from My Lady Gamester
Copyright 2005, 2006 by Cara
King. All right reserved.
MY LADY GAMESTER by Cara King
Signet Regency, ISBN:
Richard Stanton, tenth Earl of Stoke, strode up the cold marble stairs
two at a time. Hundreds of candles in crystal chandeliers lit the
mirrors on the walls around him and the red velvet between them, until
the whole entrance hall glowed as if it were day.
What a waste. The beau monde
certainly took their pleasures lavishly. And their duties lightly.
But he was one of them now, wasn’t
he? Stoke scowled at a powdered retainer who indicated the way to
the drawing room.
Drawing room? Why didn’t
they speak plainly and call it the gaming room? He’d never seen a
London townhouse look so much like a gaming club. Etched glass,
burgundy damask--money to lure money.
Which was, presumably, the
intention. The place smelled of money. Money, rich leather,
candle smoke, and more money.
Stoke reached the high-arched
entrance to the drawing room and he paused. He’d known that
ladies gamed here--that was its attraction. But what he hadn’t
expected was their scent.
He’d been in enough gentlemen’s
clubs and gaming hells in his time to know the smell--but now that
particular closed-in, thick smell was mixed with rose, and lavender,
and delicate oils.
As he cast his gaze around the
carved moldings and gilded cornices, the purr of cards being shuffled
set his skin tingling. He swallowed. So this could still
The thought disturbed him more
than he liked, but he pushed it aside. He was here to get
Edmund. That was all.
A florid woman of middle age came
up to him and held out both her powdered hands. “Lord
Stoke! What a pleasure to see you here.” Her voice was
quick and animated. “You have never graced one of my little
parties before, have you? Welcome. Do come and join the
macao table. Or would you like some refreshment? We have a
That pulled his attention away
from the crowd of gamesters around the central table. “Brandy?”
His disapproval must have shown,
for she looked like a child caught teasing the cat. “Oh, it isn’t
smuggled, if that’s what you think,” she said, her voice playful.
“Dear Bates had it left from before the war. Do stop scowling at
He’d never understand them.
“I don’t drink brandy.” Realizing he sounded too curt, he added,
“If you’d seen my men, Lady Isabella--”
“You’re no longer in the army,
Lord Stoke,” she said with a pert smile. “Do sit down and enjoy
yourself for once.”
There was no point in arguing
further. “Thank you,” he said, glancing about the room.
“Have you seen my younger brother anywhere?”
She gave him a knowing look.
“He’s at the macao table, I believe. He doesn’t need rescuing,
“Thank you,” he said, sketching a
He watched her as she strolled
away. Like a spider in her web--except that she did not wish to
eat the flies, just play with them. Gaming was a trap, and she
might be as caught in it as the guests she drew to these gaming parties
Stoke strode over to the large
table in the center of the room. The green cloth on top was
littered with cards and counters, and the occasional scribbled promise
to pay. He quickly scanned the young men and women who surrounded
the table, but Edmund was not there.
So where was the brat? Stoke
had better things to do than play nursemaid to his baby brother.
Well, not baby. Edmund must be
what--twenty now? Old enough to be past such starts. And
old enough to resent being rescued from his favorite vice.
A cackling laugh called his
attention to the corner of the room. There was Edmund’s devil-may-care
friend Ostenley, leaning over a two-person card table.
And there was Edmund.
Playing cards with . . . oh hell, was that Malkham? What was
Edmund doing playing with a shark like him?
Stoke approached the table.
“Piquet?” he asked calmly.
Edmund turned quickly, his blue
eyes resentful. Stoke was relieved to see his brother’s gaze
clear and sober beneath his carefully disordered brown curls.
“Yes,” the boy said challengingly.
“I thought you didn’t like piquet.”
Malkham looked up at this, his
eyes sharp in his heavily lined face. “And good day to you too,
Stanton. Don’t care to speak to me?”
Stoke’s hand tensed on the back of
his brother’s chair. As he had done so many times in battle, he
took a slow breath and took his emotions in a firm grip. “I beg
your pardon, Lord Malkham,” he said, his gaze steadily meeting the
older man’s. “I didn’t notice you there. Good day.”
