He nodded with a sardonic smile. "Thornton is losing heavily and has been most of the night very unusual for him."

Penelope and the others heard his comment with avidly curious, even eager expressions. "Lord Tilbury told us that he thinks everything Mr. Thornton owns is lying on the table, either in chips or promissory notes," she said.

Elizabeth's stomach gave a sickening lurch. "He he's wagering everything?" she asked her self-appointed protector. "On a turn of the cards? Why would he do such a thing?"

"For the thrill, I imagine. Gamblers often do just that." Elizabeth could not imagine why her father, her brother, or other men seemed to enjoy risking large sums of money on anything as meaningless as a game of chance, but she had no opportunity to comment because Penelope was gesturing to Georgina, Valerie, and even Elizabeth and saying with a pretty smile, "We would all very much like to go and watch, Lord Howard, and if you would accompany us, there's no reason why we shouldn't. It's so very exciting, and half the people here are already in there."

Lord Howard wasn't immune to the three pretty faces watching him with such hope, but he hesitated anyway, glancing uncertainly at Elizabeth as his guardianship came into conflict with his personal desire to see the proceedings firsthand.

"It's not the least inappropriate," Valerie urged, "since there are other ladies in there."

"Very well," he acceded with a helpless grin. With Elizabeth on his arm he escorted the bevy of girls forward through the open doorway and into the hallowed male confines of the card room.

Suppressing the urge to cry out that she did not want to watch Ian Thornton be beggared, Elizabeth forced herself to keep her expression blank as she looked around at the groups of people clustered about the largest of the oaken tables, obscuring the view of the players seated around it. Dark paneling on the walls and burgundy carpet on the floor made the room seem very dim in comparison to the ballroom. A pair of beautifully carved billiard tables with large chandeliers hanging above them occupied the front of the large room, and eight other tables were scattered about. Although those tables were unoccupied for the moment, cards had been left on them, carefully turned face down, and piles of chips remained in the center of each.

Elizabeth assumed the players at those tables had left their own card games and were now part of the spectators clustered around the large table where all the excitement was being generated. Just as she thought it, one of the spectators at the big table announced it was time to return to their own game, and four men backed away. Lord Howard neatly guided his ladies into the spot the men had just vacated, and Elizabeth found herself in the last place she wanted to be-standing almost at Ian Thornton's elbow with a perfect, unobscured view of what was purportedly the scene of his financial massacre.

Four other men were seated at the round table along with him, including Lord Everly, whose young face was flushed with triumph. Besides being the youngest man there, Lord Everly was the only one whose expression and posture clearly betrayed his emotions. In complete contrast to Lord Everly, Ian Thornton was lounging indifferently in his chair, his expression bland. his long legs stretched out beneath the table, his claret jacket open at the front. The other three men appeared to be concentrating on the cards in their hands, their expressions unreadable.

The Duke of Hammund, who was seated across from where Elizabeth stood, broke the silence: "I think you're bluffing, Thorn," he said with a brief smile. "Moreover, you've been on a losing streak all night. I'll raise you 500 pounds," he added, sliding five chips forward

Two things hit Elizabeth at once: Evidently Ian's nickname was Thorn, and His Grace, the Duke of Hammund, a premier duke of the realm, had addressed him as if they were on friendly terms. The other men, however, continued to regard Ian coolly as they in turn plucked five chips from their individual stacks and pushed them into the pile that had already accumulated in the center of the table.

When it was Ian's turn Elizabeth noticed with a surge of alarm that he had no stack of chips at all, but only five lonely white ones. Her heart sank as she watched him pluck all five chips up and flip them onto the pile in the center. Unknowingly, she held her breath, wondering a little wildly why any sane human being would wager everything he had on anything as stupid as a game of chance.

The last wager had been placed, and the Duke of Hammund showed his cards a pair of aces. The other two men apparently had less than that, because they withdrew. "I've got you beaten!" Lord Everly said to the duke with a triumphant grin, and he turned over three kings. Reaching forward, he started to pull the pile of chips toward him, but Ian's lazy drawl stopped him short: "I believe that's mine," he said, and he turned over his own cards three nines and a pair of fours.

Without realizing it, Elizabeth expelled a lusty sigh of relief, and Ian's gaze abruptly snapped to her face, registering not only her presence for the first time, but her worried green eyes and wan smile as well. A brief impersonal smile touched the corner of his mouth before he glanced at the other men and said lightly, "Perhaps the presence of such lovely ladies has changed my luck at last."

He had said "ladies," but Elizabeth felt. . . she knew. . . his words had been meant for her.

Unfortunately, his prediction about his luck changing was wrong. For the next half hour Elizabeth stood stock still, watching with a sinking heart and unbearable tension as he lost most of the money he'd won when she first came to stand at the table. And during all that time he continued to lounge in his chair, his expression never betraying a single emotion. Elizabeth, however, could no longer endure watching him lose, and she waited for the last hand to end so that she could leave without disturbing the players. As soon as it was over the Duke of Hammund announced, "I think some; refreshment would stand us in good stead." He nodded to a nearby servant, who promptly came to collect the empty glasses from the gentlemen's elbows and replace them with filled ones, and Elizabeth turned quickly to Lord Howard. "Excuse me," she said in a tense, quiet voice, picking up her skirts to leave. Ian had not so much as glanced at her since he'd joked about his luck changing, and she'd assumed he'd forgotten her presence, but at her words he lifted his head and looked straight at her. "Afraid to stay to the bitter end?" he asked lightly, and three of the men at the table, who'd already won most of his money, laughed heartily but without warmth.

Elizabeth hesitated, thinking she must be going quite mad, because she honestly sensed that he wanted her to stay. Uncertain whether she was merely imagining his feelings, she smiled bravely at him. "I was merely going for some wine, sir," she prevaricated. "I have every faith you'll", she groped for the right term "you'll come about!" she declared, recalling Robert's occasional gambling cant. A servant heard her and rushed forward to hand her a glass of wine, and Elizabeth remained standing at Ian Thornton's elbow.

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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