DEVON WILCOX, the fifth son of Right Honorable Viscount Wilcox, sat in his club on Pall Mall surrounded by fellow alumni wearing demeanors of varying arrogance. The exotic smoke of expensive tobacco filled the air, hidden by the tasteful dimness of the sitting room. The other members were ignoring him, likely discouraged by the dark furrow between his brows and the grim light in his blue eyes. Relishing his current solitude, Wilcox slouched in the overstuffed chair, the slick leather upholstery abetting his elegant sprawl.

Rich men going about their rich lives—duty, honor, and above all, privilege—with unquestioning conformity being the only true cost. For all that he was counted among their number, he hated them. But not as much as he currently hated himself.

He was grateful for the stingy illumination as he stared at the half-empty glass of whisky held loosely in his hand. The drink was his fourth, the amber liquid providing him with little clarity as he pondered the strange vagaries of fate. As the son of a member of the peerage, his was a life of ease and leisure, with every benefit attendant upon a man of his wealth and position in society. And yet, he was profoundly unhappy. He, who had been promised everything he could ever want since birth, was destined never to have the one thing he truly desired. At least, not without a great deal of risk.

Introspection proved to be thirsty work, and Wilcox winced at the slow burn as he threw back the last of the excellent GlenDronach. He groaned in pain when the glass bumped against his swollen lower lip.

“Good God, man. You look awful.”

Wilcox took a moment to glance down at the scuffed material of his jacket, noticing yet another missing button along the front placket. The fine wool at the collar scratched against the back of his neck when he at last deigned to tilt his head just enough to bring the visage of his sometime best friend, Sir Wallace Church, into view. Per the usual, his blond friend regarded him with semimocking concern, the true nature of his intentions hidden beneath a joker’s mask. Church had earned his knighthood—along with a select group of businessmen whom Her Majesty considered particularly responsible for helping save the country from financial ruin after the collapse of Overend, Gurney three years before. The son of a prosperous spice trader, Sir Wallace was rich as Croesus—“new money” Wilcox’s father had disdainfully accused—and was an irredeemable scoundrel. The viscount’s vehement disapproval of his son’s association with the irreverent heir had only made Wilcox all the more determined to befriend him during their shared tenure at Oxford. But right at that precise moment, Church and his knowing smirk were the last things Wilcox wanted to see.

“Not now, Church.”

Ignoring him as usual, Church swooped down into the empty chair across from him, arranging the tail of his bottle green jacket with a practiced flick of his wrist. Church took his fashion very seriously indeed and never allowed even a wrinkle to interfere with his sartorial perfection. The seat had been kept open for him, as it was well-known among the other members that Sir Wallace was the only person Wilcox welcomed when he was deep in his cups. Church’s emerald gaze danced with mischief as he studied Wilcox carefully, the light from the inset candelabras spinning his hair into ostentatious gold. Wilcox fixed him with an irritated glare in a show of pointless resistance.

“It looks like you’ve gone at least three rounds with a gorilla, my friend. Come now, tell old Wally what happened.”

Neither the characterization nor the guess was all that far off. Shifting uneasily in his seat, Wilcox turned his attention back to his now-empty glass while he catalogued the various aches that had prompted him to seek out copious amounts of the expensive distilled painkiller. The twinge from at least two bruised ribs thwarted his attempt at a deep sigh, prompting Wilcox to, once again, curse his own foolishness. The lingering soreness in his shoulder made itself known as he tried in vain to find a more comfortable position for his long frame. He should have given in once he’d realized he was outnumbered four-on-one, but stubborn pride had made him struggle against the bearlike strength of the man who’d held him captive. The villain’s compatriots had been brutally insistent in their request for his valuables, and Wilcox’s foulmouthed refusal had displeased them greatly.

Wilcox’s jaw—a victim of a well-placed fist—creaked and popped as he moved it gingerly from one side to the other, the mottled skin of his bruised cheeks grating irritatingly over the aching muscle. Though he’d managed to return some of his assailants’ rough treatment, it had been far from an even match. An excruciating throbbing made him want to cut off his own head, reminding him of the final blow that had left him dazed and relieved of his immediate possessions. He pressed a finger to his temple, hissing as a scraped knuckle brushed over a neat cut running right below his hairline. His nose, as luck would have it, was undamaged. A small blessing, he supposed, as bleeding all over his fine wool waistcoat would have been the final insult.

