Authors: Denise Domning
Loved? The word caught Lucien by surprise. If that’s where his thoughts bent, then it was past time to end this game and return Cassie to Philana Forster.
But how could he let her go before he knew what it was like to bear her weight in bed?
Blast it. Blast her. Blast him. Rightly or wrongly, he wasn’t ready to let her go. He wanted to spend the day holding her then another night making love to her until neither one of them could remember who they were.
He lowered his head to touch his lips to the place where her neck met her shoulder. There was pleasure in her sigh. Staring out at the landscape, she leaned her head to the side, offering him more to kiss.
Another day. Another night. That would have to be enough. Once the dawn came on the morrow he’d do what he must and put an end to their game.
Cassie tilted her head to the side as Lucien kissed her, her heart aching. She felt his battle to hold onto their pretense in the way his arms tightened around her. He wasn’t yet ready to let her go any more than she was ready to leave him. But when the moment for revelation came he would let her go, doing so without hesitation just as he’d done six years ago, no matter how greatly he regretted not having offered for her then.
It was stunning how much the thought of losing Lucien a second time hurt. How was it possible she could have such depth of feeling for him when he’d only been back in her life for a few days?
“It’s a sad thing when a woman must ask her husband about her particulars,” Cassie said, striving to conceal what ached in her.
“Is there more you’d like to know?” he asked, eager to return to their game and ignore what stood as clearly before them as Ettrick House across the valley.
Cassie looked up into his face, her fantasy torn to shreds by reality’s wind. Staying here with him was risking more than she could afford to wager. It was time to retreat to Philana’s house and find some other way to avoid Lord Bucksden.
“What is it?” Lucien asked, his brows lifted. The same pain that tortured her lurked in his gaze. There was some comfort in knowing that he wasn’t succeeding at distraction any better than she was.
Cassie sighed. She had to leave, but she couldn’t go while he still believed she was a card sharp. She only hoped that one revelation didn’t lead to another. How in the world could she ever explain what her father had done without winning his eternal disgust?
“There’s nothing left for you to tell me,” she said, “but there’s something I must tell you.”
The pain in his gaze flared. His gray eyes chilled until they were icy again. “Not yet,” he started to protest.
She touched her fingertips to his lips to stop him. Even knowing he would eventually abandon her again didn’t stop Cassie from loving Lucien more than she ever dreamed possible.
“Yes, now. Will you play cards with me?”
“And you don’t want to buy that hand?” Lucien asked from his seat at the head of the bed, pointing to the tiny pile of cards, the third hand, that lay between them near the center of the bed. He wore only his shirt and buckskin breeches, having removed his coat and pulled off his boots. His long legs were stretched out before him, ankles crossed.
“No,” Cassie replied, feeling far less comfortable than he looked. She sat sideways at the other end of the bed, her back against the footboard, one leg curled beneath her, the other over the bed’s edge, her toe braced on the ground.
Lucien had insisted on holding their card game behind her bedroom’s closed door. Cassie suspected this had to do with pride. He didn’t want either of his servants to come upon them as she bested him at cards again and again.
“Why not?” Lucien demanded as intensely as the first time he’d asked that question, eight rounds of Speculation ago.
“Because there’s no trump in it,” Cassie replied with worried certainty. If the tightness of his expression was any indication, then repetition wasn’t improving his disposition. He hadn’t taken this demonstration well from the start.
Lucien turned over the third hand between them, revealing all three of its cards. Just as she’d said, there was no trump in it. He looked at her, confusion and disbelief darkening his brow.
“How can you know that?” he demanded again.
Miserable, all Cassie could do was shrug. “I just know,” she whispered.
Frowning, he crossed his arms and leaned back against the headboard. “And what’s in my hand?”
Again Cassie shrugged, wishing with all her heart she’d allowed their fantasy to persist a little longer. She wanted the Lucien who’d smiled at her this morning. This was the Lucien who’d been so angry at her that he’d followed her from Ryecroft Castle, determined to wreak vengeance.
“The only trump you’ve got is the exposed card,” she replied, her voice shaking.
Lucien reached to the three cards next to his hip, one up, two down. Moving the upper card, he flipped over the lower two and huffed in disbelief. There was no other trump in his hand.
“What’s in yours?” His eyes were steely, his voice hard.
“One trump,” she said. She turned them over to show him.
“A draw,” he announced, then again shook his head. “How can you do this?”
Her misery growing, Cassie stared at her overturned cards. “I don’t know how to explain it to you any better than I have. I just know. There’s only one thing that I can explain. My skill’s sharper when I’m near you.”
