Well…we didn’t make it to Round 2 of the DABWAHA. But we were pretty darn close! (Like, 3 votes close.) So I’m not posting the first two chapters of my upcoming novella All or Nothing, but I AM posting just the first chapter early, as a thank you.
Simon Radcliffe-Gould didn’t even know why he kept coming back to this gaming hell.
He hadn’t the stomach for gambling, not really, and in consequence was very bad at it. He always gave up when he shouldn’t and then, inexplicably, dug in his heels when he ought to give up. So he didn’t know why, at least once a week, he found himself in this dingy, loud, overdecorated flat in the very northwest corner of London, nearly to Lord’s Cricket Ground, losing at cards to men he hadn’t even liked much at school.
Well, he did know, actually. It was because of Magdalena da Silva. Definitely the most beautiful woman in London. Probably the most beautiful woman in England. He wouldn’t be much surprised if she turned out to be the most beautiful woman in the world. There she was now, laughing at some jest of Meyer Henney’s, her obnoxious lover and host of the establishment.
Her laughter lit up the dim room like sunlight, purifying the London soot and dust into country air. Her skin was golden in the candlelight, her brown hair piled on her head, mostly dark and plain but gleaming here and there like honey. Delight suffused her face so utterly that Simon’s chest hurt, a sharp pain like envy or grief or a knife in his heart. She whispered in Henney’s ear, and Simon would have sworn that for just a moment her eyes rested on him. A fever of hot and cold pinpricks swept over him.
She and Henney both affected the showy fashions of twenty and thirty years ago, the deep-gaming powder-and-patch days of the ancien régime. In Miss da Silva’s case, this meant sometimes a great bell of petticoats and sometimes—like tonight—none at all. Even in the candlelight Simon could see the faint outline of her legs.
“My trick.” Fletcher swept Simon’s five guineas into his pocket. Simon sighed. He should be at home working, not nursing an infatuation with a gambling-den hostess like a student.
If it were his student days and he were here with Clement, Clement would know what to say to her. He would have already made her laugh, bribed her, and dropped her in Simon’s lap like a gift. Maybe he would have leaned in and whispered in Simon’s ear, We’ll share her.
Simon burned at the thought, and it was only about a third lust and a third resentment and inadequacy. The last third was a longing still violent enough to feel like homesickness, even now after three years apart. He felt in his pocket for Clement’s letter.
I want you to design a folly for Throckmorton, to celebrate my accession. Something cheerful to mark a sad occasion. Can you come next week? I’m having a small house party, but I promise we won’t bother you.
Unfortunately, Simon knew what that promise was worth. Absolutely nothing.
“Well?” Bishop asked impatiently. Simon realized the other players thought he was reaching in his pocket for his next stake, not dithering over an invitation for next week.
He withdrew his hand, pushing himself up from his chair. “I’ll watch the play this round, I think.”
“I’ve no more ready money.” Henney’s Dutch-accented voice rang out from across the room. “Let’s make it interesting.”
Simon’s stomach flipped. Everyone in the room knew what Henney meant by Let’s make it interesting. It meant, I’m going to stake my mistress, because I’m a base, caddish, hateful muckworm with no respect for a woman. And somehow, when Henney staked Miss da Silva, he always lost. Probably didn’t bother to exert himself, when he stood to lose no money.
Miss da Silva moved obediently to stand behind Henney’s chair, but as she did, Simon swore her eyes met his again. The message in them was clear: Save me from this brute. He started forward, determined to put a stop to this, and her face lit up hopefully.
But then she turned away, leaning upon the back of Henney’s chair and smiling at his opponent, Lord Sinclair. Giving in.
The club’s furniture had been rescued from the dust heaps of the last century, and somewhere Henney had dug up a dozen mismatched voyeuse chairs, built with a third armrest topping the back so a friend could watch one’s play over one’s shoulder. The host liked to sit in the softest, largest, most throne-like of them, a great Louis XV wing chair of worn turquoise velvet. Miss da Silva laid one gloved arm on the cushion, deliberately pillowing her breasts on it.
You don’t have to play his games, Simon thought at her. You don’t have to offer yourself up at the snap of his fingers.
