Upper Brook Street, London.
February 20th, 1825.
"It's hopeless!" Amanda Cynster flopped on her back on her twin sister's bed. "There is simply no gentleman in the ton worth considering - not at present."
"There hasn't been for the last five years - well, not gentlemen interested in taking a wife." Stretched beside Amanda, Amelia stared up at the canopy. "We've searched and searched-"
"Turned every stone."
"And the only ones even vaguely interesting are…not interested."
Alike in both feature and figure, blessed with blond ringlets, cornflower blue eyes and porcelain complexions, the twins could easily have posed for La Belle Assemblée as the epitome of well-bred, fashionable young ladies, except for their expressions. Amelia looked disgusted, Amanda, mutinous. "I refuse to lower my standards."
They'd discussed their requirements in a husband ad infinitum over the years. Their standards did not materially differ from those espoused by their mentors-their mother and aunts, their cousins' wives. They were surrounded by strong women, ladies all, who had, one and all, found happiness in their marriages. The twins had little doubt as to the qualities they sought.
A gentleman who loved them, who would set them and the family they would raise above all other considerations. A protector, a helpmate, with a reliable, strong arm who would always be there to keep them safe. A man who valued their skills, intelligence and opinions, who would accept them as an equal however much he wished to be lord and master of his world. A gentleman of sufficient substance to render their not-inconsiderable dowries by-the-by; a man of their world well-connected enough to take the powerful Cynster clan in his stride.
A man of passion and family feeling-lover, protector, partner. Husband.
Amanda humphed. "There have to be some out there who measure up to our cousins." The Bar Cynster, that notorious group of six who had for so long lorded it over the ton, leaving uncounted ladies languishing in their wake until, one by one, fate had snared their hearts. "They can't be unique."
"They're not. Think of Chillingworth."
"True-but when I do, I think of Lady Francesca, so that's not much help. He's already taken."
"He's too old, anyway. We need someone nearer our age."
"But not too near-I've had my fill of earnest young men." It had been a road-to-Damascus revelation when they'd realized that their cousins-those arrogant, dictatorial males they had for so long fought to be free of-were in fact the embodiment of their ideals. The realization had thrown the shortcomings of the current candidates for their hands into even more dismal relief. "If we're ever to find husbands, we're going to have to do something!"
"We need a plan."
"One different to last year's, or the year before that's!" Amanda glanced at Amelia; her twin's expression was abstracted, eyes fixed on some vision only she could see. "You look as if you have one."
Amelia glanced her way. "No, not a plan. Not yet. But there are suitable gentlemen, only they aren't on the lookout for a wife. I can think of at least one, and there must be others. I was thinking…maybe we should stop waiting and take matters into our own hands."
"I couldn't agree more, but what are you proposing?"
Amelia's jaw firmed. "I'm sick of waiting-we're twenty-three! I want to be married by June. Once the Season starts, I'm going to reassess and make a new list of candidates, regardless of whether they're thinking of marriage or not. Then I intend picking the one that suits me best, and taking steps to ensure he accompanies me to the altar."
That last phrase rang with determination. Amanda studied Amelia's profile. Many thought she was the stubborn one, the stronger, more overtly confident one. Amelia appeared so much quieter, yet in reality, once Amelia set her sights on a goal it was well nigh impossible to turn her from it.
All of which begged the point.
"You sly minx-you've got your eye on someone."
Amelia wrinkled her nose. "I do, but I'm not sure. He may not be the best choice-if you disregard the caveat that they should be looking for a bride, then there are a lot more to chose from."
"True." Amanda flopped onto her back. "But not for me. I've looked." A moment passed. "Are you going to tell me who he is, or should I guess?"
"Neither." Amelia glanced at her. "I don't know for certain that he's the one, and you might inadvertently give away my interest if you know."
Weighing the likelihood, Amanda had to admit it was real; dissembling wasn't her strong suit. "Very well, but how do you intend 'ensuring he accompanies you to the altar?'"
"I don't know, but I'll do whatever is necessary to get him there."