Malkham rearranged the cards he
held in a gnarled hand. “It’s been a long time, Stanton.
Oh, so sorry--it’s Lord Stoke now, isn’t it? Keep forgetting.”
“That’s quite understandable,” he
said, his tone easy. “You knew my father well, and it must feel
strange to call me Lord Stoke instead of him.”
“Knew him well,” repeated the man,
a cold smile on his dry lips. “Yes indeed. Quite well.”
The man always reminded him of a
snake. And Edmund was gaming with him?
He turned his gaze on his
brother’s slightly flushed face. “I thought macao was your game.”
Before Edmund could reply, Malkham
set his cards face down with a snap on the green baize table.
“Macao is for children.”
Macao was also harder to cheat
at. “Most gamesters think otherwise,” Stoke said, taking a look
at the busy table in the center of the imposing room. “What’s
more daring than risking your money on luck alone?”
“Luck? Pshaw. Luck is
for sniveling boys who want anyone to blame but themselves.
Piquet is a game for men.”
“And women?” said a new voice.
Stoke turned. He took one
look at the tall woman standing there, and something he hadn’t felt in
years threatened to break through. Something . . . impulsive,
He’d never seen a woman like
her. Braids of shining hair the color of dark honey wound around
her head, which she held high, as if in defiance. Her mouth was
strong and resolute, but there was something in her green
eyes--something cautious, almost scared.
And there was an energy, a resolve
about her slender form that he recognized from his years in the
battlefield. This was no schoolroom miss, no empty-headed
butterfly. She wanted something, and was determined to get it.
As if she felt his gaze on her,
her eyes glanced up to meet his. He felt a shock similar to
recognition, but he knew he'd never seen her before tonight.
Her gaze flicked away
immediately. She lifted her head even higher. “Do you dare
play a woman, Lord Malkham?” she asked the wrinkled man, her voice low
“This is not a game for girls,”
was Malkham's reply.
“Are you afraid?” A ghost of
a smile hovered about her lips, but her eyes were cold. “I heard
you were a piquet player. I hoped for a game. Do you refuse
me because I am female, or because I am an unknown to you?”
Malkham’s lip twisted.
“Don’t know you from Adam. Or should I say . . . Eve?”
She raised her eyebrows serenely,
as if she recognized his innuendo and considered it beneath her.
“I am Miss Atalanta James, daughter to the late Viscount James,” she
said steadily. “You are Oswald, Lord Malkham. Now we have
met. Will you play me, or no?”
The old man’s eyes darted to
Edmund and back to the girl. Deciding which was the richer pigeon
“Well then,” Malkham said with a
sneer. “Let’s see you play.”
Beneath his hand Stoke felt Edmund
tense. He pressed down warningly on the boy’s shoulder.
Edmund tried to shake off his
hand. “This is my game,” he said, his voice tight.
“Come, come,” said Malkham, with a
narrow-eyed smile. “I concede, my dear boy. Keep your
Edmund stood so quickly his chair
nearly overturned on the Persian rug. “I didn’t expect such a
lack of respect from you, sir,” he said. “I had heard you were a
serious card player. And you throw in our game to play a girl?”
Malkham reached into a coat pocket
and withdrew a gold-inlay snuffbox. “I am a serious player, boy.” He
flicked the lid open with one yellowing thumbnail. “But you are
not. Discarding your queen, indeed.”
“That’s why it’s called gambling.”
“No, that’s why it’s called
losing. Really now, it does not amuse me to play with children.”
Edmund indicated the woman with
contemptuous hand. “You’re going to play with her.”
“She may turn out to be a
gamester, lad--something you are not.”
Stoke placed a restraining hand on
his brother’s arm. “It’s just as well your game is over,
Edmund. India’s colt is having trouble, and I wanted your help.”
He locked gazes with his brother,
and for a moment it was another war of wills. Then the boy
relaxed. “Oh, very well. If you need me so desperately.”
The mysterious woman stood just as
straight as before. So she was really going to play
Malkham? She must have no idea who the man was.
