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Authors: Cecilia Grant

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BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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Where did this discomfited manner come from? Before today he’d never seen the least sign she felt any shame over what she was. Even when he’d faced her round the groping, rutting body of the man who paid her bills she’d stared back unabashed. What could account for—

Something broke through his preoccupation, like pebbles dropped into a pond. Into the room’s quiet, above the pop and murmur of the fire, fell notes from a distant harpsichord.

“Good God.” He sprang to his feet. “The concert. I forgot completely. You’ve got to go back.”

She blinked up at him, and furrowed her brow.

“Surely Mr. Roanoke will notice your absence. If he notices mine as well it could do harm to your prospects.” What the devil had he been thinking? Shrugging off any care for her welfare the instant she offered him a chance to play at rakishness. Gaping like a foolish boy at card tricks when he ought to have been a mindful grown man, and sent her back to the company.

Her brow went smooth. Her whole face went placid, masklike. “I assure you he’s not in a noticing frame of mind tonight. And I confess I dissembled somewhat, that day on the street, when I spoke of the hazard of being seen with you. Whatever he might think of you, he’s entirely sure of me. I’d have nothing to fear.”

It was like facing her across the table at Beecham’s all over again: he had no way to tell whether she was lying.

That didn’t matter. He knew what was proper to do. “Nevertheless, I’ll take my leave now.” He stepped behind his chair and pushed it neatly in. “I’m going home. One person returning late to the concert will give people less fodder for speculation than two.”

“Do we have an arrangement, though? I’ll teach you to better your play and you’ll help me find a man of business?” On the tabletop, her clasped hands tightened. “We might start the next night we’re both at Beecham’s. We could meet at midnight, in one of the rooms on that top floor. No one ever goes there.”

Just what I need. To be alone with you at midnight in a room where no one ever goes
. Refusal, sensible, grown-man refusal, poised itself on the tip of his tongue.

But an inconvenient recollection came: the smell of oakum and the gentle rolling of the deck beneath his feet. Everything depended on his winning money at a better pace than he’d so far done.

“Midnight, then.” He let go the chair-back where he’d been gripping it. “Vingt-et-un only, and only honest play. I haven’t the temperament for the other business.” That was judicious. He had sound, solemn reasons for agreeing to be tutored. And still he rose from his farewell bow with a creeping sense that he was embarking on something monumentally unwise.

S
HE HASTENED
up the aisle in the lull between two songs and slipped into the place beside Edward, who didn’t wake. Mr. Blackshear had been wrong to worry. Not to mention presumptuous.

He stirred in his sleep, her protector did, and the length of his thigh pressed against the length of hers. She pressed back until she felt the clear outline of her garter, her blue garter, and the top of the stocking it tied. That garter and stocking had lain crumpled on the floor with her gown earlier this evening, spoils of a swift, purposeful conquest. Edward was not a man to
linger
, over garters or anything else.

Her hands curled into fists in her lap, snagging a bit of silk skirt on the way. He knew what she liked. He gave it to her. There was the beginning and the end.

You’ve staggered me, Miss Slaughter
.

Never mind. She had other ways of staggering, and more suitable men to stagger. She crept her chin round to get a view of Edward’s profile. A jaw like granite. Cheeks that might have undergone a carpenter’s plane. Lips that smiled with consummate symmetry to reveal a mouthful of teeth that would do a horse proud. She’d never bedded a handsomer man—at least so far as she remembered—and this one prided himself on satisfying her. That was more than many women might ever enjoy.

She slid her hand over and let it rest on his thigh. She would lay waste to him tonight. To herself as well. She would hurl herself against him like a wave breaking over a rock. She would claw her way to oblivion as many times as she must, until no fragment of human feeling remained.

Her fingers inched along until they met his breechesbuttons. His eyes half-opened, groggily, and when he’d blinked about enough to sort out the circumstances, his mouth spread into a smile that promised her everything, everything, she could ever expect from a man.

Chapter Seven

N
O FLIRTING
this time. He would devote all his attention to the substance of what she taught, that he might keep their time away from the company short, and keep them both out of trouble.

Any number of such admonitions Will had for himself, two nights later at Beecham’s as he waited for the appointed hour. He’d been too free with her at Mr. Moss’s house. If he could not keep his own dignity in mind, he must remember to think of her interest. Safeguard her place with Square-jaw and all of that. It was the honorable thing to do.

Four times over the course of the evening he slipped away from cards or supper to work at provisioning a room upstairs, and when midnight rolled round it was ready. From a hodgepodge of furniture piled in a room at the end of the hall he’d picked out a game table, two chairs, and a candle-branch, now alight with three candles pilfered from the supper room. Also a carpet, in the interest of keeping noise down. A far cry from the Mayfair drawing room where they’d last sat down together, to be sure, but it would serve its purpose.

