Mayfair, London. April 1870.
Airy notes of a Strauss waltz filtered through the walls of the salon. The distant tinkle underlined the silence, which was as thick as the cigar smoke drifting above the heads of the four players like fingers of London fog.
Iefan put his cards face down, picked up his brandy and settled back in the comfortable chair, his expression bland. “Whenever you are ready, Westgate.”
Dinsby, the new Earl of Westgate, hissed and tugged at his waistcoat. “Damn it, man, let me think.”
Iefan suppressed his comment about Westgate’s capacity for clear thought and said instead, “You have been thinking since the butler delivered the third decanter. Come along. Play your hand.”
Louis, Duke of Gascony and Westgate’s partner, cleared his throat. His fashionable bowtie was still perfectly tied and his shirtfront immaculate. His back was still straight. No one would know he had been playing for four hours. “I have trouble counting English Sterling notes, although I do believe there is more than twenty pounds upon the table, no?” His Gallic features were as neutral as Iefan’s.
“Twenty-seven pounds, three shillings,” Iefan replied, without looking at the tidy pile of big notes sitting upon the center of the round table.
“A rather large sum,” Gascony pointed out.
“If you are losing your nerve, Westgate, you have only to say,” Iefan told the sweating man on his right.
Alexander Ramsey, Esquire, sitting opposite Iefan, caught his gaze and shook his head. It was important to Alex that the two of them win the hand. No one in the room nor, indeed, the entire building, knew Alex lived upon the proceeds of his whist playing.
Westgate huffed, his face turning red. “Are you calling me a coward, sir?”
“Not at all,” Iefan said, with a mental sigh. “Cowardice is a product of an over-active imagination, which in turn requires intelligence.”
Gascony’s eyes widened, while Westgate threw down his cards and spluttered with wounded dignity. “I take offense at that!”
Alex sighed and put down his hand, for Westgate’s cards laid face up, ruining the game.
“The truth offends you?” Iefan asked.
“Truth?” Westgate repeated, astonishment warring with his indignation. “Is this the excuse you will use to defend your remarkable run of luck, Davies?”
Iefan tossed his cards onto the linen, his frustration building. “You ask if I am cheating?”
Gascony slid his hand together and put the neat pile on the table, too. “You must admit, monsieur, that even the most skilled card players cannot win every single game the way you and M. Ramsey have done.”
Iefan sat back and laughed. “Luck!” He laughed again.
Westgate’s face grew a deep scarlet.
Alex smiled to himself as he separated the notes on the table and gave them back to their owners.
“There is no luck involved, Gascony,” Iefan said. “Even mediocre skill is enough to best a poor player and Westgate, here, is too simple to recognize just how weak his skills are.”
Gascony drew down his mouth in a purely French expression. “Strong words.”
Iefan threw out his hand toward Westgate. “He dithers because he needs the king of spades to complete his run. The king of spades was played by you, two rounds ago. He wonders if he might instead find himself with the ten of the suit, yet Alex held that card, or else he would not have picked up the nine.”
“You remember what cards I played?” Gascony enquired.
“I remember them all!” Iefan shot back. He pointed at Alex, who had begun the round. “Three of heart, six of clubs, seven of hearts.” He pointed at Westgate. “The ace, which was stupid. Seven of diamonds, also stupid.”
Iefan finished the list of played cards, in the five rounds of this game, while Alex looked bored and Gascony’s brow lifted. When Iefan finished, he added, “Shall I tell you the cards played in the other six games?”
Silence, while another dance, a polka this time, punctuated by heavy feet and breathless laughter, filtered through the closed door.
“You…could name cards in all six games?” Gascony asked, sounding winded.
“I do not cheat,” Iefan said, his tone flat. He got to his feet and glanced at Westgate. “I have no need.”
Iefan didn’t waited for the portly man to struggle to his feet. He pushed his money back to Alex and stepped out into the bright, busy hallway between the salon and the ballroom. When he heard Westgate lumbering after him, he quickened his pace and looked for an escape route.
If he couldn’t dodge Westgate, who was an imbecile, then he deserved everything the newly minted Earl handed out.
THE HUMILIATION WAS TOO great to remain in the ballroom. Mairin picked up the front of her pale blue satin gown and hurried through the back entrance. She tore the dance card from her wrist and squeezed it in her gloved hand as she moved through the rooms and halls blindly. Her heart beat far too hard for a woman who had not danced but once this night.
Windows ahead showed a brightly lit conservatory on the other side. The cool air under the glass and the freshness of green growing things would help her recover. With a touch of relief, Mairin pushed the door open and moved into the glassed-in garden. Palms and greenery edged the brick path she used to move deeper into the shrubbery. If this was a typical conservatory, there would be a chair or bench somewhere in the middle where one could repose and take in the garden.
