Authors: Cecilia Grant
Jane nodded, and Lydia turned them both back about. “You’re so kind to offer. I’d be greatly obliged if you would convey my maid home. I shall walk, myself.”
Mr. Blackshear stepped forward at once and the green-liveried groom sprang down from his perch at the rear. Together the men boosted Jane up to the seat, from where she surveyed her surroundings with not a little satisfaction. The brother and sister made some arrangements for meeting again, and then she lifted the reins and took the vehicle smoothly out into the road, the groom back aboard and Jane turning to wave over one shoulder.
“That was very good of your sister.” They stood side by side, watching the curricle pull away. Now she would say what needed to be said if the effort killed her. “Even better of you, everything considered.” She could see how he turned his head to regard her though she kept her own eyes fast on the receding carriage. She drew a breath. “I thank you for not allowing any prior unpleasantness to stand in the way of your aiding a lady in need.”
He looked away from her to his hat, which he still held in his hands and now rotated several times. “It pleases me to be of use,” he said after a moment. Then he pivoted to face her and restored his hat, one hand at the front and one at the back angling it just so. “Somers Town, you said. Shall we set out?”
A jolt of surprise raced through her limbs, and then a jolt of self-impatience because she had not foreseen this misunderstanding. “I beg your pardon.” She put a step of distance between them, and her voice put half a mile.
“I intend to walk alone. I ought to have made that clear.”
“Come now, Miss Slaughter. You cannot expect me to allow that.”
It was exactly the wrong thing for him to say. And it was exactly the thing she needed, the rope she could seize and climb to escape the slough of unwelcome sentiments in which she’d floundered all day. The panic at being recognized by that clerk. The vexation at failing in her errand, at failing to take proper care of her maid. The shame, in that instant when she’d believed Mrs. Mirkwood to be something other than a sister. All these she could leave behind, if she clung instead to outrage at yet another man’s presumption.
She swung to face him square, and wrapped her reticule-strings another turn about her wrist. “It is not for you to allow or disallow anything where I am concerned.” Without even a curtsey she spun and started walking.
She must not have taken him aback for so much as a second. All at once he was there, just as shadow-quick by daylight as in the dark, filling up the place where she’d intended to be, albeit at a respectable daytime distance. “I chose my words poorly.” He inclined his head to grant her this point, but raised it with undiminished purpose gleaming in his coffee-dark eyes. “What I mean to say is I will not send you off on your own through the streets of London. I can’t believe you supposed I would. I should never have agreed to spiriting off your maid, if I’d known this was your intent.”
No. Don’t you dare have a care for me
. “I’m sorry you should have misunderstood.” An inhalation brought her the faint scent of starch: he’d taken extra trouble with his cravat today. Or perhaps with his shirt, whose crisp linen rose and fell with his breaths under a copper-colored waistcoat and—
Never mind. She gave herself a quick shake, on the inside. “If you reflect for two seconds I’m sure you’ll agree that to be seen walking with another man, particularly another man who has already brought himself to my protector’s notice in a pointed discussion of me, can be nothing but detrimental to my interest.”
Mistake. Mistake. His eyes widened and his jaw went tight and he loomed, somehow, taller and broader than he’d been an instant before. He reached across to catch her by the shoulder and then drew his hand back again, abruptly as if he’d touched hot iron. “Does he—” Up and down her face he looked, combing for clues. “Do you mean to say you have something to fear from him?”
Her insides all writhed under the ferocity of his attention. He had no right to ask, or to look at her so. He was utterly mistaken in his assumptions and this was not his business in any case. “He doesn’t beat me, if that’s what you imagine. But if he thought me unfaithful I could lose his protection. That’s more than adequate grounds for fear, I assure you.”
He studied her the way he must often have studied unreliable soldiers, his thick black brows pushing low over the bridge of his nose as he weighed the probable veracity of her words. “Very well,” he said at last. “I shall follow you, six paces behind. No one will see that I’m with you.”
“A block behind would be better.”
He shook his head once, adamant. “A block is too far for me to be of use.”
