To None But Me

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A Gambling Man

Paris, France

May, 1719


“John Law, how long it’s been!”

The Duke d’Orleans greeted his Scottish companion with a shake of the hand and a kiss placed upon each cheek. Their meeting was timed with precision, as was Law’s doing. He was nothing if not a master puppeteer, with a certain knack for financial calculations. And France, having spent the past thirteen years at war, was in dire need of someone with his talents.

“Pleasure to see ye once more,” he crooned, wondering at which angle he’d best be able to shovel more profit into his pockets. The establishment the Duke had chosen to meet was less than reputable, but this was Paris, after all. Brothels, for the elite, were purely recreational, their prostitutes of the highest standards. Not that Law was as keen to partake in such frivolous activities as his counterpart, but he enjoyed the view all the same. He’d rather gamble, and not just small amounts, either. His fingers drummed on his knee as they sat at the small, round table, the itch to spend another’s money a compulsion now.

A busty woman clad in nothing but an underskirt drifted by, catching the eye of the Duke, who had a wife and a mistress already. Women, to Law, were not held in the same regard as currency, and therefore could be treated as less-than. He reached for his brandy, letting the exquisite liquid trickle down his throat in a cascade of fire. He nodded to the beast of a man who stood behind the Duke, his hulking frame impossible to ignore for long.

“A new friend?” he asked, raising his brow. The same woman floated by once more, trailing her fingers along the stranger’s broad chest, lust heavy in her hazel eyes. The man was tall, more so than any man Law had seen in some time, and broad shouldered, his arms thick with muscle. He ignored the advances of the whore, well trained and taking his job seriously.

The Duke chuckled, reaching for his crystalline glass of brandy as well.

“It seems I need a bit of…protection, as of late. My decisions tend not to sit well with the populace.”

“Ahh,” Law said, understanding the need for such a brute. He narrowed his eyes, though, at the man’s chiseled, bearded face with disdain; for once, Law’s mind was not calculating finances, but rather preoccupied with jealousy. If he’d been graced by God to look like some Pagan hero of old, he’d have no need to use his mind so often. This young man was wasting his talents and appearance as a bodyguard.

“I hear the settlement in the New World is struggling,” Law conceded, mind drifting back to the task at hand. It was unfortunate, to lose money on such a grand scale, but that was the reason for Law’s presence in this stuffy brothel in the first place. That, and their common hatred for the English. This new scheme, about to be presented to the Duke, had been in the works for years now. The timing was finally precise, in Law’s mind.

The Duke nodded, leaning in so as not to be overheard.

“No one wants to leave Paris. The settlement is rife with terrible crops and illness. In the meantime, our streets and prisons overflow to the point of combustion.”

Law smirked, for he had already formulated his answer to the problem. It was a gamble, to be sure, but that is what Law did best.

“I must admit, I’ve a solution to yer woes.”

The Duke’s eyes lit up in the dusky, perfumed space. Glasses clinked, women shrieked with fake delight at men’s advances. It was altogether repulsive. The giant of a man shifted behind the Duke, feet sore and tired from his twelve-hour day at the blacksmith’s shop. He detested brothels, the gaudy women making him rather uncomfortable. He was attracted to them, to be sure, as any young man would be, but none stood out. None made him want to spend his hard earned coin for a few moments of bliss. Bliss, it would seem, the man had never experienced yet before, though his virginal status was not the least bit embarrassing to him.

Law cleared his throat, eyeing the big man, and the Duke turned to him, waving his thin hand.

“Go and find my damnable nephew. If he spends another livre, I’ll kill him myself.”

Erik nodded once, thankful to be relieved of his sentry duties. Politics bored him to tears, but he needed the money for him and his sister to survive. Paris was crumbling all around them; beggars outnumbered the elite, the jails burst with thousands of prisoners, and the asylums and hospitals were a lost cause. Money held little value these days. He’d never allow his sister to end up in one of those horrid places.

Law watched as the man turned for the stairs, his thick, deep blond hair tied at the nape of his neck.

“Swedish?” he concluded. The Duke sipped his brandy, shaking his head and giving a look of disgust. Nothing ever tasted right to him.

“Norwegian, I believe.”

“Oh, yes, I see it now,” Law nodded.

“So,” the Duke spread his hands wide and leaned back, ready for Law’s plan. “Enlighten me, if you’d be so kind.”

A cruel smile wound its way onto Law’s weathered face.

“Ye say there’s a problem with getting people to the settlement? I say there’s plenty, just chomping at the bit for a chance at…freedom.”

The Duke circled his finger on the rim of his glass, pondering his friend’s words.

“And whom might that be?”

Law sat back, quite pleased with himself, and smirked at the Duke. His experiment would work, of this he knew. Why send the outstanding citizens of society, when you could send the mongrels instead?

***

Erik mounted the rickety steps, knowing right where the Duke’s nephew, Simon, would be. The priciest whores at Maison de L’amour were always at the top, at the end of the hall, and the young prick of a lad had a taste for expensive things, especially where women were concerned.

Moans and giggles drifted to his ears from half-open doorways, men stumbled drunkenly past him down the steps, dreamy smiles on their faces, and the smell of perfume and incense choked him the further up he climbed. He prayed Anna would never end up this desperate, selling herself to repulsive men for a few coins. Their father had been strict enough, but it was their late mother he wished to please, to honor her memory by choosing a suitable wife from hardy stock and having numerous children. After so much time spent at war, it was all Erik desired.

