Michael watched with some satisfaction as the money was taken off the table and moved to the side of the Earl of Ipswich. The man was quite good at playing cards, and he knew how to wipe everyone clean. Michael had been lucky not to get caught overmuch, but the man sitting across from him had. The Duke of Hamilton was not having a good time tonight.
Normally, his win rate at cards was average, but this time he was losing more and more. Somehow, he had betted most of what he owned, and he was still sinking. Michael had seen people desperate to win raise the stakes in the hopes of getting their money back, but Hamilton didn’t do that. He was making it worse for himself.
Everyone was taking advantage of that.
It would serve him right. The man thought he was the best in the room, both because of his title and his personality. Michael didn’t think so; Hamilton was an arrogant brat who had been spoiled within an inch of his life. The only thing he had going for him was the fact that he was good-looking. His charm made Michael’s skin crawl, but it seemed to be working on the ladies.
Although not on his wife. Sybil saw the real man behind the façade, but she couldn’t do anything about it. She was trapped with the duke, which made Michael’s heart ache. It was just not fair that she had been arranged to marry Hamilton, who didn’t love or respect her. He just wanted heirs, and that was Sybil’s role. Other than that, she was ignored. She might as well be part of the furniture now.
If she had been permitted to marry me, that would never happen.
Biting back a sigh, Michael pushed that thought away. He wasn’t about to mull over something he couldn’t change. It had been three months since Sybil had married Hamilton, and Michael couldn’t have her now even if he wanted to. But it didn’t stop him from thinking about what they could have had.
Hamilton did like to throw it in his face.
“I think you need to fold completely from this game, Hamilton,” Lord Gull said, picking up his glass. “You’re going to end up bankrupt, and that’s not good for you.”
Hamilton growled at him. “Don’t tell me what to do, Gull. I know exactly what I’m doing.”
“No, you don’t. How much have you lost tonight? I don’t think I want to count or it’s going to bring me out in a cold sweat.”
“You’ve lost quite a bit tonight yourself,” Ipswich pointed out as his servant arranged the money on a small table beside him.
“But I know my limit. Hamilton doesn’t.” Gull frowned. “Maybe we should play just the three of us or stop so we don’t end up taking everything from him.”
Hamilton growled again and thumped his fist on the table. “You don’t get to decide that for me,” he snarled. “I’m going to carry on. I will win everything back.”
“You’ve been on a losing streak since you sat down,” Michael reminded him. “I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon.”
That was when Hamilton’s dark eyes turned to him, finally acknowledging Michael after spending the last two hours sitting across from him and purposefully ignoring him. Michael was used to it, but the look he was given each time still sent a shiver down his spine.
“I wasn’t talking to you, Norton,” Hamilton hissed. “And don’t think showing concern is going to get you anything.”
“I’m merely suggesting that you should think about your fortune instead of your pride. You’ll be left with nothing if you carry on like this.”
Hamilton gave him a nasty smirk. “At least I’ve won on something, right? I think you know what I mean.”
He was talking about Sybil. Michael did his best to school his expression into one he hoped didn’t show his disgust and desire to reach across and slam the other man’s face into the table.
“I’ve got a wager. I think you’ll like it.” Hamilton dug into his pocket and withdrew something in his clenched fist. “This will get me out of this. I’ll wager my next round on this, along with everything we’ve betted so far.”
He opened his hand, and Michael’s heart almost stopped when he saw the necklace. It was gold, encrusted with so many emeralds that, at the right angle, it looked like the necklace was completely green. It was a stunning piece, and Ipswich and Gull certainly looked impressed.
Ipswich whistled. “Now that is a fine necklace. Where did you get it?”
“It’s my wife’s. Some little trinket I found in her jewelry box.” Hamilton sniggered. “She doesn’t wear it, so she won’t notice that it’s missing.”
Michael felt like he was going to be sick. That was Sybil’s necklace, one that he knew all too well. And Hamilton had stolen it from her. How dare he do something like that to his wife?
From the dubious look on his face, Gull thought the same thing.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to bet with your wife’s belongings, Your Grace.”
“She’s my wife, and whatever she has is now my property. So don’t you dare tell me what I can and can’t do.” Hamilton tossed the necklace carelessly onto the table. “That’s my wager for the next round. And I intend to win everything back, and then some.”
He was so confident about it. Michael could feel the fury building. How could he think this was acceptable? He was treating Sybil’s things like they didn’t matter. That necklace had a lot of sentimental value to her, and Michael had hoped she would look after it even though they were not permitted to be together. Now this monster had it, and he was sneering at it without any care.
