The Marriage Wagerby Jane Ashford
An RT Reviewers' Choice nominee for Best Regency Historical Romance
The Stakes are High, the Game is Set...
Lady Emma Tarrant possesses little but the gambling skills her dead husband taught her, but she's no match for a real gamester...
Colin Wareham, Baron St. Mawr, gambles to distract himself from devastating/p>/p>/strong>/p>/strong>… See more details below
An RT Reviewers' Choice nominee for Best Regency Historical Romance
The Stakes are High, the Game is Set...
Lady Emma Tarrant possesses little but the gambling skills her dead husband taught her, but she's no match for a real gamester...
Colin Wareham, Baron St. Mawr, gambles to distract himself from devastating memories. The gaming has long since lost its appeal, until he meets sparkling Lady Emma and finds that
Praise for The Marriage Wager:
"Exceptional characters and beautifully crafted...a delightful read for Judith McNaught and Mary Balogh fans."-Publishers Weekly
"A riveting, emotional romance that will garner a place of prominence on anyone's keeper shelf."-Rendezvous
"An enjoyable Regency romance with complex characters. " - Book Lover and Procrastinator
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Read an Excerpt
Colin Wareham, fifth baron St. Mawr, stood at the ship's rail watching the foam and heave of the English Channel. Even though it was late June, the day was damp and cool, with a sky of streaming black clouds and a sharp wind from the north. Yet Wareham made no effort to restrain the flapping of his long cloak or to avoid the slap of spray as the ship beat through the waves. He was bone-tired. He could no longer remember, in fact, when he hadn't been tired.
"Nearly home, my lord," said his valet, Reddings, who stood solicitously beside him. He pointed to the smudge of gray at the horizon that was England.
"Home." Colin examined the word as if he couldn't quite remember its meaning. For eight years, his home had been a military encampment. In the duke of Wellington's army, he had fought his way up the Iberian Peninsula-Coruña, Talavera, Salamanca-he had fought his way through France, and then done it again after Napoleon escaped Saint Helena and rallied the country behind him once more. He had lived with blood and death and filth until all the joy had gone out of him. And now he was going home, back to a family that lived for the amusements of fashionable London, to the responsibilities of an eldest son. His many relatives, at least, were pleased. According to them, as baron, he should never have risked himself as a soldier in the first place. Their satisfaction at his return matched the intensity of the outcry when he had joined up at twenty.
Reddings watched his master with surreptitious anxiety. The baron was a big man, broad-shouldered and rangy. But just now, he was thin from the privations of war and silent with its memories. Reddings didn't like the brooding quiet that had come to dominate St. Mawr, which the recent victory at Waterloo had done nothing to lift. He would even have preferred flares of temper, complaints, bitter railing against the fate that had decreed that his lordship's youth be spent at war. Most of all, he would have rejoiced to see some sign of the laughing, gallant young lad who had first taken him into his service.
That had been a day, Reddings thought, glad to retreat into memories of happier times. His lordship had returned from his last year at Eton six inches taller than when he left in the fall, with a wardrobe that had by no means kept up with his growth. The old baron, his father, had taken one look at Master Colin and let off one of his great barks of laughter, declaring that the boy must have a valet before he went up to Cambridge or the family reputation would fall into tatters along with his coat. Colin had grinned and replied that he would never live up to his father's sartorial splendor. They had a bond, those two, Reddings thought.
He'd been a footman, then, and had actually been on duty in the front hall of the house when this exchange took place in the study. He had heard it all, including the heart-stopping words that concluded the conversation. The old baron had said, "Fetch young Sam Reddings. He follows my man about like a starving hound and is always full of questions. I daresay he'll make you a tolerable valet." And so Reddings had been granted his dearest wish and never had a moment's regret, despite going off to war and all the rest of it. It was a terrible pity the old baron had died so soon after that day, he thought. He'd be the man to make a difference in his lordship now.
