He glanced up at the sound of his name, but Charity had the feeling he wasn't listening to her or concentrating on the game either. Ever since Sheridan had left, he'd looked as grim as death. Despite that, when he took his shot, balls clattered against one another, collided against the sides of the table, and three of them rolled into the pockets.
"Nice shot, Stephen," Jason said, and Charity saw the opportunity she'd been waiting for.
"I so enjoy the society of gentlemen," she announced suddenly, watching as Clayton Westmoreland poured Madeira into his guests' glasses.
"Why is that?" he asked politely.
"My own sex can be quite petty and even vindictive for no cause at all," she remarked as Stephen aimed and made his next shot. "But gentlemen are so very stalwart in their loyalty to one another and their own sex. Take Wakefield, for example," she said, smiling approvingly at Jason Fielding, Marquess of Wakefield. "Had you been a female, Wakefield, you might have felt jealous of Langford's superior shot a moment ago, but were you?"
"Yes," Jason joked, but when her face fell he quickly said, "No, of course not, ma'am."
"Exactly my point!" Charity applauded as Stephen walked around the table for his next shot. "But whenever I think of loyalty and friendship among gentlemen, do you know who immediately comes to mind?"
"No, who?" Clayton said, while he watched Stephen line up his next shot and aim.
"Nicholas DuVille and Langford!"
The cue ball slid sideways off of Stephen's cue stick and rolled to the side of the table, where it gently nudged the ball he'd intended to aim at. That ball slowly headed for the pocket, hovered at the edge, and finally dropped in. "That wasn't skill, that was blind luck," Jason told him. Trying to change the subject, he added, "Did you ever stop to calculate how many times you win a game with luck instead of skill? I've meant to do that."
Ignoring Wakefield's attempt to divert the topic, Charity forged ahead, carefully directing her animated conversation to Jason Fielding and Clayton Westmoreland and avoiding a glance at the earl as he walked around the table for his next shot. "Why, if Nicholas hadn't been such a loyal friend of Langford's, he would have sent Sheridan Bromleigh straight back home the day she ran away and landed on his doorstep, crying her heart out, but did he do that? No indeed, he did not!"
She glanced at the mirror on the opposite wall and saw Stephen Westmoreland arrested in the act of shooting, his eyes narrowed to slits, his gaze levelled on the back of her head. "Sheridan begged for the truth about why Langford wanted to marry her, and even though it wasn't poor Nicholas's responsibility to tell her everything and break her heart, he did it! It would have been so much easier to lie to her, or send her home to ask Langford, but he took it upon himself to help his dear friend and fellow man."
"Exactly what," Stephen asked in a low, savage voice as he slowly straightened without having taken his shot, "did my friend DuVille tell Sheridan?"
Charity looked around at him, her face a miracle of startled, vapid innocence. "Why, the truth, of course. She realized she wasn't Charise Lancaster anymore, so Nicholas told her about Burleton's death and how responsible you felt for it. That is why you pretended to be Sheridan's fiancé, after all."
Three silent men were staring at her in various states of shock and anger, and Charity looked brightly at each of them. "And of course, being a romantic girl, Sheridan still wanted to think—to believe—that you might have had some other reason for asking her to marry you, but dear Nicholas had to tell her, very firmly, that you'd only proposed after you got word of Mr. Lancaster's unfortunate death—out of pity, as it were. Which was dreadfully distressing to the poor girl, but Nicholas did what needed to be done, out of unselfishness and loyalty to his own sex."
Stephen slammed the cue stick into the rack on the wall. "That son of a bitch!" he said softly as he strode swiftly out of the room.
Startled by the use of profanity in front of her but not by his departure, Charity looked at Jason Fielding. "Where do you suppose Langford is going?" she asked, hiding her smile behind a blank frown.
Jason Fielding slowly withdrew his gaze from the doorway through which the earl had departed, then he glanced at Clayton Westmoreland and said, "Where would you say he's going?"
"I would say," the duke replied dryly, "that he is going to have a 'talk' with an old 'friend.' "
"How nice!" Charity said brightly. "Would either of you consider letting me play billiards with you, now that Langford is gone? I'm certain I could learn the rules."
The Duke of Claymore studied her in amused silence for a very long moment, so long in fact that Charity felt a little uneasy. "Why don't we play chess instead? I have a feeling that strategy is your particular forte."
Charity considered that for a moment and wagged her head. "I think you're quite right."
Although the Season had wound to a close, the exclusive gaming rooms at White's were not lacking for wealthy occupants willing to wager enormous sums of money on the turn of a card or spin of the wheel. The oldest and most elegant of the clubs on St. James's Street, White's was far noisier than The Strathmore, and brightly lit, but not without its own hallowed traditions. At the front, looking out upon the street, was a wide bow window in which Beau Brummell had once held court with his friends the Duke of Argyll, Lords Sefton, Alvanley, and Worcester, and, on occasion, the then Prince Regent.
More famous than its bow window, however, was White's Betting Book, into which distinguished members had, for many years, entered wagers on events ranging from the solemn to the sordid to the silly. Included among the entries were wagers on the outcome of a war, the likely date of the death of a relative with a fortune to bequeath, the predicted winners in contests for ladies' hands, and even the outcome of a forthcoming race between two prime pigs owned by two of the club's members.
At a table near the back of one of the card rooms, William Baskerville was playing whist with the Duke of Stanhope and Nicholas DuVille. In the spirit of good-fellowship, those three gentlemen had permitted two very young gentlemen from excellent families to join them. Both young men were Corinthians of the first stare, obsessed with sporting and eager to make a name for themselves in town by excelling at the manly vices of gaming and drinking. Talk at the table was slow and desultory; betting was fast and heavy. "Speaking of crack-whips," said one of the young gentlemen, who'd been speaking of little else, "I haven't seen Langford at Hyde Park all week."