The women of Paris, though, were too frail and fragile, preoccupied with social status and gossip-mongering. Erik needed a woman who’d be just as comfortable under a thatched roof and working in a field as she would be at a governor’s ball. Anna often told him he was too picky, but he argued that one couldn’t rush something of such importance.

He reached the top, the ornately carved door at the end of the walk his intended target. The noises from within pulled him up short, however. A few women stopped their advances down the hall, turning to glance with concern in that direction as a furious scream and subsequent crash sounded. His jaw ticked, wondering at what was going on just behind those few inches of wood.

Erik had always had a temper, a quick and fiery one as a boy, but it had been trained out of him. He knew now how to control it, how to harness it and use it, but there were still times it rose to the surface, clawing its way up and into his belly, until he could ignore it no longer. The feminine scream met his ears once more, and without hesitation, he gave the door an enraged shove.

There, in the rose-hued light of the dim room, was a petite, furious young woman, her beauty striking him into stillness. Her blue eyes blazed with fire, her dark hair tumbling down to her bared mid-back. She clutched a wrinkled sheet to her naked body, her ivory skin as silky as alabaster, but marred by a long, thin cut across her stained cheek. She shook, with fear or rage, he wasn’t sure, but her eyes focused only on that damnable Simon, who also took no notice of Erik, rushing back at the whore with death in his eyes. Before he could reach her, Erik gripped his shirt collar, yanking him away from the poor girl.

He whirled, eyes fixating up at Erik with disdain, before he brought his hand up and wiped at his face, though his sneer stayed put. Erik noticed the bloodied ring on his left hand, mind bridging the gap and making the connection. He wondered why Simon had felt the need to abuse a whore, especially one as striking as her.

“Your uncle wishes to see you,” Erik said, attempting to distract Simon’s anger. The boy, freshly eighteen, was spoiled rotten.

“I haven’t received what I paid for yet, Norsky. Take your leave,” he spat before turning to advance upon the woman once more. Erik gave him another hearty tug. The boy was all arms and legs and a mess of tight brown curls, a pathetic excuse of a man, in Erik’s mind. Real men were strong-willed and didn’t have to pay for the love of a woman.

“Ye’ll get nothin’, ye dirty rotten bastard! I’m no’ some common whore! I’m not—”

Simon lunged for her, forcing Erik to wrap him up and pin his little arms to his sides. It was all he could do to hide his smirk, for the woman had a fiery tongue, and he admired her for it. She wasn’t French, either, but sounded Irish to him, even though he’d never been there himself. He had, however, sailed with a few Irishmen once. He’d thought he had known how to hold his liquor before then, but he had been quite mistaken.

He watched her wide blue eyes as they flashed in fear for a moment, as she stumbled back a step. Her bravado, though impressive, appeared to have chinks in it.

“She struck me, you damn brute!” Simon twisted in Erik’s arms, a petulant, bratty child as always, but wrestling him into submission was the easiest and most enjoyable task of his day, for he detested the boy.

“You are a whore, I paid for you, a virgin, they said, and I’ll get my money’s worth!” his voice rose, as though to prove he was somehow better than the young woman. Simon truly was an idiot, to have paid for a virgin in a whorehouse. It seemed the boy had been swindled and tricked yet again, which was rather easy, in truth.

Erik watched as her face stormed over in a second, as death crept into those deep blue eyes. Her thin, pale hands clutched the sheet tighter to her body. He sensed, then, that there was something more to her, some mystery behind that strange gaze. She was more than a whore, and Erik was intrigued.

“I’ll cut yer eyes oot and feed em’ to ye for breakfast!” she yelled, her accent deepening in her anger. Now, Erik did chuckle, which infuriated Simon ever more.

“Calm down, lad, and go to your uncle,” Erik said, giving him a shove toward the door and attempting to follow. Simon, however, had revenge on his mind. He spun, lunging for the young woman, much quicker than Erik had anticipated. He reached her, gripping a fistful of her dark hair and pulling with all his mite. She crashed to the floor, dropping the sheet to steady herself. Erik lunged forward in an attempt to catch her, but her head collided with the side table, and down she went, groaning in pain and subdued fury.

Before he could push down his anger, Erik threw Simon against the wall, pinning him there with his forearm pressed tight to his throat. The blubbering fool cried and spit like a sullen child who’d had his toy taken away, his hands clawing at Erik’s thick arm as his feet twitched, just above the ground.

Simon ceased all motions, though, when his eyes fell upon Erik’s livid face. His eyes were such a piercing, icy blue they were almost unnatural, and he’d heard people utter the god’s name Odin in is wake before. He wondered, then, if this man really could be a god himself, for the look in his eye said more than words ever could.

“Get downstairs to your uncle, boy, before you make me do something you’ll regret,” he seethed through tight teeth. As quick as Erik had thrown him against the wall, it was just as quickly over. He dropped Simon, satisfied when the boy turned tail and flew down the hall, a mess of whores standing outside and watching the spectacle take place.

He wiped his hand along his bearded jaw, loosening the tightness the anger had brought on. Glancing once more down at the young girl, he saw her back rise and fall, indicating she’d not suffered something more serious. But there, from the front of her hip and curving around to her ribcage, was a long, jagged scar. With a saddened sigh, he reached down, pulling the sheet over her exposed body, his rough fingers just dancing across her smooth, warm skin.

He knew there’d be hell to pay for his actions. He just hoped this tragic, stunning harlot would be worth it.

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