She cut her eyes at Simon again, and this time it was pure flirtation. His stomach flipped again, that she’d surrendered so completely. “I’ve just remembered an urgent appointment,” he said, though it was nearly two in the morning, and fled.
Not long after, Simon crawled into bed alone. It was the warmest summer in years, but the sheets were still chilly everywhere the warming-pan hadn’t touched. He tried to remember the last time he’d shared a bed with someone. If Magdalena da Silva were here, he wouldn’t be so damned lonely.
Simon was so lonely he felt like a blown-out eggshell.
He had to stop thinking about her. He had to stop going to her boring club. She lived with Henney, and unless—unless you win her at piquet, he thought, and hated himself for it.
He had to get out of town. He needed work, and Clement was offering him a commission. He could think of ten different wonderful places to put a folly on the Throckmorton grounds, and he hadn’t seen Clement since Lord Throckmorton’s funeral three months ago. He’d even avoided answering most of his letters, because he was a terrible, ungenerous friend. He should go. Clement would be occupied with his guests anyway, and Simon could spend most of his time working.
He shouldn’t go. Clement had tried to kiss him after the funeral. He’d begged Simon to stay the night. It doesn’t have to mean anything.
He’d just been upset. It was his father’s funeral, after all. Simon had been very firm, again, that all that was over for good. Surely Clement would behave himself this time. He had a new lover, he’d mentioned in one of his letters. Hopefully that would distract him.
It wasn’t as if Simon could just never visit him again. Clement was his best friend.
He wanted to get out of bed right then and write his acceptance letter, before he could dither over it any more. But it was chilly, and he’d have to light the candle with his tinderbox, and his valet would see him, and he couldn’t post it until the morning anyway.
So instead, he lay there and dithered.
“So how was Sinclair?” Meyer asked over breakfast in their little room behind the club.
“Mmm.” Maggie stretched, sore in all the right places. “Very masterful.”
Meyer smiled lazily. “Just how you like them.”
Maggie stirred marmalade into her tea. “Mm-hmm.” Meyer himself was one of the most masterful men she knew, though she didn’t know how many people would recognize it, looking at him with his shaggy hair uncombed and his ancient brocade dressing gown trailing in the butter. Most people would discount him only for his height; he topped Maggie by no more than an inch or two.
But most people didn’t understand that size and strength didn’t make a man masterful. In bed, Meyer’s quiet confidence—sometimes nearing implacable indifference to others’ opinions—manifested itself as a careless ruthlessness that enchanted her.
Still, variety was the spice of life, and Meyer never begrudged her a night with one of Number Eighteen’s patrons. They made a game of it, him contriving to lose her at piquet to a man of her choosing. Maggie loved feeling like an object to be bartered, loved the casual exercise of power, loved playing at obedient surrender while carnal possibility built in the air, the cards sliding against each other with soft caressing sounds. And it got the man in the right frame of mind to swagger and bully her a little.
“I told you I wanted Simon Radcliffe-Gould, though.”
Meyer paused in spreading poppyseed preserves on his toast to roll his eyes. “Why?”
Maggie frowned at him. “What do you mean? Because he’s beautiful.”
If his eyes could have actually left his head and wandered up to the ceiling, they would have. “In a chinless goyishe sort of way.”
“I like his chin!”
Despite Meyer’s teasing, Mr. Radcliffe-Gould’s jaw was definitely there, in a sharp delicate way Maggie felt in her bones. His pallor didn’t seem to her to belong to his black hair and dark blue eyes. Goyishe she would grant. His mild-featured face was so aristocratically English as to be almost otherworldly. Maybe that was what intrigued her, and gave his beauty its cruel edge—how entirely it shut out little Portuguese Maggie. He would never want her for more than one night, so she wanted that one night, the craving fluttering frantically in her chest like a bat trapped in a chimney.
“He doesn’t come in that often,” she persisted. “I’m going to miss my chance. You’re going to miss my chance.”
“He’s the worst card player in the world. I won’t even pretend to lose to him at piquet. A man has his pride.”
“I can’t argue with that,” she said, more sharply than she meant to. Meyer’s stubbornness might suit her perfectly in bed, but elsewhere, she was a little sick of it.
