“Seven’s the main!” the young gentleman called, his voice pitched with anticipation. With a long-practiced flick of a hand, he cast the ivory cubes from the wooden box onto the round, bevel-edged table. The dice clattered to a halt, rolling up six and one.
“Damme, nicked again!” The central Hazard table resounded with the low curses and shrill cries of dismay from its punters, while others at surrounding tables hovered with solemn concentration over their cards.
Daniel Gogh surveyed the scene with pride and satisfaction, thinking his Ridotto al Fresco to open the new Marylebone Pleasure Gardens, would be touted the event of the season.
He had risked both reputation and a small fortune to transform a venue once offering such sanguinary attractions as cockfighting, bull baiting, and bare-knuckle boxing, into an elegant place of genteel dining, gaming, and musical entertainment.
The varied diversions of the evening had included an organ concerto by Mr. Handel, a performance of violinist Knerler, and illuminations at midnight. He had topped it all off by a late supper inside the Rose of Normandy tavern. Hours later, the gaming rooms still buzzed with activity; the resonating clink of champagne glasses, the echo of gay laughter, and cries of anguish and triumph interspersed with the spinning EO wheel, and rattling of dice boxes.
Another young gent of no more than twenty, with all of the affectations of a town beau, remarked to his equally raffish companion who had cast the dice, “You’ve the devil’s own luck tonight, Drake.”
“Don’t I though?” His cohort replied with a wolfish grin as he raked in his winnings. “I should advise you, Bosky, that your money would be better placed on the next cast, rather than trying to set me.”
“Will you never drop that infernal sobriquet? Moreover, that’s the third nick in a row! What were the odds of that?” He lowered his voice and added a pointed look. “Might I warn you that I am not the first to wonder about those dice of yours?”
Philip Drake’s sharp eyes narrowed, losing all trace of good humor. “What are you implying, my friend?”
“Simply to take care if you are up to any tricks. You might take particular heed of that burly fellow with the broken nose.” George Selwyn slanted a warning look across the table. “He looks like a bruiser, and none too pleased that you have so singularly defied the odds this evening.”
“Don’t tease yourself further, Bosky. I doubt my good fortune should continue. The odds, as you so succinctly stated, are certainly against it.”
“Nevertheless, I think you’re up to some mischief to which I shall not be a party.”
“I’ve heard that before, but suit yourself,” Philip said, and tossed another five guineas onto the table, in effect, doubling his stake. Thereupon, the groom-porter announced the new odds, but as he reached for the dice, a low and husky feminine voice stayed Philip’s hand.
“Might I yet place my stakes, gentlemen?” she asked. “I should like to wager with the caster. He appears an uncommonly lucky young gentleman.”
“The rules permit you to wager on or against the caster, madam,” answered the groom-porter.”
Philip looked sharply up from the dice meeting a pair of eyes behind a domino as deep and brilliant as the emeralds she wore. Though much of her face was concealed, her mouth was well formed and as lush as her figure, generously displayed by the low cut gown. The sum effect would cause any but a blind man to stumble.
Philip wasn’t blind, but he was for a moment, stunned.
Who the devil was she?
She had watched him with fascination from across the room. He was a cool one, indeed. While others at the tables cursed and shouted with every cast of the die or unlucky turn of the card, the only trace of emotion displayed by the young man at the center of the Hazard table, was a slight upward tilt of his lips as the croupier paid out his winnings. His movements were always deft and self-assured, as if the dice were his to command.
After a time, she nudged Lady Hamilton to ask, “Who is that young gentleman over there at the Hazard table?”
Lady Jane Hamilton squinted. “That would be George Selwyn, an aspiring wit, but more of a sad rattle, I’m afraid. He’s younger brother to Albinia, one of Princess Augusta’s new Maids of Honor. You met her earlier this evening, do you remember?”
“But I do, and I am well acquainted with the Selwyns. Nigel was bosom beaus with the Colonel. No, it’s not George, but his companion whom I inquire after, the one who presently holds the dice box.”
Lady Jane’s eyes narrowed again as she raked the young gent appraisingly. He was taller than average, and uncommonly well proportioned. His complexion was dark, his features more strong than regular, with a determined set to his jaw and a sensuous mouth, but the intensity of his dark eyes was most arresting.
“Hmm. I know him not, but quite a dashing figure he cuts. I think I now comprehend the nature of your curiosity,” Lady Jane answered knowingly. “He’s surely a cut above a hot brick to warm a young widow’s bed, but don’t you think him a bit …fresh… for a woman of your years?”
“I’m hardly in my dotage!” The younger woman protested, “You misapprehend my interest. I only observe his uncommon skill at the tables. It appears he never loses.”
“It is purely his skill you admire?” Lady Jane’s indulgent smile bespoke her utter disbelief.