“Are you always so demanding?” asked Lord Avers, smiling saucily and flashing his white teeth as he gave up a card to the player beside him.
“Always,” replied Angelica Worth, turning from the retreating waiter she had ordered to do her bidding and plucking a card from the table with her small, sprite-like fingers. Her blue eyes glinted as they ran over the cards in her hand. “I like to have my own way,” she said simply, preparing for her last lay, “even if it is detrimental to my circumstances.” She extracted some cards from her hand and placed them on the table. “In this case, it is not.”
As she leant, far from innocently, across the table and draped her elegant hands across her winnings, she was greeted by a cacophony of groans. Players threw down their cards, the game over, but not one failed to notice the pale white bosom of the female gamester. Angelica knew what she was doing. Of course she did. This was not the first time she had gamed in a hell, and it was not the first time she had won from these men. Let them stare, let them imagine, let them fantasize about the woman they thought a harlot. If it distracted them enough to forget they had lost to her, to play her again, and to lose again, then all the better.
“Alas, in this case it is to my detriment,” said Lord Avers, still put out by his loss.
Angelica returned the saucy smile he had given her earlier. A delicate crease appeared at the corner of her mouth, causing the patch near her red lips to lift teasingly. Her light blue eyes gave him a coquettish look, and she parted her lips to reveal a hint of her white teeth.
At this display of her charms, Lord Avers’ face softened. It always worked—the hint of suggestion and those feminine wiles with which she could even the odds in a male-dominated arena.
A waiter appeared, offering Angelica a glass full of amber-colored liquid on a mock-silver tray. She took a sip, the sweet orange-flower Ratafia leaving honey-like trails down her throat. She rarely drank, especially whilst gaming, but this evening was at an end and she deserved it. By the sheer exercise of her wits, she had dragged her household out of the financial gutter it had dug itself into over the last month. She would drink now and enjoy these short hours of respite before more money needed to be won.
In the brief quiet while she sipped her drink, she forgot about the staring Lord Avers and glanced over her glass rim at John Williams, the servant she always brought with her. He stood at the far wall, blending into the mahogany with his brown woolen frock coat. If he had been a more noticeable person, he might have looked out of place, but he was the kind of man who was invisible. That was why Angelica brought him, as her protection, as a sort of bodyguard-come-chaperone, if a bastard female gamester could have one of those. All she asked of him was that he stand by while she gamed for hours. He would say nothing, do nothing, but his presence would inevitably calm her, and she always received his company gratefully on the dark, early-morning journeys home. John acknowledged her look with a brief glance and then resumed his study of the middle distance.
“You know,” mused Lord Avers, watching the card dealer clear the table which was now empty of players, “I think you some kind of witch. You fly in, you take my money, and I am all the happier for it.”
His brown eyes were the sort a woman could get lost in, his smile the kind that would melt a heart of ice. But Angelica Worth was not interested in getting lost, and her past had more than hardened her heart. She had come to Town for one reason, a reason that would not be served by an illicit liaison.
She laughed suddenly, the action lighting up her often-serious countenance. “You flatter me, my lord.” And it was real flattery. She was quite aware of the sway Lord Avers held over the marriage mart with his dashing good looks. She had watched him, in another time, at another place, as another person, captivate many a woman who afterwards set their cap at him.
Unfortunately for her, Lord Avers was the third son of the Duke of Mountefield, destined to play his life out as an officer in the army with no larger financial prospects. And for Angelica’s alter-ego, the full daughter of her father, her real self whom she played during the day, such a match would be impossible. Miss Caro Worth—a respectable woman who would have no more to do with gaming than she would a low-cut dress—would not spend the rest of her life trailing after his Majesty’s army, no matter how beautiful the eyes of the man.
“I had rather catch you than flatter you, O Beauteous Wood-Nymph.” Lord Avers’ fingers brushed across Angelica’s, halting them from tracing a pattern over her empty glass.
Angelica’s body stiffened then. She was not Miss Caro Worth this evening, and Lord Avers was not a potential husband here. It left a bitter taste in her mouth, the knowledge of whom she played on these dark nights and of the values she let slip so easily through her fingers. She was merely a bastard gamester of no virtue in these haunts. She was not scared by his touch, but she was no fool either. She trod a dangerous line in this precarious world. That was why she had rules. That was why she was always aloof, always superficially charming, but always a foot away from everyone.
She noted the movement John made at the side of the room, treading closer in reaction to Lord Avers’ touch. She shot him a quick look to make him stay where he was and then slipped her hand out from beneath Lord Avers’ caress.
Her coy smile resurfaced. “If you were to catch me, my lord, I am afraid my magic would be lost. Is that not the way of phantoms or magic beings? We are not for catching but for admiring.” Her full lips curved up on one side, her stomach tight as she waited for his response.
