Authors: Caroline Courtney
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Fiction
A WAGER FOR LOVE
Although it was well gone two o’clock in the morning, the gaming room at White’s was still crowded. The air was thick with the quiet hum of conversation, tobacco smoke and wine fumes. There was a sudden shout of laughter disrupting the silence hanging over the gaming tables, as Francis Dashwood leapt up onto his chair.
“S’death, March. I’ll wager you five hundred guineas that the lad loses all he possesses.”
“What, only five hundred!” replied March scornfully.
“Done. What about you, Sandwich? How do you rate the puppy’s chances?”
The Earl of Sandwich raised his glass and drained it before replying contemplatively, giving one brief comprehensive glance at the object of his companions’ conversation, a young man sitting at the hazard table in the middle of the room. “Who is holding the bank? Ordley, isn’t it? I fear the lad will lose, March.” He shook his head mournfully. “Tricky game at the best of times, but when the dice are against you …”
The young man of whom they were talking was a slim youth with fair hair, at that moment a trifle dishevelled. He was sitting at the hazard table with three other gentlemen and looking singularly out of place. From the agonised manner in which he was watching the dice, a white tense look about his face, it was obvious to even the meanest intelligence that he was losing. However, the habitués of White’s were too inured to such tragic occurrences to give the boy more than the odd bored glance. Opposite him sat the banker, the oldest member of the quartet and well into his forties. He was completely at ease, sprawling negligently in his chair, his once handsome face coarsened and bloated, speaking of a too liberal indulgence in the pleasures of life. He was as relaxed as the boy was tense.
The other two players were sitting back, relaxing, seemingly oblivious to the tension-filled scene being enacted before their weary eyes.
“Well, gentlemen?” asked the banker softly.
One of the trio turned to the banker. “‘Stap me, Ordley, you have the devil’s own luck tonight. The Bank has never lost once. I’m finished, damn you.” He turned to his companion, smothering a yawn.
“What of you, Bellfield? How have you fared?”
Viscount Bellfield shook his head, pushing his ribbon-festooned straw hat back off his forehead and scratching idly at his wig.
“Badly, Feltham, badly. It seems luck at gaming must run in your family, Ordley.” He scribbled a note in a cramped hand, tossing it negligently across the table. “I’ll settle with you in the morning, Ordley. Well, Feltham, another glass before we leave? I confess I’m for an early night, I’m done up.”
“What!” jeered Feltham. “Rabbit it, Bellfield, done up at your age. Too many filles de joie, mon ami. They will be the death of you yet. That dancer you had in tow …”
Ignoring their bantering comments, Ordley continued to watch the youngest member of the group, fixing his eyes on him like a hawk with a particularly plump rabbit. “… And you, Arnedale. Have you had enough?”
There was just enough subtle contempt in the other’s voice to bring a tinge of colour into the boy’s pallid cheeks. He looked at the pile of guineas in front of the older man, his blue eyes glittering feverishly.
“Come. I’m a fair man. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you a chance to win back all you have lost.”
For a second, hope flickered in the boy’s eyes. He moistened his lips. He was already badly dipped and had in fact lost far more than he could afford. He took a deep breath… If he were to win … He nodded his head.
A slow smile spread over the waiting man’s face. “So, all I have here then-some thirty-five thousand guineas.”
The boy swallowed nervously. Scarcely taking his eyes off him, Ordley commanded, “Call a main then, Arnedale-seven again is it to be?”
The boy shook his head. Surely his luck must change. “No,” he croaked. “I’ll take nine.”
“Here.” Ordley proffered the dice box. The boy took it, shaking it carefully and tipping the dice out onto the table. There was a tense pause. For a moment hope flickered and then died. Feltham looked on dolefully. “Too bad, Arnedale, quartre-trois. You should have stuck with seven. Never does to change numbers when the luck’s against you.” Ordley picked up the dice, his eyes never leaving the boy, Arnedale’s face. He shook and threw, with casual indifference. Feltham craned his neck over the table. “Seven and two. You lucky dog, Ordley. Too bad, Arnedale,” he commiserated.
The boy got to his feet, his face the colour of parchment.
