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Authors: Judith McNaught

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #Historical

Almost Heaven (9 page)

BOOK: Almost Heaven
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Elizabeth hesitated, thinking she must be going quite mad, because she honestly sensed that he wanted her to stay. Uncertain whether she was merely imagining his feelings, she smiled bravely at him. “I was merely going for some wine, sir,” she prevaricated. “I have every faith you’ll”, she groped for the right term “you’ll come about!” she declared, recalling Robert’s occasional gambling cant. A servant heard her and rushed forward to hand her a glass of wine, and Elizabeth remained standing at Ian Thornton’s elbow.

Their hostess swept into the card room at that moment, and bent a reproving look on all the occupants of the card table. Then she turned to Ian, smiling gorgeously at him despite the severity of her words. “Now really, Thorn, this has gone on too long. Do finish your play and rejoin us in the ballroom.” As if it took an effort, she dragged her gaze from him and looked at the other men around the table. “Gentlemen,” she warned laughingly, “I shall cut off your supply of cigars and brandy in twenty minutes.” Several of the spectators followed her out, either from guilt at having neglected their roles as courteous guests or from boredom at watching Ian lose everything.

“I’ve had enough cards for one night,” the Duke of Hammund announced.

“So have I,” another echoed.

“One more game,” Lord Everly insisted. “Thornton still has some of my money, and I aim to win it back on the next hand.”

The men at the table exchanged resigned glances, then the duke nodded agreement. “All right, Everly, one more game and then we return to the ballroom.”

“No limit on the stakes, since it’s the last game?” asked Lord Everly eagerly. All the men nodded as if assent were natural, and Ian dealt the first round of cards to each player.

The opening bet was £1,000. During the next five minutes the amount represented by the pile of chips in the center escalated to £25,000. One by one the remaining players dropped out until only Lord Everly and Ian were left, and only one card remained to be dealt after the wagers were placed. Silence stretched taut in the room, and Elizabeth nervously clasped and unclasped her hands as Lord Everly picked up his fourth card.

He looked at it, then at Ian, and Elizabeth saw the triumph gleaming in the young man’s eyes. Her heart sank to her stomach as he said, “Thornton, this card will cost you £10,000 if you want to stay in the game long enough to see it.”

Elizabeth felt a strong urge to throttle the wealthy young lord and an equally strong urge to kick Ian Thornton in his shin, which was within reach of her toe beneath the table, when he took the bet and
raised
it by £5,000!

She could not believe Ian’s lack of perception; even
she
could tell from Everly’s face that he had an unbeatable hand! Unable to endure it another moment, she glanced at the spectators gathered around the table who were watching Everly to see if he took the bet, then she picked up her skirts to leave. Her slight movement seemed to pull Ian’s attention from his opponent, and for the third time that night be looked up at her – and for the second time his gaze checked her. As Elizabeth looked at him in taut misery, he very slightly, almost imperceptibly turned his cards so she could see them.

He was holding four tens. Relief soared through her, followed instantly by terror that her face would betray her emotions. Turning swiftly, she almost knocked poor Lord Howard over in her haste to leave the immediate area of the table. “I need a moment of air,” she told him, and he was so engrossed in waiting to see if Everly would match Ian’s bet that he nodded and let her move away without protest. Elizabeth realized that in showing her his hand to relieve her fear, Ian had taken the risk that she would do or say something foolish that would give him away, and she couldn’t think why he would have done that for her. Except that, as she’d stood beside him, she’d known somehow that he was as aware of her presence as she was of his, and that he rather liked having her stand at his side.

Now that she’d made good her escape, however, Elizabeth couldn’t decide how to cover her hasty retreat and still remain in the card room, so she wandered over to a painting depicting a hunting scene and studied it with feigned fascination.

“It’s your bet, Everly,” she heard Ian prod.

Lord Everly’s answer made Elizabeth tremble: “twenty-five thousand pounds,” he drawled.

“Don’t be a fool!” the duke told him. “That’s too much to wager on one hand, even for you.”

Certain now that she had her facial expression under control, Elizabeth wandered back to the table.

