Sharp Love – Novel
Gambling on Love series, Book #2
Regency-set D/s M/M erotic romance
Release date: June 9, 2014
Word Count: 77,000 words
Publisher: Carina Press
William Drake has lived among thieves, bastards and beggars all his life, doing what's necessary to survive. As a young orphan, that included looking after his best friend, Jack Morgan. But as they grew older, Jack took the honest path, leaving Will behind to fend for himself the only ways he knows how.
When an unsavory errand for his employer brings Jack back to London's underbelly, he needs Will's help. It's there, among the alleys they ran through as children, that the love he's always felt for Will returns. As their nights together grow hotter, Will discovers something new about his old friend—Jack's need to serve extends into the bedchamber.
Will has never fully abandoned his dream of escaping London with Jack. But what could the Duke's driver want with a dishonest cheat like him, beyond a bit of rough sex? It takes the gamble of Will's life to find out if he can win Jack's heart…
Note: This book contains explicit sexual content, graphic language, and situations that some readers may find objectionable: D/s theme and elements, and male/male sexual practices.
© Ava March
Tipping up his cards, William Drake glanced down at his hand. Three kings. Damned good, and significantly better than his remaining opponent’s hand. The pot was too light, though. A few more rounds of betting, then Will would take the game.
“Gonna call for a see?” the man across from him asked. Somewhere between five-and-twenty and forty, with a wiry build and a sallow complexion, he resembled most every other man in the room. Will didn’t know his name, but that fact mattered not. Ready coin was the only requirement to join one of the tables in the back room of the Spotted Pig.
The man held Will’s gaze. His eyes were narrowed. Not with challenge, but with suspicion. The next deal would be Will’s. Had the man picked up the pattern already?
Best to fold now, sacrifice his six pounds, four shillings in the pot.
“Not this hand.” Sprawled casually in his chair, Will pushed his unexposed cards forward.
What could almost classify as a smile touched the man’s thin lips as he gathered the coins from the center of the table. Will allowed his shoulders to sag the tiniest bit. A trace show of disappointment as he watched the money disappear into the man’s pocket.
After a swallow from his pint of ale, Will grabbed the deck from where it had been placed at his right elbow. He gathered the discarded cards, picking up his own last, and put them all at the bottom of the deck. If he had forced the see, then he could shuffle, set up the deck for this and the following games. No bother though. After this hand, he’d call it a night.
With quick, practiced flicks of his fingers, he dealt each player three cards.
Round and round the game went. It wasn’t until the sixth pass around the table when two of his opponents folded. Each time the betting came to him, Will glanced to his cards, considered, before throwing more into the pot.
A few more rounds, and with a snort of disgust, the man on his right folded. Finally the man on his left folded as well, leaving only the one directly across from him.
That suspicion was back, glinting in the gray depths of the man’s eyes. A warning that shouldn’t be ignored. But the pile of coins that currently occupied the center of the table…
Three shillings shy of forty-seven pounds. Add what Will had already won that evening—net of his minor losses—and he would be seventy pounds closer to leaving this godforsaken city. Leaving the stench of the Thames and of unwashed bodies, the shouts of drunkards and the din of desperation, the soul-crushing poverty and the near-constant gnawing hunger far behind.
Will pulled a few more coins from his pocket and tossed them onto the table. The fellow on Will’s left shifted in his chair, elbow bumping his. Yet Will didn’t throw the man an annoyed glance. He kept his attention trained on the one opposite him.
His remaining opponent doubled Will’s bet. “Let’s see ’em,” the man demanded.
Turning over his cards, Will revealed his three kings.
Outrage flashed across the man’s features. He shoved his cards forward, conceding the table to Will. “You’re mighty damned lucky tonight.”
Luck had had little to do with it.
Will tipped his head, and leaning forward, he reached for his winnings.
“Too lucky.” An ugly sneer pulled the man’s lips.
