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February, 1814. London
The air of the Fourth Circle gaming hell was thick with the usual miasma of tobacco smoke and whisky, blended with the tang of sweat that Nathan Wardale had come to associate with failure. Another's failure, fortunately for him. Nate stared over the cards in his hand at the nervous man on the other side of the green baize table. He was hardly more than a boy. And he was about to learn the first of manhood's lessons.
The manchild cleared his throat. 'If you could see your way clear…'
'I could not,' Nate responded without emotion, shuffling the cards. 'If your purse is empty, then you had best leave the table.'
His opponent bristled. 'Are you implying that my word is not good?'
'I am implying nothing of the kind. Experience has taught me never to accept an IOU. If you have nothing of value upon your person, then play is done.'
'It is most unfair of you to stop when I am losing.' Though he had just come of age, the young man was also a marquis. He was used to getting his own way, especially from one so obviously common as Nate.
Nate shrugged in response. 'On the contrary. It is most unfair of you to expect me to treat a promise of payment as a stake in the game. While I do not doubt that you would make good, I have found that gentlemen behave rashly when their backs are to the wall. Later, they regret what they have promised in the heat of play.'
The boy sneered as though what other men might do meant nothing to him. 'And what do you expect of me, then? Bet my signet against the next hand?'
'If you wish.'
'It is entailed.'
'Then you are finished playing.'
The other's chin jutted out in defiance. 'I will say when I am finished.' He pulled the ring from his finger and tossed it onto the table. 'This is easily worth all that you have in front of you. One more hand.'
'Very well.' Nate yawned and dealt the cards. And a short time later, when the play had gone the way he knew it would, he scooped the ring forward and into his purse, along with the rest of his winnings.
'But, you cannot,' the young noble stammered. 'It is not mine.'
'Then why did you bet it?' Nate looked at him, unblinking.
'I thought I could win.'
'And I have proven to you that you could not. It is a good thing for both of us that you were willing to trade such a small thing. It is only a symbol of your family's honour. Easily replaced, I am sure. I will add it to the collection of similar items that have come into my possession from people like you, who would not listen to reason.'
The boy watched the purse vanishing into Nate's pocket as though he were watching his future disappear. 'But what am I to tell my father?'
'That is none of my concern. If it were me, I'd tell him that he has a fool for a son.'
The boy slammed his fist against the table so hard that Nate feared something must break, then he sprang to his feet, doing his feeble best to loom threateningly. Nate could see that his opponent was wavering on the edge of issuing a challenge, so he prepared to signal the toughs that the owner, Dante Jones, kept ready to eject angry losers. But as Nate stared up into the young man's eyes, he watched the other's expression change as he weighed the possibility that Nate might be as successful at duelling as he was at playing cards.
Then the boy stood down and walked away from the table without another word.
Nate let out his breath slowly, so as not to call attention to it. He could feel the weight of the signet in his pocket, but it would not do to examine the thing while here. It would appear that he was gloating over the fallen. And though the infamous gambler Nate Dale had many faults, he did not gloat.
He was quite sure that he had taken a similar ring from the boy's father, not two years ago. The current ring was not a true part of the entail, but a duplicate, made to hide the loss of the original. The real ring was in a box on Nate's bed chamber dresser. It was just one small part of a collection of grisly trophies to remind him what men might do when the gambling fever was upon them and they were convinced that their luck was about to turn.
He wondered what that feeling was like, for he had never had it. It had been years since there had been a doubt in his mind on the subject of table luck. There had been bad hands, of course. And even bad days. But things always came right again before he felt the sting of loss. He had but to remain calm and wait for the tide to turn. To all and sundry, he was known as the luckiest man in England.
So it was with cards or dice. And as for the rest of his life? He had learned to content himself with the fact that it was unlikely to get any worse.
He stared around the room at the typical night's crowd assembled there. Winners and losers, noise and bustle. A few widows who enjoyed games more intimate than faro. One of them gave him a come-hither look, and he responded with a distant smile and a shake of his head. What must that say of his state of mind if he had become too jaded to value her considerable charms over an evening spent at home alone? But the energy in the room seemed to sap his strength rather than restore it, and it was wearying beyond words to think that tomorrow night would be just the same as tonight.
At least tonight was over. Nate started to push away from the table, then felt a shadow fall across it. When he glanced up, another player was moving into the chair that had been vacated by the previous owner of Nate's new ring. The stranger was dark of hair, eye, skin and mood. Though he was smiling, the expression on his face was every bit as foreboding as a storm cloud on the horizon. Perhaps it was from the pain of a recent injury, for he bore his left arm in a sling.
Nate barely bothered to look at the man's face, turning all his attention to the shuffling of the deck in his hands. 'Fancy a game?'
The stranger nodded, and sat.
Damn. Nate kissed goodbye to his plan for a warm drink by his own fireplace, and a chance to sketch a bit with pen and ink, thinking of nothing at all. Whenever he tried to limit his play, the hours grew even longer. It was as though fate knew his intentions and laughed at them. Certainly it was not the location that drew the pigeons to him. Suffolk Street was a long way from the comfort of White's. The clientele at the Fourth Circle was a curious mix of true lowlifes, habitual gamblers, members of the aristocracy who were fallen from honour because of their gaming, and the curiosity seekers of the Ton.
And Nate. He was the curiosity they sought, known for his preternatural luck at games. They brought with them the idea that it was skill, and that his would prove inferior to theirs: the conviction that it was possible to beat the unbeatable. The naïve hope that their reputation would be made with their success. Others sought him out as a rite of passage. It seemed everyone in London had, at one time or other, lost his purse to the infamous Nathan Dale.