“I can afford it,” Everly reminded them all smoothly. “What concerns me, Thornton, is whether or not
you
can cover your bet when you lose.”

Elizabeth flinched as if the insult had been hurled at her, but Ian merely leaned back in his chair and regarded Everly in steady, glacial silence. After a long, tense moment he said in a dangerously soft voice, “I can afford to raise you another £10,000.”

“You don’t
have
another £10,000 to your cursed name,” Everly spat, “and I’m not putting up my money against a worthless chit signed by you!”

“Enough!” snapped the Duke of Hammund. “You go too far, Everly. I’ll vouch for his credit. Now take the bet or fold.”

Everly glowered furiously at Hammund and then nodded at Ian with contempt. “Ten thousand more it is. Now let’s see what you’re holding!”

Wordlessly Ian turned his hand palm up, and the cards spilled gracefully onto the table in a perfect fan of four tens.

Everly exploded from his chair. “You miserable
cheat!
I saw you deal that last card from the bottom of the deck. I
knew
it, but I refused to believe my own eyes.”

A babble of conversation rumbled through the room at this unforgivable insult, but with the exception of the muscle that leapt in Ian’s taut jaw, his expression didn’t change.

“Name your seconds, you bastard!” Everly hissed, leaning his balled fists on the table and glowering his rage at Ian.

“Under the circumstances,” Ian replied in a bored, icy drawl, “I believe
I
am the one with the right to decide if
I
want satisfaction.”

“Don’t be an ass, Everly!” someone hissed. “He’ll drop you like a fly.” Elizabeth scarcely heard that; all she knew was that there was going to be a duel when there shouldn’t be.

“This is all a terrible mistake!” she burst out, and a roomful of annoyed, incredulous male faces turned toward her. “Mr. Thornton did not cheat,” she explained quickly. “He was holding all four of those tens before he drew the last card I stole a look at them when I was about to leave a few minutes ago, and I saw them in his hand.”

To her surprise, no one showed any sign of believing her or of even caring what she said, including Lord Everly, who slapped his hand on the table and bit out, “Damn you, I’ve called you a cheat. Now I call you a co –”

“For heaven’s sake!” Elizabeth cried, cutting off the word “coward,” which she knew would force any man of honor into a duel. “Didn’t any of you understand what I said?” she implored, rounding on the men standing about, thinking that since they were uninvolved, they would see reason more quickly than Lord Everly. “I just said Mr. Thornton was already holding all four tens and –”

Not one haughty male face showed a change in expression, and in a moment of crystal clarity Elizabeth saw what was happening and realized why none of them would intercede. In a roomful of lords and knights who were supremely conscious of their mutual superiority, Ian Thornton was outranked and outnumbered. He was the outsider, Everly was one of them, and they would never side with an outsider against one of their own. Moreover, by blandly refusing to accept Everly’s challenge Ian was subtly making it appear that the younger man wasn’t worth his time or effort, and they were all taking that insult personally.

Lord Everly knew it, and it made him more angry and more reckless as he glared murderously at Ian. “If you won’t agree to a duel tomorrow morning, I’ll come looking for you, you low –”

“You can’t, milord!” Elizabeth burst out. Everly tore his gaze from Ian to gape at her in angry surprise, and with a presence of mind she didn’t know she possessed Elizabeth targeted the one male in the room likely to be vulnerable to her wiles – she smiled brightly at Thomas Everly, speaking to him in a light, flirtatious tone, counting on his infatuation with her to sway him. “What a silly you are, sir, to be contemplating a duel tomorrow when you’re already promised to
me
for a jaunt into the village.”

“Now, really, Lady Elizabeth, this is –”

“No, I’m very sorry, milord, but I insist,” Elizabeth interrupted with a look of vapid innocence. “I shan’t be pushed aside like a-like a-I shan’t!” she finished desperately. “It is very provoking of you to consider treating me so shabbily. And I-I’m
shocked
you would consider breaking your
word
to me.” He looked as if he were caught on the tines of a fork as Elizabeth focused the full force of her dazzling green gaze and entrancing smile on him.

