Read Playing to Win Online

Authors: Diane Farr

Tags: #Regency, #Humor, #romance historical, #regency england, #Mistress, #sweet romance, #regency historical, #cabin romance, #diane farr, #historical fiction romance, #regency historical romance, #georgette heyer, #sweet historical, #nabob, #regencyset romance, #humor and romance

Playing to Win

BOOK: Playing to Win
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Playing to Win

By Diane Farr

 

A Regency Romance

 

Smashwords Edition, License
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:

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© 1999, 2011 by Diane Farr
Golling

 

 

To my hero

William Earl Golling

who touched my life and turned it to
gold

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE

 

An early version of this book was first
published in 1999 as
Fair Game
by Signet Books, an imprint
of New American Library, a division of Penguin Putnam.

Chapter 1

 

"But there is nothing to explain," said
Trevor Whitlatch. "It is quite simple, madam. You will either
compensate me for the goods you stole eleven years ago, or you will
suffer the consequences."

A tense silence ensued, broken only by
the soft ticking of an ormolu clock on La Gianetta's elegant
mantlepiece. Mr. Whitlatch had not raised his voice, and his smile
had not wavered. Nevertheless, Gianetta's admirably strong instinct
for self-preservation warned her that her visitor was
dangerous.

With an effort, she hid her alarm
behind a smile as smooth as Mr. Whitlatch's. Her smile had
bewitched many men over the years. She hoped it retained enough
charm to see her through one more crisis.

On the other hand, Mr. Whitlatch was
probably young enough to be her son. Her power to bewitch men in
their prime had faded of late. Bah! If the smile failed, she would
try tears. Surely one weapon or the other would melt the ice
glittering in Mr. Whitlatch's gaze.

She swept her graceful hands in a
dramatic, self-deprecating gesture, and addressed Mr. Whitlatch in
the throbbing tones that had once held audiences spellbound. "Ah,
m’sieur,
you must understand! The world was a different
place in 1791, was it not? I was so bewildered, so frightened—all
of France in such turmoil! I was leaving my home, all my
possessions behind. My life was in ruins. I hardly knew what I did.
I never meant to take the rubies off your ship,
m’sieur;
it
was a mistake."

"Yes, it was," he agreed. "A serious
mistake." Mr. Whitlatch's swarthiness gave his grin the swift,
white flash of a tiger's snarl.

He leaned back in the fragile,
spindle-legged chair, jammed his hands in his pockets and stretched
his long, booted legs across her Aubusson carpet. The effect of
this rudeness was that La Gianetta's elegant receiving room seemed
suddenly small and stuffy. Trevor Whitlatch was a large man. He
inhabited an impressive physique, and several years at sea and
abroad had darkened his already harsh features. This, together with
the careless way he shrugged into his clothes, gave him an
out-of-doors air that dwarfed most interiors. Gianetta fervently
hoped her delicate furniture would hold him. She could ill afford
to replace it.

Mr. Whitlatch's unexpected demand could
not have come at a more unfortunate time. She was bitterly aware
that her desirability increasingly depended upon illusion. She
still possessed her hypnotic, lightly-accented voice and remnants
of the exotic beauty that had made her famous, but she knew that
her prominence among London's demimonde was due more to her
celebrated name, and the style in which she lived, than what
remained of her personal attractions. If her creditors began to
suspect how perilously close to bankruptcy she was, they would
hound her into debtors' prison.

She schooled her features into a look
of gentle inquiry. "May I ask what makes the collection of this old
debt suddenly a matter of importance? I thought, naturally, that
you forgave my little misstep. A small thing to miss, among the
riches you bore on that ship alone—and you with so many more ships,
so many more voyages! I daresay you would have given me the rubies,
had I asked for them. Such a generous young man you were! And I so
destitute! I believed if you noticed the loss at all, you
considered it a charity,
m'sieur."

His smile turned sardonic. "I prefer to
choose my charities, madam, not have them forced upon me by
theft."

"Then why did you not demand the
jewels' return immediately? I have heard nothing from you for
eleven years. Can you blame me for thinking you considered the
rubies a gift?"

"Yes, I can blame you," he said
affably. "I do blame you. I thought I made that clear."

"Ah, yes, today! But then? Then,
m'sieur?
I would have returned them to you at once, I
swear!" La Gianetta made play with a fine pair of eyes.

Mr. Whitlatch was unmoved. "Return them
to me now," he offered.

She spread her hands helplessly. "Now?
I do not keep them in my house,
m’sieur.
"

"No, you don’t," he agreed blandly.
"Because you sold the rubies immediately upon your arrival in
England."

Gianetta's eyes flashed defiance.
"Alors!
Do you mock me? Yes, I sold them. Why fly from death
in France, only to starve in England?"

Mr. Whitlatch's lip curled. "You could
have sold in London what you had sold for years in Paris.
Englishmen pay just as handsomely as Frenchmen for it. I suppose
you have learned that by now."

She arched one delicately drawn
eyebrow. Her voice dripped honey.
"M'sieur
flatters me! But
if you know I do not have the rubies, why are you here? Is it
possible you have suffered some reversal, sir, that makes it
necessary for you to recover funds—even from such as I?"

Mr. Whitlatch uttered a short bark of
laughter. "Unlikely!" he remarked. "No, ma'am, I am here only
because your conduct has brought you to my notice once again. Can
you guess how?"

She shook her head, but regarded him
warily from beneath her lashes.