Michael stared at the item in front of him. Was the duke mocking him for the fact he had gotten Sybil and he didn’t? Michael wasn’t about to ask him that, not in front of witnesses, and if they were alone, they would come away bloodied.
“I think you need to take that back to your wife,” Ipswich said quietly, shaking his head. “I’ve betted a lot in my time, but I’ve never used my wife’s belongings.”
“Well, you’re not brave enough to stamp your authority on your family, are you?” Hamilton sneered. “Sybil’s jewelry belongs to me now, so I can do what I want. Now, come on, deal the cards.”
“Oh, no.” Ipswich sat back and held up his hands. “I’m not doing that. You’re just going to lose it as well, and I don’t want to be the one who takes it off you.”
Hamilton sniffed. “You’re becoming a coward now?”
“It’s not being a coward, it’s knowing my limitations. That necklace has to be worth thousands of pounds.”
Twenty thousand pounds, Michael thought. That necklace had been in his family for generations, at least two hundred years. His mother had told him to give it to the woman he loved, just like his father had done with her. She would be devastated to know that Michael had given it to a woman he couldn’t have instead of his future wife.
Sybil had promised to treasure it. She probably didn’t expect her husband to snatch it out of her jewelry box.
“Well, I’m definitely out.” Gull finished his drink and put the glass down. “Don’t even ask me if I’m going to play for that. You’re going to end up embarrassing yourself.”
All three men stared at Michael, who was still staring at the necklace. Hamilton scoffed.
“You wouldn’t be able to win this, Norton. It’s far too rich for the likes of you.”
Michael wasn’t about to point out that it was a family heirloom of his; that would just make it worse if Hamilton knew Michael was the one who had given it to his wife. He took the deck of cards, now collected and in a pile, from Ipswich, and shuffled them.
“I’ll give you one more chance. But then we’re going to be done, and you’re going to go home with nothing and explain to your wife where your money’s gone.”
Hamilton sniggered. “You think you’re going to win, don’t you?”
Michael didn’t answer, just dealt out the cards. He could feel his companions staring at him, wondering if he had taken a leave of his senses, and maybe he had. All Michael wanted to do was to take this man down from that high horse he had been trying to sit on all evening. If Hamilton won, then he still had the necklace and would, hopefully, return it to his wife. If Michael won, he would give it to Sybil. The only difference would be that Michael would tell the Duchess of Hamilton what her husband had done.
Petty, yes, but he didn’t want Sybil to not know the truth.
It was Hamilton’s fault that he had come over to join them in the first place, mostly to goad Michael from across the table. If he didn’t want this to happen, he should have kept his distance.
They played the round, Michael concentrating on the cards in front of him. He needed to bide his time. If he showed any of his excitement now, Hamilton would pounce on it and do something to throw him off, and then he would win.
Michael would not give that man any of his money. He was going to win this round.
And he did. When Hamilton slammed down his cards and declared that he was the winner, Michael just smiled and laid down his hand. He had trumped the duke.
For a moment, the air around the table was still. Hamilton froze, his eyes bulging when he saw the cards. He couldn’t get out of this. He had lost pretty much everything.
Before anyone could react, Michael swiped the necklace off the table and stood up. Ipswich and Gull stood with him.
“I think this is the time for me to retire home, gentlemen,” Michael said, sliding the necklace into his pocket. “I’ll just sort out my winnings first.”
“What?” Hamilton seemed to jerk out of his frozen state, and he shot to his feet. “No, you’re not going anywhere! I am winning that necklace back.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“I deserve a chance to win it back.”
Michael scoffed at that. “You’re so bad at cards that you would declare bankruptcy by the end of the night. And the necklace isn’t even yours to gamble with.” He scowled, somehow managing to keep his anger contained. “You should be ashamed of yourself for what you’ve done. Your wife wouldn’t have forgiven you if you’d managed to lose it to someone else.”
Hamilton’s eyes narrowed. “You think you’re going to tell me what my wife is going to think? She’s not yours anymore, Norton. Don’t even think this will get her back.”
Michael didn’t react to that. He just nodded at Ipswich and Gull, who were watching the interaction with bemusement.
“I’ll sort out my winnings and head home. And I’m returning the necklace to its rightful owner.”
“Do you want this one as well, sir?”
John looked up and saw his servant holding up a painting of a landscape, full of trees and a river, along with some children playing on the bank.
“Yes, that’s a part of the collection. Put it with the others.”
“I’m surprised you need to ask. You should know what I paint for viewing and what I paint behind closed doors.”
Mark shrugged as he placed the painting and its beautiful frame on top of some brown paper. “You paint so much that I forget which ones are which now. You do complete a lot of portraits, if I’m being honest.”