“I beg your pardon?” There was a trace of outrage in his voice. His brows were high on his forehead, his eyes wide in surprise.
Cassie cursed herself for an idiot. He no doubt thought she blamed him. It was too late to retract her comment.
“Something’s different when I’m close to you. That’s what happened the other night when we were playing with Colonel Egremont and Squire Kerr. I sat next to you and--.”
She stopped then tried again, seeking some way to make sense of what had happened that night when there was nothing sensible about it. “All I could think of was you, how upset you’d been at the abbey, and what had happened. While I was busy thinking of you I wasn’t paying attention to what happened at the table. I didn’t notice I was winning,” she said, her voice trailing into a whisper. “Even after I noticed I couldn’t stop myself.”
To her surprise his expression softened. His laugh was a bare breath. Some of the Lucien she loved returned.
“I’ve noticed that about you. You have trouble stopping once you’ve set yourself on a particular course. Not that I find the trait totally disagreeable,” he added. The corner of his mouth lifted, the returning warmth in his eyes reminding her of this morning.
Embarrassment burned in Cassie’s cheeks. Wicked and wrong as it was, she longed to once more make use of this bed the way they had already twice done. She could hardly credit herself for such a fool, for holding Lucien in her arms and against her body would change nothing. After this demonstration ended he’d return her to Philana’s house and walk away from her without a backward glance.
The softness faded from his expression. “Before that night you had better control over this skill? That means you really did lose to me on purpose on the first night.”
Cassie wanted to melt through the mattress and hide beneath the bed. “I did. I had no choice. You were so certain your abilities at the table outmatched mine that I had to lose. If I’d forced you to give up that kiss you would have challenged my abilities just as you did the second time we played. I needed your five pounds and I couldn’t afford a rematch,” she told him. “You were going to demand it. I could see it in the way your eyes creased and the tightness of your jaw.”
His expression hardened again. “So all you originally wanted from me was access to my purse?”
Shamed that he would equate her with some London whore, Cassie buried her face in her hands. This was awful and so much more complicated than she expected. The mattress shifted as he left his end of the bed to join her. She jerked in surprise when he stroked a hand down her back.
“I beg your pardon,” Lucien said, withdrawing his caress. “That was uncalled for on my part. Only by lying to myself can I pretend you didn’t want to give me my kiss as much as I wanted to take it from you.”
Cassie dared to look up at him. Harshness lingered in his expression, but some of the man who’d asked her to love him last night peered at her from behind his angry mask.
She sighed. “Know that it cost me dearly to take those coins from you. Because of what I did in the corridor outside our rooms, because of that kiss in the garden, I lost your respect.”
Confusion flashed in his gaze. He reached up to push a loose tress behind her ear. “If keeping my respect was so important to you, then why did you do any of it?”
Ah but he didn’t contradict her to say she still owned his respect. How could he after what they’d done here these last hours? She fought her hurt. He’d asked for an explanation. After all that had happened he deserved one, but this wasn’t going to be nearly as easy as explaining her skill to him.
She started at beginning. “It’s a long story. Aunt Philana arranged for me and my family to attend Lord Ryecroft’s house party because there would be gambling. Philana wanted to give me a chance to use my skill for profit at the tables, something I’d never before done,” she added.
Lucien’s eyes chilled. The harshness returned to his face. Cassie’s heart quirked. She plowed hastily on, trying to explain if not excuse herself.
“Philana warned me that I could only use my skill if I agreed to take less than the nightly limit. Not that I would have done any differently. I wouldn’t have considered attempting it at all if not for my father.” Sighing, she stopped, having reached the point where her confession became horribly sordid.
“Did Lady Forster tell my cousin about you and your skill?” Lucien demanded.
His question surprised Cassie. “I don’t know. I can imagine Philana admitting as much, not wanting to misuse Lord Ryecroft’s hospitality.”
Lucien’s eyes narrowed, but the corners of his mouth quivered. “Of course she told him. Why else would he point you out to me on the night of the ball? That bleater. He wanted me at the card table with you, hoping you’d do to me just what you did. Oh, he’ll pay dearly for this one. I don’t know when or how I’ll manage it, but he’ll pay.”
It was Cassie’s turn for confusion. Lucien gave a quirk of his brows. There was new easiness in his expression and posture.
“My cousin and I have a history of pranks,” he explained. “I’m wagering that you and this skill of yours are Devanney’s latest trick against me. So if you came to my cousin’s house party expecting to win a small fortune, why didn’t Lady Forster give you something to use as a stake? Why arrange a game between us for that kiss?”
