Thirty-One: Whist and Wagers


In the previous chapter of Tabitha’s Folly, the footman takes Tabitha on a tour through the hidden servant walkways on the estate, in search of the famous ghost. Then Henry and Tabitha enjoyed church services together with all the Easton brothers.


Tabitha and Henry lingered after the church services, her hand ensconced in his. Light from the stained glass windows cast an array of colors across the faces of her brothers. They stood, and Henry squeezed her fingers. He seemed to have a question in his eyes, indicating her hand. She gave a small nod and his grin twisted her insides in happy swirls. But a part of her wondered how her brothers would react, and she didn’t know what to say to explain their intertwining fingers. She wasn’t ready to express her deep rooted love for him any more than she could predict or express how Henry felt about any of his new behavior. Did she really want her brothers to see the new hand holding, and bring everything out in the open?

As they moved into the aisle, Edward stopped at their front. “Will we have a hunt at the house party, do you think?” His voice sounded unnaturally gruff, and his eyes moved from their clasped hands up to Henry’s face.

She stiffened then regretted her reaction when Henry glanced at her then dropped her hand.

Disappointed, and worried she had given the wrong impression to Henry, she brought her now cold fingers together at her front. “I’d just as soon go fishing.” She said, with eyes only for Henry, but he and Edward were locked in some kind of silent conversation.

Oscar glanced between the two and said, “You won’t be fishing here, Tabby. I think the women will have other activities.”

She didn’t answer.

Something at the back of the chapel caught Henry’s eye and all of his attention. He excused himself without even a glance in her direction.

***

Henry made his way down the aisle, an urgency in his steps. If Lord Timothy Felling was here, something with the Whig efforts had changed.

“Lord Felling.” He bowed. “And Lady Emily, Lady Summers.”

He knew them to be childhood friends.

They giggled and curtseyed, eyes wandering over him in a manner that made him uncomfortable.

Nathaniel’s face broke into a relieved grin. “Good to see you man.”

“Are you here for the house party?”

“We may encroach upon the countess’ hospitality for a night or two, but we are passing through on the way to visit Lady Emily’s’ family in the north countries.”

Emily bat her eyelashes at them both. “I was so grateful to Lord Felling. When father knew he was coming, we were all so much more at ease.”

Henry smiled at her. “Then the party just became that much more interesting.” Though inwardly his frustration grew. He wished for an opportunity to speak with Felling, and the ladies seemed determined to stay at their side.

Unaware, Lady Emily rested her hand on his forearm, pouting her lips. “I would have worked to acquire an invitation had I known you would be here, Lord Courteney.”

“Hm.” He cleared his throat. “Oh, well, thank you.”

“Excuse us a moment, if you will?” The men nodded their heads in a small bow, then Felling pulled him aside, and spoke in undertones while the ladies waited a short distance away. “Billiards later. I have some information that must be passed along.”

Henry nodded. He assumed as much. This rally was nothing short of monumental to organize. “Any concern?”

“We have to move up the schedule, and there have been reports of others who would work against us.”

“Yes, seems many of the servant class have joined up in hopes to better their positions. Bitter people, usually, fed by his lies and promises.”

“There are better ways.” Henry knew change was important. Those who sought to use violence discredited the rest of them.

Felling searched the emptying church. “Be aware of anything suspicious. I worry about our new rally.”

Henry indicated the ladies who waited for them by the door.

Felling groaned. “They give me no moments of peace. I was the subject of a few fliers, parodies, and now it seems all women think I welcome their attention.”

Henry smirked at the irony. “Don’t you? You have always sought feminine attention.”

Felling shook his head in frustration. “You will not understand the relief I felt when Lady Emily clutched onto your arm as she did just now.”

Sympathy for his friend filled him. He knew Felling must still escort them all the way to the north countries, no doubt spreading word as he went.

They joined back up with the two ladies and as everyone filed out of the church, Henry felt eyes on him. When he turned, Tabitha’s back moved away, and he regretted his quick departure from her, wished it were her hand on his arm. A conversation with Edward was in order, but he didn’t know Tabitha’s feelings. Could he speak for her? Did he wish to alter his relationship to the family prematurely? Questions to answer as soon as he addressed Lord Halloway’s concerns.