He did have a point there. There were times when John had so much inspiration that he just painted and painted until he couldn’t do it anymore. It meant a lot of work coming in if he had viewings and got paid, but it also meant that everything did merge together.
At least some were selling incredibly well. Members of the ton were easily pleased, and if they liked what he painted, they would come back for more. John had even gotten commissions to paint on a larger scale, huge paintings that went from floor to ceiling. He had to pick and choose which ones he could do because he couldn’t last on just one painting for more than six months. He had to have some sort of income to keep things going.
He could swallow his pride and ask his parents, but his father wouldn’t allow it. He would just go on another rant about how John was wasting his time painting when he could be doing something more useful. John wasn’t sure what he could do in Society that was considered useful, especially when they were incredibly pretentious. John had experienced it briefly before he went into the army and fought against the French when he was barely twenty, and he didn’t want to go back. While being a lifelong soldier wasn’t for him, it was preferable to being the second son of the Duke of Hamilton.
His father might not like it, but that was his problem.
Besides, his father had only financially cut him off a few weeks ago. John hadn’t minded too much, as it meant he wouldn’t have Hamilton holding it over his head, although it had smarted a little. But the duke was not appreciative of what his son could do, and he wasn’t going to force it.
He had an income. It was just a matter of sustaining it.
“How much do you think you’ll get for these paintings?” Mark asked as he folded the brown paper around the painting. “The same as last time or better?”
John chuckled. “You’re optimistic that I would get more for these than my previous viewing. That was enough for us to last for the rest of the year.”
“Well, it’s a similar style, and you are popular even in your early years.” Mark shot him a grin. “I think you don’t know your own talents yet.”
“And you know more about it than me, do you?”
“I work for you. I think I know a lot about it.”
John shook his head with a smile as he tied string into a knot around one of the paintings. Mark Jones had been working for him for the last four years, since John had struck out to become an artist. The Welshman was a grafter, known for working hard, and his sense of humor was refreshing. John didn’t normally speak to servants in such an informal way, but he couldn’t help himself with Mark. The man was like a brother to him, and he was supportive while making sure John knew that he had to take care of himself at the same time.
Not like his own brother, who couldn’t care less about John and looked down his nose at his younger brother. John wasn’t someone he thought worthy of his attention, and that was fine. Simon Reece was not sophisticated at all.
It was nice having someone who supported him.
“Is that everything?” Mark asked, finishing with the final knot before straightening up. “I can’t remember how many paintings you said you were taking with us. There are so many.”
“Fifteen? When did you find the time to make fifteen paintings?”
“It’s called forgetting what sleep means.” John stood up and stretched. His body hurt from being in the same position for ages. He did a quick count of the paintings they had already wrapped. “That’s fourteen, though. Which one have we forgotten?”
Well, there were meant to be fourteen to be sold at the viewing. The fifteenth was merely as a show, an indication that he could do portraits for people. There was nothing wrong with trying to show off what he could do while he was trying to earn money from everything else. It was how he got some of his commissions, anyway.
Then he saw it. The painting was leaning against the fall wall of his studio, almost hidden behind a couple of blank canvases. Somehow, it had nearly gotten lost in the shuffle. He hurried over and slowly tugged it out, looking over it with a smile. It always made him smile to see this painting, although it was a little bittersweet. He recalled the history behind the piece, and it reminded him how awful things had been back then.
How anyone could live like that, John had no idea.
“Forgive me,” Mark said as he hurried over. “I had no idea it was there.”
“Don’t worry. At least we weren’t going to lose it when it’s this big.”
“I thought you said you were never going to sell it.”
“I’m not. I just want people to come to me and ask to have their portraits painted.” John carefully tugged the painting out. “You can never have too much work in my line of work.”
It was one of his more prized portraits. It was of a stunning-looking woman in her seventies, sitting on a settee in an elegant drawing room. She sat up straight with her hands folded in her lap, her expression serene. Her gown was of green silk, which matched the necklace against her throat. John had put in as much detail as possible.
Not bad for his first proper piece of work.
“I’ve been meaning to ask about this one,” Mark said as he leaned in and peered at the lady. “Who was she?”
“That’s my grandmother, Lady Sybil St. Clair, Dowager Duchess of Hamilton.” John felt his chest swell with pride. “She was a lovely lady, didn’t have a bad word to say about anyone. I loved spending time with her, even if it meant I had to interact with my grandfather.”
“The old Duke of Hamilton?”
