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Authors: Cecilia Grant

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BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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Score a point for perverse family pride, then, and another point for the practical-minded resilience of the merchant class. They were an admirably resourceful and industrious lot. Any blue blood who’d come home in Fuller’s condition would probably not have had the mettle to refashion his life on these new terms. Without question a gentleman investor would do well to put his money in such hands.

The question was whether the merchant ought to put his faith in the investor. Three thousand pounds, he’d promised the man. At present he had eleven-hundred-sixty, and that was counting money that must go to rent and living expenses.

Will stooped to pluck up a bit of the pitch-and-oakum caulking that had come loose between two planks. They had to replace the stuff constantly, Fuller had said, while the ship was at sea as well as in port. Someone or other must always be mending a sail, fashioning a new spar, wetting down the deck with salt water. No time for idle
meditation on a sea voyage. “Do you ever think of going along?” He twisted the fibers between his fingers. “Getting a glimpse of the New World for yourself?”

Fuller shook his head. “Too much risk. Storms, sickness, rations that can spoil or run out. I’ve looked death in the eye once already. I don’t expect it to blink a second time. You, though?” He threw a glance over his shoulder. “Think you’d fancy an Atlantic crossing?”

“Not the storms and spoilt rations, certainly.” Pitch was rubbing off on his gloves. Stupid of him. He couldn’t be throwing away money on a new pair. “But I admit there’s an appeal in the notion of leaving all one’s encumbrances behind to make a new start.”

“I haven’t that option. This face follows wherever I go.” He dipped his head to gaze down into the waves. “And encumbrances don’t sound half so encumbering when they’re put beyond your reach. A leg shackle, for instance. If I’d known I was going to come back as damaged goods, I should have married the first girl who’d have me. She’d be stuck with me now, scars and all.”

“I suspect most men come back damaged, one way or another.” Tentatively the words hung in the air, as though looking over their shoulders to see whether any more would follow. “If not in a way that prevents marriage, then perhaps in a way that makes an unjust encumbrance on one’s wife. I know I shouldn’t have liked any sister of mine to marry a man who would burden her with nightmares, or with forgetting his whereabouts and imagining himself back on the battlefield whenever he hears a loud noise.”

“I’ve heard of such afflictions.” Fuller nodded but didn’t turn, inviting just as much confidence as Will cared to impart.

“Nothing so capricious plagues me.” He twisted to drop the bit of caulking over the side, and lost sight of it at once among all the other rubbish littering the Thames’s
surface. “It’s only that my disposition has changed. I think marriage requires a certain … hopefulness of outlook, and I can’t seem to … be hopeful, quite as I used to do.”

The flotsam danced over the waves below. He stood still with his back to the railing, only his shoulders twisted, away from where Fuller stood at his left, to look down into the water. Words danced there too, words he’d once been so arrogant as to say aloud.

I’ll get you to the hospital. And then I’ll get you home to your family. I swear on my soul I will not let you die
.

Other words, words he would never say aloud to anyone:

The outcome might have been the same if I’d waited for the litter-bearers. He might have been lost in any case. But I’ll never know
.

And
He trusted me. He looked to me as a leader and he believed a promise I should never have made
.

And then the pitch-dark bit of flotsam, too dark for words. Incomplete fragments of memory stored in his senses: the clammy chill of that early-morning hour. His hands. The pulse in Talbot’s throat, ticking patiently against his thumb. The sounds.

What else were you to do? Leave him to suffer for God knows how many hours more among corpses on the field, or in that hellish church?

Will drew a sharp cold breath. This was a mood. That meant it would pass. He’d come safe to the other end of every mood before, and so would he do with this one.

“I’d be surprised if that weren’t common. A want of hopefulness.” The sound of Fuller’s voice told him he’d raised his head and was now addressing the horizon. “Still, I think a woman could be the cure. A warm sort of woman. Patient. With a hopeful nature that can brace you up when your own is lacking; remind you of what’s good and worthwhile in yourself as well as in the world.
Nothing better for attaching a man to life unless it’s children, and if you’re lucky those will follow.”

