Lord Lucifer by Jade Lee
Lucas paced in the dark, allowing his nerves free rein. He was completely alone here, so he could run a hole in the threadbare carpet if need be. Not twenty minutes ago, he’d sent missives to two of his best friends from school. Aaron and Jackson had been his constant companions until circumstances had thrown them to the four winds. It had been the most natural thing in the world for the three future earls to become steadfast friends, but then he’d gone to war, and he hadn’t seen them since.
The missives had requested their appearance in Aaron’s own front parlor with no signature provided. That was enough of a mystery that they ought to be here any moment now. And Lucas could only imagine what they would say to finding their supposedly dead friend had unlawfully entered Aaron’s home only to wait for their arrival.
He heard them arrive, one through the front, the other through the back. The house was dark because Aaron’s lazy servants had long since disappeared to their own entertainments. Lucas forced himself to stand in a relaxed pose next to the cold fireplace, and he waited.
A moment later, Aaron eased into the parlor from the dining room. His dark body was outlined with broad shoulders and a lean waist grown impossibly broader and leaner, respectively, since they last saw one another. Jackson was the overly tall one with the strength of a bull and the stomach of a goat, since he could and had eaten whatever food was put in front of him. At least he had when they were boys. Who knew what either man’s habits were now?
When Lucas saw that both men came alone, he squatted down and lit the fire. The coals caught quickly because he had prepared them beforehand, and then he waited as the flames grew and lit his face such that his friends would know him.
Or he hoped they would know him.
Jackson reacted first, his breath expelling on a low growl. “Is that one of your sister’s ghosts?”
“Don’t think so,” Aaron responded. “Unless ghosts smell like the sewer.”
Lucas stiffened. “I do not smell like the sewer. I smell like your kitchen waste. Your window stuck as I was trying to gain entry, and I fell. Don’t you know that muck will attract rats?”
Aaron lit an oil lamp and brought it forward. His eyes were narrowed, and his brows drew down in confusion, but he was no less intimidating as he loomed close. “By God, Lucas, is that you?”
He raised his hands in a shrug. “Seems so.”
“Seems so!” Jackson snapped as he rushed forward to grab Lucas’s elbow and spin him until they were face to face. “Seems so? We thought you dead!” He gripped Lucas’s shoulders and hauled him into a warm embrace.
Lucas tensed. No one had dared touch him like this in years. And he certainly hadn’t been slapped on the back as he if it had been a few months instead of twelve years since they’d last seen each other. But this was Jackson, and he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed his friend until he was already in the man’s embrace.
“Leave off, Sayres,” Aaron said, using Jackson’s courtesy title. “Let me see him.” He set down the lamp and stood there studying Lucas from head to toe. Lucas had been inspected hundreds of times before. The army was filled with superior officers who had taken his measure with a long heavy stare. He had endured them all, but this was different. This was Aaron, and his insides twitched as he waited to see his friend’s reaction.
But as the minutes wore on, Lucas had to say something to break the tension. “Have you gone blind, old man?” Aaron was the oldest of them by seven months.
“Not blind,” he said slowly. “Just damned emotional.”
The man didn’t appear emotional at all. His jaw was set, his gaze was steady, and even his hands were still. But his feet twitched as he shifted slightly forward, then slightly back. Not enough for anyone but his best friend to notice.
“I’m alive,” Lucas said gently.
“Thank God,” Aaron breathed out. Then the two of them collapsed together, hugging each other as they hadn’t for twelve years.
“Call for some brandy, Aaron,” Jackson said. “The finest you’ve got.”
Aaron released Lucas and shot the man a dark look. “You’re always so free with my brandy.”
“Lucas back from the dead deserves—”
“I didn’t say you were wrong. Just that you’re free with my drink.” That was true. Aaron always had the best drink; Jackson had the most charm. And together, they let Lucas devise schemes that entertained them all. And often got them deep in someone’s ill graces.
They broke apart, Aaron to tug the bellpull, Jackson to open the sideboard and bring out a half-filled bottle, and Lucas to stand awkwardly by the fire, wondering how to broach the topic of what he wanted. Didn’t need to. Aaron knew how things were with him. Always had.
