A Wealth of Wagers
The three daughters of the Marquess of Weldon had gathered in the best salon of his London mansion one spring afternoon for tea. It was being hosted by the only one of the three who never married, Lady Jane Dawson, who also happened to be the eldest.
Lady Jane Dawson personified the typical image of a spinster. She was tall and thin, with sharp blue eyes that missed nothing and straight gray hair scraped back from her face.
The middle sister, Lady Middleton, whose Christian name was Joanna, was of medium height and medium frame and was just, well, medium. Even her hair, which had been a dark chestnut color in her youth, had reached a happy medium between brown and gray. She disliked it intensely.
Lady Jessica Andrews was a plump, happy soul who even now sat shoveling fairy cakes into her bow-shaped mouth while her sisters discussed their nephew, Mr. James Dawson.
"He comes and goes as he pleases, all manner of the day and night..." Lady Jane said. She knew, because she kept house for her father and nephew.
"You know how young men are," Joanna commiserated Not that she really knew. She had given birth to three daughters.
"What he needs is a wife!" Jane insisted. "He's almost thirty!"
"What does Papa say?" Jessica asked with a full mouth.
"Oh, him!" Jane scoffed. "He says to let him be."
"Let's listen to Papa, then," Jessica said and reached for her teacup.
"Nonsense!" Joanna said sharply. "The boy needs to do his duty to the family name!"
"Quite right," Jane agreed. "Which is why I have asked you two here today. I want to make a wager..."
Jessica groaned, but Joanna's eyes lit up at the thought. If the entire Dawson family had one vice, it was gambling. "What are the terms?" Joanna asked. Jessica only groaned once more.
"I propose we each produce a candidate for James' deliberation, and the one whose choice is selected gets a special prize."
"Grandmother's tiara!" Jessica said breathlessly, suddenly motivated to enter into the game.
"Oh, yes!" Joanna agreed. That particular piece of family jewelry had been a bone of contention between the three sisters for years.
"Do they have to be society chits?" Jessica wondered.
"Most definitely!" Jane said in a shocked voice. "We do not want just anyone to become the future marchioness! Why do you ask?"
"Because I agreed to sponsor my dear Mortimer's niece this season," Jessica admitted, referring to her husband's middle-class relative.
"Miss Carver is wealthy enough to be considered and just vulgar enough to lose," Joanna mused. "I say she qualifies."
"Joanna!" Jessica protested. "Still, she is my candidate, for I have no other choice." She sat back with a sigh and reached for the plum cake.
"I shall be submitting Lady Stephanie Cutler," Jane announced. Her sisters gasped.
"Not Lady Cut-Direct!"
"You will surely lose!"
"I, too, have no choice. Lady Stephanie is entering her fourth season and her family despairs of her. As I am her godmother, it is now my turn to attempt to puff her off."
"You poor dear..." Joanna sounded sincere for all of five seconds. "Then I shall surely win!"
"But who are you going to use, er, present?" Jessica asked.
"I have no idea! But anyone is better than what you two have to work with."
"Well, well, well," Mr. James Dawson drawled from the doorway. "What are you three witches brewing up today?" A handsome blonde man with laughing brown eyes came into the room and bent in turn to kiss the cheeks presented to him.
"A wager!" Jessica said without thinking.
"Why am I not surprised? What is it this time?" He accepted a cup of tea from his Aunt Jane and sat down next to Aunt Joanna on the sofa. "Who will be the next couple to become betrothed? How many patronesses will appear at Almack's this week? What year shall poor James decide to take a bride?"
"No, no and no," Joanna said. "Those were last season's wagers, anyway, and we scarcely repeat ourselves."
"But we are still concentrating on you, dear boy," Jane said sweetly.
"What? I'm sure I do not wish to know..."
"And we shall not tell you." Jane glared at Jessica to ensure her silence. "However, we would make a little side wager with you."
"You would?" The apple did not fall far from the faro table in this family.
"We bet that you will be married before the new year."
"That is an easy one to agree to," he said. "What shall the winner receive?"
"If you win, we will not bother you concerning marriage for an entire year."
"That sounds good. And if I lose..."
"Jessica, Joanna and I each receive a share in Samson's winnings." Her two sisters clapped their hands with delight. Samson was a champion racehorse, bred by James himself. The gelding had put in some respectable wins already, but was expected to do even better in the coming racing season.
"I don't know..."
"You said yourself you have no intention of marrying..."