***

The room, inviting, the fire crackling behind her, tables for cards were set up and many gathered to make the most of that entertainment. Tabitha sorted the cards in her hands and frowned. The warmth that tingled through her fingers yesterday from holding Henry’s hand at church had doused the minute the meeting ended.

A sliver of worry lodged itself at the memory of the two ladies with Lord Halloway. A worry that needled and prodded even now as she sat playing Whist the next day.

All day Miss Greystock had paired Tabitha with Sir James. They were partners in all manner of games or eating companions, or on walks through the garden. But in Whist, Miss Greystock’s plans had backfired for Henry had joined them and Miss Greystock herself was needed to even out their numbers to a foursome.

Tabitha was determined to win. To squelch the confusion Henry caused. To get back at him for destroying her peace. To lessen the agony of loving someone for years who did not return your love–thinking for a moment on their brief hand holding–or who might but was never blessedly clear about it.

It was just Whist. But for her, it was so much more.

Sir James was the perfect companion for winning and seemed to pick up on her sudden competitiveness. His eyebrows wiggled twice. And she knew victory would be theirs.

A group gathered around them. Sir James sat opposite Tabitha and she silently urged him to read her mind.

Henry’s turn was next. He sat to her left and raised his eyebrow in challenge. “This, Miss Greystock. This one is for you.” He played the queen of hearts.

Sir James stiffened.

Miss Greystock’s eyes opened wide and then lit, a secretive smile curling one side of her mouth. She nodded.

And Tabitha wanted to win even more. Her fierce glare at Sir James likely startled him.

But he calmly placed his card with eyes only for Miss Greystock. The king of hearts.

Yes! Tabitha gathered the cards and tried to keep her expression pleasant, not smug. “We have won. Well done, Sir James. Thank you for saving that final card. It’s as if you read my mind.”

Miss Greystock sat up straighter in her seat, a slight wrinkle on her brow, and then cleared her expression.

“Not your mind, Miss Easton, but your expression was quite helpful. Miss Greystock, do you remember playing that evening at the Raleigh’s?”

Miss Greystock colored slightly, then cleared her throat. “Yes, I do. Your Whist playing abilities were highly sought after that evening if I recall.”

Henry leaned forward. “Good win, you two. Now we have a tie.” He winked at Tabitha. “Well played, Miss Easton. But I don’t believe you can replicate that again.”

Sir James returned his cards to Henry. “If we are determined we shall conquer. I have discovered such a motto to succeed in other areas as well” His eyes flit to Miss Greystock enough times for Tabitha to recognize his most desired conquest. What a delightful pair they would make.

Henry dealt out the cards, and Oscar came to stand behind Tabitha.

She waved him away. “I don’t need you hovering about, making me nervous.”

“I thought I could advise…”

Henry held up his finger. “Oh no, Oscar. This is between Miss Easton and I.” The others at the table turned to stare. “And Miss Greystock and Sir James, of course.”

Tabitha laughed. “Lord Courteney, I always beat you at cards.”

“Ho Ho! I detect a challenge.” He placed a hand on Tabitha’s, resting on the table.

Shivers raced up her arm.

His face earnest, he leaned closer. “Are you determined to best us?”

She swallowed, the weight of his hand on hers more distracting than she ever thought a hand could be.

He winked at Miss Greystock. “Can they manage it, do you think?”

Miss Greystock spared a glance at Sir James then looked away. “I have found with some conquests, it is more the will of the opponent than your own that determines a win.” She raised one eyebrow wickedly. “And we are not ones to lie down in surrender.”

Henry turned back to Tabitha and the brilliance in his eyes stole her breath. “There, you see. Miss Greystock and I will have to disagree with you.” As he passed out the remaining cards, his eyes sparked with challenge.

Tabitha’s heart soared. His grin almost making her give in to whatever he wished in this match. But she cleared her throat. “I believe Sir James and I are the two who would have to disagree. We have turned out to be quite the pair.” She looked pointedly at Miss Greystock. “So often together today.”

