The slither of the cards across the baize table, the chink of rouleaux as the players placed their bets, the soft murmur of the groom porters pronouncing the odds were the only sounds in the inner chamber of Brooke's gaming club. Six men sat around the faro table, five playing against the banker. They wore leather bands to protect the laced ruffles of their shirts and leather eyeshades to shield their eyes from the brilliance of the chandeliers, whose many candles cast a dazzling glare upon the baize table. The banker's face was expressionless as he dealt the cards, watched the bets being laid, paid out, or collected at the completion of each turn. To the spectators gathered around the chamber it seemed as if winning or losing was a matter of complete indifference to Jack Fortescu, Duke of St. Jules.
But there were those who knew that it was far from the case. Something other than the usual game of chance was being played out in the elegant room, where despite the late hour the day's summer heat remained trapped, fusty with the smell of sweat mingled with stale perfume and spilled wine. The concentration at the table was focused upon a near-palpable current between the banker and one gamester, and gradually the other players dropped from the game, their supply of rouleaux diminished, their hunger for the gamble for the moment overtaken by this other battle that was being fought.
Only Frederick Lacey, Earl of Dunston, continued to place his bets on the lay out of the cards, with an almost febrile intensity. When he lost he merely thrust his rouleaux across the table to the banker and bet again. The duke, impassive as always, turned up the cards in steady rotation, laying winners to his right hand, losers to his left. Once his cold gray eyes flickered up and across the table to his opponent in a swift assessing scrutiny, then his gaze returned to the table. Neither man spoke a word.
"By God, Jack has the devil in him tonight," Charles James Fox murmured from the doorway, where he stood watching the play. Like several of the others in the room he wore the exaggerated costume of the macaroni, an impossibly tight waistcoat in bright crimson and gold stripes and a beribboned straw hat over hair that was powdered a crazy shade of blue.
"And the devil's own luck it would seem, Charles," his companion replied in the same undertone. His own costume, rich in lace, ruffles, and gold velvet though it was, was almost somber in contrast with the other's. "The luck's been running with him for months."
"And always against Lacey," Fox mused, taking a deep draught of burgundy from the glass he held. "I saw Jack win ten thousand guineas from the man at quinze last night."
"And twenty from him at hazard on Monday. It seems Jack's playing a deep game. He's not playing for the pleasure of it, there's some damnable purpose behind it," George Cavenaugh said. "If asked, I would say he's set to ruin Lacey. But why?"
Fox made no immediate response as he remembered the old scandal. No one knew the real truth of that story and it had happened so long ago now, it could hardly be relevant. He shook his head. "Ever since Jack got back from Paris he's been different." He shrugged slightly. "I can't put my finger on it. He's his usual careless, charming self, but there's something, a hardness underneath that wasn't there before."
"'Tis hardly surprising. Anyone escaping that hellhole of murderous anarchy is going to be touched in some way," George said somberly. "They say he got out by the skin of his teeth, but he won't say a word about it. He just laughs that damnable laugh of his and changes the subject." He held out his glass to a passing waiter, who refilled it.
The two men fell silent, watching the play. Frederick Lacey had but one rouleau in front of him now. His hand hovered over it for a second, his first hesitation of the evening. St. Jules caressed the stem of his wineglass between two long white fingers of an immaculately manicured hand. A large sapphire ring glowed blue fire in the candlelight. He waited.
With a short intake of breath Lacey placed his rouleau on the ace. The duke turned over the next card in the box to reveal the first, and thus the losing, card. It was the ace. Lacey's countenance was now several shades whiter beneath the raddled complexion of the heavy drinker. Without expression the duke placed the ace on the discard pile and dealt the next card from the remainder of the pack. He turned it over and the ten of spades lay faceup, seeming to mock the ashen earl. The duke slid the rouleau into the pile that glinted at his elbow. He surveyed the earl in silence. Now only three cards remained to be dealt.
