Authors: Elyse Huntington
THE DUKE'S GAMBLE
2015 Euphrasia Holmes
Cover Design by Melody Simmons
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This is for the lovely ladies of the Canberra Romance Writers Group.
Thanks for all the sharing, the support and the many laughs.
Your friendships mean the world to me.
“It’s not possible.”
Castor leaned back in his chair and contemplated the ashen pallor of the man seated across the card table from him. “The cards don’t lie, Melton.”
“But I could have sworn …” The earl’s words trailed off as he shook his head disbelievingly.
“That you held the winning hand?” That had been precisely what Castor had been counting on. “It is unfortunate but it appears that you were mistaken.” He watched Melton pick up his brandy with shaking hands, the golden liquid sliding about dangerously close to the rim before it was consumed by his opponent. Castor felt not a whit of pity for the man.
Truth be told, Castor felt little of anything. Society referred to him as the Duke of Ice, rather apt really, given his family name of Winterton. It was rumoured that instead of blood, ice-water ran through his veins; that instead of a human heart, he had a machine that calculated numbers, which of course explained his obscene wealth. Castor had always been somewhat amused by the description. This machine did in fact exist, except it was his brain. He had always been gifted with numbers, a characteristic that he put to good use in business. He was careful, however, to use this skill sparingly when it came to cards and games of chance. Gaming hells tended to take a dim view of those who had continuous winning streaks.
Tonight was the first time he had applied his gift with such ruthlessness. He didn’t care if in so doing he was risking a life-long ban to all gambling establishments in London. Melton had something he wanted. Something that could not ordinarily be bought. And this was the quickest way to obtain it. Castor was nothing if not efficient.
“How shall we settle this?” Castor took a leisurely sip of his brandy. “I presume you will have the necessary funds readied for me by the end of the week.”
It didn’t seem possible but all the remaining colour leached from Melton’s countenance. “I-I don’t …” he stuttered.
The duke raised an eyebrow. “You do have the funds, do you not?” His voice was soft but no one could mistake the dangerous note it held.
Melton started to bluster. “Look, Avalon. I will settle the debt, I swear. I just need time.”
“How much time?” Castor paused, waiting for his cigar to be lit by the waiter. “A week? Two? A month?”
The earl stared at him, frozen as if he was a deer and Castor its predator. Which, the duke supposed, in a way he was.
“Well, Melton? How long will it take you to liquidate your assets? I have enough real-estate holdings, I need no more.”
“I on-only have a small cottage in Devonshire.” A bead of perspiration ran down the older man’s cheek.
Castor regarded him impassively. “That will barely cover the 8,300 pounds you owe me.”
Melton swallowed convulsively. “I know.”
The duke tilted his head back and blew out a slow stream of smoke. “What do you propose to do?”
“I don’t have anything else, I swear. My estate is … is entailed.”
“Jewellery? Personal effects?”
Melton shook his head jerkily. This proved no surprise to Castor. He knew how much his opponent was worth, down to the last penny.
“There’s some silverware,” said the earl. His mouth snapped shut at the look Castor gave him.
“You think a set of candlestick holders is sufficient collateral? This was not what you told me at the start of the game. You said you had extensive properties in Devonshire. That was a lie?”
Under Castor’s direct gaze, the other man quailed. “Yes. Yes, I lied.” Melton gave him an apprehensive look. “W-what are you going to do?”
“I hear Italy is pleasant at this time of the year,” suggested Castor, watching as the older man paled.
“I don’t have anything of value … Wait.” Melton’s posture slowly straightened as a calculative gleam appeared in his eyes. “My daughter.” He gulped down the brandy sitting by his elbow.
Even though Castor had half expected Melton to make the offer, counted on him to, it still surprised him. The duke drew leisurely on his cigar, hiding his distaste for a man who would bow so low as to sell his daughter to satisfy a debt. “And what would I do with this daughter of yours? I don’t need another servant.” He tilted his head. “Or are you proposing she be my mistress?”
Melton had the grace to flush. “You can do what you like with her.”
“She has little marriage prospects in any case.” The earl shrugged, tossing down another shot of brandy. He appeared to have regained his confidence now that he had thought of a solution. “As long as she is returned I care not what you do with her. At least she is not useless like the rest of her sex and can manage my household. You might like to teach her to hold her tongue though. She has a sharp one in that head of hers. I’ve tried to beat it out of her but she’s still a damned stubborn chit.”
Castor clenched his teeth, holding back the tide of rage that threatened to engulf him. The thought of this bastard laying a hand on the woman he had wanted for so long brought him to the edge of his control as nothing ever had. “Three months. I want her for three months.”
“What?” The earl looked startled. “Three months! I can’t have her absent for three months. One month.”
The duke narrowed his eyes. “Even Prinny would be hard pressed to spend 8,000 pounds on a mistress in a month.”
“Two,” said Melton hurriedly. “Two months.”
“Three.” Castor paused. “Or you can start packing your bags.”
The earl shot him a venomous look, obviously seething, but he said nothing.
