Concerning Cousins, Husbands, and the Correct Number of Aces
October 18, 1819 London
Jane Tindall could have changed her life, if only Lord Sheringbrook hadn't played the fifth ace.
Tonight she ignored the viscount's ballroom in favor of his cramped, smoky card room. For hours, she counted every card turned, waiting for the perfect hand of vingt-et-un.
At half one, her chance came at last: all the aces had been played, and Sheringbrook dealt himself a nine. He could have nineteen at best, then. Jane's twenty would win.
Yet somehow Sheringbrook had managed to produce that perfectly timed ace. It mocked Jane from its bed of green baize; such a small and flimsy rectangle on which to pin her hopes, then puncture them.
"We tie at twenty, madam," Sheringbrook said. His voice was low and smooth, almost regretful. "And so you lose again. My, my. You wagered a great deal that time."
Indeed she had. A ruinously great deal.
Yet she knew that had been the fifth ace. Of domestic gifts, she had none, but she possessed a mind like an abacus.
"You are very silent, madam. Something on your mind?" Below his dark demi-mask, his thin mouth curved, taunting her.
Guests came to Sheringbrook's card tables masked, the anonymity often inspiring them to leave behind greater sums. But Jane had easily recognized her host's treacle-sleek voice, the sharp widow's peak on his high forehead. She even recognized the three other men with whom she'd been playing—by type, if not by name: a cit, a drunkard, and a rake.
The only thing she had not recognized was that Sheringbrook was talented enough to cheat without her seeing how he did it.
Her mind reeled; the musty, acrid scent of tobacco smoke stung her eyes and nose. For an instant she toyed with accusing the viscount openly. Yes, she could say. I was wondering, did you hide the extra ace in your coat sleeve, or was it in your pantaloons? There must be plenty of room to spare in there, you pitiful excuse for a man.
If she were a man, she could call him out. As a woman, her revenge must be indirect.
Her fingers traced the edges of her cards, borrowed jewels catching the dim light. Languidly, she flipped the cards facedown and returned them to the pile.
"No, indeed," she said in a bored voice. "Congratulations on a hand most ... creatively played."
If there was anything Jane could do better than count cards, it was act a part, and no cheat could take this talent from her. She was deep in debt, but salvation would come only from pretending her loss scarcely lightened her purse.
"How do you wish to pay your debt?" pressed Sheringbrook. He ran a finger up Jane's arm, snagging the edge of her ruched cap sleeve.
No one imagined a respectable virgin would find her way into this makeshift hell. On the other side of the doorway, the fringes of society wound blithely through a country dance, but in the privacy of the card room, the atmosphere was coarse and desperate.
That was exactly why Jane had come here.
She drew herself up to her full height in her chair, knowing that she must look insignificant to the four hulking men with whom she played. Small enough to take advantage of; small enough to dismiss.
That was their mistake. She was the only woman in the card room, and therefore, she was as powerful as they thought her powerless.
Jane covered Sheringbrook's hand with her own, drawing it off her arm. "Must our play come to an end so soon? I've not yet had my fill of this evening's pleasures, no matter their price."
She summoned the wispy impressions of a decade of house parties and a dozen bawdy novels, and she used them to become beautiful. Noble. Seductive. The tip of her tongue moistened her lower lip, which she had painted with rouge until it was as full and red as the ripest of forbidden fruits. She twined a fingertip in a heavy curl, drawing it over her shoulder, and trailed her fingers down her rather meager bosom to the low bodice of her inky-blue gown. She acted as if the simple motion would slay them.
And they became slain. As simply as that. All four men shifted in their chairs as if their pantaloons had grown too tight.
Four half-drunk men, one of whom she now knew to be a cheat. This had, perhaps, been her riskiest gamble of the night, but she was counting on the crowd in the card room to keep her safe. Her companions might say whatever filthy things they liked, but they couldn't touch her. And as long as the cards remained on the table, she had a chance at the truth.
The rake spoke first. "Has the game grown too rich for your blood?" Above the curve of his own demi-mask, hawkish brows lifted. "I could give you private instruction to improve your skill."
"I like this type of game," Jane murmured. "I am used to deep play, after all. Deep and frequent." Again the tongue peeping between her lips, promising a taste. The rake groaned.
She let her sly smile grow. "Shall we have another hand, then?"
"Damme," slurred the drunkard, "you can have my hand wherever you like it, madam." Hands unsteady after hours of imbibing brandy of decreasing quality, he fumbled the notes and coins before him. Too much of a fool to know the worth of what he lost, or to hold fast to his winnings. Too foolish to know that money was more than amusement: it was power, and escape.