The grimly determined vow sent a shiver down Amanda's spine. She knew perfectly well what "whatever is necessary" encompassed. It was a risky strategy, yet she had little doubt Amelia, with her core of steel, could follow it to victory.
Amelia glanced at her. "What about you? What of your plan? You needn't bother telling me you don't have one."
Amanda grinned. That was the best of being twins-they followed each other's thoughts instinctively. "I've already looked through the ton, and not just among those who've deigned to worship at our dainty feet. I've concluded that, as I can't find a gentleman within the ton, then I need to search outside it."
"Where will you find marriageable gentlemen outside the ton?"
"Where did our cousins spend most of their evenings before they married?"
"They used to attend some of the balls and parties."
"Ah, but think back and you'll recall they attended on sufferance, danced twice, then left. They only appeared because our aunts insisted. Not all suitable gentlemen - gentlemen we would consider eligible partis - have female relatives capable of compelling their attendance within the ton."
"So…" Amelia refocused on Amanda's face. "You'll search for eligible partis in the private clubs and gaming hells-gentlemen we haven't yet met because they don't, or don't often, appear in our circle."
"Precisely-in the clubs and hells, and at the private parties held in various ladies' salons."
"Mmm… It seems a good plan."
"I believe it has a great potential." Amanda considered Amelia's face. "Do you want to search with me? There's sure to be more than one eligible parti hiding in the shadows."
Amelia met her gaze, then looked past her; after a moment, her twin shook her head. "No. If I wasn't determined…but I am."
Their gazes locked, thoughts in perfect communion, then Amanda nodded. "It's time to part ways." She grinned and gestured dramatically. "You to wield your wiles under the light of the chandeliers…"
"While I seek my destiny in the shadows."
* * *
There were shadows aplenty in the main room of Mellors, the newest, most dangerously fashionable gaming hell; resisting an urge to peer into them, Amanda paused on the threshold and coolly surveyed the company.
While they, not so coolly, surveyed her.
Four of six round tables were circled by gentlemen, hard-eyed and heavy-lidded, glasses by their elbows, cards in their hands. Their gazes swept insolently over her; Amanda ignored them. A larger table hosted a game of faro; two ladies clung, sirenlike, to two of the players. The banker looked directly at Amanda, froze as if he'd just remembered something, then looked down and turned the next card.
Beside Amanda, Reggie Carmarthen, childhood friend and exceedingly reluctant escort, surreptitiously tweaked her sleeve. "Nothing here, really. If we leave now, we can make it to the Henrys' before supper's over."
Completing her survey, Amanda met Reggie's gaze. "How can you tell there's nothing here? We've barely arrived and the corners are dark."
The owners had decorated the rooms off Duke Street with dark brown flocked wallpaper, matching leather chairs and wooden tables. Lit only by well spaced wall sconces, the result was a shadowy, distinctly masculine den. Amanda glanced around. A sense of danger swept her, a skittery sensation washing over her skin. She lifted her chin. "Let me do the rounds. If there's truly nothing of interest, then we can leave." Reggie knew what particular thing she was searching for, even if he definitely didn't approve. Linking her arm in his, she smiled. "You can't sound the retreat quite so soon."
"Meaning you won't listen even if I do."
They were conversing in muted tones in deference to the concentration of those playing. Amanda steered Reggie toward the tables, doing nothing to shatter the assumption anyone seeing them would make - that Reggie was her cavalier and she'd talked him into bringing her here for a dare. She had talked him into it, but her purpose was a great deal more scandalous than a dare.
Being new, the hell had attracted the most dangerous bucks and blades searching for the latest in dissipation. If she'd found any thing to her taste in the more established venues, she would never have considered coming here. But she'd been doing the rounds of the established hells and salons for the past fortnight; her presence here tonight, in a room where the only familiar faces besides Reggie's were ones she would prefer not to acknowledge, was a measure of her desperation.
Parading on Reggie's arm, pretending an innocent, wholly spurious wide-eyed interest in the games, she cast her jaded eye over the players, and rejected every one.
