Authors: Denise Domning
“Of course not,” Philana said swiftly, glancing from Eliza to Cassie, then to the card tables. Philana not only knew Cassie’s plan to use her skill at the tables on behalf of her family, she heartily approved even if it meant lightening the purses of her neighbors. Unlike Roland, Philana didn’t believe there was anything eerie or unfair about Cassie’s ability.
“Why should you stay, Eliza, when the room teems with folk?” Roland seconded. The hopeful look he sent Cassie suggested he still depended on her to solve the problem he’d created.
“Ah,” Eliza said, her memory jogged by their reactions. “But of course you should stay, Cassie. However, if you change your mind later you must come into the garden and join us.”
“I will,” Cassie promised.
After waving them out the garden door she meandered toward the card players. Lord Ryecroft played with the duchess and Barbara at the nearest table. Her Grace shot Cassie a scathing glance.
“Impudent riffraff,” Lady Eleanor sniffed as Barbara laid down a card. The duchess straightened in her chair to glare at her daughter. “Why did you play that card? You know better than to lead with trump!”
At the table to their right was a squire, a baronet and a mere gentleman. The men played their game in complete silence, their concentration so complete that Cassie read them with ease. The others might be confident in what they held, but the squire had this round. That she could tell what they held so easily was reassuring. Her ability hadn’t failed her.
Lucien and Colonel Egremont sat at the farthest table, the one closest to the wall, Lucien’s back to the room. Cassie stopped behind him to take a bracing breath only to have her senses fill with his scent, the heat of his body, his very presence. For an instant she lost herself in appreciation of Lucien the man. She liked the way candlelight made his hair glow more golden than brown. The perfect fit of his coat told her that he had no need of the padding some men used to look masculine.
Colonel Egremont glanced up from the cards in front of him, his face radiating confused triumph. The triumph no doubt sprang from the mound of counters stacked near his hand, but Cassie had no ready explanation for his confusion. He came to his feet and bowed. “Mrs. Marston.”
Lucien glanced over his shoulder. Their gazes met. Heat flared in his gray eyes. A slow, sensuous smile played across his lips.
He also rose. “Mrs. Marston.”
“Where did everyone go?” Colonel Egremont asked, looking over Cassie’s shoulder at the rest of the room.
Considering that the drawing room was still occupied, Cassie assumed that by everyone he meant Eliza. “A group of young people went into the garden, planning to stroll and perhaps play a game of hoodman blind,” she offered.
Lucien shifted impatiently. “We play Speculation tonight, Mrs. Marston. Would you care to join us.”
“Actually, my lord, I think I’ve taken enough of your wealth for one night,” the colonel said. “If you’ll excuse me?”
Lucien’s deep warm laugh sent a shiver rushing through Cassie. “Absolutely. Kind of you to leave me with a coin or two for the morrow. If you like I’ll hold your winnings for you to collect later.”
“Many thanks, my lord.” Bowing, Colonel Egremont trotted toward the garden door.
Lucien watched him go. “Well, well. I think we’ve been snubbed in favor of true love.”
His words stabbed through Cassie. Precious little good the colonel’s affection would do Eliza. Cassie dropped into the chair he’d vacated.
Still smiling, Lucien sat, collected the cards and began to shuffle. Pleasure filled his eyes. “Will you have something to drink?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No, thank you, my lord. I must be at my sharpest if I’m to keep the coins you give me.”
That made Lucien laugh again. “A wise decision.”
He separated four pounds in notes and a pound’s worth of coins from the stack near his hand and pushed them across the table to her. Cassie pulled the precious bits of paper and metal close, hoarding them like the treasure they were.
“You don’t mind playing for coins instead of using counters?” His smile was both threat and promise. He didn’t expect to lose his kiss.
“Of course not,” she replied, a shiver coursing up her spine. She was far too susceptible to him. This match must end as soon as possible, before his charm overwhelmed her sense.
“What game shall we play?” he asked.
“Why not Speculation?” she replied, unable to think of a game better fitted to her needs. The hands played quickly and if she raised the value of a point it could prove very lucrative in a short period of time. “What do you say to a ten shillings a point with a reckoning after ten hands?” she suggested, finding a certain symmetry to the thought of winning five hands, then losing five to keep five pounds.
