Ruby’s Gamble – Lana Williams

GİDEON DE WOLFE stared unseeing out the hansom cab window, welcoming the anger that simmered deep within him. He much preferred it over the nerves that had threatened earlier in the evening. He’d arrived in London only yesterday to ensure all was well with De Wolfe Shipping Enterprises only to learn of a gambling scheme that preyed on their employees. He considered it his duty to do all he could to protect them. He tapped on the roof to alert the driver. “This will do,” he called out. As the cab rolled to a stop, Gideon searched the rough area of Tarling Street in East London, determined not to repeat his past mistakes. He intended to approach with caution rather than the brazenness he’d so foolhardily embraced a year ago. He’d come alone, refusing to place anyone else in what could potentially be a dangerous situation. The memory of Thomas, his best friend, caused a wave of grief to flood him, and the nerves returned. No, he wouldn’t take the same missteps that had gotten Thomas killed. This situation was completely different, he reminded himself. He was in London, not the wilds of Northumberland. The target of this evening’s quest was information, nothing more. When his cousin had asked him to venture to London to check on the family’s shipping business, Gideon had been pleased to do so.

Marcus and his lovely wife, Tessa, were expecting their second child, and Marcus didn’t want to leave home. Gideon hoped different scenery along with a purpose would ease the grief and restlessness that plagued him since Thomas’ death. But he didn’t take the request to inspect the family’s shipping interests lightly. Not when only two years ago, Marcus had made this trip and discovered young women being stowed in their ships to be sold as prostitutes in Belgium. With luck and perseverance, Marcus had put an end to their ships’ involvement with the terrible trade and placed those responsible behind bars. Since then, the de Wolfes made frequent trips to London and their other offices around the world to make certain nothing similar occurred again. At the age of four and twenty, Gideon had been trained at Marcus’ side in every aspect of the de Wolfe family holdings, which included everything from shipping and railroads to mining and trade along with other investments both in and out of the empire. Diversification had paid off but only because a de Wolfe oversaw each arm of their businesses. Gideon alighted and paid the driver. The cool, damp, April air made summer feel like a lifetime away.

The briny scent of the sea drifted toward him, a reminder of how near the river was. And always in London was the scent of soot. “Shall I wait, sir?” the driver asked. “No. I don’t know how long I’ll be.” The Sail and Anchor Public House, where lottery tickets were being sold this evening, stood down the street a short distance. This area of the city was harsh in the daytime but took on an even darker hue at night. Gideon took pride in being able to take care of himself—if not with his fists then with the knife tucked in the top of his boot. But he no longer trusted himself to place anyone else in danger. Not ever again.

As the cab pulled away, Gideon walked toward the pub, studying the area to gain his bearings. Others hurried past, anxious to reach their destination before the night grew deeper. Most shops along the street were locked tight, their windows dark, but not the pub. Both light and people spilled from the two-story brick building. He’d arrived in London yesterday and gone directly to the docks before word of his arrival preceded him. The offices, warehouses, and ships had all appeared in good order at first glance. Though he’d walked through each area, speaking with both managers and workers, a more thorough inspection was needed. He had meetings arranged over the coming week to review reports and converse with various employees in greater detail. When he’d overheard several of the workers discussing the lottery with some excitement, he’d been concerned. Even the foremen who hired the regulars and casual dockers to load and unload cargo each day mentioned the drawing.

The sporting papers that discussed the merits of certain racehorses had been visible in many hands. Gideon wasn’t opposed to placing a wager or two on a horse that caught his interest. The coming of spring meant the beginning of the horse racing season in England, something the working class enjoyed as much as the nobility. However, the talk he’d overheard of the drawing being held at the pub raised questions he couldn’t easily dismiss. He’d mentioned his concern to Nash, the stevedore in charge of loading outbound ships. “Reeks of a scheme,” Nash had said with a disgusted look. “But the men don’t pay me no mind. They’re all certain buying one of those tickets will make them rich. If they’re going to wager on horse racing, why do so through a lottery?” Nash had handed Gideon a copy of the Deptford Spec, which outlined the details of a lottery held each Saturday evening, soon after the majority of workers received their wages. The lottery’s practices sounded questionable to Gideon.

Fine print noted that expenses and the number of tickets sold reduced the prizes, but nowhere did the paper mention how either of those items was calculated. Different cash prizes were awarded for the first horse, the second, and the third as well as for starters and non-starters. The results were printed on Mondays after the drawing, available for purchase, of course. Without evidence of foul play, Gideon couldn’t convince anyone to avoid wasting their hard-earned pay on the lottery. Hence his visit to The Sail and Anchor Public House, where tickets were available for purchase prior to the drawing this evening. He intended to watch the proceedings and ask a few questions. What harm could that cause? The pub looked much like any other in this neighborhood. A faded sign with a sail and anchor depicted the name of the place. The soot-blackened façade with cracked trim and peeling paint had seen better days. A good-sized crowd was visible through dirty windows.