Unless she was an excellent
player. Either way, it was not his business. He had enough
to do to watch out for his brother and take care of his other
duties. He could not be rescuing every green-eyed damsel who
might or might not be in distress.
As if she knew his thoughts, her
eyes glanced up to meet his. He had rarely seen such implacable
resolve, and he wondered again what she was doing here. Her gaze
dropped immediately, as if concealing something.
Whatever it was, it had nothing to
do with him. “It has been a pleasure,” he lied to Malkham and the
mystery woman, sketching a bow. “Come, Edmund.”
He could tell that Edmund had
plenty to say, but luckily the boy kept his tongue until they reached
the Ionic columns that flanked the ostentatious portico in front of the
Edmund turned to face him.
“So tell me. Is India’s colt having any trouble? Or was
that just a ruse to fetch me home like a good boy?”
Stoke raised his eyebrows.
“Would you rather have me announce in front of everyone that you’re
being sent home for being disobedient?”
Edmund slapped a plaster column in
frustration. “I’m not a child.”
“Then don’t act like one.”
“I was just having a game, that's
How many times had they gone over
this same ground? “I told you before. I will no longer pay
your gaming debts.”
Edmund turned his sulky face
away. “I don’t see why not. You have heaps of money.”
“You need to act like a man,
Edmund. If I keep bailing you out, you will never learn.”
“I know, I know,” grumbled the
boy. “When you were my age, you had been in the army for years,
et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum.”
Stoke put his hand on his
brother’s shoulder and turned him to meet his gaze. “I am not
going to argue with you. I will see you in debtor’s prison before
I pay another gaming debt.” He wouldn’t, of course, but he had to
get through to the boy somehow. “If that is what it takes to
teach you to think before you act, so be it.”
Edmund looked uncertain for
once. “I don’t see why. All the fellows game. Cyril
played hazard all the time, and you know father was always at the
He held Edmund’s gaze.
“Gaming can be a fever. And I am not going to see you bankrupt
our family by falling prey to it, whatever our brother or father did.”
Edmund shrugged as much as his
tight-fitting coat let him. “If you insist.” He stared out
into the dark street. “I daresay I should check on the colt
anyway. Or were you intending to?”
Was he? As soon as he asked
himself, he realized he had no intention of leaving yet.
The thought bothered him. It
wasn’t his duty to rescue a strange woman from the claws of
Malkham. Nor was it his place. So why was he so determined
to go back upstairs and protect her from the man?
As a captain in his regiment, he
had taken care of his men. In the long year that he’d been the
earl, he had assumed responsibility for his family, employees,
retainers, tenants. What was one green-eyed miss to him?
Perhaps it was that sense of
recognition he’d felt, that impulse that she was a kindred
spirit. That might be what made him feel responsible for
her. As if she were a--a younger sister, perhaps.
Edmund was staring at him.
Stoke realized their coach had arrived, the red and white coat of arms
painted on its side obvious even in this dim light.
Stoke cleared his throat.
“No,” he said slowly. “You take the carriage. There’s
something I need to do.”
Atalanta felt her nerves tense as
she took the chair opposite Lord Malkham. She’d never thought
she’d be so easily distracted from her goal. She had everything
planned and ready. So why did her mind keep straying to the
dark-haired man who’d been here? She didn’t even know who he
Maybe it was the way he looked
after his younger brother. That touched something in her.
How would it feel to be taken care of like that? To have someone
you could depend on utterly?
She had no one but herself to take
on the task before her.
Malkham. The name was ugly
to her, unreal. Almost a legend, a story from her past. How
strange, then, to finally meet him. Finally, after so many years
of hating him.
She studied him, learning what she
could from his face, his form. He wore his lank white hair long,
after the fashion of his youth, so that it fell limply down to his
hunched shoulders. The hands he rested on the cards were thin and
gnarled, almost twisted, with large knuckles and cracked
fingernails. His coat was modern, dark and restrained, but it
hung loose on his frame in a way that implied a contempt for fashion.
But all this meant nothing when
she looked into his face. It showed the man’s soul--if it even
existed. His skin was dull, heavily lined and pockmarked.
