Authors: Julia Quinn
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Adult, #Music, #Humour
This one is for me.
And also for Paul.
But mostly for me.
Quite late at night
iquet favors those with a vivid memory,” the Earl of Chatteris said, to no one in particular.
Lord Hugh Prentice didn’t hear him; he was too far away, over at the table by the window, and more pertinently, he was somewhat drunk. But had Hugh heard Chatteris’s remark—and had he not been intoxicated—he would have thought:
That is why I play piquet.
He would not have said it out loud. Hugh had never been the sort to speak merely for the sake of making his voice heard. But he would have thought it. And his expression would have changed. One corner of his lips would have twitched, and his right eyebrow might have arched—just the barest hint of a movement, but still, enough for a careful observer to think him smug.
Although the truth was, London society was quite devoid of careful observers.
Except for Hugh.
Hugh Prentice noticed everything. And he remembered it all, too. He could, if he wished, recite all of
Romeo and Juliet,
word for word.
he could not do, but that was only because he had never taken the time to read it.
It was a rare enough talent that Hugh had been disciplined for cheating six times during his first two months at Eton. He soon realized that his life was made infinitely easier if he purposefully flubbed a question or two on his examinations. It wasn’t that he minded the accusations of cheating so much—
knew he hadn’t cheated, and he didn’t much care what anyone else thought of it—but it was such a bother, getting hauled up before his teachers and being forced to stand there and regurgitate information until they were satisfied of his innocence.
Where his memory really came in handy, though, was cards. As the younger son of the Marquess of Ramsgate, Hugh knew that he was due to inherit precisely nothing. Younger sons were expected to join the army, the clergy, or the ranks of fortune hunters. As Hugh lacked the temperament for any of these pursuits, he would have to find some other means of support. And gambling was so very easy when one had the ability to recall every card played—in order—for an entire evening.
What had become difficult was finding gentlemen willing to play—Hugh’s remarkable skill at piquet had become the stuff of legend—but if young men were drunk enough, they always tried their hand. Everyone wanted to be the man to beat Hugh Prentice at cards.
The problem was that this evening, Hugh had also drunk “enough.” It wasn’t a common occurrence; he’d never been comfortable with the loss of control that flowed from a bottle of wine. But he’d been out and about with friends, and they’d gone to a somewhat salty tavern, where the pints were large, the crowd was loud, and the women uncommonly buxom.
By the time they’d reached their club and pulled out a deck of cards, Daniel Smythe-Smith, who had recently come into his title as the Earl of Winstead, was well in his cups. He was offering vivid descriptions of the maid he’d just tupped, Charles Dunwoody was vowing to go back to the tavern to improve upon Daniel’s performance, and even Marcus Holroyd—the young Earl of Chatteris, who had always been a bit more serious than the others—was laughing so hard he nearly tipped over his chair.
Hugh had preferred his barmaid to Daniel’s—a little less fleshy; a little more lithe—but he just grinned when pressed for the details. He remembered every inch of her, of course, but he never kissed and told.
“Going to beat you this time, Prentice!” Daniel boasted. He leaned sloppily against the table, his signature grin nearly blinding the rest of them. He’d always been the charmer of the group.
“For the love of God, Daniel,” Marcus groaned, “not again.”
“No, no, I can do it.” Daniel wagged a finger in the air, laughing when the motion made him lose his balance. “I can do it this time.”
“He can!” Charles Dunwoody exclaimed. “I know he can!”
No one bothered to comment. Even sober, Charles Dunwoody seemed to know a lot of things that were untrue.
“No, no, I can,” Daniel insisted, “because you”—he wagged a finger in Hugh’s general direction—“have had a lot to drink.”
“Not as much as you have,” Marcus pointed out, but he hiccupped when he said it.
“I counted,” Daniel said triumphantly. “He had more.”
“I had the most,” Dunwoody boasted.
should play,” Daniel said.
A game was struck, and wine was served, and everyone was having a grand time until—
Hugh blinked, staring at the cards on the table.
“I won,” Daniel said, with not inconsiderable awe. “Will you look at that?”
Hugh ran through the deck in his mind, ignoring the fact that some of the cards were uncharacteristically fuzzy.
“I won,” Daniel said again, this time to Marcus, his longtime closest friend.
“No,” Hugh said, mostly to himself. It wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t possible. He never lost at cards. At night, when he was trying to sleep, when he was trying not to listen, his mind could bring up every card he’d played that day. That week, even.
“I’m not even sure how I did it,” Daniel said. “It was the king, but then it was the seven, and I . . .”
“It was the ace,” Hugh snapped, unable to listen to another moment of his idiocy.
“Hmmm.” Daniel blinked. “Maybe it was.”
“God,” Hugh cried out. “Somebody shut him up.” He needed quiet. He needed to focus and remember the cards. If he could just do that, this would all go away. It was like the time he’d come home late with Freddie, and their father had already been waiting with—
No no no. That was something different. This was cards. Piquet. He never lost. It was the one thing, the only thing, he could count on.
Dunwoody scratched his head and looked at the cards, counting out loud. “I think he—”
“Winstead, you bloody cheat!” Hugh yelled, the words pouring unbidden from his throat. He didn’t know where they’d come from, or what had prompted him to say them, but once out, they filled the air, sizzling violently above the table.
Hugh began to shake.
“No,” Daniel said. Just that. Just
, with an unsteady hand and a confused expression. Baffled, like—
But Hugh wouldn’t think of that. He couldn’t think of that, so instead he lurched to his feet, upending the table as he clung to the one thing he knew was true, which was that he
lost at cards.
“I didn’t cheat,” Daniel said, blinking rapidly. He turned to Marcus. “I don’t cheat.”
