Point Non Plus
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by Maggie MacKeever
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: At seventeen, Zoe Loversall was the toast of the ton, with so many admirers that they were known as 'Zoe's Zoo'. At seven-and-twenty, she is a runaway Contessa, determined to experience everything life has thus far withheld. Zoe returns to London, to seek her ruin and her revenge. There she sets her sights on Lord Quinton, that most notorious -- and most uncooperative -- profligate of all. Regency Romance novella by Maggie MacKeever; originally published by Vintage Ink Press
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 2012
eBookwise Release Date: January 2012
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [136 KB]
Reading time: 76-107 min.
Claret and champagne, thought Mina. And oh! The price of peas. The expense of maintaining a gambling house was enormous, even though that house was not in Piccadilly but rather the raffish Haymarket, alongside hotels and cafes and taverns, the King's Theater for Italian Opera and the Theater Royal, vying for attention with popular entertainments from human curiosities to animal prodigies, her own favorite to date being a half-dozen turkeys executing a country dance.
She was the proprietress of a Pandemonium. Mina marveled at herself. Since said Pandemonium was in the Haymarket, did that make her Haymarket ware?
The hour was late, the gaming rooms in full swing. Those rooms were as fine as their more fashionable rivals, furnished with thick carpets and marble fireplaces, rich woods and comfortable sofas and chairs. Moxley, admitted Mina, had known what he was about. Moxley had known what he was about in regard to many matters; had possessed a certain exuberance, a joie de vivre. But Moxley was water well run under the bridge and there was no use sniffling over milk that had been spilt.
Moxley House stood on the west side of the street, at the northern end; two residences combined, with basement, three stories and a garret, four chambers to each floor.
The first floor was given over to gaming. Mina entered the front room. On each side of the rouge et noir table -- marked with two red and black diamond-shaped spots on which the players placed their stakes -- a croupier waited with rake in hand, her task to watch the cards and gather in the money for the bank. Moxley's employed more females than any other London hell, all of them dressed in gowns as expensive as any worn in fashionable drawing-rooms, if with even more bosom put on display.
The dealer laid out two rows of cards, one designated as rouge and the other as noir; the players bet on which row would have a count nearer thirty-one, on whether the first card of the winning row would be of the color for that row, or whether it would not. Mina noted the pile of markers, none less than a half-crown. A buffet laden with various alcoholic beverages stood against the far wall.
The next room was dominated by a long table covered with green cloth and divided by tightly stretched pieces of string. These croupiers were equipped with hooked sticks instead of the usual rakes.
The game here was hazard. Intent players crowded around, most of the masculine persuasion, clean-shaven or whiskered or mustachioed, hair pomaded or dressed with fragrant oil; clad in evening coats of blue and brown, pantaloons or trousers, square toed shoes or Hessian boots, bulky neck cloths and waistcoats of every imaginable hue. Mina recognized several familiar figures, among them a slender, fair-haired young man leaning on the back of a chair. Abercorn was a reckless plunger, who would lay odds on anything from the turn of a card to a race between flies crawling up a windowpane.
A smile here, a quick word there, a raised eyebrow answered with a nod or a slight frown-- Mina glanced into one of the private alcoves where whist was being played for stakes that would have satisfied the legendary Charles James Fox. The atmosphere was hushed, the shutters closed, the thick curtains drawn.
In the third large chamber, a statuesque brunette presided over the faro table. Faro was a complicated game, involving a banker and an unlimited number of players who staked their bets against the dealer over certain combinations of cards. The odds in favor of the banker were second only to those in roulette. The majority of the players were paying as much attention to the dealer's neckline as to the cards she dealt.
Moxley had definitely known what he was about.
The E.O. table was being set in motion by a russet-haired young woman. Mina appreciated humankind's fascination with gambling on the revolution of a circular device. Romans had upended chariots and spun the wheels. The ancients twirled shields balanced on the points of swords. Mina suspected that was how cavemen came to invent the wheel.
The quiet was broken by the rattle of the dice, the clatter of the ball, the low murmurs of the players, the soft voices of the dealers as they announced the result of the last gamble, or requested the players to make their game anew.
Wagers, gentlemen. There was the cost of wax candles and champagne to offset.
Intent as they were upon their various games, on the dice, or cards, or ball, not one of the gamblers failed to notice their hostess pass by. Wilhelmina Moxley belonged to a family famous (or infamous) for their amorous adventures, the gentlemen renowned for the number and quality of their mistresses, the women for their inclination to give their hearts unwisely and too well. Had the Loversalls a motto, it would be: Love fully, with complete abandon, and always with great style
This Loversall remained a Nonpareil at forty, a deep-chested woman with red-gold hair drawn up in an Apollo knot, stunningly sensual features and dark-fringed sapphire eyes. She wore a scarlet gown with frills around the hem, the fitted bodice cut low to display her enviable decolletage, the puffed sleeves threatening to slip off her shapely shoulders with the slightest shrug. The widow's refusal to wear mourning shocked some and titillated all. Odds were being laid as to whom she'd bed and bury next.
