The gaming room was brightly lit with the latest gas lamps, revealing its high ceilings, gilded and frosted with intricate plasterwork, its walls richly hung with tapestries and landscapes of Dutch ports and sylvan idylls. Busts of notable Roman statesmen and Greek philosophers sat solemnly on side tables topped with Italian marble, impassive as the English nobles exchanged their vowels. There were more than two-score gamblers, gathered around in threes and fours to watch or wager on the action. Footmen paced the floor, removing empty glasses, refilling others, serving platters of cold ham, beef, and cheddar cheese. The room remained quiet apart from the crackle of the fire and the soft clink of coins against the baize tabletops. In a corner near the long sash windows sat two men deep in their cards.
“Piqued, repiqued, and capoted.” The larger of the two, his coat turned inside out for luck, threw down his losing hand.
“Another partie, Dacre?” His slim-faced companion tallied up his winnings with long fingers free of rings.
“I might if I had anything left to wager. I think it more prudent to withdraw, though I never was fond of prudence.” The marquis reached across the table to survey the hand his opponent had held.
Mr. Marchmont spread out the winning cards and quipped, “A puritanical trait, it's true, never something one could hold against you, my friend.”
“Depends of which Prudence we speak.” Dacre leaned back and stretched. “Now, Lady Wetherby is a Prudence one might happily hold.”
“Ah, my dear Marchmont, I cannot deny it.”
“So do we play again?”
“So long as it is not for money. More claret, while we ponder on a suitable stake?”
“Aye, fill my glass.” Marchmont shuffled the cards lazily, running them through his elegant fingers with expertise born of long years of play, while his companion poured more wine.
“Piquet is your only vice. And your fondness for your plaguey offspring.” Dacre swallowed the contents of his glass in one draught.
“Is paternal love a vice, Dacre?”
The marquis smiled wryly, his brown eyes apologetic. “It is when your child spurns it. Well, we shall see whether Ormiston's distaste for me is mended by his absence.”
“When does he leave for Europe?” Marchmont had ceased shuffling and was watching his friend carefully.
Dacre poured himself another glass of wine. “In five or six weeks. The London house will be all the pleasanter without his brooding presence. But I worry that he will find some means of defying me during his travels. It will not be drink or gaming, I know, since he makes his view of my indulgences all too clear. He will probably settle on finding some highly unsuitable young woman to foist on us all as the next marchioness. Some Galatea to whom he will wish to play Pygmalion.”
“Get him betrothed before he leaves,” suggested Marchmont. “Make sure you have your lawyers seal it and no other match can stand.”
“Who'll accept him? He's a boy.”
“Who won't? He's heir to a marquisate.”
“Shame none of your brood is old enough for him,” mused Dacre.
“Just as well, perhaps.” Marchmont tried to turn the subject to the more immediate issue of a suitable stake. “What about that hunter you bought last season? I'll take him off your hands if I win the next rubber.”
“What about that eldest girl of yours. Cecilia?”
“Still in the schoolroom and will stay there for another two years before Letitia takes her on and brings her out. The hunter?”
“Fourteen is not so young.”
“Fourteen is too young to enter your disreputable family. Indeed, whatever her age, I am not sure I would wish Cecilia to form a connection with the Dacres.” Silence fell over their table. Marchmont glanced up from shuffling the cards, afraid he might have overstepped the bounds of friendship with his baiting. Though he had certainly said much worse to the marquis in the past.
“For that, I will not play for my hunter. For that, the only wager I will accept is the hand of your daughter for my son.”
“You are drunker than usual if you believe that I will wager away my Ceci's future.”
“If I am so drunk, you should have no difficulty in winning the match.”
“I will not play.”
“Will not or dare not?”
Marchmont sighed wearily. “You will not provoke me that way.”
“You have insulted my family.” Dacre struggled to maintain his composure as Marchmont's eyebrows shot up in astonishment. “You owe me some reparation. I know.” The marquis's brow creased as he unravelled the complexities of what he was about to propose. “The stake for the next partie is that if I win, you must play the following partie with Cecilia as the stake. And if I win the second and she is contracted to become my son's bride, you may knock five thousand from her dowry.”
“Lord, I see how it is. I shall have no rest until you have played this partie.” Marchmont gave way in the certainty that even if the marquis managed to win the next set of six games, he was in no condition to triumph in two consecutive sets. But the first cut went against him, so he had to deal and watch Dacre as Elder score high with a long suit of spades, which he used to take every trick earning the capot and thus, forty points. Even when Dacre was dealing, Marchmont's hand was weak, and the exchange did nothing to enhance his score. He scarcely scraped seven tricks to earn him a measly ten points, and by the end of the fourth hand, he could see that he would be rubiconed, failing even to reach his hundred points at the end of the partie. So now, he must play for Ceci's hand. He could not weasel out of the wager at this late stage.
Concerned for his daughter's fate, Marchmont made foolish errors, failing to exchange sufficient cards, allowing Dacre to take more tricks than necessary, and then, cataclysmically, declaring carte blanche in an effort to gain points, and thereby allowing Dacre a glance at his hand, which was not a point earner. It was with a nauseated, incredulous horror that he totted up his final score, and discovered that though he had this time at least crossed the Rubicon, Dacre's final tally was more than a whisker over his own. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, the room was still as it had been before, Dacre now looking on him in concern.
“I will not press the debt. It would not be honorable.” The marquis collected up the cards and tore up his score-sheet. “There's an end on this nonsense.”
“But you have won. I was the fool to have taken on the challenge.”