"No? I will tell you." But a small
silence fell as Mr. Whitlatch pressed the tips of his long fingers
together and frowned, unseeing, at the carpet. When he finally
began speaking, his gaze returned to La Gianetta's face and watched
her keenly.

"When you repaid my kindness with theft
eleven years ago, I let it go. Your conduct was disgusting, but I
did not propose to make myself a laughingstock by prosecuting you.
You had played me for a fool. You knew it, and I knew it. I saw no
need for the world to know it. So I swallowed my pride and chalked
the episode up to experience. You had crossed me, but only once."
His voice became silky, and Gianetta shivered. "No one, male or
female, crosses Trevor Whitlatch twice."

"Twice? But I have done nothing else to
you!"

"No, not to me." His eyes lit with
sardonic amusement. "Never to me, in point of fact. Even the rubies
were not stolen from me. Everything on that ship belonged to my
uncle. In those days, I acted merely as his agent, bringing his
goods safely from India to England."

She pounced on this digression. "If
that is so, you do wrong to blame me. The fault is entirely your
own! Your impulse to save my life was admirable, but you should not
have followed it." Her hands swept dramatically to her temples.
"You should have left me in Marseilles, to die at the hands of that
mob!"

"I was extremely young,
and—er—impressionable." Mr. Whitlatch's teeth flashed in another
swift grin. "You were really very lovely."

She inclined her head stiffly,
reluctantly acknowledging the compliment. His eyes twinkled. "You
are still easy on the eyes, Gianetta. But in 1791 you were Beauty
itself, to a boy who had been at sea entirely too long. And to have
so famous a creature as La Gianetta begging for my help—to have
stumbled upon Beauty in Distress, and have the means of rescuing
her! Who could resist? Not I! That is why I promptly threw caution
to the winds, concealed you on my uncle's ship, and brought you
safely out of France to England with all the speed I could
muster."

"Your conduct was noble,
m'sieur.
Noble! I have ever said so. I was deeply grateful
to you."

Mr. Whitlatch's gaze hardened. "So
grateful, in fact, that you stole a chest of jewels from your
benefactor."

"But, no—a small box!" she demurred,
clasping one white hand to her bosom in a gesture eloquent of
pained protest.

"A small box of extremely valuable
stones. You knew the theft would go undetected until the inventory
sheets were checked, by which time you had disappeared. I was
young, with a young man's vanity; you gambled that I would rather
make up the difference out of my own pocket than publish to the
world how La Gianetta had used me. It was a cynical gamble on your
part, madam, but you won it. You then sold the stones and used the
money to establish yourself here. You were quite brazen about it.
You made no attempt to hide your identity."

La Gianetta's expressive eyes were
raised to his face. "My identity is my fortune, Mr.
Whitlatch."

"I daresay," he said drily. "And now
that famous name of yours is lending its
cachet
to another
enterprise that seems quite profitable. You run an elegant, and
very popular, gaming hell."

A demure smile curved her lips. "I hold
a few private card parties,
m'sieur."

"Is that the euphemism you prefer? Very
well. Your private card parties are extremely well attended, are
they not? I understand the attraction of your rooms is enhanced by
the presence of certain young women. One hears that these women are
every bit as alluring as they are—accommodating."

La Gianetta waved a dismissive hand.
"People will say anything," she cooed. "Naturally I employ certain
girls to run the faro table, the roulette wheel—"

Mr. Whitlatch sat upright, feigning
surprise. "Faro and roulette? At a private card party?"

She stiffened, then eyed him with acute
dislike. "As you say,
m'sieur.
I misspoke."

"Hm. Well, let that pass. At any rate,
we now come to the point where your activities crossed me a second
time."

"Crossed you! How?"

Mr. Whitlatch leaned forward
menacingly. "You have in your employ a certain female who, I have
reason to believe, makes it her business to prey upon gullible
young men."

As this description could be applied to
any of the young women presently in her employ, La Gianetta lifted
an eyebrow but remained silent.

"This creature has done irreparable
harm to a young friend of mine. My friend, in telling me his tale,
extracted a promise from me. I promised that I would take no
vengeance upon the girl. My hands are tied, then, as far as
punishing the hussy who is the principal actor in this little
drama. However, madam, I have no doubt that the notorious La
Gianetta, though not appearing on the stage, directed the
play."

La Gianetta, now thoroughly alarmed,
hid behind a screen of indignation. "I do not know what you mean.
What has happened? How am I to blame? Ah,
dieu!
I do not
understand any of it!"

"Again I say, the matter is simple. I
promised my friend that I would not approach your hireling. I
therefore approach you." He leaned back in the fragile chair,
regarding her keenly. "Your recent crime against my friend I am not
at liberty to avenge. I therefore will avenge your past crime
against myself—which I otherwise might never have done. Ironic, is
it not? But there it is. ‘The mills of God grind slowly, yet they
grind exceeding small.’ You may not understand the literary
allusion, but I am sure you understand the rest of it well
enough."

La Gianetta nervously fingered the
pearls clasped round her throat. For a moment she wondered if she
could offer them to Mr. Whitlatch in lieu of the rubies. How long
would it be before he discovered the pearls were paste? Not long,
she decided. Mr. Whitlatch was no fool.

"What do you want?" she whispered. "You
are a businessman, Mr. Whitlatch. There is no profit to you in
sending me to prison. What can I offer you to make
amends?"

BOOK: Playing to Win
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