The ship's prow crashed into a mountainous gray wave, throwing cold spray in great gleaming arcs to either side. The wind sang in the rigging and cut through layers of clothing like the slash of a cavalryman's saber. It had been a rough crossing. Most of the passengers were ill below, fervently wishing for an end to the journey or, if that were not possible, to their miserable lives.
The pitch and heave of the deck left Colin Wareham unscathed. What an adventure he had imagined war would be, he was thinking. What a young idiot he had been, dreaming of exotic places and wild escapades, fancying himself a hero. Colin's lip curled with contempt for his youthful self. That naïveté had been wrung out of him by years of hard campaigning. The realities of war made all his medals and commendations seem a dark joke. And what was left to him now? The numbing boredom of the London Season; hunting parties and the changeless tasks of a noble landholder; his widowed mother's nagging to marry and produce an heir; the tiresome attentions of insipid debutantes and their rapacious parents. In short, nothing but duty. Wareham's mouth tightened. He knew about duty, and he would do it.
The pale cliffs of Dover were definitely visible now as the ship beat against the wind to reach shore. The mate was shouting orders, and the sailors were swarming over the ropes. A few hardy gulls added their plaintive cries to the uproar as the ship tacked toward the harbor entrance.
A movement on the opposite side of the deck caught Colin's eye. Two other passengers had left the refuge of their cabins and dared the elements to watch the landing. The first was most unusual-a giant of a man with swarthy skin, dark flashing eyes, and huge hands. Though he wore European dress, he was obviously from some eastern country, an Arab or a Turk, Colin thought, and wondered what he could be doing so far from home. He didn't look very happy with his first view of the English coastline.
The fellow moved, and Colin got a clear look at the woman who stood next to him. A gust of wind molded her clothing against her slender form and caught the hood of her gray cloak and threw it back, revealing hair of the very palest gold; even on this dim day, it glowed like burnished metal. She had a delicately etched profile like an antique cameo, a small straight nose, and high unyielding cheekbones, but Colin also noticed the promise of passion in her full lips and soft curve of jaw. She was exquisite-a woman like a blade of moonlight-tall and square-shouldered, perhaps five and twenty, her pale skin flushed from the bitter wind. His interest caught, Colin noticed that her gaze at the shore was steady and serious. She looked as if she were facing a potential enemy instead of a friendly harbor.
As he watched, she turned, letting her eyes run along the coast to the south, her gaze glancing across his. Her expression was so full of longing and loss that he felt a spark of curiosity. Who was she? What had taken her across the Channel, and what brought her back? She turned to speak to the dark giant-undoubtedly her servant, he thought-and he wondered if she had been in the East, a most unlikely destination for a lady. She smiled slightly, sadly, and he felt a sudden tug of attraction. For a moment, he was tempted to cross the deck and speak to her, taking advantage of the freedom among ship passengers to scrape an introduction. Surely that pensive face held fascinating secrets. He took one step before rationality intervened, reminding him that most of the truly tedious women he had known in his life had been quite pretty. It would be unbearable to discover that only silly chatter and wearisome affectation lay behind that beautiful facade. Colin turned and saw that they were approaching the docks. "We'd best gather our things," he said to Reddings, and led the way below.
The other pair remained at the rail as the ship passed into the shelter of the headland and the wind lessened. The dark giant huddled his cloak closer, while the woman faced the waves head-on. She seemed to relish the cut of the spray and the salty damp of the air. "There it is, Ferik," she said after a while. "Home." Her tone was quietly sarcastic.
The huge man viewed the buildings of Dover without enthusiasm. A gull floated by at the level of his head, and he looked at it as if measuring it for the roasting spit.
"When I left here seven years ago," said the woman, "I had a husband, a fortune, six servants, and trunks of fashionable gowns. I return with little but my wits."
"And me, mistress," answered the giant in a deep sonorous voice with a heavy accent to his English.
"And you," she replied warmly. "I still don't think you will like England, Ferik." He looked so odd in narrow trousers and a tailcoat, she thought, utterly out of place.
"It must be better than where I came from, mistress," was the reply.
