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Authors: Cecilia Grant

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BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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She
, though. She was … Confound him if he could
even begin to find the right word. He only knew
sordid
wasn’t anywhere close.

She stood with her back to the drapery, eyes closed, chin lifted, whole person swaying with pleasure. While he watched she sent her arms—ungloved, he could now see—up the wall behind her where they twisted overhead, wrists crossing with serpentine grace. Like one of those dancers in a story who bewitched men into cutting off other men’s heads. Her naked fingers closed over a fold of the velvet drapery and he knew how that velvet would feel to her, thick and lush-grained, a cat’s purr made tactile. Knew, too, how it would feel to be the velvet, trapped unprotesting in her hand. He found a grip on the bookshelf and held on tight.

Down her arm he dragged his attention, down the sinuous curve until his eyes rested again on her uptilted face. Had he thought her less than beautiful? In moonlight, even in such scant moonlight, he could see the truth. Her bold features carved up the shadows and threw them helter-skelter, light and darkness dancing giddily over her nose and cheeks and chin. Her skin was pale as the moon itself, pale and tantalizing as an opal at the bottom of a clear still lake. Pale throat. Pale shoulder. Pale bosom, magnificently formed and half spilling out from the disarranged bodice. But he would not let his gaze linger there. Indeed he ought to be removing himself altogether, as he’d meant to do.

One last look at her face. Her head tipped a few degrees left and then a few degrees right as though to stretch the muscles of her neck. Her chin came down, rearranging the composition of shadows and light. And her eyes opened and looked directly into his.

She said nothing. She didn’t jump away from her lover, or yank up the bodice he’d tugged down, or cross her arms modestly before her. Only her eyes, widened and showing an excess of white, betrayed her consciousness
of exposure. And that, for only a second or two, though the interval was sufficient to make him feel like a thoroughgoing cad.

The bookshelf’s edge bit hard into his hand. He couldn’t seem to look away, let alone make an apologetic bow and hasten from the room. He stood, frozen, as she regained her composure and her face hardened into the unmistakable lines of defiance:
Judge me if you dare
. Then that expression too subsided and only her falcon-like blankness remained. She looked through him, and past him, and altogether away.

He’d ceased to merit her notice. Whether he watched, or not, was a matter of supremest indifference to her. Her hands came down from their place on the curtain—even now, with a dancer’s lissome grace—and settled on the oblivious biceps of Mr. Roanoke, who had continued at her shoulder and neck through the brief drama but was now commencing to haul up her skirts.

And finally Will let go his grip on the bookshelf. He didn’t want to see what followed. He’d probably see it in his dreams, and that would be torment enough.

Some impulse of obstinacy made him bow. She didn’t look his way, and neither did she or Prince Square-jaw glance up as he stole light-footed to the door, opened it just enough to accommodate his long-overdue exit, and soundlessly closed it behind him.

T
HEY DID
not appear at supper. Will soldiered through three courses that did nothing to appease the foolhardy hunger scraping at his insides.

Nothing to the purpose. She wasn’t for him. She pleased his eye and engaged his imagination, yes, but that hardly made her unique among women. When the time came to share himself with a lady again, he would look for a few qualities more. He’d yet to even hear
Miss Slaughter speak; for all he knew she might open her mouth and prove an empty-headed shrew.

Indeed he rather hoped she would. She’d be less of a distraction then.

Whatever had kept them so occupied as to forgo supper, they’d apparently had their fill of it by the time card play resumed. Roanoke took his seat at the vingt-et-un table and this time his mistress sat on his knee. Gone was the attentive poise with which she’d conducted herself at whist. She leaned back and rested her head on the man’s shoulder, watching the play idly from under half-lowered lashes, her entire aspect suggesting a lioness who’d just gorged herself on a kill and needn’t think of eating, or think of anything at all, for at least a week.

Will fixed his eyes elsewhere. He had a purpose here, a mission. He had a plan that required three thousand pounds and God knows the odds were enough against him with his wits entirely engaged.

Three o’clock came, and then four—he knew this from Cathcart’s jeweled pocket watch set down between them, the room being provided with no clocks—and he was nearly two hundred pounds to the good. Men were betting with sluggish brains; some men falling asleep outright and having to be prodded awake by a neighbor when their turns came. A fellow who kept his head might do quite well here, over time.

The viscount poked him with an elbow and, when he glanced up, nodded in the direction from which he’d rigorously kept his gaze. Roanoke’s head lolled on his left shoulder. His chest rose and fell with slumberous breaths. Still against his right shoulder was Miss Slaughter, who’d helped herself to his cards and was considering them with languid attention. Her hands, he could not help noticing, were still bare. Perhaps her gloves lay even now on that library floor. His skin prickled unhelpfully at the thought.

“Does she play?” No other lady had sat down to the table all evening.

“I’ve never seen it.” Cathcart had been coming here a good deal longer and would know. “But she looks as though she has it in mind, doesn’t she?”

And indeed, when the play passed to Roanoke she made no attempt to wake him. Without the smallest sign of unease she took fifty pounds from his stake and added it to his bet, eyeing the banker expectantly.

The card sailed in and she lifted its corner. “Stick,” she said. And Will’s whole body vibrated to the tone of her voice.

