Splendor CHAPTER ONE
There was nothing wrong with pistols at seven paces at dawn. Except dawn was at eight o’clock tomorrow, and Splendor had a dressmaker’s appointment then. Three thimbles and the scissors had smacked into the back of the Chinese dressing screen the last time she’d wandered in ten minutes late. Madame Renare had said these were meant for her assistant, that paying customers, even those who were behind with their bills, were sacrosanct. Splendor knew she lied, that Lady Haskins, who always had the next appointment, would depart wearing Splendor’s guts for garters if she were late again. And if she didn’t bring the money to pay her the bill.
Despite the pulse beating in her throat and her desire for the black-and-white checkered floor she stood upon to open up and swallow her, she’d promised Gabe there was nothing to this. She wouldn’t do anything to draw attention to herself, wouldn’t be found out. Yet just five minutes in this damnable tournament and look at what had happened. Every dull clod-pate in the room was looking at her, glaring holes in her loose fitting jacket—Gabe’s—as she stood there. The grandfather clock in the nearby alcove appeared to be holding its breath midtick, the potted palms to have frozen. The silence stretched from window to window, slipped between the heavy crimson drapes, wound around the yellow tassels, hung from the poles, all the way to the entry salon on the ground floor of Boodle’s Gentleman’s Club.
Checkmate. If she’d known that one word was going to cause all this trouble, would she have said it?
The spectacles she wore, which did not belong to her, rendered her blinder than a belfry of bats. Nonetheless, she removed her gaze from the shining silver buttons on the waistcoat of the man who stood before her and looked straight at his face.
Young, handsome, divorced, the third Earl of Stillmore was a rake, a killer in every way, in the bedroom and on the chessboard. Or so her sources had said. Impatient, foul tempered, drunk, and a conniving fiddler was more accurate.
“My second, Your Grace?” she asked, speaking in carefully lowered tones as if duels were things she was challenged to fight every day of life. Challenged by the best shot in London too.
“Yes, boy,” Kendall Winterborne, the third Earl of Stillmore, snarled. “Your second. Who’s it to be?”
“Well… I… Well. You see, Your Grace… About that. I was really hoping that you and I might—”
His terse huff was followed by a terser finger snap. Please God, not another brandy to add to the lake the drunken earl had already drowned himself in.
The man standing behind him, a blur in black, snapped to attention. “Yes, sah.”
“You might as well fetch me some paper and ink to go along with that snifter. Then I can pen my autobiography while I’m waiting.”
“Where the prize money is less?” She fought the little ripple that always spun in her blood when Gabe brushed against her. “Nine-and-a-half thousand pounds less, to be precise? Gabriel, I can’t.”
“I ain’t needing to be bought into the clergy.”
“Well, I ain’t needing to go on as we are. Besides, he’s drunk.”
A voice cut across the hall. “Would someone mind telling me what the devil is going on at table number seven?”
Her heart almost sprung through the bindings around her chest. The tournament organizer, the Duke of Brampton. While she couldn’t see him for the spectacles, she instantly recognized the cultured tones of the elderly man who’d been so nice to her earlier. “Well? Kendall, why has play stopped? Surely you have not fallen out with your opponent?”
Gabe’s hand snatched at her sleeve, crushed her arm. “Splen… I mean it. Ten thousand pounds ain’t no bleedin’ good if you ain’t around to spend it. ‘Cos you know where you’re headed next, if they find you out, don’t you? And I ain’t talking the cemetery.”
She knew indeed. The place Starkadder had taken her out of. Prison. Her gaze froze behind her spectacle lenses. Even now, despite the thick fug of cigar smoke clouding the high ornate ceiling, that festering stink of prison, of centuries-old dirt, lay loose as a winding sheet on her skin. Gabe was right. Besides, the money was no good if tomorrow was the lateness to end all latenesses.
“Very well.” She caught his bony wrist. “Let’s go.”
“Excuse me.” The Duke of Brampton, blurry in purple and blue, a powdered wig on his head, squeezed between the tables. “Now then, Kendall, everyone is looking. Sufficient to say, yet again it is at you. Be a good fellow and sit down, won’t you?”
