Excerpt from Into the Lyon’s Den

Chapter One

            Amber Gold was dancing with the Prince of Wales when the summons came. She pretended she hadn’t heard it. She was at the most glorious ball and would not be distracted. Especially since her partner was not the old, fat prince, but an imaginary royal who had a laugh that brought colors to her mind, such as could not be imagined on this mortal Earth.

            He was, needless to say, an exceptional prince and thoroughly devoted to her.

            “Quit yer lollygagging!” Hippolyta grumbled. She was the pit boss in this gambling den and in charge of all the dealers. Also, she despised anyone who sat still for more than five seconds. “The Lyon wants to see you now, and with your best manners, no less.”

            “Go, girl,” her grandfather said. Hippolyta had woken him from his doze.

            Amber stood, shaking out her dull gray skirt in the equally dull light from a single lantern. The cage room of the Lyon’s Den gambling house was cramped and noisy, but most of all, to Amber’s eyes, it was boring. Dark wood, dingy paper on the walls (if it had ever been papered), and a window with no curtains. Even the night sky was muted, covered in London’s perpetual fog.

            She pulled the cage door open, nodding briefly to the Abacas Woman, who sat with her and her grandfather. Then she walked quickly along the walls of the main floor. She knew all the workers here from the injured soldiers who guarded the doors, the pretty, boy dealers who smiled often, and most especially the girls who worked upstairs or down. Of course, she did. She spent every horrible hour of every evening here until her eyes burned from the smoke, and she despised the sound of men’s laughter.

            Knocking twice on the door to Mrs. Dove-Lyon’s private parlor, she was quickly bid to enter.

            She stepped inside, keeping her hands tucked neatly together while her scarf obscured most of her face. The proprietress stayed seated at her tea table with a cup in hand. Across from her reclined a man Amber disliked immediately for his somber attire. All in black except a diamond stickpin piercing straight through his white cravat.

            Why would anyone—man, woman, or child—wear black when there was a world of colors available? He was clearly not a man of the cloth, though he had never come into the Den before as far as she could remember. He was wealthy because his jacket was of the highest quality and quite fashionable, but it was also drab, and today she despised dull above all things. Would she never escape her very black and gray life?

            “How may I serve?” she asked, keeping her voice modest though the words stuck in her throat. She was not an employee like the others. She was an extension of her family’s jewelry business. Whatever arrangement this man and the Lyon had did not involve giving her any coins at all.

            “Thisbe, welcome,” Mrs. Dove-Lyon said in a soft voice. She referred to Amber by the name of a character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All the workers in the Den had a character’s name except Amber, who had been given the name from the play within the play. Stupid and annoying, but such was the shadow part she played in this place. “Let me introduce you to Lord Byrn. He has come here with a very specific request.”

            She’d just bet he had. It was the somber ones who wished for the oddest things. But given that she was not one of the upstairs girls, she had no idea what any of that would have to do with her. Still, she had to be polite. “My lord?”

            “A young man came here a month ago, Mr. Laurence John. His father is Lord Morthan.”

            She remembered him well by the clashing colors of his waistcoat. Which, come to think of it, she still preferred to Lord Byrn’s attire.

            “He sold a brooch to your grandfather. Heavy gold, a single blood-red ruby surrounded by eight diamonds.”

            It had been seven diamonds as one had gone missing, and the piece had been filthy beyond belief. It had been a joy to see the original gemstones revealed once she’d cleaned it and melted down the gold. Either way, they were not in the habit of discussing what had been bought or sold or remade into something much more spectacular. She gave a delicate shrug.

            “If you say so, my lord, but there is no such piece in my family’s collection now. There is, however, a large selection of brooches in the Dragon’s Hoard.” The store sat at the corner of this building, just below the den. It made for easy and secure movement of jewelry pawned by the Den’s customers. “If you would go downstairs—”

            “I have already been there,” he interrupted. “There are no rubies below, such as I describe.”

            Because the rare gem was locked up in the depths of the store where she intended to fashion it as the heart of a bird in flight. She had sculpted the wax yesterday, and her father declared it the most beautiful piece she’d ever done. But already, she could see that her dream was about to be destroyed. If this lord wished a ruby for a different reason, then money would certainly trump art.

            “Have you spoken with my father?” she asked, finding it hard to keep her smile in place. “Perhaps he can design what you wish.”

            “I have spoken with him.” Lord Byrn leaned forward in his chair. “He said to discuss matters with you.”

            Never. Her father and grandfather had dedicated their lives to keeping her talents hidden. They claimed it was to keep her respectable since women did not fashion jewelry. She thought it was so they could sell her designs and keep all the praise—and profits—for themselves. But she couldn’t say that aloud. Instead, she pulled on her most addlepated tone, pitching her voice high and stupid.

“I cannot fathom why my father would say such a thing.”