He relented. “Maybe faro. There’s no shame in losing that. A game of pure chance.”
“Not the way you play it, it isn’t.”
He grinned wolfishly. “I can’t argue with that. You win, Maggie. Next time he comes in, I’ll make sure you go home with him.”
But he didn’t come all the rest of that week. Maggie couldn’t help watching for him, her head turning toward the door every time it opened. She suspected her face fell in a pretty impolite manner each time the newcomer wasn’t Mr. Radcliffe-Gould.
“Once, you were happy to see me,” Meyer mourned, returning from the back room, where he’d gone to change his breeches after a guest overturned a glass of wine. “Ah, love’s young dream, so fleeting!” He put his arm around her, smirking. He knew quite well who she was looking for.
Maggie’s eyes flew to another new arrival. This time it was only a kid with curly blond hair poking out from under his cap. Yossi, the messenger-boy from Meyer’s uncle’s counting house. He pushed his way heedlessly through the crowded room, jostling elbows and banging into chairs. Meyer swore and strode forward, expostulating loudly in Yiddish.
Yossi’s answer was high-pitched with agitation. He pushed a letter at Meyer, who broke the seal, still scolding—and turned to stone mid-sentence, mouth frozen open.
He shook himself, and more Yiddish followed. Maggie made her way to his elbow. “What is it?” she asked. “What’s happened?”
Meyer ignored her. But when she took his arm, he squeezed her hand in a death grip.
At last Yossi nodded and ran out. A card player leaned toward them. “Everything all right, Henney?”
Meyer nodded and clapped him on the back. “Carry on.” Not meeting Maggie’s eyes, he dragged her into the back room. “My father’s dead. I have to go to Rotterdam tomorrow and sit shiva.”
Fear speared through her. For how long? Are you coming back? She wasn’t a good friend.
At least she didn’t say it out loud. “I’m so sorry, Meyer. I’ll go with you, keep you company.”
His mouth tightened. “We can’t afford two tickets.”
“We’ll borrow the money.”
He sighed, finally meeting her eyes. You didn’t always remember how fine his eyes were; it struck her now. They were large and gray and long-lashed and apologetic. “I can’t take you home. You know that. My mother thinks I live alone.”
Her heart sank like a stone. The money was an excuse. He didn’t want her. She’d only be an encumbrance anyway, someone he had to look after, not speaking the language, not knowing the prayers. Would his mother even accept her as a real Jew?
“I wish I could take you, Maggie. It’s going to be a nightmare.” He rubbed a hand over his chin. “At least the mirrors will be covered so I won’t have to see what I look like after a week without a shave. Ugh, and I’ll have to tear one of my coats. Maybe the red one, it’s wearing out anyway.”
When Meyer was unhappy, he’d ramble restlessly on until someone stopped him. Maggie pushed her hurt feelings aside and wrapped her arms around his waist, resting her chin on his shoulder. He subsided and hugged her back. “It’ll only be for a couple of weeks,” he mumbled into her neck. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
I hope so. It was pitiful, to be this afraid to spend a few weeks alone. “I’m so sorry about your father.”
He turned his face away. “I haven’t seen him in ten years.”
She spat his hair out of her mouth. “That doesn’t make it easier. You can start packing your trunk, I’ll go and send them all away.”
Just then, someone from the other room said clearly, “Radcliffe-Gould! Good evening.”
Meyer straightened. “I haven’t seen my father in ten years. We’ll be losing enough profits when I’m gone, no need to start now.”
Miss da Silva wasn’t here. Why not? She was always here.
How long did Simon have to stay before leaving would seem odd? Half an hour? Or could he get away with twenty minutes?
Then she appeared in the doorway. Henney had her wrist in an iron grip, from which she attempted vainly to free herself. Simon started toward them. To his surprise, Henney dragged her forward and met him halfway, smirking. “Radcliffe-Gould. Care to make things interesting? You can’t play piquet to save your life, though. Try faro, you’d have half a chance at winning.”
Magdalena’s eyes flashed. She leaned in to whisper something in Henney’s ear. Simon heard clearly, Not tonight and you lout and stay with you. Simon burned with indignation—and, to his shame, with lust. He had never yet had Let’s make it interesting directed at him. He had never wanted to.