Remembering the horrors she had rescued him from, Emma Tarrant had to agree.
"Except for maybe the rain," he added, a bit plaintively.
Emma laughed. "I warned you about that, and the cold, too."
"Yes, mistress," agreed her huge servitor, sounding aggrieved nonetheless.
Emma surveyed the shore, drinking in the peaked roofs of English houses, the greenery, the very English carriage and pair with a crest on the door, waiting for some passenger. Seven years, she thought, seven years she'd been gone, and it felt like a lifetime. Probably it was a mistake to come back. She would find no welcome, no feast spread for the prodigal daughter. Indeed, she had no intention of seeing anyone from that old, lost life. She only wanted to live among familiar surroundings again, to speak her own language, to feel other than an alien on foreign soil. She was asking so little. Surely, it would not be denied her.
The sailors were throwing lines to be secured and readying the gangplank. Men bustled on the docks. "Come, Ferik," said Emma. "We'd best see to our boxes."
On the steep, ladderlike stair leading below deck, they had to squeeze past a tall gentleman and his valet who were coming up. Even their few pieces of worn, battered luggage jammed the opening, so that for a moment, Emma was caught and held against the ship's timbers on one side and the departing passenger on the other. Looking up to protest, she encountered eyes of a startling, unusual blue, almost violet, and undeniable magnetism. From a distance of less than five inches they examined her, seeming to look beneath the surface and search for something important. Emma couldn't look away. She felt a deep internal pulse answer that search, as if it was a quest she too had been pursuing for a long time. Her lips parted in surprise; her heartbeat accelerated.
Colin Wareham found himself seized by an overwhelming desire to kiss this stranger to whom he had never spoken a word. Her nearness roused him; the startled intelligence of her expression intrigued him. It would be so very easy to bend his head and take her lips for his own. The mere thought of their yielding softness made him rigid with longing.
Then the giant moved, backing out of the passage and hauling one of the offending pieces of luggage with him. The woman was freed. "Are you all right, mistress?" the huge servant asked when she did not move at once.
She started, and slipped quickly down the stair to the lower deck. "Yes," she said. "Thank you, Ferik."
"Beg pardon," murmured Reddings, and hurried up.
Colin hesitated, about to speak. One part of him declared that he would always regret it if he let this woman slip away, while another insisted that this was madness. Reddings leaned over the open hatch above him. "Can I help, my lord?" he asked. The outsized man started down the stair again, effectively filling the opening. It was madness, Colin concluded, and pushed past the giant into the open air.
A week later, Emma sat at a card table in Barbara Rampling's drawing room and pondered which suit to discard. It was a matter of some importance, because for the past year her only means of support had been her skill with games of chance. She considered a minor club, then a diamond. Her opponent was a wretched player, but overconfidence was always a mistake. It had been the downfall of her late husband, Edward, who never stopped believing that the next hand of cards, or the next turn of the wheel, would favor him. He had run through all of Emma's substantial fortune on the basis of that belief, and had managed to maintain it up to the very moment he was killed in a tavern brawl over a wager.
Emma laid down her card. While her opponent considered it, she glanced up and caught Barbara Rampling's eye. Though she had only just met the woman, she felt she knew her. Barbara, too, had had a husband whose grand passion was gaming rather than his wife. When his insurmountable pile of debts had caused him to put a bullet through his head, Barbara had opened this genteel gaming hell in her own house in order to keep from starving. Emma was quite familiar with such places; she had spent the last year in them. She was even grateful. She could not enter the clubs where gentlemen played deep. It was only thanks to people like Barbara that she could survive at all.
Edward's only legacy, besides debts and disappointments, had been the lessons he gave Emma in gambling. Under his tutelage, she had learned to play all sorts of card games and, surprisingly, had proved to have real talent. It had driven Edward nearly mad-that she could be so skillful and yet have no desire whatsoever to play. In the last days she had kept them afloat for a while by winning. But no one could have kept pace with his continual losses. His death had ended an accelerating spiral of ruin that had very nearly pulled Emma under with it.