Nate wondered what category this man fell into, and decided either habitual gambler or local tough. Perhaps he was an actor. Although he carried himself with an air of nobility, his clothes were an odd mix of fashion and cast off, flamboyant enough to be laughable in a drawing room, though they suited him well. His blue velvet coat was well tailored, but unfashionably loose, and he wore a striped silk scarf in place of a cravat. There was a glint of silver peaking out from under the lace at his wrist. It was a bracelet or cuff of some kind: most unusual jewellery for a gentleman. He wore a thick gold hoop in his left ear.
Nate could feel the subtle shifting of attention in the room as the heads turned to follow him with interest. Depending on their natures, the men touched purses or weapons, as though to reassure themselves of their security. But from the females present, the man's striking good looks and exotic costume drew a murmur of approval. It was irritating to notice that the widow who, just moments before, had been overcome with disappointment from Nate's rejection, had more than recovered at the sight of the handsome stranger.
Nate looked across the table at him with the dispassionate eye of one who made his living by correctly judging his opponents. Gypsy, he decided. But a Gypsy with money, judging by the jewellery. And so the man was welcome at Nate's table. He dealt the cards.
His opponent took them in silence, speaking only when necessary, losing the contents of his fat purse quickly and without emotion over a few hands of vingt et un. Such disinterested play made the game even more boring than the continual whining of the last man. The Gypsy made no effort to remove his jewellery after the last hand. It was some comfort, for it proved that he was not too lost to know when to quit.
And it was with relief that Nate watched the man reach into his pocket, as though searching for one last bank note or perhaps a sovereign that had become lodged in the coat lining and left for emergencies. 'If you are without funds,' Nate drawled, 'then it is best we not continue. I should have warned you when we began that I will not accept a marker.'
'I have something better than that, I am sure.' The man's continual smile was most disquieting. In Nate's experience, losers were not supposed to be quite so jolly. 'One more hand. I have something you will accept from me, because you have no choice.' And then, the Gypsy reached into the pocket of his coat, and dropped the thing onto the table.
A scarlet silk rope lay there like a snake, coiled upon itself. The end was carefully tied in a hangman's noose.
For a moment, it looked no different from the one Nate had seen so many years ago—on the day they'd hanged his father.
Nate pushed away from the table so quickly that it tipped, sending the rope, drinks and stakes into a heap on the floor. The man across from him took no notice of the mess, but continued to stare at him with the same fixed expression and knowing smile, as though satisfied with the reaction he had received.
Nate stared back into the dark face, noting the lines in it, the shape of the eyes, and even the cold quirk in the smile. He knew that face—although coldness had not been there when last they'd spoken, nor the sharpness of the features, nor the hard set of the man's shoulders.
But if he could imagine this man as the boy he'd once been? Nate said in a voice made hoarse by shock, 'Stephen?' He looked again into the cold face across the table. 'Stephen Hebden. It is you, isn't it?'
The man gave a nod and his smile disappeared, as though to remind Nate that any meeting between them would not be a happy one, no matter how close they had been as children. 'I am Stephano Beshaley, now. And you call yourself Nate Dale, even though we both know you are Nathan Wardale.'
'Nathan Wardale died in Boston, several years ago.'
'Just as Stephen Hebden died in a fire when he was a child.' The man across the table held out his hands in an expansive gesture. 'And yet, here we are.'
Dead in a fire? It shamed him that he had given so little thought to what had become of his best childhood friend, after their fathers both died. But circumstances between the families had made the break between them sudden and complete.
Nate pushed the past aside, as he had so many times before. 'Very well, then. Mr Beshaley. What brings you here, after all this time? It has been almost twenty years since we last saw each other.'
'At my father's funeral,' Stephen prompted. 'Do you remember Christopher Hebden, Lord Framlingham? He was the man your father murdered.'
Nate pretended to consider. 'The name is familiar. Of course, my family was so busy that year, what with the trial and the hanging. But I do remember the funeral. It is a pity you could not return the favour and come to my father's funeral as well.' He waited to see if there would be a response from the man opposite him. Perhaps a small acknowledgement that Nate had suffered a loss as well. But there was none.
So he continued. 'When the hanging was done, we had to wait until he was cut down, and pay to retrieve the body. With the title attainted, using the family plot was out of the question. He is in a small, unmarked grave in a country church where the vicar did not know of our disgrace. I rarely visit.' He locked eyes with the man across the table, willing him to show some sign of sympathy, or at least understanding. But still, there was nothing.
'That burial was an intimate gathering, for all our friends had abandoned us. Although there was crowd enough to see him kicking on the gibbet. I thought the whole town had turned out to see the peer swing. And then your mad Gypsy mother screamed curses out of the window and hanged herself in full view of everyone. It made for quite a show.'
And that had done it. For a moment, Stephen tensed as though ready to strike him, the rage blazing hot in his eyes. And Nate welcomed the chance to strike back at someone, anyone, and to finally release the child's fury he had felt that day.
But then, Stephen settled back in his seat and his face grew cold and hard again. Despite that brief flare of temper at the direct insult to his mother, there was nothing left in his dark face to prove that the words had any lasting effect. If they had still been playing cards, Nate might have found him a worthy opponent, for it was impossible to tell what he might do next.
At last, Nate mastered his own anger again and broke the silence. 'Why are you here, Stephen?'