His pale mouth was soft, almost slack, but his wrinkled eyelids hung
low over eyes that were sharp enough to wound.
Sharp--and avaricious. There
was no mercy in his face, no kindness, only dissipation and boredom.
That boredom was her way in.
She schooled her features to reveal nothing--the gamester’s face.
“Standard rules, to a hundred points?”
“So,” he said, his voice so low
she could scarcely hear him. “Are
you a gamester?”
She gave him the ghost of a
smile. Let him wonder. “A crown a point?”
His beady eyes watched her in
silence. What did he want? Was he trying to intimidate her?
She kept her jaw firm, returning
his gaze steadily. Finally, he narrowed his eyes. “Miss James, did you say?”
She inclined her head. “I
“Daughter of the scholarly
Viscount, eh? Inherited his brains as well as his thirst for the
For a moment, she thought she was
going to be sick.
She had to control herself.
She had spent too many years waiting, learning, and planning to fail
She stiffened her
resolve. “I enjoy a game or two,” she said, fighting to keep all
emotion out of her voice. She forced herself to take a slow, deep
breath. “Shall we cut for deal?”
Stoke waited until Edmund was safely off before heading back into Lady
Isabella’s utterly respectable version of a gaming hell.
It was ridiculous, of course,
being here. How was he to rescue a lady to whom he’d never been
introduced? And from the slimy clutches of a man she’d boldly
He made his way around
damask-backed chairs and bewigged footmen carrying refreshments until
he reached the far side of the room, where the whist players sat over
their cards in intense silence.
With his back safe against the
wall, he surveyed the players. A good soldier knew the territory
before striking. Whist, macao, piquet--he saw all the serious
card games here. An open door led into the next room, where a
group of older ladies gossiped and dealt.
So. Deep card games here,
lighter ones in the other room. But no faro table, no dice for
hazard--nothing to create a scandal or attract the law.
Just the lure to draw aristocratic
wastrels in--privacy, comfort, and serious gaming. Lady Isabella
offered all the pleasures of a gaming hell, coupled with the luxuries
of a ton party. How
could it fail to attract?
His hostess must have noticed that
his hands were empty of both drink and cards, for she approached him
again. “Care to make a fourth at whist, Stoke? Or there’s
loo and speculation in the next room, if that’s more to your taste.”
In for a penny, in for a
pound. “There’s one thing you could do for me.”
She gave him a knowing look.
“Only one?” She dimpled at him. “No, I’m only quizzing
you. What is it?”
His gaze moved back to the small
table in the far corner. “Introduce me to Miss James?”
Lady Isabella turned to
look. “Indeed. Miss Atalanta James, the Goddess of the
Cards. So that’s your taste?” She gave a wry laugh.
“I can’t fault you for it, though you’d have better luck at macao.”
"Why is she called the Goddess of
the Cards? Is she that good?"
His hostess looked amused.
"She's good for a lady, certainly. But I fancy the gentlemen call
her that because she is like a statue of a Greek Goddess:
beautiful, and yet--oh, so cold to the touch. I have introduced
many men to the Goddess, but I've yet to see one win a smile from her."
He didn't care for the picture
that painted. What were her relatives thinking, to permit such
things? "I take it, then, that she games here regularly?”
“Recently, she does. Her
great-aunt has a taste for loo. Come, I shall introduce you to
the intriguing lady.”
Lady Isabella moved gracefully
between the tables, and he followed. “Her father was a noted
gamester,” she said. “Did you know that? Never knew a man
with a greater love for the cards. It seems the viscount’s fair
daughter has inherited his passion.”
They paused a few feet away from
the piquet table. The girl looked so young sitting there, her
back to him. Her crown of amber braids might be rigid, even
flawless, but the long neck she held so straight seemed delicate and
She held her cards close to her
chest, but he could see that she paused too long before taking a
trick. She might think she was up to Malkham’s level, but if she
wasn’t careful, she would end up just another of his victims.
Lady Isabella moved forward.
“My dear Lord Malkham, what a charming partner you have tonight.
Miss James--have you met the earl? He finds you quite
fascinating, let me tell you.”