Mina pretended to be amused.
The last of the public chambers had been made into a supper room. Crystal chandeliers illuminated small tables laid with silver and fine china upon pristine linen cloths.
Several patrons were enjoying a substantial supper. A number of spirited conversations were underway. Mina paused to speak with a wealthy silk merchant, ordered a glass of wine, selected an apple tart.
Her gaze fell upon a gentleman seated alone at one of the small tables. He was perhaps thirty years of age, with grey eyes and close-cropped brown hair; a successful solicitor with offices located near the Royal Courts of Justice, in the vicinity of the Temple Church.
Mr. Eames seemed somber. Mina hoped he hadn't wagered more than he could afford to lose.
She moved toward his table. "Why so morose, my friend? Has Dame Fortune not smiled on you this eve?"
He got to his feet. "I've gone down more heavily than I like, but I'm not yet lurched. May I have the pleasure of your company?"
Mina seated herself. Mr. Eames sank back into his chair. She picked up her fork and took a bite of apple tart. He raised his wineglass, swallowed, tried not to grimace, didn't succeed.
Mina raised her brows. "Is the quality of my claret so inferior?"
"It is I who am inferior, or so Sir Ian informs me," he replied gloomily. "And Lady Anne will do nothing of which her father disapproves."
Mina marveled, not for the first time, at the astonishing perversity of the human heart. "Have you considered Gretna Green?"
"I would not dishonor the lady with an elopement." Mr. Eames set down his glass. "Or if I would, she wouldn't, so there's an end to it."
"You will think of something."
"I have thought of numerous things, each one frowned on by the law."
Mina wondered how many things she had done -- was doing at that moment -- that were frowned on by the law. She took another bite of apple tart.
A man entered the room. His head was shaved, his eyes cold, his nose as flattened as his ears. He looked every inch the bruiser he had been before Moxley hired him to oversee the hell. Samson knew all the ways of cheating, with cards and dice, by means of handkerchief or snuffbox or rubbing the eye; recognized at first glimpse a Greek or Captain Sharp or law officer's spy. Conversation faltered, then more quietly resumed.
What now? Mina pushed back her chair. Samson threaded his way among the tables, bent and murmured in her ear. A woman claiming to be 'Cousin Ianthe' had invaded the premises at pistol-point, he said, and was demanding to speak with the proprietor. "That one's no more Miss Ianthe than I'm David's sow, and so I told her, upon which she threatened to shoot off my cullions if I didn't fetch you to her straightaway."
Ianthe, here? Impossible. Ianthe was traipsing around Russia with a pair of German princelings. Furthermore, Ianthe disliked bloodletting and was unlikely to be brandishing a firearm, unless she had gone out of her head.
Loversalls not infrequently went out of their heads.
Mina glanced at Mr. Eames, who had withdrawn into his own unhappy musings. "You put her in the morning room?"
"Aye, and locked the door."
Leaving Samson to keep an eye on the gaming suite, Mina made her way to the private portion of the house. With a feeling of foreboding, she unlocked the morning room door.
In front of the fireplace stood a small figure wrapped in a voluminous dark cloak. On her nose perched a pair of dark spectacles, on her head a mass of mud-brown hair so ugly it could only be a wig. In her right hand she held a double barreled, double triggered handgun with brass fittings, an engraved ivory grip, and a relief carved wooden stock. The pistol was pointed not at Mina's cullions, since Mina had none, but instead at her heart.
"You asked to speak with me?" Mina inquired, more politely than she felt. "I might be more amenable if you aimed that gun elsewhere."
The pistol lowered, fractionally. "Buonsera, Cousin Wilhelmina. I might be more agreeable if I had not been made to wait! I do not wish to shoot you, no or anybody else, except maybe Paolo, but I am tired and hungry and have travelled a great distance, and your man tried to turn me away."
Cousin? Mina had numerous cousins, Loversalls being prone to rather indiscriminately procreate. Ianthe was otherwise occupied in Russia. Cara was busy procreating with her spouse. Whereas Beau--
Mina experienced a sinking sensation, as if the apple tart she'd recently consumed had bypassed her stomach altogether to take up residence in her toes. Bloody hell, she thought but said, "Oh, mercy! Zoe."