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Three of the courtesans were beautiful. His eye lingered, naturally, on the fourth. Old habit would persist in spite of anything life could devise.
Will leaned on one elbow and rested his cheek on his palm, a careless posture that suggested supreme confidence in his play while also allowing him to peer round the fellow opposite and get a better view of the ladies. Not to any purpose, of course. He’d come into this establishment on a solemn errand, and courtesans had no part in his plan.
Still, a man could look. A bit of craning here, a timely turn by one of the ladies there, and he could assemble a fair piecemeal picture of the four. So he’d been doing all evening as they’d sat down in different combinations at their card table, some fifteen feet removed from the great tables where the gentlemen played. And while every one of them—from dark temptress to flame-haired sylph to crystalline-delicate blonde—gratified his eye, only one thus far had managed to trifle with his concentration.
He watched her now, her eyelids lowered and her fingers precise as she fanned out her freshly dealt hand. Not beautiful, no. Pretty, perhaps. Or rather handsome: a young man could have worn that aquiline nose to advantage, and that fiercely etched brow.
She studied her cards without moving any of them—though the game was whist and all three of her companions were rearranging their cards by suit—and glanced across at her partner. Gray-blue eyes, expressive of nothing. She could hold all trumps and you’d never know.
“No sport to be had there, Blackshear.” The words rode in on a wash of tobacco smoke from his right, barely audible under the clamor of a dozen surrounding conversations. “Those ones are all spoken for.” Lord Cathcart switched his pipe from one side of his mouth to the other while inspecting his hand. A queen and a ten winked into view and out. Luck did like to throw itself away on the wealthy.
“There’d be no sport even if they were at liberty. A youngest son with no fortune doesn’t get far with their kind.” Will replied at the same low pitch and lifted a corner of his own card, a seven of clubs to go with his seven of spades.
“Oh, I don’t know.” The viscount’s fine-boned profile angled itself two or three degrees his way. “A youngest son who’s just sold his commission might set his sights beyond the occasional adventurous widow.”
“Widows suit me. No taint of commerce; no worries over whether you’ve seduced a lady into something she’ll regret.” The words felt flabby and false on his tongue, a stale utterance left over from the life that used to be his. He nodded toward the courtesans’ table. “In any case your birds of paradise are a bit too rich for my blood.”
“Ha. I’ll wager your blood has its own ideas. Particularly concerning the sharp-faced wench with the Grecian knot. Stick,” he added to the table at large as his turn came.
“Split,” said Will, and turned up his sevens. His pulse leapt into a hasty rhythm that had nothing to do with any sharp-faced wench. He pushed a second bid forward, and gave all his attention to the two new cards.
An eight brought one hand to fifteen. Good chance of going bust on a third card and not much chance of besting the banker if he stuck. The second hand was better: an ace gave him the option to stick at eighteen, and also tempted him with the possibility of a five-card trick, if he counted the card for one instead of eleven and if the next three cards fell out in his favor.
Were the odds decent? Twenty-one less eight left thirteen. How many combinations of three cards came to thirteen or less? With one hundred and four cards in play . . . eight aces, eight twos, et cetera, and eleven other men at the table who must already have some of those cards in their possession . . . hang it, he ought to have paid better attention in mathematics classes. Fine return he’d brought his father on a Cambridge education, God rest the man’s soul.
“I’ll buy another on both hands.” Twenty more pounds in. Best to cultivate the appearance of recklessness early in the evening, when wagers were small. Prudence could wait until several hours hence, when most of these men would be drunk—make that drunker—and inclined to put up sums they’d regret the next morning.
The new cards dropped in and he lifted their corners. Five and three. Twenty and twenty-one. Or twenty and eleven, with two cards and ten pips between him and the double payoff of the five-card trick.
He flicked idly with a gloved fingertip at the corner of one card. Was he really considering it? Buying another card when he might stick on a total of twenty-one? His first night in the place, not two hours yet at the table, and already he was goading Fortune to do its worst.
Well, there’d be no novelty in that, would there? He had a fair acquaintance with the things Fortune could do. A loss of thirty pounds would barely merit mention.
“One more here.” He pushed another note out in front of his second hand.
A knave of hearts grinned up at him when he lifted the new card, and quiet relief poured through him, loosening places that had wound themselves tight. No five-card trick, but neither would he be dunned for his recklessness. Unless the banker beat him with a twenty-one of his own, he’d have at least one winning hand. Maybe two.
“Stick,” he said, and leaned his cheek on his palm again as the play passed to his left. The ladies played two straight tricks of clubs while he watched, the sharp-faced one producing her cards with smooth efficiency from their disparate places in her hand.
Cathcart could needle him all he liked. She gave a man’s mind places to go, did such a girl. Let beautiful women air their attractions like laundry on a line, flapping for all the world to see. The woman who kept something back—who wore her graces like silk underthings against the skin, and dared a man to find them out—would always be the one to set his imagination racing.
