Post from Cela Winter…
“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”
That’s one of my all-time favorite quotes—from the great actor Katherine Hepburn, who lived a robust and passionate life, all on her own terms. It’s the philosophy that informed my heroine, Gemma Delaney, in Queen High.
Broken rules, a little scheming, a little misdirection, a few preconceptions dashed—it all makes the payoff that much sweeter. Because after all, why should men have all the fun?
Contest: This story, Queen High was inspired, in part, by the classic movie, A Big Hand for the Little Lady (which has a wonderful collection of rogues!) Leave a comment with your favorite movie rogue (spy, soldier-of-fortune, thief-for-hire?) –and why. You could win a signed print copy (your choice) of one of my other anthologies.
On board the Mississippi Belle, a gentleman-turned-cardsharp and a strong-minded widow set the stakes high in a game where winner takes all.
… Royce strolled away, his mind hard at work. His air, as always, was one of nonchalance. What a perplexing and extraordinary opponent. While many men claimed that all women were creatures of mystery, he generally found them to be easily read and thereby easily manipulated.
Not so with the charming Mrs. Delaney.
A dainty veneer over a core of steel, he reckoned. And unless he was greatly mistaken, which seldom happened, a woman of great passion. He wondered if she knew— society conspired to distance proper ladies from the pleasures of the flesh. He would make it his business, his very gratifying business, to introduce Mrs. Delaney to her own sensual nature.
He found her at the aft end of the Texas deck, staring into the waters below. An occasional light on the bank appeared to drift by as the Belle churned her way upriver.
“Mrs. Delaney, just the person I hoped to meet.” She was smaller than he thought. He quelled an uncharacteristic surge of protective feeling.
“Mr. Prescott.” The alto voice was cool, but she did not move away.
“Should you be here, by yourself, in the dark, ma’am? Riverboats abound with all sorts of riffraff and rascals.”
“I’m able to take care of myself, sir. Perhaps it is you I should be warned against?”
They laughed together. She had no idea how close she was to the truth, he thought. The mental image of her naked beneath him, her face flushed, eyes hazy with wanting, made his throat go dry. He swallowed. “You are a conundrum, dear lady, and I am determined to solve the riddle.”
She tilted her head in an inquiring manner.
“Here you are, widowed and, by your own admission, in such straightened circumstances that you must pursue a most irregular form of self-support. Why do you not marry again? You cannot lack for suitors.”
“Why, Mr. Prescott, is this a proposal? It’s so sudden.”
The words were a pattern of what any well-bred woman might say, but he detected a hint of mockery.
“I could only hope to be so fortunate, some day. I merely wonder why you do not do as
most women would in your situation.”
“But I am not ‘most women.’” Her tone was arch but with a tiny edge. “I have little use for romance and none for marriage, an institution of convenience for men and of servitude for women. Widowhood has its advantages.”
“Not all men are bad.”
“No, but how does one tell before it is too late? And forgive me, sir, but from what I hear, you would not seem well qualified to assert the nobility of your sex.” The laugh in her voice escaped. “Is that what you wished to speak with me about?”
“Ma’am, let me be forthright. I observe that, as capably as you have played this evening, you now lack resources for more than another round or two.”
“I still have my jewels.”
“But what if they are not enough? While you are skilled, the cards are notoriously fickle.”
“And your point is?”
“I would be willing to advance you an amount adequate to see you through some hours more of play.”
“You do not strike me as a philanthropist, Mr. Prescott. You doubtless have some form of collateral in mind against the loan.”
Her voice sounded strained, and Royce silently cursed the darkness that hid her features. “The surety I demand is… your lovely self, Mrs. Delaney.” He waited, wondering would she flounce off, scream, or slap his face.
“For how long?” Her tone was crisp and business-like. “One night?”
“For twenty-four hours,” he countered. “To do with as I wish, to explore with full carnality. You will submit to me utterly.”
“I see. Tell me, before entering into such a bargain, just how much am I worth?”
He named a sum, adding, “In gold.”
“Ah, a small fortune.” She thought for a long moment, before saying, “Very well, I accept.”
“Let us be clear, then, dear lady. If you win, you get the pot— and your dignity intact. If I win, I will take both, with great satisfaction.”
To reinforce his intent, he backed her to the wall, caging her against the siding with his bulk. He lifted her hand to press a lingering kiss on the palm and then leaned in.
She raised her face in expectation.
To keep her guessing, he dipped his head to inhale the scent of her hair, her throat, the pulse point behind her ear. With the tip of one finger, he traced the neckline of her gown, just a whisper of touch over her breasts.
Her breath caught in something like a sob and she ducked under his arm, putting a discrete distance between them.
“What makes you so certain I will lose?”
With that, she turned and glided away, leaving Royce to stare after her. He’d been so confident of having the upper hand in the encounter; why did he have the sneaking suspicion he’d just been bested at his own bargain?
“Time to show your hand, Mrs. Delaney.” Royce struggled to keep the triumph from his words. On the table between them, the last two players, was all the gold he’d given her as well as her set of mourning jewelry. He fanned out his cards: A straight flush, queen high.
Face composed, his opponent dipped her head in acknowledgement of defeat. “Well played, sir. I bow to your skill and luck.” She rose from the table amid the buzz of the crowd. In spite of the mixed welcome she’d received, the atmosphere was conciliatory with many offers to shake hands and murmurs of, “damned shame.”
“Wait, please.” He plucked the pearl and onyx cross from the spoils and held it out, dangling from the chain. “Far be it from me to deprive you of the spiritual and sentimental comfort of an object that must be so dear.”
She gave him an inscrutable look before stretching out her hand and allowing him to drop the necklace into her palm. Without another word, she swept out. Not until the last length of violet satin had disappeared did Royce realize that she still held her cards.