“If you will take my vowels, Ordley, I shall redeem them in the morning.”
“But of course, my dear boy. I am in no hurry,” purred Ordley, genially. “Come, another glass of Canary before you leave-no?” He shrugged indolently. He could afford to be generous now.
With an heroic effort at an air of casual indifference the youth bowed once more to his companions, and stumbled from the room. For a second there was silence, and then Dashwood’s raucous voice broke the tension. “There, told you how it would be, March-you owe me five hundred guineas.”
Whilst the game had been in progress, a group of men standing by the door had been conversing after a desultory fashion. One of them, a pleasant, well set up individual with a mild open countenance, watched the young man come hurrying past them, his head well down.
“Well, Saltaire, I see your cousin has just stripped young Arnedale of all he possesses, poor fool.”
The man thus addressed turned a bored aquiline profile in the direction of the speaker. Cool eyes of a particularly startling brilliance regarded him sardonically. Although not even the most demanding of critics could have found fault with the elegance of his apparel, there was nonetheless an air of careless disregard in the thick, black hair tied back with velvet ribbon, completely free of any vestige of powder in a room full of grey, white, and even in some cases, lilac heads. There was a certain magnetic quality about the handsome, cynical face that automatically drew the eye. James Richard Gilles Lydbrook, 7th Earl of Saltaire, had the reputation of being a rake and a libertine, and there were even those who said, noticeably out of his hearing, that he revelled in such a reputation.
He gave the other a thin lipped smile, the green eyes faintly mocking. “Puppies without the ability to hold their own, my dear Ware, should not be playing here.” He took a pinch of snuff inhaling delicately. “Tell me, how did the boy get in here in the first place?” There was a faint sneer on his lips. “I would have thought it a trifle above his touch.”
Lord Ware sighed. “I’m afraid I’m partly to blame. The boy came here with that ramshackle brother of mine, Charles.” He shrugged comprehensively. “The long vacation … “
For a few seconds Saltaire said nothing, merely holding his glass of wine up to the light and regarding it thoughtfully. “Tell me, Ware, what think you of this? A trifle sweet for my taste.”
Lord Ware sighed. He had known the Earl of Saltaire for a good many years, and there was a certain glint in his eyes that he disliked. To be sure Gilles had not been drinking deep. Indeed, Lord Ware could never recollect having seen him the worse for drink, but even so … He looked round uneasily.
Viscount Ordley, well satisfied with his night’s play, rose from his chair and started to gather up his winnings, gloating a little as he surveyed the vowels just given to him by the unfortunate Arnedale. Seventy thousand guineas. He laughed soundlessly. A fair night’s play. He passed over them and started to count the rouleaus of guineas. Iron fingers clamped down on his wrist, arresting his hand in mid air. A soft drawling voice murmured in his ear.
“Well, cousin, I see you have plucked your pigeon quite clean.”
Before Ordley could stop him, Saltaire swept up the notes, holding them in long white fingers. “Seventy thousand eh, cousin?” he murmured gently, smiling disdainfully, as he opened his fingers and allowed them to fall back onto the table. “Tell me, can the boy afford it?”
Ordley looked up at his cousin, a fleeting expression of dislike tinged with fear crossing his face. “Since when have you been so nice, Saltaire? The boy knew the stakes well enough.”
The Earl continued in the same mild vein. “But that does not answer my question, does it cousin? I believe I asked you if the boy could afford it.”
A deathly hush fell on the room; the attention of the occupants became riveted on the two cousins. For a moment Ordley was silent as he mentally cursed his cousin’s interference. Then he blustered, “What if he can’t? He has estates.”
“So … estates, umm.” Saltaire’s voice was thoughtful.
Lord Ware, who had seen and correctly interpreted the expression on his friend’s face, stepped forward anxiously. “I’m afraid I’m partly to blame, Saltaire. He should never have been allowed in. If he hadn’t been with young Charles…”
“Ah yes, I had quite forgot for the moment that you knew the young idiot. What was his name again, Arneley?” He snapped his fingers, “No, I have it, Arnedale.” The Earl appeared lost in contemplation of the lace ruffles at his wrists.