Not…with his mind, anyway. He’d hated that the thought crept in, sometimes. She’d have to do whatever I wanted. Which was filthy, disgusting nonsense.
Up close, her beauty was overwhelming: wide mouth, long lashes, and large eyes penciled larger. Dimpled elbows showed between her gloves and fanciful overdress, which looked to have been sewn from a Paisley shawl. Did that faint odor of violets and orange-flower water come from her?
Henney ignored her protests. “I’m called away to Rotterdam for a couple of weeks, with nothing in my pocket for expenses. I’ll make you a wager. If I win, you pay my way. Say, twenty guineas. If you win, you can borrow Maggie while I’m gone.”
She froze—then sighed and gave in. “That means starting tomorrow,” she told Simon firmly.
For a moment he was dazzled—a couple of weeks!—before common sense asserted itself. “I won’t wager for a woman’s favors,” he said sharply. Let her see that not all men were brutes.
Henney looked him up and down. “Make an exception?”
Miss da Silva put her slender hand on Simon’s arm and nodded, very shyly. Coyly, he thought, and then scolded himself for self-serving imaginings. “I don’t mind,” she said. “Honestly.”
He allowed himself to put his hand over hers, just for a moment. He would not wager. But perhaps, in the few days between Henney’s departure and his own visit to Clement, he might offer to buy her an ice at Gunter’s.
The thought of her in sunlight, laughing over a lemon ice with an ancient parasol shading her face and muslin skirts trailing, was almost too much.
“I mind,” he said quietly. “I think you do, too.”
Henney snorted. “Well, if you’re sure you’re not interested. Burgoyne!”
Miss da Silva stiffened. “Meyer.”
Across the room, Lord Burgoyne stood, eyes on Miss da Silva. Simon, though not well acquainted with the earl, had always liked him, but Magdalena shrank back. “You know I didn’t like him,” she said in an undertone. “Stop it.”
“If Radcliffe-Gould won’t wager…” Henney grinned at Simon. “I need to pay my passage somehow.”
Miss da Silva wrenched her arm out of Henney’s. “This isn’t funny.”
“Fine,” Simon snapped. “I’ll wager.” It wasn’t really a risk he could afford. Twenty guineas was most of what he had in the bank, and the money had to last him until Clement paid for his folly. But he wasn’t about to let Miss da Silva go to Burgoyne if she didn’t want to. Tomorrow, Henney would be gone. He’d never know if Simon didn’t collect on the wager. Miss da Silva might be glad of a fortnight with nobody to please but herself.
Henney kissed Magdalena’s cheek. “Don’t be angry.”
“I’m angry.” But after a moment’s reluctance, she nestled into him again in a way that made Simon’s hand clench into a fist.
Henney led them to a small, unoccupied faro table in the corner. “Count the deck?”
It was impolite to say yes, implying he thought Henney might cheat. But the man was a professional dealer and a cur. Simon held out his hand, and counted. Next Henney shuffled, showily, the cards leaping between his fingers. They were gaining a small audience, two or three peeping Toms who watched Miss da Silva with gleaming eyes. She flushed with embarrassment as she took up the little rake and moved to the croupier’s position. Simon wanted to object to their presence, but Henney would only laugh, and anyway there was no practical way to bar onlookers.
“Give him his fish,” Henney told Miss da Silva. “Twenty should do.”
Taking a box from the locked cupboard in the corner, she counted out twenty ivory fish onto the table before Simon, spilling the rest into the recess in the table provided for the purpose. The fishes’ round blank eyes stared hopelessly at him. Simon swallowed hard. He was not very good at faro.
There’s nothing to be good at, he scolded himself. It’s a game of pure chance.
“Mr. Radcliffe-Gould?” Miss da Silva touched his shoulder to get his attention, her fingertips sending sparks up and down his arm. He took the livret of cards she offered, turning them over in his hands. They were a full set of spades from a French deck printed under the Revolution, the court cards showing personifications of Republican virtues. The queen was labeled Freedom of Marriage, and in her hand she bore a staff labeled Divorce.
Simon stifled a nervous giggle. Where did they find these things?