Lord Avers eyed the heart-shaped patch so coquettishly placed. He sighed, resigning himself to the fate of all Angelica’s would-be lovers. He threw up a hand, the gold embroidery of his cuff catching the candlelight. “Very well, I will content myself with looking.”
She breathed easier then, her spirit greatly relieved but also a little deflated. That roguish smile appealed to Angelica in spite of her rules. If she did not have a plan, one that required strict adherence, she would have said she liked Lord Avers. She had played with him several times, and he was not tinged with the same competitive desperation as many others.
He turned away from Angelica, looking for his next game as she would be doing tomorrow night. For now, she must deposit her winnings.
Angelica rose and gathered her takings. Then, swinging her full skirt round, she traversed the gaming tables. The hell was full tonight, the air lying thick between the gentlemen as they played. The dark paneling of the establishment only added to the feeling of vice as the darkness shunned in other places bred excitement in the hell.
As she looked about her, she saw the usual gamers scattered across the card room. Sir Denby, Mr. Ashby, and Lord Maltravers were at piquet a short distance away. Mr. Went was playing whist with Sir Percy and two other gentlemen. Lord Fitzhubert and the Earl of Bevenshire had just now arrived. Those were the notables; they were interlaced with other persons and personages less important to Angelica—gamers without the deep pockets she wished to plunder.
The candlelight half-shadowed the faces of the players, the dimness masking their concentration, despair, or triumph. Other faces, those watching the play, were animated by conversation and liquor, and still others keenly scanned the room for the few ladies present.
Angelica herself attracted attention at each table she passed. She had only been in Town a year, and the presence of a bastard female gamester, one who had gained admission to the hells through her aristocratic father’s soiled connections, had intrigued gentlemen young and old.
She had known it would, and she had helped in that regard by refusing to powder her dark hair and thus making herself stand out from any other woman of fashion. She was not averse to attention, as long as she could control it. Society enjoyed a scandal—she had firsthand experience of this—and if she could give it a scandal of her own devising, then she cared naught for what was said.
For now, she ignored the scattered glances and stares she evoked by her passage, confirming her position as the untouchable gamester Angelica Worth, too haughty, too aloof, too distant to approach. She passed a group of revelers just arrived through the two bolted doors guarding the hell’s entrance, and made her way to where Mr. Russell, the proprietor of the establishment, stood. He nodded to her.
“Good evening, Mr. Russell.” She inclined her head to the short, stout man.
“Good evening Miss Worth.” Mr. Russell’s neat little wig bobbed just below her nose. “I see you had luck on your side at tonight’s play?”
“You are correct, Mr. Russell. May I use your private rooms for a few moments?”
“But of course.” Mr. Russell reached into his waistcoat and fished out a long golden chain—the line appeared never-ending until the soft, light tinkle of a key could be heard as it popped over the edge of his pocket.
He escorted her through the double doors opposite, into a room set out for hazard and other games of chance that Angelica had never played, until he came upon a hidden door, paneled just as the wall was, barely noticeable in the dim light. She could hear the slide of the lock drawing back, and then Mr. Russell’s short legs trotted to the side so that she might enter. She dropped several coins in his hand as she passed. He gave no acknowledgement that he had received them other than closing the door behind her.
A small library opened up before her, the candles lit in the sconces casting a warm glow over the whole room. Books lined two of the walls, or—as Angelica knew from previous visits to this room—what might better be described as a façade of books. Mr. Russell was aware of the environment in which his clients enjoyed relaxing, but he would not spend his hard-earned money lining shelves with expensive volumes.
Angelica moved forward, the wide hips of her robe à la française twisting and turning between the small table and the two wingback chairs while avoiding the fire that burned merrily in the hearth. For the first time since she had entered the hell this evening, she breathed deeply. This was the moment she longed for each night that she entered Mr. Russell’s establishment—the moment when she felt the relief of financial pressures, the moment when she received respite from the role circumstances demanded she play, the moment when she could prepare for her homeward journey and the sleep stolen from her by her nocturnal profession.
She had never been robbed, but as a woman traveling in this world of men, she could not risk losing the precious money she won. Her first lot of winnings had gone to Mr. Russell to ensure he spread the rumor that she kept her winnings in his private rooms and sent for them at a later date. The rumor worked well. Only he knew that she took them with her each night, and he would not tell anyone, not after the money she had paid him and continued to pay him.
She ran an unthinking hand over the spines of the false books and sighed. She was tired tonight, ready for the evening to end. When she came to the final column of books, near the far corner of the room, she stopped. She fingered the line of her silk dress and cast one last cursory glance around the room before raising her foot onto one of the lower bookshelves. Her heel clicked against the faux volumes below as she quickly pulled up the layers of her dress and petticoats. Silk ran against silk until all that was left was a pale white leg showing in the warm candlelight through the sheerness of her shift.