Sorrow prickled up and down Will’s throat, leaving a metallic tang in its wake. Never mind his own unfitness for such a woman, for children. Fuller himself could have little hope of ever gaining the comfort he described, and described in such terms as suggested no small degree of longing. What a perverse place the world was, all in all.

“I don’t doubt you’re right.” He brought his shoulders back round so he was facing out over the deck again. “Only I find I haven’t much patience for the events at which one encounters such women. Routs. Musical evenings. Card parties for polite small stakes.”

“Musical evenings?” Fuller cocked his head, like a hound catching an unexpected scent and contriving to isolate it from among the general bouquet.

“An idle pursuit of the well-born.” He rubbed at the pitch on his fingertip and thumb. “Some lady who wouldn’t dream of performing in public stands up and sings, or perhaps plays the pianoforte, and everyone claims to enjoy it whether they do or no.”

“Singular. But I confess I had this sort of thing in mind, when I invited you to buy in.” He waved a hand vaguely. “You have the air of a gentleman about you, with your bearing and your knowledge of musical evenings. I fully intend to trot you out before the Americans, when they pay their visit here. You’ll make my business look a sight grander than if it’s just me.”

Will laughed and nodded, even as uneasiness stirred in the pit of his stomach like silt kicked up from the bottom of a stream.
I must tell you I’m not at all sure of having the money by April’s end. I cannot in good conscience advise you to make any plans that depend on me
.

No. He would get the money. Somehow. March wasn’t
even half over yet. He must not be as lacking in hope as he’d thought, because he was not ready to give up.

“Musical evenings,” he muttered instead. “I suppose I’d better make myself an expert, then. Indeed I think I may have been invited to one this very week.”

S
ELF-PITY WAS
a vice for the feeble of spirit. Not for her. If she had, at one time, known the pleasure of singing before an audience of cordial neighbors, well, it would behoove her to recall she had never been but the third or fourth young lady entreated to perform for the company, after the more talented took their turns.

Lydia stripped off her second glove and dropped it across her lap. Decidedly Mr. Moss had too much money. She’d peered into three doorways along this hall, and each time found at least half a dozen lit candles and a fire in the hearth.

And in this room, finally, she’d found a game table.

She split the deck and shuffled, cards accommodating one another with a dulcet ripple reminiscent of music-room applause. There was all the accolade she required. She could feel, but not hear, the place where eight cards went by undisturbed, admitting not a single card from her other hand into their number. Let any drawing-room nightingale try
that
.

Eight cards, nine cards, ten, and eleven had passed through a shuffle intact when a black-coated shape loomed into the open door on her left periphery. At the back of her neck, a muscle ticked once. Mr. Blackshear. She knew without turning. She’d glimpsed him in the last row of the music room, when she’d made her way out at the interval, and apparently she’d taken better note than she’d realized of what coat he wore.

What waistcoat as well. He’d put on that same copper-colored one she’d first encountered out on Tottenham
Court Road, when he and his sister had been coming from a call in Camden Town. Even from the corner of her eye she could see its threads burnished by Mr. Moss’s exorbitant firelight.

Who in Camden Town had merited such finery? She hadn’t stopped to wonder until now.

Not her concern. He could pay calls wherever he liked. She’d given back his money and thus ended the intersection of his fortunes with hers. She dealt two cards without looking up. “Have you come to spy on me, Mr. Blackshear?” In case he supposed he was taking her by surprise again.

“Not at all. Forgive the intrusion.” The threads in his waistcoat winked as he made a slight bow. “I noticed you’d left the gathering.”

“I was under the impression we had an interval.”

“Yes, of course. I mean you left the company, where they were gathered in the room with the refreshments. Nothing is amiss, I hope?”

“Nothing whatsoever.” She turned up the first card—ace of clubs—and the second—king of clubs. “And I must say I liked you better when you marched up and accused me of cheating. I haven’t any use for chivalry or nice manners.”

“Some plain speaking, then.” How quickly he shucked the cloak of gallantry. That was interesting. “I came looking for you because there’s something I want to discuss. I expect you can guess it.”