"True." He had to face the innocent stares of three sets of eyes. "All right! Get out the book!"
Jessica ran to the writing desk that once belonged to her mother and retrieved the Dawson family betting book. Jane took it and sent Jessica back for pen and ink. James looked over her shoulder as she wrote.
"And where is your new wager?"
"Never you mind about that," she sternly replied. "We will make an entry before everyone goes home."
Three weeks later, the sisters arrived separately for an evening at Almack's, each with a protégé in tow.
Lady Middleton had discovered through some friends (discreetly, of course) that one of her old schoolmates had a daughter to present. Unfortunately, the lady had broken her ankle and was unable to escort her child about town. Joanna had swooped in and offered to fill the position of chaperone until the time that Miss Culpepper's mother was back on her feet.
Then she met Miss Culpepper. The girl was, well, gangly. Her fuzzy red hair needed to be cut and tamed, she wore the wrong sort of colors for her unfreckled (thank goodness!) complexion and she had no conversation to speak of. Unless someone mentioned books or women's rights.
Jane was not faring much better. Lady Stephanie was a dark beauty with flashing green eyes, but where Miss Culpepper spoke incessantly of her own interests, Lady Stephanie only spoke to insult others. When she said anything at all. Her habit of ignoring all and sundry had given her the moniker of "Lady Cut-Direct." She was not a popular girl.
Miss Carver, the young lady under Jessica's care, was popular, as long as she kept her mouth closed. It was only when men attempted conversation with her did they discover there was nothing between her ears but air. It was a pity she had more hair than wit, really, because she had golden curls and bright blue eyes and the well-rounded figure of a china shepherdess.
"It was most fortunate we met at the modiste last week, Lady Jersey," Jessica was gushing to that patroness, even though she had orchestrated the entire chance meeting.
Lady Jersey, flattered, smiled at the beauty standing quietly by Jessica's side. "The gentlemen do enjoy a pretty new face now and then, and her dowry is impressive." The face and wealth of the young lady had made Lady Jersey overlook her middle-class origins. It would be overlooked anyway by men hunting a fortune.
Jessica finally escaped the countess and brought her charge over to where her father stood with James.
"Papa! You recall Miss Carver!"
"Oh, yes. The empty-headed chit," he told his grandson, as if the girl were not standing there. Not that Miss Carver had any inkling she was being discussed. "Pretty enough, but no brain. Lots of blunt, though. Almost makes up for her stupidity."
James tried not to laugh, for that would be impolite, and besides, sweet Aunt Jessica looked as if she were going to cry. Miss Carver looked, well, vacant.
"Would you allow me the honor of the first two dances, Miss Carver?" he asked, if only to restore his aunt's face to its usual sunny expression. Miss Carver, distracted by a girl wearing plenty of lace, ignored him.
"Desdemona!" Jessica hissed. "Mr. Dawson has asked you a question!"
"He has?" She turned her pink and gold shepherdess beauty full on him and he blinked in surprise and delight. Jessica beamed at them both.
"Come, Papa. Let us find chairs where we can watch these two dance!"
The marquess was torn between making an escape to the card room and leaving his daughter to her own (obviously evil) devices. Parental duty in keeping Jessica from making an ass of herself won out. "If you insist..."
A set was just forming and James held his arm out for Miss Carver, who stared at him until he explained that she should take it so he could lead her out to the dance floor.
They were the most tedious two dances of his life, even though Miss Carver danced well enough and had caught the gaze of every man in the room. Not to mention glares from all the unattached ladies who knew he was destined to be a marquess one day. He had exhausted all polite conversation by the end of the second dance and gratefully handed the chit over to his aunt and the men who mobbed her, begging for an introduction.
He did not know his trip into the bowels of hell had just begun. Or that salvation was at hand.
Aunt Joanna had arrived while he danced with Miss Carver and she had a tall, lanky redhead with her. Miss Culpepper was her name and Aunt Joanna strongly suggested that her friend's daughter had not yet received any offers to dance.
James could see why. The chit was almost as tall as he! Still, he did his duty, noting that the lady at least had allowed someone to fashion her hair into a feminine Brutus and had put her in a russet gown. The effect was striking, and more looks of envy were cast his way as he led her out for the second set. Her impact on him, however, was also spoiled the moment she opened her mouth. James had nothing against intelligent, well-read women, but her views were so radical, he was put off immediately she began spouting them. Where did his aunts come up with these ladies?