“I cannot cause you grief, nor your child. It is between the two of usâno one else knows of the debt.”
“No, Dacre. You have taught me a signal lesson and I must fulfill my due.”
“At least present it to Ceci as a possibility, not a necessity. If she cries off, we shall forget the business.”
“She will do whatever I ask. She is dutiful.” Marchmont swallowed. “When do you wish the marriage to take place?”
“If that is the way of it, the sooner the better. Let them be married before he leaves. Then they have at least a breathing space and if he comes back and they find they don't suit, we shall seek an annulment.”
“I shall bring Cecilia back to town with me three days hence. Perhaps you will be so good as to ensure that the marriage may be performed as soon as we return. A special license from that cousin of yours, the bishop. Now, if you will excuse me, Dacre, I must arrange my return to Sawards on the instant.”
Birdsong in Saint James's greeted Marchmont as he left his club and the depth of night had lifted. He walked back to the rooms he kept in Albany and summoned his carriage. If the roads were clear, he might be in time to sit down with his family at half-past two. And then he must speak with Cecilia. Would she remember Ormiston, who had visited around the time she was nine? Five years ago now. He seemed to remember tears and teasing and mutinous frowns on being told that however obnoxious a guest might be, his presence must be endured with grace. No comfort there.
He spent the journey down fretting over his predicament with his daughter. He was relieved that he had not used his curricle, for if he had been driving himself, he would have crammed his horses and surely caused some grievous injury if not to himself, to some other more innocent traveller. Additionally, as he rattled along the road, he remembered his failure to carry out all the commissions for books from Hatchards and haberdashery and succulent favours from Fortnum and Mason on behalf of his children and their long-suffering governess, Mademoiselle Lavauden. So he arrived home in a defensive temper, fuming and dusty and dry in the throat, even the climb to the house on the brow of a hill overlooking the Weald failing to raise his spirits as it normally did. Matters were not helped by the sight of Reggie and Amelia cavorting about the stableyard as the carriage pulled in, and consequently able to bombard him with queries about his unexpected return to the country. Of Lavauden and his eldest daughter, there was no sign.
With Amelia clinging to his midriff like a lace-laden monkey and Reggie clasping his hand with a grimy paw, Marchmont made his way indoors and up to his rooms, where he admitted to his offspring that he had not completed any of the shopping he had intended. They bounced away, guilt-inducingly philosophical about his lack of bounty.
“Perhaps you will remember next time. Any road, half of the books were plaguey schoolbooks for Mademoiselle, and it is all to the good that you have had no time to buy those.” Reggie hauled his sister over to the windowseat. “Did you see anyone grand, Father? Did you see the Duke of Wellington again?”
“No. I went to my club and I met with my man of business and that is all. There was no cause to see anyone grand.”
“Did you see any fine ladies, Papa? A princess or the queen?”
“No more than I saw the Duke of Wellington, Amelia. Be sure that I should tell you immediately if I had seen anyone worthy of your notice. Now, you scamps, go find Miss Lavauden and Ceci and bid them help you wash and brush before we eat. You reek of the stables, the pair of you.”
Marchmont picked at his food, which did not go unnoticed. After he declined syllabub and almond biscuits, his favorite sweet, both his staff and his family feared for the aftermath. Gruffly, he demanded that Cecilia join him in his study.
“What have you done, Ceci?” demanded Reginald. She bit her lip and shook her head. Four-year-old Amelia came and hugged her sister's legs. Ceci disentangled the child, dropped a kiss on her dark curls, and handed her over to Reggie's care.
“I wish I knew. Take Amelia up to Mademoiselle, Reggie. I must not keep Papa waiting.”
The study was a rather dark room, and Ceci found she could not see her father's face clearly in the gloom of the afternoon.
“Cecilia. Sit down.”
“You remember we discussed the notion that in a year or two you would go to your Aunt Letitia to prepare yourself before making your curtsey to the queen.”
“I had hoped that you would then enjoy a Season or two before meeting some suitable gentleman. But it is not to be so neatly ordered.” Marchmont cleared his throat. Cecilia waited apprehensively for what would follow. “Yes, well, that is what I hoped for, but circumstances have altered, and I must tell you that if you will have it, Dacre wishes you to be married to Viscount Ormiston in London next week.”
Cecilia gaped. “If I will have it? What has come about that you agreed to broach this with me, Papa?”
Falteringly, Marchmont explained. Cecilia sat still as he stammered and blushed his way through an account of the previous night'sâand morning'sâevents. Eventually, he stumbled to the close of his account. Cecilia remained still. Finally, she looked up and spoke.
“It seems, Papa, I must take Ormiston. We cannot back away from a debt of honor.”
“Cecilia, you do not have to marry him. And even if you do, it is not irrevocable.” Marchmont hurriedly explained, stumbling at the indelicacy of what he must discuss with his girl. “The marriage will not be consummated now, and indeed, if he returns from Europe three or four years hence and you find you do not suit, we shall dissolve the union, be in no doubt of that. I have Dacre's word on this. He only wishes Ormiston to be married to prevent the boy from any rash act while he is out of England.”
“It seems a foolish way to control Ormiston, to be sure. However, that is not my concern. It would not look well if I refused him, would it?” Cecilia frowned and stood. “While you say Lord Dacre will not hold us to the agreement, I feel we should meet our obligations.”
“Ceci, dearest girl, are you sure?”
“You have said that I am not tied by it. Not forever. If I had to live with him and be a true wife to him, I do not think I could do it, even for our family honor. But you seem to suggest that if we do not consummate the marriage, it may be dissolved.”