Curse Lady Isabella. At her
words, Miss James’s eyes became guarded. Their hostess, as if
satisfied with her mischief, gave a tinkling laugh and fluttered off to
find new prey.
He had to remedy the
situation. “Lady Isabella enjoys trying to discomfit me, as you
see. Actually, Miss James, I was hoping for a game of
piquet--when you and Malkham have finished. It is not often that
one finds a lady with a flair for the game.”
She paused for just a
moment. “We have only just begun playing.” Her voice was
cool, revealing nothing.
“I should be pleased to wait on
your convenience, if you are willing to play against me.”
Malkham wrinkled his upper
lip. “Stealing my partner, Stanton? Is this your new
pastime or something?” His tone held just a hint of a
sneer. “What, will no one else play with you?”
Stoke gave the old man a cold
look. “I believe I asked the lady.” He moved his gaze to
the high-cheekboned face before him. “Will you do me the favor,
She inclined her head
slightly. “It will be my pleasure.”
That was clearly a lie. But
as long as she played with him, he would have the chance to warn her
off playing with sharpsters like Malkham.
He gave her a bow. “Until
As he turned away, he noticed that
the hand she held her cards with was shaking slightly. Blazes
take it all. What was it about her that made him feel so
protective, so drawn to her? He had no room in his life for
another charge. He already had trouble fulfilling all his duties.
So what in heaven’s name was he
Her luck was out tonight--not that she believed in luck. But here
she was finally facing Lord Malkham across the piquet table, and this
strange man showed up and asked her to game.
Of course she’d said yes.
Whatever she did, she couldn’t raise Malkham’s suspicions. But
why did it have to be tonight? She’d intended to play more than
one game against Malkham, but now that their first game was drawing to
a close she had no choice but to change opponents.
She fought to keep her hand steady
as she picked up the last trick of the game. “Ninety-six,” she
said. Then she paused, as if the addition took her a
second. “And . . . yes, I get ten for the cards, do I not?”
She tried to sound cool but pleased. “I believe I win the game,
His eyes had a glint in
them. “So you do, Miss James. My felicitations. And
He pushed five golden guineas
across the green baize table to her. She gave him her best
girlish smile and scooped up the coins. “Would you like to play
“I would be honored.” His
dry lips smiled, but his eyes were as cold as ever. “I always
enjoy a good partner,” he said, his voice oily. “Particularly one
as . . . pleasant to look at as you.”
She wasn’t certain she could keep
her revulsion from showing, so she kept her eyes down as she put her
winnings in her reticule.
She felt rather than heard the
strange man appear behind her. Glancing up, she once again felt
that odd sensation when she looked at his face. Those craggy
brows, those intense, demanding eyes with their bronze glints--he
looked like an untamed part of nature. Even his brown hair was
streaked by the sun. What was a man like that doing in a place
She did not know what he wanted
with her, but she hoped she could sidestep it. She did not care
to do battle with this man.
“My game, Miss James?” he said,
his voice rich and deep.
She closed her reticule and stood
regretfully. “I believe so.”
The tall man put his hand beneath
her elbow as if to lead her away. As if he owned her.
She turned back to Malkham.
“Thank you for the game, my lord.” She felt the hand beneath her
elbow tense. Did the man’s actions have to do with Malkham then,
rather than her?
When in doubt, she thought,
conduct yourself calmly and quietly, and let the fish hook
itself. So she smiled to herself and let the forceful man lead
her to a neighboring table.
As she sat in the crimson damask
chair, she saw Malkham rise and leave the room. At least that was
one difficulty out of the way--she needn’t watch her every word, every
step for a while. “Cut for deal?”
The earl eyed her for a moment,
and she had to look away. It was ridiculous, but she felt like he
could see into her soul.
But why should she care what he
thought of her? She schooled her features into a polite mask and
reached for the new pack of cards which a servant placed on the table.
He frowned at her for a moment, as
if assessing her, then picked a card out of the stack. Before
looking at it, he said, “Shilling points?”
Not a deep player, then.
“Shilling points, to a hundred,” she agreed. He turned over his
card and she saw the queen of spades. She flipped up the seven of
diamonds. “Your deal.”