It was with no little relief that he brought Miss Culpepper back to Aunt Joanna, but an even nastier surprise awaited him. His three aunts had congregated in one spot. Of the marquess there was no sign. The old man must have gone off to fleece unsuspecting pigeons in the card room.
"James, my dear boy!" Aunt Jane cooed, giving Miss Culpepper a look of pure hatred. James had never heard that tone of voice from her, and was instantly on the alert. "You remember my goddaughter, Lady Stephanie?"
"Indeed I do, Aunt Jane." Having been raised by his grandfather and aunt from the age of six, he was well acquainted with her snobbish, sharp-tongued harridan of a goddaughter. He was one of Lady Stephanie's favorite whipping boys. "I did not know you had the care and feeding of her," he said, making her sound like an animal. "This season," he could not help but add.
Lady Stephanie all but stuck her tongue out at him.
"And this is her cousin, Miss Cutler."
"Miss Cutler." He ignored Lady Stephanie in favor of her cousin, even though that lady's attire screamed 'poor relation.' Her demeanor did not, though, and she returned his stare with one of her own. Only when Lady Jane nudged him with her fan did he realize she was hinting at him to ask Lady Stephanie to dance. He was left with no choice but to oblige.
Along the wall, Miss Cutler listened to the older women as they discussed their nephew.
"He looks bored," Lady Jane said sadly.
"What did you expect?" Lady Middleton exclaimed. "You thrust him out there with Lady Stephanie, of all people!"
"This isn't going to work," Lady Jessica moaned to no one in particular. "I'll bet he heads for the card room as soon as the set is finished."
"I'll be he doesn't!" Lady Middleton insisted. "The lad knows his duty."
"Which will be done at the end of the set," Lady Jane moaned. "I have to agree with Jessica." She did not sound too pleased with that.
"What will you wager?"
"If James leaves for the card room, We will take Miss Culpepper with us to the Carrington ball and you may stay home. If James stays out of the card room, you have to take all three girls." Lady Jane glanced around. "And Miss Cutler. But that is no hardship, as she is a most sensible girl."
"Deal!" The sisters shook on it and in her corner, Miss Cutler sighed.
"Do they gamble much?" she asked Miss Culpepper.
"I have no idea. Do you know, Miss Carver?"
"What?" the blonde girl asked.
"Never mind," Miss Cutler assured her. "I will ask my cousin upon her return." She looked over to where Lady Stephanie was giving poor Mr. Dawson the sharp edge of her tongue, even as they danced.
She did not get the chance at first, however, to enquire as to the Dawson ladies' penchant for gambling. To her surprise, Mr. Dawson asked her to dance!
"I..." She looked to her cousin for permission, but Stephanie was no help. "You do what you wish, Sarah."
What Sarah wished was to be swallowed up into a hole immediately. If none of these other ladies could keep his attention, how was she to manage? As it turned out, she managed very well.
Lady Middleton was not totally disgruntled at losing the wager. She had James and all four young ladies assembled in her drawing room, ready to attend the Carrington ball, when a thunderstorm made them all decide to stay indoors.
Lady Stephanie was pouting, Miss Culpepper was reading a book and Miss Carver was staring vacantly into the fire. Only James and Miss Cutler seemed restless, so she suggested the two sit down and play cards.
They agreed and enjoyed a few moments of companionable silence as they settled at a table away from everyone else. Then Sarah noticed Mr. Dawson looking at the other ladies. She tamped down a surge of jealousy.
"A penny for your thoughts." Her voice did not sound like her own.
"I was just thinking it is a shame we are not at the Carrington's. I have some friends waiting for us there."
"Any particular friends?"
"Definitely. Three gentlemen who were unfortunate enough to lose wagers at White's the other night and are now obliged to me. I was going to introduce them to those three." He indicated the other young ladies.
"Three? Not four?" she asked before she could stop herself.
"Only three," he assured her. "Do you wish to know why?"
"I would not wager on your answer," she said shyly. Their dance the other evening at Almack's had blossomed into more than just an acquaintance in such a short time, but she still felt as it if were too new to enquire too deeply. She had discovered, however, during a ride in the park, a trip to the opera and a dinner given by his aunt, among other meetings, that he was intelligent, kind and easy to speak with.
"Then I will tell you some other time."
"Tell me about your unfortunate friends with the poor card playing skills," she urged, wishing to change the subject back to the other ladies.
"I call them Deaf, Dumb and Blind."