Frederick Lacey fought the constriction in his chest. In the last month he had lost his entire fortune to this one man, who somehow couldn't make a bad play. The duke of St. Jules had always played deep. He had lost one fortune at the tables in his green youth, disappeared abroad to recoup, and returned several years later in possession of a second and even larger fortune. This one he had not lost, simply increased with steady and skillful play. He was a gambler by nature and yet he never again made the mistakes of his youth. Rarely if ever did he allow himself to rise from the tables a loser at the end of an evening.
Lacey stared at the two piles of discarded cards beside the dealer and at the three remaining cards in the dealer's box. He knew what those three cards were, as did everyone who had been watching and recording the discards. If he called the turn and bet on the order in which those three cards would be dealt, he had a one in five chance of being right. But if he was right, the dealer would have to pay out four to one. One last massive stake and he would recoup everything. He looked up and met the gray gaze of the man he loathed with a passion for which there were no words. He knew what St. Jules intended and he alone in this crowded, stuffy chamber knew why. But one stroke of luck and he would elude him, and not just that, he would turn the tables. If St. Jules accepted the stake and lost, he would be forced to pay out four to one, and he would be facing his own ruin.
St. Jules would accept the stake. Lacey knew that.
He slowly removed his rings and the diamond pin that nestled in the foaming lace at his throat. Deliberately he placed them in the center of the table. As deliberately, he said, "I call the turn."
"And that is your stake?" The duke's tone was faintly incredulous. In terms of what had been won and lost this evening, the wager was pathetic.
A dull flush infused the earl's countenance. "No, merely an earnest. I stake everything, my lord duke. Lacey Court, the house on Albermarle Street, and all their contents."
There was a swift indrawing of breath around the room and the spectators exchanged glances.
the contents?" the duke inquired with soft emphasis. "Animate and inanimate?"
" was the firm rejoinder.
Jack Fortescu moved his own stacks of rouleau towards the center of the table. "I doubt this sum alone would cover my loss, my lord," he said in soft consideration. He looked around the room. "How do we value the earl's wager, gentlemen? If I'm to cover it four to one, I would know precisely what I'm risking."
"Let us say two hundred thousand pounds in all," suggested Charles Fox. An addicted gambler himself, he had lost every penny of his own and had borrowed from his friends with such reckless abandon and no possibility of repayment that he had ruined many of them in turn. It seemed appropriate that such a man should come up with such a sum. "That would put Jack's liability at eight hundred thousand."
The room fell completely silent, the enormity of the sum hanging in the air. Even for men for whom gaming was their life's obsession, who won and lost fortunes in a night, it was a figure hard to absorb, with the exception of Fox, whose eyes were glinting with the thrill of the wager. All eyes rested on St. Jules, who leaned back in his chair, still idly caressing the stem of his wineglass, a tiny smile playing over his lips. But there was no smile in the eyes that rested on his opponent's face.
"Do you accept the figure, Lacey?" His voice was very quiet.
"Can you cover it?" the earl demanded, irritatingly aware of a tremor in his own voice.
"Do you doubt it?" It was said with a cold confidence that left no room for doubt.
"I accept it." The earl snapped his fingers at a groom porter, who immediately produced parchment, a quill, and an inkstand. The scratching of the pen as the earl wrote out the terms of the wager was the only sound in the room. He took the sand shaker and dried the ink, then leaned forward to retrieve his signet ring. The groom porter dropped wax on the parchment and the earl affixed his signature, pressing the ring into the wax, then wordlessly pushed the document across to the duke for his own signature.
The duke glanced around the room and his eye fell on George Cavenaugh. "George, will you hold the stake?"
George nodded and moved to the table. He took the document, read through it, and pronounced it in order. His eyes were questioning as they rested for a moment on his friend's inscrutable countenance, then he folded the document and slid it into an inner pocket of his coat.
The duke nodded, took a sip of his wine, and said formally, "Be pleased to call the turn, my lord."
Lacey licked his lips, a quick involuntary flick of his tongue. He leaned forward, fixing his eyes on the remaining cards in the box as if he could somehow read through them, then said slowly, "The ace of hearts . . . ten of diamonds . . . five of spades."