Lucien paused mid-shuffle to look at her, his gaze lambent. “That’s a little steep even for a game as unusual as ours, Mrs. Marston. Indeed, it’s so steep I might think you eager to lose.”
The raw sensual edge to his voice stirred something deep and hidden within Cassie. He was utterly convinced she meant to seduce him while she wasn’t certain that she didn’t want him to seduce her. Oh Lord, but she needed to put distance between them, and soon.
“That’s something only the cards can determine, my lord.” Cassie relaxed into her chair as best she could. “You may take the first deal.”
The match went well enough through the first hands. Even with Duchess Eleanor’s constant complaining at the nearby table and the laughter from those guests who hadn’t gone out of doors, Cassie had no difficulty reading Lucien’s face and form. She easily sensed when to stay, when to buy cards and when to speculate. Just as she planned she lost a little the first game, won substantially in the next, then lost a little again, gaining, her tiny pile of coins growing. By her fifth game she had almost eight pounds, something that left Lucien frowning in surprise.
In keeping with her pattern Cassie lost that game, returning some of what she’d earned. Then, luck happened. In each of the next two hands she drew several penalty cards, each one costing her ten shillings. She lost both of those hands, decreasing her winnings to three pounds.
What had she been thinking, setting an arbitrary end to their match? Now, to leave the table with the five pounds he’d promised her and that she so desperately needed she’d have to win all of their remaining games and that might well win her an accusation as a sharp from Lucien. Cassie gritted her teeth and won the next two hands, but only managed to return her winnings to just four pounds, ten shillings.
The tenth and final deal belonged to her. As she shuffled she watched Lucien. He was the consummate gambler, his expression flat, his eyes revealing nothing in their depths.
Ah, but it wasn’t just a man’s face that exposed his thoughts. Cassie eyed the taut line of his shoulders and the way he held his right hand, working the ring he wore on his third finger. Those two aspects announced his intention to win the next hand, even if he did so by will alone.
That wasn’t all she saw. The creases at the corners of his eyes screamed of suspicion, something she couldn’t afford. If Lucien believed he’d been cheated he’d demand a rematch. Convention required she honor the request. Even if she lost every hand in that match the damage would be done.
Cassie’s future couldn’t afford the scrutiny. She had to lose. Giving Lucien his kiss meant she remained free to gamble.
She dealt, sensing as she laid down the cards that his hand was the weaker. She lost by refusing to speculate. Across the table Lucien smiled in satisfaction then gathered up the pot. The creases at the corners of his eyes relaxed.
“You played well,” he offered as if to console.
“Good of you to say, my lord,” she replied, repressing her urge to snort at his lie. She’d played that last game like a fool and he knew it, but then he thought she lost because she wanted his kiss.
Didn’t she? Why shouldn’t she indulge her desires? The respectable woman she’d once believed herself was dead, perishing the moment she’d swung that urn. Color seeped up into Cassie’s cheeks at the thought of what she no longer needed to deny herself.
To hide her reaction she swept her precious winnings into her reticule and snapped it shut. After smoothing her sleeves of her lavender gown, she straightened her lacy shawl over her shoulders so that the knot sat at the center of her chest. As if the gossamer garment were any protection! It revealed more than it hid.
“So, when would you like to collect what I owe you?” She almost choked on the words.
One corner of his mouth quirked up. “Now would be convenient for me, Mrs. Marston.”
For an instant Cassie felt as if she stood outside herself, watching her life unfold, one unbelievable, improbable event after another. If someone had told her two weeks ago that she would kill an earl, then find herself in another earl’s drawing room waiting to turn her back on propriety to claim a lord’s kiss she would have accused them of insanity.
“Where?” she asked, coming to her feet.
Heat flared in the depths of Lucien’s cool eyes. Once again Cassie felt his presence reach out to envelop her. He came to his feet, pulling the sleeves of his black coat back in place, then giving his stark white waistcoat a tug. “I think we should join the others in their stargazing.”
Gratitude swept through Cassie. It hadn’t occurred to her until this moment that he could have made their strange wager public, exposing her to ridicule, debasing her even further than she had already debased herself. She nodded in agreement, nervous nonetheless. She glanced around the chamber, wondering if any of the others in the drawing room knew what she and Lucien were about then started toward the garden doors, Lucien on her heels.
The duchess glared at Cassie as she neared Lord Ryecroft’s table, but the earl smiled. He looked too big for the delicate chair he used. “Mrs. Marston,” he said without rising, “have you already finished gaming for the night?”
