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Authors: Cecilia Grant

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BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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She had other plans now. “I played your hand for a bit tonight while you napped.” Better he should hear it from her than from someone else.

“Did you? Clever girl. Have any luck?”

Luck. Good Lord. Who could be so complacent as to leave these things to luck? “I think so. I think I may have won you some money.” Four hundred eighty pounds, all told. Three hundred of it in one of his coat-pockets even now.

“Well done.” He threaded his fingers together and stretched his arms straight up. “The other fellows may say what they like. I know your merits.”

So do they, now. You saw to that
. With all the insolence
she swallowed, it was a wonder her corsets still laced. Retort after rejoinder after sharp-edged remark:
Why do you address me? What can I possibly have to say to a man who would split a pair of fives? Be quiet. Go to sleep. Go away. Come back when you have another erection
.

Sleep finally did overcome him, and after four minutes of listening to his even breaths, Lydia slid from the bed. Silently—silent as that coxcomb of a lurker in the library—she took her dressing gown from a nearby chair, pulled it on, and padded across the carpet to the candle Edward had not, after all, put out. Sheltering the flame with her free hand, she took it to the dressing room and closed the door behind her.

By the window were a chair and table. On the back of the chair was a shawl that had seen her through many such long chilly nights. And in a drawer, alongside the hundred eighty pounds she’d deftly extracted from her corset, sat four decks of playing cards, sans jokers. She took out two decks and sat down with her candle.

He might be trouble, that coxcomb. She probably oughtn’t to have baited him. He played with the air of a man who didn’t lose lightly and he might, after all, prove smarter than he looked. Though men so seldom did.

One by one the cards flashed by, numbers combining and recombining in all their immaculate beauty. King. Three. Five. Seven. Ace, most beautiful of all. In stacks of rank she sorted them, low to high, left to right.

Hang him, anyway. Hang him and his Waterloo heroics. A man found himself in the right campaign and his life thereafter was one long parade all embellished with fireworks and illuminations, regardless how he actually performed on the day. A man found himself in the wrong one and he perished of the ague, with no one but a desolate sister to remember that he ever lived at all.

She pulled her shawl closer against the chill. Somewhere
beyond the ever-present fog, the stars were fading and the first pale traces of morning were streaking the sky. Jane would rise soon and light the fires. There would be coffee, too, to warm her and keep her brain awake.

Now then. Twelve players at the table, two decks in play, cards newly shuffled. Two cards to every player, face down. Player number five would turn up an immediate twenty-one, good for him but bad for the composition of the remaining deck. First player would buy two more cards, which meant he must hold at least three low ones. Second player would go bust. Six, six, and queen, let us say. Giving the deck a high-cards-to-low-cards ratio of approximately twenty-three to twenty-one, or one and ninety-five thousandths.

Methodically Lydia laid out the cards, tabulating as she went. Edward wouldn’t wake for hours yet. She’d have time to count her way through both decks, and then to play a few hands, watching for those places where she could take advantage of her tally to wager boldly.

And night by night, through means fair or otherwise, with the help of Lieutenant Coxcomb and other men who made the mistake of estimating her lightly, she would tuck bills into her corset, and hide them away at home, and draw ever closer to the day she could buy her independence.

T
HE DISRESPECTABLE
life was not without its consolations. A high style of living, of course. The central duty itself, where one had a skilled and agreeable partner. Entrée into places, exotic and fascinating places, that no respectable lady would ever see. And acquaintance with people who wouldn’t half turn up in any sedate Lancashire supper party.

“I only mean to say I don’t think you should allow him to speak of you that way.” Maria crisply turned a page in her
Ackermann’s Repository
. “Tell him he has a choice: to enjoy your favors, or to enjoy discussing them in public. He cannot do both.”

Well might Maria issue that ultimatum to a gentleman, and expect to be heeded. Such a confection of femininity—willowy figure, ivory skin, eyes the color of a midday summer sky—was surely wasted in this world. She ought to be perched on the summit of a glass hill somewhere, smiling sadly at the princes who lost their footing halfway up, or perhaps combing her spun-gold hair on some ocean-lashed rock. Not sitting in a Bond Street dressmaker’s shop, deciding how best to spend the money with which she was kept.