True to form, the path widened and a bench presented itself. It was empty, which was remarkable, although the supper hour was drawing near and everyone lingered in the ballroom, waiting for the announcement of the meal.
Mairin settled on the bench, automatically arranging the folds of her ballgown. She barely noticed the sky-blue satin which had so pleased her when she bought it. She shoved the folded and bent dancing card into her pocket and felt the soft folds of paper already there.
With a sigh, Mairin pulled out the much-read letter and smoothed it open once more.
I barely know where to begin. I suppose I must impart the greatest of my news. I am a mother…
There was no need to read the remainder of the letter. Mairin knew it by heart. Bridget had born a daughter and gushed over the wonder of babies. On every page of the three tightly written sheets, her obsession over her husband, Will, spoke from among the descriptions of domestic bliss. Will, who was family and the last man she should have considered.
Mairin’s eyes ached and the lines of script blurred.
How could she? Why? The questions made her throat tighten, too.
Hurried footsteps on the brick path made Mairin lift her head, her heart sinking even farther. She had no wish to see anyone. She had thought herself safe from interruption here.
Perhaps she should have risked the scorn of the ton and returned home despite the early hour.
The tall, lean man with thick black curls who pushed through the last of the big tropical leaves and palm fronds wasn’t a stranger, although she had not seen him in a long time.
Iefan Davies, the absentee heir of the Davies family and an honorary cousin, looked as though he was in a great hurry. His black eyes met hers and his jaw worked.
From closer to the door of the conservatory came the sound of male voices, one of them strident.
Iefan glanced over his shoulder, then raised his finger to his lips. He stepped off the path and moved behind the thick copse of ferns and palms.
The other two men appeared only a few moments later. One of them was the red-faced Earl of Westgate, who appeared to be doing the muttering. His mouth worked, and his hands were fisted.
The other man was a stranger, although his clothing and appointments said he was a lord. He did not seem to be as upset as Westgate.
“Lady Mairin,” Westgate said, hurrying up to her. “I’m looking for your blighted cousin. Davies. Did he come this way?”
“Which Davies cousin do you refer to, Lord Westgate?” she asked coolly. Westgate had once spent a summer letting her think he was interested in her, only to marry Violet Brigham-Jones the next Christmas. The gossips said the new couple were unhappy and Mairin might have felt satisfaction over their unhappiness, except that little pleased her anymore. “Benjamin or Morgan?” she added, for she had spotted Ben earlier in the evening, although she wasn’t certain if Morgan was here or not.
“Iefan,” Westgate said heavily, as if she strained his patience. He mispronounced Iefan’s name as so many did, as “eye-fan” instead of the Welsh pronunciation of “ei-ven”.
“Iefan?” she repeated, saying it properly. “Why, I do believe I saw him rush down the corridor in front of the conservatory, as I came in. He looked as though he was in a great hurry. Is he trying to avoid you, Lord Westgate?”
Westgate whirled to look back toward the windows of the conservatory which looked into the house proper. “That way?” he said, his tone one of disbelief. “I swore I saw him enter here.”
“Are you accusing me of being untruthful?” Mairin asked, injecting even more chill into her tone.
Westgate glared at her.
“No, he is not, and he apologizes,” the other man said, gripping Westgate’s sleeve. “Come along, Dinsby,” he added, tugging. “Let’s find the champagne, hmm?”
Westgate stood indecisively, his mouth working.
The other man turned him and shepherded him down the path. He looked back at her and bent his head. “I apologize for interrupting your peace, my lady.” Then he pushed Westgate into returning the way they had come.
As soon as they had disappeared, Iefan emerged. He smiled, his eyes dancing, as he came toward her. “Lady Mairin, you are my savior.”
“I doubt that,” she replied. “Whatever are you doing here, Iefan? I didn’t think soirees were your cup of tea.”
He grimaced, his full lips pressing together. “They are not. The whist game in the smoking salon, however, was.”
“Ah.” She folded Mairin’s letter and slid it back into her pocket. “What caused Westgate to chase you in that way? Did he catch you cheating?”
“Me?” Iefan said. He frowned. “I do not cheat.” His voice rang like struck iron.
Mairin put her hands together in her lap. “I apologize for the inference.” She might have felt guilty about thinking Iefan capable of such a dishonorable practice, had her heart not been too full of troubles already.
How long would he linger here? When would he leave her alone? She wanted to think, which she could not do while he stood there.
Iefan studied her, a tiny crease between his brows. “Have you been crying?”