Where, she inwardly wailed, was the gentleman for her?
They reached the last table and paused. The room was deep, stretching double the length they'd already traversed. Unrelieved gloom enveloped the area before them, the glow cast by two wall lamps the only illumination. Large armchairs were grouped here and there, their occupants barely discernible. Small tables stood between the armchairs; Amanda saw a long-fingered white hand languidly toss a card onto one polished top. It was patently clear that this end of the room hosted the truly serious play.
The truly dangerous players.
Before she could decide whether she was game to enter what loomed as a lair, one of the groups they'd passed ended their game. Cards slapped the table, jests mingled with curses; chairs scraped.
With Reggie, Amanda turned - and found herself the object of four pairs of male eyes, all hard, overbright. All fixed, intently, on her.
The nearest of the four men rose. To his full height, a head taller than Reggie. One of his companions joined him on his feet. And smiled.
The first gentleman didn't even smile. He took one insolently swaggering step forward - then his gaze went past them and he hesitated.
"Well, well - if it isn't little Miss Cynster. Come to see how the other half enjoys themselves, have you?"
Amanda swiveled regally; despite the fact the speaker was taller than she, she looked down her nose at him. When she saw who it was, she lifted her chin higher. "Lord Connor." She curtsied - he was an earl after all - but she made the deference a triviality; her social standing was higher than his.
The earl was a reprobate cut to a pattern for which they'd thankfully lost the card. His reputation painted him as lecherous, steeped in vice, disreputable in the extreme; the liquid gleam in his pale eyes, the lid of one of which, courtesy of some ancient duel, was permanently at half-mast, suggested that, in his case, rumor understated the fact. Corpulent, indeed wider than he was tall, Connor's plodding gait, pallid skin and heavy jowls made him appear old enough to be her father, except that his hair was a solid dark brown.
"Well? Are you here to gawk, or are you game to play?" Connor's fleshy lips curved in a taunting smile; the lines years of dissipation had etched in his face deepened. "Surely, now you've braved the doors of Mellors, you won't leave without chancing your dainty hand? Without trying your Cynster luck? I hear you've been quite successful in your forays on the town."
Reggie locked his fingers about her wrist. "Actually, we were just-"
"Looking for the right challenge? Let's see if I can accommodate you. Shall we say a rubber of whist?"
Amanda didn't look at Reggie - she knew what he was thinking but she'd be damned if she'd turn tail and run just because a man of Connor's ilk approached her. She allowed amused haughtiness to infuse her expression. "I cannot conceive, my lord, that triumphing over a novice such as myself would afford you any great amusement."
"On the contrary" - Connor's voice hardened - "I'm expecting to be amused come what may." He smiled, an evil eel fixing on his prey. "I've heard you're a dab hand with the cards - surely you won't pass up this chance to test your skills against mine?"
"No!" Reggie hissed sotto voce.
Amanda knew she should coolly dismiss Connor and let Reggie lead her away, but she couldn't - simply could not - stomach the thought that Connor and every gentleman present would smirk knowingly at her departing back, and laugh about her once she was gone.
"Whist?" she heard herself say. Beside her, Reggie groaned.
She was well versed in the game and was indeed lucky with cards, but she wasn't fool enough to think herself in Connor's league. She pretended to consider his proposal, conscious that all eyes had turned their way, then she shook her head, a dismissive smile on her lips. "I think -"
"I've a pretty little mare, pure Arab - bought her for breeding but she's proving deuced picky, altogether unamenable. She should suit you well." The comment was just glib enough not to rate as an insult. Connor smiled, very definitely too knowing. "Beat your cousin to her as a matter of fact."
That last comment, thrown in no doubt to pique her interest, pricked her pride instead.
"No!" Reggie insisted, his whisper despairing.
Amanda locked gazes with Connor and raised a haughty brow; her smile had disappeared. "A mare, you say?"
Connor nodded, somewhat distracted. "Worth a small fortune." His tone suggested he was having second thoughts about the wisdom of his wager.