Even on an austere syllable with more than its share of clicking consonants, she put in texture, and rounded the corners somehow. A man could savor that sampling, a sweet small dose like a cordial in a dainty glass. A man could very well get drunk on a larger amount, and bathe in an abundance. She’d reserved a place already in his dreams; now he knew she would speak, unceasingly, while she was there.

She would not, however, play vingt-et-un. Sadly she proved to be no proficient. She chewed at her lower lip while studying her cards, and wagered erratically, and went bust in three of the five hands she played before fortune finally took pity on her with an ace and a ten, and the deal. Meticulously she gathered in the cards, staggering them together to break apart the turned-up hands even before shuffling, as though by thorough discharge of this new duty she could somehow compensate for her lack of tactical skill. She shuffled, had her neighbor cut the deck, and dealt.

And Will began to lose. He drew on a hand of twelve, and a king put him over. He stuck at nineteen, and she proved to have twenty. Even when he worked his pulse-pounding way to twenty-one, eight-seven-two-four, she turned up an ace and two fives to tie—to win, rather, the
banker always having that advantage. Five straight times she dealt, beating him every time, until a grizzled-looking fellow hit twenty-one in two cards and mercifully took over the deal.

Ruin tasted like this. Like a mouthful of ashes, or the sweepings from a carpenter’s floor. In less than half an hour his winnings had shrunk from two hundred pounds to twenty. “Bad luck, Blackshear,” muttered the viscount, who had lost a mere fifty. Will didn’t bother to reply.

Miss Slaughter was looking at him. Without any particular expression, to be sure, but her eyes rested steady on his. She picked up Roanoke’s winnings and averted her attention to count out some bills before looking up again. Without counting along he knew—in his bones he knew—that she’d peeled off one hundred eighty pounds, precisely.

She dropped the large remainder in with the rest of Roanoke’s stake. Still watching him, she folded the amount of his losses, and folded it again, and tucked it calmly into the bodice of her gown. Then she turned to the more compelling business of examining her new hand.

Chapter Two

E
DWARD WAS
disposed to talk. Curse him to Hades. Why couldn’t he roll over and drop off to sleep, as men were supposed to do? But of course he’d slept abundantly at the card table. She might have skimmed double from his winnings, and he would probably never have noticed.

“What do you think of a house party at Chiswell?” He lay on his back, one hand lifted above him that he might study his fingernails in the candlelight.

“In March?” The bed smelled of carnal abandon. Every inhalation brought a forceful reminder of her senseless appetites, her want of restraint. Five minutes ago she’d been ravenous for him, half out of her mind with need. Now she felt glutted and vaguely regretful, as though she’d shoveled down a pound or two of sugary blancmange. She would remember this disagreeable sensation, and next time she would know better.

No, she wouldn’t. She’d had six months to know better, and she hadn’t managed it yet.

“Next month, I thought. At the Easter holiday. Parliament will be out, and people in need of some amusement. Suitable weather, too, in April, or at least I should
hope it will be. Deuced cold winter it’s been. Long winter too. Damnably long. And cold.”

If only he would not speak! When she looked at him, at his clear hazel eyes and the elegant geometry of his cheeks and chin, she could easily imagine him to be a man of information. Thoughtful, inquisitive, a sparkling conversationalist, his brain always churning away beneath that modish Caesar haircut.

When he spoke, he was like the leftover dregs of her blancmange orgy, a shameful, ravaged souvenir that she wished to her soul some servant would come and clear away.

“I’m sure your party will be everything delightful.” Lydia covered a yawn. Perhaps she could make him yawn too, and hasten his progress toward sleep.

“I expect it will.” The first set of nails apparently having passed muster, he was now examining those on his other hand. “Only I suppose I shall have to be ready with some indoor amusements if this weather keeps on.”

“Indeed. Shall I put out the candle?”

“No need. I’ll do it presently.” He would not take a hint. She had no hope of sleep until he was gone from her bed, hours and minutes hence. No hope of rest, even, until he closed his eyes and went unconscious. “What provisions do you think I ought to make for the ladies?” He lowered his hand and turned his face toward her. “As to amusements, I mean? What things are fashionable now?”

How the devil would I know? My last house party was a lifetime ago
. She swallowed and the words went down. “I think a play is always popular. Archery, if the weather turns fair. Perhaps some of those games with blindfolds and kissing and so forth.” How novel, how thrilling such games had seemed to her once. She’d first let Arthur touch her in the darkness of his father’s orangery, every breath heady with the scents of citrus and
damp potted earth, every delicate negotiation of hands and lips and clothing conducted in silence, that they might not betray their location in a game of hide-and-seek.

She could probably fix the beginning of her fall to that exact occasion, if she cared to squander one minute contemplating the trajectory of her fall, and if she cared to spare a single thought for Arthur.

“Of course it must depend on the company. Kissing games might seem quaint to the ladies who were at Beecham’s tonight, for example. But perhaps you mean to invite more respectable ladies?”

“Gad, no.” He laughed as though she’d said something very rich. “I’m six and twenty, Lydia. I needn’t think of respectable ladies for years yet.”

Five years, perhaps. But he’d tire of her before that time came. And if she had not put aside money enough to secure her future, she must cast about for a new protector. Or perhaps go back to the brothel.

She could bear that, if she had to. Hadn’t she borne it for eighteen months, before Edward took a whim to keep her? Indeed she’d first gone there with a will, with a plan to extinguish herself from the inside out.

BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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