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Authors: Cecilia Grant

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BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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He dealt, smoothly and unspeaking. He didn’t ask why. That was to his credit.

“Good,” she said when he’d finished. “Please turn them faceup, with every card showing.” In her wrists, in her throat, in the middle of her chest, her pulse thrummed, fretful with anticipation, even while her thoughts went calm and all the room’s sights and sounds lurched into perfect clarity.

A sweet mellow percussion, his fingers striking the tabletop, sliding over the backs of the cards, then the muted slap of cards going faceup, soughing over one another as he edged them apart to show her each king and ten and seven and three. He sat back and when she raised her eyes he was watching her expectantly, brows edged a wary fraction of an inch together.

She clasped her hands on the table. Straightened and curled her bare fingers. Gave her mouth permission to issue a Sphinxlike smile. “Now then. Speak, please.”

“Speak?” He’d caught her smile; it hovered at the corners of his own mouth. “On what subject?”

“Any subject you like. Your aim is to distract me.” Eyes still on his face, she sent her hands out after the cards.

“Distract you.” His brows jumped and then bent at devilish angles. “I’m afraid I neglected to rehearse my erotic spectacle.”

Good. This was exactly the right sort of thing. “I shouldn’t have permitted it anyway. Your distraction must be effected through speech. However I will allow any subject. Until I’ve gathered up the last card, you have license to speak with just as much familiarity as you like.” The cards fairly sang as she swept them in, feeding each one deftly into a growing small pack.

“That sounds very like a dare, Miss Slaughter.” He sank into an outright slouch, one wrist resting on the table’s edge. Really, he ought to give up that chivalry business altogether. He was infinitely more interesting this way. “You’re wearing stockings, I suppose?” And here was the voice he would use for seduction, its soft rasp a kind of promissory note for the touch of his weather-beaten soldier’s hands.

But she would not permit the use of hands, and the only kind of seduction worth recognizing was the kind that came with an offer of carte blanche. “Of course I’m wearing stockings.” No change whatsoever in the timbre of her own voice.

“What color are the garters?” His eyes were steady on hers.

“Blue, tonight.” So were hers steady on him.

“Blue.” He repeated the word as though to take possession of it. He might possess a lady piece by piece in
this way, if she weren’t strong-willed and otherwise occupied.

“Blue, indeed. That’s one point settled. Is that your idea of distraction?” She ought, of course, to feel his hot attention creeping up like fingertips to the place where her garter was knotted on her thigh. Perhaps she would, later. For the moment his words only redoubled the lucidity with which the needful facts came to her. Here would be a queen of clubs, and her left thumb knew precisely the spot at which it must slide into the deck.

“Give me time.” His voice sank a few notches down the scale. “Dark blue like the body of your gown, or medium blue like the trimmings?”

“Royal blue, it’s called. Not medium. And I told you your time is limited.” She gave her head a slight toss, just to show how little she was affected. “If you mean to make an inventory of my underclothes, you’d better pick up your pace.”

“Hasty men miss so much. There’s a pleasure in lingering over these things.”

Lingering, indeed. And over garters, of all things. “What a vexing sort of lover you must be.” Three more cards to go. “All that meandering about would drive a lady to distraction.”

“That, as I recall it, was my mission. Did I succeed to any degree?”

“See for yourself.” She clapped the cards once against the table, edgewise, to make them all even, and set the pack down before him.

He picked it up. Ace of clubs sat on top. With his long agile fingers he peeled off that card, and peeled off the next, and the next and the next.

Assuredly she was vain. How could she not be, watching all his features soften with wonder as he turned over card after perfectly sequenced card? Aces, twos, threes, fours, and he shot her one glance. Fives, a six, sevens,
and one eight had got in with the sevens, not due to any distraction but simply because her fingers sometimes misjudged the count. By the time he set down the king of spades he was sitting up straight, his whole face alight with such a look as Paris of Troy must have worn when those three goddesses showed up to demand he judge one of them most beautiful.

No man had ever looked at her that way. No man would likely ever do so again. But he made her insides feel like clockwork for a moment, ingenious subtle clockwork instead of fallible flesh, and it occurred to her she might stay in that moment forever, given the choice. She might bask wordless in such a transformative gaze for as many moments as remained to her life.

No. Not transformative. This was who she was, quick and gleaming and intricate. She’d known that already. Now someone else knew.

Chapter Six

H
OW THE
devil did you do this?” Will sat motionless, all energy diverted to receiving her reply. She faced him like a Grecian goddess, sure, potent, ravishing, and for all that the goddess-style gown still draped her, advertising the bounty of her figure and deepening the blue of her eyes, he couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d just undressed for him.

“Through a certain facility with numbers and an excellent memory for what I’ve seen.” On the tabletop, she folded one hand in the other. “Practiced fingers as well, of course.”

Undressed? Devil take her. She was parading about the room naked now. He touched a finger to the king of spades, topmost on the pile. “You looked at these cards when I turned them up, and remembered the contents of all ten hands without looking again?”

“I had a picture in my mind.” Quiet pride lit her features and simmered at the bottom of her voice. “I remember things that way. If you recited a list of thirty-eight cards, I doubt I could repeat them all back. But if I see them laid out I can make a sort of map.”