Magdalena’s eyes shone proudly. “Aren’t they marvelous?”
“They are, rather. Not terribly English, though.”
She sighed. “Yes, they’re impossible to find here. We scour the secondhand markets. I’ve heard in Paris you can buy them in every pawnshop.”
“Let’s make this simple,” Henney said. “You double your stake, you win. You lose your stake, you owe me twenty guineas. Seem fair?”
Simon nodded, fighting the impulse to stake all his fish on one card and have it over with. But he was as likely to lose that way as win, and he couldn’t give up twenty pounds so quickly.
Of course, in faro you generally were as likely to lose as to win. That was why it was so damn popular—better odds than most games of chance. He’d watched Clement play for countless hours, when they were in school. It had felt peaceful when it wasn’t his money at stake, cards and coins moving and changing hands, talk washing over him.
Now the cards were in his hands, and it was his money, and it didn’t feel peaceful at all. He steeled himself and put six sad, gasping little fish on the figure card with a blue cross, which he remembered dimly indicated a bet on the ace, deuce, and three. One of Miss da Silva’s trailing ringlets brushed his arm as she leaned over to inspect his bet.
She did not, it turned out, smell either like orange-flower water or violets. Tuberoses burst in his nostrils—heady, carnal, and narcotic. Cloying, even, in the way smells were in bed, arousing because they were too strong. He remembered, with great force, that the delicate white blossoms’ scent was said to be most powerful at night. He shut his eyes and breathed in.
“I’ll lay you a guinea Radcliffe-Gould’s cock stands within five pulls,” someone said quite audibly.
Pull meant a draw of two cards, one laid to Henney’s right and the other to his left. If Simon’s bet matched the first card, he lost his stake, and if it matched the second, he won.
But Simon immediately imagined Miss da Silva’s hand round his cock.
A laugh. “I’m not taking that bet.”
Somehow Simon’s humiliation did nothing to lessen his arousal. In some crawling, unwished-for way, it heightened it. Unpleasantly, he remembered lusting after the broad-shouldered senior boy he’d fagged for at Eton, and how every blow and insult had become something resented and relished in equal measure.
Over a decade later, and he was no less easy to bully. He hadn’t wanted to take this wager, and Henney had pushed him into it.
The deck slid toward him. “Cut.”
He cut, resisting the urge to glance behind him. He could feel watching eyes on the back of his neck. Miss da Silva leaned toward him, murmuring, “Shall I make them go away?”
Simon looked up in surprise. She felt for his embarrassment? Yet she did seem less embarrassed than he felt. It pained him, that she valued herself so little. “You don’t belong to him, you know,” he whispered. “You don’t have to go with either me or Burgoyne. You could simply go.”
She blinked and pulled back. “So could you. I’m fine where I am.”
“Play,” Henney said loudly. The soda card—the first draw, that counted for naught—was an ace. None of Simon’s cards came up in the first pull. Next a pair of deuces were turned over, meaning he lost half his stake. Miss da Silva slid three of his fish into Henney’s bank with a rattle.
The odds of low cards turning up was lower now that three had gone by, so Simon switched his bet to court cards. When a queen flashed in Henney’s hand, his heart pounded triumphantly—but it was the losing card.
He was down to twelve fish now. How could a game where you had more or less a straight fifty percent chance of losing your money be considered good odds? Why was gambling considered good fun at all?
He put another two fish on the court cards. They went too, Henney’s voice smug as he called the pulls in a loud, clear voice. Ten fish left.
Miss da Silva plucked one of his fish from the table and kissed it. “For luck.”
A small smear of crimson lip salve clung to the fish when she set it down. Simon could not take his eyes off it. For luck. Did she want him to win? Surely she’d rather have his twenty guineas for her household than spend a fortnight earning her keep in his bed.
He passed quickly over that image, beginning his thought again: she must want the money…unless it went into Henney’s pocket and never came back out. Did she need another keeper in his absence?
His stake was split with Henney again for a pair, the fish with her lip salve on it clinking into the bank. He should have kept that one for last.
“Good thing I didn’t take that bet,” an onlooker said behind him. Simon burned with humiliation, but his cock only grew harder.