“At least for the moment my lord,” Cassie told him. “We thought we’d join the youngsters in their romp.”
“Youngsters?” Lucien echoed with a breath of a laugh. “Speak for yourself, Mrs. Marston. I’m joining my peers.”
For some reason Lucien’s comment pleased Lord Ryecroft. The earl’s face softened as he glanced between the two of them. “Enjoy yourselves, children.”
“If he were joining his peers, he wouldn’t be going with that unmannerly commoner at his side,” snapped Duchess Eleanor, turning her attention back onto her hand. “It does your repute no favor to keep company with her sort, Lord Graceton.”
“Mama,” protested Lady Barbara, her voice barely louder than a whisper.
“That, Your Grace, is my concern not yours,” Lucien swiftly replied, offering his rebuff along with a swift bow.
Gratitude again washed over Cassie as he defended her. Still, the duchess’s words stung, perhaps because her comment hit too close to the truth. It did Lucien no favor to consort with a card-sharping murderess.
Once they were out of the duchess’s hearing Cassie shot Lucien a quick look. “Thank you for that,” she said as they neared the garden door. “I fear I’ve made a terrible enemy today.”
“And, a good friend,” Lucien said. “Barbara will never forget what you did for her tonight. As for the duchess you were doomed in her esteem when we waltzed the night of the ball. I fear she views you as a rival to Barbara for my attention and, eventually, my ring.”
His words went through Cassie like a stake, revealing just how much she wished she were a rival for Lucien’s ring. Fool! She’d let Philana’s crack-brained notion of Lucien marrying her implant itself in her heart. The weedy, unwelcome thought had found fertile soil in Cassie’s girlhood infatuation with him, swiftly setting down roots and feeding on his reborn attraction for her. She brutally tore it from her heart before it did any more damage.
“More fool the duchess for mistaking an old acquaintance for more than it is,” she threw back over her shoulder as she exited. Lucien said nothing to contradict her.
Outside, the marble of the drawing room floor gave way to brick. The porch’s surface extended a comfortable distance before ending at soft sod. Strategically placed lanterns, globes of yellow in the black velvet of the night, revealed the potted trees and statuary decorating the porch. A warm sparkling night wrapped itself around Cassie as she breathed in the scent of roses in the earl’s garden. The smell tangled with the more pervasive aromas of damp earth, wood smoke and pine.
Laughter rang in the chilling air, the sound emanating a good distance from the house. Peering into the dimness, Cassie saw the pale shapes of the young explorers taking a turn about a gurgling fountain. Not certain where she was going, Cassie walked in their direction. She’d almost reached the grass when Lucien caught her by the hand. His fingers twining with hers, he gently pulled her around to face him.
Cassie gazed up at him. Night’s shadows clung beneath the sharp lift of his cheekbones. Golden lantern light marked the narrow length of his nose. Once again, desire’s heat radiated from him. She drew a shaken breath as his need became hers.
Saying nothing, Lucien led her to the right. An ancient marble deity appeared out of the night, its form stark white where the light touched it and feathery gray where the shadows clung. Lucien knew the grounds of his cousin’s house well. Behind the statue was a small alcove cut into the house’s exterior wall. Hidden from both house and garden, it was the perfect place for a tryst.
Standing with her back to the alcove’s side wall Cassie watched Lucien, her nerves twanging. Yes, she’d been a bold miss in her day, but she’d respected the limits of behavior. She’d never stepped this far over propriety’s line. Now that she was here she didn’t know how to behave. Did she let Lucien take her in his arms? Should she allow only their mouths to touch? What if he sought to take more than his kiss? What if she took the kiss, then offered him a second?
Drawing their joined hands to his heart, Lucien watched her, his eyes cloaked in shadow. “You are truly beautiful. I swear that your image haunts me, day and night.”
A hint of amusement touched his voice. Did he mean his outrageous compliment to remind her of their waltz? If so, it worked. Cassie relaxed into the role she’d played that night.
“Don’t squander your flattery, my lord. It’s one kiss you won from me, no more.” There. She’d set the parameters of the interlude for both of them.