“Here’s how it’s going to go,” he said sternly. “First, you’re going to tell us where you’ve been for the last decade, then you can ask us what you want.” He frowned. “Where’s Binner?”
“Out to dinner?” Jackson echoed back.
“Binner, your butler?”
“Yes. And come to think of it, where’s my sister? She should be home.”
“I got her an invite to a séance. It’s all very safe, and I knew she’d want to go—”
“What!” Aaron exclaimed. “The devil you say.”
“Relax. As I said, it’s all very harmless. Should take another couple hours.” Aaron’s sister, Clara, had a fascination with the occult. And since Lucas had needed her out of the house, this was the safest, easiest way.
“You should not encourage her in that nonsense.”
Lucas shook his head. “She’s an intelligent woman. Do try to trust in her good sense.”
“She believes in ghosts!”
“So did your mother,” Jackson said. “The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.”
“That’s hardly a recommendation for good sense,” Aaron returned as he stepped into the hallway. “Binner! Where are you, man?”
“The house is empty, save us,” Lucas said. He’d made sure of it when he got here. “Your butler is at the pub down the way, and the others are gone with him or to their own amusements.” He blew out a breath. “You really need to take your staff in hand. How can you run a government if you’re not able to keep your own servants in line?”
Aaron was grumbling as he went to the kitchen. He returned a moment later with glasses in one hand and a cleaning towel in the other. He cleaned the glasses one by one before handing them over to Jackson, who poured them all large measures.
“My sister runs the household—” Aaron said.
“Badly,” Jackson said.
Aaron shot the man a hard look, but he didn’t disagree. “I manage the finances and the…” he waved his hand. “Politics.”
Aaron was a member of the House of Commons until such time as his father popped off and he inherited an earldom. Then he’d take his seat in the House of Lords, and some other eager son would find his way into Aaron’s vacated seat. The man appeared to love the work—had been an avid student of history since he was in leading strings—and worked tirelessly on the nation’s interests. It was a bloody crime that he couldn’t have a clean glass in his own household.
Meanwhile, Jackson got tired of tweaking their political friend. “Forget him, where have you been?”
“War, then another war, and now back.”
“Yes, but when? Everyone else came back years ago.”
“We still have an army,” Aaron cut in. “He’s probably been serving—”
“No, I haven’t,” Lucas interrupted. He didn’t want to go into details. “I sold out after Waterloo.”
“But that was two years ago!”
Lucas nodded. He knew. “It took me a while to come back.”
“I…” He shrugged. “I have been waiting until my hand is better before making an appearance.” He held up his maimed hand. He normally wore a dark glove over it, but because they were his friends, he pulled it off. The damage wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He still had a hand and, for that matter, his life. The thumb and forefinger worked just fine, but the last three fingers were knobby and cramped. His fingers and palm were thick with scars, and the whole thing looked hideous.
Jackson studied the hand with pursed lips. “I’ve seen worse. Your ugly face, for one, though I’ll admit the scar through your hair, is dashing. Aaron, do you think there’s cheese and bread in your larder? I’ve missed supper.”
Jackson always missed supper because his ancestral lands were impoverished, and he only ate when attending a ball or because of the generosity of his friends. Normally Lucas would counsel the man to marry an heiress, but Jackson was both canny and unflinching when it came to hard work. He would bet everything that Jackson had a clever plan to restore his ancestral lands. One that did not include charming an heiress.
Meanwhile, Aaron gave a disinterested wave toward the kitchen. “Take whatever you can find.”
“Thanks, mate,” said Jackson as he disappeared down the hall. Meanwhile, Aaron focused on Lucas.
“Your mother thinks you are dead.”
“Yes, I know—”
“Your father and brother as well.”
“And my sister plus—”
“Yes! I know!”
Aaron blew out a breath. “Where have you been hiding?”
Lucas looked down. “I’m known as Titan at the Lyon’s Den.”
“The gaming hell? The one where—”
“Yes, yes, Mrs. Dove-Lyon’s reputation is salacious, but she runs a clean establishment with fair wages. She employs veterans to keep an eye on things, and I supervise them. It’s good work with good people, and I have no quarrel with it.”
