Their hostess swept into the card room at that moment, and bent a reproving look on all the occupants of the card table. Then she turned to Ian, smiling gorgeously at him despite the severity of her words. "Now really, Thorn, this has gone on too long. Do finish your play and rejoin us in the ballroom." As if it took an effort, she dragged her gaze from him and looked at the other men around the table. "Gentlemen," she warned laughingly, "I shall cut off your supply of cigars and brandy in twenty minutes." Several of the spectators followed her out, either from guilt at having neglected their roles as courteous guests or from boredom at watching Ian lose everything.

"I've had enough cards for one night," the Duke of Hammund announced.

"So have I," another echoed.

"One more game," Lord Everly insisted. "Thornton still has some of my money, and I aim to win it back on the next hand."

The men at the table exchanged resigned glances, then the duke nodded agreement. "All right, Everly, one more game and then we return to the ballroom."

"No limit on the stakes, since it's the last game?" asked Lord Everly eagerly. All the men nodded as if assent were natural, and Ian dealt the first round of cards to each player.

The opening bet was 1,000 pounds. During the next five minutes the amount represented by the pile of chips in the center escalated to 25,000 pounds. One by one the remaining players dropped out until only Lord Everly and Ian were left, and only one card remained to be dealt after the wagers were placed, Silence stretched taut in the room, and Elizabeth nervously clasped and unclasped her hands as Lord Everly picked up his fourth card.

He looked at it, then at Ian, and Elizabeth saw the triumph gleaming in the young man's eyes. Her heart sank to her stomach as he said, "Thornton, this card will cost you 10,000 pounds if you want to stay in the game long enough to see it."

Elizabeth felt a strong urge to throttle the wealthy young lord and an equally strong urge to kick Ian Thornton in his shin, which was within reach of her toe beneath the table, when he took the bet and raised it by 5,000 pounds!

She could not believe Ian's lack of perception; even she could tell from Everly's face that he had an unbeatable hand! Unable to endure it another moment, she glanced at the spectators gathered around the table who were watching Everly to see if he took the bet, then she picked up her skirts to leave, Her slight movement seemed to pull Ian's attention from his opponent, and for the third time that night be looked up at her-and for the second time his gaze checked her. As Elizabeth looked at him in taut misery, he very slightly, almost imperceptibly turned his cards so she could see them.

He was holding four tens. Relief soared through her, followed instantly by terror that her face would betray her emotions. Turning swiftly, she almost knocked poor Lord Howard over in her haste to leave the immediate area of the table. "I need a moment of air," she told him, and he was so engrossed in waiting to see if Everly would match Ian's bet that he nodded and let her move away without protest. Elizabeth realized that in showing her his hand to relieve her fear, Ian had taken the risk that she would do or say something foolish that would give him away, and she couldn't think why he would have done that for her. Except that, as she'd stood beside him, she'd known somehow that he was as aware of her presence as she was of his, and that he rather liked having her stand at his side.

Now that she'd made good her escape, however, Elizabeth couldn't decide how to cover her hasty retreat and still remain in the card room, so she wandered over to a painting depicting a hunting scene and studied it with feigned fascination.

"It's your bet, Everly," she heard Ian prod.

Lord Everly's answer made Elizabeth tremble: "twenty-five thousand pounds," he drawled.

"Don't be a fool!" the duke told him. "That's too much to wager on one hand, even for you."

Certain now that she had her facial expression under control, Elizabeth wandered back to the table.

"I can afford it," Everly reminded them all smoothly. "What concerns me, Thornton, is whether or not you can cover your bet when you lose."

Elizabeth flinched as if the insult had been hurled at her, but Ian merely leaned back in his chair and regarded Everly in steady, glacial silence. After a long, tense moment he said in a dangerously soft voice, "I can afford to raise you another 10,000 pounds."

"You don't have another 10,000 pounds to your cursed name," Everly spat, "and I'm not putting up my money against a worthless chit signed by you!"

"Enough!" snapped the Duke of Hammund. "You go too far, Everly. I'll vouch for his credit. Now take the bet or fold."

Everly glowered furiously at Hammund and then nodded at Ian with contempt. "Ten thousand more it is. Now let's see what you're holding!"

Wordlessly Ian turned his hand palm up, and the cards spilled gracefully onto the table in a perfect fan of four tens.

Everly exploded from his chair. "You miserable cheat! I saw you deal that last card from the bottom of the deck. I knew it, but I refused to believe my own eyes."

A babble of conversation rumbled through the room at this unforgivable insult, but with the exception of the muscle that leapt in Ian's taut jaw, his expression didn't change.

"Name your seconds, you bastard!" Everly hissed, leaning his balled fists on the table and glowering his rage at Ian.

"Under the circumstances," Ian replied in a bored, icy drawl, "I believe I am the one with the right to decide if I want satisfaction."

"Don't be an ass, Everly!" someone hissed. "He'll drop you like a fly." Elizabeth scarcely heard that; all she knew was that there was going to be a duel when there shouldn't be.

"This is all a terrible mistake!" she burst out, and a roomful of annoyed, incredulous male faces turned toward her. "Mr. Thornton did not cheat," she explained quickly. "He was holding all four of those tens before he drew the last card I stole a look at them when I was about to leave a few minutes ago, and I saw them in his hand."

To her surprise, no one showed any sign of believing her or of even caring what she said, including Lord Everly, who slapped his hand on the table and bit out, "Damn you, I've called you a cheat. Now I call you a co-"

"For heaven's sake!" Elizabeth cried, cutting off the word "coward," which she knew would force any man of honor into a duel. "Didn't any of you understand what I said?" she implored, rounding on the men standing about, thinking that since they were uninvolved, they would see reason more quickly than Lord Everly. "I just said Mr. Thornton was already holding all four tens and -"

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance