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A Little Bit Scandalous
By Robyn DeHart, Alethea Spiridon Hopson, Rima Jean
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Robyn DeHart
All rights reserved.
Caroline Jellico pulled on the trousers over her drawers and fastened them. She slipped the linen shirt over her head and straightened it, then tucked it into the waistband of the tweed pants. Her bound breasts felt strange against the strip of linen that held them tightly against her. She pulled up the suspenders and then donned the coat she knew she wouldn't take off. Even if it proved to be hotter than Hades inside the gaming hell, she'd leave it on.
She wound up her hair and knotted it into a tight bun on the top of her head, tucking the flat cap down over it, effectively hiding everything but the color. She'd cut a fringe to the front of her hair so some of it fell across her forehead. No doubt she looked very much the part of a newsboy.
Using the soot she'd collected from the fireplace, she smudged some on her face and dirtied her fingernails. She stood back, looking at herself in the mirror. Newsboy, or perhaps a chimney sweep, a good disguise. No one would suspect her a woman. For the first time in her life, she thanked God she was tall and slender. It certainly made her look more the part. She could definitely pass for a young man. Taking one last look, she took a deep breath and left the room.
She flew down the stairs and headed straight for the parlor at the back of the house. It was where the two sisters preferred to spend their evenings after dinner. Breathe. Just breathe.
She stepped inside the room. "Well, how do I look?" she asked.
The two older women turned simultaneously. One shook her head, the other smiled broadly.
"I look like a boy, don't I?" Caroline asked.
Millie clapped. "Caroline, it's perfect." She came to her feet so she could reach up and touch the hair exposed on her forehead. "Cutting your hair was a most excellent addition to the look."
"I think so, too." Caroline shifted her weight to the other leg, then walked around the room a bit. It would take a while to get used to wearing the trousers. She was so very used to corsets and heavy woolen gowns.
"I still believe this is far too dangerous," Aggie said.
Millie looked at her older sister and sighed. "We've discussed this. Multiple times. The girl wants to play. This is her only option. Rodale's is the safest gaming hell in all of London."
"She has another option, she could not play. Or I could invite people over to play her," Aggie said.
Millie waved her hand dismissively. "No, she wants to play an honest game with a true opponent."
And she wanted to win, to win enough money to convert her family's townhome into a boarding house for other orphans, girls who were too old to live in asylums and didn't have the benefit of guardians in the form of handsome dukes. But Caroline said none of that. She wasn't ready to share her plans with anyone.
"I would feel better if you told that step-son of yours what was going on," Aggie said with a tight frown. "Let him know Caroline will be playing in his establishment so he can protect her."
"Aggie, dear, we've already agreed your man will accompany Caroline into Rodale's. He will keep her safe," Millie said. "You said yourself that you would trust him with your own life. Will he not also protect our dear Caroline?"
"Of course. Boomer is most capable," Aggie said. "Still, anything could happen. Someone could identify her as a woman and then what shall we do?"
"How could anyone believe me a woman when I look like this?" Caroline turned a circle so they could get a full view of her.
Aggie frowned. "At least slouch your shoulders. I don't believe young men have such nice posture."
Caroline smiled and nodded at Aggie. "I shall be very careful. I am merely going to play cards. Nothing more." She held up her hand as if she were making a pledge, then thought better of it and simply offered Aggie a smile. Before coming to stay here, she'd only met Millie's sister a handful of times, but she had always liked the woman despite her eccentricities. Still, she would have expected a little more forward thinking for a woman who had taken her manservant as her lover.
"Yes, but remember, you will not be allowed in the main room," Aggie said. "Servants and commoners must play in the back room. You'll be with them, as you certainly can't pose as a young gentleman."
"Precisely. And being in the back room allows me to play with your man," Caroline said.
Aggie couldn't help but smile. "Yes, Boomer is a good man, He will keep you safe."
Millie grabbed Caroline's hands. "You must keep your disguise at all costs. It is very important. If your true identity were discovered, it would ruin your reputation forever."
Caroline didn't point out that her reputation was of little value as it was. She was an orphan and the barely acknowledged ward of a man who usually ignored her existence. She was of such little consequence socially she had virtually no name to ruin. Nevertheless, she agreed. She would never do anything to tarnish Millicent Grisham's good name. The duchess had an impeccable reputation. The woman had cared for her and basically raised her since Caroline had been orphaned at fifteen and sent to live with her new guardian, the Duke of Chanceworth. He hadn't been willing to uphold his duty, but had somehow convinced his mother to take Caroline in.
"I believe I'm ready," Caroline said. "I should like to get this first night over with. Get past the disguise and get on to playing the game. 'Tis the point, after all."
"Best of luck, my dear. I know you shall win. You are quite brilliant," Millie said. "I would kiss your cheek, but you're a little sooty."
"Well, if this all goes amiss, we certainly know whom to blame," Aggie said.
"Indeed. My dear son should never have taught Caroline to play in the first place," Millie said.
"Precisely. I was perfectly content with embroidery before he taught me the game."
Millie shook her head. "You are terrible at embroidery, my dear."
Caroline sighed dramatically. "Quite true. It is why I must play cards."
And with that, she was off, into the hired hack with the driver they'd procured for her with Boomer, Mildred's special servant at her side. He never said much, but Caroline could tell that, despite the man's oppressive appearance, he was a gentle man.
The ride to Rodale's seemed to take forever, as if the carriage were traveling through mud, but it hadn't rained in two days and Caroline knew the streets were clear. Her nerves were rattled, twisting her dinner into knots. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The game was second nature, but so far, she had only played the people she herself had taught. It wasn't a legitimate test of her skill. But playing with others, with men who knew the game, that would be the right measure. That could prove she didn't have to rely on others forever, that she could do something on her own. And hopefully, she'd actually win some money, perhaps even enough to restore her family's townhome so that she might live on her own, support herself.
The carriage pulled to a stop and she stepped down, the weight of the unfamiliar boots felt heavy and cumbersome on her feet. But she stepped forward, climbed the stairs, and walked into Rodale's, the most luxurious gaming hell in all of London.
The entrance for servants and commoners was on the side of the building, near the alleyway, and prevented her from seeing the main gaming area where the gentlemen would play. Instead, she found herself in a room the size of a dining hall. It hosted six tables, and she immediately found one playing the game she sought, Vingt-et-un, the French card game where players sought to beat the dealer to reach twenty-one.
Caroline took a few steadying breaths, reminded herself who she was tonight, then approached one of the tables. It was still relatively early in the evening for gaming so there were three empty seats remaining. She took one and placed her coin on the table to buy into the game.
The other men eyed her, summing her up, and she held her breath, waiting for one of them to call her bluff and declare her a woman, but they merely nodded and she was dealt her cards. Sweat itched her palms, but she wouldn't wipe them, refusing to show these men her fear. She was a man, at least for the time being, and men wouldn't be afraid of something so simple as a card game.
She swallowed, placed her first bet, and looked at her cards. An eight and a seven. She scratched at the table, asking for another card. A five, bringing her total to twenty. Pretty darn perfect for her first hand. The dealer ended up with eighteen, so he had to pay her and one other player. Caroline relaxed a measure and put her bet out for the next hand.
The door opened and a man walked toward the table. He was a hulking man, standing way too tall and too broad. He spoke to a few people on his way over, then lowered himself into the chair next to her. He looked over and leaned back a little, surprise etched in his grizzled features.
Caroline's heart stopped beating and she quickly averted her glance.
"You're new," the man said in a gruff voice.
She cleared her throat and dared another glance at him. "Grey," she said, lowering her voice.
The man grunted. "Well then, Grey, I'm Erickson." He eyed her. "You any good?"
"Let us play then."
Caroline didn't know how long this would last, but for tonight, she'd infiltrated the man's world, and she intended to continue to do so for as long as possible.
* * *
Two months later
Roe looked at the letter in his hand one more time before tossing it onto his desk. He swore and exhaled sharply. It was time to pay a visit to his brother, Justin, to see if Roe could finally get into the back room at Rodale's.
As he climbed into his rig, Roe considered the letter that had come by post this morning. Mr. B.D. Cabot still refused to entertain an audience with him. It was a slap in the face, truly, because what good was being a damned duke if it didn't get you an audience with a common archeologist?
Of course, Cabot was the best there was. The man wasn't in London very often, but he was nursing an injury and had been home for nearly three weeks. Roe had tried several ways to contact the man, but to no avail. Damnation if he didn't need Cabot since the men currently working for Roe were having no luck finding Constantine's Shield. In fact, the men seemed no closer to it than he and Christopher had been nearly a decade before.
They had become interested in the artifact during a holiday stay at Cambridge and too much time in the library there. Christopher had found mention of it in an ancient text. Legend stated that before going into battle, Constantine had a dream that Christ instructed him to imprint the Greek letters for "Christ" on his shield and it would protect him. The following day, Constantine ordered the symbol printed on all the shields of his soldiers. But the first one made, Constantine's Shield, was said to be specially marked and would be the most valuable. So had begun their quest. Someone would eventually find it; it was one of the most sought-after antiquities. But unless it was Roe, then his name would not be attached to the discovery, and he owed the man at least that. Had Roe not been so hell-bent on discovering the blasted thing, he and Christopher might not have taken that fated trip to Persia. It had been his bloody idea and he had to live with that.
Finding the damned antiquity would at least make it seem as if some of it had been worth it, worth Christopher's life. Roe would go himself, go back and dig in that God-forsaken sand until his hands bled, but he didn't deserve the pleasure of discovering the artifact himself. So he stayed in London, played cards, and funded whatever he could to make certain the shield was eventually found.
Perhaps the card playing would work to his benefit in this one situation, though. Cabot enjoyed the game, and Roe had tried once before to invite the man to join his table, but he'd declined. Cabot favored playing in the back room at Rodale's, the room where the commoners and workingmen played.
The carriage stopped in front of Justin's townhome and Roe made his way to the front door. A surprised-looking butler greeted him and led him into Justin's study. It was on Roe's tongue to make a sly remark to the butler when Justin walked into the room.
"Just now coming home for the evening?" Justin asked.
"Why is it that everyone assumes I do not know what morning is?" Roe took a seat across from Justin's desk.
"You have such a strong aversion to mornings and daylight hours in general that I was beginning to wonder if perhaps you'd become a vampire." Justin sat and offered his brother a genuine smile.
"An interesting notion, but no." Roe sat back in the chair, extending his legs out in front of him. "I suspect I could be quite a good vampire, though."
"Indeed." Justin's hand clasped together on the desk. "Now, what is it that you need?"
"What would you say if I asked for money?" Roe asked.
Justin's brows rose in surprise, then folded in on a frown. "That seems unlikely, but if you need money, of course I would give it to you."
"I don't need any money." They'd had this discussion a handful of times over the last several weeks, but Roe felt certain he could convince Justin to give him entrance. "I want to play the boy. The one in the back room." Roe had started hearing rumors about a young man, known mostly as "the boy" who was on quite the winning streak. It was said he was the most skilled player at Vingt-et-un, other than Roe himself.
Roe had asked to play the boy on a few occasions, but Justin had not agreed, but now he knew that Cabot was in that back room as well and this might be the best opportunity to gain a face-to-face meeting with the man. He'd didn't require his brother's permission. He could do as he pleased. But he knew that the men who played in that backroom did so partially to get away from their employers, aristocrats the likes of him. Playing there would likely cause a disruption, so he'd sought Justin's approval thinking that would ease the breach into that sacred space. The time had come to truly convince Justin, though. It was important he get an audience with Cabot. Playing "the boy" gave him the perfect reason to be there. No one would be surprised since his arrogance about the game was widely known.
Justin exhaled loudly. "You are not going to cease badgering me about this until I agree, are you?"
"I believe that is one of my finer gifts, my ability to badger people."
"You realize entering the back room is going to cause a stir all over Rodale's."
Roe stretched his arms. "Since when do I give a damn about causing a stir? One could say that is a favorite pastime of mine."
"This will not start a trend, where you damned aristocrats go to the back room to win monies from the poor working men," Justin said.
He chuckled. "I doubt the rest of the blue bloods are eager to mingle with their servants and the like in such a setting. But I'll be as discreet as possible."
"See that you do."
* * *
Caroline checked her cards again, then mentally ran through the ones that would remain in the deck. It was a risk to take another card, but she felt certain her calculations were correct and would result in a win. She eyed the dealer, then inclined her head, indicating she wanted another card. The man's eyebrows rose, but he dealt her a card nonetheless. A three, precisely the card she needed to bring her total to twenty. She would win this hand. The rest of the table turned their hands over. The dealer chuckled. "You've won again, boy," he said.
She gave a tight smile and accepted the money shoved in her direction. It was a good night, though it seemed the other players were beginning to get annoyed with her. She'd introduced herself with a fake name the first night she'd come, but no one seemed to remember it or her for the first several visits. Then they noticed she was winning, and winning regularly. They simply called her "the boy," which was fine by her. Maybe if they all heard that enough, they'd believe it and no one would question or even consider she was anything but.
"That's seven hands in a row, boy," the man next to her said. He was a tall man with broad hands and long fingers. She thought she remembered people calling him Cabot. He'd been coming to play the last week or so. "Pretty good luck."
Excerpted from A Little Bit Scandalous by Robyn DeHart, Alethea Spiridon Hopson, Rima Jean. Copyright © 2013 Robyn DeHart. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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