“I thought so.” Castor stood up, casually straightening his shirtsleeves. “I will have my man of business visit your lodgings at six with the papers.”
Devonshire, two days later
Lady Arabella Griffith felt the blood drain from her face. “You did
George Griffith, the sixth earl of Melton had an implacable expression on his face. “You heard me.”
“I am to be used to settle this debt? Your own daughter?” Bella shook her head in denial. “No, you cannot do this. What about the cottage? You can sell it and use the proceeds to—”
“No. It will not cover my debt. Not even a tenth of it.”
Her mouth fell open. “Not even a tenth? What have you done?” The last was uttered in a whisper. Truly, she shouldn’t be shocked. She knew, had known since she was fifteen, her father’s predilection for gambling. His finances having been in dire straits, he had married her mother, who had a large marriage portion. The earl’s prospective father-in-law had been fully aware of the vulnerable position his daughter would be in once she was wedded. He had therefore made specific provisions in the marriage settlement in relation to the control of the funds, which meant that the earl had been forced to curb his gambling habit while the countess was alive. Within months of Bella’s mother’s death, a family friend who was in London for the season informed Bella of the rumours that her father was spending an extraordinary amount of time at gaming hells where the owners were more than delighted to relieve him of his coin.
Bella had written to him, begging him to stop but her pleas had fallen on deaf ears. Her attempts at reducing household expenses were for naught as the gambling debts soon reached astronomical amounts. Having received no wages for many months, the servants began to leave. A year passed and the estate began to fall into a state of disrepair. Then there was no money for heating. There was barely enough for food. She couldn’t even remember the last time she had had meat of any kind. Their meals consisted of bread, some cheese and whatever vegetables she and their housekeeper, Mrs Lane, could salvage from the pathetic little vegetable plot they tended next to the now empty stables.
“You cannot, Papa. You cannot give me to this man as if I am a sack of coal.”
“It is done. You are my daughter and you do not have a say in this matter.”
Bella gave him an incredulous look, uncaring that she was showing her temper when she normally had the calmest of dispositions. “I do not have a say? You are giving me to a complete stranger! What do you suppose the duke plans to do with me? Do you think he wants me to dust his bedchamber? Perhaps I am to shine his boots. Oh, I know. He must be in need of someone to read to him. Did you tell him how much I love reading?” Her voice rose, becoming louder as she spoke. And although her fists were clenched, she could barely feel the pain biting into her palms. She had tried so hard to keep their house, their very livelihood intact, for them and the small band of servants she considered her family, and it had all been in vain. There would be no hope for Mrs Lane, Wordsworth the butler, Smithy the elderly footman, or her sixteen-year-old maid, Ellie.
Her father’s lips tightened in displeasure. “
” he said sharply. “Go and pack your things. Avalon’s carriage will arrive tomorrow.”
“What if I were to say no?” She hated that her voice shook. Hated that her father had put her in this position. Hated that he did not love her as a father should.
In that moment, she thought she might actually hate him.
“Do not try me, daughter. I will drag you into that carriage myself if I have to,” hissed the earl, his tone threatening.
Bella wanted to scream, leap up and pummel her fists against her father’s chest. But she didn’t. It wasn’t in her nature to do so. Besides, it would achieve nothing. There was no escaping the arrangement unless she were to run away. And she would never abandon the servants. It was best if she just resigned herself to what was to happen. It was only temporary, after all.
Her father’s eyes narrowed. “You are to reside at his Gloucestershire estate for three months. Although once he sets eyes on you, he might well change his mind.”
Bella gritted her teeth at his insinuation. She knew that he thought her plain. Her inability to attract a single offer of marriage in the two years she had been out in society appeared to prove him right. She was no beauty but she thought her clear grey eyes were quite agreeable, and her complexion was passable. Mrs Lane used to tell her that her beauty was the quiet, unassuming type and that it would take the right man to see her for what she was. Well, it appeared that even if the right man did come along, it would be too late.
She was shortly to find herself completely and irrevocably ruined.
Bella stood, frozen with a mixture of awe and fear, staring up at the immense staircase before her. She was the daughter of an earl; an earl whose estate had once been prosperous. She had had two seasons in town, been invited to the residences of dukes and marquesses. Never, in her entire life, had she seen anything so magnificent.
The staircase was made of pink Italian marble, the gild-edged banisters decorated with angels and cupids in various poses. The stairs appeared to continue infinitely, and she wondered how many levels there were in the house. She stifled a laugh. House? This was no house. It was a palace. The entry hall alone held twelve footmen, all dressed in stark black livery.
She started at the sound of her name. Turning around, she saw a tall, stern-faced man with a barrel chest, his dark brown hair streaked with silver.
“My name is Beecham, and I am His Grace’s butler. Follow me, if you please,” he said, indicating the stairs.
“W-wait. My bags.”
Beecham cast an eye at the two woefully worn leather cases by her side, containing a few gowns and her most precious possessions. Six books. Everything else in their small library was gone. Sold.
“They will be brought to your bedchamber.”