Chapter no 26 – JAMESON

The Brothers Hawthorne

Stepping into the gaming room was like stepping back in time to a ballroom from eras past. The towering ceilings made Jameson wonder just how far underground they were. He focused on that question, not the more obvious one: How long had Rohan known that Ian was Jameson’s father?

And what else does he know? Jameson pushed back against the thought. He needed to focus on what mattered. Let nothing escape your notice. Take it all in. Know it. Use it.

The walls of the ballroom were made of pale wood. Gold moldings covered the ceiling, like something out of a Venetian palace. The shining white marble floor was partly covered with a massive, lush carpet, sapphire in color, struck through with gold. Ornate tables, obviously antique, were positioned strategically around the room. Different shapes, different sizes.

Different games.

At the closest table, a dealer dressed in an old-fashioned ballgown handed a pair of dice to an elderly gentleman.

“Hazard,” a voice said to Jameson’s left. That Duchess stepped into his peripheral view. “The game you’re watching? It’s called hazard.” The duchess’s gown was jade green tonight, made from fabric that flowed with her movements, slit on either side up to her thighs.

Like Avery, she was holding a velvet pouch.

“It’s the predecessor of dice—or what you Americans call craps,” the duchess continued. “But a bit more complicated, I’m afraid.” She inclined her head toward the man with the dice. “The person throwing is known as the caster. He picks a number no lower than five, no higher than nine. The

number chosen dictates the conditions under which you win or lose. Fail to do either after the first throw, and the number thrown becomes a part of the game as well.” She smiled. “Like I said, it’s complicated. I’m Zella.”

Jameson raised a brow. “Just Zella?”

“I’ve always been of the belief that titles tell you less about the player than the game.” Zella gave a graceful little shrug. “You may use mine if you wish, but I do not—unless there’s a reason to.”

Every instinct Jameson possessed converged into a single thought: There is a reason for everything this woman does.

“And what about the two of you?” Zella said. “What would you like to be called here at court?”

“I’m Avery. He’s Jameson.”

The fact that Avery had answered the question let Jameson be the one to ask: “Court?”

“It’s how some people refer to the Mercy,” Zella said. “The bed of power and all that, just rife with politics and intrigue. For example…” Her dark brown eyes roved over the room—and the copious amounts of attention the three of them were now attracting. “Almost everyone here tonight is now wondering if we know each other.”

Avery studied the duchess. “Do you want them to think we do?”

“Perhaps.” Zella smiled. “The Mercy is a place where bargains are struck. Deals made. Alliances formed. That’s the thing about power and wealth, isn’t it?” she said, addressing the question to Avery. “Men who have a great deal nearly always want more.”

The duchess held out an arm to Avery, who took it, and then and only then did Zella offer Jameson the other. He took it as well, and she led them through the room, a promenade that he knew with every bone in his body served her purpose—whatever that purpose was.

“Men,” Jameson echoed. Aside from the dealers—all female, all dressed in old-fashioned ballgowns—there were very few women in this room.

“It’s rarer for women to be granted membership,” Zella said. She shifted her gaze to Avery. “You must be quite remarkable—or have something the Proprietor wants very much.”

The Proprietor. Jameson could almost taste the thrill of his next impossible task. Get his attention. Win entrance to the Game.

“Woman to woman,” Zella said to Avery, “let me help you become a bit

more acclimated.” She nodded to tables as she passed. “Whist. Piquet. Vingt-et-un.”

Jameson didn’t recognize the first two games, but he was able to quickly figure out the last one. “Twenty-one,” he translated. “As in blackjack.”

“In the era in which the Devil’s Mercy was founded, it was known as vingt-et-un.”

Jameson took that as an indication that the Mercy was supposed to feel like leaving the world’s present reality behind.

“I don’t suppose there’s a poker table?” Jameson said dryly.

Zella nodded to a set of ornate stairs. “Poker is played on the balcony. A recent addition. Seventy years ago, perhaps? As you’ll discover, most games played here go back much further.”

Jameson had the feeling that when the duchess said games, she wasn’t referring only to those being played on the tables.

“And the Proprietor?” Jameson asked. “Is he here tonight?”

“I’ve found it best to assume he’s everywhere,” Zella said. “We are, after all, in his domain. Now,” she continued, having finished their little promenade, “if the two of you will excuse me, I have an eidetic memory, a reputation at the tables, and a plan.” The duchess turned her head toward Avery. “If anyone here makes you uncomfortable or does something they should not, know that you have an ally in me. Outsiders should stick together—to a point. Bonne chance.”

Jameson watched Zella walk away and mentally translated her parting words. Good luck. He scanned the room, taking it all in: so many games, so many possibilities, one task at hand. Feeling like an electric charge through his veins, Jameson turned to Avery and nodded to the staircase to the balcony overhead.

“What do you say, Heiress?” Jameson whispered. “Ready to lose?”

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