Even if he couldn’t afford to let any other part of him race along. He heaved a quick sigh. “What’s a Grecian knot?” he said, sinking his voice again. “Do you mean the way she’s got her hair?”
“Hopeless,” the viscount hissed round the stem of his pipe. “Must not be a particular lot, those widows you favor. Mind you, I don’t suppose your hawkish Aphrodite is any too discriminating herself, judging by the company she keeps.” With a jerk of his chin he indicated a fellow down the table, a square-jawed, blandly handsome type who’d assured himself the next deal by reaching twenty-one on his first two cards.
Curiosity buzzed wasplike about Will’s temples. He brushed it away. He hadn’t come here to gossip. The lady’s choice of protector was her own concern. “Hawkish, truly?” He leaned back and stretched his arms out before him. “Try to be civil.”
Though admittedly this wasn’t much of a place for that. Bottles at the table. More men than Cathcart smoking, despite the presence of ladies, or at least women, in the room. Granted, a true gaming hell was probably worse. Gillray, the artilleryman, had claimed you could actually smell the desperation by four or five o’clock of the morning. Rolling off the pigeons in waves, he’d said, a stinking sweat more acrid than the sweat of healthy exertion. And why not? Fear had a scent, reportedly—you’d think battle would be the place to find that out, but amid the perpetual cacophony of scents, no one had ever risen up and proclaimed itself as fear—so why not desperation as well?
Enough pondering in that direction. He rotated his wrists, flexing the tendons, as a corpulent fellow went bust and the next began his turn. At the ladies’ table, the strong-featured girl took her third straight trick and calmly marked the point on a paper at her right hand.
Hawkish. Really. He folded his arms behind his head. And yet there was something undeniably birdlike about her nose, her blank eyes, her wren-colored hair. Cold little creatures, birds, for all their soft feathers and pretty songs. Eat your brains for breakfast as soon as look at you. The odd bits of knowledge one picked up in war.
The banker stuck on a total of nineteen, and Will was fifty pounds richer. One more small step up the mountain. He raked in his winnings and pushed his cards toward the hawkish girl’s square-jawed protector.
Near his own age, the man looked. Five and twenty or thereabout, and bearing himself with fresh consequence now he had the deal. Making some minor adjustment to his cravat before tending to the cards. Tilting his head with an air of practiced condescension to grant an audience to his right-hand neighbor, who was, it happened, speaking on the subject of the girl herself. “I declare, Roanoke,” the neighbor said in an audible undertone, “I should never have bet on you keeping her this long. Not half so comely as the one you were squiring about last summer. Pretty winsome thing, she was.”
A small compression of Square-jaw’s mouth was the only sign he took offense at the questioning of his choice. “That one gifted me with a bastard child.” Green-jeweled cuff-studs glinted in the candlelight as he reached out to gather in the cards. “This one can’t.”
“Or so she tells you, I’m sure,” was the first gentleman’s rejoinder, his undertone abandoned to more generally air his wit.
“She can’t.” With the patience of a crown prince accustomed to dull-witted minions he made this correction. “Something’s gone wrong with her insides. No monthly courses.”
Charming. And quite a bit more information than any man at the table could desire to know, surely. Will threw a look to the viscount, who only lifted a shoulder in reply. Evidently this sort of discussion was usual.
And it quickly got worse. “I shouldn’t mind one like that myself.” A coarse-featured bounder in a bottle-green coat offered this opinion. “Available all days of the month, isn’t she? Can’t ever claim indisposition and turn you away. Where did you come by her?”
“Plucked her out of Mrs. Parrish’s establishment.” Roanoke took his time squaring the edges of all the used cards before putting the stack faceup at the bottom of the deck. “And you may believe they trained her up proper. If there’s a thing she won’t do in bed, I have yet to discover it.”
Mrs. Parrish’s. Even a man who’d never set foot in such a place knew a thing or two of its character. One heard certain reports. Accounts, for example, of a contraption that positioned a man to be serviced by one woman while another administered a holly-branch whipping. Rumors of women who’d submit to a whipping themselves, or to any foul debauchery a man could conceive. Through what perverse acts had Square-jaw made his mistress’s acquaintance?
Devil take it. This was none of his concern, and to speculate so on a lady’s private business ill became him. Indeed it ill became the men at the table who were now pelting Roanoke with crude questions—Would she do this? Did she allow him that?—while the lout deigned to answer only in monosyllables, vague in proportion to the heightened interest, as he dealt out the cards.
Temper sent its warning prickle down Will’s spine. She must be hearing this. She must see first one head and then another swiveling to reappraise her. He could mark no change in her countenance, her posture, or the speed at which she played her cards, but with what effort did she keep that composure while hearing herself reduced to an object for the common gratification of a lot of jackals?
