Chapter no 45 – JAMESON

The Brothers Hawthorne

The office in question wasn’t grand. It wasn’t large. It was empty but for a desk. On the desk, there was a book—bigger than either of the others that Jameson had seen that night, its cover made of shining metal.

Jameson didn’t need to ask what that book was. He knew just from the way that Zella looked at it. Just from the way that Branford did.

“Ms. Grambs,” the Proprietor said. “If you wouldn’t mind joining Rohan in the hall?”

Jameson didn’t like that idea, but he didn’t object, either. Once the door closed behind Avery and Rohan, the Proprietor turned his attention to the three who remained. “You know why you’re here.”

Jameson was struck by how ordinary the man’s voice was, how normal he looked up close. If you passed him on the street, you wouldn’t look twice.

Jameson couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t passed him on the street at some point.

“I wouldn’t dare to assume,” Zella said demurely.

“We both know that’s not true, my dear.” The Proprietor leaned forward, his elbows on the desk that separated him from the three of them. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t dare much, much more.” He shifted his weight again, slightly back. “Only one person,” he commented softly, “has ever managed to break into the Mercy.”

Jameson turned toward Zella and raised both eyebrows.

The duchess gave an elegant little shrug. “Glass ceilings and all that,” she told Jameson.

“Your place in the Game is assured, Your Grace.” The Proprietor reached into a desk drawer and withdrew an envelope, much like the one that had held Avery’s initial invitation to the Mercy. He held it out to Zella, who took it, then the Proprietor’s hand returned to the drawer. “While you’re at it,” he told her, “I would be most obliged if you’d take Avery’s to her.”

Avery this time, Jameson thought. Not Ms. Grambs.

Zella closed her fingers around both envelopes and made her way to the door. “Bonne chance, gentlemen.”

And then there were two.

“Luck.” The Proprietor snorted. “If you’re going to compete against that one, you’ll need it.”

The word compete had Jameson’s pulse quickening. This was it.

Branford, however, latched on to a different word. “If,” he repeated.

“Your places in the Game, I’m afraid, are not assured,” the Proprietor said. “Simon, you’re well aware of the cost to join the Mercy.” The use of Branford’s given name seemed deliberate, a reminder that here, his title did not matter. Here, he wasn’t the one with power. “What more might you be willing to pay in exchange for an invitation to the Game?”

Branford’s jaw tightened—slightly, but it was there. “Another levy.” That wasn’t a question or an offer. That was the Viscount Branford cutting to the chase.

The Proprietor’s smile didn’t look like any that Jameson had ever seen. “It need not concern yourself this time,” he said. “But you must, as I’m sure you realize, make it worth my while.” The Proprietor drummed his fingers lightly over the top of the desk, a sign, Jameson thought, that he was enjoying this. “And it must be something you would rather not come out. After all, these things are always more interesting when at least a few players have ‘skin in the game,’ as the Americans like to say.”

The Proprietor turned his head toward Jameson. “And that, my boy, leads us to you. There’s a bit of a resemblance to your brother, don’t you think, Simon?”

Branford didn’t so much as flick his eyes toward Jameson. “In rashness, if nothing else.”

Jameson chose not to take that personally. All his focus remained on the Proprietor.

“You’re bold, young man.” The Proprietor stood and caught his cane between his thumb and forefinger and swung it lightly back and forth, like a metronome or a needle on a scale. “If I’d encountered you when you were younger, if your last name wasn’t Hawthorne…,” the Proprietor told Jameson, “you could have had an interesting future at the Mercy indeed.”

Jameson thought about the young boy who tended the boats, about the bartender, the house fighters, the dealers. About Rohan.

“But here you are,” the Proprietor mused. “Not a member of the Mercy and not in my employ.” He nodded toward the desk. “Do you know what this book is?”

“Am I supposed to?” Jameson replied, the barest hint of challenge in his tone.

“Oh, most assuredly not.” There was something dark and serpentine buried in the Proprietor’s tone as he studied Jameson’s face. And then he smiled. “Your grandfather trained you well, Mr. Hawthorne. Your face gives away very little.”

Jameson shrugged. “I’m also fairly skilled at motocross.”

“And fighting,” the Proprietor added. He went silent for a moment longer than was comfortable for anyone in the room. “I respect a fighter. Tell me…” The cane was still going back and forth in his hands, though the older man gave no sign of moving it at all. “What makes you think that I am dying?”

So that was the move—or one of them, anyway—that had paid off.

The Proprietor’s fingers tightened suddenly around the cane. “This?” he said, nodding toward it.

“No,” Jameson replied. He debated withholding an explanation but decided that might register as one insult too many. “You remind me of my grandfather.” The words came out quieter than he meant them to. “Before.”

There had been weeks when the old man was ill, when he’d been planning his final hurrah, and none of them but Xander had known.

“The way you tested Rohan,” Jameson continued. “In the ring.” “I was testing you,” the Proprietor countered.

Jameson shrugged. “Three birds with one stone.” “And the third would be…?”

“I don’t know,” Jameson replied honestly. “I just know that there is one, just like I know that you have a presumptive heir.” He paused. “Just like my

brothers and I now know to never presume.” Jameson met the Proprietor’s gaze. “And there was a tremor—a very slight one—when Avery took your arm last night.”

“She told you that?” the Proprietor demanded.

“She didn’t have to,” Jameson said. At the time, he hadn’t even noticed, but he’d long ago trained himself to be able to play a scene over and over again in his mind.

“Why,” the Proprietor said, after a long and pointed silence, “did you place a bet on the price of wheat?”

Jameson’s mouth felt suddenly dry, but he had no intention of letting the old man across from him see that. “Because I’m not a fan of corn or oats.”

Another lengthy silence, and then the Proprietor dropped his cane flat on the desk with an audible clunk. “You are interesting, Jameson Hawthorne. I’ll give you that.” The Proprietor walked around the desk—without the cane. “And I think it would be somewhat entertaining to watch you lose the Game.” He turned toward Jameson’s uncle. “It would feel a bit poetic, don’t you think, Branford? Ian’s son?”

He called him Branford this time, Jameson registered. Not Simon. Because this time, the Viscount Branford was not the one that the Proprietor was attempting to put in his place.

“But there is a balance to these things,” the man continued, his lips curving, eyes just beginning to narrow. “Weights on the scales.”

Nothing worthwhile, Jameson could hear his grandfather saying, comes without a cost.

“I’ll pay the levy,” Jameson said.

“In a fashion.” The Proprietor walked closer to him still. “I want a secret, Jameson Hawthorne,” he said, his voice low and silky. “The kind men would kill and die for. The kind that shakes the ground beneath our feet, the kind that must never be spoken, the kind you wouldn’t dare share even with the lovely Avery Grambs.” The Proprietor reached out, grabbing Jameson’s chin, turning his head to get a good look at every cut and every bruise. “Do you have a secret like that?”

Jameson didn’t pull back. Again, his mind went to Prague. Resist.

Jameson didn’t. “I do.”

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