Her opponent frowned. She was a careless player who did not seem to grasp the principles of the game. She was also, Emma had been reliably informed, easily able to afford substantial losses. Emma need not feel guilty if she came out of this evening set up for a month.
Hiding her impatience while her partner decided on her play, Emma gazed around the room once again, automatically cataloguing the crowd at the tables. Most of them were tiresomely familiar types; she had encountered them in grand salons and mean inns all across the Continent and as far away as Constantinople. They made up a floating international population of sharps and gulls, the cunning and the lost, who shared just one overriding characteristic-they cared for nothing but the game. The usual mixture of contempt, pity, and dislike that assailed her in such places gathered in Emma's throat. Sir Edward and Lady Emma Tarrant, she thought with bitter humor. She had certainly never imagined it would end like this.
Her gaze paused and then froze on a young man at a corner table, playing faro with a single opponent. He could not be more than seventeen, she thought, and he exhibited all the terrible signs she knew so well-the obsessed glitter in his eyes, the trembling hands, the intent angle of his body bent over the cards. He was losing money he did not have. The sight made Emma sick. She would have stopped him if she could, but the last seven years had made her only too familiar with the gamester's mania. He would not hear anything she said.
She started to turn her back on that corner of the room, refusing to watch the debacle, but just then, the young man made a quick gesture and turned his head so that she could see his full face. Emma frowned. The gesture, his hair, the set of his shoulders-his features were at once hauntingly familiar and completely new to her. There was only one person he could be.
Emma's heart began to pound, and she grew hot. She had not expected to find any of them in a place like this. As the fat woman on the other side of the table at last laid down her card, Emma said, "Do you know that young man in the corner?" Though she fought to keep her voice steady, it wavered a little.
The woman was too engrossed in the game to notice. She glanced idly at the boy and said, "Name's Bellingham, I believe. Your play."
The name rang in her ears, confirming her suspicions. It could not be, but it was. The past, which she had thought to evade, had surfaced despite all her plans.
Somehow, Emma got through the rest of the rubber. She even won, for the other woman was hopeless. Refusing another round, she gathered her winnings and took a glass of wine to a window seat. From its obscurity, she watched the young man lose hand after hand, hundreds of pounds, as the candles burned down and the night waned and Emma's nightmares came to vivid life to torment her once again.
How many evenings had she spent this way, she wondered, watching gambling wreck her life-the insatiable lust for the luck of the draw, the toss of the dice. How often, in the beginning, had she tried to reason with her husband and discovered his crazed anger, his cruel disregard for anything but his need to play.
Hatred began to rise in Emma for the boy's opponent, also a familiar figure. Much older than his partner, perhaps thirty, he had the saturnine expression Emma had seen on the faces of countless hardened gamesters. He wouldn't care about the boy's age or his means, Emma thought bitterly. In fact, he had probably lured him here, pretending to be his friend, just in order to enrich himself. Rage built in her as the minutes passed. How she loathed him and all his kind. They were parasites, scavengers on human misery. Once, she had had to go to such a man and plead with him to forgive a debt. The man had shown no more feeling than a stone when he refused.
It was past midnight when the game broke up. The young man looked sick and terrified as he murmured some final words to his partner and then hurried from the room. Emma rose as the older man strolled out, his careless ease infuriating her further. Something had to be done, she decided. She could not allow this. This time, she would be able to stop it.
Rising, Emma followed the man from the room, keeping just out of sight as he descended the stairs, received his cloak from a servant, and went out into the night. When Ferik rose from his place in the hall to accompany her home, Emma gave him a silent signal. Obediently, he fell in two paces behind as she trailed the man to a cluster of hackney coaches awaiting passengers. Only when Emma told one of the drivers, "I wish to go where that gentleman goes," pointing to the hack pulling away ahead of them, did Ferik say, "Mistress?"
"Get in," replied Emma, her anger evident in her tone.