"How odd." Sarah dealt the cards, but was more interested in Mr. Dawson's words.
"Findley is deaf to every opinion but his own. One could spout nonsense all day and it would not bother him at all, so confident is he in his own beliefs."
"You are quick, Miss Cutler. Gorham is an idiot who does not register insults because he wouldn't know one if it bit him where he sits."
Sarah chuckled. "Cousin Stephanie."
"And who is blind?"
"Isley. He can see well enough, but he is not taken in by a pretty face. Not only that, he is quite used to dealing with silly widgeons. And he is trying to recoup his family's fortune. A bit of blunt would keep his family from being dunned. He has a title, too. I don't doubt Miss Carver's father would mind the exchange."
"No, indeed. It sounds as if you have everything worked out."
"I have my reasons."
"Is it a wager?" she asked sadly. "I had not realized at first that gambling is in the Dawson blood." She clearly did not approve.
"I am not the hardened gambler you think of me, Miss Cutler. Not any more than anyone else. Life is a gamble, is it not? You take a chance when you love someone. A parent can die of a disease, an aunt could get hit by a carriage, a wife could perish in childbirth... But we take that chance. Disease did not stop my mother from nursing half the village; Aunt Jane leaves the house often enough to risk getting hit; I would not let the possible complications of giving birth prevent me from marrying..."
"Of course not," she dryly replied. "It is not your risk, is it? But I get your point, Mr. Dawson. I could be robbed on the street tomorrow, but that would not stop me from deciding against a walk. Not beforehand, at any rate. But to deliberately gamble on every little thing!"
"Think what you wish, Miss Cutler, but you would think wrongly of me."
"I will think it until it is proven otherwise," she stiffly replied.
Mr. Dawson shrugged, but made no comment other than to tell Lady Middleton that the rain had let up and they could now depart for the ball.
Sarah had to admit that the three gentlemen chosen to attract her cousin and the other two ladies were perfect for the task.
Lady Stephanie came back from a set with Lord Gorham with a smile on her face. Miss Culpepper was trying to argue the teachings of Mrs. Wollstonecraft with Mr. Findley and he was blissfully oblivious to her opinion while still encouraging her to ramble on. Lord Isley was charming to Miss Carver without being bowled over by her beauty.
Only Sarah felt alone. Mr. Dawson was dancing with a young lady with spots, having excused himself almost as soon as they had arrived. He had said something about wallflowers and she slipped behind a potted palm, wondering if her lack of partners qualified her as one.
"Stab me if Dawson wasn't right," one of the gentlemen said in front of her hiding place. "Said she was perfect for me and I couldn't believe him. Can't believe you made that damned wager, Isley."
"How could I not, even if Dawson refused to play. I've never seen a Dawson refuse a wager before -- do you think he is ill?"
"I think he is in love," one of the others said. Sarah could hear laughter in their voices.
She was sure later that evening that it was only wishful thinking on her part for him to be in love with her.
She was able, at least, to watch the courtship of the other three couples. Of Mr. Dawson, there was suddenly no sign. Someone said he was in the country and she had to be content with that.
The transformation in her own cousin was remarkable, to say the least. To the point that Sarah was tired of hearing ‘Mr. Gorham this' and ‘Mr. Gorham that.'
Right before the end of the season, Miss Carver, Miss Culpepper and Lady Stephanie all became engaged. Lord Weldon's daughters were so pleased with themselves and their charges, they threw a ball in honor of the betrothals.
Sarah was a bit annoyed at their self-congratulation, because she knew they had done very little and Mr. Dawson was responsible for all this, but as cousin of one of the honorees, she was compelled to attend. At least Mr. Dawson, for whom she had begun to pine, was in the country, or wherever her cousin had said he was.
James had gone to the country for several different reasons.
First, he had no intention of paying proper attention to Miss Cutler until he had everything in order. He repaired to his country estate -- the home in which he had been raised -- because he had been neglecting it of late and he wanted to ensure it was presentable to a new mistress. Not that he said a word to anyone on that subject. If anything should reach his aunts, they would already be planning what to do with their shares of Samson's earnings.
Which reminded him of the terms of that wager -- which was more important? Miss Cutler or his horse? The lady, of course, but did she care about him as he did her?
That was the other reason he had left town. She needed time to discover he was not as black as she painted him. Had she? He hoped to goodness his absence had been the right thing.
