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Authors: Cecilia Grant

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And apparently they were all the encouragement he needed. “I want my hundred eighty pounds back,” he said.

Poor fool of a lieutenant, too accustomed to being
obeyed. “I don’t doubt you do,” she said, and pushed past him.

Or not past him: suddenly he was there, no arm held up to touch or restrain her but his body nevertheless blocking her way. Black coat. Buff tights. Broad as a full-grown oak, indeed. She would not look at his face. But neither would she draw back, this time.

Nor did he. “Forgive my not having been explicit.” He spoke softly, now the distance between them was so small. “You cheated me out of one hundred eighty pounds, four nights since. I am instructing you to return it.”

One brief bolt of panic shot through her, but cool outrage promptly filled up the place where it had been. “Cheated. Really.” She addressed his cravat, whose arrangement, one must note, suggested no appreciation for geometry. “Can you prove this charge?”

“Do you deny it?” His breath grazed her forehead. No doubt he thought to intimidate her with his size and his nearness and his bold accusations.

Let him try. “Just as I thought. You’ve no proof. If you will excuse me.” Crisply she cut to the left, but swift as a shadow he twisted round in front of her again. Very well. Now she’d absorbed the initial alarm, he didn’t frighten her a bit. She backed up against the wall and folded her arms to wait.

He followed. Not so near her this time. He took up a position two feet away or so with his shoulder to the wall and his body turned to face her. “I watched you play tonight. I saw you stick on fifteen at the end. That strongly implies some knowledge of the banker’s hand, or knowledge of what remains in the deck.” Finally she looked at his face. There were those eyes, warm and intent in the hallway’s moonlight. “I am persuaded your early losses of the other night were all deliberate. Your
uncertainty, your ineptitude, your lip-biting all part of an act intended to put the men—and me in particular—off our guard. Nobody suspected you of any skill; thus nobody watched you for trickery when you dealt the cards.”

“A pity, that.” She was equal to this. “Perhaps you could have told me by what methods I cheated. As it is, I’m inclined to blame your losses on your own poor play.”

His gaze went to her mouth as she spoke, and he cocked his head like an inquisitive dog. “Where were you born?” he said when she’d finished.

“I beg your pardon.”

“That’s no Cheapside tongue, nor any London accent I know of. Where did you grow up?”

“I fear my station has led you into some mistake, sir.” Her words came out cool enough to frost the air between them.

“Has it.” He made the reply absently, his attention still engaged by the study of her mouth. Like as not he’d proceeded from puzzling over her accent to imagining lewd uses he might make of her lips and tongue.

“Regarding the liberties you may take in addressing me. Asking familiar questions and making free with my name when I never gave it to you.”

“Yes. Forgive that. My own name’s Blackshear.”

“I didn’t ask. I don’t care to know. And I must say, Lieutenant Blackshear—”

“It’s plain Mr. Blackshear. I sold my commission.” He dropped his attention briefly to the carpet, and when he brought it back he was all business, the diversions of her voice and mouth forgotten. “Why should you want to gull me out of a night’s winnings?”

“This line of inquiry grows tiresome.” She sent the opinion straight out before her, words marching in single file toward the opposite wall. “If you cannot offer
any evidence of my purported cheating then I suggest you abandon the subject.”

Silence fell between them. He moved a step away from the wall, setting one hand on the wallpaper and considering his outspread fingers. Men and their hands. Like Edward and his constant preoccupation with the state of his nails. One wouldn’t think they could find so much to engross them in—

“Is it to do with the library?”

Again, the lightning-flash interval of nakedness. “I have no idea what you—”

“Spare us, Miss Slaughter. Me and yourself both.” A rougher edge came into his voice, even as he kept his gaze fast on the wallpaper. He would have sounded like this when speaking to his fellows in the army. “Is that the reason for your animosity? Did it not occur to you that I might have been in the room first, minding my own business, with no desire whatsoever to be witness to any erotic spectacle?”

Did he think to shame her now? Well, he’d picked the wrong harlot for that. “Please, Mr. Blackshear.” She pivoted, shoulder to the wall, to face him. “I am entirely capable of staging an erotic spectacle if I so wished. What you saw was nothing near.”

That would be a fine remark upon which to exit. But she stayed. His eyes, perhaps, were to blame for that. They’d cut from his hand to her face with such an expression as … what had Eliza said, exactly, concerning coals? One could easily imagine a tiny man behind those eyes, with a tiny bellows, fanning the coals into full conflagration.

“I shall take your word for that.” His eyes dimmed down to a steady glow. He eased his shoulder back to the wall, trailing his hand down the wallpaper, less than two feet in breadth, that lay between his arm and hers. She did notice that; the distance between them and the
way his hand trailed. Once a lady had learned the better uses of men, she could not help noticing these things. “I only ask you to consider that
I
in fact may have been the affronted party in this affair,” he meanwhile went on. “Dismayed by the intrusion and only wishing to get out as directly, and with as little awkwardness, as I could.”

“You didn’t appear, as I recall it, to be in any hurry.”

“No. You’re quite right.” His cheek, now she looked, had a shadow below the close-trimmed side-whiskers, a texture that made her palm tingle. Three o’clock in the morning and his last shave must be a day behind him. “I did mean to hurry but I was … distracted from my intent. Perhaps I owe you an apology for that.”