Mairin dropped her gaze to her hands, her heart giving a hard, little beat. “I had forgotten that about you,” she murmured.
“If you were being direct, you would call it rudeness.”
She looked up at him, startled. His eyes were dancing once more.
“What are you doing here, anyway, Iefan? You never come to society things. Did you really attend just to play a game of whist?”
“A rich game of whist, yes. You are quite right. I would rather be anywhere than in this thick concentration of upper class hypocrisy. A friend of mine was invited to play in the game and he wanted a reliable partner, so I agreed to help him.”
That Iefan had friends at all was a surprise to Mairin. That those friends were not family was intriguing.
Will and Jack and Peter, and even her older brothers, Cian and Neil, clung together. They were members of the same clubs. They kept each other company at events they attended together. They drank together. They got into mischief together. Even Ben, Iefan’s older brother, often kept the company of the family, bringing Dane with him.
Iefan, though, was different. He always went his own way. He rarely came to the family gatherings in Cornwall each September, either—while everyone else in the family attended those if they possibly could.
The mischief Iefan got up to was darker and more serious than anything his cousins had tried…or so Jack and Will and the others hinted.
What Iefan did with his time was a mystery to just about everyone. Had Mairin just glimpsed the answer? Gambling seemed to fit with the rumors she had heard about him over the years.
She considered Iefan once more, assessing him. “If you did not cheat, then why was Westgate so upset with you?”
“Because he’s a fool and cannot play a descent hand of whist even when money rides upon the outcome.” Iefan shrugged and pointed to the bench. “May I sit beside you? It would be best to linger here for a while until Westgate gives up the chase. Then I can escape this house and find a better card game elsewhere.”
Mairin cleared her throat. She wanted to refuse his request. She wanted to be alone. Yet it was a polite request and a reasonable one under the circumstances. She shifted on the bench and tucked her skirts more closely around her, to give him room.
Iefan nodded his thanks and sat, thrusting out a long leg and resting his curled hand on the other knee.
He wore perfectly acceptable evening clothes, including a fashionable tie instead of a cravat. Put amongst a room full of lords, Iefan would be indistinguishable, except for his height, which he had taken from his father, Rhys, and his wild, thick hair that never seemed to behave itself.
He had his father’s high cheekbones and thin cheeks, although his chin was square and his nose straight. His mouth was usually held in a cynical curl at the corner. In fact, he was making that same sour smile now as he looked at her.
“I don’t think I have seen you for several years,” he said. “Should you not have been married years ago?”
She flinched. “If this is the way you engage in conversation with ladies, your continuing bachelorhood is understandable.”
He smiled fully, showing even, white teeth. “I do not generally trouble myself with conversations with ladies.”
“So I have heard.”
His smile grew. “I did not fail to notice how you shifted the subject away from my original observation, either.”
She blinked. “I beg your pardon?” Oh, how she wished he would leave! Now she remembered why she didn’t like him. Whenever she had been in his company, growing up, she had been left with this same uncomfortable churning in her chest and her heart.
“You were crying, when I arrived,” Iefan replied.
“If you were a gentleman, you would have let me shift the subject,” she said, her jaw stiff. Of course, Iefan would pursue it!
“Yes, if I was a gentleman, I would have. You and I both know my heritage.” There was no resentment in his voice.
“You’re the son of royalty,” Mairin pointed out.
“A disowned princess,” he amended. “Sometimes, my mother is more common than my father.” Despite the terrible words, he was smiling with a fondness which made Mairin catch her breath. She had not thought him capable of such warmth. Then he cocked his head, considering her once more. “Would it surprise you if I told you I am rather good at card-playing?”
“Not at all,” she assured him.
He nodded. “There is a reason for that.”
“Ben spoke of your card-playing once. He said you remember every card played.”
Iefan dismissed the notion with a slight shake of his head. “A parlor trick which helps. It is not why the Alex Ramseys of the world seek me as a partner and pay me half their winnings for the privilege—”
“They do? Half the winnings?”
“Yes,” he said. “It is not what assures the outcome, though. It is understanding men and how their minds work that is the true skill. Knowing their greed and hope will outweigh their good sense gives me the advantage even before the cards are shuffled.”
“That is terribly pessimistic.”
“Honest people don’t gamble.”
“Then you did cheat.”
His lips parted. Then he laughed. It was not a polite chuckle, either. It pulled from his belly and seemed to surprise him, too.
He shifted on the bench, so he could face her. “I don’t cheat,” he said. This time, he spoke without anger. “There is no fun in cheating, while there is an intense pleasure in properly beating a man who thinks he is superior.”
Mairin caught her breath. “Does the ton really treat you that badly?”
