"In whose favor, my good man?" demanded an impatient, elegantly dressed gentleman who was standing in the long line, waiting to write his wager in the Betting Book.
The manager hesitated, cast his eyes heavenward as if praying for courage, then he twisted about and opened the door a crack, peeking inside at the same moment a body collided with a wall with a thunderous crash. "In favor of Langford!" he called over his shoulder, but as he started to pull the door closed, another explosion like the last one rattled the rafters, and he took another look. "No—DuVille! No, Langford. No—!" He jerked the door closed barely in time to avoid having it snap off his head as a pair of heavy shoulders slammed into it.
Long after the sounds of human combat finally ended, the manager remained with his spine riveted against the door, until it suddenly gave way behind him, sending him careening backward into the empty room as the Earl of Langford and Nicholas DuVille walked out. Alone in the room and dazed with relief, the manager slowly turned and surveyed a room that, at first glance, looked miraculously undisturbed. He was uttering a fervent prayer of gratitude when his eyes beheld a polished end table resting upon three sound legs and a fourth that was badly splintered, and he clutched at his heart as if it, too, were splintering. On shaking limbs he walked over to the faro table and removed a tankard that oughtn't to have been on it, only to discover that the tankard concealed a dreadful gouge in the faro table's green baize top. Narrowing his eyes, he inspected the room more closely… In the corner of the room, four chairs were neatly arranged around a circular card table, but now he noticed that each chair possessed only three legs.
An ornate gilt clock which normally graced the center of an inlaid serving board was now on the right end of it. With shaking hands, the manager reached out to slide the clock back to its rightful place, then he cried out in horror as the clock's face fell forward, its hands swinging limply from side to side.
Shaking with outrage and anguish, the manager reached out to brace himself and grabbed the back of the nearest chair.
It came off in his hand.
On the other side of the wall, in the main room of White's, an outburst of unnaturally boisterous conversation erupted when DuVille and Langford strolled out—conversation of the sort used by adult males as a diversionary tactic intended to convey the impression that one's attention was everywhere except where it actually was.
Either indifferent to, or unaware of, the unnatural atmosphere and watchful eyes that followed them, the two former combatants parted company at the center of the room, Langford to search for a servant with a tray of drinks, and DuVille to return to his empty place at the card table. "Was it my turn to deal?" he asked, settling into his chair and reaching for the deck.
The two young men answered in unison that it was, the Duke of Stanhope courteously replied that he wasn't entirely certain, but Baskerville was in high dudgeon over having been made to look a fool before the young gentlemen, and he brought up the subject on everyone's mind. "You may as well tell these two what happened in there, since they won't be able to concentrate or even sleep without knowing the outcome," he said testily. "Disgraceful behavior, I don't scruple to tell you, DuVille. On both your parts!"
"There is nothing to tell," Nicki said blandly, picking up the abandoned deck of cards from the center of the table and shuffling it expertly. "We discussed a wedding."
Baskerville looked hopeful but unconvinced. The two younger men looked serenely amused, but only the drunken one of them had the temerity and bad manners to scoff at the offered explanation.
"A wedding?" he hooted, casting a meaningful eye upon Nicki's torn collar. "What could two men discuss about a wedding?"
"Who the groom is going to be," Nicki replied with casual nonchalance.
"And did you decide, sir?" the courteous one asked, sending his companion a warning glance and trying desperately to pretend he believed the whole tale.
"Yes," Nicki drawled, leaning forward to toss his chips into the center of the table. "I am going to be the best man."
His careless friend took another long draught of wine, and gave a laugh. "A wedding!" he snorted.
Nicholas DuVille slowly lifted his head and gave him a long, speculative look. "Would you prefer to make it a funeral?"
Fearing that the worst might yet be to come, Baskerville leapt into the breach. "What else did you and Langford discuss? You were gone a good while."
"We discussed little old ladies with faulty memories," Nicki replied ironically. "And we marvelled at the wisdom of a God who, for some incomprehensible reason, occasionally allows their tongues to go on working long after their brains have ceased to function at all."
The Duke of Stanhope looked up sharply. "I hope you are not referring to anyone I know."
"Do you know anyone called by the unlikely name of 'Charity,' instead of 'Birdwit'?"
The Duke choked back a horrified laugh at that deliberate, and unmistakable, description of his oldest sister. "I may." He was spared further discussion of that embarrassing topic by the arrival of another gambler, who nodded a casual but friendly greeting at Baskerville and himself as he pulled out the chair beside DuVille and settled into it.
Stretching his long legs out beneath the table, the new arrival gazed pointedly at the two young gentlemen, who were not known to him, clearly awaiting the formality of an introduction before acknowledging them. DuVille was the only one who seemed either cognizant of the need for introductions or able to respond to it. "These two fellows with the slack jaws and deep pockets are Lords Banbraten and Isley," he said to the newcomer. To the youths, he said, "I believe the Earl of Langford is already familiar to you?" When they nodded in unison, Nicki finished dealing out the cards and said, "Good. Since that's over, the earl and I will now endeavor to divest you of the rest of your fathers' money."
He picked up the cards he'd dealt for himself and winced at the pain in his rib.
"Bad hand, eh?" chuckled the Duke of Stanhope, mistaking the reason for Nicki's grimace.
In the erroneous belief the question had been directed to him, Stephen glanced at his swollen knuckles and flexed his hand. "Not too bad." He turned as a servant approached the table with two glasses of excellent brandy, and he took them both, keeping one for himself and passing the other to DuVille. "With my compliments," he said blandly, pausing for an inquiring glance at one of the youths, who'd overturned his wine as he reached for it.