In the Dark with the Duke by Christi Caldwell
The rules were clear.
They were simple.
Always land the hardest, sharpest blow. The decisive one that, when properly dealt, ultimately kills.
And that ruthlessness was what brought the nobility ’round. After all, they would turn out coin for the cruelest of pleasures, and those cruelest pleasures were what kept Hugh Savage alive.
Or they had. Until tonight.
Hugh jabbed a fist out, punching swiftly at the air. From the reflection in the cracked beveled mirror, he caught sight of his visitor before the man even spoke.
“You do know what you have to do?”
Hugh met that question with nothing more than another practiced blow that hissed in the quiet.
The desperate ones always wanted a damned meeting. As if they had something meaningful to contribute. Ultimately, Hugh had come to realize, those lessons were more about the obnoxious nobs convincing themselves that they had some control over the matchup, when really, the two men in the ring were the only ones who mattered.
Restraining the fury pumping through him, Hugh let his fist fly, coming so close to the mirror his knuckles brushed the glass.
Yes, the last thing Hugh, a bare-knuckle fighter, needed was a lesson. And certainly not from the man who’d come here as a coach. He might come from the highest ranks of London high society, but in these streets, Hugh was king of the ring. He faced the lord. Nearly forty years older than Hugh’s fifteen, the man was smaller by three stone, shorter by a foot, and stupider by a lot. Hefting his shirt overhead, Hugh tossed it aside, and the color drained from the fine gent’s fleshy cheeks.
A clamor of cheers and cries went up outside the doorway, in the room where even now the latest contest ensued. Over that din, Hugh could still make out distinct sounds: The audible swallow of the masked lord as he took in Hugh’s scarred and marked chest. The rapid bobbing of the gent’s throat. The scratch of fabric as the gent clenched and unclenched his jacket.
“I know how to fight,” Hugh said, speaking his first words since his handler had sent him back to ready for his match. “And even if I didn’t, the last person I’d take tutelage from is one like you.”
Surprise brought the old man’s eyebrows flying up over the tops of the fabric obscuring his face.
Hugh smiled coldly. They were always startled by his crisp tones. Always unsettled, as though they’d stumbled upon an anomaly, a fine-speaking person who had no place in these parts.
But despite Hugh’s flawless King’s English, none would ever dare dispute or question that this was the only place he belonged.
The old lord managed to find his voice once more. “I want him dead. I’ve got a sizable sum on you.”
That was the plan, then. The Fight Society, which had begun as a ruthless underground children’s bare-knuckle ring, had evolved as the competitors had gotten older, and the spectators had begun to thirst for more bloodshed. More violence. More danger. More everything except mercy for the street rats made to tussle for their enjoyment.
Bare-knuckle fighting had devolved into matches to the death—boys who’d never really been boys, forced to scuffle like dogs in the street, with not even a meal tossed to the most ruthless to emerge triumphant.
I have to get out . . . I have to get away from this . . .
“Did you hear me, boy? I want him dead.”
“My lord, if you’ll excuse us for a moment.”
As one, Hugh and the masked nobleman looked to the owner of that voice—Dooley, the hated handler.
The gentleman stomped over to the lead handler. “The boy’s not being agreeable,” he said, jabbing a finger to the ground, punctuating each word. “He’s a stubborn, shameful one, and—”
“And also one of our best.” Dooley flicked a flinty stare over a still-silent Hugh.
The mask that concealed nearly the whole of the patron’s face pulled around his fleshy lips.
While that pair spoke in angry but hushed whispers, Hugh practiced several swift uppercuts.
They wanted control of every exchange. Of every duel. Of every outcome. To hell with all of them.
And to hell with this life that wasn’t a life.
“If you’ll excuse me, my lord?” Dooley was saying.
The nobleman cast another look Hugh’s way. He wanted to say more, but apparently he was not as dumb as Hugh had originally taken him for.
The moment he’d taken his leave, Dooley closed the door behind him and turned the lock. “You disapprove.”
It wasn’t a question, and even if it had been, Hugh wouldn’t