Bonus Excerpt: Lady Claire is All That
One of my favorite writing “rules” is to “kill your darlings” but sometimes your darlings totally work in the story, so you get to keep them and love them. I daresay this scene between Lady Claire Cavendish and Lord Fox is one of them. In my drafts, the chapter title was “Mansplaining,” which is exactly what happens, although the word wasn’t exactly in use in London, circa 1824, hence the less thrilling title of “chapter 3.” But I digress–I love this scene between a very smart woman and the less intelligent man trying to woo her. Spoiler: she gets to be brilliant.
Lord Fox has wasted no time finding a new woman after being jilted by Arabella Vaughn. He seems to have taken an interest in Lady Claire Cavendish, of all the ladies in London. This author knows not what to make of it.
—Fashionable Intelligence, The London Weekly
The next evening, the card room at yet another ball
Claire’s sister Amelia often complained about the tedium of balls—after the novelty had worn off, Claire privately agreed, though she knew better than to encourage Amelia by admitting she felt the same. As the eldest, she had to set an example. Always. It was almost as tedious as enduring London soirees.
Fortunately, she developed stratagems to keep herself sane in these endless social events. First, her trick with the dance card—she simply told every gentleman who inquired that her card was full and thus she was able to politely refuse her offers to dance, an activity at which she did not excel and thus did not care to partake in.
But even she came to enjoy balls when she discovered the card room. She could stand to the side and watch emotions run high as lords and ladies would win and lose fortunes at the mere turn of a card. She watched as they made idiotic wagers and foolish choices that led to disastrous outcomes that might have been avoided with some rational thought and calculations. In her head, Claire counted cards, calculated odds, and made her own private wagers on the outcome. In her head, she’d won a fortune of her own.
She yearned to play a hand herself and to win on the strength of her intelligence and rational judgment. Even more she wanted to play against the lords and ladies who gossiped relentlessly about her family. She wanted to beat them. Take their money, their jewels, their hunting boxes in Scotland and dole them back out once people stopped making remarks about the smell of the stables when James went by or whispers about Amelia’s hoydenish behavior being embarrassing.
Most of all, she wanted an activity with which to occupy her brain.
She was too smart to simper on the sidelines of ballrooms.
Claire was edging her way closer to a table where a game was in progress and deliberating as to how she might join in when the oh-so-handsome Lord Fox found her. She thought she’d been rid of him.
Lord Fox, of the brawn and male beauty and inane conversation. Lord Fox, who was a little too certain that he was a treasure from heaven sent down for women. Lord Fox, who attracted attention when he spoke to her. She did not want attention.
“Good evening, Lady Claire.” He bowed and she inclined her head slightly. “It seems we meet again.”
“So it would seem.” She cast him a bored glance. “Good evening, Lord Fox.”
“Is your dance card full again?”
He gave her the sort of glance that was supposed to make her knees weak.
“Yes. Every last dance.” From now until Judgment Day.
“Yet you are in the card room,” he pointed out. “Shall I escort you back to the ballroom?”
Damn. She was caught in a lie. She eyed him more carefully now, not wanting to underestimate him again. She took in his green eyes, fixed on her. A lock of black hair fell rakishly across his forehead. It was the sort of thing silly girls would sigh over, but as someone who usually wore her hair severely pulled back from her face, it just annoyed her.
“Well, this dance isn’t claimed,” she said.
“May I have the honor of this dance?”
Claire didn’t think twice about refusing him, again. She hadn’t the slightest clue why he had suddenly taken an interest in her but she saw no point in encouraging him. Furthermore, etiquette dictated that if a woman refused a dance, then she wasn’t able to accept another dance for the rest of the evening. This suited her just fine.
Sometimes, knowing the rules of etiquette could work to a woman’s advantage. Not that she’d ever tell Amelia that. Or maybe she ought to. Her baby sister was willfully ignorant when it came to such matters.
But first, a rejection.
Because Fox didn’t seem terrible, just misguided in his attentions, she decided to let him down gently.
“I’m afraid I cannot. For health reasons.” She coughed delicately. Men were usually terrified of women’s ailments.
“Of course,” he said dryly. “Women have such delicate constitutions. Why, the slightest thing could gravely endanger their health—a gust of wind that is too strong or too cool, for example. Perhaps the lemonade offered tonight was not sufficiently tepid. Or your corset might be laced too tightly.” He said this with a look that suggested he’d like to loosen her corset and suddenly hers did feel too tight. “There are any number of reasons why a woman would feel under the weather.”
Every fiber of her being wanted to disagree with him.
“That is why it’s best that I remain here, where I will be unperturbed.”
“Indeed, there is nothing much to excite you here. Playing cards might be interesting, but watching others play is certainly tedious. But do take care not to overtax your lady brainbox by trying to understand the rules of the game.”
This time when she coughed, it was because a hot ball of rage had lodged in her throat. Men. And the assumptions they made about women—especially the assumption that all women were the same.
If she weren’t so determined to avoid this overbearing male, Claire would have given him a piece of her mind. She would have told him in no uncertain terms that she did indeed enjoy watching the game, far more than she enjoyed his belittling conversation. She would have informed him that her “lady brainbox” was more capable of understanding it and winning it than all the male brains in the room combined.