“I don’t know what use you’re imagining I—”
“Your purse,” he said, though his eyes never left her face. “From the way you’re holding it I suspect you’ve got more than a fan and a handkerchief in there. Any thief with half a brain is likely to draw the same conclusion. And I can run down a man with a six-pace head start, but I shouldn’t like to try a whole block.”
He looked capable of running down the fastest entries at Newmarket, with his muscular build and his fierce determination. More than capable of running herself down, if she attempted to bolt. She lowered her eyes to her reticule, and repositioned the strings.
“I’m sorry, Miss Slaughter.” These words came in a lower pitch. “I know I sound peremptory, and I can see how that offends you. But the long and short of it is you will not dissuade me from seeing you safely home. And the longer we stand here arguing, the greater the risk of our being seen together, as you feared.”
She glanced up and caught a flicker of some stark emotion in his eyes.
He needs this
. The knowledge floated in, delicate as thistledown. A disreputable lady developed a skill for divining the things men needed, and not only the fleshly things.
She walked. He moved nimbly aside and, one must presume, fell into step six paces behind. Among the many boot heels sounding about her, she couldn’t be certain of his.
It wasn’t so much a question of concern for
, then. He was one of those men who must always be concerned for someone or something, who went racing out to tilt at dragons wherever he could find them. He’d shown his colors that first night, hadn’t he, when he’d broken into a conversation that was none of his concern to stand in defense of a lady he didn’t even know.
Of course, not an hour later he’d stood in the library darkness, having a good long look at what was not for his eyes. More man than noble knight in that moment. She’d do well to remember.
And so she did remember, when she finally turned the corner into Clarendon Square. The sinews in her shoulders tensed. If he had untoward intentions—if he expected some sort of recompense for his chivalry—now was when he’d make the fact known. With a few long
strides he’d catch up to her and show his gentlemanly solicitude to be a sham. And she’d answer his presumption with the blistering contempt such falseness deserved.
He didn’t come. On the doorstep of her house she finally glanced back and saw him, halfway down the square, his attention seemingly on the grand polygon buildings in its center. One, then another of her shoulder-sinews relaxed. Then all of them.
She made a small gesture, fluttering the back of her hand at him.
Very good. You’re free to go
. He answered with a rolling motion of his own hand, and a jab of one finger.
Finish. Open the door. Go inside
So she did. On her way upstairs she stopped at the first floor and went to the front of the house. Out the window she spied him, a distant figure in a charcoal-gray coat, starting his long journey back to wherever he lived. Eastward he went, along the square’s southern edge until the polygon buildings blocked him from view. A thought slipped in just as his shape quitted her prospect: not once had he mentioned the hundred eighty pounds.
Lydia touched a knuckle to the pane of glass that had last framed him. Then she gathered her skirts and hurried up the next flight to see to Jane.
could poach her with a bit of effort.” Lord Cathcart slouched on the Beecham’s ballroom wall, arms across his chest and one boot-heel up. He nodded toward the place where Miss Slaughter was working her way through the set, as though Will’s attention were not entirely engrossed there already.
“You’re wrong. I sense she’s taken a dislike to me.” He folded his own arms. “Besides I haven’t the means to keep her. And if I crossed Roanoke in that way, I suspect
I’d be unwelcome here altogether.” He shook his head. “Not worth the risk.” Truly, it wasn’t.
“Beecham’s is but one club among dozens. You’d find another.” Cathcart changed feet, shifting his weight and putting his opposite heel against the wall. “You might try one of the higher-stakes houses, if only for the sport of it. I expect I could get you into Watier’s some night. Or we could visit one of the truly down-at-heels properties, if you’ve got a taste for adventure.”
The prospect had its temptations. Nine days into the month of March, his third night now at Beecham’s, and between wins and losses he’d gained only sixty pounds toward the three thousand he needed to hand to Fuller by the end of April. One good night at a high-stakes hell and he could have the full amount.
One bad night and he’d lose not only the sixty, but the eight hundred he’d kept from his commission.
“The clubs, I’ll consider. The mistress, I won’t.”