Silently, he did so, and they clattered through the dark streets of London toward a more fashionable part of town. Emma took out the loo mask she always carried in her reticule, in case she wished to go somewhere unrecognized, and put it on. It covered all her face except the lips and chin.
"What has happened, mistress?" asked Ferik. He frowned. "Did that man insult you? Shall I kill him?"
Emma waved him to silence as both hackneys pulled up in front of a large stone mansion. She leapt out, thrust a coin at the driver, and hurried toward the door, which the man was just unlocking. Ferik ran to keep up.
She made it, as she had meant to, just as he walked inside. And thus she and Ferik entered his house on his heels as the wide door swung shut.
"What in blazes?" The man lifted his ebony walking stick like someone who knew what to do with it. "Who are you? What do you want?"
"I've come for Robin Bellingham's notes of hand," said Emma. She had seen the young man scribbling one after another promise to pay as he lost more and more to this villain. Rage at the man burned in her. How many young men had he ruined already? she wondered.
He lowered his cane slightly and stared. There was something familiar about these two, he thought.
"I'll offer you what you can't refuse," the woman added, her tone heavy with scorn. "I'll play you for them."
Colin Wareham let his stick fall. He eyed the bronze giant and the cloaked and masked woman beside him. "I saw you on the ship from France," he said. The entire incident came back to him, particularly the feeling this woman had roused.
She ignored this as irrelevant. "Did you hear me? I challenge you to a game, the stakes to be those notes."
Colin examined her. The mask didn't matter; he clearly remembered that beautiful face, and the unfathomable complex of emotions he had thought he saw in it. No woman had ever spoken to him in this way, or offered such a proposition. "Why?" he asked. "What's young Bellingham to you?" He absorbed the pale gilt hair, the sensuous mouth, the gentle curve of breast and hip, more exciting somehow than voluptuousness. "Your lover?" The idea was ridiculous. He didn't believe the boy had it in him.
"That is no concern of yours!" she responded with icy ferocity. "I shall not let you ruin him."
Colin was oddly disappointed that she did not deny the connection. There must be more to young Bellingham than was readily apparent. Then he noticed that the woman's giant servant was gaping at her with obvious astonishment. This was a puzzle indeed.
Colin felt as if something lost was stirring and wakening inside him. It had been months since he had felt curiosity, or the least hint of amusement. He could not resist prolonging the situation. "Very well," he said. "I'll play you. You leave the choice of game to me?"
She gave a curt nod.
"You are very confident of your skills."
She made no reply, but Colin could see contempt in the set of her head, the quick involuntary gesture of one hand. His competitive instincts began to stir. "Why not?" he said, half to himself.
A thin smile curved her lips. She looked, Colin thought, as if he had done precisely what she expected, and as if she was anticipating a thorough rout. Growing even more intrigued, he took up the candlestick that had been waiting for him and opened a door off the hall. Walking into the library, he rang the bell, then lit more candles with the one he held, illuminating the beautiful room. "Does your fearsome friend stand over me as we play?" he inquired.
"Ferik will wait in the hall," she replied. "Where he can easily hear me if I call out." At her words, the giant folded his legs under him and sank to the hall floor, leaning his back comfortably against the wall.
"He can have a chair," said Colin.
Silent, enigmatic, Ferik slowly shook his head. He looked like a dark statue guarding some ancient monument, Colin thought. The image surprised and delighted him. Giving in to the impulse, he laughed, and the sound in the quiet of the house startled him. How long had it been since he had felt moved to laughter?
A surprised, and very sleepy, footman appeared at the back of the hall. He gaped at Ferik, then at the masked woman standing next to him. "My lord?" he said.
"John. Good. We require brandy and several piquet decks." Taking in his guest's set expression, he added, "Unopened packs, mind you, John." A smile continued to tug at his lips.
"Yes, my lord," said the young footman, closing his mouth with a snap and turning to do his master's bidding.