Oh, she could guess it, surely enough. Unless he was a royal nodcock he would naturally have questions about last Saturday night at Beecham’s. She’d known that before dealing the ace of diamonds, and she’d dealt it just the same.

Well, he could have all the questions he liked. He would see in what style she chose to answer. “Indeed.” She lifted her chin finally and faced him, angling her
body his way, laying one forearm on the table and the other along the back of her chair. “I surmise you’ve sought me out to compliment me on my new gown.”

“You surmise incorrectly. I’ve come for something else.” He paused, though, his gaze flicking down over the yards of indigo silk and back up. “But I’ll grant you the compliment, willingly. I suspect there’s not a man alive who wouldn’t appreciate that gown.”

“Possibly. Though I might advise you to reserve your panegyrics until you’ve seen my other new gown.” She palmed up her king and her ace with a smart flourish.

“Are you … flirting with me, Miss Slaughter?” His eyes narrowed briefly, like a sailor trying to make out the colors of a ship on the horizon. Then his mouth curved and sent smile-echoes through his whole body, loosening his posture as he folded his arms and leaned his shoulder into the doorjamb. “You must want very badly to divert my attention from the topic I came to pursue.”

Now
here
was a man she had use for, spirited and ready to spar. “Nonsense.” King and ace went back into the deck at precise intervals. “If my purpose were to distract you, I should have commenced my erotic spectacle.”

Oh, he did like that. His eyes narrowed again, or rather, the lids dropped halfway and his lopsided smile took a turn for the wicked. “It’s a solo act, then. I’m intrigued.”

“Perhaps.” Ha. Did he think she was so easy to shock? “Or perhaps it’s an act that requires the participation of some willing audience member.” She owed this man nothing. She didn’t have to mind her words with him, the way she did with Edward. She could say any reckless thing she liked.

“Now that, I’ll grant, might have succeeded in diverting me. Mere flirtation will not.” He held that same relaxed
posture, weight against the wall, but he was undeterred in his purpose. “I’d like you to explain to me what took place at the table, when we were last both at Beecham’s.”

She divided the deck and shuffled. “You had an admirable run of luck, as I recall.”

“Rubbish. You fed me those cards.” She didn’t look up but she could feel his cool patience. He had no intention of leaving this room without an answer. “I’m nothing but grateful.” Ah, that lower pitch. The same one with which he’d finally convinced her to let him see her home. “Only I can’t guess for the life of me how you did it. Or why.”

She did something with her brow, something to make her look more than ever absorbed in the cards, and bent her head for good measure. “Nobody but you has ever accused me of cheating.”

“I expect that’s because you’re so good at it.” Flattery. And probably true. “You must know I won’t tell anyone. It wouldn’t be in my interest, would it?”

Maybe. Maybe not. But that was nothing to the purpose. Regardless of whether it was in his interest, he would not tell. Certain things a lady could discern about a man after a few meetings, and this was something she’d discerned about him.

She ought to send him away, of course. Closeting herself with another man, particularly with Edward on the premises, would be imprudent.

But Edward was in his cups, and would probably sleep through the second half of the concert and never notice whether she came back or not. Besides, she was in his very good graces this evening in consequence of the new gown, which had come off once already when he’d arrived to collect her, and would doubtless come off again when he took her home.

And it wasn’t as though Mr. Blackshear sought her
out for any improper purpose. He’d come to ask her about cards.

No one ever asked her about cards.

“Close the door.” She turned the deck and struck its edge on the table. “Come take a seat.”

Six strides brought him to the chair at the game table’s other side. For a man who must have drilled at marching in formation, he had a remarkable ease to his walk, all nonchalant, unself-conscious grace. She hadn’t had the chance to notice, when he’d been walking six paces behind.

He sat. She leaned a bit forward to set the deck before him and caught an unexpected scent. Bay rum. That hadn’t been there in the upstairs hall at Beecham’s, when he’d stood so near her. Whatever occasion had warranted the fine coat and waistcoat apparently demanded new soap as well.

Not her concern. “Deal out ten hands.” She straightened, the bay rum receding like the last wisps of an agreeable dream. “No fewer than three cards in each hand, no more than five.”

BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
13.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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