He was standing in the doorway, arms folded, facing
the stairs, when a creak on one of the treads announced her approach. A single spark of anticipation hurried up his spine: he would not let it catch fire.

Stair by stair she ascended into view, her back to him, all pale gown and pale arms in the stairwell’s dim, a specter on a mission. She reached the last step and rounded the railing to face him. Face the moonlight, too, filtering in from the window at the hall’s street-side end to bathe her features.

Blank eyes. Sharp brow. Hair the color of weak coffee, and a frankly prodigious nose.
Solve me
, that face said to him, the way it always did.
Unwrap me. Find me out
. More sparks went up his spine. This rendezvous might have been a terrible idea, altogether.

She paused some ten feet away, taking in his own person and posture. Some shift occurred in her countenance as her eyes came back to his. “You’ve done this before. Coaxed a lady to leave a gathering and meet you in some secluded room. I can see it in your stance.”

You’re not going to make this easy, are you?
“As I recall, the coaxing was all on your side.” He unfolded his arms and stepped away from the door-frame that she might precede him into the room and that he might not betray anything by stance. Another remark shaped itself, as to pots and kettles, glass houses and stones, the library downstairs; prudence smothered it.

“Perfectly true.” She moved past him into the room. “Only it occurs to me you’re not nearly so much a gentleman as you strive to appear.”

“On this occasion, I am.” Now she’d brought the conversation into indelicate territory, he could at least make use of the candor. “Forgive my bluntness, now. This will be the third time we’ve met somewhere away from the company—fourth, if you count my walking behind you on the street—and it’s my duty to assure you nothing improper will occur.”
More improper than closeting myself with another man’s mistress, that is
. “I won’t attempt any liberties. You have my word.”

She stood at the white stone chimney-piece, the candlelight flickering over her birdlike gaze and her slight, slight smile. “Very good. Close the door and sit down.”

He did. She didn’t join him.

“We’ll begin with a bit of theory.” She clasped her hands behind her and began to pace, quite like a lecturing schoolteacher. “Tell me why no gambler with a brain would ever play at roulette, for example, when he could be playing vingt-et-un.”

“I suppose because the outcome in roulette is dependent entirely on luck. Is that your other new gown?” No. Emphatically the wrong sort of thing to say. Only her smile had sunk into his skin somehow, and her gown had caught his attention as she walked, and then the question had sailed forth of its own accord.

“This? I should hope not. Didn’t I say it was a gown suited to a gentleman’s taste? I know better than to believe any gentleman would be stirred by plain white muslin.” Her pacing had brought her nearly to the door; now she spun and started back. “And as to your answer, let that be our last reference in these sessions to
luck
. A wise gambler recognizes only odds.”

“Odds, of course.” Hanged if he didn’t feel a bit like he was squirming under the gimlet gaze of his old governess once more.

“To be specific, in most games the odds start fresh every time. Every roll of the dice, every spin of a roulette wheel, the odds of each possible outcome are the same as they were on the last turn.” Those hands clasped behind her made her shoulders draw back, elevating her bosom and pulling her bodice snug. He sent his gaze past her to the wall. “In vingt-et-un, however, the odds keep changing until the deck is shuffled again. The player who keeps a reckoning can wager accordingly.”

“Naturally. High wagers when he’s likely to get a good card; low when he’s not.”

“Naturally. You have some grasp of odds, then? As opposed to luck?” Her head tilted to a considering angle as she halted behind the opposite chair, and her voice betrayed an ungratifying degree of doubt.

“Enough understanding to gamble, I should think.”

“Very well. We’ll play a game. Not vingt-et-un, just yet.” She palmed up the pack of cards he’d set out. “Do you care to wager?”

“Risk more money with you? Not likely.” He sat back in his chair, arms folded. “I’ll consider other stakes.” Yes, that
sounded
provocative, but he’d already assured her of his honorable intentions. She knew she had nothing to fear.

And fear, indeed, was nowhere to be found in her eyes when they snapped round to where he sat. She’d been sorting through the cards; now her hands went still. Her gaze lingered for a few speculative seconds on his face. Then down it roamed, clinging and unhasty as half-melted ice cream sliding from a tipped-up plate. Cravat. Shoulders. Hands, resting before him on the table. The table itself, under which the rest of him lurked. Then back to the cards, and her brisk sorting recommenced.

“Good Lord, Miss Slaughter.” Her audacity woke half a dozen impulses in him, not least an ill-advised impulse to laughter. “Did you just mentally unclothe me and find me wanting?”

Her mouth tightened into a private smile, for the benefit of herself and the cards. “How could I have made any such judgment?” She twitched a card out from the pack and set it on the table. Three of hearts. “It’s an imperfect art, mental unclothing. One relies to a woeful degree on one’s own imagination. At least as far as all the interesting particulars are concerned.”

BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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