The Seduction Of SaraBy: Karen Hawkins
Normally Madame du Mauier’s salon was thick with male talk and laughter, but tonight all attention was turned to the card table in one corner of the room, where Nicholas Montrose, the Earl of Bridgeton, regarded his opponent with ill-disguised contempt. Baron Parkington was a slovenly snob who spent his entire life sneering at those he thought beneath him. Nick generally ignored such petty specimens of humanity, but for some reason, he felt a compulsion to flatten this particular toadstool. And damned if he wouldn’t enjoy every second.
Parkington’s beefy fingers thudded a sudden tattoo on the table. “Well, Bridgeton?
Match the five hundred or withdraw.”
The baron’s shrill voice grated along his nerves. Nick gazed at the man until he reddened. It was ludicrous to continue playing; the baron had lost almost every hand. Nick should have been happy with that.
But it wasn’t enough. He wanted to humiliate the baron the same way that the baron wanted to humiliate him. To drag his name into the mud and leave it there, quivering flotsam in the stream of life.
“I will meet your five hundred, Parkington.” Nick reached into his coat and withdrew a sheaf of papers from his inner pocket, then dropped them onto the table.
“And raise you forty thousand pounds.”
The baron blanched as a collective gasp arose from their audience. Like ravenous wolves, they smelled blood and wanted to be in on the kill.
A bead of sweat rolled down Parkington’s cheek to join the others on his wilted collar. “Forty thousand? You must be joking.”
“I never joke about cards.” The devil’s luck was with him tonight, and Nick couldn’t lose. Besides, defeating a man like Parkington has its own pleasures. For as much as Nick despised the baron, he also envied him. Once the game finished, the baron would return to his lodgings, pack his belongings, and go home to England.
It had been three years since Nick had set foot on the shores of his own country—three long, lonely years. The thought held him, tightening his throat and weighting his chest.
God, but he was getting maudlin. Nick gestured for a servant to refill his glass with Madame’s excellent brandy. He might wish to return home, but not because he missed the soggy English countryside. No, he wished to return home because he had been slighted. Nick had been forced to leave England under a cloud of suspicion, and the memory rankled still.
A distinguished, white-haired gentleman who stood near Nick’s elbow murmured quietly, “Tempting fate, are you not, mon ami?”
Nick flicked a glance at the Comte du Lac. He was dressed in a puce coat with sumptuous silver lacing, and his patrician face expressed nothing but polite sincerity. He looked the quintessential nobleman, but Nick knew Henri had neither title nor breeding. He was an imposter who made his way through the ton offering comfort to wealthy widows and lonely wives.
While a moral man would have exposed such perfidy, Nick found Henri too amusing to waste his company. Besides, Nick understood what it was to be a pretender. Unknown to society, his fortune hadn’t come from ancient family coffers, but had been hard-won, wrested from the fingers of Lady Luck herself.
Viscount Gaillard, a small, dark man who had taken on the duty of dealer, lifted a brow at the baron. “Well, Parkington? The earl has wagered forty thousand pounds.
Can you meet it?”
Parkington’s gaze remained glued on the draft that lay atop of the pile of money.
He wanted it. Nick could see it in the way the man’s damp, pudgy hands tightened about the cards, the way his pink tongue traced the dry line of his too-fat lips.
“By God, yes!” Parkington motioned for a pen and paper. It was swiftly brought and he wrote two lines across it, then signed with a flourish. “There.”
Gaillard frowned at the paper. “What is that?”
“Hibberton Hall,” the lackwit sneered. “My family seat in Bath.”
An estate in England. Something shifted deep within Nick’s heart, and, for an instant, he could only stare at the piece of paper that had been tossed into the center of the table. A dull ache tightened his throat, and he was assailed with images of damp, fog-shrouded mornings and gentle rolling green hills.
Damn it. He’d made his way alone since the age of thirteen, and his experiences had taught him the uselessness of emotion. If he returned to England, his decision would be based in reality, in necessity, not some elusive sentiment. But the time was drawing nigh when change was indeed a necessity. He must find a home of his own, somewhere secluded. Somewhere he could spend the last few lucid moments of his life.
And those would be far sooner than anyone would have guessed. Nick looked at the baron’s scrawled writing, aware of a dull pounding at the base of his skull. “I accept,” he said quietly. From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the comte shaking his head. Someone would stumble from the table a loser, a broken man with nothing left to his name, and it could well be he.
A servant refilled his glass, and Nick took a deep drink, the ache behind his eyes increasing. It was a sign of the impending darkness. He suffered from headaches; yet they were more than headaches. They were hours and days of interminable pain, of swirling blackness and paralyzing fear, all combined into one. He met his opponent’s avid gaze with a bland one of his own, even while he cursed the fates that so ill-timedly drilled inside his head. “We play.”
Gaillard dealt a card faceup in front of Parkington. The eight of clubs lay on the green felt, and a discontented murmur burst from the crowd.
Parkington’s face beamed through the sheen of sweat. “Only a queen or higher can change your luck now.” A sneer curled his overly red lips. “I shall enjoy spending your money, but not as much as I shall enjoy telling everyone in London how I won such a sum from the infamous Earl of Bridgeton.”
Nick glanced at the dealer. “My card, Gaillard.”
“Oui, my lord.” The Frenchman wiped his hands on his coat, aware that every eye was upon him. He took a steadying breath, then flipped a card onto the table. The queen of hearts smiled sweetly up at Nick.
The entire room burst into a roar of excited babble. Parkington stared, his mouth slack. “It cannot be—”
Nick stood and nodded to the Comte du Lac, who obediently came forward to collect the winnings. Henri glanced at Parkington and smiled gently. “It happens, monsieur. Luck is a fickle creature. She loves many, but is faithful to none.”
The baron shook his head as if to clear it of a nightmare. “I was winning until—”
His breath hissed between his teeth. “Bridgeton, you bastard.”
The comte paused in collecting the scattered banknotes. Gaillard’s black eyes widened as everyone within hearing froze in place.
Nick continued to pull on his gloves. “My beloved parents were in fact legally wed, so I am not a bastard in the strictest sense of the word. However, if you were to question my parentage… I fear not even my mother was certain on that issue.”
Parkington lumbered to his feet, his face now as red as it had been white. “The game was damned irregular. I demand an accounting.”
The silence grew louder, bolstered by a silent hum of excitement. Nick flicked an infinitesimal bit of dirt from his sleeve. Damn them all. They wanted blood, and he was about to provide it for them. But he had very little time; the throb in his head had increased, and a horrible heaviness weighted his limbs.
Henri cut a sharp glance at the baron. “Perhaps the baron has made a mistake. After all, he is English. Certainly he knows better than to imply the earl has cheated.”
The baron sneered. “I said it once, and I will say it again: the Earl of Bridgeton is a cheat.” His lips twisted in contempt. “But what can one expect from the son of a French whore?”
The growing ache in Nick’s head turned into a writhing pain, pushing against his skull, spreading inky spots to the corners of his eyes. He placed his hand on the edge of the table to steady himself. “Henri, will you serve as my second?”
Henri groaned. “Not again.”