But he had to have cheated. Hugh flipped through the cards in his mind again, ignoring the fact that the jack of clubs was wielding an actual club, and he was chasing after the ten, which was drinking wine out of a glass much like the one currently shattered at his feet. . . .
Hugh started yelling. He had no idea what he was saying, just that Daniel had cheated, and the queen of hearts had stumbled, and 42 times 306 was always 12,852, not that he had any idea what that had to do with anything, but there was wine all over the floor now, and the cards were everywhere, and Daniel was just standing there, shaking his head, saying, “What is he talking about?”
“There is no way you could have had the ace,” Hugh hissed. The ace had been after the jack, which had been next to the ten . . .
“But I did,” Daniel said with a shrug. And a burp.
“You couldn’t,” Hugh shot back, stumbling for balance. “I know every card in the deck.”
Daniel looked down at the cards. Hugh did, too, at the queen of diamonds, madeira dripping from her neck like blood.
“Remarkable,” Daniel murmured. He looked straight at Hugh. “I won. Fancy that.”
Was he mocking him? Was Daniel Smythe-Smith, the oh-so venerable Earl of Winstead,
“I will have satisfaction,” Hugh growled.
Daniel’s head snapped up in surprise. “What?”
“Name your seconds.”
“Are you challenging me to a duel?” Daniel turned incredulously to Marcus. “I think he’s challenging me to a duel.”
“Daniel, shut up.” Marcus groaned—Marcus, who suddenly looked far more sober than the rest of them.
But Daniel waved him off, then said, “Hugh, don’t be an ass.”
Hugh didn’t think. He lunged. Daniel jumped to the side, but not fast enough, and both men went down. One of the table legs jammed into Hugh’s hip, but he barely felt it. He pounded Daniel—one, two, three, four—until two sets of hands pulled him back, up and off, barely restraining him as he spat, “You’re a bloody cheat.”
Because he knew this. And Winstead had
“You’re an idiot,” Daniel replied, shaking blood from his face.
“I will have my satisfaction.”
“Oh, no, you won’t,” Daniel hissed. “
will have satisfaction.”
“The Patch of Green?” Hugh said coolly.
There was a hushed silence as everyone waited for either man to come to his senses.
But they didn’t. Of course they didn’t.
Hugh smiled. He couldn’t imagine why he had anything to smile about, but he felt it slinking along his face nonetheless. And when he looked at Daniel Smythe-Smith, he saw another man’s face.
“So be it.”
ou don’t have to do this,” Charles Dunwoody said, grimacing as he finished his inspection of Hugh’s gun.
Hugh didn’t bother to reply. His head hurt too much.
“I mean, I believe you that he was cheating. He’d have to be, because, well, it’s you, and you always win. Don’t know how you manage it, but you do.”
Hugh barely moved his head, but his eyes traveled a slow arc toward Dunwoody’s face. Was Dunwoody accusing
of cheating now?
“I think it’s the maths,” Dunwoody went on, oblivious to Hugh’s sardonic expression. “You always were freakishly good at it . . .”
Pleasant. Always so very pleasant to be called a freak.
“ . . . and I
you never cheated at maths. Heaven knows we quizzed you enough at school.” Dunwoody looked up with a frown. “How
you do that?”
Hugh gave him a flat stare. “You’re asking me
“Oh. No. No, of course not.” Dunwoody cleared his throat and backed up a step. Marcus Holroyd was heading their way, presumably in an attempt to put a halt to the duel. Hugh watched as Marcus’s boots ate up the damp grass. His left stride was longer than his right, although not by much. It would probably take him fifteen more steps to reach them, sixteen if he was feeling ornery and wanted to butt up into their space.
But this was Marcus. He’d stop at fifteen.
Marcus and Dunwoody exchanged guns for inspection. Hugh stood by next to the surgeon, who was just
of useful information.
“Right here,” the surgeon said, smacking his upper thigh. “I’ve seen it happen. Femoral artery. You bleed like a pig.”
Hugh said nothing. He wasn’t going to actually
Daniel. He’d had a few hours to calm down, and while he was still livid, he saw no reason to try to kill him.
“But if you just want something really painful,” the surgeon continued, “you can’t go wrong with the hand or foot. The bones are easy to break, and there are a hell of a lot of nerves. Plus you won’t kill him. Too far from anything important.”
Hugh was very good at ignoring people, but even he couldn’t hold out against this. “The hand’s not important?”
The surgeon rolled his tongue over his teeth, then made a sucking noise, presumably to dislodge some rancid piece of food. He shrugged. “It’s not the heart.”
He had a point, which needled. Hugh hated when annoying people had valid points. Still, if the surgeon had any sense, he’d shut the bloody hell up.
“Just don’t go for the head,” the surgeon said with a shudder. “No one wants that, and I’m not just talking about the poor sod who’s taken the bullet. There’ll be brains everywhere, faces shot open. Shoots the funeral straight to hell.”
“This is your choice of surgeon?” Marcus asked.
Hugh jerked his head toward Dunwoody. “He found him.”
“I’m a barber,” the surgeon said defensively.
Marcus shook his head and walked back to Daniel.
“Gentlemen at your ready!”
Hugh wasn’t sure who had called out the order. Someone who’d found out about the duel and wanted bragging rights, most probably. There weren’t many sentences in London more coveted than “I saw it myself.”
Hugh lifted his arm and aimed. Three inches to the right of Daniel’s shoulder.
Good God, he’d forgot about the counting.
His chest clenched. The counting. The yelling. It was the one time that numbers became the enemy. His father’s voice, hoarse in his triumph, and Hugh, trying not to hear . . .
And he pulled the trigger.
Hugh looked at Daniel in surprise.
“Bloody hell, you shot me!” Daniel yelled. He clutched his shoulder, his rumpled white shirt already oozing with red.