Fed to the Lyon - The Lyon's Den Connected World
Enter the world of the most notorious gambling den in London, where matches are made... unusually. Welcome to the world of THE LYON'S DEN: The Black Widow of Whitehall Connected World, where the underground of Regency London thrives... and loves.
Mary Lancaster's contribution to the multi-author series.
A high-stakes game…but who is playing?
On the day the Princess of Wales goes into exile, Diana loses both her court place and her betrothed. Devastated, she staggers home in the small hours of the morning, alone, drunk—and ruined in the eyes of Society.
In desperation, her mother takes her to the infamous matchmaker, the Black Widow of Whitehall. Abandoned and alone at the scandalous Lyon’s Den gaming house, Diana is disguised as a boy and there encounters her prospective groom, wealthy Scottish nobleman, Lord Garvie.
She is appalled.
However, Mrs. Dove-Lyon plays a deep game and nothing is quite as it seems at the Lyon’s Den, where Diana finds unexpected adventure, passion, heartache, and the true love she always dreamed of.
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The world was a nightmare.
Diana felt very strange, as though she were waking from a disturbed sleep, and yet she was actually walking—or at least stumbling—along dark streets amidst odd flares of light. Street lamps? Her eyes seemed to be as hazy as her mind, and behind that was sheer misery.
Simon had gone.
Simon Bamber, to whom she had been betrothed this morning—or was it yesterday? —had left London for the continent with the Princess of Wales.
“In the circumstances,” he had said gently, “you should consider yourself free to marry a gentleman closer to home.”
“I don’t want to marry another gentleman!” she had protested in panic.
“You should. For I don’t know when I shall be back. I have already written to your father. Goodbye, Diana.”
His words echoed clearly in her otherwise befuddled head.
Why was she outside, alone? Cold…so cold. She was not wearing any outer garments, no pelisse or cloak. No bonnet. Fear crept over her, forcing her to think, to remember. She had run out of the princess’s house in panic. Why?
Because she had awakened in a room full of men and women, most of them asleep, some of them in a state of semi-undress. A young man had been snoring on her shoulder. He had given her brandy earlier, for the shock of Simon’s departure and the ending of her engagement. He had been kind, sympathized with her woes. But he had been drunk.
She had kept sipping from the glass because it had never seemed to empty, so she knew she hadn’t taken much. And yet it had made her feel better. Until she realized her stupidity.
Bolting had seemed sensible at the time, but the fresh air had hit her like a carriage and six horses. She had no idea how she had got from the princess’s residence to wherever this was.
She peered around her. At least she seemed to be in a respectable neighborhood of large town houses. And perhaps it was not so late, for a carriage drove past her. At the window she clearly saw the shocked face of Lady Gantry, who also lived on Mount Street. This was Mount Street, she realized. Somehow, she had found her way home.
She woke with thundering in her head. It seemed the nightmare never ended. But perhaps it had all been an awful dream. Simon, the brandy, staggering through dark streets…
The curtains were drawn back with a decisive switch, and sunlight flooded over her face. Groaning, she turned away from it and everything swam.
“Sit up,” said her mother’s grim voice. “And drink this.”
“Oh God, please tell me it isn’t brandy,” she said hoarsely, heaving herself into a sitting position and clutching her head.
“It’s water,” her mother said, thrusting the glass into her hands. “And if you dare to be sick again, I shall wash my hands of you.”
Diana closed her eyes with shame. She had a vague memory of servants in their night clothes letting her in, of her mother’s horrified face, and then of being ill at her feet.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered with helpless inadequacy. “The servants won’t talk about this, will they?”
“There’s no reason for them to keep quiet,” her mother snapped. “Everyone knows you were in that house until after midnight, entirely unchaperoned. And you were seen in the streets by several people, including Lady Gantry, alone, improperly dressed, and apparently intoxicated. I’ve said they were completely mistaken, but no one believes it.”
“Simon left with the princess,” she blurted. “We are no longer engaged.”
“I know. He wrote to your father. For God’s sake, Diana, what were you thinking? Just when you need to be seen at your purest, you ruin yourself! And you know how badly this will reflect on your sisters, on all of us!”
“I shall go away,” Diana promised, tears filling her eyes. “My sisters have been in the country all this while. They’re still in the schoolroom! Cast me off, and surely they will be forgiven in time…?”
“Never admit to being in the wrong,” her mother said bitterly. “You were ill, you were not out in the dark alone, and you will make a good, even a great match, whatever it costs me.”
Diana stared at her. “I’m ruined. No one will marry me now. And for myself, I don’t care. I don’t want to marry anyone anymore.”
“You, my girl, will do exactly as you are told. You will finish that glass of water, and then you will bathe, because frankly, you reek of stale brandy. The whole chamber does. You will come down for breakfast in precisely one hour. Be dressed for a morning call.”
Illness and shame swamped her. “Mama, I can’t go anywhere!”
“Oh yes, you can.”