Good God, this was ridiculous. Twenty guineas would be a small price to pay to put this madness behind him. He clenched his jaw and pushed all his remaining fish, nine of them, onto Freedom of Marriage.
Henney smiled. “Ready to lose?”
Miss da Silva reached out to brush some lint from the baize table. Her paste ring caught the light in a blaze, and Simon blinked and looked away, missing the draw.
“Three—well, damn,” Henney said, startled. “Queen.” Simon looked, and there was the queen of hearts smiling at him from the stack of cards to Henney’s left.
Miss da Silva smiled, counting out nine tokens. Simon was…almost back to where he’d started. Wonderful.
“Do you want to cock it?” In polite society, one called doubling one’s bet at faro paroli, not cocking. But Miss da Silva used the vulgar term without hesitation. Suggestively, even. Behind him, the watchers sniggered. For a moment, he couldn’t help lumping her in with them. Mocking him, trying to make him uncomfortable for the sake of it.
He wasn’t a shy adolescent any more. What did he care what any of them thought? And what was he ashamed of, exactly? He’d done nothing wrong. He wasn’t going to do anything wrong. Even if they told his mother—
He smothered a laugh at that. He definitely did not want them to tell his mother. The laughter calmed him enough that he could smile up at Miss da Silva. “You have no idea how much.”
Her breath caught. Her breath actually caught, the old-fashioned ruffle at her low neckline fluttering. Tuberose wafted toward him.
“Give him a taste of what he’ll be getting,” Henney suggested.
Simon’s first thought was, It’s a little enough thing to take, when I don’t mean to take anything else. But one did not expect a return for a good deed, and one certainly did not demand one. He refused to be in league with Henney, over anything. Even if he wanted to go home with a smear of her lip salve on his mouth.
She leaned toward him.
“That won’t be necessary.” His voice came out a little rough. “I have a good imagination.” For a moment, self-indulgently, he let himself believe she looked disappointed.
Turning her face away, she cocked up the corner of his card to show that he doubled his bet.
“Five, queen,” Henney called. “It’s your lucky night, Radcliffe-Gould.”
Thirty-six fish now sat in a yellowish pile before Simon. Almost enough to win.
“Sept et le va?” Miss da Silva asked.
Simon couldn’t remember what that was. Sept was seven. He’d have eight times his original stake if he left his money on the queen and won again, wouldn’t he? But his winnings minus his stake…that would be seven times…? “Why not?” he said recklessly.
She leaned forward and cocked up another corner of the card, so it did mean venturing all again. He shouldn’t. The odds were against another queen so soon. Weren’t they? There was only one queen left in the deck.
“Five guineas says he loses it all,” someone said.
“Another five says if he does, he goes straight out and finds a whore.”
“Ten,” Henney called, turning the card over.
“How would we know if he did or not?”
“And…queen.” Henney laughed disbelievingly. “Well, never let it be said I was ungracious in defeat.”
And that was it. Simon had won.
Miss da Silva bent down and brushed her lips to his. Tuberoses filled his nostrils, ringlets tickled his neck, and her lips…well, he supposed all he could say about them at this juncture was soft and warm. But they were very soft and very warm, and—
He imagined her lips around his cock. Oh God. At this rate how would he walk home? He certainly had no intention of finding a whore. The awkwardness of that usually outweighed the pleasure. He glanced around the room to see if there was anyone he knew from school who might oblige him. No such luck.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said.
“What time shall I call for you? I…” He glanced coldly at Henney. “I should prefer to find you alone.”
Miss da Silva stepped back.
“I shall take the mail, to be sure of not missing my boat,” Henney said. The mail coaches left Piccadilly late in the evening. “But I’ll be out on errands most of the day. If you come and fetch her between noon and two, I’ll engage to be out of the way.”
Simon stood, silently cursing the fashion for cutaway coats. There was nothing to hide the erection poking at his breeches. Certainly Miss da Silva’s eyes went there straightaway. She gulped and flushed with—well, it might have been apprehension. It might have been shared mortification.
Eagerness, he thought, but it was a self-serving notion.
He bowed over her hand with as much aplomb as he could manage. “Until tomorrow, Miss da Silva.”
Cover and more anthology details coming soon! Keep your eyes peeled. 🙂