A Betting Chance: The Triple Countess, Book 4
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by Lynne Connolly
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: In this game of hearts, winner takes all. The Triple Countess, Book 4 Sapphira Vardon needs five thousand pounds to avoid a cruel marriage and a grim future, and there's only one path for her. Don a mask and an assumed name, and risk everything to win at the gaming tables. First, though, she has to get through the door. Luckily she knows just whose name to drop. Corin, Lord Elston, is curious to find out who used his name to gain entrance to Mother Brown's whorehouse and gaming hell. The enigmatic woman who calls herself Lucia isn't the sort of female usually found here. Behind her mask and heavy makeup, she's obviously a respectable woman--who plays a devilish hand of cards. Sapphira is desperate to keep her identity a secret, but Lord Elston's devastating kisses and touches demand complete surrender. And once he learns the truth, there's more at stake than guineas. Corin finds himself falling hard for a woman who's poised to run. A woman who's about to learn that he only plays to win? Warning: Hot action on the gaming table and in the bedroom might make you go looking for a time machine.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2010 2010
eBookwise Release Date: April 2010
11 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [324 KB]
Reading time: 199-279 min.
If this outfit didn't put off her would-be suitor, nothing would. Sapphira sighed and smoothed the dull brown gown she'd decided to wear. Even the sigh didn't disturb the linen fichu smothering her breasts. She'd taken care to leave only a small strip of skin showing at her neck.
She'd scraped her hair back into a knot at the top of her head and covered it with a linen cap, plain except for the narrow band of bone lace around the edge. Looking like this, she'd pass for a Puritan.
She shrugged, trying to loosen the tension permeating every muscle, but the movement only made her wince. Her father's latest application of the rod had missed its target a little, and she had a mark at the top of her shoulders. Hence the heavy fichu. She knew better than to display the marks of her shame.
Maybe she should feel glad of her father's skill in administering whippings, as it meant she was unlikely to take a scar. Punishment was one thing, but he knew better than to degrade the merchandise. Which was, in this case, her.
The soreness of last night had ameliorated to a dull throb, only exacerbated when she moved too precipitately, but her trepidation at actually putting her plan into motion sent her mind elsewhere.
Her father had administered the blows on Wednesday after she flatly refused to accept George Barber as her future husband. Today was Monday, and the punishment had done her no good. Her father was still set on the match and she was just as set against it, although she had the sense to appear agreeable.
Perhaps George Barber would turn out better than his looks promised. After all, a good husband didn't have to be good looking. Just kind, or fun-loving or...or at least more amenable than her harassed father. Her refusal to marry the man she'd only met briefly once and seen across a room and a street a time or two had resulted in a storm of fury. Nobody disobeyed her father. Nobody. She should have known better, but her protest had been involuntary. Before she'd properly thought, she'd blurted, "I cannot allow you to decide the rest of my life for me! I'm not a puppet, to be pushed into places I have no wish to be. Please, Father, reconsider. Or give me a little time."
Of course he had not. Instead, he'd put her on a bread and water diet, confined her to her room and given her a sound whipping, albeit with tears in his eyes.
Now she had to go through with the farce, see if she could get anything worthwhile from this terrible proposal. She turned to leave the room, only to see her father standing in the doorway. At once she lowered her gaze.
"I'm pleased you've seen reason, daughter," he said. "It pains me to punish you. I was not looking forward to you forcing me to do it again."
"I know." She did know. His punishments were severe and precise, because they hurt him too. But he considered it his duty, and if Thomas Vardon had a virtue, it was that he never shirked his duty. Or that was what he told her, and he'd kept to the dictum all his life. That meant her father had also shown her great kindness and consideration where other fathers might have dismissed her concerns without compunction. Maybe because he was older than most fathers of children her age. Maybe because her mother had died when she was five years old, leaving her with no relatives, apart from the great-aunt he hardly spoke to these days, although he still allowed Sapphira to go for her Thursday lessons on Cavendish Street. Great-Aunt Josephina taught Sapphira how to behave like a lady, and if her father had but known it, how to gamble like one too. So perhaps it was just as well that communication between her two living relatives remained cursory.
She left her room hoping for the best and followed her father downstairs to the drawing room, her feet clattering on the bare boards of the staircase. The silence inside the house was punctuated by sounds from the busy street outside, a reminder of life going on right outside the door. She'd spent all her life in London and hardly noticed the commotion normally. A brief visit to the country as a child had left Sapphira aching to return to her home, where costers and flower sellers shouted their wares, chairmen swore at everyone and pickpockets jostled the quality in the streets in the hopes of snatching a fat purse or even the wig off a gentleman's head. And always the rattle of wheels over the cobblestones and the clop of hooves.
She preceded her father into the parlor. The scent of the potpourri she kept there hit her nostrils, and she took a moment to inhale the citrusy, spicy aroma. It always steadied her. She kept lavender in her bedroom for calming, but after spending the night in the room she couldn't smell it anymore. She associated roses with her room at her great-aunt's house, together with the lighter colors and the elegance of the fashionable furniture Lady Carr owned.