Although physically, Diana felt slightly better after a bath, a light breakfast and two cups of coffee, the shame and misery only got worse. She was actually glad when her mother made her wear a hat with a veil, although she was surprised to see her mother do the same. And when they finally descended the steps into the street, it wasn’t to step into their town carriage, or her mother’s smart barouche, but into a hired hackney one of the servants must have brought specially.
The first hint of curiosity pierced Diana’s world of personal pain. “Where are we going?”
“Where I never thought I would,” her mother said harshly. “To someone I would happily never speak to again.”
“Is it far?” Diana asked, for her stomach didn’t care for the motion of the carriage.
The carriage was bowling smartly down St. James Street, home to the gentlemen’s clubs where ladies never showed their faces.
Diana swallowed. “I did not mean this, Mama.”
“I should never have let you attend that woman. But your father was so sure it would only benefit us, and then to have Simon Bamber so quickly offer for you—”
“And discard me.”
“Well, if he hadn’t then, he would now,” her mother snapped. “Why could you not accept his ill-behavior with pride and dignity as you were taught?”
“I loved him.”
“Nonsense. You barely knew him! Love is not a handsome face and a neatly turned compliment. It is years of living and striving together, shared duty, children. Not whatever nonsense you have picked up from silly novels! Or from that woman.”
Diana turned to the window again. She was in no position to argue.
They had left the parts of town she knew well, and were now slowing to a halt in an unfashionable street of mostly residential houses, large and small. Diana couldn’t imagine who they were calling on here, or why. Surely no one would welcome a visit from her, however much they might love her mother. The front door would be shut in their faces. Unless the news of her downfall had not yet traveled this far. Was Mama looking for allies?
She stepped down from the carriage and examined the nearest house, while her mother paid the driver. She had never been here before.
“Come,” her mother said sharply and walked briskly down the street, which Diana knew as Cleveland Row.
Her heart began to sink. Mama was so ashamed of coming here that she had veiled them both, traveled in a hired carriage, and asked to be dropped some distance from where she really wanted to go.
“Mama, what are you doing?” she pleaded.
“Trying to save us all.”
Facing them was a large, detached house that stood out. The stone had been painted a pale blue, and a sign proclaimed a jeweler’s shop, The Dragon’s Hoard, with a few expensive looking pieces in the window below. Her mother walked straight past the front door, and then, to Diana’s surprise, turned down the path at the corner, leading to another door of the same building.
This was even odder. Her mother didn’t normally call on people who lived above shops. However, her rigid posture did not encourage questions.
The door was opened quickly to her mother’s decisive rap of the knocker.
“Mrs. Dove-Lyon, if you please,” she told the woman who admitted them. She was not dressed like a maid. Diana supposed she might be the housekeeper.
“What name shall I say, madam?”
“You may give your mistress this.” Diana’s mother handed over a small packet. It looked like a visiting card wrapped in a sheet of letter paper. She really didn’t want anyone knowing who they were.
They were shown into a comfortable parlor, with several interesting vases and knick-knacks scattered over the mantlepiece and side tables. Diana lifted her veil to see better.
“Leave it!” her mother commanded.
Diana sighed, letting the gauze fall back over her face.
The woman returned after only a few minutes. “Please follow me.”
They trailed behind her, along passages with closed doors, until they found themselves in a large hall scattered with empty tables, most of which were covered with green baize, like card tables. Many other rooms led off the hall, and a darkened staircase led to an upper floor.
Blinking, Diana realized the tables were not all empty after all. Although it was not yet midday, two men sprawled in one corner playing cards, a glass at the elbow of each.
“Mama, is this a gaming club?” she asked in disbelief.
Her mother only emitted a short laugh, but Diana could ask no more, for a manservant with the bearing of a soldier marched up to them. He nodded to the woman who turned and walked away.
“Please follow me,” the man invited, and led them along the edge of the hall and threw open a door. He bowed them into the room beyond.
It seemed to be part sitting room, part office. A veiled woman dressed all in black rose from behind a large desk. Somehow, despite the excessive widow’s weeds, she had both elegance and presence.
“Good morning, Lady Wade,” she said. “Please, be seated and tell me how I might help you.” The veil turned in the direction of Diana, though she could not clearly see the eyes behind it.
“My eldest daughter,” her mother said shortly, taking the nearest chair. “It is on her behalf I am here.”
Diana sat beside her mother, and the widow, presumably Mrs. Dove-Lyon, sank into her own more comfortable chair once more.
“I see,” the widow said.
Diana’s mother held herself rigid. “My daughter was woman-of-the-bedchamber to Her Highness the Princess of Wales.”
“Was?” Mrs. Dove-Lyon pounced on the salient point.
“Her Highness, as you will no doubt be aware, left London yesterday to take ship from Worthing. My daughter did not accompany her, but foolishly stayed in that house until…late.”
Appalled, Diana sat as rigidly as her mother retold her tale of shame, including her broken engagement.