In a strangled voice he said fiercely, “I’ll escort you to the village
after
I have satisfaction at dawn from this cad.”

“Dawn?” Elizabeth cried in feigned dismay. “You will be too weary to be cheerful company for me if you arise so early. And besides, there isn’t going to be a duel unless Mr. Thornton chooses to call
you
out, which I’m certain he won’t wish to do because” – she turned to Ian Thornton, as she finished triumphantly –”because he could not be so disagreeable as to shoot you when that would deprive me of your escort tomorrow!” Without giving Ian an opportunity to argue she turned to the other men in the room and exclaimed brightly, “There now, it’s all settled. No one cheated at cards, and no one is going to shoot anyone.”

For her efforts Elizabeth received angry, censorious looks from every male in the room but two: the Duke of Hammund, who looked as if he was trying to decide if she were an imbecile or a gifted diplomat, and Ian, who was watching her with a cool, inscrutable expression, as if waiting to see what absurd stunt she might try next.

When no one else seemed capable of moving, Elizabeth took the rest of the matter into her own hands. “Lord Everly, I believe this is a waltz, and you did promise me a waltz.” Male guffaws at the back of the room, which Lord Everly mistook for being aimed at him, not Elizabeth, made him turn almost scarlet. With a glance of furious contempt at her he turned on his heel and strode from the room, leaving her standing there feeling both ridiculous and relieved. Lord Howard, however, finally recovered from his private shock and calmly extended his arm to Elizabeth. “Allow me to stand in for Lord Everly,” he said.

Not until they entered the ballroom did Elizabeth permit herself to react, and then it was all she could do to stand upright on her quaking limbs. “You’re new to town,” Lord Howard said gently, “and I hope you won’t take me in dislike for telling you that what you did in there interfering in men’s affairs is not at all the thing.”

“I know,” Elizabeth admitted with a sigh. “At least, I know it now. At the time I didn’t stop to think.”

“My cousin,” Lord Howard said gently, referring to Viscount Mondevale, “is of an understanding nature. I’ll
 
make certain he hears the truth from me before he hears what is bound to be exaggerated gossip from everyone else.”

When the dance ended Elizabeth excused herself and went to the withdrawing room, hoping to have a minute alone. Unfortunately, it was already occupied by several women who were talking about the events in the card room. She would have liked to retire to the safety of her bedchamber, skipping the late supper that would be served at midnight, but wisdom warned her that cowering would be the worst thing she could do. Left with no other choice, Elizabeth pinned a serene smile on her face and walked out on the terrace for a breath of air.

Moonlight spilled down the terrace steps and into the lantern-lit garden, and after a moment’s blissful peace Elizabeth sought more of it. She wandered forward, nodding politely to the few couples she passed. At the edge of the garden she stopped and then turned to the right and stepped into the arbor. The voices died away, leaving only distant strains of soothing music. She had been standing there for several minutes when a husky voice like rough velvet spoke behind her: “Dance with me, Elizabeth.”

Startled by Ian’s silent arrival, Elizabeth whirled around and stared at him, her hand automatically at her throat. She’d thought he’d been angry with her in the card room, but the expression on his face was both somber and tender. The lilting notes of the waltz floated around her, and he opened his arms. “Dance with me,” he repeated in that same husky voice.

Feeling as if she were in a dream, Elizabeth walked into his arms and felt his right arm slide around her waist, bringing her close against the solid strength of his body. His left hand closed around her fingers, engulfing them, and suddenly she was being whirled gently around in the arms of a man who danced to the waltz with the relaxed grace of one who has danced it a thousand times.

Beneath her gloved hand his shoulder was thick and broad with hard muscle, not padding, and the arm encircling her waist like a band of steel was holding her much closer than was seemly. She should have felt threatened, overpowered – especially out in the starlit darkness – but she felt safe and protected instead. She was, however, beginning to feel a little awkward, and she decided some form of conversation was in order. “I thought you were angry with me for interfering,” she said to his shoulder.

BOOK: Almost Heaven
5.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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