Read A Gentleman Undone Online
Authors: Cecilia Grant
He set his head on an angle, peering at the underside of the ace. “Another, facedown,” he said, and counted out twenty-five pounds more.
The new card dropped in and he palmed it up. Two of clubs. The back of his neck prickled as all his short hairs stood on end. Two plus three plus one made six. He was more than half the way to a five-card trick, with fifteen pips to give.
What the devil was she about? If she’d done anything irregular to arrange this, he hadn’t seen it. Yet what were the chances he would draw three consecutive cards so low, without some manipulation on her part? He threw her a quick look but her face, as always, gave away nothing.
Without question he must buy one more, at least. A five or anything lower would guarantee him the trick and the double payoff. He slid his money forward.
And of course the next card was a six. Hard total of twelve: a ten or a court card would be fatal now. If pure chance governed this hand, he was due for one. If the vexing creature across the table was pulling the strings, she could dismantle him in brutal fashion, having lured him down the garden path with her twos and threes and aces.
, she’d said. Pure chance was nowhere to be found in this room.
Will sat back in his chair and tapped his fingers to his lips, letting his eyes settle on her in absent fashion. If she
would give him some sign … he still wouldn’t know whether to credit her. He might imagine something kindling in her empty eyes; some cryptic message meant just for him; some scrambled communiqué that he would decode until it spelled out
. And then could he?
Little matter. He was bound by the rules to take another card: the only decision was whether to twist or to buy. She had him for seventy-five pounds already, if she was fleecing him. The twenty-five he’d save by pulling up now wouldn’t be near enough to repurchase his pride.
He sat forward. “In for a pound, in for a hundred,” he said, and found two tens and a five to throw in.
Like some part of a spring-loaded machine her thumb moved, a single efficient motion tugging the top card off the deck to be caught by her fingertips and tossed down before him.
He turned it faceup. Ace of spades. His lungs filled with lovely tobacco-tainted air and only then did he realize he hadn’t taken a proper deep breath since she’d first begun to deal.
“Nicely done, Blackshear.” The fellow to his left was addressing him, an unexpected nudge of generosity from a gentleman whose name he hadn’t bothered to learn. He grinned—oh, and didn’t
face come easily!—and acknowledged the kindness with a nod.
Good Lord. Two hundred pounds in a single hand. His one-eighty back and twenty more besides. Double the amount he’d worked the six hours previous to amass; more than three times his total Beecham’s take before he’d sat down here tonight. The cards snapped delightfully as he turned them all faceup. Miss Slaughter didn’t even look at him: already she’d progressed to the next man’s turn.
Play continued round the table, though the game could hold little interest for him now. To quit in the
thick of success was discipline of the sweetest sort. And he should hope he knew better than to misprize her gift or to tempt fate—or hell, to tempt her—by staying to risk any of his windfall in even one more hand.
When the last man had gone bust, and the banker had counted out payment to the three players whose totals bettered her own, Will pocketed his winnings and rose. He hesitated where he was for a second, battling a desire for some tiny acknowledgment of what had passed, intelligible to him and her but opaque to everyone else.
She didn’t glance up. Rather, she leaned back, all heavy-lidded languor, against the shoulder of the man on whose lap she sat, and lifted an absent hand to graze her knuckles along his jaw.
Right. Let that be a reminder of what was what. He caught up his gloves and left, jamming his fingers impatiently into their respective sheaths as he went.
She doesn’t like you. She doesn’t want you. She’s neither generous nor kind
. Good, bracing phrases, worth repeating to himself all the way home.
But every repetition prompted the question: what, then, had possessed her to restore his hundred eighty pounds?
in the glass wore a faint, enigmatic smile as she smoothed her hands down her indigo front, over the blue silk cords that crossed one another in the center of her bosom and wrapped round beneath it, fettering the gown’s fullness in that crucial region. Where most of her gowns merely hinted at curves, this one owned them outright, without apology or coy reserve. This was the shape that belonged to her.
“That gown becomes you very well. Just as I knew it would.” Maria, having already approved the fit of her figured white muslin, made a picture of perfect self-satisfaction as she looked on from one of the modiste’s chairs. “The style shows off the merits of your form without being quite so daring as the purple gown.”
“I prefer the purple.” Eliza, at the next mirror, craned over her own shoulder to admire the back of her gown, a gold-threaded creation with a wide band of scarlet at the hem. “This one leaves everything besides your bosom to the imagination. The purple one will cling when you move.”
That it would. The knit silk underlayer had been cut very close to her own dimensions and would scarcely
allow for one petticoat underneath. The overdress had a more traditional shape, but was of such thin sheer mull as to leave the underdress, and its close fit, entirely visible to anyone who looked.
“They’re both very grand.” Maria left her chair to come and make some adjustment to the split sleeve, smoothing the indigo layer away to show more of the royal blue silk underneath. “But I think this is the one you must wear to Mr. Moss’s musical evening.”