“I see,” Mrs. Dove-Lyon remarked. It was impossible to tell her expression behind the veil. She could have been amused, disgusted, or sympathetic.
“Can you do anything for her?” Diana’s mother asked tightly, as though the words were wrung from her.
“Probably. Lift up your veil, Miss Wade.”
Her mother nudged her, and Diana lifted her veil and stared at Mrs. Dove-Lyon.
“You are pretty enough,” their hostess allowed dispassionately. “And you look innocent. Are you?”
“Madam!” Diana’s mother protested in outrage, but the widow waved her to silence.
“Of course, I’m not,” Diana said between her teeth. “You have just heard what I did.”
Mrs. Dove-Lyon leaned back in her chair. “Is that all you did? Drank brandy with a young man who offered sympathy for your broken heart? Did he ask anything in return?”
“Such as what?” Diana asked, bewildered. “To be honest, the whole evening is very hazy.”
“Were there always other people around you? Did you stay always in the same room?”
Diana frowned, rubbing her forehead. “Yes, I think so…”
“And no items of your clothing are missing?”
“My pelisse,” Diana said ruefully. “And my bonnet. And my gloves. I must have left them at the house.”
Mrs. Dove-Lyon waited in silence, but receiving no more information, she said, “And no one else touched you save for the young man who dribbled on your shoulder?”
“Of course not,” Diana said indignantly. “And he wouldn’t have touched me if we hadn’t both been asleep!”
“Very well, you are a pretty innocent with a broken heart, caught up in a mess of another’s making.”
Only when Mrs. Dove-Lyon said the words did Diana realize her mother had said nothing similar. Although aware of the wicked interpretation that could be put on her actions—hence her ruin—Diana had not imagined her mother would believe such a thing. But it came to her now that this was exactly what her mother had thought.
“I can do something for her,” Mrs. Dove-Lyon said. “Are you aware of my fees?”
Diana’s mother opened her reticule and took out a large roll of bills, which she pushed wordlessly across the desk.
Mrs. Dove Lyon picked it up, weighing it in one hand as though estimating the amount with confidence. Then she threw it into a drawer in her desk and locked it with a key on her wrist. “And the same upon receipt of an offer of marriage. You will hear from me.”
“I was hoping we could come to a slightly different arrangement,” Diana’s mother said stiffly. “Until she is married, I don’t want her in my house, contaminating my other daughters by association.”
Diana shriveled inside.
“My dear Lady Wade,” Mrs. Dove-Lyon said in amusement. “If it came out that she was staying here, I doubt even I could save her.”
“I shall give out that she has gone to her grandmother to recover from illness.”
“Why don’t you actually send her to her grandmother?”
Diana’s mother stared at the wall. “I don’t want to explain to her what happened.”
Mrs. Dove-Lyon sat forward, as though trying to see beyond the veil. “Lady Wade, there is no need to tell me you have never been to my house before, but do you know what goes on here?”
“You must keep her safe.”
“I am not running a charity,” Mrs. Dove-Lyon said harshly. “If she stays with me, she works—and willingly or not at all, because I have no time or inclination to deal with runaways. Take my advice. Send her to her grandmother.”
Diana interrupted. “What is it you will you do for me?” she asked Mrs. Dove-Lyon in a small, hard voice.
The veiled face turned toward her. “Get you a husband who will provide you with a home and respectability. If he accepts your innocence, so will the world.”
“Who?” Diana demanded. “Do you have someone in mind, or will it just be any revolting old man?”
“Diana,” her mother snapped. “You brought this on yourself. Beggars may not be choosers!”
“Yes, they may!” Diana argued, finding the courage to stand up for herself. “I want a say in who I am married off to!”
“It is precisely this sort of unreasonableness…” her mother began furiously, but Mrs. Dove-Lyon stood up, halting her in full flood.
“I have a rather delightful Scottish gentleman in mind.”
“Delightful?” Diana repeated bitterly. “What is wrong with him that he would take a ruined woman? Does he have a string of dead wives in Scotland? Is he some warty old Highland barbarian unfit for the drawing room?”
“He has a few rough edges,” Mrs. Dove-Lyon conceded. “Such as honesty and bluntness. They make him stand out from the crowd of glib society gentlemen. Such as Mr. Bamber.”
Stricken, Diana stared at her in silence.
“Then it is decided,” Lady Wade said briskly, rising to her feet. “I trust you will deal with the matter in timely fashion.”
“You are really leaving me here?” Diana exclaimed in disbelief.
“One night to look over your swain, to whom, hopefully, you will be engaged by morning,” her mother said, walking toward the door.
“You will allow me two evenings and two days,” Mrs. Dove-Lyon stated. “And then she will go home engaged, or work off the rest of your fee. I shall send a contract to you by messenger this afternoon. Be so kind as to sign it and have it returned to me before five o’clock.”
Lady Wade nodded and stalked out of the room, without even saying goodbye.