Aaron frowned. “Well, I do. The future Earl of Wolvesmead should not be running tables in a den.” He refilled his brandy glass, but his gaze never left Lucas’s. “What’s really going on?”
How to answer that? Especially since he had no clear understanding of it himself. “You know my family.” Most specifically, his mother, who never tolerated anything that was less than perfect. Perfect attire, perfect manners, perfect appearance in every way. She would be horrified by his hand. “I didn’t want to see them until after I had found my bearings.”
“That answers for a few weeks or even a couple of months. But Lucas—years? Your brother expects to inherit!”
He blew out a breath, then forced himself to speak the truth. “Aaron, I’m an heir who went to war.” He looked up. “They wanted me to die.” At least his mother had.
Aaron shook his head. “I don’t believe it. Your father was ever kind.”
If total disinterest could be labeled kindness.
Then Jackson spoke up as he came back to the parlor laden down with cheese, bread, and a few old apples. “It doesn’t matter why he’s been gone, he’s back now, and we should celebrate.” He grinned at Lucas. “What did you have in mind?”
Trust Jackson to cut straight to what must happen now. The man always knew how to ignore the past, even when it was all everyone else could think about. “I need you to throw a masquerade.”
“Whatever for?” Aaron said, his face twisted into a grimace. “Fancy dress and ridiculous masks. It’s just an excuse for the worst sort of behavior.”
Jackson grinned. “A capital idea!”
“Nothing too flamboyant. I’ve rented out all of Vauxhall. That will make it an exclusive sort of thing.”
“Nothing at Vauxhall could ever be exclusive.”
He nodded. That was true enough, but that was what Diana wanted, and so that was what she would get. And he would make sure that security was tight enough that she was safe. “It’s set for Wednesday in three weeks.” Thank God the owner of Vauxhall played too deep one night, and Lucas had managed to win his exclusive night. Otherwise, he’d never have been able to manage it.
“That’s fast,” Jackson said. “You have to give the ladies enough time to get their costumes made.”
“It will be a party given by the Lords of the Masquerade.” He pointed at Aaron. “You’ll be Lord Ares.” Aaron had studied every war in detail, and so the name fit. “Lord Satyr for you,” he said to Jackson. The man was a dangerous flirt, and so he would embrace the moniker as if born to it.
“A masquerade just encourages all sorts of knavery,” Aaron said.
“I have men to keep the grounds safe.”
Aaron arched his brows. “Thieves are not the only danger. It’ll be a hunting ground for fortune hunters and reprobates.”
“You mean me,” Jackson said.
“No, I don’t,” Aaron snapped. “You have scruples. And some mysterious business plan…” He trailed off to give Jackson a chance to fill in the blank. Instead, the man put on a too-innocent expression.
“I have no idea what you mean.”
Aaron snorted. “In any event, you won’t hurt a woman. But others will trap young ladies on the dark paths, ravish them quickly, and—”
“I will have security!” Lucas repeated with enough force to show his impatience with the whole discussion. “And once again, you fail to give any respect to the intelligence of the fairer sex. They are too smart to be so easily led astray.” At least that had been true of the vipers he saw in the ladies’ half of the Lyon’s Den. Every one of them was more likely to trap an unwary man than the other way around.
“You’re both right,” Jackson said in a grumbly voice. “There are plenty of female twits in society. And plenty of women with sense.
“Don’t invite the twits,” Lucas said. “Would that be acceptable to your high moral standard?”
Aaron gave a short nod, but he didn’t speak, as he was more interested in sawing off a piece of bread than objecting to a party.
“Then it’s settled?” Lucas asked. “Can you manage the invitations? I am working two jobs right now and haven’t managed a full night’s sleep in a week. Plus, I don’t know the best people to invite, though I do have a few names I’d like to put forward.”
“Two jobs?” Aaron said, his voice low.
Lucas blew out a breath. “I’m not ready to come out of hiding yet. I don’t want my family to know I’m alive.”
“Whyever not?” Jackson said as he drained his brandy glass. “By all accounts, your brother is a genius with the land. Your coffers are overflowing.”
