**THE ROMANCE REVIEWS TOP PICK**
**NIGHT OWL REVIEWS TOP PICK**
Rose of Normandy Tavern – 1739
To Philip’s surprise, Mr. Gogh detained him as he sought to leave. “A word with you, young sir?”
Philip became instantly defensive. “If there is question of my gamesmanship—”
“I assure you, it is nothing of the kind. I was asked to deliver this message.”
Philip opened the note written in a woman’s delicate hand:
My Bold Young Gallant,
Fear of footpads and cutthroats, has me desirous of your escort.
“Above my touch, did you say?” Philip handed George the note. “I trust you can find your way safely without me?”
“Indeed, and I daresay I’d be much safer without you this night,” George remarked, and then read the missive with a low whistle, adding a cautionary word, “Very interesting to have attracted such notice, but I warned you about her type.”
“Mayhap you are right, and she simply mocks me, but still, I am intrigued. In either case, I intend to satisfy my curiosity.”
“You might be assured of satisfying a great deal more than curiosity, should you choose to accompany me to Tom King’s, rather than dallying with trouble.”
“No doubt you’ll find enough trouble of your own at that pox-ridden hole-in-the-wall that disguises itself as a coffee house.”
“I hardly think your purse fat enough to become so nice in your tastes, Drake. Besides, if you so choose to involve yourself, mark my words, she’ll cost you more dearly in the end than the best whore in Covent Garden.”
Mr. Gogh cleared his throat in mild rebuke at the exchange, “The lady is outside in her carriage. A gentleman should never keep a lady waiting.”
Philip smiled. “I would rather say, a gentleman always awaits a lady’s pleasure.”
Her confidence was not misplaced in mere vanity. Susannah, Lady Messingham, was neither a young and simpering miss, nor yet a world-weary jade, but at eight-and-twenty was beauty ripened to its prime.
She waited outside the Rose of Normandy much longer than she would have expected. Surely, he would not refuse to come. She opened and then closed her painted fan with an exasperated huff. No man of her acquaintance would have passed up such a brazen invitation.
Of course, she told herself, she had cared only for his protection, the callow fool, but if he chose to dismiss her note… She shuddered to imagine his handsome young body bloodied and stripped naked. Stripped naked? Why should that vision have come to mind?
She had nearly decided to depart when the footman opened the door and the young man she had singled out at the hazard table sprang into the plush velvet interior of her coach. He seated himself lightly at her side and brought her hand to his lips with much exaggerated gallantry. “My lady, I present myself as your most obedient and humble servant.”
“Humble? I fear the young gentleman’s swaggering airs belie that particular attribute.” She laughed, a low, ironic chuckle. “Now then, pray give my coachman your direction.”
“My direction, my lady?”
“Why, to carry you home of course.” She could detect his flush even in the dimly lit coach. “Did I not say so very clearly in my missive?”
He tersely repeated her written words: “Fear of cutthroats and footpads has me desirous of your escort.”
“Indeed. I had the greatest fear of cutthroats and footpads when I imagined you departing unarmed from the gaming house.”
He bristled at her disdainful reply. “I shan’t stand for your ridicule, madam!”
“Pray do not take such umbrage, child,” she laughed. “How do you expect to slay such dragons as Mr. Knight with not so much as a dress sword?”
“I suspected you of mockery when I read your note. I almost didn’t act upon it.”
“Is that so, my young buck? Then precisely why did you act?”
He paused to consider the truth of it. Curiosity? Bewitchment? He answered quite differently. “I suspect it was a misplaced sense of gallantry, my Lady Disdain. But if not fear for your safety, why did you really send for me?”
“I have a proposition.”
An interesting choice of words. He found himself growing more intrigued by the minute. “This, ah, proposition, is why you invited me into your coach?”
She repeated his earlier unspoken words. “I was most curious, you see, almost bewitched. I was enthralled to know the secret of your dice.”
Philip shrugged. “There is no secret. Luck was simply on my side tonight.”
“I don’t believe you. Besides, you owe me a debt of gratitude, you know, after having saved your magical dice from Mr. Knight and his hammer.”
“You thought to have saved me?” His laugh was derisive. “I assure you, madam, the dice were fair. Mr. Knight may have split them to his heart’s delight, and I would have rattled any other set of bones in my box to the same result.”
“In truth? Then it is not the dice, but the box? How does it work?”
“It doesn’t, and devil carry me away should I introduce a lady to such vice.”
“Now don’t prose with me. I have seen thee in thy glory at hazard, young Philip.” She moved in closer now, her breasts nearly in contact with his chest, providing him a gratuitous view of her décolleté.
His nostrils flared unconsciously in response to her proximity and her scent. Aqua Admirabilis—he recognized the essence. This heady fusion of bergamot and womanly musk threatened to overwhelm his senses.
She took firm grasp of his lapel with one hand, and while her warm breath fanned his ear in a seductive whisper, the other snaked slowly down his chest. “Teach me your trick, Philip, and mayhap I’ll reciprocate with a lesson of my own.”
Philip swallowed hard, fighting the incipient stirrings of arousal.
Roaming freely, her fingers continued a steady exploratory descent.
He closed his eyes, his body rife with anticipation, but that’s where it ended, as her hand darted into his pocket and snatched out the dice box.
“She-devil!” Philip cried an imprecation of disappointment and growing frustration.