For one instant, Amanda teetered on the brink of accepting his challenge, then caution reared its head. If she rejected Connor, playing a rubber with some of the blades watching would be sufficient to prevent her being labelled a silly chit out of her depth, a dilettante. She couldn't afford to be contemptuously dismissed by the crowd she suspected harbored her future husband. But how to slide out of Connor's trap?
The answer was blindingly obvious. Letting her lips curve, she murmured, "How intriguing. Unfortunately, I have nothing I'd care to wager against such a valuable stake."
Turning away, she let her gaze meet those of the two blades who had started to approach. Blatantly considered them. They straightened.
Connor growled, "Not even three hours of your time?"
She swung back to face him. "Three hours?"
"Three hours, to be spent by my side" - Connor waved magnanimously - "in whatever surroundings you choose." The last phrase was delivered with an intense leer.
He was laughing at her. If she ran away, everyone would laugh at her.
She'd laugh derisively at herself.
Amanda lifted her chin. "My time is exceedingly valuable."
Connor's lip curled. "You don't say?"
"But I dare say this mare of yours is valuable, too." Her heart was thumping. She smiled condescendingly. "Well, she must be if Demon was interested." She brightened. "If I win, I'll give her to him."
He'd wring her neck.
Reggie's groan was audible. Amanda smiled into Connor's pale eyes. "A rubber of whist, I believe you said?"
She'd finally stepped over the line into real danger. Even as she said the words, even as she registered the hardening in Connor's eyes, Amanda felt a thrill beyond anything she'd ever known. Anticipation laced with dread flowed through her; exhilaration drove her. "Your partner?" She looked inquiringly at Connor.
Expressionless, he waved back into the gloom. "Meredith."
A thin gentleman rose from an armchair and stiffly bowed.
"He says little but has an excellent head for cards." Connor's gaze traveled to Reggie. "And who will partner you, Miss Cynster? Carmarthen, here?"
"No." Reggie's tone declared he'd drawn a line and would not be tempted over it. He shook Amanda's arm. "This is madness! Come away now! What do you care what such hellions think of you?"
She did care - therein lay the rub. She couldn't explain it, yet she couldn't imagine any of her cousins walking away from Connor's thinly veiled insults. Not before they'd exacted retribution.
His Arab mare sounded like just the right amount of retribution. And if she lost, she'd take great delight in stipulating just where she would spend her three hours at his side. Retribution indeed. That would teach him to make game of Cynster ladies, however young.
But first she had to find a partner, preferably one who would help her win. She didn't waste a second persuading Reggie - he could barely remember the suits. Smiling reassuringly, trying to ease his concern, she turned to survey the tables at which all activity had ceased.
There had to be some gentleman willing to come to her aid…
Her heart plummeted. There was no lighthearted interest, none of the game-to-be-part-of-any-lark expressions she'd expected to see. Calculation, raw and undisguised, filled every man's eyes. The equation they were weighing was easy to grasp: How much would she give to be rescued from Connor?
One glance was enough. To them she was a succulent, innocent pigeon ripe for a plucking. Exhilaration deserted her; a deadening, sinking feeling dragged at her.
Given the precise words of their wager, she was confident she had Connor's measure, but if, in order to satisfy her pride, she took one of these men as her partner, where would that leave her at the end of the game?
Triumphant regardless of the outcome, but with another, possibly more dangerous debt hanging over her head.
She met eye after eye; her heart sank to her slippers. Surely there was one gentleman honorable enough to partner her purely for the hell of it?
Smiles slowly dawned; chairs scraped. A number of gentlemen stood…
It would have to be Reggie, no matter how much she had to plead.
As she turned to him, the attention of the gentlemen facing them deflected, caught by some sight in the shadows behind them, deeper in the room.
Both she and Reggie turned.
Something large stirred in the gloom.
A dark shape rose from a chair at the end of the room - a man, broad-shouldered and tall. With a languid grace all the more compelling given his size, he walked unhurriedly toward them.