Aunt Jane was giving a dinner for the couples before the ball, and she was much relieved when James arrived back in London earlier that day.
"Because I was despairing of whom to place Miss Cutler with."
James was pleased, too, but did not give his aunt the satisfaction of any reaction but a nod of agreement. He would be cool and calm and let Miss Cutler make the first move.
That resolve went out the window as soon as she was announced that evening. She looked so wan and forlorn, his heart melted and he stepped forward to take her hand.
"Welcome back to London, Mr. Dawson," she said with a smile.
"I am glad to have returned, Miss Cutler." He ignored the crowded drawing room's interested occupants and brought one of her hands to his lips. "But it was a necessary absence."
She nodded. "But now you are back and I am very happy to see you. It has been dreadfully dull, having to play gooseberry to these couples."
He gave her a tender smile and asked if he might have a waltz and the supper dance later that evening.
"And if I am not hungry at midnight?" she asked lightly.
"Then I know a terrace where you might wait," he said softly as dinner was announced.
Their conversation was easy as they dined, and they parted in the ballroom afterwards with all amiability, knowing they would waltz later.
At midnight, they went through the motions of their second dance, neither one planning to join the supper crowd that soon thronged the gallery where Lady Jane had ordered a buffet to be spread. Instead, James slipped Sarah out a side door and into a small walled garden with terraced steps.
"Will this suit?" he asked her.
They stared at each other, not knowing what to say next. Sarah finally spoke.
"Why did you leave town? Did I drive you away?"
"Yes and no. I did not leave because I was angry," he amended. "Rather, I went to my estate to give it a good, hard inspection."
"Inspecting it for what purpose?"
"To ensure that the house and the estate itself could support a wife and family."
Sarah blushed. "And will it?"
"Most definitely. Several years ago it could not support even me, however, so I wished to assure myself that it would now. I am ashamed to admit that I had almost run it into the ground back then. Too much hard living here in Town, you see, and I was bleeding it dry."
"With gambling?" She had to know.
"Among other things. Then, one night at Boodles, I almost lost it all. That was when I decided to quit wagering for high stakes. I went home, concentrated on my farms and my horses and limited myself to amusing little bets with my aunts and grandfather. The Dawson gambling instinct can not be suppressed altogether, I fear."
"So you only gamble with family. Will you make a wager with me, sir?"
His eyes widened at her implication, but he only grinned and nodded. "What shall it be, my love? How many children we have? On how long it takes my aunts to wager on our children?"
"They would, would they not?" she said with a laugh, but turned instantly serious. "No, I wish to bet that you cannot make me a happy woman for the rest of your life."
James slowly put a hand on her waist and brought one of her arms up to rest on his shoulder. She wrapped it around his neck, pulling herself closer.
"You would lose that wager, darling, because I intend to do just that. But to make it official, will you marry me so I might do everything in my power to make you happy?"
Her soft ‘yes' was lost somewhere in their kiss.
A month later...
"I cannot believe poor Samson took such a terrible tumble at Ascot," Lady Middleton said with a sigh. Lady Jessica, stuffing herself with her father's cook's fairy cakes, had no reply, but she did wear a downcast look. Lady Jane had been delayed in greeting her sisters, but now she burst into the drawing room with a smile that seemed at odds with her severe spinster appearance.
"My dears! I have had a letter from Sarah!"
Lady Middleton perked up and Lady Jessica hastily swallowed her mouthful. "Samson is better?"
"He is, but there will be no more racing for him." The three ladies had won shares in the horse when their nephew married Miss Sarah Cutler out of hand instead of waiting for the new year. "But James has an alternative offer. He proposes that our shares of Samson come in the form of foals. Samson has been put out to stud!"
The other two ladies squealed with delight.
"I'll bet my foal is born first!" Lady Middleton called.
"We should bet the tiara," Lady Jessica insisted. "Since James chose none of our ladies."
"I'd rather wager on whose lady will have the first child," Lady Jane said. "After all, they were all married the same day!"
"As were Sarah and James," the marquess agreed, coming in to join his daughters for tea. "I shall have that couple in the wager, then, to even it all out." He sat down and poured himself a cup of tea.
"Jess! The betting book!" Lady Jane commanded.
"But, Papa cannot wager on Mama's tiara!" Lady Middleton complained.
"Why not?" he asked complacently. "If I win, you three may always make a wager with me sometime to win it back."
"So we may," Lady Jane said, and her sisters happily agreed.
© 2005 Copyright held by the author.