“She didn’t give me anything because I arrived at Ryecroft Castle with coins of my own,” Cassie said, then let words fall from her lips before she again lost the courage to speak them. “It was my purse you took from my father on the party’s first night.”
When the words were out Cassie again wanted to melt through the mattress and curl up beneath the bed. It was hard to believe there was anything left that could stir her shame, not after all she’d done these past weeks. Telling Lucien that her father was not just a wastrel, but a thief proved there was.
If admitting this much was so awful, what would it feel like to tell Lucien that her father had used Eliza as the ante in a game with Bucksden? Cassie’s soul writhed at the thought.
Pity for Cassie surged through Lucien. He watched her blush fade and misery again darken her eyes. She sighed then once more turned her gaze toward the counterpane, her hair falling forward to hide her face from his view.
Lucien resisted his urge to take her into his arms. It had cost her dearly to tell him what her father had done. One touch, one misguided word of sympathy, the offer of so much as a farthing to aid her, and he’d destroy what little dignity she had left.
Nor did he need any more explanation to understand why Cassie needed to gamble at Devanney’s party. It was enough to know her sire was Roland Conningsby, a man who had stolen more from his daughter than just her purse. Hadn’t Roland squandered both his daughters’ inheritance?
With that thought Lucien’s sympathy expanded to include Cassie’s sister. It wasn’t right that society would never judge them for their own worth. Rather their every action would be interpreted against their father’s behavior. What one of them needed was a husband beyond reproach, a man whose name would become their shield. What Cassie hadn’t needed was Devanney turning her into one of his pranks.
His sympathy aside, Cassie’s explanation left Lucien with more questions than it answered. Premier among them was who this woman seated beside him might be. Lucien was no longer certain she was Cassie the Sharp, and he now wondered how well he’d known the Cassie of six years ago.
And why, if her plan had been to win a little each night thereby accumulating a tidy sum over the duration of the party, had she taken him for three hundred and sixty pounds all in one sitting? She had to have known that running after making such a show of her skill would end her chance of ever again using her abilities to aid her family.
“So, it was your purse Sir Roland brought to the table,” he said in preamble to his next spate of questions.
Cassie nodded without looking up.
“This thing you do with cards, you’ve always been able to do it?” he asked, still struggling to make sense of her odd ability.
Again she nodded without looking up, her face yet cloaked by her hair. Suspicion nagged at Lucien. He caught her chin and turned her face up toward his, wondering if she was hiding something from him.
Tears of shame glistened in her eyes. Suspicion died. He couldn’t bear her pain. Lucien drew her against his side, his arm around her. She sat tensely next to him as if she’d rather he not hold her.
“But, how do you do it? Help me understand,” he asked again, only to watch helplessness fill Cassie’s gaze. She wasn’t being evasive. She truly didn’t know how to answer his question.
He reframed it. “Do you stare at the backs of the cards and know what they are?”
She gave a tiny negative shake of her head. “Usually I only sense the strength or weakness of a hand.” Her voice was soft. “Sometimes, as when I played with Squire Kerr and his companions after you left me in the garden, the other players are so intent on their hands that they almost tell me what they hold. I see it in the set of their jaws and shoulders, in the way they arrange their hands or lift their eyebrows. Or, in their odd gestures.”
She took his hand and touched the golden signet ring he wore on his third finger. “When you think your hand isn’t strong enough you twist your ring.”
“I don’t,” Lucien retorted, piqued that she would think him so careless a gambler. He knew better than to make obvious nervous gestures at the card table. “It won’t even go all the way around my finger.”
To prove his point he closed his hand and tried to turn the ring. The raised face hit his smallest finger. For it to go any farther he’d have to open his fingers.
She offered a tiny smile. “But it does shift. You move it back and forth with your thumb.”
Frowning, Lucien drew his thumb across the back of his ring, only to find a spot worn smooth on the band. As he touched the ring there it twisted, striking his little finger. Without thought he shifted it back in place, doing it by moving his smallest finger. The motion had a familiar feel, one of long habit, like an unconscious gesture often made.
Comprehension drove the breath from Lucien. Cassie wasn’t doing anything eerie or untoward, at least not in assessing the players at a table. Reading an opponent was a skill every card player worth his salt ought to own. The only difference with Cassie was that she seemed to be doing it better than anyone Lucien had ever met.
“How did you know there was trump in those hands?” he demanded.
She grimaced a little, one shoulder rising as she again struggled to explain herself to him.