She turned away with a triumphant chortle, holding the box just out of his reach. “Now I have taken your magical box and shan’t return it until you reveal its secrets.”
Philip glowered, considering how to turn the tables to his advantage. “If that is your pleasure, my lady, I propose an exchange.”
“Exchange?” Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “What kind of exchange?”
“I’ll reveal the trick of the dice when you reveal your face.”
“No. I don’t think that would be wise.”
“Why not? Are you disfigured?” he goaded.
“Of course not!” her vanity cried out. “I only wish to remain incognito until I am assured I can trust you.”
“Why should you have such a need for anonymity?” he asked.
“I am a widow, and a ready target for gossipmongers.”
“You’ll simply have to trust that your secret is safe with me.”
She paused, biting her lip in indecision, considering whether the dim light of the coach would keep her sufficiently in shadow if unmasked; but if he agreed to do her bidding, it would scarce matter. “Very well,” she decided and removed the domino.
Philip peered closely at her face. Her profile was well-defined in the dim light, even if her features were indistinct. The clean lines of her forehead, nose, and chin left no doubt she was as lovely as he had imagined. First, his good fortune at the tables, and now he was alone with Botticelli’s Venus herself. Surely, his guardian angel looked fondly on him this night! Now, if only he played his cards right…
She regarded him expectantly. “I have fulfilled my end of the bargain.”
“All right. Give me your hand. You must master the proper technique.” His long, slender, fingers stroked her palm as he placed the cool, ivory cubes upon it.
“The technique?” she repeated blankly, acutely aware of his touch on her skin.
“The outcome of the dice, of course.”
“Of course,” she said, “But how can it be done?”
“Retaining one die, whilst dropping only the second into the box, ensures that only one of the two should tumble. Mastering the technique allows one to better manage the number of pips that turn up, thereby significantly reducing the odds.”
“So you are able to predict what will fall?”
“Not precisely. One can never know for a certainty what will turn up, but with skill, one may greatly increase the odds in one’s favor. The first trick, however, is to retain one die.”
He delicately placed one of the cubes between her thumb and index fingers, and then pressed the other between the joint of her thumb and palm. He took her hand in both of his and turned it over, instructing her to drop only the first into the dice box. Both dice fell.
“Oh!” she cried her dismay. “’Tis not near as simple as you make it appear.”
“Practice, dear lady, practice.” He took the dice back from her to demonstrate and repeated the gestures so fluidly, that she could barely follow the motions. He then cast the dice from the box onto the carriage seat, rolling up six and five.
“Thusly.” He waved his free hand with a flourish.
“I know what you did, but could barely follow it.”
“Precisely the point of this exercise. It is an art not easily mastered, and, if clumsily executed, it is practiced at one’s greatest peril. I dedicated my entire youth to the technique as assiduously as the most ardent scholar to his Ovid and Homer.”
“So, while your Eton schoolmates were reading the Greeks, you were studying to become one? A wicked confession indeed, that you so squandered a proper and genteel education.”
“Harrow,” he corrected with a frown. “I attended Harrow, at least until embarking on a more worldly education.”
“You left school for the Grand Tour?”
Philip laughed outright at the suggestion. “My Grand Tour was limited to the lower gaming hells of London, interspersed with spring and autumn forays to the racetracks. I was dismissed,” he explained, with more than a trace of bitterness.
“What would prompt the son of a peer to become an adventurer?”
“What would prompt me, madam?” His voice grew harsh. “I was induced by several most inconvenient necessities—sustenance and shelter, for example.”
“How can one of your tender years have grown so cynical?” His revelation tinged with hurt behind the cynicism mysteriously moved her. She instinctively reached for his face, but he caught her palm and grazed it as smoothly as any courtier.
She regarded him, bewildered, yet fascinated. One moment he was a wounded boy, and the next, he would play at seduction. The sensation of his warm lips, coupled with the intensity of his dark gaze, made her wonder vaguely if she might be losing the upper hand. The confines of the carriage seemed at once too close.
“You too, would be my lover? Others, greater than you, have vied to be my protector, and I would have none of them. And you? You can’t even have reached your majority.” She laughed to dismiss the notion, but wondered at her own discomfort at this burgeoning sense of intimacy.
“Let not my years belie my experience.”
“La! How you talk, as if I am some artless tavern maid!”
Philip flushed. “I have done with your scorn, my lady. If not for want of a lover, why did you ask me alone into your carriage?”
She paused, considering just how much to reveal. “Is it not evident? I wish to learn to master the cards and the dice.”
He surveyed her dress, her jewels, and the elegant carriage, with an arched brow. “Why the deuce would you want to do that?”
“For diversion of course—gaming is all the rage, and I am a woman of fashion, after all.”
“Have you considered the consequences if you lose? Many a great lady has compromised her virtue to pay a debt of honor to an inveterate rake.”
“La, child! As if I would be so careless with my virtue! Besides, you are going to teach me not to lose.”
“Why in damnation would I do that?”
She leaned into him, stirring him once more with a warm, moist, lingering kiss full on his mouth. “Because I asked you to.” – END EXCERPT
“Lee brings the atmosphere of the Georgian era to life with lush descriptions that beg the reader to see, hear, feel and touch it all….with a lively cast of characters and surprising twists and turns that are reminiscent of Fielding’s Tom Jones or Defoe’s Moll Flanders.” -RT BOOK REVIEWS