The shadows fell from him as he neared; light reached him and illuminated details. A coat that could only have come from one of the ton's foremost tailors topped trousers that skimmed muscled thighs before sweeping down long legs; an ivory cravat intricately tied and a rich satin waistcoat completed the picture, one of expensive elegance. His carriage, effortless and aloof, exuded confidence and more - an absolute belief in his ability to succeed, regardless of the challenge.
His hair was thick, brown, falling in fashionable disarray about his head, shading his broad brow, brushing his collar. Candlelight reflected from lighter strands, turning the whole into a tawny mane.
He neared, his approach in no way threatening, yet there was a sense of force distilled and harnessed in each long prowling stride.
At the last, the shadows gave up their hold and revealed his face.
Amanda caught her breath.
Sharp bones rode high above the austere sweep of his cheeks, lean, lightly shadowed where they met his jaw, uncompromisingly square. His nose was straight, definite, a clear indication of his antecedents; his eyes were large, heavy lidded, set beneath sweeping brows. As for his lips, the upper was straight, the lower full and frankly sensual. His was a face she recognized instantly, not in specific but in general. A face as elegantly aristocratic as his clothes, as powerful and definite as his carriage.
Eyes the color of moss agates met hers, held her gaze as he halted before her.
Not a hint of the predatory reached her; she searched but could find no trace of disguised intent in his changeable eyes. Understanding was what she saw, what she sensed - that and self-deprecatory amusement.
"If you're in need of a partner, I would be honored to assist you."
The voice suited the body-deep, slightly gravelly-rusty, as if underused. Amanda felt his words as much as heard them, felt her senses leap. His gaze didn't shift from her face, although his eyes left hers to travel quickly over her features before returning, once more, to her eyes. Although he hadn't looked at Reggie, Amanda knew he was aware of her friend tugging at her sleeve, hissing disjointed injunctions.
"Thank you." She trusted him - trusted those moss agate eyes. Even if she was wrong, she didn't care. "Miss Amanda Cynster." She extended her hand. "And you are?"
He took her hand; his lips curved as he bowed. "Martin."
She sincerely doubted he was Mr. Martin-Lord Martin, then. She vaguely recalled hearing of a Lord Martin.
Releasing her hand, Martin turned to Connor. "I assume you have no objection?"
Following his gaze, Amanda realized that Connor did indeed have an objection. A serious one if the scowl in his eyes spoke true. Perfect! Perhaps Connor would now draw back…
Even as the thought formed, she realized how unlikely that would be. Men and their ridiculous rules!
Sure enough, Connor brusquely nodded in assent. He would have liked to protest, but felt he couldn't.
Amanda glanced at Reggie. His expression was utterly defeated, utterly aghast. He opened his mouth-his gaze flicked past her, then slowly he shut his lips tight. "I hope you know what you're doing."
His mutter reached her as she turned to her new partner.
Martin was looking at Connor. "Perhaps we should get started." He waved into the shadows.
"Indeed." Turning, Connor stumped into the gloom. "The night hours are winging."
Considering the shadows, Amanda suppressed a grimace. She looked up to find Martin's gaze on her face, then he looked over her head toward the main door. "Two fresh packs, Mellors." Martin glanced down at her again. "And two lighted candelabras."
He hesitated, then offered her his arm. "Shall we?"
She smiled and placed her hand on his sleeve, instantly aware of the steely strength beneath it. He guided her toward the corner where Connor and Meredith stood waiting.
"Are you a good player, sir?"
Lips quirking, he glanced down at her. "I'm considered to play a tolerable hand."
"Good, because Connor's an expert, and I'm not. And I think he plays often with Meredith."
After an instant, Martin asked, "How well do you play?"
"Reasonably well, but I'm not in Connor's class."
"In that case, we shall do." He lowered his voice as they neared the others. "Play straight - don't try to be clever. Leave that to me."
Those were all the instructions he had time for, but they were clear enough. Amanda adhered to them as the first game got underway. They had the corner to themselves. Reggie slouched in an armchair some yards away, broodingly watching. Connor sat on her left, Meredith to her right. When Mellors arrived with the candelabras, both Connor and Meredith flinched.