He laughed, the sound quiet and warm. Lifting his free hand, he brushed his fingertips along the curve of her cheek. Cassie closed her eyes, savoring the sensation. After three years with no more than Eliza’s occasional embrace, his caress felt like rain on parched earth. She drank it in, wondering if she would go the rest of her life without ever again knowing a man’s touch.
He didn’t stop at her jawline, but moved his hand downward to beneath her ear, then to the back of her neck. With his fingertips he drew a light circle at her nape. Cassie’s soft turban shifted on her head, slipping out of place. She didn’t care any more than a starving man cared what sort of food he ate.
She splayed her fingers across his breast. The layers of his clothing did nothing to disguise the sculpted power of his form. His chest rose as he breathed. His heart beat against her palm, its pace faster than it should be. Cassie almost smiled. It was reassuring to know he was as affected as she by what they did.
“One kiss,” she whispered, warning both of them. “Take it now and be content.”
Moonlight shifted across his face. He smiled and drew another circle at her nape. That won him another shiver from Cassie.
“Are you so certain you’ll be satisfied with only one kiss?”
“Enough talk,” Cassie said, unwilling to play the game of taunts and very much concerned over how one sort of intimacy might lead to another.
Rising onto her toes, she touched her mouth to his. His lips were soft and warm beneath hers, his face smooth, his skin cool in the night air. He tasted of fine port.
He drew a swift breath then his mouth moved atop hers, his kiss deepening, demanding her response. What remained of Cassie’s image of herself as an upstanding woman died.
Her shawl slid down to nestle in the crook of her elbows. She leaned against him, needing to feel all of him pressed against her. Their thighs touched, the heat of his body embracing her through her thin dress.
Making a sound deep in his throat, Lucien wrapped his arms around her, pulling her even more tightly to him. When their hips met Cassie gasped against his mouth. There was no mistaking how much he wanted her.
She clasped her hands at his nape, pulling herself even closer, begrudging her corset for it stood between them like a fence. Lucien tore his mouth from hers and straightened. Cassie gave a quiet cry of protest. He couldn’t end their kiss yet!
Instead, he lowered his head and pressed his lips to the mound of her breast. Cassie shook, then arched away from him, offering him more of her to kiss. The tiny sane part of her cried out in shock. What sort of woman was she?
He groaned, urging her backward a step with his hands at her waist. Cassie did his bidding and found her back pressed to the wall. Lucien pressed a thigh between hers, holding her in place, then cupped her breasts through her gown and corset.
Lacking the will to stop, Cassie thrust her fingers into his hair, pressing his mouth to her breasts. He ran his fingers along the top of her bodice. Pleasure shot through her, the sensation so intense that she cried out. The sound echoed around the alcove.
Lucien instantly straightened then once more took her mouth with his. “Ssh,” he whispered, breathing the warning against her mouth when she couldn’t care less if anyone heard her.
He nipped at her lower lip. His thumbs brushed at the peaks of her breasts. Cassie shivered. She caught his face in her hands then took his mouth the way he’d taken hers. Lucien groaned.
Lifting her until her toes barely touched the ground, he pressed her against the alcove wall. Their hips met. She felt the heat of his desire then made it her own, moving her hips against his, begging for what she’d so missed in her widowhood.
“My hems are soaked!” Eliza’s distant laughing cry echoed into the alcove.
Pleasure shattered, leaving anxiety in its wake. Eliza couldn’t catch her here like this. Cassie tore her mouth from Lucien’s, turning her head to the side.
“Stop,” she pleaded.
“Never,” Lucien whispered. His lips touched her jaw, her throat.
“You must stop,” Cassie insisted, even as the line of kisses he placed upon her neck sent need shivering through her. “They’re coming this way.”
Lucien groaned, his lips resting at the place where her neck met her shoulder. Cassie felt the rapid beat of his heart against hers. His hair brushed her throat. He lifted his mouth a bare inch from her shoulder.
“God help me, but I don’t want to stop,” he murmured, his breath caressing her skin.
Cassie wanted to weep. God had better help them both, because she didn’t want him to stop either.
Relaxing his hold on her waist, Lucien let Cassie slide down the wall, her feet again coming to rest upon the earth. She expected him to step back. Instead, he drew her into the circle of his arms. Being held by him was so comforting, so natural despite what they had just done, that Cassie laid her head against his shoulder.
“Don’t go so far ahead. We oldsters cannot keep pace,” came Philana’s faint call. “Come faster, Sir Roland!”