. He’d considered her in lavish detail this morning, after waking from a dream in which she’d thanked him—tirelessly—for his kindness in seeing her home.
That was as far as it could go, of course. He’d learnt enough, in that brief conversation on Tottenham Court Road, to redouble his resolve against any dalliance. His gaze slid from Miss Slaughter to Mr. Roanoke, who was partnered with a different lady and just this moment bending to murmur something in her ear. Will’s blood stirred, darkly.
No, no, no. He already bore the burden of one lady who wasn’t his, and that one had every claim on his sympathy as well as on his sense of honor. Why the devil would he want to get involved in the fortunes of a woman who bridled at his well-meant overtures? Who’d cheated him, for God’s sake, of a hundred eighty pounds he couldn’t afford to lose?
“I’m for the card room,” he said abruptly, and pushed
off the wall. Discipline. He’d come here to win money, not to moon about over unsuitable women. Henceforth he’d keep to the task.
And so he did, admirably, even after Roanoke wandered in and took a seat opposite, mistress on his knee. By four in the morning he had a hundred pounds more than what he’d brought, and a mind no less agile than when he’d walked in the door six hours since. The usual number of men had fallen asleep all round him, with several of the remainder drunk enough to make ill decisions when it came their turns to deal. Prospects looked promising in every direction. Naturally, then, Miss Slaughter, having taken over Roanoke’s cards an hour or so past, must turn up twenty-one on the deck’s last hand and secure shuffling privileges as well as the next deal.
Will slid his cards faceup across the table and let his hand loiter, lifting it just in time to effect a slight glancing collision between his fingertips and hers. For the first time that evening, she looked at him.
He wouldn’t compromise her in any way. But if she was at all inclined to read him, she could not possibly mistake what was in his thoughts.
I’m watching how you handle those cards. Don’t expect to make a fool of me twice
She gave him no reaction whatsoever. Her impassive eyes considered him the way they might consider wallpaper while her hands swept cards in from all directions. She shifted her gaze to some other man, and when she’d formed a haphazard stack, finally dropped her attention to the deck.
Whatever trickery she employed must come now. But she only straightened the cards and shuffled, in rather stolid fashion, and passed the deck to her left neighbor to cut. Then she dealt them out, an initial card on which each man might determine his bet.
His fingers and thumb took hold of the card at the
very place where she’d touched it, his prints mingling with hers. Ace of diamonds. Damnation. She
tempt him, wouldn’t she?
Across the table she was studying her own card, a single slight crease in her brow. Maybe she was playing fair tonight. Maybe his warning look had done its job. Last week she’d watched the cards as she’d gathered them, and intermixed them with such care as suggested, in hindsight, some deliberate arrangement. This time she’d raked them in without looking.
And hell. It was an ace. A sad excuse for a man he’d be if he didn’t risk a little. He pushed twenty-five pounds forward.
A second card came round to each man and he lifted the corner to find a three of spades. Soft total of fourteen. Four, if he preferred. No chance of going over on the third card; two different paths to twenty-one. Of course if he turned up a ten next, that would change the outlook. Hard fourteen was a considerably less attractive hand.
The fellow at his right side finished his turn and Miss Slaughter’s eyes came once more to him. “Do you care to buy another card?” she said.
“I might twist as well, recall. Unless you’ve effected some change to the rules.” Their first words exchanged since he’d convinced her to let him follow her home. His consciousness of that fact—of their nightlong pretense to be less acquainted than they truly were—was the only possible excuse for his failing to be struck immediately by the oddity of her question.
“Of course,” she murmured, chin dipping as though chagrined by the mistake. “Buy or twist.”
Now it did strike him, with full force. She knew the rules. Of this he had no doubt. She’d said what she’d said on purpose: she was telling him to buy.
For whose benefit, though? Did she mean to help him,
or to amuse herself by taking him in even when he ought to know better?
She’d brought her chin up again and watched him, all disinterested patience. Damn his sluggish instincts and her placid mask; he couldn’t read her worth a farthing. If she had his ruin in mind, her eyes and mouth showed not the smallest hint of twitchy eagerness or ruthless resolve.