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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.
Posted December 5, 2012
Yet another concoction of unique plots and carefully built characters
Grant’s second installment in the Blackshear family series proves to be composed of just as unique a premise as her first novel A Lady Awakened. You’ve got the whore and the wounded third son a.k.a. the soldier. Anyone familiar with regency romance knows that the third son is always stuck with the soldier job – either that or become a preacher. Though I suppose either would do as even regency ladies loved a man in uniform…so suited up for God or Her Royal Army, either promises enough pounds a year for a more than respectful living.
But back to our specific third son: Will Blackshear. First off he’s done with the job of war. Scarred by the sight of too much death, broken by one death in particular, Will finds himself a few promises deep into needing money. Money, he’s decided to grow out of his sold commission in the fertile soil of card tables. Here he finds more than he bargained for in our whore. Lydia is the [high-class] mistress of an acquaintance of Will’s. He notices her at first sight not for her beauty, but for her concentration and ability to play cards. Lydia, like her predecessor Martha, is by far the more interesting character of the pair.
Lydia began her life as an actual Lady.
Yep. A woman with a good family and decent prospects at a uniformed man of her own in holy matrimony. I won’t spoil her tale into the sordid world of ‘the other woman’ but I will tell you that her story has far more depth than a formerly rich girl needing quick and dirty money. We already know what happens in that plot: The woman always finds some rake who will take her virginity and end up marrying her in a very proper ceremony…they all live happily ever after. And I’m not dismissing the enjoyment of a plot like that. I’m just sayin’ that Lydia’s realistic fall and equally realistic ending are not trite. They’re rife with trauma and emotion. They’ve made her the perfect woman for a wounded soldier like Will.
But even more interesting than the extra care given to Lydia’s back-story is that she’s really not all that unhappy being a mistress. Nope. She’s got a decent sugar daddy, racks of clothing, the freedom to habitate gambling hells, and a really good sex life…that she enjoys to its fullest extent. Being a mistress isn’t the worst ending Lydia could have had. It isn’t until she’s given the chance she thought she’d lost all those years ago that she reconsiders her enjoyment in her profession.
However, while Grants plot and characters again BLOW ME AWAY, I will admit I liked the first in this series better than the second.
Shoot me. I’m always going against the Goodreads grain.
My main issue was with Lydia. I don’t think that her character was as fleshed out as she could have been. Grant created a quagmire of issues that were so deliciously unique and interesting. I just didn’t feel that at the end of this story Lydia was fully figured out. I could have used a little more time with her. Case in point was Lydia working through untangling her use of sex: 1. her love of sex, 2. mistress sex, and 3. love sex. I think because she enjoyed sex so much it was difficult for her to break through her hard-core mistress sex (a.k.a. sex for sex’s sake) and learn to have loving sex with Will (a.k.a. sex to build a closer connection with your partner). Because really, most people enjoy a smattering of both. Even if we aren’t all 19th century harlots. But since it was a huge part of Lydia’s transformation to find the difference between the two, I’ll just say it was difficult for me to see the sexual change in her.
Rating: 3.5/5 Yet another concoction of unique plots and carefully built characters.
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Posted November 12, 2013
This is an excellent, wonderful, marvelous book. I have not yet read the other books in the series but I have them and can't wait to get started. You can get the plot from other reviews, but I just wanted to tell you that I really loved this book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 8, 2012
”I begin to think honor is just another kind of vanity, ...
After years of reading romance novels of various sub-genres, I was the fortunate winner of A Gentleman Undone through a Goodreads First Reads contest and serendipitously stumbled upon an author who has earned my steadfast devotion. It seems as if Ms. Grant’s purpose is to defy all the usual historical romance plot devices such as, frigid women, naïve whores, acceptable flaws, and alpha males. In Awakened, the hero’s sexual prowess does not win the heart of the heroine, and Undone’s heroine has the audacity to luxuriate in pleasures of the flesh while the hero’s deeply ingrained moral integrity extends to her person despite her diminished status amongst his peers. I absolutely treasure this book and author!
I’ve read this book twice. The first time I was over the moon like, Julie Andrews’ hillside twirling the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-music! The second read, I took a critical view of the book. I’m still very happy with my precioussss little treasure, but I do see where this book stumbled for other readers. The extensive telling of card tricks, probability and vingt-et-un lessons carried on a bit too long. Lydia’s mathematical genius is not embraced by all. It proved negligible to me.
"Um." Her eyes came to his, soft and uncertain. "Can you go in very slowly?"
It was beautifully done. But he knew her too well...."Flattering minx.... You say that to every man."
The unforgiving characterization of Lydia Slaughter captivated me! Lydia is a mistress who loves sex before making love with the hero! Will has nothing on her skills. Her backstory is relevant and the circumstances leading to her present situation are what I’ve come to expect for a woman like Lydia. Yet even her backstory has its own unique qualities you have to read to appreciate. Lydia doesn’t need a man to save her. She will save herself via her own means. Will is the means, as she maintains her amorous relationship with her keeper. Ms. Grant doesn’t spare the reader Lydia’s sexual congress with ‘Prince Square-Jaw’ by manufacturing an affliction. I knew this going into the book and wondered how I would feel about it. The entire situation is executed very well. The characters’ behaviors are consistent and the story progresses naturally. Lydia and Will’s happy ending is perfect, settling all doubts that the author could make it credible.
Cecilia Grant’s writing is sophisticated and, in my opinion, superior to other romance novels. Her unconventional characterizations are a breath of fresh air. Here’s an author to break the ennui of predictable plots and similar dramatizations. Maybe other writers and/or publishing houses will take note. I’m anxiously awaiting the next novel in this series, which features older brother Nick Blackshear. What new ground will be broken in A Woman Entangled? For sure, I will find out!
Happiness still felt, at odd moments, like something with which she oughtn’t to be trusted. A delicate and costly music box put into the hands of a maladroit child. Ye
Posted July 16, 2012
Posted May 24, 2012
About the book: A seductive beauty turns the tables on a gentleman gaming for the guiltiest of pleasures in this rich and sensual Regency romance from beloved newcomer Cecilia Grant.
Lydia Slaughter understands the games men play—both in and out of the bedroom. Not afraid to bend the rules to suit her needs, she fleeces Will Blackshear outright. The Waterloo hero had his own daring agenda for the gaming tables of London's gentlemen's clubs. But now he antes up for a wager of wits and desire with Lydia, the streetwise temptress who keeps him at arm's length.
A kept woman in desperate straits, Lydia has a sharp mind with a head for numbers. She gambles on the sly, hoping to win enough to claim her independence. An alliance with Will at the tables may be a winning proposition for them both. But the arrangement involves dicey odds with rising stakes, sweetened with unspoken promise of fleshly delights. And any sleight of hand could find their hearts betting on something neither can afford to risk: love.
Review: A historical with an intriguing twist. While I’m not normally a fan of historical, Ms. Grant managed to pull me into her world and get caught up in the whirlwind romance between Lydia and Will.
Will was ever the gentleman throughout the book until he reached the point of no return. He humbles the readers by providing a different insight into just what happens when you care for someone and that someone tries like hell to fight just how they feel for you in return. These two are such a piece made to fit and you see it from the very beginning. The romance was on par between these two and even then there was suspense in uncovering just what would happen between the two of them and a mystery of resolve.
Ms. Grant drew me in until I was caught up, tied into just what the characters were doing next. I would definitely recommend this read to anyone looking for a change in the industry and a bit of freshness to go along. It is unlike any other romance I’ve seen out there but written just as well. Four out of five stars for this sweet, scorching read.
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