The smell of fried fish wafted from a nearby shop but failed to stir Gideon’s appetite as he opened the pub’s door. When many of the patrons turned to stare, he realized he should’ve chosen different clothing. His attire, though modest compared to what he normally wore, made it obvious he didn’t belong here. Already, he drew too much attention. He could only hope the customers became accustomed to his presence or something of greater interest caught their notice. Those standing amidst the tables gave him a wide berth as he moved toward the long, polished bar and ordered an ale. The bartender filled his order with a wary eye. Though the stout man didn’t appear overly friendly, Gideon needed to start his inquiries somewhere. “Busy place tonight.” The barkeep raised a bushy brow as if to ask why Gideon bothered to state the obvious before stepping aside to fill another person’s order.

Gideon leaned an elbow against the bar and turned to survey the customers as he took a sip. The ale’s mild flavor was more pleasant on his tongue than expected. Not too bitter with a full-bodied, lightly fruity taste. A few people sat at the bar but more sat at tables, several with copies of The Sporting Life in hand. The newspaper, well-known for its horse racing coverage, shared the lists of upcoming races along with opinions on attributes of the horses and jockeys. As Gideon watched, several of the men checked their pocket watches and rose, taking their glasses with them, to walk up the stairs. The barkeep returned to wash a few glasses in the sink near Gideon. “Is the clubroom upstairs?” Gideon asked. The man nodded. “That’s where they’re selling tickets for the lottery?” “Do ye have a mind to buy some?” he asked with a smirk as he looked over Gideon’s custom-tailored suit coat.

“Hoping to win yer fortune, are ye?” Gideon smiled. “You never know when your luck might change. Do you know who sells the tickets?” “Ain’t none of my business what goes on up there.” Gideon placed a shilling on the bar and slid it across the smooth surface. “Thanks for your time.” He took his glass and went up the stairs, noting men entering an open door to his left. Though he preferred to be closer to an exit should the need for it arise, he wanted to find out more. Gideon followed them into a large, crowded room. Three men with fistfuls of tickets stood on crates spaced a fair distance apart, calling out encouragement to potential customers. While most were men, several women milled about as well.

According to what he’d read, the drawing would be held in less than half an hour. The three men towering above the crowd each had a queue of people waiting to make a purchase. Asking questions of them would be difficult. He searched the room for others who might be connected to the lottery and spotted a man who watched the proceedings closely. From the satisfied expression on his flat-nosed face, he must be involved. Perhaps it would be best to observe a few minutes longer before determining with whom to speak. A lack of caution had caused disaster in his last endeavor, but he refused to allow that to keep him from his goal. RUBY COMPTON TİGHTENED the shawl over her shoulders to ward off the crisp night air. Anger quickened her steps as she made her way down the street toward The Sail and Anchor Public House. “What’s yer hurry, luv?” a teetering soldier called, reaching toward her.

“Leave off.” She glared as she strode past the drunken man, undeterred by the pleas that followed her rebuff. She couldn’t wait to get her hands on her brother and give him a piece of her mind. Blast Douglas. How dare he even consider spending his paycheck on lottery tickets with the rent due next week? She thought she’d convinced him not to buy any. But when she returned home from work this evening, Papa advised her that Douglas had not yet arrived. She knew exactly what that meant. He’d decided to spend his pay on the blasted drawing that so many of their friends and neighbors had become obsessed with. Though older than her by two years, Douglas tended to believe each new scheme would be their saving grace. Ruby knew better.

Perhaps it was her head for numbers that caused her skepticism of such things. At twenty, she was the youngest in their small household, but the burden of making certain the rent was paid and they had enough food to see them through the coming days fell to her. Her mother had died when Ruby was just ten years old and taken a young girl’s dreams of a happy future with her. Ruby no longer thought of anything more than surviving the coming week. Her father hadn’t been able to tutor for the past six months because of illness. Consumption was a terrible disease to watch as it slowly stole a life. Though her father had days of good health, those had been rare of late. His once strong and hearty body was now thin and often wracked by coughing. Their small savings had been spent on the doctor and medicine. Without his pay to help support the family, the burden fell to Douglas and Ruby.

She had high hopes that her bookkeeping job at the printing shop would provide them with some stability. But her boss remained uncertain whether he liked having a female on the premises. Ruby was determined to prove her skill with numbers bested any man he’d previously employed and deserved even better pay. Doing so would take time, something she wasn’t sure they had. Her father desperately needed more medicine to ease his symptoms but that required money. The sooner she had enough to send for the doctor, the better. Douglas knew all that, yet still he chose to come to the pub this evening. She only hoped she wasn’t too late. She jerked open the door, searching the room for his tall, lanky form with no success. She nodded at several men she knew as well as a couple of their wives.