All breath was suspended and the sudden splutter of a guttering candle on a sideboard was a thunderclap in the deathly silence. St. Jules took out the first card. He turned it slowly. It was the ace of hearts.
The silence, if possible, deepened. The earl leaned forward a little, his gaze riveted to the dealer's long white hand as it moved for the next card. The duke's face was expressionless. He turned over the five of spades.
The earl flung himself back in his chair, his eyes closed, his face haggard, almost as white as his elaborately curled and powdered hair. He didn't watch as the last card was revealed. It was irrelevant now. The five of spades had lost him the wager. At last he opened his eyes and looked across the table at his enemy.
St. Jules met his gaze and there was neither satisfaction nor triumph in the cool gray eyes. "So, mon ami, the chickens finally come home to roost," he said softly.
The earl pushed back his chair with an abrupt scrape on the polished oak floor. The crowd parted for him in the same silence as he pushed his way through towards a pair of French doors that stood open to combat the hot summer air. He stepped onto a small balcony overlooking the street of St. James's below and the thick curtains swung to behind him.
Charles Fox, with a sudden exclamation, took a step to follow him, but the sharp report of a pistol sounded before he could reach the door. He flung aside the curtains and knelt beside the still figure of the earl of Dunston. There was no need to feel for a pulse. The top of Frederick Lacey's head was missing, blood pooling beneath him and dripping through the balcony railing to the street below.
Men crowded to the door, squeezed onto the balcony, bent over the body. Alone in the room, the duke of St. Jules slowly gathered up the cards, shuffled them, and returned them to the dealer's box.
"What the devil game do you play, Jack?" George Cavanaugh spoke harshly as he came back into the room.
"The game is now played, George," Jack said with a shrug. He took up his glass and drank. "Lacey was a coward and he died a coward's death."
"What else could he do, man?" George demanded. "You ruined him."
"He made the decisions, my dear, not I," his friend said with a hint of a drawl. "He chose his own risks."
He stood up, and a groom porter hastened to help him out of the frieze greatcoat that constituted the uniform of the serious gamester. He put on his own crimson velvet coat over the sapphire waistcoat, slid the leather bands off his wrists, and shook down his ruffles. He removed the leather guard that had shielded his eyes. His hair, black as night, was unpowdered, tied back in a queue on his nape with a sapphire velvet ribbon. A startling streak of white ran from a pronounced widow's peak springing off his broad forehead. As George knew, St. Jules had had that streak since their schooldays and it had not made the brutal rough and tumble of Westminster School any easier for the boy. But his peers had soon learned that Jack Fortescu was not an easy mark. He fought without scruple or inhibition, never allowed a challenge to go unanswered, and in general emerged from the fray bloodied but victorious.
And somewhere, somehow, Frederick Lacey, Earl of Dunston, had earned himself a lethal combat with Jack Fortescu, Duke of St. Jules.
"Why was it necessary, Jack?" he asked directly.
Jack again shook out the ruffles at his wrist with a critical air, as if dissatisfied with them. "A personal matter, my dear friend, but believe me, it was necessary. The world is better rid of such canaille as Frederick Lacey."
"And you are now in possession of the entire Lacey fortune," George stated as he accompanied his friend from the room. "Animate as well as inanimate. What do you intend to do with them all? Two houses, the stables, dogs, presumably servants, tenants, and . . ." He paused for a second, before continuing, "And, of course, there is the sister."
Jack stopped at the head of the stairs leading down to the ground-floor hallway. "Ah, yes," he said, "the sister. Momentarily, I had forgotten." He shook his head as if puzzled. "An extraordinary lapse, in the circumstances."
"What circumstances?" George demanded but was answered only by a shrug and the duke's cryptic smile. "She will be penniless," George pressed. "Unless she has some inheritance from her mother. I believe the countess died when her daughter was a child."
Excerpted from Almost a Bride by Jane Feather. Copyright © 2005 by Jane Feather. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.