John nodded. “Now he was a cantankerous old man. A bully, as well. He liked to be the one in control and he made sure everyone knew about it. Nobody liked him, not even Grandma. I don’t think they spoke fondly to each other in all the time I remember.”
John had heard the stories about that. His grandparents had been arranged to marry, and they didn’t care for each other. As soon as Lady Sybil had given her husband the heir and spare that he desired, he practically ignored her and treated her badly. Lady Sybil had ignored him, too, choosing to focus on her sons, including John’s father.
“I’ve heard about the old Duke of Hamilton. He almost lost all of the family fortune at one point, didn’t he?”
“He did. Fifty years ago.” John remembered what his father had said about it. “My father wasn’t born then, but even after he was born, they were still trying to get themselves out of debt—which wasn’t easy when Grandfather would go out and play cards, only to lose more again. He wasn’t good at playing cards at all, yet he kept going back. My father and uncle were embarrassed by the fact they were the children of a duke and they barely had any money. It wasn’t until Grandfather died and Father became the new duke that they were able to save and get the family coffers filled again.”
“Through a lot of hard work, I take it,” Mark said.
“Just so.” John leaned in a wiped a bit of dust off the frame. “That’s something I can praise Father for. He knew the importance of working hard, even with our current social status. It just takes one stupid incident to lose everything, and he didn’t want that.”
“Who knew a duke’s family could live in such hardship?” Mark grunted. “You’d think that would make him humble.”
“Some traits are inherited, and you can never get away from them.” John sighed and gestured at the frame. “Come on, let’s get this onto the cart. It needs to go in first before we do anything else.”
“So we have to put the heaviest painting in first?”
“Do you have a problem with that, Mark?”
Mark sighed and held up his hands. “No, sir. No problem at all.”
“Good. Now how about you help me with this and stop grumbling about it?”
His servant didn’t say anything in return, but John caught a smile on the man’s face as they began to move the frame. Even with his grumbling, Mark was loyal and he did as he was told. John knew that he could rely on him when the time needed.
When his family distanced themselves from him for making his own choices, his servant was there. John couldn’t ask for more than that.
“What’s the story about the emerald necklace?” Mark asked as their cart bounced along the street cobbles, his large hands expertly keeping the horse under control.
John gripped the edge of the seat, one hand automatically going back to steady the paintings in the cart itself. Though they had been wrapped and secured inside, he was still worried about them falling out and getting damaged. If any of them were not in perfect condition by the time they were hung up, they would be ruined. Even his friend wouldn’t be able to smooth-talk the ton into buying something that was ripped or creased or had a chipped frame. Tarquin was good, but he wasn’t that good.
“Why do you want to know about the necklace?”
“I’ve heard you speak about your grandmother before, and how she was a sentimental person. I seem to recall that she barely wore any jewelry, either, saying that it was kept at the bank just in case they needed finances again. Something about not wanting to tempt her husband into gambling something of her own.”
John was surprised Mark remembered that. He must have said that when he was slightly in his cups. Then again, he and Mark did share quite a lot of things, so it shouldn’t really be a surprise.
“As far as I know, it’s gone. The reason Grandma left her jewelry in the bank was because of that necklace.” John smoothed a hand over the top painting, relieved that it wasn’t raining. “Grandfather went into her jewelry box and took the necklace to gamble with. Something that was valued at several thousand pounds. And he lost it to the Earl of Norton.”
Mark glanced at him before turning his eyes back to the road. The horse was moving along at a calm pace, not fast but not slow, either. They had plenty of time.
“I see. He stole from her and lost it because he couldn’t control his urges.”
“Something along those lines.”
“I bet the old duke wasn’t happy about that when she locked all of her other pieces away.”
John chuckled dryly. “According to Father, that’s an understatement. He was furious, but Grandma held fast. She didn’t often stand up to him, but this was one thing she couldn’t accept. Apparently, that emerald necklace was very important to her, and Grandfather had just thrown it away because his gambling was more important to him.”
“I’m surprised she endured him all those years.”
“She did end up living in another one of their residences for several years after that. I think they only spent a month together over Christmas for the children’s sake and then went their separate ways again.”
“Not even for social gatherings.”
“Only on their own.” John didn’t know how they managed to get through that when people were bound to talk about it. “But things were different back then, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
Mark shook his head. “I can’t believe some of the things people got away with back then. I don’t think I would be able to cope living fifty years ago.”
“You can’t cope with living in the here and now, never mind fifty years ago.”
Mark laughed. “You’re not far off, sir. So, this necklace is now with the Earl of Norton’s family?”
“No. It’s gone.”
“How? Did he lose it as well?”