            “Perhaps because it is you who have the piece.” He smiled. “I have seen your grandfather. His eyes are rheumy, and his hands shake. He sleeps most of the evenings here except when you rouse him to tell him what to say about some gemstone or another. You are the fence here, and it does you no credit to claim otherwise.”

            Amber rocked back on her heels, surprised that any man had seen so much. Her grandfather was kept in the back in the dark, so none would see his condition. They had taken as many pains with her grandfather’s weakness as they had to hide her talent. But before she could think of an appropriate response, Lord Byrn pressed his point with a voice that was surprisingly compelling.

            “I have seen you take walks with him in the afternoon,” he said in a gentle tone. “You look a pretty pair, and there is genuine love between you.”

            “Of course, there is!” she said. “He’s my grandfather.”

            “Even so,” he said, dipping his chin in agreement. “But if he was capable of creating such pieces as are sold below, that time has long since passed.”

            He had been an artist of great renown, once upon a time. And the family name—the original name of Gohar—still had a fine reputation on the continent. But not here where they were known simply as the Gold family, selling jewelry beneath a disreputable gaming hell.

            “I need that brooch, Miss Gold,” he said, his voice growing stronger. “I don’t care why you have hidden it from your family, but that piece was not his to sell. It belongs to the dowager countess, and she has a great deal of influence among the elite. If you—and Mrs. Dove-Lyon—wish to keep your business dealings private, then I suggest you return it to me now. Otherwise, I cannot answer to what she will do. Her granddaughter is to be presented at court in a few weeks’ time, and every female Morthan has worn that brooch during their presentation since the time of William the Conqueror.”

            Well, hell, that was trouble for sure. But they were not in the habit of returning purchases. Certainly not without an offer of significant recompense. So, she raised her hands in a helpless gesture. “Unfortunately, I cannot make something appear that we do not have. Perhaps the dowager countess merely misplaced it. After all, if it is hers, then how would her grandson have gotten hold of it to sell to us?” A reasonable, logical answer, except this man knew better.

            “You and I both know the answer. Larry is a light-fingered fool. He stole it and gambled it away here.”

            She shook her head. “I do not remember him, my lord.” A bald-faced lie.

            “That will not make a difference when the constable comes knocking.”

            “The constable!” Mrs. Dove-Lyon exclaimed. “Really, Lord Byrn, threats do you no credit. Perhaps we can come to some arrangement. You say the dowager countess has lost her brooch? Well, the Gold family can fashion a brooch, can they not?”

            Amber smiled sweetly, knowing that unlike the light-fingered Larry, Lord Byrn appeared to have a great deal of ready blunt. “Of course, we can. What sort of design—”

            “The original design,” he snapped, clearly frustrated with the conversation so far. “The original brooch.”

            “Which we do not have,” Amber said, her voice matching his in tone. “So, either commission a new one, or I need to return to my grandfather.” She shot Lord Byrn an ugly look. “It is time for his special tea. The one from China that clears his sight and steadies his hands for the work he loves to do.”

            She was about to turn away when his expression shifted. Instead of the imperious lord, he softened into a charming scapegrace. He laughed in a light kind of desperation and reached out with long, elegant fingers. Fingers, she noted with surprise, that sported callouses. “Please, please, you must forgive my frustration. This has been a difficult task for a family that is not even my own.”

            That was true, which brought her to the obvious question. “Why does it fall to you?”

            “I am sponsoring a resolution in the House of Lords to help our wounded veterans. As you know, so many have come from Waterloo, a shadow of their former selves. They have nothing but the clothes on their backs and nightmares that plague them. Surely you know this.” He turned to Mrs. Dove-Lyon. “You yourself have done good work in hiring the military men. They guard your doors with skill, but there are so many more that need help.”

            Very true. The stories she had heard from the dozen who guarded their den were terrifying enough. “But what has that to do with the countess’s brooch?”

            “Her son, Lord Morthan, will vote with me if I return the missing brooch.”

            Mrs. Dove-Lyon sniffed. “You cannot appeal to his sense of duty? To his patriotism? It is only fitting that the Crown help those who have given so much for our own defense!”

            “I agree!” Lord Byrn said. The passion was clear in his voice. “That is why I am working so tirelessly to accomplish what must be done. For our wounded soldiers who have given so much.”

            “Yes, of course,” said Mrs. Dove-Lyon. “Quite proper.”

Well, he had the Lyon eating out of his hands. And if there was any doubt, the woman then turned to Amber with a pleading expression. “Can you think of no way to help, Thisbe?” she pressed.

            “I cannot sell what I do not have. The brooch is not here.”

            “But it was here,” Lord Byrn pressed. “Larry did sell it to you.”

            She could not admit the truth. Aristocrats did not like to be thwarted, and he would like it even less to find out that the piece had been melted for parts.

“I don’t have it,” she repeated, investing her words with the absolute truth.

            “Then who does?” asked Mrs. Dove-Lyon.