Then she stepped close to the bar and nodded at John, the barkeep. “Have you seen Douglas?” “He’s upstairs with the rest of them,” John said with a shake of his head. The confirmation of what she already knew only made Ruby angrier. She nodded her thanks and hurried up the stairs, determined to put an end to her brother’s foolishness. The clubroom took up the majority of the pub’s upper level. Meetings and events were held there as it offered a small measure of privacy when closed off from the rest of the building. But not this evening. The door stood open and the room was so full that she could barely squeeze in. The scent of sweat and ale mixed, threatening to turn her stomach. Why didn’t someone open a window? She knew many of those in attendance as her family had lived in this neighborhood for as long as she could remember.

This was the only life she’d known. Her mother used to tell her stories from her youth as the daughter of a country squire. Before she’d fallen in love with the vicar’s son, and her father had disowned her. Balls and parties, horseback riding, and the fresh air of the country. Ruby could no longer imagine any of those things, not without her mother there to remind her. Especially not as she stood in this crowded room filled with such terrible, desperate hope. Everyone talked at once. The men selling tickets called encouragement, no doubt hoping to convince those considering buying them to spend more than they planned. Or all they had. “Only a few tickets left,” Will, a friend of her brother’s, shouted.

“Buy them while you can,” another added. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” another said. “Until next Saturday night,” Ruby murmured with a shake of her head. A strange frenzy seemed to grip the crowd. A few counted and recounted the money in their hands as if they might somehow find more. Additional people formed in the ticket sellers’ queues, anxious to buy another chance at riches. The sight depressed her, for she knew the poor odds of winning. She thought Douglas did, too, as he shared her aptitude for numbers. She searched the room for him, pausing here and there at familiar faces. The lottery was getting out of hand, in her opinion.

If people spent their wages on hope rather than food and shelter each week, they left hungry mouths at home. A stranger stood apart from the crowd not far from her, tall and handsome. His detachment from the rest of the people caught her notice even more than his attractive appearance. Why come if he didn’t want to buy a ticket? His fine suit, the clipped cut of his dark brown hair, and the general tidiness of him contrasted with the other men in the room. He did not belong here. She walked closer, telling herself she was searching for Douglas. But something about the stranger drew her, and she wanted a closer look. The man was undeniably handsome. Watchful intelligence shone in his golden hazel eyes. His broad shoulders and deep chest made her think of a knight of old.

With a sigh, she realized she might not be above dreaming, after all. He belonged at a ball or, even better, at the head table in a castle’s great hall with an impressive display of weaponry hanging above a fireplace large enough to roast an ox. Few of the other people in the room paid him any mind. How could they not stare at him in wonder and curiosity as she did? That golden gaze swung to her, and she halted midstride. Dark brows defined his face along with high cheekbones and sun-kissed skin that spoke of time outside. She couldn’t have looked away if she’d tried. Not when her entire body hummed with awareness. His gaze lowered, taking in her clothing, and the spell broke. She knew how she looked, even if she rarely bothered to glance in a mirror. Her simple gray gown had been mended in more places than she could count but served her well at the printing shop when spilled ink could ruin clothing.

The shawl over her shoulders, a cherished gift from her mother, had once been a deep rose but had faded with time. Her dark hair held a hint of red in the sunlight but otherwise appeared a dull shade of brown. The thick mass was drawn into a simple knot at the base of her head. No doubt several strands had loosened from her brisk walk to the pub. Her features were even, her ordinary brown eyes wide, but her chin held a sharpness to it that had been the subject of teasing by her brother’s friends in her youth. She touched it even now, wishing she could ease its point. Nothing about her would make a man like him look twice. She sighed with regret. He was definitely not part of this world—her world, but for a long moment, as his gaze returned to her, she wished she belonged in his. Ruby forced herself to look away, too unsettled to hold the contact any longer.

She continued forward to find Douglas, relieved when she didn’t see him in any of the queues. Did that mean he was here just to watch the proceedings? She didn’t believe that for a minute, not when his friend Will hawked tickets. At last, she spotted Douglas and eased through the crowd toward him, well aware the path would take her past the stranger. She kept her eyes on her brother, telling herself not to look at the man again. But the opportunity proved irresistible when he was so near. She glanced at him as she passed. And found him watching her as well. The realization caused her breath to catch. Suddenly, her foot caught on someone’s outstretched boot, pitching her forward. She reached out to regain her balance only to realize someone had caught her.

Warm, strong fingers held her upper arms and pulled her upright. She turned to see the identity of her rescuer, heart hammering to find her knight had saved her. Rather—the stranger. What on earth was wrong with her? “Thank you,” she said, aware of the heat stinging her cheeks. “Are you hurt?” he asked. “No. Thank you again.” Before she could reconsider, she eased back from his touch, certain she wouldn’t soon forget the feel of him holding her. Her heart fluttered as she walked away, her hands trembling as if she’d held a dream briefly only to let it go. She drew a deep breath as she moved toward Douglas.

“What was that all about?” Douglas asked, craning his head for a look at the man who’d helped her.

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