She bit her lip and said none of that.
“The game is vingt-et-un,” Fox explained. “It’s French for twenty-one.”
“I am aware.”
“Well, I wasn’t sure if they taught foreign languages to girls over in the colonies,” he said with a laugh. “Wasn’t sure if they taught anything other than tossing tea in the harbor.”
“I assure you my education was—”
“Now the object of this game is to get one’s cards as close to twenty-one as possible without going over.”
Claire just sighed and rolled her eyes. This was the story of her life. Men explained things to her that she not only knew, but knew far more about.
“An ace can be either high or low.”
Claire wanted to scream.
And just when she was about to throttle this man, who had for some reason developed the habit of seeking her out and annoying her, he asked, “Would you care to play?”
Claire’s rage dissipated. Slightly.
“Yes, thank you, I would.”
She would play, and win, and stun him into silence with the brilliance of her female brain. He would see that she was a frighteningly intelligent bluestocking future-spinster-witch and would never ask her to dance again. Which would be fine.
Lord Fox used his large size to intimidate people into removing themselves from their way. Upon approaching a table, he said a few words to some gent, who immediately stood and offered his space to Claire. She took a seat, skirts swishing around legs.
Though it was normal for a woman to join a game of cards, there were murmurs around the table when she took her place. Perhaps it was her reputation as a bluestocking, or with Lord Fox, or that she was an American crashing this bastion of English high society, too. She didn’t know or care.
Fox stood behind her. She was very, very aware of him.
His hands curled around the top of the chair. She felt his fingertips brush against her bare skin.
Claire went still.
It didn’t mean anything, yet it was oddly intimate.
She would not lose her wits over it though. Not when she had the opportunity to play a hand of cards and use her brain and potentially not expire of boredom at a party for once.
Lord Fox moved slightly and she felt the wool of his jacket brush against her skin. It was fine, high quality wool. Not that she needed to know that. But now she did. Drat.
Resolved to ignore the strange effects of unintentional but slightly intimate gestures from Lord Fox, Claire turned her focus to the game.
Ever the gentleman, Lord Fox put down some money with which she might wager. She felt her lips curling into a smile at the coins glinting in the candlelight. That pile would be far larger by the time she was done.
“Are you mad, Fox? That’s money you won’t see again.” Some fat, red-faced old lord gave a hearty chuckle. Claire resolved to crush him.
“Some of us can afford to throw money away,” Lord Fox remarked casually. The red-faced boor shut up.
And then the game began. She relished the numbers, calculating the odds, taking risks, the feel of the cards in her hand, the whirring sound of a shuffled deck. And she had a good hand.
Fox leant over to whisper in her ear. “I think you should stick. Best to play it safe.”
She held a seven and a ten: seventeen. Any card from an ace to a four would improve her position. Claire watched the round proceed. One fellow took another card—a nine, causing him to grimace and turn over his cards at once to show he was overdrawn with a five, an eight, and the nine. The next player shook his head, and the red-faced boor took a six. That meant the remaining deck was full of low cards, so her odds of getting dealt an ace, two, three, or four were at least one in four, possibly as good as one in three. She could do better. And if she didn’t . . . it was Lord Fox’s money anyway.
“Another card, please.”
“Are you certain?” His voice was a low hum, annoying her. Like a mosquito.
But she was also quite aware of the heat of his body radiating out toward hers. He was so close, looming behind her like that. He certainly had a view of her cards and, it occurred to Claire now, straight down at her breasts.
She didn’t dare turn around to look.
There were murmurs around the table when her new card was revealed: a three. That gave her twenty. She declined another card. The odds of getting exactly twenty-one, and beating her, were approximately . . . she thought for a moment . . . one in twenty.
A moment later, the cards were then overturned and, to everyone’s surprise except her own, Claire had won.
And so the scene repeated itself. She played daringly, occasionally losing, but mostly winning. The pile of money before her grew steadily with each hand, while the red-faced old toad—McConnell, she had learned after besting him twice in a row—saw his funds dwindle to a few scattered coins.
That was what he deserved for underestimating her.
Like so many males, he saw breasts and forgot that the person also had a brain.
“That’s some beginner’s luck,” Fox remarked.
“Or I simply calculated the likelihood of certain cards being played and took calculated risks with my hand.”
“In your head?”
He looked at her head as if it were empty except for vague thoughts of kittens playing with hair ribbons and that he couldn’t quite fathom how kittens and hair ribbons could perform mathematical equations.
“Yes. With my lady brainbox.”
“Impressive,” Lord Fox murmured. She wasn’t certain if he was impressed that a woman performed such calculations or that anyone could do such sums in their head. Or perhaps he was impressed with the mountain of winnings before her. She had won it fair and square and was proud to witness such undeniable proof of her skill and intellect. The others at the table were less enthused about it, of course, seeing as how it represented their losing to a girl, and one of the Americans as well, but there was little she could do about that now.
Claire stood and gave the merest nod of her head to the company.
“I shall leave this for you, Lord Fox,” Claire said, gesturing to her winnings on the table. “Now if you’ll excuse me. I believe I owe a gentleman a dance.”