Unperturbed, Martin instructed Mellors to place the candlesticks on small tables on either side of her chair. Connor shot Martin a venomous look but said nothing; Martin, it seemed, wielded the sort of authority few dared question. Bathed in golden light, she felt a great deal more comfortable; relaxing, she found it easier to concentrate.
The first game was a series of trials, Connor testing her strength and Martin's, too, while Martin assessed both Connor and Meredith, at the same time watching her play closely. As often happened, the cards fell her way, but capitalizing against an opponent of Connor's caliber was no easy task. Nevertheless, with Martin's guidance, they triumphed and took the first game.
With the rubber decided on the best of three games, Amanda was delighted. Sitting back, she stretched her arms, smiling at Mellors when he served her a glass of champagne. Glasses were dispensed all around; she took a gulp, then sipped. The men finished theirs in two mouthfuls; Mellors topped up the glasses, including hers.
Martin cut, Connor dealt and the second game began.
As hand followed hand, Martin was, for first time in a long time, unsure whether he would win. Even more surprisingly, he cared, not for himself, but for the angel who sat across from him, candlelight laying a tracery of gold over her fair hair. It was lush, thick, lustrous. His fingers itched to touch, to stroke, and not only her hair. Her complexion was flawless, that milky perfection found only among certain English damsels. Many struggled to attain the same effect with potions and creams, but in Amanda Cynster's case, her skin was natural, unblemished alabaster.
As for her eyes, they were cornflower blue, the same shade as the most expensive sapphires. Jewels by any name, those eyes were curiously innocent, aware yet… She was not naive, but as yet untouched by worldly cynicism. The dross of life had yet to tarnish her. She was a virgin, he had not a doubt.
For a connoisseur of his highly developed, distinctly exotic tastes, she was the perfect English rose.
Just waiting to be plucked.
She very likely would have been as an outcome of this night if he hadn't stepped in. What the devil she was doing here, swanning through the latest hell like a lure in a pond full of hungry trout he couldn't conceive.
In truth, he didn't want to think too much of her, of her thoughts, her actions, her desires. His only motive in hauling her out of the hole she'd fallen into was purely altruistic. He'd seen her trying to avoid old Connor while still retaining her pride; he'd understood why she'd dug in her heels, made a stand, then flown in the face of all wisdom and accepted Connor's wager.
He knew very well what it meant to lose one's pride.
But once they won and she was safe, he'd walk away, return to the shadows where he belonged.
Regretfully, admittedly, but he'd do it nonetheless.
She was not for him and never would be. He'd left her world long ago.
The last trick fell to Connor. Martin scanned the tally Connor was keeping on the table between them. One more hand, and unless the gods intervened, Connor and Meredith would take the current game, evening the score.
Time to change tactics.
The next hand went as he expected. Connor crowed and called for more champagne as he shuffled for the first hand of the deciding game. Noting the faint flush in his partner's fair cheeks, Martin beckoned Mellors closer as the man bent to fill his glass, and murmured his own instructions.
Mellors had a nice appreciation of who was who among his wealthier patrons; passing back by Amanda's chair, he clipped the candelabra, grabbed to steady it and instead knocked her glass - the glass he'd just filled with fine French champagne - to the floor. With copious apologies, Mellors retrieved the glass and promised to bring another.
He did, sometime later, as they were nearing the end of the first hand.
Amanda studied her cards and waited for Connor to lead. Neither she nor any of the others had yet played a false card - they'd done the best possible with the hands they'd been dealt. Luck, to date, had been the deciding factor.
Not a comforting thought. Especially as Connor had proved to be even more expert than she'd suspected. If it hadn't been for the large, reassuring figure seated opposite her, languidly tossing cards across Connor's, she'd have panicked long ago. Not that spending three hours in Connor's company was all that worrisome, but how to do so safely without her family hearing of it…that aspect had only occurred to her once they'd started the second game.