He frowned at the cards as he
shuffled them. “Do you play much, Miss James?”
If he wanted information, he’d
chosen the wrong partner. “On occasion.”
“And do you enjoy it?”
“Enjoy it?” She tilted her
head. “Do not most people enjoy cards?”
The pack of cards gave a crisp
snap as he shuffled them. After a few seconds, he said, “I
believe your father is deceased?”
His words hit her unaware.
“I beg your pardon?” She could hear surprise and annoyance in her
voice, and fought for tighter control.
He looked up, his expression
changing to one of regret, almost embarrassment. “Forgive me,
Miss James. I learned bluntness in the Peninsula, and in the year
I have been back in England I have not managed to break myself of the
habit. My servants threaten to leave because they say I treat
them like raw recruits.” She saw a glint of humor in his brown
eyes. “Little do they know what I actually did to my new
He paused, tapping his fingers
slowly against the table. “I mean only good to you, Miss
James. I know I have no right to speak to you this way, but . .
.” His fingers ceased their tapping. “Do you have someone
to look out for you? A guardian, or older brother perhaps?”
Why did he want to know? “I
am properly supervised, I assure you.”
He let out an exasperated
breath. “I’m not trying to police you. But if no one has
told you not to game with a sharp like Malkham, you need better
advice.” He picked up the pack of cards and began dealing.
She kept her gaze on the cards he
dealt out. “Are you warning me he is dangerous? Is that it?”
He finished the deal and set down
the remaining cards with a thump. “Yes, I am. You may think
yourself a clever card player. Perhaps you are, in your
way. But a man like Malkham--he lures you in, lets you win a
little. Lays the groundwork. You become
overconfident and the stakes go up, and that’s when you realize you’re
no match for a--” He paused for a second, as if biting back the
word he was about to say. “For a player of his experience,” he
All her anger at his presumption
flowed away in a moment, replaced by the awareness that this man was
trying to protect her. He was blunt, and he thought he could
order her around like one of his men, but that was inconsequential next
to the warm feeling that enveloped her.
He cared. He hadn’t even
known her name, but he’d gone out of his way to warn her about
Malkham. She wasn’t used to that sort of attention, or concern.
She took a deep breath.
“Thank you. I see you mean the best, and believe me--I am
grateful.” But how could she explain without revealing anything,
or putting his back up? “I merely heard that Lord Malkham was a
proficient card player. No one warned me not to game with him.”
She studied her cards, and pulled
a few out. “I discard four.” She took four off the stack,
noting that she still held no ace.
“I take the remaining four.”
He arranged his cards, then said, almost casually, “Will you promise me
not to play Malkham again?”
This was too much. She gave
him a steady look. “You have no right to ask me something like
He returned her gaze
undeterred. “I know that. But will you promise me?”
She couldn’t, of course. For
all his annoying frankness, she felt strangely touched by his request,
but she couldn’t grant it.
She looked down at her
cards. “Point of five.”
When he gave no response, she
glanced up. He was still looking at her. Waiting.
But no matter what she thought of
him, she had things to take care of. No one, even someone as kind
as him, would get in her way. “Point of five,” she repeated.
“Stubborn, are you?” His
voice contained grudging admiration. “Your point is good, by the
way. So are you saying you intend to game with Malkham
He could try the patience of a
saint. And she was no saint. “I declare a tierce,” she
said, pointedly looking at her cards.
“Are you that in love with
cards? Could you not satisfy your yen with any other player?”
At the light in his eye, she felt
her cheeks growing warm. This was not the time for feminine
weakness. She must be strong. “I know you mean the best,
Lord Stanton,” she said. “And I am more grateful than you
know. But I really cannot have you intruding into my private
He waved an arm at the glittering
company around them. “This is private?” When she continued
to stare stonily at him, he put his arm down and sighed. “I
expect I was just rude again. Seems my lot in life. And I’m
afraid Lady Isabella muddled our introduction, to boot. My family
name is Stanton, yes, but my title is Stoke.”
She felt dizzy for a second.
