The Fallen Angel
Twelve Years Later
There is beauty in the moment when flesh meets bone.
It is born of the violent crunch of knuckles against jaw, and the deep thud of fist against abdomen, and the hollow grunt that echoes from the chest of a man in the split second before his defeat.
Those who revel in such beauty, fight.
Some fight for pleasure. For the moment when an opponent collapses to the floor in a cloud of sawdust, without strength or breath or honor.
Some fight for glory. For the moment when a champion looms over his beaten and broken adversary, slick with sweat and dust and blood.
And some fight for power. Underscored by the strain of sinew and the ache of soon-to-be bruises that whisper as victory comes with the promise of spoils.
But the Duke of Lamont, known throughout London’s darkest corners as Temple, fought for peace.
He fought for the moment when he was nothing but muscle and bone, movement and force, sleight and feint. For the way brutality blocked the world beyond, silencing the thunder of the crowd and the memories of his mind, and left him with only breath and might.
He fought because, for twelve years, it was in the ring alone that he knew the truth of himself and of the world.
Violence was pure. All else, tainted.
And that knowledge made him the best there was.
Undefeated throughout London—throughout Europe, many wagered—it was Temple who stood in the ring each night, wounds rarely scarred over before they threatened to bleed again, knuckles wrapped in long strips of linen. There, in the ring, he faced his next opponent—a different man each
night, each one believing Temple could be bested.
Each one believing himself the man to reduce the great, immovable Temple to a mass of heavy flesh on the floor of the largest room of London’s most exclusive gaming hell.
The draw of The Fallen Angel was powerful, built upon tens of thousands of pounds wagered each evening, on the promise of vice and sin that called to Mayfair at sunset, on the men of title and wealth and unparalleled worth who stood shoulder to shoulder and learned of their weakness from the rattle of ivory and the whisper of baize and the spin of mahogany.
And when they had lost everything in the glittering, glorious rooms above, their last resort was the room that lurked below—the ring. The underworld over which Temple reigned.
The Angel’s founders had created a single path of redemption for these men. There was a way those who lost their fortune to the casino could regain it.
And all was forgiven.
It had never happened, of course. For twelve years, Temple had fought, first in dark alleys filled with darker characters for survival, and then in lower clubs, for money and power and influence.
All the things he’d been promised.
All the things he’d been born to.
All the things he had lost in one, unremembered night.
The thought crept into the rhythm of the fight and for a barely-there moment, his body weighed heavy on his feet, and his opponent—half Temple’s size and a third of his strength—landed a blow, forceful and lucky, at the perfect angle to jar the teeth and bring stars to the eyes.
Temple danced backward, propelled by the unexpected cross, pain and shock
banishing thought as he met the triumphant gaze of his unnamed opponent. Not unnamed. Of course he was named. But Temple rarely spoke the names. The men were merely a means to his end.
Just as he was a means to theirs.
One second—less—and he had regained his balance, already feinting left, then right, knowing his reach was half a foot longer than that of his foe, sensing the ache in his opponent’s muscles, understanding the way the younger, angrier man fell victim to fatigue and emotion.
This one had much to fight for: forty thousand pounds and an estate in Essex; a farm in Wales that bred the best racehorses in Britain; and a half-dozen paintings from a Dutch master for whom Temple had never cared. A young daughter’s dowry. A younger son’s education. All of it lost at the tables above. All of it on the line below.
Temple met his opponent’s gaze, seeing the desperation there. The hate. Hatred for the club that had proven to be his downfall, for the men who ran it, and for Temple most of all—the centurion who guarded the hoard thieved from the pockets of fine, upstanding gentlemen.
That line of thinking was how the losers slept at night.
As though it were the Angel’s fault that loose purse strings and unlucky dice were a disastrous combination.
As though it were Temple’s fault.
But it was the hate that always lost them. A useless emotion born of fear and hope and desire. They did not know the trick of it—the truth of it.
That those who fought for something were bound to lose.