The serving wenches load our table with ale, obliging us to stay a while. It would be rude to refuse, and so we amuse ourselves until nightfall with drink and a friendly game of cards. We do not play for money but for favors. Rarely does anyone collect on them. If we did, Firmin would be my slave for the rest of his life, and I would have to clean out Louis’ stables for a year.
The men may know their tricks, but it would take a stronger man than any of us to keep his focus against the wiles of our womenfolk.
My hand is good, and with a little playacting I can convince the others that it is even better. I am preparing to do so when Honorine says, “I want to raise the wager.” Just the way she says this has all of us rapt on her. She smiles and traces the neckline of her low cut gown. “I wish to wager my virginity.”
The rest of the ladies fold, whispering their jokes behind raised hands, casting wicked looks at us men. Six of us against Honorine now. It is obvious she doesn’t intend to win. Adrien winces and pointedly places his cards on the table face down. “Gentlemen, good luck.”
Honorine narrows her eyes at him but doesn’t comment.
Firmin loses the next hand and is disqualified. Louis and Edgard beat out Gaspard and my hand takes out Louis. Honorine is still in the game. The next hand I am dealt is shite. Which is not to say I cannot win, only that it will take considerable effort. Edgard is sweating and Honorine is looking at me the way I’ve seen her covet a pastry she cannot have.
If I bluff, I can eliminate Edgard and play Honorine alone. The question is whether the prize would be worth the effort. And, should the unlikely happen and I lose, what will she demand as her due? The thought of putting the little trouble maker in her place is tempting enough that, for a moment, I contemplate making a real play for her. It only lasts for that moment. As enjoyable as it would be to knock Mademoiselle Saintly off her pedestal, I can already see resentment on the faces of the others. She will never acquiesce to anything less than an honest tryst and no sooner than on her wedding day. This is all a ploy to get us riled and sic us against each other.
A woman was never worth the price of friendship.
I play perhaps the first honest game of my life. No tricks, no cheats. I play the hand I was given, knowing I will lose. Edgard’s hand takes the game and I am out. I feign disappointment and remove myself to the bar for a stronger drink while they finish the final round.
Adeline follows me. “He is a fool,” she says. “I am glad you let him win.”
“You presume me immune to Honorine’s charms?”
“I know you to be.” Her fingers travel over my arm. “Innocence was never a lure for you, not even m-mine.”
Adeline was an innocent the first time she rode alone through the night, slipped into my castle and beneath my bed sheets. Innocent in body, perhaps, but in no other way. I was the one seduced. The reminder makes me chuckle. I take her fingers in my hand. “I’ve always wondered just how innocent you really were,” I say. “And what precisely did you tell Honorine about that night to make her stoop to this?”
Surprise, guilt, and finally hurt flash in her lovely eyes. She masks them quickly with an easy smile. “A right p-p-proper bastard you are. It is your good fortune that you are this handsome; otherwise, no one would be able to t-tolerate you at all.”
I salute her with my glass. “But you did not contradict me.”
A cheer goes up when Edgard wins. We both turn to watch everyone congratulate him while Honorine sits quietly possessed with her hands in her lap. Not surprisingly, the moment the rowdy group quiets, Honorine demurs and begs release from her wager.
Bastards we may be, but beasts we are not. Faced with a lady’s—and I use the term lightly—distress, Edgard relents.
Honorine smiles with relief and gratitude. She has no notion of what enemies she just made of all of us.