Sir James coughed and Miss Greystock tried to hide her smile.

Henry lifted one corner of his mouth. His expression turned devilish. “Shall we place a wager then?”

A gasp from behind Sir James surprised Tabitha. Miss Fairchild held one hand over her mouth and whispered something to Miss Standish.

Several others from the group had come to watch.

But shocking or no, Tabitha inwardly thrilled at his challenge, and she felt as if they were at home, and Henry and she played with her brothers. She teased. “Challenge accepted. What are the stakes?”

Oscar chuckled, but uneasy murmurs moved through the others standing around them.

Henry tapped his cards, studying. “If you win, we have a dance after cards. “ He turned to look at the Countess. “With your permission, naturally Lady Du’Breven.”

She had come to sit in a comfortable chair by the fire. “I feel a dance would be just the thing. It’s time you young people move about the room and entertain the rest of us as you are bound to do.”

“Outstanding! Then here it is. If you win, Miss Easton, you and Sir James open the dance as partners.”

Her heart stuttered. Did Henry not wish to dance with her? She worked to keep her mouth from turning down at the corners and her voice steady. “And if we lose?”

“If you lose, then you dance with the winners.” He paused and looked into her eyes, something in his she had never seen before, an intensity she wanted to lose herself in. “A waltz.”

She struggled to hide her delight. The thought of being held in Henry’s arms thrilled her.

He must win. She searched her cards. But they were excellent. For the first time ever she wished to lose at Whist.

Sir James winked. Oh no! What could he mean by the wink? She wished she understood him. Wished she could communicate how very important it would be for them to lose.

They played for several hands, each pair winning an equal amount. An unexpected tension had come over them all. Henry frowned and considered his hand longer than usual. Miss Greystock appeared uncommonly nervous, a line of perspiration across her forehead.

And Sir James. Conflicted was the best description she could imagine for him.

They had two more tricks left, but one that mattered.

She cleared her throat and searched Sir James’ face.

But he gave her a slight nod that all was in order. She certainly hoped not. She lead with only an average card, which meant Sir James would be able to win or throw the trick, depending on what he had in his hand. Then Henry played a trump, a queen no less. Sir James was next, and Tabitha knew the King, the Ace, as well as the Jack were still in someone’s hand. So it all hinged on who had which. Sir James or Miss Greystock.

Sir James and Miss Greystock shared a look, and energy coursed between them. Without breaking their gaze, Sir James reached into his hand and tossed his card, one of two, onto the table.

The Jack stared back, winking, and Tabitha grinned. All eyes waited for Miss Greystock’s card.

She swallowed twice, visibly, and her cheeks flushed while she slowly reached into her hand, turning over the King.

Henry rose and clapped. “Hurrah! Miss Greystock, good show!”

Tabitha forgot to look appropriately disappointed in their loss and she jumped up. “Oh congratulations to you both!” And she wished to say “good show” to Sir James as well. But her words stuck in her throat as the Ace fell to the table under his hand. He winked at Miss Greystock whose expression was unreadable, but the glow of pink on her cheeks spoke for her.

Henry collected the cards. “So a waltz it is, then?” His eyes held hope, a touch of boyish excitement.

She held out her hand. “I look forward to it.” Then she moved her feet into the one, two, three pattern. “We can practice those steps the dance master drilled into us.”

He pulled her closer. “This time.” He ran a finger along her chin. “This time. I won’t be practicing to dance with others. This time it will be for you.”

She swallowed and nodded. Oh why could she think of nothing to say! She desperately hoped not to dissuade him, hoped he would continue in these new attentions.

Somehow in the few minutes they were distracted, Miss Greystock and the footmen had rolled back carpets and a young lady or two had been engaged to take turns at the piano. A classic German waltz filled the room while couples paired off.

They moved to the center of the floor. Henry held her hand out to their side, and the very manner in which he encompassed her fingers in his own, the protective, gentle care, created such a yearning inside she wished to never leave his embrace.