“Thirty-eight. Did you count them?”

“Not deliberately. But the hands had three, three, five, four, three, four, five, four, four, and three cards.”

“Good God.” He didn’t even try to check her addition. “So your memory tells you where each card is, and a numberish brain gives you the proper stacking order. But how do you then put them in that order? You didn’t look away from my face even once.”

“Practice.” She turned her hands palm up and flexed them. “I’ve taught my fingers to know the feel of six cards, of nineteen cards, of thirty-eight cards. I daresay you might have seen me feeling for the right place if you’d watched. But when I told you to distract me, I wagered you’d pick a topic distracting to you as well.” That smile crept back, knowing and seductive, the same one that sent his wits out the window and impelled him to talk about garters. “I don’t usually have to place them so precisely, you see. Usually what I want is just to alternate high cards with low. Or, in the case you witnessed the other night, to set up a run of all low cards. That’s easier, as you may imagine.”

Hell and damnation. She plied six kinds of witchcraft and discussed it the way she might chat about a sampler she’d sewn. He wrested his gaze from her, to study the cards. “But surely your whole arrangement must come undone when you shuffle.”

“If you shuffle cleverly, you can keep a sequence of cards from mixing with the other side. All it requires is nimble thumbs and plenty of practice.”

“Very well, but someone else cuts the cards. I distinctly remember the man to your left doing so on the evening we’re discussing. You had no way of controlling how he arranged the deck.”

“That’s the easiest bit of all.” She leaned forward to catch up the thirty-eight cards and add them back to the
fourteen that had sat this exercise out. “Cut the deck, if you please.” The pack came down smartly before him.

He closed his fingers on a good half the deck and lifted it away.

“Stop.” He did. “Do you see where you’ve divided it?” If he put out every candle in the room he could see whatever he liked, by her prideful radiance alone.

“A bit more than halfway down.”

“Sixty percent, approximately.” She nodded toward his hand. “Everybody divides it there. Simple as that. Put the cards you want sixty percent of the way down, and the person who cuts the deck will set them at the top for you.”

Confound her. A thousand times. Confound her boldness and her incandescence and the crafty skills that made him feel giddy and lighthearted as a boy watching a juggler at the fair, when he had abundant reasons to never feel lighthearted again. “Still, though.” Giddy he might be, but he hadn’t lost the capacity for rational thought. “You had to deal cards to men before me, and you couldn’t have known exactly how many each would take. You must have had a good long run of low cards to insure I got them, and then how did you avoid gifting the men on either side of me as well as myself?”

“They weren’t all low.” She held out her hand, palm up.

He surrendered the deck, his fingertips tingling as they met the tender flesh at the heel of her hand.

“I did include a few court cards, for that purpose.” She squared the deck’s edge on the table. “Only I took care to not give you one. If your thumbs are accomplished and well rehearsed, you can draw back the top card enough to get a quick look at its underside. And then if you don’t like it, you catch the second card, where you’ve exposed it by drawing the top one aside, and deal that instead, right out from under the first.” She suited action
to words, he must assume, though for the life of him he couldn’t detect anything out of the ordinary. “See? King of hearts.” With a forefinger she mimed turning his card over. “King of spades was topmost.”

The king of hearts, a rather vacuous-looking fellow in this particular deck, stared up at him when he flipped the card. A second later the king of spades fell faceup beside it. As though she could really have believed he’d require any proof.

He sat back. “You’ve staggered me, Miss Slaughter.” Probably he was wearing an expression not altogether unlike that red king’s. “Where on earth did you acquire such skills?”

A change came to her face, though as usual he couldn’t scry its meaning. “We used to play cards to pass the time, in the establishment where I was formerly employed.” Her gaze slid to somewhere over his right shoulder. “I learned those shuffling and dealing tricks from a woman there, and once I’d mastered those, it occurred to me I could make an advantage of my memory and my fluency with numbers. One wants occupation for the mind, in such a …” She curbed the thought the way she might curb a headstrong horse, and brought her eyes back to his. “I do well at vingt-et-un, though, even when I’m not dealing, because I always keep a tally of what remains in the deck. And that’s not cheating. Just being attentive.”

“An important distinction to you, I’m sure.”

She grinned, all delinquent swagger once more, and then the grin subsided. “I could teach you.”

“I beg your pardon?”

A keen, calculating light had come into her eyes. She sat up straight again, and even leaned a bit forward. “Not how to remember cards exactly as I do. I don’t believe that can be taught. But I could help you practice some ways of shuffling and dealing such as I’ve shown
you tonight, and I could teach you how to keep a reckoning when you play vingt-et-un.”

“I presume you’d want something from me in return.” Though for the life of him he couldn’t guess what it would be.

“I have some money I’d like to invest in an annuity.” No, he certainly would never have guessed
that
. “I need some gentleman, some solicitor or clerk, to act as my man of business.” She set her hands atop the table, one over the other, and studied them. “It occurs to me you must have developed a broad acquaintance in the army. Perhaps you know such a man, and perhaps you might … prevail upon him, for reasons of friendship, to do this service for … such a woman as myself.” By the time she’d finished speaking her cheeks were pink. She didn’t look up.

BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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