They weren’t at all what a sheltered country girl imagined, the mistresses of London men. She’d expected, when brought into Edward’s social circle, to encounter better-dressed versions of the women she’d known at Mrs. Parrish’s—coarse, uneducated, with a bovine resignation to the shabby hand life had dealt them.

Instead she’d found Maria and dark rakish Eliza, both of better birth than she, both with a genteel education, and both generous enough to overlook her brothel background and address her as an equal.

Lydia shrugged, flipping a page in her own fashion-book. “I’d wager all the gentlemen speak so, when we’re not about. I don’t see what would be gained by asking him to pretend otherwise.”


Civility
would be gained.” Maria turned two pages, reviewing and dismissing their offerings with poised efficiency. “We’re not livestock, to have our merits cried up at auction.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” On the other side of the table Eliza abandoned her
Ackermann’s
to lean forward, arms folded on the tabletop. “Who is to say but Lydia won’t
get a better position out of such advertising? That Waterloo fellow was certainly taking note. He lost no time in finding out your name.”

“That Waterloo fellow would have done well to mind his own business.” A fine indifferent tone of voice, betraying no sentiment beyond mild irritation at the memory. “And it’s not as though he sought my name from some indelicate motive. He only wanted to make a grand show of what he supposed to be his superior manners.”

“I shouldn’t be sorry if he sought my name from any motive. Did you mark those shoulders?” Eliza appealed to both ladies opposite. “Broad as a full-grown oak. Broad as a draft horse. I shouldn’t mind a closer acquaintance with those.”

“His speaking up so did him credit, I thought.” Maria turned a reproving frown Lydia’s way. “And I’ll grant him to have a pleasing appearance. Strong about the mouth; that is in his favor. Fine dark eyes as well.”

“Smoldering eyes, I should say. Eyes like a pair of live coals.”

Oh, for Heaven’s sake. “Live coals glow orange. The gentleman’s eyes are brown.” But even as she corrected Eliza, she knew what the lady meant. Dim as the library had been, she’d seen the heat in his gaze. She’d opened her eyes to find herself watched by eyes that looked as if they might bore twin holes straight through her. And for an instant she’d felt naked, more naked than she’d ever felt with any paying man.

Only for an instant, though. And he’d paid for that after all. He might have bought her favors for much less, if she were of a mind to sell.

She sighed, and shoved her book to the middle of the table. “Someone else choose for me. I can’t see that any of these gowns will become me better than any other.” If Edward had asked, she should have told him not to waste his money on gowns, none of which would make
her beautiful and none of which played any part in his essential congress with her.

Well, except for those instances of congress that occurred away from any bed. In Beecham’s library, for example.

She lowered her eyes and traced the seam of one glove with the opposite forefinger as the other two ladies paged through their fashion-books, debating which styles would suit her best. She might have told them of the library incident. Eliza, at the least, would have had a good laugh, and the gentleman in question should have had to contend with more than one knowing smirk, any place he crossed paths with them.

But there was too great a risk the story would eventually reach Edward. And he might find grounds for blame in the fact that she hadn’t told him herself, the very instant she opened her eyes and saw the lurker. His logic in such matters was not always sound. Better to keep her own counsel.

“This one.” Maria set an open book before her. “In an indigo, I should think, with royal blue trimmings, and you must wear your sapphires with it. And this one.” Unceremoniously she possessed herself of Eliza’s volume and spread it out atop the first. “The overdress in dark purple; the underdress in darker purple. The darkest you can find, like a black plum. If they can make the underdress of a knit silk, to cling to the form, that will be to your advantage.”

“Indeed, anything that draws the eye away from my face is to my advantage, I expect.” But she felt a strange stupid fluttering of her heart, examining the plates. The first gown had a sort of Grecian draping, with split sleeves and a corded sash that crossed between the breasts and circled round the high waist. The second was comprised of an underdress, simple and narrow in shape, and a diaphanous overdress that fastened down
the middle of the bust and fell open underneath, rather like a most insubstantial pelisse. No blushing young miss would wear such things. They were gowns for a worldly, formidable woman.