"If she has your hand, I'll take hers," the rake spoke up. "What d'you say, madam? Can you take me in hand?" He sniggered at his own wit.
This was the time to check the cards: now, while they were all distracted. "I confess, our dealer's hands are the ones that fascinate me." She looked her host up and down deliberately.
Sheringbrook cleared his throat. "Shall we unmask?" His voice cracked like a schoolboy's on the final word, hands lifting to fuss with the fastening of his mask.
Now. Jane feigned a tremor, reaching for the deck and knocking the cards into an untidy heap. With her thumbnail, she flipped a section of the deck faceup.
One ace ... two ... if she could turn them all, she'd have proof of Sheringbrook's dishonesty.
"So careless," she said. "I beg your pardon. Now they've turned every which way." She gave a blithe laugh and extended her hand again, turning the remainder of the cards in one swift movement. Before she had time to spread them over the table, the viscount's hand closed about her wrist.
"Don't trouble yourself, madam." His smile had gone a bit twitchy at the edge. "We'll start with a fresh deck, if you care to play again."
With a snap to a nearby footman in rumpled livery, the viscount had the table cleared. It was all over in less than ten seconds; not enough time to think of a strategy. Jane could only watch as the evidence she needed was carried away on a salver.
Nothing was left behind but a stretch of empty green baize and a false debt that she could never repay.
The cards now gone, Sheringbrook's smile returned in force, and he turned his attention back to Jane. "Do show us your face, madam. Such a delectable foe deserves our full attention."
Around the table, the four men unmasked, their expressions ranging from uninterested to hungry to—was that a trace of suspicion on the viscount's features?
Jane had no choice but to follow suit. With a careless hand, she flicked her mask up atop her head. As she recognized none but her host, she felt sure they would have no notion who she was.
Except the movement of her mask set her jeweled earbobs swinging. Sheringbrook narrowed his eyes. "Those are the Xavier jewels," he said. "Pigeon's blood rubies. Famous. Can you be ...?"
"I've never known Xavier to give the family jewels to a hussy before," said the cit.
The rake snorted. "Xavier? Before he was married, he never gave the family jewels to anyone but a hussy." This feeble joke was greeted with much more amusement than it deserved.
Jane felt the threads of her disguise unraveling. Damnation. She had borrowed her cousin's jewels to create her character, not unmake it. They were simply for effect, to give the impression of startling wealth that would convince these men to loosen their purse strings. She had never expected the gems to be recognized.
Damned Xavier, with his damned famous jewels. It was horribly fitting that he should be invoked at this table, since he was the reason she sat here. Since he thought she could not be trusted, especially with money.
She squelched the dreadful, sick feeling that he had been perfectly correct. There was nothing for it now but to brazen through.
"Lord Xavier is my husband," she said, mentally apologizing to her friend Louisa, Lady Xavier. Better to be thought a powerful countess than a doxy. Fortunately, Louisa had mixed little in these dubious circles of society since her recent marriage, and the fringes of the ton were not likely to recognize Jane's falsehood.
Sheringbrook looked doubtful, though. "I've seen the earl recently. He mentioned his wife, but I had the idea she was a dark lady."
Jane blessed her nondescript coloring: eyes the color of dying grass, hair the color of sand. She could be described as blond or brunette, with eyes brown or green or hazel.
"As you see." She smiled with deadly force. "Should you doubt me, I can tell you that his lordship has a rather horrible-looking scar on the inside of his right thigh."
Her words were quite true, as she was the one who had given her cousin that scar a decade before. It was his fault for insisting that she learn how to fence, then being unprepared when she proved an excellent student.
The four men exchanged glances, shrugs. She had disposed of their doubts, at least well enough to continue the play. As Sheringbrook slid Jane a fresh deck to cut, she held on to the mien of a countess. Until she climbed out of her sudden, startling debt, it was much safer to be someone besides insignificant Jane Tindall.
A gloved hand touched her shoulder, jostling her arm as she separated the cards. "Jane?"
Jane closed her eyes.
She knew few enough people who would run in Sheringbrook's questionable circles. It was the worst sort of luck that one of her acquaintances should attend this ball, then enter the card room. Worse than worst that she should have lifted her mask only a moment before.
The hand gripped her shoulder more tightly. "Jane. How surprised I am to find you here."
Jane bit the inside of her cheek to keep herself from exclaiming. She knew that voice, with just a hint of the rough southern coast in its patterns.
She tipped her face up; as always, her insides gave a longing squirm when she saw him. Six feet of lifelong dreams: dark-haired, blue-eyed, kind and good-humored.