The music began. He led them in a small circle, the slight pressure moving her forward or back, their feet counting out the beats of three without much thought. Just as she dreamed would happen, the others in the room faded, and the world quieted to two. His gaze never left her own. She stared into his depths, silently asking, ‘can this be real?’ His attention continued. The same Henry she had always known and yet, a deference she had never recognized returned her intensity and searched her soul, his gaze wandering her face, drinking her in. When someone opened the outside doors, he led her through them, swirling and moving faster until she felt as if they flew, her feet barely touching the floor. With the night stars above, they moved swiftly, and took larger steps, spinning and laughing.

Breathless, she said. “Henry, you are a better dancer than the last time we tried.”

“Have I improved, from my thirteen-year-old bumbling self, I hope?”

“Even from my coming out, if you remember.” She doubted it had been an important part of his evening at the time, but the memory of it had not left her.

He slowed their pace for a moment. “You are correct, of course. We did dance at your coming out, didn’t we?” He tipped his head to the side. “I don’t think I’ve ever known what to do about our worlds colliding once you left your leading strings.”

“Leading strings? Really, Henry.”

“Fair enough. But what I mean is, it’s taken me this long to see you in a different way.”

Her heart picked up and hope filled her to the point of stealing her speech. She waited. Silently urging him to keep talking.

When he didn’t continue, she choked out, “Different?”

He stopped, and closed the small space between them. “I know you are unchanged. I am the Henry I have always been to you. But I am finally seeing.” He paused and ran a thumb down the side of her face.

She leaned into his touch and closed her eyes.

His silence lingered so she opened her eyes again. His held questions mingled with a spark of joy.

A small grin growing, he stammered, “Could you feel it also, is it possible…could you welcome…”

She grasped his hands in her own, tipping her chin so that she was as close as she could stand. His earthy musk filled the air around them. He studied her face, his eyes moving to her lips before he swallowed and returned to her eyes.

“What’s this?” Edward stepped out onto the verandah.

Other couples circled around in the space to their front. They were by no means alone. But Edward’s tone cut with disapproval.

Tabitha would have backed away, but Henry resisted, holding her hand to keep her close.

Confused, she searched his face. He had such a look of determination. She swallowed, nervous about what he would say as well as hopeful he would say something that would indicate his feelings.

“Edward, this is something, possibly, new, between us?” He searched her face again, a question in his eyes, but she didn’t know what to say, how to respond. Dare she admit the intensity and duration of her feelings? In that moment, with her older brother frowning on the whole scene? Henry’s eyes dimmed with disappointment. And Tabitha longed to say something, do anything to bring back the precious intensity.

Edward’s eyes narrowed, only slightly. “Tabby?”

She wanted to scream at the injustice of what they asked of her. How could she be the one to define this new thing between them, when she herself didn’t know what it was. Who knew how sincere Henry was in his changed manner. How foolish she would feel if she confessed her love and then discovered his attentions to be short lived or shallow. “I’m sure I don’t know what to say, actually.” She had too much to reveal and too much to lose.

Henry stiffened and stepped back, his expression more guarded. Then he cleared his throat. “She wanted to practice the waltz. Better me than any of the others. We made a wager.”

Edward watched Henry’s expression above her head, and it must have been satisfying because he nodded. “Thank you, Henry. Even with all of us here, we still need you.”

“I’m happy to help. She’s been trailing after us all these years.” He shrugged.

Tabitha pulled away, shaken, hurt. How could he toy with her so?

His eyes held a question, confusion, embarrassment.

Then the footman, her friend, approached with a tray. He dipped his head and offered them each a drink.

She almost shook her head to wave him away, but his eyes held such compassion that she paused and took comfort in them. Then she nodded, sipped lemonade and turned away, hoping to return to her room as quickly as she dared.

 

Published by

jengeiglejohnson

An award winning author and mother of six. Check out my news and published historical romances. http://www.jengeiglejohnson.com Whether in Regency England, the French Revolution, or Colonial America, her romance novels are much like life is supposed to be: full of adventure. She is a member of the RWA, the SCBWI, and LDStorymakers. She is also the chair of the Lonestar.Ink writing conference. https://www.jengeiglejohnson.com Twitter—@authorjen Instagram—@authorlyjen https://www.facebook.com/AuthorJenGeigleJohnson/

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