A hand clamped over Will’s wrist, pinning it to the table, his winnings a mere inch from his fingertips. A hard object—likely a knife judging from the narrow tip—dug into his left side.
Hell and damnation.
No wonder the five men had been so willing to allow him to join their table. He was to be the easy mark. His pockets were the ones that were to be fleeced.
Clearly, this lot didn’t take kindly to the notion of having the tables turned.
One or two of them he could handle. Five?
That was a different matter altogether.
His mind raced. Money alone wouldn’t placate them. He knew it without a doubt. They would want revenge, to vent their anger at being played the fools. And that anger would be vented onto him. He could only hope they wouldn’t make too much of a mess of his sorry arse.
Though the knife at his side indicated he would be fortunate to see the morning.
They could gut him right there, and no one at the Spotted Pig would bat an eye. No one would care.
Will opened his mouth to say something, anything that could possibly increase his currently very poor odds of walking out of the tavern of his own volition.
“Evening, Drake.” A large hand settled on Will’s shoulder. “Been looking all over Town for you.”
Will didn’t need to glance behind him to verify the owner of that deep, rumbling voice. The power and strength of Jack Morgan’s six-foot-five frame, the safety and security of the man’s presence, washed over him. The line of Will’s spine relaxed. The panicked beat of his heart eased to normal levels. “Then you’ve been looking in the wrong places. I’ve been right here, playing a bit o’cards with these fine gents.”
“Friends of yours?” Jack asked.
He could well imagine the glare Jack was surely casting around the table. Could practically see the question tumbling about in the heads of his opponents, their postures cast in stone, as they stared up at Jack. “No. Not exactly friends.”
Jack made a noise under his breath—part threat to those seated at the table and part annoyance with Will. “Then they won’t miss your company.”
Tension hung in the air, so thick he could taste it. Five against two. In any other circumstance, the odds would go to the five. How long would it take these five to realize the odds were not in their favor tonight?
The harsh grip on his wrist loosened then slowly slipped away. The one on Will’s left followed his fellow’s lead. The pressure digging into Will’s side vanished.
Very few had ever been foolish enough to tangle with Jack Morgan. Those at the table obviously had decided not to join those ranks.
Taking the opportunity while it was there, Will grabbed his winnings and stood. “It’s been a pleasure. Perhaps we can play again sometime, but alas, not tonight.”
The man’s jaw across from him tightened, impotent fury blazing in his narrowed eyes. Yet otherwise, he remained motionless. Did not make a move to stop Will from turning from the table.
Ignoring the curious glances from the other patrons, Will wound around the other tables and made his way out of the back room and through the tavern, Jack’s protective presence close on his heels.
It had been almost a year since he had seen Jack. Eleven months. Yet time had not dulled his old friend’s knack for showing up when Will most needed him.
Cool night air enveloped him as he stepped out the main door of the Spotted Pig. He waited until the door swung shut behind them. “Much thanks, Jack.”
Will turned right, headed east, putting distance between himself and the tavern. A couple of long strides, and Jack was at his shoulder.
“Did you need to taunt them?”
“Yes, if for no other reason than because one of them bastards put a hole in my coat.” His only coat. Lifting his left arm, Will poked at the spot. Thank heaven for his waistcoat, or that hole would have been through his skin.
Worry creased Jack’s forehead, his brows drawing together. He wore a long, dark greatcoat, the length open, exposing a plain brown coat and trousers. For a man so concerned about respectability, Jack rarely buttoned his greatcoat and his black hair was always on the slightly long side, the wavy ends grazing his collar. “That one next to you had a knife on you? Did he cut you?”
Will waved off the concern. “No new knick to add to the collection.”
“Are you certain? If you’re bleeding—”
“I’m not. Bleeding, that is.” His shirt would be sticking to his skin about now if that were the case. “So what brings you to my part of Town?”
The question did its duty, pulling Jack’s attention from Will’s non-injury. “An errand.”
“For His Grace?” Will was quite proud of the way he managed not to sneer when speaking the address.
