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Johnson, Susan - Risking It All

Johnson, Susan - Risking It All

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Risking It All
Susan Johnson
Chapter One
Monte Carlo, Easter week, 1896

Felicia Greenwood sat in the kitchen of her villa overlooking the sea, tearing the letter she had just received into shreds, casting aspersions on the writer in brisk, heated accents, then turning at last to her two servants, who watched with sympathy in their eyes. "And that's what I think of Cousin Dickie's advice!" She spoke in French, although her thoughts were still colored with a faint Scottish brogue.

"Your auntie disliked him, too." Her elderly housekeeper cum maid of all work offered in reassurance. "Tell Mademoiselle Felicia what the countess called him," she added, looking up at her husband, who served as the sole manservant in the establishment.

Daniel smiled at Felicia seated across the kitchen table. "She called him Monsieur le Prune and never
listened to anything he said. "

Felicia's mouth curved into a fleeting grin, the description apt. Her cousin's mouth was always pursed in distaste. "Now, if only Cousin Dickie wasn't about to take Villa Paradise from me," she said with a small sigh, "I could ignore him as well."

"You still have a week to find the money."
Felicia's expression turned stricken. She had been given a year to come up with her cousin's required
payment. Without success. "If only Auntie's funds were paying better dividends."
"He's robbing you, mademoiselle. I know he is," Claire asserted. "The countess always had plenty of
money."

"I know you don't trust Dickie and his lawyers, and I'm not sure I do either; but at the moment our feelings are incidental to the immediate crisis, so I've decided to sell the tiara. I thought about it all last night. Auntie would understand\u2014I hope ..." The diamond tiara had been given to the countess by an admirer in her youth, an old love she had never forgotten. Brushing aside her misgivings, Felicia lifted her chin. "Desperate times require desperate measures."

"It still won't be enough, my lady." Claire knew to a sou what jewelry was worth.

Felicia knew she was risking it all, but it wouldn't do to betray her uncertainties before her servants. "That's why I'm taking the money to the casino," she said with what she hoped was convincing assurance. "There, I'll be able to parlay it into a much larger sum."

"I'll pray to Saint D\u00e9vote that you win the bank," Claire declared, the local saint her bulwark against all
the pitfalls of life.
"Pardon, my lady, but you don't know how to gamble." An archpragmatist to his wife's simple, trusting
nature, Daniel questioned the feasibility of Felicia's proposal.
"I'll pray to Saint D\u00e9votea nd the Madonna," Claire firmly asserted, glaring at her husband. "Have a
little faith, Daniel."

"Vingt et un shouldn't be so difficult to play," Felicia observed with a bolstering touch of nonchalance. "How hard can it be to count to twenty-one? I've quite made up my mind, so don't look at me like that, Daniel. Auntie's tiara is the last piece of jewelry left, so I shall simply have to win the additional sum at the casino. With luck," she realistically added.

"And my prayers," Claire interposed.
"It is the season for miracles," Daniel kindly noted.
Felicia brushed her palms over her riotous red curls, a good-luck habit from childhood. "Why not a
miracle for me?"
"Why not, indeed, mademoiselle," Claire said with a beaming smile.
* * *

Lord Grafton had noticed the flame-haired woman the moment she had walked into the casino gaming rooms, the splendor of her face and form momentarily silencing the hum of commerce in the room. But he was on a winning streak at the roulette table, and he paused only long enough to imprint her image in his memory. There would be time enough later to make her acquaintance. In his experience, females who gambled generally gambled small stakes. She wouldn't be leaving soon.

He kept note of her in his peripheral vision and of the numerous admirers clustered around her. But she seemed intent on her play, and after standing stud to all the society belles of note since his adolescence, he wasn't overly concerned with his ability to overcome competition. His luck was running hotter than hot tonight, and he concentrated on his game until he took note of the lady's sudden distress. Signaling he was out, he swiftly moved toward her table. He had seen that look a thousand times in gambling hells from one end of the earth to the other.

She was about to lose everything.

The throng of men surrounding her parted as he approached, his colorful reputation well known. Whether exploring the outlands of the world or partaking of the fashionable venues of aristocratic society, he had a tendency to take offense when thwarted.

Coming up behind Felicia, he leaned close to her ear, murmured, "Allow me, mademoiselle," and

placed a neat stack of thousand-franc chips beside her few remaining markers.
She half turned in surprise and gazed up at him.
He smiled.

