If there was one thing Lady Matilda Franklin hated more than anything, it was losing a wager. And losing this wager in particular was not to be borne. The game had begun simply enough at the start of the Season last year. She and her dearest friends, Lady Lavinia Gordon, Lady Selena Cornet, and Lady Clara Armstrong, had been suffering the ebbing elation after another busy afternoon shopping, and Lavinia announced she was bored. That was the most dangerous combination imaginable—Lavinia and boredom. Suffice it to say, an entertaining wager was proposed, and Mattie’s input was that the winner would be the first girl to kiss one of the friends of the Miscreant Marquess—Lavinia’s scandalous brother. After reprimanding her for calling him a miscreant, Lavinia had agreed to the game, as long as no one kissed her brother Lord Markham. But now that Lavinia had won and was engaged to Viscount Ringley—her kiss target—the game had ended. Released from Lavinia’s restriction, Mattie was free to steal a kiss from Markham. The only difficulty would be trapping him somewhere private. On the rare occasion he entered a ballroom, everyone knew it. He towered over most men, and the proud manner with which he carried himself made him appear even taller. His hair…those thick black locks made her fingers twitch with the need to touch them. Something in his air hinted at the same boredom Lavinia suffered. It must be a family trait, that state of ennui resultant from descending from a duke.
They had everything they wanted, so what excitement was there to be had in anything? Scandalous whispers always followed in the marquess’s wake. When trapped in a crush of people, unable to see beyond the person in front of her, Mattie could follow his path through a crowded room simply by listening to the wave of sighs. Last Season, Markham strode toward Lavinia most often, so all Mattie had had to do was remain at her friend’s side. Now that his sister was engaged, he no longer needed to watch over her, so he rarely came to assemblies. Thus, Mattie’s dilemma. He enjoyed the card rooms, especially the smaller ones where men bet and lost an entire year’s income—or an estate—and she couldn’t join those tables. Maybe she’d be lucky and find him in the other game room one night, where the wagers were much smaller or non-existent. She could beg his assistance in some vague matter, convince him to leave the room with her, and steal her kiss. Or, she could save herself the heartache and find another way. Mattie, Selena and Clara remained unattached still.
In Mattie’s case, her state was due to Markham’s being unaware of her as anything other than an ornament at his sister’s side. Selena was indecisive, unwilling to limit herself to the attentions of one man. She was also fickle, preferring a different gentleman each assembly the girls attended. Clara was too tongue-tied when nearby a man she wished to know better. Her income wasn’t large enough to encourage prospective husbands to seek her out, thus she was a wallflower when not accompanied by one of her friends. And they were the best of friends, until it came to their brothers. Then came the news of Mattie’s perfect opportunity—Lavinia and Ringley’s wedding. *** The four girlfriends gathered at Lavinia’s home, Stanhope Abbey, in Derbyshire a week ahead of the wedding. Their assistance wasn’t needed for anything involving the wedding itself, as Her Grace, Duchess Stanhope had everything running smoothly. She’d insisted her daughter’s marriage would be a grand affair, the weekend beginning with a ball and ending with the wedding breakfast two days later.
The girls arrived so much ahead of time because the first of them was marrying, a momentous, lifechanging event, which would forever alter their relationships. Sitting together on the lawn, they basked in the warmth while keeping their faces in the shadow of their hats, fighting a bout of melancholy. Mattie plucked a wildflower and inhaled deeply of its sweet perfume. Selena, the most practical among them, sighed audibly. “We’ll still be able to gather at each other’s homes in the country every year. Lavinia’s being married won’t change that.” “We know that,” Clara argued. “But it will never be the same. She’ll be married.” “Which is what we all will be one day,” Mattie said.
She didn’t add her concerns about how long it was taking to find a husband. They always laughed and said they were in no hurry to marry, but for her, the words were no longer true. And the man she planned to marry was Markham. “I can’t wait to decorate my new home,” Lavinia said. “You all must come visit me so I can show it off.” At least she was honest about what she’d be doing, instead of downplaying her excitement about establishing her new home. She deserved it, though. Love was the last thing any of the girls had on their minds when they’d made their wager, and Viscount Ringley was a poor choice at that time, given how ardently Markham argued against their match. But where love planted roots, it couldn’t fail to bloom. Mattie lifted her chin and peered out from under her hat brim.
“I shall come only if Ringley invites some of his friends.” Lavinia laughed and shook her head, but didn’t argue. “Oh, yes!” Clara rolled to her knees. “We can continue the wager.” “Only if we choose who we’ll kiss,” Mattie said. She already had her plans in place, and no one could talk her out of kissing Markham. “Don’t be silly, girls,” Lavinia said. “If it’s kisses you want, I’ll have you come at Christmas, and hang a kissing ball in a prominent place. Selena and Clara chattered excitedly, but Mattie couldn’t share their glee. Wait until December to kiss the marquess? She wouldn’t even consider it.
