“Yes, Lord Irving, I accept your challenge,” Dinah replied, turning her head back and looking to Lord Irving.
He chuckled darkly and lifted one eyebrow. “Very good. And what shall the game be, Miss Shepherd?”
Glancing at Titania and seeing her nod, Dinah let out a long breath. “Faro,” she said firmly. “The game shall be faro.”
“Very good,” Lord Irving cheered. “Come then, let us sit down, Miss Shepherd, so that our game can begin!”
Grayson had taken the beating without any attempt to defend himself. A punch to his stomach had forced him to double over, only for something hard to hit him across the side of the head. As he had lain there, trying to recover himself, a sharp boot had bit into his stomach whilst another had kicked him hard in the back – and Grayson had lost himself to unconsciousness.
Now, however, he was fully awake although it felt as though he had woken up in a dream. Dinah was sitting opposite Lord Irving at a small square table with the felt layout ready and prepared for them, with another gentleman being ushered over to play the part of dealer. His heart was in his throat as he drew near to them, aching with fright and agony over what might occur next.
To lose her, to have her forced to marry Lord Irving, was a fate that Grayson could not even bear to consider. And yet, she had done so willingly, had entered into an agreement with Lord Irving that would, somehow, save him from his debts should she manage to win. If she lost, then the debt would be gone from him too, for Lord Irving would take Dinah’s money as forfeit – along with her hand in marriage. Grayson could not even think of what such a marriage would be like, fearing that Dinah would become a shadow of what she was at present, for Lord Irving would not treat her with any consideration nor kindness.
“Have courage,” Titania whispered, coming closer to him and wrapping one arm about his waist. “She has just as good a chance as any other to win.”
Grayson shook his head. “It may be a game of chance, but there is still some skill involved.”
“And she and I did nothing but play Faro in between her overhearing your conversation with Lord Irving and our departure to this place,” Titania told him, surprising him somewhat. “Besides which, we have also agreed upon a small system that may aid her still further.” A slightly guilty look came into her eyes as she glanced up at Grayson, making his brows furrow low.
“What is it that you have agreed upon, Titania?” he asked, as the gentlemen gathered around Dinah and Lord Irving. “What is it? Tell me, so that I might be of aid also?” He had promised Dinah never to gamble again, but he would not consider this situation to be one where he would have to keep such a vow. “I want to do all I can to help her.”
Titania lifted one shoulder. “It is a mere suggestion of what she ought to wager,” she explained. “If I have one finger showing, then that should be a Flat bet.” She pressed her hand to her heart with only one finger extended – something that everyone else would miss given that their attention would be on the table. “Two fingers are a Split. Three mean the High Card bet. Four, the Odd or Even bet, and a full hand means a Turn.” She shrugged. “I cannot tell whether or not such a thing will make any difference, but it does mean that she is not there alone, struggling over what she ought to do next.” A slight flush came to Titania’s cheeks. “Although there is a little cheating involved, I will admit.”
“No more than Lord Irving himself has shown already,” Grayson grated, feeling a small hope begin to flicker in his chest. This was a way for him to support, to help Dinah when he was unable to do anything else.
“You will aid her then?” Titania asked softly, as Lord Irving gestured for the dealer to begin. “What is your usual strategy?”
Grayson bit his lip before answering, ignoring the thundering pain in his head. “I would suggest to make only two types of bets. Flat bets when there are only two cards of a given rank left in the deck, given the probability.” He shrugged. “Case bets when there is a disadvantage to the dealer.” He narrowed his eyes as the dealer was handed a small, spring box, where the deck of cards was placed. “Although we must make certain that Lord Irving himself has not decided that he himself will also attempt to win by any means necessary.”
Titania’s eyes flared but her mouth pulled tight. “Indeed, I had not thought of such a thing, although I ought to have done,” she replied, linking arms with him so that they might walk across together. “What shall you do?”
He swallowed hard, feeling the urge to help Dinah in every way he could but still wanting to keep a sharp eye on the dealer and on Lord Irving. “You do as you have agreed with Dinah,” he told his sister, seeing her nod. “If I disagree with you then I shall make that known. However, if everything is as it ought to be, then I shall simply continue to watch the dealer and Lord Irving.” He kept his gaze trained on the small box and the dealer’s hands as they drew near the table. “Faro may be a game of chance, but there is still opportunity to cheat.”
Pushing their way through what was now a tightly packed crowd, Grayson and Titania managed to come to the edge of the table to Dinah’s left, with the dealer facing them. Looking down at Dinah, Grayson’s heart began to pound with a hint of fear and a good deal of longing. She was beautiful still, even though her face was a good deal paler than before and her anxiety more than a little apparent. Her hands were shaking just a little as she held Lord Irving’s gaze, although her determination remained more than apparent. Grayson did not think that he had ever seen her more wonderful than she was at this given moment. Her quiet strength astonished him, captured his heart more than ever before. What she had done for him, what she had been willing to give up…it was more than he ever felt he deserved. And yet, she had done so without hesitation, coming here and standing before all of the gentlemen within with the determination to save him from the punishment that would have come by Lord Irving’s hands.
“Are you quite certain of this, Miss Shepherd?” Lord Irving asked, as he gazed, mockingly, at Dinah, his lip curling into a sneer. “You have one last opportunity to turn away from it, my dear. I offer it to you now.”
Dinah merely smiled, although her eyes remained cold.
Lord Irving shrugged, laughing softly. “Very well,” he answered, spreading his hand out towards the dealer. “Then let us begin.”
Grayson’s heart began to pound furiously as the game began in earnest. He did not want to distract Dinah but could not take his eyes from her. Much to his surprise, she did not even glance towards Titania, not for a single moment. The bets were cast and the game began in earnest, with Dinah’s chin lifted and a fierce determination in her eyes as she continued to play against the one gentleman who had both her own fate and that of Grayson in his hand.
“She is doing this alone,” he muttered, as Titania drew near. “She is not looking to you.”
Titania shook her head, grimly. “No, she is not,” she agreed. “Mayhap she has decided that she must play with every ounce of honesty she possesses. You know as well as I that her heart is always seeking to do what is right, Whitehaven. Perhaps that extends even to this.”
He wanted to groan aloud as Dinah lost yet another bet. She did not look broken nor distraught, however, but rather continued the game with poise and quietness, not giving any appearance of anxiety.
“She is not winning, however,” he muttered, as Lord Irving chuckled aloud. “What are we to do, Titania?”
Titania swallowed and looked away, glancing around the crowd. “I do not know,” she replied, sounding a little hopeless. “If only she would look up, we might be able to help her in some way.”
Grayson nodded jerkily, his eyes narrowing as he caught sight of the dealer throwing a quick glance towards Lord Irving. Lord Irving gave the tiniest of nods, which Grayson would not have seen unless he had been watching the gentleman closely. Seeing it, however, his breath caught in his chest. Lord Irving was the one cheating it seemed, although he could not be quite certain as to how the fellow was doing it. One look towards the dealer and the box sent a flurry of suspicion into Grayson’s heart. The dealer, mayhap, was working with Lord Irving to ensure that he won. The dealer’s box could easily be manipulated. Grayson had seen it happen before – not that he himself had ever engaged in such a thing himself. The dealer’s box might discreetly reveal what cards were soon to be coming up so that any bets that would allow Dinah to win could be discarded without either she or Lord Irving seeing. The dealer would be good with his hands and well-practiced in working the cards. It would be easy to ensure that any card with a winning bet from Dinah was hidden back amongst the back, were the dealer box made in such a way to allow him to do so.