Now it exercised her greatly. Losing to Connor would not help her search for a husband at all. Damn the man. Why had he had to challenge her, especially as he had, triggering her temper and her pride?
Still, that challenge had brought Martin out of the shadows…
She concentrated on her cards, steadfastly keeping her senses from stealing across the table. That she couldn't afford, not at present; once they won, she could indulge said senses all she wished. That promise, dangling before her, kept her wits focused. The cards fell; the temperature increased. She reached for her glass, sipped.
Frowned, and sipped again. Frown easing, she gulped gratefully.
"Your play, my dear."
She smiled at Connor; setting aside her glass, she considered briefly, then trumped his ace. A smile flickered over Martin's lips; she refused to stare and carefully led another trump.
They won the hand, but the points were sparse. Connor was not inclined to grant them any favors. Hand followed hand, fought tooth and nail. Martin was playing more aggressively, but so, too, was Connor.
By the fourth hand, Martin could with absolute confidence state that the Earl of Connor was the finest player he'd ever had the pleasure of opposing. Unfortunately, that pleasure was muted by the wager hanging on the game's outcome. Both he and Connor were pressing every advantage in a duel of feints and misleads. Thus far, Amanda had adhered to his injunction; he prayed she wouldn't get distracted by his or Connor's tactics.
Time and again, she would glance at him, worrying her full lower lip between small white teeth. He'd meet her gaze, hold it…as if gaining strength from that fragile contact, she'd draw breath, then play her card - straight and true, as he'd asked. For a female, she was proving surprisingly good at holding to a difficult line. His respect for her grew as the cards continued to fall.
The candles burned down. Mellors came to replace them. All four players sat back and waited, grasping the moment to rest eyes and minds.
They'd been playing for hours.
Martin, Connor and Meredith were used to all-night games. Amanda was not. Tiredness dulled her eyes even though she fought to keep it at bay. When she stifled a yawn, Martin felt Connor glance - surprisingly - at him.
He met the old reprobate's gaze. Sharp as a lance, it rested heavily on him, as if Connor was trying to see into his soul. Martin raised his brows. Connor hesitated, then turned back to the cards. They were neck and neck, two points each, but the hands continued to turn without adding to either result, so evenly were they matched.
He dealt the next hand and they continued.
It was experience, in the end, that handed them the game. Even so, when the habitual counter in Martin's head alerted him to the revoke, he didn't immediately call it.
Why Connor would make such a mistake was difficult to see. Even had he been wilting, which he wasn't. Anyone could make a mistake, true enough - Martin was sure Connor would offer precisely those words if asked.
He waited until the last trick was played. He and Amanda had gained one point on the hand. Before Connor could sweep up the cards, Martin murmured, "If you'll turn up the last four tricks…?"
Connor glanced at him, then did. The revoke was instantly apparent. Connor stared at the cards, then blew out a breath. "Damn! My apologies."
Amanda blinked at the cards, then raised her eyes to Martin's face, a question in the blue.
He felt his lips curve. "We've won."
Her lips formed an O. She looked down at the cards with greater interest. With increasing delight.
The crowd watching from afar had dwindled, but all present now woke up, leaving the tables to learn of the outcome. Within minutes, an excited hum of conversation and exclamation lapped around them.
Against it, Connor, in quite gentlemanly vein considering the circumstances, explained his fault to Amanda, and how the penalty had handed them the game and thus the rubber. Then, with an almost comical switch in his tone, he pushed back his chair and stood. "Well! That's that, then!"
He scowled down at Amanda.
Amanda blinked, wary of the mischievous, malicious light that gleamed in Connor's eyes.
"I'll send the mare around first thing tomorrow morning - Upper Brook Street, ain't it? Enjoy her in good health."
That last was said with unholy glee.
Reality crashed down on her. "No! Wait-" Where the devil was she to stable this horse? How could she explain how she'd come by such an animal? And it was odds on Demon, currently in town, would drop by the instant he heard, recognize the beast, know to whom it had belonged - and start asking all manner of awkward questions.