That brought a groan from Eliza. “He’s not truly expecting us to attend, is he? It seems to me a fallen woman could be spared such dreariness. It’s really too bad I should be subjected to insipid harp-pluckers and persons warbling in some language no more than half the room understands, same as any respectable miss.”
respectable. Will you never grasp that?” Maria frowned into the mirror as she fussed with the layers of the second sleeve. “Even a Philistine with no taste for music should appreciate the social occasion. Heaven knows it will make a welcome change from the gaming club.”
Lydia ran her palms once more down her silk front. She ought to change out of this gown, and have it wrapped. “Mr. Roanoke speaks of giving a country house party next month. Has he mentioned it to either of your gentlemen?”
“A house party.” Eliza swiveled to meet this news. “Now there’s an idea with promise. Do you suppose he’ll invite Captain Waterloo? House parties are always better with unattached masculine guests.”
Unattached masculine guests, indeed. Captain Waterloo, indeed. “He’s not a captain, you know. He was a lieutenant but he’s sold his commission, so I don’t suppose he’s anything now.” The words rang gracelessly in her own ear. Fine way to answer his charity to Jane.
But she’d made her answer at the table, hadn’t she, three nights since. No need to go turning generosity into a habit. “He’s a gentleman, merely,” she added after a moment, because decency demanded that much. “Plain Mr. Blackshear, if you want his name. I heard someone say so.” She beckoned to one of the assistants and moved away toward the dressing closet at the back of the shop.
“Blackshear.” Eliza bit into the word the way she might bite into a juicy piece of orange. “I like that.”
Well, maybe Eliza would like to amuse herself with him when they all went to Chiswell. Why should she not? Likely it would do him some good. If he could set aside his hopes of rescuing, he might have a very fine time. So might Eliza.
She held her arms up as indigo silk rustled away, its cool touch at her shoulders, at her neck, at her face, over the crown of her head. The dressing-closet had a mirror too, a smaller, dimmer one. Very little enigma to the woman reflected here. In chemise and stays she looked like nothing so much as the sum of her disappointments. Abandoned. Orphaned. Left barren. Tired and forlorn, and long past rescue.
Lydia turned her back on the reflection even before her old gown came over her head. What rot. Rescue. That had never been possible. And even if it were, she would not welcome it. She would laugh in the face of any man who tried.
Out in the shop there was a burst of merriment from the ladies, perhaps still on the topic of Captain Waterloo. But for herself, she was finished with that subject.
Claret-colored satin shut out the world as her gown slipped on. He’d shown her kindness. She’d repaid him with what she valued most. Now their accounts balanced, and she could devote her attention to more important things.
wore his scars on the outside. He’d been a laughing, sandy-haired devil of a man when they’d met in the Thirtieth, two years since. Logic suggested that his hair must still be sandy, though only patches remained, and those severely shorn, perhaps to minimize contrast with the places where hair would never grow again. He was, by general reckoning, lucky to be alive. What might be his own reckoning on the subject, Will had never yet discerned.
“It will be three-masted and ship-rigged like this one, but bigger. Three hundred fifty tons to this one’s mere three hundred.” He made his way to the port railing, his stout walking stick bearing a bit of his weight on each step. Besides the burns he’d come home with a limp. No one had bothered to amputate, on a man not expected to survive, and his wounded leg had healed up uneven.
Will followed. Past the port side was the massive dock lined with warehouses where cargo from the ship’s last journey had been unloaded, some days since. “It’s a good time to be in timber, I expect.”
“Better than you know.” Fuller swiveled and pointed with his stick. “Do you see on the south bank, where they’re building? New docks, dedicated to the timber trade. We’ll have a warehouse there in time, I hope, just suited to our cargo.”
The ship rocked tranquilly in the river currents. The yards and all the rigging had been brought down from the masts and lay about the deck in what looked, to a land-dweller, like riotous disarray. The scent of oakum edged his every breath, stirring memories of the trip across the Channel and the trip back home. A mere step across a gutter, by the side of what this ship did.
“And then of course the American market’s opened now, as it wasn’t just a few years since.” He brought the
walking stick back and stowed it under one elbow. “Wide open to the independent trader. No East India to grab it all up for themselves as they’ve done with tea.”
“You do remarkably well, considering you never planned to run the family business.”
Fuller laughed, a single bark that stretched his mouth painfully and made no impression in the ruined skin about his eyes. “I do remarkably well considering I ought to be mouldering in a mass grave at Hougoumont, you mean, and my brother still calculating how many emigrants must pay passage to Newfoundland and how many barrel staves and great oak masts must come back to make a profitable voyage.” He pivoted to look out at the north bank again. “He was the one with a gift for this, and our father before him. I think it’s only a perverse family pride that stops me from letting it all go to the devil.”