            Amber winced. It was one thing to ignore his lordship. He would likely never grace the Den again. But Mrs. Dove-Lyon carried their lease for the store below and their position inside the Den. She had the ability to toss them out at her whim. Plus, she already knew that Mr. Laurence John had sold the piece to them. Which meant she likely guessed what had happened. She made that very clear in the next moment as she set down her teacup with an audible click.

“I wish to help Lord Byrn,” declared Mrs. Dove-Lyon. “I have heard much of his political influence. His resolution would help a great many people.”

            Amber sighed. She had no choice but to tell the truth now. Mrs. Dove-Lyon did not often give aid, but when she did, she expected others to comply. Amber grit her teeth and met Lord Byrn’s gaze.

            “The piece is gone, my lord. It did come to us, but is now gone.”

            “Sold to whom? Who would purchase such a thing?”

            She would. To melt it down and make something beautiful out of an old, crusty ornament, so clearly unloved.

            “No one purchased it,” she bit out. “It was melted down last week. I have only the main stone, and a bit of gold left. The rest went into other pieces.” She added a last part because she was angry. “And there were only seven diamonds. The eighth had gone missing.”

            “Then why did you lie about it? You said you never came by it.” He didn’t sound angry so much as curious.

            “Because I do not have what you want, and if I told you the truth, you would demand recompense. Mr. John sold the brooch to us and was paid a fair price for it. But you would demand the gemstones back, and you would threaten the constable or worse, all because a foolish boy sold something that did not belong to him. That is not our fault, my lord. And we cannot willy nilly return jewelry to every nob who sold something that did not belong to him merely because he wants it.”

            Though they were a legitimate business—the buying and selling of jewelry—a single, angry aristocrat could bring it all down. It was, in fact, why they had left Germany so long ago. A wastrel prince had made them fear for their lives. They had run here to England, called themselves Gold, and set up beneath a gambling den. And any hope of respectability for their daughter disappeared the moment they opened up shop. The English did not wed nobody foreigners who worked in a den.

            “So, you lie?” he asked.

            “Yes. Because gentlemen like you do not like being told no. Much better to say, I know nothing about what you speak. Nothing at all.”

            He grunted in acknowledgment. “Yes, I suppose that is the wiser course.”

            Amber gaped at him. She had not expected him to be so reasonable. But she wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. She smiled, curtsied, and rushed her next words. “If there is nothing else—”

            “Could you fashion it again? I could pay you for your work, of course. A reasonable sum. You have the gemstones, you said.”

            “Of course, she can,” Mrs. Dove-Lyon said. “Thisbe is a genius with jewelry. She has created the most magical pieces, my lord. Simply magical.”

            “No!” Amber cried out. “I can’t!”

            Lord Byrn’s expression was surprised, but it was Mrs. Dove-Lyon’s face that made Amber pause. It was hard and angry. This was the Lyon’s face, the one that forced men’s hands, making them wed where they did not will it. The one that had become infamous throughout London. “But, of course, you can, Thisbe. Because that is why you are here. Unless I should speak with another jeweler. There have been so many lately asking to rent the space where your family’s shop resides. Perhaps it’s time I revisited the terms of your lease.”

            It was a real threat. Any jeweler in town would be thrilled to set up here to buy gems from desperate gamblers. And if her family was unceremoniously tossed out, there was nowhere else for them to establish themselves. It had been a godsend that they found the Lyon’s Den.

            “I am, of course, willing to try,” Amber amended hastily. “But I do not remember the design.” She looked at Lord Byrn. “Do you have a sketch of it?”

            His hands lifted in a gesture of confusion. “Only the description I gave you. A blood-red ruby and eight diamonds.”

            “Seven,” she corrected. “And that is not enough if you want me to recreate a brooch to match a set from the time of William the Conqueror.”

            Lord Byrn blew out a breath as he stared at her. His expression was heavy, and his…well, his eyes were quite lovely. She hadn’t noticed it before now, but they were the most striking shade of green with just enough blue to make them the color of the rarest form of emerald. They startled her enough to cut off her breath and words.

            “Could you do it from a painting, perhaps?” he asked.

            She frowned. “If it were a good painting.”

            “The very best, I’m told.” He nodded as if that decided it. “I shall come for you tomorrow at three. I’ll say you are a cousin or something from the Continent with an interest in portraiture. That should gain us admittance. The family is quite proud of the damned thing.”

            She blinked. “What thing?”

            “The portrait of the dowager countess wearing the brooch back when she was first presented at Court. Painted by Joseph Wright of Derby. He’s quite famous.”

            She nodded. Even she had heard of the man. But painting faces and painting jewelry were two different things. Still, she had no room to argue, though she searched and searched her thoughts for a reason. Mrs. Dove-Lyon had no such reservations.

            “Excellent, my lord. She shall be ready. We shall await you at the Dragon’s Hoard.”

Into the Lyons Den

Into the Lyons Den

From USA Today Bestselling author Jade Lee, a lush tale from the greatest, most notorious gambling den in London.