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Chapter no 35- JAMESON

The Brothers Hawthorne

Ian had some explaining to do.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Jameson greeted from the shadows as the man in question ambled into the hotel room, drunk or hungover or possibly both.

Ian’s head whipped up. “Where did you come from?”

It was a reasonable question. After all, this room was on the fourth floor of a very nice, very secure hotel. Jameson glanced meaningfully at the window in response.

“I would have called on you at King’s Gate Terrace, but we both know that flat isn’t yours.” It hadn’t taken Jameson long to figure out that Ian wasn’t in residence—or for the security guard to stiffly suggest he check this hotel. “King’s Gate Terrace belongs to Branford,” Jameson continued. “Or should I say Simon? The viscount?”

“So you’ve met my brother.” Ian took a perch on the edge of the desk. “A real charmer, isn’t he?”

Jameson thought briefly of his own brothers—of traditions and rivalries and history, of what it meant to grow up alongside someone, to be formed in contrast to them. “The charmer beat me at whist.”

Ian took that in. For someone who had obviously been drinking, he’d sobered quickly. Jameson waited for a cutting comment about his loss, a dig, a lecture, judgment.

“I’ve never cared much for whist,” Ian said with a shrug. The oddest feeling seized Jameson’s chest.

“And the King’s Gate Terrace flat isn’t Simon’s, by the way,” Ian

continued flippantly. “If you recall, I have more than one brother.”

Both older, Jameson remembered Ian telling Avery. “And a father who’s an earl,” Jameson added, focusing on that.

“If it helps,” Ian offered lazily, “it’s one of the newer earldoms. Created in eighteen seventy-one.”

“That doesn’t help.” Jameson gave Ian a look. “And neither does sending me into the Devil’s Mercy unprepared for what I’d find there.” For who he’d find there.

“Simon is barely a member.” Ian waved away the objection. “He hasn’t shown his face at the Mercy in years.”

“Until now.”

“Someone must have informed my brother of my loss,” Ian admitted.

“You think he’s trying to procure an invitation to the Game.” Jameson did not phrase that as a question.

“As a general rule,” Ian replied, “my brother does not try to do anything.”

He succeeds. The words went unspoken, but Jameson responded as if they had not. “You’re saying that Simon Johnstone-Jameson, Viscount Branford, gets what he wants.”

“I’m saying,” Ian replied, “that you cannot let him win Vantage.” There was something raw and brutal in that cannot. Jameson didn’t want to hear it

—or understand it or recognize it—but he did.

“Growing up the third-born son of an earl,” Ian said after a moment, his voice thick, “was, I’d imagine, a bit like growing up the third-born grandson of an American billionaire.” Ian walked over to the window and looked down at the wall that Jameson had scaled to break in here. “One perfect brother,” he continued, “one brilliant one—and then there was me.”

He wants me to feel that we’re the same. Jameson recognized the move for what it was. He played me before. He doesn’t get to play me again.

But when Ian turned back from the window, he didn’t look like he was playing. “My mother saw something in me,” Ian Johnstone-Jameson said hoarsely. “She left Vantage to me.” He took a step forward. “Win it back,” he told Jameson, “and someday, I’ll leave it to you.”

That promise hit with the force of a punch. Jameson’s ears roared.

Nothing matters unless you let it. “Why would you do that?” he shot back.

“Why not?” Ian replied impulsively. “I’m not the settling down type.

It’ll have to go to someone, won’t it?” The idea seemed to be growing on him. “And it would drive Simon mad.”

That last sentence, more than anything else, convinced Jameson that Ian’s offer was genuine. If I win him Vantage, he’ll leave it to me. The Hawthorne side of Jameson recognized the obvious: He could win it for himself, cut Ian out.

But then it wouldn’t be a gift from his father.

Jameson didn’t linger on that thought for long. “Tonight, Avery received an invitation to the Game,” he told Ian. “I haven’t. Not yet.”

Ian’s bloodshot eyes focused on Jameson—and only on Jameson. “Did the Proprietor appear at the top of the grand staircase and descend?”

Jameson gave a sharp nod. “With Avery on his arm.”

“Then we must act quickly.” Ian began pacing, and Jameson knew the man’s mind was racing, knew exactly how it was racing. “The rest of the players will be chosen tomorrow evening. Tell me what you’ve done so far to win entrance to the Game.”

Not enough, Jameson thought. “Tell me what you did to get banned first,” he countered. “The Factotum knows that I’m your son.”

Ian ran a hand roughly through his hair. “Little bastard knows everything.”

Jameson shrugged. “That seems to be his job—that and keeping the membership in order.” He thought back to the way Rohan had dealt with those men. “What did you do, Ian?”

What else don’t I know?