He grunted. “They’re my father’s coffers made full by my brother’s sweat. What right do I have to those funds?”
“The right of progenitor,” Aaron said. “You’re the heir. It’s irresponsible of you to hide away like this. And cruel to Nathan.”
Lucas thought it might be crueler to come out of hiding. His brother was much better suited to bear the title than he was, and, as far as he could tell, every single one of his family was happier with him dead, himself included.
“You must reveal yourself,” Aaron said. “At least to your family.”
“I’ll pay for everything,” Lucas interrupted. He had enough money saved up. “But I can’t host it. There would be too much attention on me. And I can’t put together the right guest list the way you can, Aaron. And I can’t make it popular among the right people the way Jackson can. And I certainly can’t get invitations written and sent while working night and day.” He blew out a breath. “I’ve taken a big risk coming to see you tonight. Please, for our old friendship, can you not find a way to help me?”
“Of course, we’ll help,” Jackson said.
“And I’ll pay my fair share,” Aaron snapped. “But that’s not the point.”
Lucas grabbed a hunk of cheese. “What is the point?” he asked before biting hard into the cheese.
“The point is I won’t help you hide from your family.”
Jackson snorted loudly. “He doesn’t need your help to hide. He needs it to get a lady.” Then he waggled his eyebrows at Lucas. “I’m right, aren’t I? Who’s the woman at the center of this?”
Lucas tore off some bread and matched the last of his cheese with it. After he’d eaten and swallowed, he spoke in a casual tone, though he doubted either man was fooled. “I should like you to invite Lady Dunnamore and her two sisters.”
Aaron refilled his brandy glass. “Lord Byrn’s sisters?”
Jackson chuckled. “Does Elliott know you’re planning to seduce his married sister at a masquerade?”
Trust Jackson to sort out the truth. “I’m not going to seduce her!” he snapped. “I’m just going to give her a spot of fun.”
“Exactly what I said—”
“I need her to think kindly toward me. She’s in trouble, and I can’t protect her unless she ceases to fight me at every turn.” He lifted his head and pinned his friends with his heavy stare. “Will you help me?”
Jackson laughed. “Will I host a scandalous party that you pay for? I believe I can bestir myself to make such an effort.”
That, he already knew. But the party wouldn’t work unless it had the stamp of someone completely respectable, like Aaron.
The man took his time, but in the end, he nodded. “I will do it—”
“On the condition that you host as well.”
Lucas’s head jerked up. “What? I can’t host it.”
“Pick a name. Something sinister.”
Lucas groaned. “I’m called Lucifer at Diana’s house.”
“The devil you say,” joked Jackson. He’d always been good at puns.
“But hosting a party defeats the whole purpose. I will not reveal myself.”
Aaron leaned back in his seat. “You shall be the mystery that gets everyone to attend. They’ll figure out quick enough that Sayres is Satyr, and I am Ares. If we’re to get the right people to come, I’ll have to tell them who we are.”
Jackson nodded. “The smart ones will figure it out.”
“And we’ll invite your family—”
“You will not!”
“Your brother then. Nathan always loved you.”
It was true. His younger brother had adored him almost as much as Lucas had cherished his tag-a-long sibling. Nathan was the one family member he missed.
“You must tell him you’re alive,” Aaron pressed.
“I will,” he said. “In my own way, and on my own time.”
“On the night of the masquerade.”
Lucas shook his head. “If I’m the big mystery, then everyone will try to expose me. I won’t be able to talk with Diana at all.”
Jackson shook his head. “You’ll have a better chance speaking with her as the host of the party than as some random bloke wearing black. We’ll each pick a lady for the opening dance. You can select her.”
“It’s the only way I’ll agree,” Aaron said.
Lucas blew out a breath. “You’re just trying to expose me to the ton. You think that someone, somehow, will figure out who I am.”
Aaron grinned. “You always enjoyed a challenge. Surely this will make for exciting sport.”
“I didn’t intend it to be sport for me. Just for Diana.”
Jackson clapped his hands. “Now, it’ll be sport for you both!”