She would have to be quick. John would already be calling her a carriage after seeing her leave the room with Mr. Russell. Angelica’s dressmaker, Madame Depardieu, had not only lowered the neckline of this gown, but she had also added a secret pocket. Stitched into the underside of her petticoat, it was the perfect place to hide her newly-acquired blunt. Unlike her pockets which could be reached normally, this compartment was only accessible from the underside of the gown.
Now came the tricky part—the buttons. Thankfully, the Lord had blessed Angelica with a particularly long set of fingers and, despite the tiniest of buttons and the difficult positioning on the inside of her petticoat, she soon had the compartment undone. She folded the notes and laid them flat in the pocket so that they would lie unseen against her body for the journey home.
She was just fastening the last button when she heard the door open. Her raven-haired head shot up, and her large eyes darted in the direction of the intruder. No one had ever entered when she had been in here alone before. What was Mr. Russell thinking? He always left her in peace until she left of her own accord.
So shocked was she, she failed to remove her foot from its perch on the bookshelf and cover herself before a gentleman entered—a gentleman that was not Mr. Russell. At least, that is if you could call the man who entered a gentleman at all. The man in question practically fell into the room, sloshing the tankard of ale in his hand and taking more than a few seconds to find his footing.
Angelica watched with horrified fascination as the tousled hair escaping the pathetic ribbon at the back of his neck flicked up and down while he gained his balance. For a moment she wondered if he would merely stumble back out again, quite unaware of her presence. But fortune would not smile upon Angelica a second time tonight.
In spite of his graceless entrance and obvious inebriation, the man’s eyes were exceedingly quick. As he righted himself, they made contact with a heeled shoe, a pleasingly long leg beneath the flimsiest of materials, and a gathering of skirts. His eyes continued their journey upwards, over her bodice, her neck, and then they stilled at those indefinable blue eyes.
In the odd pause that followed, a cat-like smile slowly unfurled across the young man’s face. Angelica threw down her skirts and stepped back.
“I say…” was all the gentleman offered. He half-raised the tankard as if in salute, and Angelica could only be thankful that he had knocked the door shut during his imbalance. Or was she thankful? She took another step back, hitting the paneling of the wall.
She did not recognize the man, but he was undeniably handsome. Aware that she was looking him over, his boyish face gained a mischievousness. His green eyes twinkled merrily at her, lingering—to her utter infuriation—on her lips. He stumbled towards a book-lined wall and rested an unsteady elbow upon one of the shelves, leaning jauntily on one leg and most clearly making himself at home.
“I say…” he repeated himself, but he did not move towards her as Angelica had feared.
Her wits finally returning, she put some ice into her stare. “You say what, sir?”
She was buying time. She was not yet sure how to work the situation to her advantage. Should she play upon his intoxication and hope a little flirtation would gain her access to the door? Or should she give him a set-down and storm out, risking that he might attempt to stop her? If it had been someone she knew, she might have been able to guess which would be the best course of action.
As it was, she could not rely on John’s appearance—he always waited downstairs for her with the carriage.
“I say,” the man responded affably, as if they were acquaintances encountering each other during a promenade through Town, “that is a rather clever trick you have there.” He gestured to the compartment recently concealed in her skirts.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she replied too quickly, her heart still fluttering.
The gentleman merely smiled and shrugged his shoulders. As though he had not just learnt a valuable secret. As though he did not intend to rob her. As though…well, as though he cared not a whit for the precarious position in which he had found her. Apparently he was not going to take advantage of it—but neither was he planning to ignore it.
Angelica was momentarily stumped. But then, choosing the course of action that had worked most successfully in the past, she took two small steps forward. She raised her head so that her neck was shown to the best advantage, relaxed her full lips so that they pouted attractively, and brought a hand up to play with the cravat encircling the man’s neck. Teasing at the folds, she noted that although she had first guessed his age to be just above twenty, a closer inspection showed him to be nearer thirty.
“And just whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?” Her tone dripped with honey, though her eyes still searched his face shrewdly for any sign as to his intentions.
For a moment he looked dashing. She found herself looking no longer at his eyes but at his lips as they curved in a pleasing smile. Her stomach fluttered.
“Is that what you feel?” He was leaning closer now, sending the smell of cloves and ale wafting toward her.
The spellbound moment ended rather abruptly. The gentleman’s elbow, which up until now had been wedged between two rows of false books, slipped. The jolt of movement turned his enticing lean into a headlong plunge towards Angelica’s bosom.
Angelica immediately assumed he was attempting to steal her winnings—or worse.
“Oh…oh, I am sorry!” he managed, pulling himself out of her décolletage and into balance.
But even his boyish green eyes could not save him.
Angelica delivered a resounding slap across his face. Gathering up her skirts, she marched from the room without a backwards glance. If she had looked behind her, she would have seen a gentleman utterly bemused, his mouth hanging open like a catfish while he stared after the angel who had departed so suddenly.