“Has she got a name?” That was his own voice, rising above the others. What the devil was he doing? Did he want to invite the suspicion of the entire company? A slight straightening in Cathcart’s posture spoke of sharpened interest, though the viscount didn’t turn.
Roanoke did. His patrician brows crept a fraction of an inch closer together, then relaxed. “Lydia is her name,” he said, and spun out the next card.
Leave it alone, Blackshear. But temper asserted itself again, the cautionary prickle swelling to a ham-fisted glissando played on his vertebrae. “I mean a name by which it would be proper to address her.” Damnation. He would never learn, would he, what was and wasn’t his responsibility?
“Have you something particular to say to her?” The man looked at him with full attention, as did most of the men at the table now. A charge like incipient lightning thickened the room’s air. Choose the right words, and he’d be addressing Prince Square-jaw at twenty paces.
Wouldn’t that be a suitably ridiculous end. Called out over excessive propriety. Killed on account of a woman he hadn’t even got to enjoy.
Ongoing chatter from the room’s other tables shrank to something distant and obscure as the prospect took shape before him. A few insults, none too subtle, were all that was wanted. Easily enough he could probably provoke the fellow into aiming for his head while he sent his own shot ten feet wide.
How badly would such a caper besmirch the family name? Andrew wouldn’t like it, of course. But Andrew’s respectability could surely transcend any number of family scandals. Kitty and Martha were both already married, quite well. He couldn’t blight their futures in that regard.
Nick, though. His second-eldest brother harbored political ambitions and depended on a good name even now to keep up his practice. He’d do Nick no favors with reckless nonsense.
Besides, he had a deal of money yet to win. “I’ve nothing whatsoever to say.” He made his consonants crisp, and held Roanoke’s eyes. No need to back down altogether. “I’m only unused to hearing a lady spoken of in this way, and called openly by her Christian name. But I’ve been out of society for some time. Perhaps the mores have changed.”
“Were you in the Peninsula, do you mean?” A bright-eyed fellow who barely looked old enough to be out past bedtime piped up with this. “Or perhaps in the final battle at Waterloo?”
One encountered this sort with disconcerting frequency. Men who’d swallowed the bitter pill of staying home—heirs who couldn’t be risked, unfortunates who couldn’t scrape together the blunt to buy a commission—and now wanted to hear every detail of what they’d missed.
“Lieutenant with the Thirtieth Foot.” Will nodded once. “In the actions at Quatre Bras and Waterloo.” If the nickninny wanted to know more than that he’d have to drag it out of him with a grappling hook.
Fortunately a gentleman three seats down had some opinion to air about Wellington, which someone else countered with an insight into Blucher’s actions, and from there the usual derision was heaped upon the Prince of Orange and the usual agreement ensued as to what a bright day in England’s history had been June eighteenth of the previous year. The table’s mood shifted; the tension between himself and Roanoke guttered like a spent candle and was gone.
Will sat back, drawing in quiet, even breaths. He could listen to such discussions, at least. Some soldiers couldn’t. One heard of men who grew light-headed and must leave a room when the subject was broached. Or who flew into a rage at hearing the perdition of battle recast as some grand glorious sport, like a thousand simultaneous boxing matches improved with the addition of strategy, and flashy uniforms, and weapons that made a good loud noise.
“Slaughter,” Cathcart murmured under a mouthful of smoke as he took out his pipe.
And there was that. Those men who didn’t care to romanticize the event must remark upon how “near run” the whole business had been, with the best soldiers in far-off Spain or Portugal and only hapless youngsters and second-rate officers to fumble their way across the Hougoumont fields.
He’d heard it before. From a friend, it still stung. “A tremendous loss of life indeed.” He steadied his voice, made it low and careless. “Slaughter on both sides, I can assure you.”
The viscount shook his head. “Her name. Your barren nymph is Miss Slaughter.” A card dropped before him and he lifted a corner to look. “Not the most original gambit, defending a Cyprian’s honor, but usually effective for all of that.”
Ah. The mistress. Yes, that made more sense. Seven years he’d known Cathcart and the man had always taken life as a string of great larks; why would he begin pronouncing opinions on military strategy now? “I tell you there’s no gambit.” The words tumbled out with a vehemence born of relief: he felt enough of a stranger already to old friends without introducing such rifts, and he would a hundred times rather argue over a lady than a battle. “Truly, am I the only man in this room with sisters? With any grasp of simple decency? No woman deserves to hear those things said of her.” He couldn’t help stealing another glance, but if Miss Slaughter had heard any part of his ill-advised gallantry, she showed no sign. Deftly she marked another point on her paper and sat back, her shoulders square, her head erect, her gaze, stark and pitiless as a falcon’s, never once turning his way.
Neither did Fortune find him worthy of notice, this time. He enriched Mr. Roanoke by twenty pounds in one hand and thirty in the next, erasing over a third of the evening’s gain. Let that teach him to get caught up in petty intrigues. He pushed away from the table in disgust.