Emma walked into the library and took a seat at the card table to wait. She was somewhat surprised to find that it was just the sort of room she liked. The shelves of leather-bound books beckoned against the dark green walls. The thick patterned carpet and heavy draperies shut out all external noise. In a corner was a comfortable armchair with a footrest, a book open on the small table beside it. Probably his wife had been reading there alone while he gambled away their funds until the early hours, Emma thought. She had never met a gamester who cared a snap of his fingers for books.
The footman returned with a tray containing the cards, a decanter of brandy, and two glasses. He took his time as he set it down, arranged the table, and poured, casting curious sidelong glances at the masked woman sitting rigid in the gilt chair. The baron had had no guests at all since his return from France. His disappointed staff, expecting lively parties of gentlemen at least-along with the opportunity for lavish tips-had murmured among themselves. Cook had gone so far as to approach Mr. Reddings with a question, and had been roundly snubbed by the valet for her pains. But now it seemed as if their master was beginning an intrigue. This opened up new possibilities. John could scarcely wait to tell the others in the morning. "Will there be anything else, my lord?" he said, his face showing none of these thoughts.
"No, thank you, John. Nothing more. You may go to bed."
His avid gaze taking in every detail, the footman went. Wait until Nancy heard about the foreign giant sitting on the hall floor, he thought. He would be the center of attention below stairs for days and days.
Emma faced her host across the inlaid card table and prepared to deal. She had no doubt that she would win, and she could scarcely wait to see his face when she did. One of the few pleasures left in her life was defeating these despicable creatures who preyed on the young and unwary. They thought themselves invulnerable, and when they were bested, and by a woman too, it rocked them to their very foundations.
They began to play. The room was warm. The footman had made up the fire, though the evening was mild. The ranks of candles threw a wavering golden light over the cards as Emma surveyed her hand and began to calculate choices. The scent of leather and beeswax furniture polish permeated the room.
Her host offered her one of the glasses. "Brandy, miss...? What is your name? I never heard it on the ship."
She ignored him, deciding on a discard.
"Mine's Wareham, Colin Wareham." He sipped from his glass, his eyes roving over her, then examined the card she had put down. His brows rose slightly. "Clever," he said. "You play well. But it's odd; you don't have quite the manner of the ladies who haunt the gaming tables."
"I'm not like them," replied Emma in a voice full of loathing. "Like you. I don't lure unwitting youngsters into losing their fortunes to me."
"I don't care to talk while I play," said Emma. She had no intention of chatting with a man like him.
In the next half hour, she discovered that he was a formidable player. He calculated the odds to a nicety, and played his cards well. He seemed also to have an uncanny ability to predict what cards she held. It was clear that a fine mind lay behind those slender, finely boned hands. As time passed, Emma noticed with some surprise that they were not the soft, white hands she usually saw at gambling tables. His skin was browned by the sun, and there were nicks and calluses to show that he did other things besides fleece youngsters of their money. His manner, too, was not quite that of the hardened gamester. But she had the evidence of her own eyes, and she steadfastly ignored any distractions.
Emma lost the first game of the rubber, but not by much. And the fall of the cards had obviously been in his favor. She was not at all worried as he dealt the second hand and she sorted through it, planning her strategy.
"You don't even like cards, do you?" said Wareham, curiosity clear in his tone.
Startled, Emma looked up. She had not expected him to notice anything but the game. Men like him had no other interests. She met his eyes, and abruptly remembered all the details of their encounter on the ship as she lost herself in their violet depths. They really did have depths. And they hinted at intelligence and compassion and humor and numberless other traits that were utterly alien to the kind of man she knew him to be. As on the boat, she was transfixed by the power of his gaze.
Thoroughly unsettled, she examined him. She'd gotten only a general impression before-of a tall, dark man, slender though broad-shouldered, dressed in well-cut, fashionable clothes. Now she noticed his face-narrow, with high cheekbones that slanted upward, leaving a slight hollow beneath them; an aquiline nose; a determined chin with an unobtrusive cleft. His black hair was cropped short, but it had a slight curl that was not wholly disguised by brushing it severely back from his forehead and temples. His lips were firm and chiseled, his eyes deep set and that unusual shade of blue. He was quite handsome, she admitted to herself, and there was something definitely attractive about him. Of course, there would have to be, she reminded herself severely, if he was to lure unsuspecting youngsters to their ruin. All these Captain Sharps had a certain superficial charm.