“In a roundabout way. Need to track down a fellow for a friend of His Grace.”
The last time he’d seen Jack, the man had been on a similar errand, though that one had been for the duke himself. “You’ve become his faithful hound, have you? I thought you were his carriage driver.”
“I am his driver.” Jack’s lips thinned. “And you’re an arse.”
Will shrugged. He couldn’t very well debate the point. He was an arse, and a bastard and a cheat among other things, but those traits still made him useful to Jack on the rare occasion. Like tonight, for example. It would be nice if Jack had sought him out solely for his company, but Will had given up such hopes years ago. “Who is this fellow you need to track down?”
“A Mr. Gabriel Tilden. He’s supposedly in London, but hasn’t been seen around Mayfair of late.”
“You think he’s developed a taste for gin whores?”
“It’s a possibility, among others. He could be low on funds, could be visiting a nunnery or a molly house, could be where I found you, or he could already be where you almost ended up tonight.”
“Which is where?”
“Facedown in some gutter.” Concern had leeched into Jack’s voice again. Concern that warmed Will’s soul.
Will gave Jack an elbow in the side, one that spoke of a confidence he didn’t entirely feel. “If that was to be my fate, I would have ended up there years ago.”
“Just because it has not yet happened doesn’t mean it couldn’t. You’re still doing it, aren’t you?” Jack asked, all admonishment. “And those men caught you at it tonight.”
Will glanced around Jack to the near empty street, then lowered his voice. “They did not catch me. One of them suspected. There’s a difference. Only hacks and fools get caught, and I know who I should and should not play against.” Well, with the exception of tonight. “And I never heard you complaining when it kept us from crawling back to St. Pancras or back to that bastard’s bleedin’ coal mine.”
“We aren’t eleven anymore, Will. And that wasn’t a card game in an alley against harmless pickpockets. You could have been—”
“So what does this Tilden fellow look like?” While Jack’s censure was rooted in concern, it didn’t stop that ugly, dirty feeling from creeping up on Will. He already knew Jack looked down on him for not taking the honest, respectable path like Jack had done. He did not need another reminder. In any case, he wasn’t in the mood to resurrect that particular argument with his old friend. Jack was back. That was what mattered. “You want my help tracking him down, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Jack let out a sigh, heavy yet full of unwilling surrender. “He’s about your height and build. Chestnut brown hair. Handsome and unassuming. From a good family and a friend of a viscount.”
Five-foot-eleven. Fit but not bulky. Brown hair. On the quiet side. Reeked of Quality. A prime mark. Will passed his mind over all the various men he had played against or otherwise earned a few coins from over the last couple of fortnights. “I might have seen him.” Actually, Will was rather certain he had played at a vingt-et-un table with Mr. Tilden a few days ago. The handsome nabob had lost soundly. “Dennett’s. It’s off Cheapside. Have you checked there yet?”
Jack shook his head.
“I don’t know if he regularly visits the place—I don’t frequent the same haunts night after night.” Variety, and a lot of it, kept Will’s arse out of the gutters and the sack tucked under his floorboards growing. “But we can start at Dennett’s, and if he’s not there, I know of a few similar gambling hells we can try next.”
As they crossed the street and made their way toward Cheapside, Will couldn’t help but hope they wouldn’t find Mr. Tilden sitting at a table at Dennett’s.
Will crossed to where he had left Jack standing near the door of the main room of the fifth hell they had visited that night. “The croupier said he saw a man matching Tilden’s description in here a week ago. Hasn’t been back since.”
Arms crossed over his broad chest, Jack frowned, yet again. “Where to next?”
“To bed. It’s almost four o’clock in the morning. If he was out playing tonight, he’s likely gone to his own bed by now.”
That frown grew heavier. “But…”
“The tables are past thin and the sun will be up in too few hours. I really don’t want to actually witness it rising, and I’m beyond tired from traipsing about the city with you.”