“I should think you do.” Had he leaned closer? He had. That would be why her voice was creeping into this lower, warmer, not to say intimate, range.

“Very well.” His eyes glimmered with sudden mischief. “I apologize if I violated whatever version of modesty permits a lady to entertain her gentleman protector in a public place. Now will you give me back my money?”

“Good God.” Her voice sailed back up to its regular octave. “Who taught you how to make an apology?”

“A strict governess, whom I disregarded as often as I could. Who taught you to curse like a gentleman?”

“That’s not your concern. And what soldier worth the name counts
Good God
as cursing?”

“I told you I sold out. I follow gentlemen’s rules now, and gentlemen don’t say
Good God
in front of ladies.” His mouth spread abruptly into a lopsided grin, revealing imperfect teeth: the two front ones had a slight space between. He was teasing her, fully acknowledging that she in fact had been the one to utter the phrase, and perhaps acknowledging as well the absurdity of observing any gentlemen-and-ladies rules with such a woman as herself.

Perverse, ill-judging man. What business had he to tease her, to smile with such undisguised good nature, as though he expected good nature in return? A soldier ought to be better at distinguishing friend from adversary.

“Give me the money, Miss Slaughter.” His voice went lower, honeyed and coaxing. Merriment still creased the corners of his eyes. “You’ve set me down admirably, and made a fool of me at the table as well. Let that be your revenge for my having seen you in
flagrante
. The money itself can be of no consequence to you.”

Well, that resolved the question of whether or not he was brighter than he looked. “Please tell me what sort of life you imagine me to have, in which money is of no consequence.”

“The life of a kept woman.” Promptly he matched her arid tone, all traces of honey thrown off. “Someone pays all your expenses, from your fancy gowns and bonnets to the roof over your head. Perhaps money is of some consequence to you, but I assure you it is of greater consequence to me, who must pay my own way in everything.”

So that was how he really thought of her. Not friend or even foe but a mere trivial creature with no weightier concern than her next fancy gown. A vision surged up of the two pattern-book plates, frivolous and accusing. Her fingers curled into tight fists. “You are a gentleman, though. A man. You have every advantage.”

“No advantage that will pay my bill for candles, or keep my boots in repair.”

“Indeed you do. You can find a situation. Nothing, perhaps, commensurate with the expectations and delicate tastes to which you may have been brought up, but there are a hundred respectable ways for a man to support himself, in London.” Another thought occurred. “And surely you have money from the sale of your commission.
They fetch a handsome sum now the war’s over, I’ll warrant.”

“To be sure.” Impatience laced his words. “But part of that profit is bound up elsewhere, and I need every penny of what remains.”

“Then I sincerely hope you’re not using it to gamble.”

“Miss Slaughter.” The tiny man had his bellows going again: surely such a stare would turn her bones to jelly. “I would have let this drop by now if the money were only for me. But other parties depend on what I can do with that hundred eighty pounds. It is a matter of utmost importance that you return it.”

Her intransigence faltered, briefly, at the urgent warmth in his speech. He wasn’t lying. He needed the money for some vital purpose.

Well, so did she. “Without you prove I cheated you, your other parties and your utmost importance are beside the point.” She would set him the example of what tone of voice to use, in such a discussion. “I think we profit nothing by taking this any further.” With a nod, she pushed off the wall and started for the stairs.

“Please, Miss Slaughter.” His voice, low and unguarded, halted her steps like an arrow to her breast. “I won’t threaten you. I won’t cajole. I cannot, as you say, prove you took my money by fraud. I can only lay out my need before you, and make my appeal to what charity lies in your heart.”

She half-turned. Not far enough to face him. “My heart.” Poor fool’s time would be better spent pitching pennies down a bottomless well. “Mr. Blackshear, you’re three years too late.” She pushed on toward the stairs, and this time he made no move to stop her.

Chapter Three

A
GAIN, THE
dark library with that moonlit bay window. His grip mangling the chair’s padded arms. He ought not to look this time. She’d be angry—she hadn’t liked him broaching the incident in their hallway conversation upstairs—and doubtless find a way to part him from more of his money. Fool that he was.

But he could no more stop himself than he could push back a tide. Slowly, inexorably, he came up out of the chair, angling for one illicit glimpse. Another inch—another—and he saw round the bookshelf into the bay.

He could almost believe she was made of moonlight itself. Moonlight undulating, the way it did on an ocean when you’d sailed away and left shore behind. Arms twisted up above her head. Face tilted. If only confounded Roanoke weren’t there to spoil the view … and then, as though she’d read his thoughts, one pale arm sank away from the drapes. She set her palm to the middle of the man’s chest and pushed.

Roanoke stumbled backward and—most obliging of him—wavered and dissolved altogether. She opened her eyes.

Will’s heart lurched up out of his chest to thunder directly
between his ears. Would that instant of awful vulnerability repeat itself in her face?—but no. She registered his presence, and her generous mouth quirked, just slightly, at the corners. He hadn’t caught her off guard this time. His heart rebounded to its proper place.

She didn’t reach for her pushed-off sleeve. Steadily, without shame, she returned his gaze. Her arm lifted, and snaked back up the velvet. The other one drifted down and stretched toward him. She turned her palm up, crooking her forefinger.

Yes
. He let go the bookshelf and stepped out into full view. And she did avail herself of the full view: her eyes raked down his form and went wide when they got below the waist.

BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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