"It's almost as if you hate playing," he added.
"I do," she replied crisply. For Emma, there was no thrill at the risk. Gambling, for her, was more like the tedious mathematical problems her governess Miss Crane used to set her in the schoolroom, or translation of a tricky bit of French. She won not through love or luck but through intelligence and cool calculation and sheer necessity.
"You find no joy in it at all?" he said.
"Joy?" repeated Emma in accents of loathing. "The moment I begin to enjoy gaming, I shall abandon it forever." She had to suppress a shudder.
"Why, then, do you play?" he inquired.
"Because I must!" she snapped. "Will you discard, sir?"
He looked as if he wished to say more, but in the end, he simply laid down a card. Focusing on her hand, Emma tried to concentrate all her attention upon it. But she was aware now of his gaze upon her, of his compelling presence on the other side of the table.
She looked up again. He was gazing at her, steadily, curiously. But she could find no threat in his eyes. On the contrary, they were disarmingly friendly. He could not possibly look like that and wish her any harm, Emma thought dreamily.
Emma caught her breath. His smile was amazing-warm, confiding, utterly trustworthy. She must have misjudged him, Emma thought.
"Are you sure you won't have some of this excellent brandy?" he asked, sipping from his glass. "I really can recommend it."
Seven years of hard lessons came crashing back upon Emma as their locked gaze broke. He was doing this on purpose, of course. Trying to divert her attention, beguile her into making mistakes and losing. Gathering all her bitterness and resolution, Emma shifted her mind to the cards. She would not be caught so again.
Emma won the second hand, putting them even. But as she exulted in the win, she noticed a small smile playing around Colin Wareham's lips and wondered at it. He poured himself another glass of brandy and sipped it. He looked as if he was thoroughly enjoying himself, she thought. And he didn't seem at all worried that she would beat him. His arrogance was infuriating.
All now rested on the third hand. As she opened a new pack of cards and prepared to deal, Emma took a deep breath.
"You are making a mistake, refusing this brandy," Wareham said, sipping again.
"I have no intention of fuzzing my wits with drink," answered Emma crisply. She did not look at him as she snapped out the cards.
"Who are you?" he said abruptly. "Where do you come from? You have the voice and manner of a nobleman's daughter, but you are nothing like the women I meet in society."
Emma flushed a little. There was something in his tone-it might be admiration or derision-that made her self-conscious. Let some of those women spend the last seven years as she had, she thought bitterly, and then see what they were like. "I came here to play cards," she said coldly. "I have said I do not wish to converse with you."
Raising one dark eyebrow, he picked up his hand. The fire hissed in the grate. One of the candles guttered, filling the room with the smell of wax and smoke. At this late hour, the streets outside were silent; the only sound was Ferik's surprisingly delicate snores from the hall.
In silence, they frowned over discards and calculated odds. Finally, after a long struggle, Wareham said, "I believe this point is good." He put down a card.
Emma stared at it.
"And also my quint," he added, laying down another.
Emma's eyes flickered to his face, then down again.
"Yes?" he urged.
Swallowing, she nodded.
"Ah. Good. Then-a quint, a tierce, fourteen aces, three kings, and eleven cards played, ma'am."
Emma gazed at the galaxy of court cards spread before her, then fixed on the one card he still held. The game depended on it, and there was no hint to tell her what she should keep to win the day. She hesitated a moment longer, then made her decision. "A diamond," she said, throwing down the rest of her hand.
"Too bad," he replied, exhibiting a small club.
Emma stared at the square of pasteboard, stunned. She couldn't believe that he had beaten her. "Piqued, repiqued, and capotted," she murmured. It was a humiliating defeat for one of her skill.