That name . . . She swallowed convulsively. “I beg your
“I was Captain Richard Stanton
until a year ago, when I inherited the title--which, as a younger son,
I had never expected--believe me. The outbreak of influenza last
year took both my father and my elder brother. So almost
overnight I went from cavalry officer to earl.” He gave her a
self-deprecating smile. “I am now Lord Stoke, for all my faults.”
She closed her eyes. This
could not be happening. Why? What had she done to deserve
this? “You are the Earl of Stoke?” Her voice sounded harsh
in her ears.
“I am.” His gaze was
keen. “Does the name mean something to you? Did you know my
She fought for control. This
meant nothing. Yes, he was a kind man--but that had no bearing on
what she needed to do.
“No,” she said finally. “I
never met your father. Shall we play the game?”
His dark eyes held hers, and she
felt as if they were struggling for control. She summoned up all
her will, all her resolve, and looked down again at her cards.
“Tierce?” she said again.
He paused, and she was afraid he
would continue to press her. But he finally glanced down at his
cards and said, “Good.”
As they continued to declare their
hands, her mind was in chaos. This changed everything.
Though . . . perhaps it was all for the best. To find Stoke so
easily was luck indeed.
Not that she believed in
luck. Her father had taught her better than that.
At the thought of her father, she
felt some of the tension leave her. She knew what she had to
do. Nothing else mattered.
And she had Stoke right where she
She soon realized he was a good
card player. Part of her wanted to give the game her utmost
effort, to see if she could best him--just for the challenge of
it. But besting him in the long term meant restraining herself
She’d known from the moment she’d
replaced her discards that he must hold four aces. That was
child’s play. But she declared her four kings boldly,
confidently, as if she thought she could win with them. As if she
were careless, or a novice player.
“Not good,” he said, almost
regretfully. She managed a slight look of surprise, looking down
again at her cards as if she hadn’t realized what he held. After
a moment she gave a small “Oh” of dismay. Let him think she
feared being capotted--that should finish the picture for
him. Poor little Miss James, imagining herself a competent piquet
player. How sad that she inherited her father’s love for the
cards without his skill.
She led out the king of hearts,
which he took with his ace. He controlled the play for several
tricks, but she finally got the lead back with the king of
spades. Then she led out the rest of her hearts, in perfect
order: queen, knave, nine, eight. Perfect order--the mark
of a beginner.
She could see by his occasional
hesitations that he was taking the bait, and believing her to be an
unskilled player with simple, orderly habits. From his pauses she
deduced he felt sorry to be winning money from an untutored
Let him. She would win all
her losses back, and more. Much more. “So, you have ten for
the cards,” she said, as he took the last trick. “And--is it my
“Your deal,” he agreed. He
offered her a handful of cards.
When she took the cards from him,
her fingers brushed against the back of his large, roughened
hand. A hand that belonged to a real person, not an image in her
mind, not a name--a man. A man who felt more comfortable on the
battlefield than in high society, but who went out of his way to warn
her when he thought she might be in danger.
A man she had sworn to bankrupt.
She stared at his hand,
confused. After what his father had done to her family, she was
perfectly in the right. But somehow she’d never thought of the
Earl of Stoke as a person.
“Would you rather I shuffle?” he
She took her hand away.
With a deft touch he gathered the
cards together and began to shuffle them.
She had to fight this
weakness. She had to think of her sister, playing nursemaid for a
bitter woman. And Tom, who would be lost without her.
And her father, who was
gone. Forever. She was the only one left to take care of
Tom and Louly, and she was determined to do it. Even if it took
everything she had.
She took hold of her weakness, her
girlish side, and shoved it down. The man across from her would
be the first to say that in a war, the good are sometimes hurt.
But if the end was just, then one did not shirk the fight. She
might only be a girl of nineteen, but there was no one else to fight
She held out her hand for the
cards. “My deal, I believe.”
If you enjoyed this excerpt from MY LADY GAMESTER and wish to read
more, you can purchase the complete novel from Amazon.com, BN.com, or
through your local bookseller. (If they have no copies in stock,
they can always special-order you a copy!)
Books What's the Regency? Regency Info Movies Bio
Last updated July 9, 2006.
All text and images copyright 2005, 2006 by Cara King