Glancing around with bleary eyes, Wilcox made sure no one was in their immediate vicinity. The club was nearly deserted, save for himself, Church, a couple of dandies engaged in an intimate chat over glasses of port, and three gentlemen playing cards. The hour was closing in on midnight, and the adventurous members of the London ton had found better places to be. Nevertheless, Wilcox sat forward to ensure he wasn’t overheard. “I was attacked,” he began.

“Good Lord!” Church half stood from his seat as though ready to bodily protect Wilcox from harm, his shout drawing the notice of everyone in the room.

“Would you please sit down?” Wilcox hissed, jamming his fingers through his hair in aggravation. “And lower your voice, for God’s sake.” Seeing that a spectacle was not forthcoming, the other members quickly lost interest. Relieved, Wilcox waited until Church complied with his request before elaborating. “I was assaulted, as you can see. It was down at the West India Docks,” he added under his breath, knowing the revelation would give away the game.

“West India, you say?” Church was well aware of the infamous reputation held by those particular docks. He stared fixedly at Wilcox for a long moment before raking over him with a critically assessing gaze. “Are you all right?”

“I gave as good as I got.” Wilcox shrugged, bristling at the disbelieving eyebrow Church raised in response. The assertion wasn’t completely ridiculous. The last adjective that could be used to describe Wilcox was “fragile.” His sturdy frame still carried the hard-won muscle honed by years of indulging his love for rugby at university.

Church sighed dramatically as he sprawled back in the chair, the burgundy upholstery handsomely complementing the hue of his suit. “Ah, I see,” he said cryptically, his tone full of mock commiseration. The amused twitching of his lips was visible only because Wilcox had spent hours studying every nuance of his friend’s features. “And in this beastly weather? You must have been truly desperate.” Church chuckled, eyeing Wilcox slyly. “So, what happened, exactly? Besides the obvious, of course.”

Wilcox’s hand tensed with the irrational urge to slap away the infuriating smirk, but he refrained, knowing Church’s concern would not have been feigned had Wilcox been truly injured. By “the obvious,” he knew Church didn’t mean the plain fact that he’d been soundly thrashed. His friend was, of course, referring to the reason a man of Wilcox’s stature had dared haunt such an unseemly locale in the dark, frigid hours of a midwinter night. Pressing a weary hand to his forehead, Wilcox shielded his eyes with his palm as his mind reluctantly dredged up his recent folly. It hadn’t been the first time he’d gone to the docks seeking an assignation with a sailor willing to offer his arse in return for a handsome reward. The West India Docks were well-known among those who sought that specific brand of diversion, and he’d never before failed to turn up a willing partner. That night, however, the young man he’d thought to engage had been more interested in stealing his purse than earning his pay the old-fashioned way.

“The tar had several friends who had either been waiting for one such as myself to wander imprudently into their trap or—”

“Or more likely,” Church interrupted, “they knew an easy mark when they saw one.”

Wilcox waved his free hand dismissively, refusing to dignify the astute observation with a response. “Long story short, I was assaulted and mugged.”

“Did they leave you with anything? How are you planning to pay for all of this excellent whisky?” Church asked, glancing pointedly at the five abandoned fellows of the glass Wilcox had just emptied.

Wilcox grunted. “They’ll bill my father’s account, as always. And, yes, I still have this, at least.” Reaching into his shoe, he pulled out two shillings. He’d been in the habit of carrying the bit of hideaway since he had gotten lost in Trafalgar Square as a boy and hadn’t had the money to hire a hansom cab to take him home.

Church nodded solemnly. “Very good, then. In that case, you can pay for the ride to my apartments, and I can share a tale with you that you may find interesting.”

“I’m hardly in the mood for fairy tales.”

Church smirked. “Oh, this story is hardly for children, my dear boy.”