Iefan shook his head, with an amused expression. “I would have thought, after so many seasons being paraded in the marriage market, you would have acquired more wisdom by now.”
Mairin thought of the crumpled letter in her pocket and the hurt it had delivered. “I have gained more than you know.”
“Oh? Is that why you sit alone in the conservatory? Licking your wounds, Mairin?”
His eyes widened. Then they narrowed thoughtfully. “I see.” He leaned a little closer and lowered his voice. “Then you are losing hope that you will find the husband you seek outside the family?”
Her middle jumped, making her heart work. “You know about that?”
Iefan sat back. “I do talk to the family every now and again. Ben told me about the gathering when you and Bridget turned up your noses at every man in the family.”
Mairin sighed. “It was such a long time ago. It wasn’t meant to insult anyone.”
“I wasn’t insulted,” Iefan said. “I even know why you said it.”
“You do?” Mairin couldn’t help voicing her surprise and doubt, for even she was not sure why she and her twin had settled on such an ambition. Not anymore. Once, though, it had seemed clear, simple and straight-forward.
Iefan shrugged in response to her skepticism. “The family is closed-in. Their sameness chokes you. Marrying anyone else would release you from the familiar.”
“Yes,” she breathed, stunned. It was as if Iefan had reached into her mind and plucked her feelings from the buried morass of the past. Now she remembered why she had been so determined to marry well outside the family.
“That is why you sit here, sunk into your misery,” Iefan added. “I estimate this is your…sixth season?”
Mairin swallowed. He had named the number precisely.
“Five previous seasons and still unwed,” he murmured. “Now, a sixth lies before you and you don’t even have a dance card on your wrist.”
“It is in my pocket,” she said, stung.
“And how many names are on it?” Despite the awful question, his tone was gentle.
“One,” she admitted and looked at her silk gloves. Her cheeks burned. “Bridget and Will are married. Did you know?” It was easier to speak the words if she did not look at him.
“I did. I also know she was with child. It should have been born by now.”
“Last August,” she admitted. “A girl.”
“Bridget marrying a man in the family…I wonder, do you feel betrayed, Mairin?”
Mairin closed her eyes. “Yes,” she whispered, for it was exactly what she felt. Until Iefan had spoken the words, she did not know it. Now the truth throbbed in her chest. It was why she carried the letter with her. It was why she read it often and experienced yet again the hot rush of hard feeling which rose in reaction to Bridget’s happy news.
Her eyes ached and prickled. If she cried in front of Iefan of all people, it would be the utter end. She swallowed and blinked and breathed, forcing the tears back.
“Why do you continue with this charade?” Iefan asked, his voice as soft as hers. “Why do you not give up and go live in the country and enjoy the bucolic peace and quiet, with an untroubled mind?”
The raw wound he had just prodded made her speak with the same bluntness he had delivered upon her. “I would wither and die, if I did. I would suffocate!”
“Ah!” He breathed the word, with a note of surprise and satisfaction. “Do you believe marrying into another man’s family would provide freedom and adventure?”
Horror jerked her chin up. She stared at Iefan, the dawning realization making her shrink back on the bench. “I…had not thought of it that way,” she admitted, her throat tight.
Iefan’s expression was one of commiseration. He got to his feet. “It seems you’re in quite a pickle, Lady Mairin,” he told her. “Damned if you don’t marry and damned if you do.”
Mairin looked up at him, her heart heavy. “Thank you for the clarification.”
His smile grew warmer. The dry curl at the corner of his mouth smoothed out. “Cheer up,” he told her. “You may yet have your adventure.”
“Is that what you do? Have adventures?”
“I suppose…yes,” he admitted.
“Ladies don’t have adventures,” she pointed out. “Not if they wish to remain ladies.”
“Oh, there are ways to have adventures that don’t involve spoiling your reputation,” he assured her.
“Not that I am aware of.”
“You cling too hard to society’s rules, Mairin,” Iefan replied. “It is why you are doomed.”
Hurt tightened her chest. “Your conversations impart the same sensations as always.”
“A nicely two-faced insult typical of the ton,” he said, although he sounded amused, not angry. “You don’t like talking to me because you find honesty uncomfortable.”
“Truth unleavened with empathy has that effect upon everyone,” she snapped. “Good evening, Mr. Davies.”
“Lady Mairin.” He bowed and turned away, toward the path back to the conservatory door, although not before she saw his smile, rich with enjoyment.
He liked making her feel this way. Damn him.
Mairin watched his back slip between palm fronds and disappear. With some luck she would go another handful of years without seeing him. Iefan Davies ruffled her far too much to speak to him more frequently than that.