“Tell me, cousin, how comes it about that the young man chose to play at your table. Or can I guess?”
Ordley’s already florid countenance became an indignant puce. “Such concern, Gilles,” he sneered. “One would almost think you were wishful of setting yourself up as a bear-leader, although to be sure, I understand our late lamented grandfather died most providentially. The Fleet can be dammed uncomfortable, I understand-or is this a case of the Rake Reformed?”
For a second there was a gleam of anger in the long green eyes, quickly suppressed. “I believe I find you a trifle vulgar, Ordley. Not a family failing, I vow.”
The room held its breath at this calculated insult, but if they were expecting Ordley to take up the challenge, they were doomed to disappointment. He gripped his glass with tightly clenched fingers, his eyes dropping before his cousin’s mockingly amused ones, but he said nothing.
Saltaire smiled unpleasantly, “Just so, cousin, an unfortunate comment. After all, now that I am become an Earl I have the family name to think of, and young men foolish enough to lose their money and blow their brains out inevitably cause scandals.”
Francis Dashwood turned in his seat, leering knowingly at the Earl. “S’death Saltaire, that’s rich. No liking for scandals, why it ain’t above a twelve month since . . “
Just in time he saw the flash of hauteur on the Earl’s face.
“There now, Saltaire,” he palliated, “Don’t take me amiss. Lord, you’re as touchy as a woman. No point in calling me out either, ” he added, seeing the grimness in the other’s eyes, “for I won’t meet you. Dare swear if I did it would all be over inside two minutes.”
There was a ripple of laughter from the onlookers. The Earl’s swordsmanship was a byword. He had killed his first man before he was out of his teens.
Ordley, relieved to see his cousin’s attention directed elsewhere, lifted his glass, malice showing in his bloodshot eyes. “Well, cousin, here’s a toast to you. ‘Tis only a pity our grandfather did not see fit to bestow upon you his fortune as well as his title.” There was a stunned silence, which he affected not to notice, picking at his teeth. He ruminated thoughtfully for a second. “Lud, but he was in a rare old taking when he heard how you seduced old Malford’s daughter. Spiriting the chit away from her home …”
“Seduced!” broke in the irrepressible Dashwood. “Why I swear the chit has had more lovers than …”
“Dashwood, I implore you,,’ drawled the Earl, “Think of my reputation I beg, you have all but ruined it.”
“What’s that? Oh, yes, I see.” Suitably crestfallen, Dashwood subsided whilst Ordley glowered darkly.
“But you did spirit her away cousin-you can’t deny that.”
For a long moment Saltaire held his cousin’s eyes, his own expression enigmatic.
Lord Bellfield became intensely interested in the ribbons adorning his friend’s hat. “That hat, Feltham, I don’t know,” he stroked his chin consideringly.
Feltham removed the offending article, eyeing it judiciously, ” ‘Tis all the rage, Bellfield. But mayhap you are in the right of it, perhaps different coloured ribbons, do you think?” he asked reflectively.
As the silence between the two cousins stretched into minutes, an anxious look crept into Ware’s eyes.
March, with a quick glance across the room, asked sotto voce of Sandwich. “Well, what think you, Sandwich? Is it to be a duel? If so I’ll wager you fifty to one that Saltaire pinks him within the first two minutes. No, I’ll give him one minute, no more. Fine swordsman, Saltaire.”
Sandwich shook his head, lips pursed. “That cock won’t fight, March. Ordley’s far too fond of his own neck to risk it with Saltaire, even with the prize of an Earldom. Come to think of it, I wouldnit care to cross swords with Saltaire myself. Resty devil is Gilles.”
Saltaire leaned across the table, gently shaking off Ware’s restraining hand. “Perhaps you would care to make yourself more explicit, cousin,” he drawled languidly.
Viscount Ordley was no longer quite so relaxed. Indeed he looked distinctly ill at ease. “Fiend seize it, Saltaire, there is no need to get in such a temper. ” He searched nervously in one capacious pocket for his snuff box, to find the Earl was before him. With a deft flick, the Earl had his box open and was holding it out to him.