Except right now, he looked quite the opposite of good-humored. Edmund Ware, Baron Kirkpatrick, was one of her cousin Xavier's oldest friends—which he apparently thought gave him the right to glare at her with a dark, foreboding expression. Rather like Byron, if Byron were protective instead of lusty.
She was in trouble, and not only from her opponents.
Trying to salvage the moment, she replied with lofty unconcern. "I'm surprised to find you here, too, Kirkpatrick. Do you intend to play vingt-et-un with us? I would rather expect you to be squiring an assortment of young ladies about the ballroom."
"One young lady will do. Come with me, Jane." His grip on her shoulder turned into a tug.
Sheringbrook broke in. "Jane, you say? A ... maiden?" His look of revulsion would have been comical in another time and place.
"She said Lord Xavier was her husband," slurred the drunkard. "You ain't Lord Xavier. So why d'you call her by her Christian name?"
Jane willed her face not to turn a sickly color.
Without a pause, Kirkpatrick answered, "You might have heard wrong. The room is rather loud, is it not? Lord Xavier is this lady's cousin, not her husband. The mistake is understandable."
That was rather clever of him. Jane turned a brilliant smile upon her companions.
But they refused to be dazzled this time. A man might mishear a single word, but they had also used the word wife, and there was no explaining that away. Jane had lied, and they knew it.
If only Kirkpatrick had blundered in half an hour later, Jane would have had time to lessen her loss, even turn it into a gain. As it stood now, she was ten thousand pounds in debt, though it might as well have been one hundred thousand. Or one million. Or the whole English treasury. She simply could not repay it.
"I think we have finished our play," said Sheringbrook. His large hand covered his winnings, a pile of coin and bills and slips of paper. "Perhaps you'll settle with me, Miss ... Jane."
Jane raised haughty eyebrows, flicking through options in her head. She would have to leave them with her vowels tonight. And then ...
She would have to tell her cousin Xavier what she had done. He would pay the debt, but he would box her up forever. She had proven him right; she could not be trusted. Like a lapdog, she would be leashed and admonished, and she would have no money and never travel away or be anyone else besides poor and plain Jane.
"Of course I will pay," she said in a voice with no life left. "I will only require a day to gather the money. Excuse me, gentlemen."
She rose from the table, nerveless hands grasping its edge, stiff arms levering up the dead weight of her body into a stand.
Sheringbrook reached up, crooked a finger into the hem of Jane's sleeve again. His hand contracted around the fabric. "I believe not. You've deceived us, madam, and now you'll have to pay. There can be no debt of honor without honor."
Jane stared at the hand on her arm. He dared speak to her of honor; he, who had cheated.
Somehow she managed to beam at the viscount, as if she could imagine no greater pleasure than to have him ruin her sleeve along with her life. "My lord, I promise you I will cover all my debts. Lord Kirkpatrick can vouch for my reliability."
The viscount settled back in his chair, raking appraising eyes over Jane's form. "I'm not interested in your promise. I will accept your jewels as surety for your payment. Better yet, as the payment itself."
A chill bead of sweat slid between her shoulder blades. "Impossible. They are worth far more than what I've lost."
Sheringbrook shrugged. "Then I cannot allow you to leave this room, madam. Which is acceptable to me. I can think of numerous ways for you to work off your debt."
Jane lifted her chin, as much to keep the sick from rising into her throat as to convince him of her confidence. Impossible to leave behind her cousin's gems; no other way she would be allowed to escape. The other men at the card table were watching her with interest, as if they wanted a piece of the pie when it was served out. She could not look for help from that quarter.
The femininity that had seemed her advantage a few minutes ago was now her weakness. It was infuriating. A man would never have been treated so, especially not a nobleman. Nor even a noblewoman, for that matter. Not the real Lady Xavier.
It was hell to be Jane Tindall. Especially tonight.
A touch at her elbow: Kirkpatrick stood next to her, bracing her arm as her thoughts whirled uselessly. His support was not unwelcome, though it did her no good.
"Permit me to pay, my dear." His eyes were fixed deep on hers, sending some message.
"Why should you ..." she began in a low voice, shaking her head. The room was distant and muddy around her, but Kirkpatrick's blue eyes were clear.
"As your betrothed, it is only right," he continued. "Your debts will be mine, and therefore my money is yours."
He reached past Jane to slip his card onto the table before Sheringbrook. "My man of business will take care of Miss Tindall's debts. You may call upon him at your leisure."
A nobleman, playing the most important card of the game. How easy it was for him.
Kirkpatrick turned to her. "Shall we go, darling?"
Excerpted from Season for Scandal by Theresa Romain. Copyright © 2013 Theresa St. Romain. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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