightly, an arrogant, condescending shrug if ever there was one. “Your rather checkered history says otherwise, Drake.” Amused, Leighton was amused by Tom’s misery, and it was suddenly the outside of enough.
Tom seized Leighton by the shoulders and shoved, knocking the bastard against the rough bricks of the alcove wall, and he followed the shove with his full weight, knocking Leighton back and pinning him. Leighton hit hard and let out an oof of surprise, his hat flying off and landing somewhere on the damp cobblestones of the walkway.
“Don’t.” Tom shook him once, slamming him into the wall. “Don’t you dare speak of my wife as . . . checkered history. I should thrash you for that!”
“I’d like to see you try,” Leighton said, as calmly as if they stood in a drawing room discussing the weather.
Tom had been thrashed more often than the reverse, most recently by his own brother, but he’d learned a thing or two on those occasions, most notably that one took what advantage one could and be damned to the rules. He drew back and drove his fist into Leighton’s solar plexus — or would have, if Leighton hadn’t caught his arm, ducked to the side like a damned snake, and used Tom’s own momentum to fling him face-first into the wall.
He landed just hard enough to bruise, his cheek stinging where it scraped against the bricks. Leighton’s full weight landed against his back and knocked the wind out of him. He only registered that Leighton had one arm twisted behind his back when he tried, and failed, to throw him off.
“That’s enough of that,” Leighton said, suddenly not sounding so amused. “A friendly quarrel is one thing. I draw the line at fisticuffs.”
“We’re not friends,” Tom spat. He bucked, cursed, and landed against the wall again, winded and defeated.
Leighton leaned in, slowly pressing the whole length of his tall body against Tom’s. “Certainly not,” he breathed in Tom’s ear, the warmth of it sending a contradictory shiver down his spine. “But the way you’re wriggling your arse feels very friendly indeed.”
Tom stilled abruptly; he had been moving, but surely that was just a continued attempt to loosen Leighton’s hold.
“I didn’t intend for you to stop,” Leighton said, his low, smooth voice curling around the edges of Tom’s confusion, soothing and lulling him, making everything hazy. “You have a delightful arse. It may be the only thing you have to recommend you.”
Tom’s eyes snapped open. The dull ochre of the wall filled his vision; his own rasping breaths filled his ears; all his other senses could feel nothing but Leighton, on and around him, his rich, brandied scent and the heat of his hard form.
A harsh, horrible laugh rose up in his throat, and he forced it down before it could become a sob. His arse, of all things. His one remaining possession, besides a few items of clothing he couldn’t appear before the world without and that he hadn’t thought to sell — and that was all the value Leighton could see in him. Goddess knew, perhaps that was all the value he had.
He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to fight the spinning of his head and the tingling in his extremities. He had to survive, didn’t he? Everything he’d done had been what he’d had to do — he’d had no choice but to make the decisions he had. They’d all come out badly. His decisions always did, and this one would surely be no different.
But tomorrow he’d be hungry; within a week, he’d be evicted from his rooms. He needed to live. And the hat he’d pawned that morning had been one of Monsieur Favreau’s masterpieces; gentlemen of higher station than Tom waited months for one made by the fellow’s own hands. Really, he probably should have sold his arse first.
A strange calm descended as he made up his mind. “Let me go,” he said. And then, because Leighton seemed the sort to want to be quite sure he’d won, he added, “Please.”
Leighton’s hand around his wrist tightened, just a trifle, and then he released it and stepped away.
Tom took his time; he pushed back from the wall slowly enough to hide the stiffness in his limbs, and he carefully flicked the dust of the bricks from the front of his clothing. His fingers brushed over a snag in the silk of his last remaining waistcoat, and he shoved down the flash of panic at that. Leighton could afford to buy him another. He took a final moment before he turned around, giving himself one deep breath before he put his mask in place.
Bankrupt, disowned, and disheveled he might be, but Tom Drake could seduce anyone.