The Trouble with HonorBy: Julia London
THE TROUBLE BEGAN in the spring of 1812, in a gaming hell south of the Thames, a seedy bit of Southwark known to be thick with thieves.
It was beyond comprehension how the old structure, originally built in the time of the Vikings, had become one of the most fashionable places for gentlemen of the Quality to be, but indeed it had. The interior was sumptuous, with thick red velvet draperies, rich wood and low ceilings. Night after night, they came from their stately Mayfair homes in heavily armed coaches to spend an evening losing outrageous sums of money to one another. And when a gentleman had lost his allotted amount for the evening, he might enjoy the company of a lightskirt, as there were ample private rooms and French women to choose from.
On a bitterly cold night, a month before the start of the social Season—when, inevitably, the gentlemen would eschew this gaming hell for the Mayfair assembly rooms and balls that had become a spring rite for the wealthy and privileged—a group of young Corinthians were persuaded by the smiles and pretty pleas of five debutantes to have a look at this gaming hell.
It was dangerous and foolish for the young men to risk forever marring the reputations of such precious flowers. But young, brash and full of piss, they’d been eager to please. They did not allow the hell’s rule of no women to deter them, or that any number of mishaps or crimes could befall the young women in the course of their lark. It was a bit of adventure in the middle of a gloomy winter.
It was in that Southwark gaming hell where George Easton first made the acquaintance of one of those debutantes: Miss Honor Cabot.
He hadn’t noticed the commotion at the door when the young bucks had arrived with their prizes, flush with the excitement of their daring and overly proud for having convinced the man at the door to give them entry. George had been too intent on divesting thirty pounds from Mr. Charles Rutherford, a notorious gambler, in the course of a game of Commerce. He didn’t realize anything was amiss until Rutherford said, “What the devil?”
It was then that he noticed the young women standing like so many birds, fluttering and preening in the middle of the room, their hooded cloaks framing their lovely faces, their giggles infecting one another while their gazes darted between the many men who eyed them like a paddock full of fine horses.
“Bloody hell,” George muttered. He threw down his cards as Rutherford stood, the poor lass in his lap stumbling as she tried to stop herself from being dumped onto the floor.
“What in blazes are they doing here?” Rutherford demanded. He squinted at the group of them. “Bloody unconscionable, it is. See here!” he rumbled loudly. “This is not to be borne! Those girls should be removed at once!”
The three young gentlemen who had undertaken this adventure looked at one another. The smallest one lifted his chin. “They’ve as much right to be present as you, sir.”
George could see from Mr. Rutherford’s complexion that he was in danger of apoplexy, and he said, quite casually, “Then, for God’s sake, have them sit and play. Otherwise, they’re a distraction to the gentlemen here.”
“Play?” Rutherford said, his eyes all but bulging from their sockets. “They are not fit to play!”
“I am,” said one lone feminine voice.
Ho there, which of them dared to speak? George leaned around Rutherford to have a look, but the birds were fluttering and moving, and he couldn’t see which of them had said it.
“Who said that?” Rutherford demanded loudly enough that the gentlemen seated at the tables around them paused in their games to see what was the commotion.
None of the young ladies moved; they stared wide-eyed at the banker. Just as it seemed Rutherford would begin a rant, one of them shyly stepped forward. A ripple went through the crowd as the lass looked at Rutherford and then at George. He was startled by the deep blue of her eyes and her dark lashes, the inky black of her hair framing a face as pale as milk. One did not expect to see such youthful beauty here.
“Miss Cabot?” Rutherford said incredulously. “What in blazes are you doing here?”
She curtsied as if she were standing in the middle of a ballroom and clasped her gloved hands before her. “My friends and I have come to see for ourselves where it is that all the gentlemen keep disappearing to.”
Chuckles ran through the crowd. Rutherford looked alarmed, as if he were somehow responsible for this breach of etiquette. “Miss Cabot...this is no place for a virtuous young lady.”
One of the birds behind her fluttered and whispered at her, but Miss Cabot seemed not to notice. “Pardon, sir, but I don’t understand how a place can be quite all right for a virtuous man, yet not for a virtuous woman.”
George couldn’t help but laugh. “Perhaps because there is no such thing as a virtuous man.”
Those startlingly blue eyes settled on George once more, and he felt a strange little flicker in his chest. Her gaze dipped to the cards. “Commerce?” she asked.
“Yes,” George said, impressed that she recognized it. “If you desire to play, miss, then bloody well do it.”
Now all the blood had drained from Rutherford’s face, and George was somewhat amused that he looked close to fainting. “No,” Rutherford said, shaking his head and holding up a hand to her. “I beg your pardon, Miss Cabot, but I cannot abet you in this folly. You must go home at once.”
Miss Cabot looked disappointed.
“Then I’ll do it,” George said and, with his boot, kicked out a chair at his table. Another murmur shot through the crowd, and the tight group of little birds began to flutter again, the bottoms of their cloaks swirling about the floor as they twisted and turned to whisper at each other. “Whom do I have the pleasure of abetting?” he asked.
“Miss Cabot,” she said. “Of Beckington House.”
The Earl of Beckington’s daughter, was she? Did she say that to impress him? Because it didn’t. George shrugged. “George Easton. From Easton House.”
The girls behind her giggled, but Miss Cabot did not. She smiled prettily at him. “A pleasure, Mr. Easton.”
George supposed she’d learned to smile like that very early on in life in order to have what she liked. She was, he thought, a remarkably attractive woman. “These are not parlor games, miss. Have you any coin?”