Saturday Excerpt: In Debt to the Earl by Elizabeth Rolls
Read an excerpt from Elizabeth Rolls’s new Harlequin Historical novel In Debt to the Earl below and prepare to be swept away by Regency-era romance!
About In Debt to the Earl:
In his quest for revenge against a disreputable card sharp, James, Earl of Cambourne, discovers the man’s innocent daughter. While her surroundings are impoverished, her dignity and refinement are unmistakable, and James faces an unsettling question—what will be her fate if he brings her father to justice?
Although yearning for love and comfort, Lucy resists the earl’s surprising offer of protection. That is until a price is made on her virginity, and James is the only man who can save her.
James blinked across the table at his opponent. ‘I make that a thousand pounds, Hensleigh. Time to settle up, don’t you think?’ He spoke with extra precision, as if without care his speech might have slurred. With seeming clumsiness, he knocked his glass of burgundy. ‘Oops,’ he said absently.
Hensleigh smiled broadly as he righted the glass. ‘Oh, come now, Cambourne! I’m no faint heart. The merest reverse! You must give me at least a chance to recoup my losses. Double or nothing on the next hand? Winner take all?’
James would have preferred to end this farce right there and then, walking out with his winnings, or at least Hensleigh’s vowels. Frankly he thought he’d spent enough time in the Cockpit.
Finding the hell had been easy. Getting in had been trickier, even with the password Nick had given him, but a crown to the doorman had worked a minor miracle. He’d noted Hensleigh on his first visit, a tall, bluff, open-faced sort, with thinning ginger hair, but hadn’t approached him. Instead he’d played dice at another table, careful not to win or lose too heavily, once he’d worked out how the dice were weighted. He’d dressed carefully, making sure he looked and behaved like a well-heeled squire fresh from the country—a pigeon ready for plucking. He’d also introduced himself as plain Mr Cambourne. In this situation his title would be a hindrance. He’d watched the card play, come to the conclusion that Hensleigh was far from the only Captain Sharp in the room, and planned accordingly.
Sure enough, the first time he’d played whist, he’d been allowed to win. Easily. Afterwards, when Hensleigh had come up to congratulate him, he’d grumbled that his opponent wasn’t skilled enough to make it entertaining. The second time he’d lost a little, but won more, swaggering away two hundred pounds to the good. Tonight Hensleigh had approached him, all “hail, fellow, well met” and “care for a hand or two?” Apparently tonight was plucking time.
James considered. Double or nothing would end the affair and he wanted it over. The dingy, smoky hell, with its complement of the desperate and the dangerous, bored him. Several women, their profession—and assets—very obvious, prowled the room, only too ready to relieve a man of his winnings if the professional card sharps at the tables failed to do it. Occasionally a woman would leave with one or more of the players. It could not be said that they slipped away. Nothing so discreet. A few times James had heard the price agreed on.
He veiled his contempt with a bleary stare. ‘Double or nothing?’ he said. ‘That would make your losses two thousand pounds, Hensleigh.’
The fellow smirked. ‘Oh, well,’ he said, with another broad smile, ‘What’s life without a little risk? Shall we have a new deck for it, eh?’
James raised his brows. ‘Why not?’ He sat back as Hensleigh signalled.
‘A new deck here, my man,’ Hensleigh said to the servant who came over. ‘And a cloth for this mess. Mr Cam-bourne and I have agreed to double or nothing. Winner take all.’
The servant’s gaze sharpened. ‘Aye, Cap’n.’ He scurried away.
‘Another glass of wine, Cambourne?’ Hensleigh suggested, his hand hovering by the bottle.
‘Why not?’ James plastered a vacuous grin to his face. Hensleigh had been pouring glass after glass of wine for him with a fine appearance of generosity. No doubt he assumed James was at least verging on foxed, if not well beyond it. In fact, most of the wine had been surreptitiously poured on to the carpet.
James lounged back to wait, as another servant wiped the table.
The first servant brought the new deck and glanced at Hensleigh, who held out his hand. ‘Thank you, my man.’ He cut the deck.
James waited until he began to shuffle, straightened and said quietly, with no trace of impairment, ‘It’s my turn to deal, Hensleigh.’
Several cards slipped from the man’s hands, as his gaze flew to James’s face. ‘Is it? I am sure you must be mistaken.’
James raised his brows. ‘No, Hensleigh, I am not.’ Hensleigh’s eyes narrowed, flickered to the glass of wine.
James smiled. And shook his head. He reached out, swept up the fallen cards without taking his eyes from Hensleigh’s face, and waited.
After a moment, expressionless, Hensleigh handed over the rest of the pack.
‘Thank you,’ said James, shuffling with an expertise he hadn’t used earlier. Hensleigh’s mouth tightened, but he said nothing. James ignored him, continuing the shuffle with unconcerned ease. Carefully he tilted the cards just so, as they ran through his fingers, catching the light. He didn’t really need to see, but he wanted Hensleigh to sweat. The man’s eyes widened.
‘Is this what they cashiered you for, Hensleigh?’ James asked.
Hensleigh swallowed. ‘The devil you say?’
‘The army,’ James said. ‘It was the army, wasn’t it? They don’t like Captain Sharps in the army. Or the navy, but you don’t strike me as the seafaring sort.’ He continued to shuffle. ‘Or perhaps I’m insulting the army and you invented your rank. Horse Guards didn’t know anything about you when I enquired.’ He smiled humourlessly as Hensleigh paled. ‘Rather clumsy, the markings on this deck,’ he went on. ‘I can feel the wax lines on the backs quite easily. The other deck was less obvious.’
Hensleigh rallied. ‘You are mistaken, sir. But we can call for another deck.’
James shook his head. ‘No. We settle up. Now.’
‘You agreed to double or nothing—’
‘With an unmarked pack,’ James said. ‘All bets are off now.’ He gathered the cards with a practised flick. ‘Do we leave quietly, or shall I make it public?’
Hensleigh looked around nervously and clenched his fists. ‘Damn you.’
James shrugged. ‘Just sign your vowels, Hensleigh, and we’ll have them countersigned by the management.’ He wouldn’t put it past the swine to disavow them if he thought he could get away with it. ‘And don’t even think about playing here again until you’ve paid me,’ he added.
Hensleigh glared. ‘You were stringing me!’
James bowed. ‘Absolutely.’
Two weeks later
Trying not to breathe any deeper than absolutely necessary to support life, James trod up the narrow, creaking stairs. The aroma of last night’s fish—hell, possibly last year’s fish—and over-boiled cabbage followed him with putrid tenacity. Another flight of stairs and he tried to persuade himself that the smell was losing heart.
A week after their card game, Hensleigh—surprise, surprise—had neither turned up at James’s house to settle his debts, nor returned to the Cockpit. After a further week of hunting, courtesy of a chance sighting on the Strand, James had found his prey’s bolt-hole. The bolt-hole, according to what he’d been told, where Hensleigh kept his woman.
Third landing, the landlady had said.
Haven’t seen ‘is nibs, but the girl’s up there.
The landing creaked, sagging ominously under his weight. He could see the announcement in the Morning Gazette… “Lord C met an untimely end collecting on a debt of honour by falling to his death when a landing gave way…
He glanced around, wrinkling his nose; the rancid fish was just as odoriferous up here as down below. He might not need the money Hensleigh owed him, but by God he was going to break him. By the time he was done, Hensleigh wouldn’t be able to keep himself, let alone any sort of woman. If Hensleigh wasn’t home, then his mistress could deliver the warning that his vowels were about to be sold on.
He rapped sharply, noting with faint surprise that the door was actually clean.
The door opened and a girl enveloped in a grimy apron and clutching a rag stared at him. A few coppery tendrils of hair had escaped from her mob cap and brushed against a creamy-fair, slightly flushed cheek. A familiar odour that had nothing to do with fish drifted from the apartment. He sniffed—furniture polish? Yes, and something else, something sweet and indefinable that drifted through him.
‘Are you looking for someone?’
James’s world lurched a little at the slightly husky and surprisingly well-bred voice. His gaze met wary green eyes and an altogether unwelcome heat slid through his veins. How the hell did pond scum like Hensleigh acquire a woman like this one? Even as he wondered, the girl began to close the door. ‘You must have the wrong address.’
He stuck his foot in the door. ‘The devil I do.’
Lucy wondered if several foolish and altogether unlikely daydreams had become tangled with reality. The dreams where a tall, dark-haired, handsome gentleman came and swept her away into a life of safety. Only in her dreams, when this gentleman appeared at the door, she was somehow garbed in the latest fashions, with a dainty reticule dangling from her wrist. Not clad in a worn-out gown and grubby apron, and clutching a polishing rag. Nor in her dreams did the gentleman have cold, storm-grey eyes that looked at her as if she were something stuck to his shoe. Nor did he scowl. Her dream gentleman went down on one knee and offered her his heart. She wasn’t holding out for a prince, however, just a kind, respectable man who didn’t gamble and had a comfortable home. Nor did she insist on the glass slipper, which she thought would be most uncomfortable, but clearly, if she had a fairy godmother at all, the fairy’s wand had a slight flaw.
‘I’m looking for Hensleigh.’
For a moment the deep, velvet-dark voice froze her so that she just stared dumbly. It wasn’t so much that he was tall, although he was, but that there was something about the way he stood. The way he seemed to fill the landing.
Perhaps it was his shoulders? They seemed very broad, much broader than Papa’s. Whatever the reason, her mind had scrambled.
She cleared her throat. ‘I’m sorry, sir. There is no one—’ Her mind cleared and her stomach chilled at her near mistake, at the cold eyes that raked her. ‘That is, he’s not here.’ She clutched the polishing rag to steady the sudden trembling of her hands. Hensleigh, not Armitage. Papa had drummed it into her years ago not to use their real name. Ever. The name he used changed periodically, but it had been Hensleigh for weeks now. Before that it had been Hammersley and before that…well, something else starting with H. According to Shakespeare, a rose would smell as sweet by any other name, but she thought the rose might find it confusing to be renamed every few months.