“I lost.” Ian turned his palms toward Jameson in an insincere mea culpa. “People who lose too much get desperate. The Factotum does not trust desperate men.” Ian’s lips curled into a smile, dark and wry. “And I may have upturned a chair or two.”

So you have a temper. Jameson didn’t dwell on that. This wasn’t a time for dwelling on anything. “There were two men there tonight. I don’t know what they did, exactly, but the Factotum—Rohan—he rattled off a series of dates, presumably ones on which they’d committed some kind of transgression. He offered them the chance to play him.”

Ian tilted his head to the side, his body very still. “What were the terms?”

“If one or both of them won, they could fight it out in ring.”

“Ah.” Ian lifted a brow. “Loser in the ring takes the punishment for both. It would certainly make for motivated fighters—and a great deal of money wagered on the result. But that’s not what happened, is it?”

“Rohan won the hand. He said they knew what would happen if he did.” Jameson had a strong sense that everyone in that room had known. Everyone but him. “Were they banned the way you were?”

“Exile is considered a lighter punishment.” Ian’s characteristic air of detached amusement was back. “No, those poor sods, whoever they are, will pay a much steeper price.” Ian rocked back on his heels. “It’s not a coincidence the Factotum made an example of someone right before the Game.”

Jameson’s eyes narrowed. “What do you know that I don’t?”

“Your heiress, she didn’t actually join the Mercy, so I assume she didn’t have to pay the levy.”

Jameson thought back to Rohan’s initial offer. The levy to join the Devil’s Mercy is much steeper. “The cost of joining—how much is it?” When Ian didn’t reply, Jameson amended his question. “What is it?”

Ian turned back to the window, and Jameson had the vague sense that he was checking to make sure they weren’t being watched—or listened to. “There is a ledger in the Devil’s Mercy, as old as the club itself. To gain membership, to pay the levy, you must provide fodder for the ledger. Blackmail material that could be leveraged against you.”

Jameson felt his pulse speed up. “Secrets.”

“Terrible ones,” Ian agreed. “The Proprietor must have a way of keeping all those powerful men in line, after all.” Ian spoke like he wasn’t one of them. “A secret and proof. That’s what the ledger contains. Those who cross the Proprietor quickly find themselves at his mercy.”

The Devil’s Mercy. Suddenly, the club’s name held new meaning. “Does the Proprietor have any mercy?” Jameson asked.

“It depends on the offense. Occasionally, he’ll ruin a man simply to remind the rest of us that he can, but more frequently, the punishment fits the crime. Men who risk the Proprietor’s wrath find themselves at risk. Their levy becomes a prize to be won by their peers.”

Jameson’s mind raced as he put the pieces together. “The Game. It’s not just for assets the house has won over the course of the year.”

Ian’s eyes locked on to his. “The winner may choose: a coveted prize or

a forfeited levy, a disgraced member’s page from the ledger.”

A terrible secret, Jameson thought. Blackmail material. The kind that could ruin a person.

“The more powerful the member,” Ian continued, “the more valuable his levy is to the rest. Tell me, who ran afoul of the Devil tonight?”

The Devil. Jameson wasn’t sure if that was supposed to refer to Rohan or the Proprietor or the Mercy itself. “I don’t know.”

Ian stared at him hard, then looked away. “Maybe I’m asking too much of you.”

Jameson felt like a needle had been stabbed straight through his chest. Ordinary, a voice inside him taunted. Lesser. He gritted his teeth. “Ainsley.” Jameson pulled the name out of his memory. “Rohan addressed one of the men as Ainsley.”

Ian cursed under his breath. “There’s not a member of the Mercy that won’t be grappling for an invitation to the Game now.” The man stepped forward, an eerily familiar intensity in his vivid green eyes. “What have you done to earn one?”

Jameson didn’t flinch, didn’t hesitate, didn’t blink. “I won at the tables.” “That won’t be enough.”

How many times had Jameson heard some iteration of those words? How many times had he said them to himself? When you have certain weaknesses, you have to want it more. “I issued a challenge.”

“Tell me.”

Jameson did.

“You winked at him? During the descent?” Ian threw his head back and laughed. It was so unexpected that Jameson almost didn’t notice—I have his laugh.

Jameson was too much of a Hawthorne to dwell on that. “I was taught to see openings—and take them. For better or worse, the Proprietor will be keeping an eye on me now.”

“If you’re going to succeed,” Ian replied, all trace of laughter gone from his tone, “you’re going to have to do a hell of a lot more than win at the tables.”

Know no fear. Hold nothing back. Jameson felt something unfurling inside himself. “Then I won’t confine my winning to the tables.” He could do this. He was this. “Tomorrow, I’ll start the night in the ring.”

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