"Let me think…" She glanced at Reggie, blinking owlishly, half asleep. No help there; Reggie resided with his parents and his mother was her mother's bosom-bow. "Perhaps…" She glanced at Connor, still standing over her. Could she refuse the horse? Or, given the incomprehensible slew of rules surrounding male wagers, was even suggesting such a thing a base insult?
"I daresay-" Martin's deep voice, cool and calm, cut across her whirling thoughts.
She and Connor turned to him, a conquering hero elegantly at ease in the large chair, a glass of champagne in one long fingered hand.
"-that Miss Cynster might not have room in her stables at present for the mare." His changeable green gaze fixed on her face. "My stables are large and only half full. If you wish, Connor can send the mare to my establishment and you may send word whenever you wish to ride her, or to move her, once you've had time to make the necessary arrangements."
Relief swept her. The man was a godsend in more ways than one. She beamed. "Thank you. That would suit admirably." She glanced up at Connor. "If you would be so good, my lord, as to deliver the mare to Lord Martin's house?"
Connor stared down at her, his expression inscrutable. "Lord Martin's house, heh?" Then he nodded. "Very well. Consider it done." He hesitated, then reached down, took her hand and bowed. "You play remarkably well for a female, my dear, but you're not in my class - or his." With his head he indicated Martin. "In your future forays into the hells, you'd be wise to remember that."
Amanda smiled sweetly. Thanks to Connor's wager, the need for further forays into the hells had evaporated, and she had no intention of forgetting Martin.
Releasing her hand, Connor stumped off. Meredith, who had said not a word throughout, rose stiffly, bowed, and murmured, "It was a pleasure, Miss Cynster."
With that, he followed Connor through the gloom and away.
Amanda turned to Martin and favored him with her best smile. "Thank you for your offer, my lord - I would indeed find it difficult to accommodate the mare on such short notice."
He regarded her steadily, that gentle, somewhat wistful amusement very evident, at least to her. "So I would imagine." He raised his glass to her, then drained it and set it down. He rose; she did, too.
"I must thank you, too, for your assistance throughout." She smiled again, her mind skating over his offer to partner her, his replacement of her champagne with water, his arranging for the candlelight, the many moments during the play when his steady, moss-green, gold-flecked gaze had kept her from panicking. She let the thoughts light her eyes, and held out her hand. "You were indeed my champion this night."
His lips kicked up at the ends; he took her hand, long fingers closing strongly about hers…and hesitated. Amanda looked into his eyes and realized they'd changed again, grown darker. Then he bowed, and released her.
"Connor was right - hells like Mellors are no place for you, but I fancy you've realized that." His gaze roamed her face, then he reached into his pocket and drew out a silver card case. He extracted a card and offered it between two fingers. "So you know where to send for the mare. Send a message and one of my grooms will bring her around." His gaze touched her face again, then he inclined his head. "Good bye, Miss Cynster."
She brightly reiterated her thanks. As he turned away, she glanced at his card. "Good God!"
The exclamation escaped her despite her years of training. Without thinking, eyes fixed on the card, she caught the sleeve of the man who had been her partner through the night. Obediently, he halted.
She couldn't, at first, drag her eyes from the card - a simple, expensive rectangle of white with a gold crest upon it. Beneath the crest was stamped one word: Dexter. Beneath that was an address in Park Lane, one she knew had to belong to one of the huge old mansions fronting the park. But it was the name that turned her world upside down.
Hauling her gaze from it, she looked up at him. It took a moment to get enough breath to even gasp, "You're Dexter?"
The rakish, rumored to be profligate, elusively mysterious Martin Fulbridge, fifth Earl of Dexter. She certainly knew of him, of his reputation, but tonight was the first time she'd set eyes on him. She realized she was clutching his sleeve and released him.
That self-deprecatory amusement was back in his eyes. When, stunned, she continued to stare, he raised one brow, cynical, yes, but world-weary as well. "Who else?"
His gaze held hers, then moved unhurriedly over her face, returned to her eyes. Then he inclined his head, and, as always unhurriedly, left her.