Cold eyes narrowed and her pulse beat erratically. His voice, lethally soft, curled through her. ‘Of course a rose by any other name may smell as sweet.’ She flinched. Was the man a sorcerer? ‘Although I’m sure it does become confusing.’
She bit her lip. Neither confirm, nor deny. Explanations are dangerous. There was only one reason such a man would be looking for her father. How much this time? A question that was none of her business even to think, let alone voice.
‘He isn’t here, I’m afraid. Please move your foot.’ She wished she hadn’t used that word, afraid. It nudged too close to the truth.
The visitor cocked his head to one side. ‘And when do you expect his return?’
His foot didn’t move. Lucy forced breath into her lungs. A cold knot, not entirely composed of hunger, twisted in her belly. ‘I… I don’t know.’ And for the first time in a very long while she wished that her father were about to walk through the door. This man had every nerve prickling the way he looked at her…as though he didn’t believe her. ‘I’ll wait.’
Let the wolf over the threshold? Alarm bells clashed. ‘No. He’s—’
Powerful hands seized her shoulders, lifting and dumping her out on the landing. Her breath caught and her senses whirled in panic, as he stalked into the apartment. For a moment she considered leaving him to it and racing downstairs to the relative safety of Mrs Beattie’s kitchen. Coward! Find your backbone, for God’s sake! He’d dumped her out here like yesterday’s rubbish! Anger drove out the fear and common sense flooded back. A man with designs on her wouldn’t have pushed her out on the landing. Ergo, she was safe. Gritting her teeth, she went after him.
‘How dare you! I don’t care who you are! Get out!’
His glance flicked over the room and back to her. ‘How do you propose to make me?’ he asked, as if he really wanted to know.
She had no idea how, but—’This is my home!’ she retorted. ‘I have every right to ask you to leave!’ As homes went it was pathetic, but that didn’t mean she had to accept this…this thug’s presence in it.
Amusement crinkled the corners of his eyes. ‘Your home, madam? Not much to defend, is it? Or are you defending Hensleigh? Or is it Hammersley this week? Where is he?’
She had spent the morning dusting and polishing. The floor was clean. Every stick of furniture gleamed. And she had never been so bitterly aware of the rickety table and chairs, the chipped looking glass over the fireplace, the bare floorboards or the threadbare curtain hiding the corner where she slept, as that scornful gaze raked the room.
‘I already told you, I don’t know!’ That he knew the last name they had used sent a chill slithering down her spine.
‘So you did,’ he said. ‘Are you going to invite me to sit down?’
He shrugged and sat down anyway on the battered chair by the cold, empty grate. There hadn’t been a fire in it for weeks. There was barely enough money for food, let alone luxuries.
She dragged in breath and let it go again. There was nothing she could do to shift him and she refused to rail at him like a Billingsgate fishwife. She stuffed her fury behind a solid door and slammed it shut.
‘You will excuse me if I continue my work,’ she said calmly and swiped her polishing rag back into the open jar of beeswax on the table. She could not afford more, but despite that she started all over again in the corner furthest from the fireplace, taking her time, hoping he would get bored and leave if she ignored him.
Unfortunately he didn’t ignore her.
That grey, assessing gaze remained on her as she re-polished the table with painstaking thoroughness.
‘I must say I envy Hensleigh,’ murmured her unwelcome guest after a few moments. She stiffened, but continued polishing so that the table wobbled noisily. ‘Lucky fellow,’ he went on, ‘having a wench willing to clean his lodgings twice in one morning and warm his bed.’
Everything inside her stopped as well as the polishing rag. And the temper her grandparents had tried so hard to curb slipped its leash. Slowly she straightened and faced him, the dusting rag clenched in her fist. ‘Wench?’ She restrained the urge to throw the rag in his face.
His brows rose. ‘A poor choice of words,’ he said. ‘You’re certainly a cut above wenchdom, even if your taste in men is execrable. You could do better than Hensleigh or whatever his name is this week.’
‘Really?’ Rage slammed through her, but she kept her voice dulcet. ‘You, for example?’
He smiled, reminding her of the wolf down at the Royal Exchange. ‘If you like. If you tell me where he is.’
‘They say it’s a wise child who knows its own father,’ she said, her stomach twisting. ‘It would be an interesting set of circumstances that permitted her to choose him.’
James wondered if he’d been hit on the head with a brick as the implications slammed into him. No one had suggested that the woman in Hensleigh’s lodgings was his daughter! He had assumed.
‘But,’ the impossible girl continued, ‘if you are prepared to acknowledge me as your natural daughter I’ll be very happy to have it so. Although.’ she looked him up and down in a way he found oddly unnerving ‘…you must have been a rather precocious child.’
James collected his scattered wits and found his tongue. ‘You’re his daughter, not his—’ He stopped there. If she was Hensleigh’s daughter—
‘Correct.’ The chill in her voice would have shaken an iceberg.
‘Do you expect an apology, Miss… Hensleigh?’ Hell’s teeth! Men did have daughters, even Hensleigh could have one. But—
She stared at him. ‘What? Do I look stupid?’
* * *
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