Nor would she inform anyone who she’d kiss. If no one knew her plans, no one could stop her from doing so. *** London Colin, Marquess of Markham, paused as he rode past Shipley’s Club. He hadn’t intended to stop there this evening, but he saw Viscount Ringley, the man who was to marry his sister in mere days, enter the gaming hell. “Blast him!” Markham rapped on the side of the carriage and called to his driver. “Stop here.” Before it slowed completely, the marquess was out the door and trotting up the steps of the club. After ridding himself of his cloak, hat and gloves, he strode into the large room populated with small tables…and not so small gentlemen. Leo, Viscount Ringley, glanced up from his cards long enough to meet the marquess’s gaze, then quickly focused on his cards. Markham found an empty chair and tucked it between two players.
“May I join the next hand?” One of the other men, who had a nice pile of cash in front of him, smiled and lifted an eyebrow. “Markham, isn’t it? I’d be honored to fleece your pockets.” Unable to recognize the man, Markham ignored him and watched Ringley play instead. The viscount was an expert at keeping his features frozen so as not to let on what sort of cards he had, but he had a tendency to play long after he’d lost all his money. Perhaps tonight he’d be smart and leave early. After Markham was dealt in, he studied the three men at the table. Lord Everley and Sir Thomas were regulars in the gaming hells, and played as much for the challenge as for the winnings they might take home. As the game went on, it became clear the third man had some sort of advantage, or was cheating. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” Markham said to him. “Sir Rollo Walford,” he replied.
He squinted as he looked first at the money lying on the table, then at each player’s face before tossing another coin in the center of the table. The name was familiar, but Markham couldn’t remember exactly where he’d heard it. Whatever had been said about him wasn’t kind, on that he was certain. Ringley’s gaze darted anxiously between his cards and the pile of wagers. Markham’s fingers tightened on his own cards, certain his soon-to-be brother was out of money. He decided to make light of it, while pointedly telling his friend to quit the game. “Getting nervous, Ringley? Maybe it’s time to go home and leave the wagering to the grown men.” Ringley’s brow furled. “Just planning my play.” “You’d be wise to leave with money in your pocket.
” Barely a year had passed since Ringley owed Markham such a large amount he thought he’d never get paid. When the viscount had proposed to Lavinia, Markham put his foot down that the wedding would never take place. Ringley was a good man, for the most part. He had the qualities a father might look for in a man, but being a brother, Markham knew him better, so he’d tried to talk his sister out of the match, and had threatened Ringley more than once to leave Lavinia alone. The viscount wasn’t a suitable match for the daughter of a duke. Yet their father believed differently, or else their mother had been so charmed by him she’d insisted the wedding go forth. Once it was clear the wedding would happen, Markham threatened Ringley of dire consequences should he ever return to his gaming ways. Believing the matter was settled, he was shocked and angry to see the man come here. “My pockets aren’t to let just yet.” Ringley’s smile was confident.
What was he up to? The winnings on the table in front of him were meager compared to the bank in front of Sir Rollo, so Ringley should see the obvious truth—he was on a losing streak. After playing his next move, Ringley caught Markham’s gaze and looked subtly but pointedly at Sir Rollo. Did he suspect the man of cheating? It was time Markham paid more attention to the baronet and less to his friend. Nodding, he hoped Ringley would cut back on his bets and let Markham take over. He had no worries about losing a bit of money in pursuit of a cheat. Sir Rollo was quite skilled in his cheating, making Markham’s work harder. He didn’t detect any sleight of hand, nor was there any action that said he was keeping track of the cards as they were played. He won hands which he hadn’t dealt, so he wasn’t dealing from the bottom. After several hours of play, Markham felt confident he wouldn’t solve the problem that night, and studying Sir Rollo too closely might scare the baronet away from gaming hells for the time being. It was time to go.
Pocketing his winnings, Markham stood. “It’s time I left. Ringley, I’d like a word with you.” Ringley scooped his small pile of coins and followed. When the door to the club shut behind them, he asked “What’s your opinion?” “He’s definitely cheating, but how?” Markham signaled to his carriage driver who waited down the street. “I wasn’t able to detect the cards being marked. Besides, he wins when others are banking, which means he’s counting cards. It’ll be hard to catch him at that. Why worry about it? Just stop gambling with him.” “He fleeced Mr.
Dumfries out of a year’s income. The lad has no family to fall back on for his living.” “And you pity him because of how close you came to being in the same situation.” Ringley hung his head and scratched the back of his neck. “I do. My original plan was to win back his money, but I rarely win enough to make the wagering worthwhile.” “Gambling is never worthwhile for you, and you’ll do well to remember it. I have the means to play longer, or more often, until we can prove Sir Rollo is cheating. Leave it to me.” “I have little choice,” Ringley said lightly.
“I’ll be married by week’s end and have no interest in playing cards—or anything else.” “I’m happy to hear it.” Markham opened the door to his carriage. “Can I give you a ride?” “No, I have my horse. I’ll see you at Stanhope Abbey this weekend.” Markham scowled. “I’d better see you.” He waited for Ringley to cringe, then burst into loud laughter, clapping his friend on the back. Climbing into the carriage, he rapped on the wall and ordered his coachman home.