Cara King, Author

Excerpt from My Lady Gamester


Copyright 2005, 2006 by Cara King.  All right reserved.

MY LADY GAMESTER  by Cara King
Signet Regency,  ISBN: 0451217195


CHAPTER ONE


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 draw him? 

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 wonderful brandy.”

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 me.”

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, you know.”

“Thank you,” he said, sketching a bow. 

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 of hers.

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, perhaps.

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 and rich.

“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 to pluck?

“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 shillings.”

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 house.

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 all.”

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 tables.”

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 was.

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 did.”

“Daughter of the scholarly Viscount, eh?  Inherited his brains as well as his thirst for the cards?”

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 now.

 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?”





CHAPTER TWO


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 sought out? 

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 vulnerable.

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, Miss James?”

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 then.”

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 doing?


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, Lord Malkham.”

His eyes had a glint in them.  “So you do, Miss James.  My felicitations.  And your winnings.”

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 again sometime?”

“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 like this?   

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 troopers.” 

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 finished wryly.

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 that.”

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 again?  Why?”

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 life.”

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 pardon?”

“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 father, perhaps?”

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 wanted him.

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 now.

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 player. 

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 deal?”

“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 said.

She took her hand away.  “Please do.”

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 this battle.

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!)


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Last updated July 9, 2006.

All text and images copyright 2005, 2006 by Cara King