The duke pressed his be-ringed hand on Stillmore’s black-brocaded chest and pushed him down into his chair.
She hesitated. She’d thought everyone was looking at her. But if Stillmore was known for being looked at, perhaps they weren’t looking at her at all. Perhaps she could wait one more moment and see…? She didn’t just need that ten thousand pounds to get Gabe bought into the clergy. She needed it to pay off Madame Renare—without Gabe finding out. If he found out about her dressmaking bills, he’d kill her.
Win the prize money. Clear her account with Madame Renare. Buy Gabe with his soft dark hair and soulful eyes into the clergy. Marry him. Benefit the poor. Live happily ever after. Stop spending money like water.
This, as her dear papa always said, wasn’t over till it was done. Stillmore could bluster all he wanted about duels. When it came to it, she’d beaten him fair and square, and that was all he could have on her.
Stillmore’s chair clattered to the checkered floor. “No, I don’t mind if I don’t. I abhor sitting down.” Crystal clinked on the silver tray floating in her vision. “Especially in the presence of cheats.”
“Well, that’s a great pity.” The Duke of Brampton’s voice was silky smooth. “But perhaps you haven’t noticed this is a chess tournament? In love, in war, challenging a man is all very well. But surely even you can see it’s not the done thing to go around shooting your opponents in a chess tournament?”
“When they cheat, I damn well will.”
“Oh, for God’s sake man, have you any idea of how unreasonable that makes you sound?”
“Not half as much as you telling me, me, who’s won this damned thing three years in a row, that I’ve just been beaten in five minutes in the first round by some nincompoop schoolboy in britches. Some…some jackass turkey just out of the nursery?”
Won this thing three years in a row? If this was the standard, she could dispense with any doubts that she’d not win. She just needed to dispose of the arrogant, drunken earl. Or rather, leave the Duke of Brampton to do it for her.
Never let it be said that this was anything her humble position in Lanthorne Street—at Starkadder’s and the Sisterhood of London Jewel Thieves’ beck and call—hadn’t prepared her for. When she’d served as the Sisterhood’s skivvy, she’d burned holes in petticoats, cinderized the odd stocking or two, and suffered sundry pots, pans, and ladles bouncing off her temples. But she never forgot one thing: to remove the sting from the situation, even if humiliation burned in the very pit of her breast, she must always smile.
She flicked a stray strand of her strawberry blonde hair back behind her ear. “And what, pray tell, would be the purpose of me cheating, exactly, Your Grace? Hmm?”
“Ten thousand bloody pounds. That’s what.”
The growl froze her smile to her teeth backs.
“Anyway, I didn’t say you cheated. I said there has been some…”
He stepped closer, and her heartbeat froze. A heady concoction of mint, brandy, and sandalwood tickled her nose.
She’d glanced over her spectacle rims. When she’d sworn not to. She held her breath right down in the furthest corner of her lungs. In fact, she possibly held it in her stomach. Tousled black hair, black brows knitted with perfect disdain above coal-black eyes that were coldly leveled on her, sinfully sensuous lips and a dusting of stubble on his jaw gave him a wolfish air. Her heart battered her rib cage with metal hammers, his stare was so bold.
He canted his jaw, drawing his brows together. “Some discrepancy…of play. Forgive me for saying so, but…”
His words hung in the air as he stared at her. Her jacket hadn’t burst so that her breasts hung out, had it? “Your Grace,” she said, darting her gaze back behind the safety of the thick lenses. “I don’t forgive you anything. Certainly not you looking…” Down her front? Looking more handsome than any man she’d ever seen? “Saying… Saying I’ve cheated you. It was bishop to that square, and you…well, you…”
Stillmore wrinkled his nose and sniffed deliberately.
Her soap. Essence of Violets. She froze. How, in all the preparations she’d undertaken at Mrs. Hanney’s, had she forgotten that one vital thing? Perhaps she should have kept her mouth shut and let the Duke of Brampton deal with this after all.