But she liked this house, filled with the furniture her family had owned for generations, together with a few new pieces. Theoretically, it would belong to Sapphira when her father died. Theoretically she'd have his fortune and his business, but in reality her husband would get it all.
Which meant the gangly young man standing in the room next to the older couple.
Her heart plummeted to her sensible plain buckled shoes. Facing them, she knew she couldn't do it, she couldn't marry into this family. The Barber family, and their habits, were well known in the City. So pious they went to church three times on Sundays and held lengthy prayer sessions twice a day on weekdays. They were so soberly dressed colors hardly held a place in their lives, apart from dull browns and mournful purples. She should have worn yellow. That might have proved more effective in putting them off the idea of a match. Think, she had to think. Opposition didn't work, so she had to come up with a plan.
Sapphira sank into a neat curtsey. "Father, Mr. and Mrs. Barber, Mr. Barber, I welcome you to this house."
"Thank you." Mr. Barber the elder spoke first, then her father spoke from behind her.
"I'm glad to see my dutiful daughter returned to me and more delighted to present you, Sapphira, to your future husband, George."
Horror swept through her when she heard the threat made real. George Barber stared at her, his prominent Adam's apple bobbing when he swallowed. For all his unprepossessing appearance, it wasn't George, but the idea of being sold off as a business deal, that made her recoil.
Perhaps she'd been too hasty. Perhaps listening to Great-Aunt Josephina's tales of love with the right man had made her believe unrealistic stories. This was the eighteenth century, not some nebulous time out of mind. She could make something of this. She had to.
Her father had brought her up to understand business, and she'd proved an adept pupil. But if this family had any say in the matter, she'd be stuck in their house in Hampstead, praying and giving birth. They had so many children it gave her a headache to try to think of all their names. Still, if George had any gumption at all, she could make something of the alliance. If not her marriage, then what it brought, children and a larger business to deal with.
She fought not to let any of her horror show in her face or any other part of her body. She kept her hands relaxed and maintained a solemn but dutiful expression, set her mouth in a pleasant curve. "I'm honored, Father, that you took the time to search so diligently for me."
Her father's eyes narrowed. He was no fool and he must know she wouldn't turn her opinions around so quickly. Unless he believed the beating worked completely. Let him think what he liked.
"May I offer you tea, madam?"
Mrs. Barber regarded her with an intent expression in her protuberant dark eyes. "We will not take tea, thank you. It is an extravagance we only indulge in once a day."
Sapphira bowed her head and stepped away from the teapot, although she would dearly have liked a cup. The scent of the brew made her mouth water after her restricted diet.
Mrs. Barber wasn't done. "Your father assures us you have always been a dutiful and obedient child. We will expect you to continue in the same way."
"I will proscribe your day, and you will share a room with my son after your marriage. He will instruct you in your duties and you will obey him without question."
"I have learned to help in the business, ma'am. I understand double entry bookkeeping and I help with the stock-keeping when my father requires it."
Mr. Barber sniffed. "We will not expect you to take part in anything like that. Business is a man's purview. Yours is to bear children and obey your husband. As well as his parents."
Sapphira listened in horror.
Mr. Barber was a mercer, one of the most important merchants in the City, and he'd recently invested in shipping in order to transport his cloth more economically. Her father's cloth business would go very well with the Barbers' and perhaps form the beginning of an empire. She was there as a future breeding animal and a conveyor of wealth. Nothing more, it seemed. It wasn't as bad as she'd imagined. It was worse.
Her father beamed. "Mr. and Mrs. Barber will accompany me to the parlor to discuss the details of the settlement. We will leave you for twenty minutes to get to know your fiance better."
She wanted to scream "No!" but if she'd done that likely they'd think her mad, which would give them an excuse to keep a closer watch on her. And that she couldn't have. Her only chance of freeing herself from this increasingly dismaying fate lay in appealing to Great-Aunt Josephina and she couldn't risk her father banning her weekly visit, as he had on Thursday last.
So she bowed her head and acquiesced. Nobody realized how hard her heart was thumping, how her fingers shook, because she kept them firmly clasped together. She stood completely still while her father and the two older Barbers left the room. They left the door open, thank goodness, so privacy was limited.
It meant someone was listening, probably Mary the maid, since Mrs. Cousins, their cook, would be in the kitchen preparing dinner. For once, Sapphira felt glad of the eavesdropper.
She raised her eyes to see her suitor licking his lips in a most insalubrious manner. He appeared to have quite a thick tongue which, she realized with a flush of embarrassment, could be useful in certain situations. The books her great-aunt kept in her private collection made her far more aware than she should have been of the pleasures of the flesh. But she couldn't imagine sharing them with George. Or rather, she didn't want to. The idea of baring even an inch more flesh than she was revealing right at this moment set her hair on end.
George stared at her in what she considered unhealthy fascination. His eyes, slightly protuberant like those of his namesake the King and his mother, had a glassy tone she couldn't like, but perhaps it was the light in here. She determined to try to make the best of things.