"I cannot believe you kept that club."
"Rather than throw it away on the slender chance of picking up an ace or a king?"
Numbly, Emma nodded. "You had been taking such risks."
"I sometimes bet on the slim chances," he conceded. "But you must vary your play if you expect to keep your opponent off balance." He smiled.
That charming smile, Emma thought. Not gloating or contemptuous, but warm all the way to those extraordinary eyes. It almost softened the blow of losing. Almost.
"We said nothing of your stake for this game," he pointed out.
"You asked me for none," Emma retorted. She could not nearly match the amount of Robin Bellingham's notes.
"True." Colin watched as she bit her lower lip in frustration, and savored the rapid rise and fall of her breasts under the thin bodice of her satin gown. "It appears we are even."
She pounded her fist softly on the table. She had been sure she could beat him, Colin thought. And she had not planned beyond that point. He waited, curious to see what she would do now.
She pounded the table again, thwarted determination obvious in her face. "Will you try another match?" she said finally.
A fighter, Colin thought approvingly. He breathed in the scent of her perfume, let his eyes linger on the creamy skin of her shoulders. He had never encountered such a woman before. He didn't want her to go. On the contrary, he found himself wanting something quite different. "One hand," he offered. "If you win, the notes are yours."
"And if I do not?" she asked.
"You may still have them, but I get..." He hesitated. He was not the sort of man who seduced young ladies for sport. But she had come here to his house and challenged him, Colin thought. She was no schoolgirl. She had intrigued and irritated and roused him.
"What?" she said, rather loudly.
He had been staring at her far too intensely, Colin realized. But the brandy and the strangeness of the night had made him reckless. "You," he replied.
There was a moment of shocked silence, as if that one simple word had frozen them into a static tableau. Then his beautiful visitor stiffened in her chair. On the tabletop, her hands curled into fists. "How dare you?" she replied.
"You might be surprised at what I would dare."
"You are despicable. If you think that I came here to-"
"You are the one who suggested another game," he interrupted. "I have merely set the stakes."
"Outrageous stakes," she answered. "Out of the question."
"You'll never be offered better odds," he said, his senses filled with images of her in his arms. "However the cards fall, you get what you want." Unable to resist the impulse any longer, he reached across the table to touch her.
She jerked out of reach and sprang to her feet, knocking over the delicate chair she had been sitting in. It clattered against the table leg and fell with a loud thump onto the carpet.
A spark of keen disappointment made him say, "I suppose I shall have to collect from young Bellingham, after all."
"You are nothing but a rapacious swindler," was the furious response.
She said it as though she had begun to form some other opinion, Colin thought, and felt a pang of regret for his unconsidered remark. "On the contrary," he began, "but you must admit-"
"Mistress?" said a deep, resonant voice from the hallway. "Did you call?"
Emma took a step back from the table. Colin started around it. "Ferik has made himself very much my protector," she warned. "He is not fettered by English notions of law and fairness, and his methods are direct and extremely effective."
"If he interferes with me, he will find himself in serious trouble," replied Colin between clenched teeth.
The library door opened and Ferik filled the doorway, his dark eyes suspicious. He eyed the overturned chair, then turned his belligerent gaze on Colin Wareham. "What has he done to you?" he demanded.
"Nothing," she said. "We must go." She retrieved her things from the card table and donned her cloak.
The giant hesitated. He was contemplating Wareham with his fists clenched.
"Now," she commanded, already in the hall, turning the lock on the great front door.
Reluctantly, Ferik moved to follow.
"Tell me your name," demanded Colin. "Where can I find you again?"
Ignoring him, she hurried out, and as Colin moved to intercept her, Ferik's massive bulk blocked him.
"I'll find you," called Colin, standing in the open doorway. The shaft of light from the library made him a black outline against a glowing golden rectangle. The shapes of light shifted as he raised an arm. "Have no doubt. I will," he added fiercely.
She disappeared into the darkness without answering.
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