Awestruck, she forgot that a lady should take offense when a stranger offered her money and any
number of other principles of protocol having to do with strange men and a lady's honor.
"Might I suggest two cards?" His voice was like velvet, his dark gaze warm, his fragrant cologne
reminiscent of her beloved highland heather.
"I shouldn't." She struggled to recall the proprieties.
He had heard that hesitant tone\u2014the one hovering on the verge of capitulation\u2014hundreds of times
before. "It's only cards," he said with a faint grin. "Let me bring you luck."

She glanced back at her few remaining chips, at the munificent pile of donated chips beside them and, looking up for an indecisive moment, gazed into the diaphanous clouds painted on the gilded ceiling. Was this her miracle?

"Two cards for the mademoiselle."
A deep voice of command, Felicia thought, no angelic messenger of the divine, the decision already
taken from her hands.
Two new cards lay on the green baize.
And her handsome benefactor was smiling at her. "Twenty-one, mademoiselle. Didn't I tell you I'd
bring you luck?"

The croupier was pushing a very large stack of chips toward her, and with her heart beating wildly, she began to feel a soul-stirring hope. She might not be turned out into the street after all; she might be able to keep her home. It was impossible to reject the bounty before her, no matter what propriety required. Salvation was within her grasp when only moments ago, she was near-destitute. "I'm very, very,v ery much obliged," she breathlessly offered, elation in every grateful syllable, "Monsieur . . . ?"

"Suffolk. Thomas Suffolk." Flynn sketched her a faint bow, and his dark hair momentarily gleamed in the chandelier light. "If I might suggest"\u2014he deftly organized the increased stack of chips, taking out five one-thousand-franc chips and slipping them into her reticule\u2014"perhaps one card this time."

He played for her from that point, smiling at her occasionally, keeping up a low murmur of inconsequential conversation, adding to the pile of chips before her while she stood next to the intoxicating warmth of his body and forced herself to appear calm in the midst of a wondrous miracle.

"Will that do?" he finally asked.
Another huge pile of chips was being added to her winnings. "Oh, yes, very much so.With o u t
question!"
Flynn signaled an attendant to gather the chips and then offered Felicia his arm.
"You might need a guard," he teased a few moments later as they stood before the cashier, indicating
with a nod the large pile of bank notes clutched in her hand.
"I don't know how I can ever thank you enough, Mr. Suffolk," she murmured, a glowing delirium in her
voice. "My heart's still beating frantically."
Having a thought or two on how she might thank him, he blandly suggested, "Come have dinner with
me next door. A glass of champagne will calm you."

She understood that under normal circumstances she wouldn't go to dinner with a stranger; but these were not ordinary circumstances, and he was far from an ordinary man. In fact, he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Furthermore, the Hotel de Paris was perfectly safe with Daniel's brother and cousins in service there. And heha d saved her from a life of drudgery as a governess or companion. He

deserved her appreciation. "I'd like that," she said, smiling.
"Perfect." He held out his hand.
"Are you here for the season?" she asked as they strolled from the room.
"Actually I'm on my way back from Baku."
"Are you in oil?"
He shook his head. "I was visiting a friend. Arey ou here for the season . . . ?"

Chapter Two

She hadn't intended to be so garrulous, or stay so long, or enjoy herself so. But three hours later, she was still talking as though she had known her benefactor for years. She had told him about her disastrous marriage, her widowhood, about coming to Monte Carlo to care for her elderly aunt, and about Dickie hounding her for his share of the property when she had not thought he was given a share. About the dismal earnings on her aunt's funds left to her and in general everything about her life that one would disclose under the influence of a superb champagne and a charming man's interest.

"Oh, dear," she murmured, her hand on her mouth in a small theatrical gesture prompted by a modicum
too much of champagne. "I've hardly given you a moment to speak."
"I've enjoyed listening to you."

"Most men don't like to listen. They like to lecture or offer pronouncements or go on for unspeakable lengths about the hunting field or the state of the crops or the newest coat fabric\u2014like Dickie ..." She giggled. "Or in the case of the hunting field, my obnoxious husband." Her sudden smile was enchanting. "Not that he could help being obnoxious coming from his odious family."

"Why did you marry him?"
"Because he had money and I had none and mostly because my father insisted. Actually, he locked me
in my bedroom until I agreed."
"I see."

"You probably don't," she replied, interpreting the reservation in his tone. "Not with your looks and money. But in Aberdeen, my choices were limited without funds to have a season. Even when I came here five years ago, Auntie only took me as a companion on a conditional basis. "

"But she liked you."

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