John remembered the story from his father and the scathing remarks toward the family that seemed to bring such fury despite everything. He had heard it many times over the years, sometimes in passing and other times in great detail.
“The earl left the club that same night and was attacked. He didn’t wake up for ten days, and when he did, they realized the necklace was gone. It was nowhere to be found. Everyone thought that Norton had been attacked by someone who stole the necklace from him when his pockets were searched.”
“And nobody’s seen it since?”
“It’s probably been broken up into pieces and the gems sold. They would be worth quite a lot separately as well as together.” John shrugged. “God knows. It was never found, and nobody reported having bought an emerald. Well, nobody reputable, at least.”
“So why add a piece of jewelry that nobody’s seen in years to the painting?” Mark questioned, arching an eyebrow at his employer. “Is that your way of reuniting your grandmother with her necklace again?”
“I suppose. I know it meant a lot to her, although I’m not entirely sure why. Something about sentimental value, but nobody really talked about it. I just know that the mere mention of it made my grandfather really angry.” John sat back in his seat as the cart gently rocked. The motion was soothing despite the smell left behind by the other horses on the stones. “Oddly, Grandfather has told our family over the years that under no circumstances were we to associate with the Norton family. That they were bad news and are not to be trusted.”
“He wanted you to disassociate from an entire family because he lost in a game of cards to one person?”
“Basically, yes. I remember telling him when I was a child that I thought it was silly, and that resulted in my getting a slap.” John rubbed at his jaw. “It still stings when I remember it.”
Mark stared at him. “He actually struck you?”
“The one and only time. And be careful, Mark, you’re going to steer us onto the pavement.” John waited until Mark righted their path and they weren’t in danger of bumping over the curb. “I never brought it up around him again, but I still thought it was ridiculous. I understand resenting someone for winning something you supposedly own, but to extend that to the rest of the family is just…”
“Pathetic?” Mark suggested.
“I’m glad you never met my grandfather with an attitude like that.”
His manservant grinned. “I wouldn’t be out of trouble if I worked for him. But I do agree that it sounds silly to keep away from the entire family. I presume none of them were involved?”
“No, the current Earl of Norton hadn’t even been thought of. The old earl wasn’t married by that point, but that didn’t stop Grandfather.”
John had heard about the Norton family over the years. And his father and uncle had said the same things during his childhood. John had had to listen to these stories about the Norton family, and he was sure they were not real. Nobody could be that cruel and foul, never mind an entire family. Maybe it happened, but he couldn’t believe it. He wanted to be open-minded.
It was easier said than done when it was all around him. John had no idea how he would behave if he actually ended up around a member of the family. He would have liked to think that he would be respectful and treat them like anyone else, but at the same time, he wasn’t sure. When one listened to something many times over the years, it became entrenched in one’s personality. John had a feeling things would be awkward if he ever crossed paths with a member of that family.
But he didn’t have to worry about that. He had a gallery viewing to get on with, and concerns about how he could make his paintings stand out from the other artists he would be sharing the space with. John hadn’t wanted to share with anyone, but while he had a lot of paintings, they wouldn’t be enough to fill the space, so his friend had paired the two of them together. He would have to put up with it.
As long as he earned more than the other artist, he would be content with that.
They pulled up outside the gallery, and John jumped down, double-checking his paintings before he went inside. They didn’t need to talk about his family’s daft feud with the Earl of Norton anymore. There was a gallery viewing to deal with, and money to earn. That was more important.
His family wouldn’t understand, but John didn’t care.
“A Lady’s Artful Courtship” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lady Molly Cavanagh, a determined and independent artist, finds herself entangled in the secrets of a long-lost emerald necklace that once ignited a feud between her own and another powerful family. Drawn into a treasure hunt, Molly’s passion for art and the mystery of the necklace collide when she encounters John St. Clair, an enigmatic artist with a rebellious spirit and a hidden connection to the necklace’s past.
While concealing her true identity, the attraction she feels for this mysterious man only deepens…
John St. Clair, a talented artist estranged from his aristocratic family, seeks solace in his reclusive life, defying societal expectations. Unbeknownst to him, Molly Cavanagh, the granddaughter of his grandfather’s rival, enters his life with her captivating presence. Little does he know that Molly harbors a secret agenda—to unravel the mysteries of a secret deeply rooted in their families’ bitter history.
His own most well-kept secret though is that he has fallen madly in love with her…
United by the common quest, Molly and John find themselves caught in a web of deception, family feuds, and a love that they insist on denying. Will they unearth the long-lost family heirloom and expose the truth, or will the secrets of the past continue to cast a shadow on their forbidden love and ultimately separate them forever?
“A Lady’s Artful Courtship” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.