There was that concern again in the dark depths of Jack’s eyes. “We could have taken a hackney—”
“No need to waste coins when I have two capable feet. My lodgings aren’t far. We can get some rest and resume the search again tomorrow. Not to worry. We will eventually find him.” He clapped Jack on the shoulder.
Without another word in protest, Jack heeded the pressure and stepped from the wall. The man might have definite opinions about Will’s chosen profession, but Jack also had a tendency to do as bid. A trait which his employer took full advantage of, as evidenced by Jack’s current errand. But Will couldn’t get too upset about it—the duke’s abuse of Jack’s willingness to bow his head had led Jack back to him. And regardless of Will’s protesting feet, it felt damned good to have his friend back.
For tonight and now tomorrow, at least.
“Are you hungry?” Will asked, as they left the hell. “There’s a tavern up the way that will still be open. Passable fare.” And more importantly, inexpensive. “We can grab a bite and eat at my room.”
Jack nodded. “All right.”
Of course Jack would be hungry. A man as big as him needed food, and lots of it. There had been a time when most every halfpenny Will won or earned went toward filling Jack’s stomach.
Will parted with a bit of his winnings to get them an extremely late supper, then they made their way to Will’s lodgings. With a clapboard exterior and a front door that somehow managed to stay on its rusty hinges, the boardinghouse wasn’t anything to be proud of. But none of the windows were broken, his fellow residents weren’t overly noisy, and the roof didn’t leak…at least it hadn’t in the month Will had resided there.
The stairs creaked, the sound echoing about them in the narrow stairway, as they went up to the third floor. “Right here,” Will said, stopping before the first door and pulling out his key.
Jack shut the door behind them. There was a snick of a lock turning. By the moon’s light streaming through the single window, Will lit a candle and then set the pewter candlestick holder on the chest of drawers.
The meager room didn’t have much to recommend it either. A bed along one wall, a straight-back chair at a small square table in the corner, a chest of drawers and a washstand. Decidedly Spartan. At least it was somewhat tidy. Wasn’t as if he had a lot of possessions to leave lying about.
He pushed the small stack of agricultural pamphlets and books to the far corner of the table, clearing a space for Jack. “Take your coat off. Have a seat.” He pulled out the chair and motioned Jack to it.
“Where are you going to sit?” Jack asked, still standing near the door, holding the sack containing their late supper.
“The bed.” After taking off his own coat and hanging it on a hook near the washstand, Will dropped to his haunches and started a fire in the hearth, the old brick surround blackened from soot.
It wasn’t until he turned from the hearth that Jack finally did as bid, removing his greatcoat, draping it over the back of the chair, and sitting at the table.
Will took the proffered sandwich of cold meat from Jack. They ate in silence, Will pulling off his boots and tugging on the knot of his cravat between bites. The cool, October air seeped through the sleeves of his shirt, but soon the fire would chase some of the chill from the room. Before he tucked his boots under the bed, he grabbed the knife hidden in one of them and wedged the blade into the gouge in the door’s frame. Even if the lock was picked, the knife would hold the door closed long enough for him to grab the one under the mattress.
The sandwich finished and his belly full, Will moved the clay pot containing his latest attempts from the windowsill so the thin drapes could be drawn closed.
“What are you growing?” Jack asked.
“Spinach.” Setting the pot on the chest of drawers, Will poked a finger into the soil. Almost time to water the three little plants again.
“When it grows large enough.” If it grew large enough. But according to Every Man His Own Gardener, spinach could be grown in the winter. Should be hardy enough to survive his drafty windowsill.
Using a short length of towel from the washstand, Will wiped off his hands. Dark smudges underscored Jack’s eyes, the usually straight line of his spine was slumped the tiniest bit. The black stubble from his day’s beard covered his strong jaw. The man looked exhausted. Likely had been up since dawn.
Damn that duke for pushing Jack to work so hard.
“We should get some rest.”
“But you only have one bed.”