“For goodness’ sake, Kendall, sit down, now, before you fall. Or you’ll leave me with no choice but to throw you out.” The duke set the spindle chair back on the tiles. “Everyone here knows you’re foxed over that business with Baxby.”
“Baxby?” Crystal shattered as the stem of the snifter in Stillmore’s hand snapped in two.
Baxby, whoever he was, apparently inflamed the earl almost as much as being checkmated.
There was nothing to be done about that now. It was Gabe’s dearest dream to become a clergyman, and it was down to her to see he succeeded. Then there was the little matter of the dressmaking bill. That was down to her too. Benefiting the poor was all very well. But sometimes, to do so you had to look the part. Spend in order to receive. Papa had always said so, although he had liked to spend money he didn’t have, as well.
“You think this is about Baxby?” Once again, the earl’s voice held notes of the darkest modulation. “That it’s of any consequence to me that the sneaky, damn, bastard son-of-a-whore is here? Dancing on my grave?”
“We’re hardly in the cemetery. But yes. Baxby. And a certain lady with whom you are the talk of London, my boy. So if you want to continue making a damned fool of yourself…”
“I’m not your boy unless my mother was as big a whore as that certain lady. And even if I were your boy, do you think familial loyalty would stop me from calling you out for that?”
Splendor froze. Did the earl descend from wolves? Growling, trigger-happy, pistol-toting ones who thought nothing of calling half the hall out at dawn? What if he shot the Duke of Brampton? Perhaps Gabe was right, and they should leave now.
The earl drained the contents of his glass down his lace-clad throat. “If you must know, this has nothing whatsoever to do with Baxby and Lady Langley.”
“Well, then, if it isn’t, you will see that this boy here—”
“This boy? This boy? Oh, that’s a good one. This boy.”
Splendor’s heart hammered as if a boa constrictor had slithered across the polished floorboards, climbed her leg, and wrapped itself around her rib cage. At all costs she couldn’t afford to sink to the floor. Imagine the sensation it would cause if she did and someone loosened her, or rather Gabe’s shirt?
In another minute the Earl of Stillmore would succumb to the pleasant, manly smile she cast him. If he didn’t, she’d have to accuse him of cheating.
The Duke of Brampton shifted beside her and looked at the chessboard. “Kendall, from where I’m standing the last move was this bishop to that square there—”
“I don’t give a bull’s toss whether the last move was the Archbishop of Canterbury to that square there. The Archbishops of York and Durham too. Every damned archbishop in the country to that square. I know what I saw. Exactly what I saw.” The earl turned to her and pointed a finger at her chest. “Now boy, find yourself a second. And be on Blackfield Heath at eight. Don’t waste time with a physician; by the time I’ve finished with you, you’ll need an undertaker.”
He hates to lose. Especially to a man who’s not.
One move to win ten thousand guineas in a chess competition. One move to marry her fiancé. Another to face the most merciless man in London across a pair of duelling pistols. For Splendor, former skivvy to the London’s premiere jewel thieves, it’s all in a day’s work. But when one wrong move leads to another, can she win and keep her heart intact, against the one man in London with the potential to bring her down? Especially in a chess game where the new wager is ten thousand guineas against one night with her.
The Endgame to end all Endgames
One move to pay back his ex-mistress. One move to show the world he doesn’t give a damn he’s been beaten in every way. The ton’s most ruthless heartbreaker, bitter, divorcee, Kendall Winterborne, Earl of Stillmore’s, pet hates are kitchen maids, marriage and losing. Knowing Splendor has entered a male chess competition under false pretences, he’s in the perfect position to extort her help, regardless of the fact she’s engaged to someone else. He just doesn’t bank on having to face up to his pet hates. Certainly not over the kind of skivvy who ruined his father and set him on this course.
As one move leads to another, one thing’s for certain though. His next move better be fast if he wants to keep the ‘Cinderella’ he’s fallen for. But the clock is ticking. When it strikes twelve, which man will she choose?