The gaming saloon was packed, the clientele mostly male but with a fair sprinkling of women present too. Thanks to the notorious Duchess of Devonshire, playing deep was very much à la mode for the fairer sex. The air was stifling, the atmosphere redolent of hair powder and scent, brandy and wine, mingled with the musky smell of too many bodies crowded into too small a space. Candles sputtered and flared, casting distorted shadows on the walls.
“Eight wins.” The large woman in charge of the faro bank glowered as she pushed a pile of counters across the table.
Isabella Mansfield, her attention focused on trying to calculate the value of her winnings, ignored the woman’s growing animosity. Faith, but it was hot! The fan she wore tied round her wrist provided her with precious little relief. The unaccustomed hair powder itched her scalp. The rouge she had so carefully applied to her cheeks and lips prickled her delicate skin. The folds of her dark blue polonaise dress and the ridiculous layers of undergarments required to hold the shape in place at the back all contrived to make her distinctly uncomfortable.
Though they also, she reminded herself, served to ensure that she blended in, looked just like every other woman present. Aside from her complete lack of jewellery that is. Her great grandmother’s pearls, the only thing of value she owned, had been discreetly sold to provide her stake for this evening. Two more wins, if her luck continued to hold, and she would have enough.
Captain Ewan Dalgleish watched with interest as Isabella pushed her entire stack of counters onto the two, causing a crackle of excitement to fizz round the throng of eager onlookers. There was something driven about her demeanour, quite different from the recklessness of a genuine gambler. She was clearly nervous, long fingers plucking at the sticks of her fan, her eyes fixed on the dealer’s card box as if it contained the key to her very destiny. Which, he thought, raising his eyebrows as he calculated her stake, it most probably did. He was intrigued.
On the anniversary of the day he had resigned his commission following his father’s death, and on his thirtieth birthday to boot, he had come to this newest hell made popular by Fox and his cronies in search of diversion. In the past year he had sampled every pleasure, licit or otherwise, the town had to offer, kicking over the traces and flaunting his newly-inherited respectability in the faces of his critics with gusto. Sport, women, sprees like this latest outing, all provided temporary excitement, but nothing matched the visceral thrill of battle, the gut-clenching intensity of combat. He was coming to believe that the army had leeched all feeling out of him. An intense ennui threatened to overwhelm him.
He’d had the devil’s own luck with the cards tonight, but it meant little. The fortune his father had left him was immense. And as for the brandy he had imbibed – his mind might be somewhat befuddled, but the abrasive edges of his poisonous mood had been in no way smoothed. To hell with all of it! Even his burning desire to try to right the wrongs of the world offered little solace. What he needed was something more exotic by way of an antidote.
The beauty at the faro table was most definitely that. Despite the regulation paint and powder, there was something distinctive about her. Winged black brows sat above cobalt-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes. There was a spark of intelligence there. A mouth wider than the fashionable rosebud, the bottom lip full. The long line of white throat swooping down to a luscious swell of bosom. The same flawless white skin on her arms, delicate wrists, long fingers. Slumbering sensuality combined with a haughty touch-me-not air. A challenging and enticing combination.
At the faro table Mrs Bradley, the banker, was declining the beauty’s bet, clearly afraid it would break the bank. Her many chins wobbled as she shook her head. “I’m sorry madam, that is twice the maximum stake permitted.”
“But…” Isabella looked up, embarrassed to find all eyes upon her. Impatient. Speculative. Inquisitive. Leering. Under her rouge, she blushed. Not all the women here were ladies of the ton. Not all the gamblers were gentlemen. With a heavy heart she took back half her counters. At this rate, she would never win as much as she needed. She must have the full funds by the end of the week or all would be lost. She simply had to win enough tonight.
“With the bank’s permission I will cover the bet, and any others the young lady cares to make.” The deep voice had just the trace of a Scottish lilt.
Startled, Isabella looked up into the most striking pair of eyes she had ever seen. Amber tinged with liquid brown, the colour of autumn leaves. For a moment they clashed with her own, causing a flicker of excitement to shiver down her spine. A sculpted mouth curled in a half smile.
“Captain Dalgleish,” the banker exclaimed in surprise. “This is most unusual.”
He flashed her a smouldering, flirtatious smile. “Unusual Mrs Bradley, but I’m sure you can find a way to accommodate me.”
The banker smiled coquettishly. “Captain Dalgleish, I’d wager there’s scarcely a woman in London who wouldn’t be willing to accommodate you in any way you saw fit. If I was twenty years younger I might even be tempted myself.”
A ripple of laughter spread through the onlookers.
Ewan’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “Madam, that is a regret we will both have to live with.” The crowd roared it’s approval. “Perhaps this will ease the pain somewhat,” Ewan said, passing her a sweetener which she quickly palmed, indicating her acceptance with a coy fluttering of her lashes.
An air of heightened excitement eddied round the room at this new, unexpected development. Jaded gamester’s tilted back their straw hats to stare. High class birds of paradise and raddled society grandes dames alike peered curiously from behind their painted and lace-trimmed fans. Into the brief silence blew a flurry of whispered asides.
“Rescued the climbing boy himself. They say he whipped the master.” “Apparently he’s no stranger to the Roundhouse at St Giles. Locked up overnight with common thieves more than once.” “They say he found an escaped slave begging on the streets, set him up as an apothecary, no less.”
Captain Dalgleish drew the attention of the whole room inexorably towards him with all the natural and unconscious ease of a magnet pointing a compass northwards.
In common with everyone else, Isabella stared. When she had first heard tell of him he had been new to town, as famed for his daring exploits on the battlefield as he was infamous for his public condemnation of the American war in which he had fought. Now he was just as notorious, but for his hell raising. Ewan Dalgleish was not a man who lived by society’s rules. A rebel in every sense she thought enviously. Why on earth would he want to cover her bet? But unless he did – no, she would not allow herself to think of the consequences of failure.
She watched him covertly as he placed a roll of notes onto the table. He was tall, with his coat cut in the new fashion buttoned tight across his chest, showing off the breadth of his shoulders, the severity of the rich black velvet cloth lightened only by the glimpse of a dove-grey waistcoat, the fall of white linen with just a hint of lace at his throat. The deep copper of his hair glinted bright as a new-minted penny in the candle light. It was a memorable face. High cheek bones with a small scar visible on the left one, a sabre cut no doubt. A strong, determined jaw. His colouring gave him an untamed look. The perfection of his tailoring somehow served to draw attention to the muscles hidden underneath. A mountain lion, Isabella thought with a shiver. Strength and power barely concealed under a veneer of sophistication. A fierce Highland warrior in the sober garb of a gentleman.
She smiled at herself for being so fanciful and then flushed as she caught the echo of her smile returned from across the table. For a second she met his glance haughtily, amber clashing with cobalt blue. An almost tangible current of awareness crackled between them. She dropped her eyes.
Mrs Bradley’s voice recalled her to her purpose. Isabella pushed all of her counters onto the table. The watching crowd craned ever closer for a better view.
The banker’s card was a six of diamonds. The carte anglaise, the winning card, was hers.
“The lady wins,” Ewan Dalgleish said softly in his husky Scottish burr, pushing her counters back towards her and adding the same amount again from his own supply. He had just lost a fabulous amount, yet it seemed he was content to do so. A quirk of his mouth, a quizzical eyebrow formed the unspoken question.
Isabella took a deep breath and returned the entire total to the table, raising an audible gasp from the audience. It took all her courage, such a fortune as she had before her, but it would not yet suffice. Coming up short was not an option. A life depended upon it. Heedless now of everything but the game Isabella clenched her hands together. One more turn of the cards. Just this one.
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