So she smiled and took a shaky step toward him. Before she realized it, he'd jerked her into his arms and slammed his mouth down on hers. She had opened her mouth when she made her move, intending to say something welcoming, but she'd had no chance. He squeezed her uncomfortably and shoved his tongue into her mouth with a force that took her breath away.
Waves of bad breath hit her like a rock and made her head spin. She reached out to try to push him away and found his upper arms, but he wouldn't move. Always the mercer's daughter, she recognized that he wore good English cloth, smooth and fine, but it was the only smooth or fine thing about him. When she tried to repel his tongue by pushing at it with hers, he took it as encouragement. He pushed in farther, bringing one hand up to push aside her fichu to her breasts. Thank goodness for sturdy stays because his hands glided over her body, trying to find a way in and thankfully failed.
Unbelievable. Sapphira could understand his lack of finesse, given his unfortunate parentage, but not his lack of consideration. His parents would surely have told him that she was young and untried and he should treat her with respect.
Oh God, the gag reflex rose in her throat. The stink of his breath, together with his tongue greedily exploring her mouth, made it almost inevitable, and she concentrated on forcing down the bile that rose fierily from her stomach.
She shoved him away, and he remained where she'd pushed him, two steps away, staring at her. His chest heaved as he pulled a series of deep breaths into his narrow body. She shouldn't compare his physique to her nebulous dream man, but she did. The kisses she imagined when she lay in her bed at nights were so different, accomplished, careful and needy. And her imaginary lover's chest provided a broad support for her breasts, not a bony wall to squash them against.
"I'm sorry." George spread his hands in apology. "You're very pretty, you know." As if that constituted adequate reason. It did not.
"Thank you," she managed, but specifically for the apology. "My father has told me little about you. I know you're one and twenty. Don't you think I'm too old for you?"
"There's only a couple of years between us."
"Four. Four years." Hopeless to try that tack, but she had to try. Perhaps she could persuade him to call it off.
"And I have to do as my parents tell me." Then again, perhaps that was a forlorn hope.
He stared at her as if she were mad. "It's God's will."
"Not in my Bible. It says 'honor' in my copy, not 'obey'."
His mouth tightened, and she realized she had a bigot on her hands. Either that, or someone who wouldn't think for himself, too lazy or too stupid or both. A wistful melancholy filled her when she recalled her dreams of a man who would take her in his arms and woo her with love. If George had shown her any of the gallantry she dreamed of, she'd be the happiest woman in London. These days she knew better than to expect a complete dream man, but a little consideration, a little respect, a little self-respect would have done, would have given her something to build on. But her father wanted her to marry this man. This nothing.
Impossible. "Your parents are God-fearing folk, as are we, sir, but I've heard stories about your parents I'm convinced cannot be true."
He shrugged. "We go to church once a day, and we begin the days with prayers. Three times on Sundays."
"We have morning prayers." A useful time, after which she instructed the maid on her duties, checked her father's routine with him and arranged her day. Her father might also make announcements about his business, since his employees usually attended prayers. "When do you go into the City to attend to business?"
He frowned. "That is none of our concern. My mother says we are to concentrate on creating the next generation. A dy-dy--"
"Dynasty," she prompted, almost automatically.
"Yes, dynasty. If you say so."
Not too bright, then.
George licked his lips. "And you'll be mine. They promised me that I'd have you to myself, every night, as long as I serviced you well." A gleam appeared in the depths of his eyes. Oh God.
She had a sudden premonition of her lot in fifty years, if she lived that long. A tight-lipped woman, surrounded by children, maybe grandchildren, not in a loving household, but in one devoted to duty.
Insupportable. Much of life consisted of duty, to one's parents, to honor, but all of it? Looking at George, she knew she'd never find it with this man, or with his family. She couldn't do it. She just couldn't. She had to find a way.
George kept his distance, but continued to talk to her about what they'd be expected to do. Excessive but thoughtless devotion, duty for its own sake, complete obedience and the suppression of any happiness, any joy.
Why had her father agreed to this? Despair and rage filled her in equal measure. Until recently he'd been stern but fair, listening to her and giving her due consideration in household and business affairs. He'd changed recently, the whippings only the worst of what was fast becoming insupportable to Sapphira.
Rather than this marriage she'd join the girls upstairs at Mother Brown's, the notorious whorehouse and gaming house at the corner of Covent Garden. She visited the market twice a week in the early mornings, but the house was shuttered up at that time of day. Still, everyone knew it and what happened within its redbrick walls. She'd listened to the mutters, the salacious gossip. Mother Brown specialized in fantasy, making her clients' dreams come true, and high-stakes gaming. Sapphira heard rumors that Mother Brown had made a fortune out of it, but she treated her girls well, because she claimed that happy girls worked better. So that wasn't rhetoric. If she had to go there, she'd do it.
She let none of her defiance show. If she had, she'd have been watched, her visits to Great-Aunt Josephina stopped and her daily comings and goings curtailed. House arrest, in effect.
The prospect frightened her, and she wasn't easily frightened. But only an idiot wouldn't have felt fear. This family was completely intractable.
After today, the banns would go up. She had four weeks to escape from this nightmare. A paltry four weeks.