And it was a narrow one at that. Will heard the words as though Jack had spoken them.
“Yes, but it’s not as if we’ve never shared a bed, Jack. All that matters is that we both get some sleep.”
Will shrugged his unbuttoned waistcoat from his shoulders, pulled his shirt over his head, took off his breeches—careful not to spill the contents of his pocket—and put his clothes in the top drawer. Tomorrow, he’d tuck his winnings away. Tonight, while Jack was in the room, they were safe in the drawer.
Bare as the day he was born, he crossed to the bed. “Come along now.” He slipped under the blanket. If he acted as though there was no cause for concern, then hopefully Jack would follow his lead.
Gaze fixed on the table, Jack made a little project of folding the paper sack.
Turning onto his stomach, Will scooted over until the wall was but an inch from his nose.
There was the scrape of chair legs. The creak of floorboards. Then the room was plunged into darkness. Jack must have blown out the candle. Will heard the rustle of clothing. Three more creaks. Cold air hit his back as the blanket was lifted. The mattress dipped as Jack lay down on the bed. A hair-dusted calf brushed Will’s heel then was snatched away.
Will held himself perfectly still and waited.
For a reason he couldn’t fully explain, it was suddenly very important to him that Jack felt comfortable in his bed. Comfortable enough to press up against Will without a second thought, as if he belonged there, just as Jack had done many a night over the years.
A shift of Jack’s weight, another dip of the mattress, and then a warm, linen-clad body pressed against his.
That moment of suspense clutching at Will’s chest vanished as if it had never taken place. Will smiled. Modest Jack. Some things never changed.
The bed wasn’t large by any definition. Designed to sleep one not two, and especially not a second with shoulders as broad as Jack’s. But with Jack sprawled half over Will, they fit perfectly in the narrow bed, just as Will had known they would.
Jack’s deep, rhythmic breaths fanned the nape of Will’s neck. His shirtsleeve-covered arm was draped across Will’s waist. The fabric of his linen smallclothes just brushed Will’s arse. Jack’s hard body, the strength of it, the heat radiating off him, warming Will from the inside out…
Desire pooled in his groin, his hardening cock trapped beneath the mattress and his body. Yet Will remained still, didn’t make one move. He and Jack had once occasionally sated their lust together. Darkness and grasping hands, urgent tugs on hard pricks and sweat-slicked skin. But what desperate adolescents didn’t do such things when given the opportunity? None of those instances had indicated a preference on Jack’s part. Wasn’t as if Jack had ever kissed him. Hadn’t necessarily meant anything to Jack, though it had meant a lot to Will.
Unwilling to do anything to scare Jack away, Will turned his mind from his erection and let his eyes drift closed, content simply to share a bed with Jack once again.
“March manages to make her stories believable and shiny. The sexual encounters were HOTTER than hot…” – My Fiction Nook
“Ava March mines every nugget of emotion from this story, all while making the reader fall in love with both Jack and Will. … I have to say I feel this novel ranks among the best of her work. While not excessively intricate, the plot is tightly woven and the narrative is paced perfectly. The chemistry between these two men is sublime…” – The Novel Approach Reviews
"I just love a good Regency romance, and Ava March is my go-to author whenever I'm in the mood for a little added kink. Jack and Will were absolutely yummy together! … I loved these two together" - The Blogger Girls
"I'm a great Ava March fan, I've read most of her books but I can honestly say I've never met a character of hers that stirred me like Will." - Prism Book Alliance
"Angsty, sexy, and romantic. Loved it!" - DaisyGirl, GoodReads
"I loved the friends to lovers dynamic here of two childhood friends who finally after so many years are able to find their way to one another. I loved the connection between the two men who are quite different than they may first seem. And I really loved the way the whole story comes together. So I really enjoyed Sharp Love and definitely recommend it" -Joyfully Jay
"This is the kind of story I really enjoy, friends to lovers, protagonists with a history, lots of emotion and angst." - Fiction Vixen