“Really, Lydia, you’re very tedious when you speak so.” Maria’s lecture embroidered itself gently at the edges of her thoughts, leaving most of her attention for study of the pictures. “Ladies of no particular beauty have elevated themselves to great consequence and earned the name of
temptress
. You might do just as well if you left off reminding everyone of how plain you are. Let the gentlemen decide for themselves.”

“Very well, I’ll order them both. Knit silk and all.” Doubtless they’d cost more than her usual gowns. Perhaps she’d better skim a bit less of Edward’s winnings, the next time she played his hand.

A
ND SO
she did. Three nights later they were back at Beecham’s, and her protector fell asleep one hand into a fresh shuffle. She’d felt him drifting, and taken note of all the turned-up cards as the first hand ended, and now she played with a good idea of what remained in the deck. She recalibrated her tally, delicately with each twist or bust, dramatically as each hand finished and all the cards went faceup.

And she won. Quietly, unassumingly, with bets not quite large enough to catch anyone’s notice, she fattened Edward’s stake to an amount that could pay for half a dozen new gowns of the finest Chinese silk and Indian muslin. On the last hand, with too many ten-cards remaining in the deck, she stuck on fifteen and sat back to watch man after man, including the banker, go bust.

Not Lieutenant Coxcomb, though. He glanced at her, from his place halfway down the table, as they both raked in their winnings. Perhaps hoping to see her put
money down her bodice again. Well, he could hope all he liked. She shoveled what bills she could into Edward’s various coat-pockets—he must count on the honesty of his companions at the table for the rest—and rose to walk unhurriedly from the room, a modest fifty pounds folded in one hand.

T
HE THIRD-FLOOR
hallway had a window overlooking the street; a good place for quiet thought and general retreat from all the activity of the floors below. The hour must be near three. A half-moon hung up above, its edges softened by the fog.

Fifty pounds. Between her corset and chemise she tucked the folded bills. Fifty plus one hundred eighty made two hundred thirty in the span of just five days. She ought to have summoned up the nerve to start playing weeks ago, when Edward had first brought her here. It would serve her timidity right if he tired of the club, and chose to do his gaming at some place that didn’t admit ladies, before she’d won all she needed.

Nothing to be gained by thinking of that. Still less to be gained by reckoning the probability that he would in fact tire of her before he tired of Beecham’s. That was all airy speculation, no place to get a good reckoning grip, and so it did not bear thinking of.

She reached out a forefinger to trace the narrow strip of lead that separated one diamond-shaped glass pane from another. Divide each diamond with a meridian and an equator, and you could reassemble the pieces into rectangles to arrive at the window’s dimension. This one, with six courses of four diamonds and five courses of three, had an area forty-eight times as great as the area of a single pane.

Henry had used to quiz her on these matters, in the years before he’d finally persuaded Father to engage a
tutor. To this day she couldn’t stand before such a window without feeling her brother’s presence behind her right shoulder, his giddy expectant pride as she ran through the calculations even faster than he could do.

Her hand trailed off the window and fell to her side. No doubt he’d disapprove of the uses to which she put her brain now. Never mind. He ought to have stayed home, if he meant to have influence with her. If he’d never gone away to war, perhaps he would have perceived how matters tended between her and Arthur, and perhaps he would have intervened before she could make such a disastrous mistake. Then Mother and Father would have had no reason to be traveling, that day. Everything might have been different.

Lydia swiped under both eyes with the heel of one hand. Speak of profitless speculation. She pivoted, forcefully, and started for the stairs.

She’d gone four paces when a dark shape detached itself from the shadows along the wall and stepped out into the moonlit middle of the hall. “A word, Miss Slaughter,” the dark shape said.

She shrank a step backward, her heart galloping with alarm. How the devil had he got up here without her hearing? And how long had he lurked, observing her in secret and planning to take her by surprise? She went still, the better to will her heart into steadiness and to deny him any further triumph than the one he must already be enjoying. She would not speak, or even rest her eyes on him. Her remaining there, and a slight upward tilt of her chin, were all the encouragement she would grant to him and his word.

BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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