Clarissa had selected her attire with great care. She knew that during this particular outing she could not draw attention to herself, so she’d donned one of her black mourning dresses and a hat large enough to cover most of her face. When she’d purchased the hat, it had come with too much plumage and she’d ripped out the feathers leaving it a simple black hat with cream-colored chiffon ribbons. Even as modest as the hat was, she worried she’d stand out too much. She fretted over the hat the entire carriage ride.
Nerves beat wildly inside her stomach. This was not something she would normally do, going to visit a gaming hell, but she had no other choice. There was even an ancient proverb suggesting such a thing, requiring desperate measures during desperate times. The carriage rolled to a stop. She sat still, hands folded in her lap. Men’s voices filled the street that awaited her.
The driver opened the door to the carriage and she did her best to gather her wits. She swallowed, willing herself to be brave. This was something that had to be done, especially if she wanted to be married by the end of the Season. Considering she was rapidly approaching four and twenty, she most assuredly wanted to be married as soon as was possible. Using that very thought to bolster her courage, she stepped down from the hired hack, and straightened her pelisse.
“Wait here for me,” she told the driver. “And I shall pay you extra.”
Despite the late hour, the street bustled with activity. She tried to glance around without revealing too much of her own identity, but she would draw even more attention if she fell on the street in a heap of black wool. Two men walked up the street toward her, presumably heading directly to the establishment she too sought. Clarissa realized with alarming clarity that she knew one of the men, had just danced with him the night before at the Millerton’s ball. She stepped out of their way and looked down at her shoes. Both men stepped into the gaming hell and the door closed behind them.
For a moment she considered climbing back into the hack and going straight home. As it was, Aunt Maureen thought Clarissa had gone to bed early with a sour stomach. But she could not allow fear to prevent her from helping George. If she didn’t take care of this matter now, there was no telling how long it would take George to handle it. No, this was something that had to be done. She felt for the bag at her wrist with all of her money tucked inside. With a hearty breath, she took the steps leading to the unmarked red door.
She didn’t even have to knock, the door simply opened as she lifted her hand. Noise and smoke poured out of the door. She couldn’t see much, but spied a buxom woman sitting atop a man’s lap while he examined his cards. A large beefy man stepped into the doorway, effectively blocking her view of anything save his barrel chest.
She tilted her head to see his face, though kept one gloved hand to her hat in case she needed to quickly cover herself. His thick eyebrows rose as he took in the sight of her. “A lady don’t have business here,” he said brusquely.
“I should like—” She cleared her throat behind her black lace glove. “That is, I need to speak to Mr. Rodale, if you do not mind.”
“Mr. Rodale is otherwise engaged,” the man said, brazenly mocking her speech.
“I have it on good authority that he is here most nights.”
Three men came up behind her. “Are you lost, my lady?” one of them asked, then laughed heartily.
The man at the door moved her aside and admitted the three men before once again blocking the door.
She grabbed the bag at her wrist, hoping the reminder of why she was here would push her forward. “It is imperative that I speak with him.” She tapped her foot in hopes of appearing more courageous than she actually felt. “Now.”
The man eyed her for another minute before making a low growly noise. “Wait there.” Then he slammed the door in her face.
She moved over to the far side of the stoop to allow any other patrons to enter the establishment without her being in the way or really being seen. After what felt like a quarter of an hour a man stepped out of the building, the beefy man stood behind him. “That’s her, said she had to speak with you. It was imperative.” Again the man mocked her speech.
It was not her fault she was well bred and educated.
“I’ll handle matters from here, Clipps. You go back inside and keep an eye on things.” He turned to face Clarissa. “I am Mr. Rodale. What is so important?”
His voice was different than she remembered, deeper, darker even, but still that hint of a French accent he’d tried so hard to rid himself of when he was a boy.
“I need to speak to you,” she said dumbly. She mentally shook herself, then took a chance and glanced up at him. From this angle, the best she could do was get a look at his cravat, which was loosely tied at best. Where they stood now, with the light hanging next to the door, anyone walking by could see her. “Could we speak down here on the street, where it is more private?” She didn’t bother waiting for him to answer, merely took the steps back down to the sidewalk.
“What is this about?” he asked, his voice sharp with irritation.
She looked up at him again, this time tilting her neck far enough to see his face. She could see bits of the boy she knew in the man before her, the same amber-colored eyes and olive skin, but she had not been expecting him to be so startlingly handsome. So tall and athletic and masculine, he was beyond dashing. She sucked in her breath at the same time his brows shot up.
“Chrissy? Is that you?” He grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her more into the shadows.
She closed her eyes against the wretched childhood nickname. “Please do not call me that,” she hissed. “In fact do not say my name at all. I should not be here, but I needed to speak to you immediately.”
He grinned. “Miss me after all these years?”
“I do not.” Though, admittedly, that smile of his did make her wonder what he’d been doing the last several years. She shook her head. Now was not the time to reminisce. “I came to discuss a certain debt with you. Can I be assured of your discretion?”
“Clarissa, you are affecting the discretion of my establishment by being here. This is no place for a woman of your breeding to be seen.” He glanced around them to ensure they were still alone. “What the devil are you doing here? You could have sent a post.”
“I would like to pay the debts of Mr. George Wilbanks.”
His warm caramel eyes narrowed. “What?”
“You heard me.” She indicated the purse hanging from her wrist. “I brought the funds, now if you could please tell me precisely how much he owes, I will gladly pay the sum.”
“Have you completely lost your senses?” Justin’s jaw clenched.
How had she not noticed his handsomeness when she was a girl? He’d simply been her brother’s friend and one whom she hadn’t even deemed appropriate for Marcus to have.
Justin Rodale was a bastard, by birth, if not behavior. He’d been wretchedly surly and nothing more than a troublemaker. Not at all the sort of friend the son of an earl should have. It hadn’t mattered to Clarissa that Justin had gone to all the same schools as Marcus. And he had teased her mercilessly and insisted on calling her that wretched name. Chrissy.
“First of all, I do not have a running summary in my mind of how much each patron owes me,” he said. “I have far too many patrons for that. Secondly, I am not at liberty to discuss a man’s debts with a woman who is not either his mother or his wife, and even then I probably would still refuse to disclose information.” He paused a moment and eyed her. “Who is this man to you, Chrissy?”
“A friend,” she said carefully. There was no need to tell Justin any more than he needed to know. “The fact of the matter is, is that George is far too proud a man to accept a loan from me so I thought to pay off his debts myself.”
A crowd of men poured out from the establishment and onto the streets. They spoke loudly, cursing and laughing. Clarissa looked down to her boots until they had all passed. One stopped just shy of her and she held her breath, afraid someone had recognized her, but the man started walking again.
“Do you know George?” she asked.
Justin nodded, drawing attention to his hair that he kept far too long. The waves at the back brushed his collar. Scandalously long. Not at all like George’s hair, which he kept well trimmed and manicured. “I know who he is,” Justin said.
“And will you allow me to pay off his debts?”
“I will not.”
She frowned, wrapped her arms over her chest. “And precisely why not?”
“Because he doesn’t owe me any money.”
*Tell me what you would do if you found out someone you loved was lying to you. Two people will win a copy of the book!