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A Game of Patience
by Elisabeth Fairchild
What the critics say:
4 STARS --"TOP PICK!" "A GAME of PATIENCE is another winning hand for the super talented Elisabeth Fairchild's growing legion of fans."
Teresa Roebuck- ROMANTIC TIMES
"Readers will be fascinated by the brilliant detail woven into the telling of this tale."
- ROMANCE FICTION FORUM
Road To Romance review it here!
Eight year old Patience Ballard waited.
Seated in the tufted leather window seat in the yellow drawing room, she sat playing the game that bore her name, feeling quite contrary to both. The ormolu clock on the mantle served her only companion, its languid ticking echoed by the gentle slap of her cards against the dark and light polished wood of a small, Italian inlay card table: the eight of diamonds, the queen of lozenges, not the face she was looking for.
She drummed the fingers of her right hand upon the table, and pounced upon another card. Still no knave of hearts.
What she waited for she could not name, but like the missing heart it tingled in her bones, her fingertips, her toes. It poised, just ahead of her, just out of reach, in the periphery of her vision, waiting for her to catch up to it. Something intangible and wonderful. Life-changing.
She did not want to wait. She longed to throw herself into the anticipated mystery, that wonderful unknown, but knew that was not how this game was played. She must wait, as a clever player of Patience waits for kings and queens, knaves and aces to show their faces, one by one.
No one had noticed her new ruby red dress.
Her mother had assured her they would, that she would be rewarded for the pains of holding still for innumerable fittings, for the stays she must wear to fit into it. Unending compliments and attention mama had promised.
But it was not true. Lady Royston had murmured something about how pretty she looked, and Lady Cavendish had smiled and nodded in agreement, but that was all that had happened. No one else cared how she looked. Certainly the one she had hoped might give her a compliment had said nothing.
Above her, songbirds in cages had been painted on the ceiling, and in the canary yellow damask that lined the walls, birds flew. In her stupid, pinching stays she sat equally caged, while the clock chimed the death of her childhood--her freedom--and the cards were trapped, face down against the table.
"One ought not run and tumble in such a dress like any common hoyden," her mother had admonished her firmly.
Run and tumble? Indeed, one could not. She could barely sit calmly, stiff as a playing card, without groaning in discomfort.
Added to her general state of breathlessness, the cards her mother insisted she play rather than traipsing about with the lads like some mannerless hoyden, seemed bent on hiding from her. She needed a king. The king of hearts, and she had the strongest feeling he was buried beneath her face cards, where it began to look as if he would remain unavailable.
Patience was not quite clear just what a hoyden was, only that it was undesirable to be one, but she would much rather be playing the part, if that was what she had been doing these many years, with the boys, Richard and Pip.
Of the two boys Patience's mother liked Richard best. He was, she told Patience, a very smart lad, clever at his studies, not given to pranks neat and tidy with his belongings, and impeccably polite. A tall, dark, serious lad, Richard was the blackbird to Pip's canary. He was the much younger of two sons, and he and his brother, Chase, did not get along.
"A dependable lad," her mother called him. "No worries over that one." Unlike his brother Chase, she meant. And unlike Pip. Dear, darling Pip.
Patience was in love with Pip. She meant to marry him one day she had informed her mother, if marry she must.
Her mother had nodded, brows arched, and said, "You will tell me when the Viscount asks for your hand?"
"You would not say no to him, would you?" she had asked.
Her mother had barked a laugh. "Say no to the Earl of Royston's eldest son? I should think not, my dear."
Patience was not surprised to be met with such a reply.
Pip's real name was Philip Yorke, Viscount Royston, for he was firstborn, and would one day inherit his father, the Earl's title and fortune, but everyone called him Pip because he was bright and quick, and small for his age. Philip seemed far too serious a name for a fellow always laughing, and jesting, and playing clever pranks. Pip suited him perfectly.
Everyone loved Pip. He was the golden apple of his father, the Earl of Royston's eye, a favorite of his younger brothers, Charles and Geoffrey, the bosom bow of Richard Cavendish, second son to Lord William Cavendish, the third Marquess of Cavendish.
No one denied Pip anything. Not his father. Not his mother. Certainly none of the servants dared question his wishes, and so when he ran into the room as she sat grumbling at the deuce of coins she had just unearthed, and raced at once to where she sat, and dove to the floor where he skidded on the polished parquet to a position beneath the table, shaking her neat rows of cards completely out of alignment, she was not entirely amazed that he should shout up at her, "Need a place to hide!"
She did not question his right to bump against her knees, wrinkling the sumptuous, ruby red riches of her new, very grown-up Christmas gown, only remarked crossly, "Watch it. You upset my cards."
"Sorry." He peeped up at her from beneath the lip of the table, his eyes the blue of forget-me-nots, thickly fringed in golden lashes, long and curling like a girl's.
"Such a pretty boy," her mother had once said of him.
He was pretty. In the same way her sister's buff-colored spaniel was pretty, all silky hair, and big eyes.
"Why do you not play with us?" he whispered, the big eyes narrowing. "Do you not like us any more? Or have you come to care for cards more than games?"
Patience sighed, and would have responded at length had she not heard footsteps in the hall. "He's coming," she hissed. "Are you sure he cannot see you?"
Pip chortled and lifted the hem of her skirt, and plunged beneath the folds of fabric, with a muffled, "Now he can't."
Before she could insist that he had no business beneath her new skirt, breathing hotly into the thin muslin of her petticoat, his hand hot and sweaty upon her stockinged ankle, Richard strode into the room, his long legs making short work of the distance between them. "There you are, Ballard," he said. "Haven't seen Pip have you?"
Pip gave her leg a suggestive nudge.
"I have not set foot outside of this room for the past three quarters of an hour," she said truthfully.
"Playing Patience, are you? How goes the game?"
"Miserably," she said. "I would much rather be playing hide and seek with the two of you."
"How did you know we were playing . . ." He stopped, and glanced about the room, his gaze falling at last on the table where the black and white zig-zagged backs of her cards staggered in uneven rows.
Beneath her skirt, Pip sat very still, his fingers tightening a trifle, caging her ankle.
Richard's raven dark head tilted. A tight little smile touched his lips. His gaze slid away from the cards, a quick glance. Had he looked beneath the table?
Patience was certain he had found them out. A flush of heat rose to her cheeks, embarrassment surfacing. She could hear her mother's voice in her head. "How does a young lady explain a lad hiding under her dress? It is most unseemly."
She opened her mouth, searching for the right words.
"Pretty dress," Richard said carefully.
She clapped her mouth shut in surprise. A compliment was not at all what she had expected.
His eyes, a dark moss agate green, framed by blackbird winged brows, searched hers most intently. The smile was completely missing from his lips. "Is it new?"
She blushed, not so much because he noticed, and she was pleased that at last someone should notice, but because Pip was pinching at her calf.
"Yes. Do you like it?"
"Bright," he said, and then a little shyly, lashes fanning darkly against the pallor of his cheek. "Looks soft."
"Yes." She stroked the sleeve, and gave Pip a kick. Did he mean to bruise her? "Velvet. I love the feel of it."
Richard's hand lifted, as if he meant to touch the fabric. Halfway there, he froze, face flushing.
"Go on," she said, holding out her arm. "It's lovely."
Beneath her skirt, Pip shifted, both hands ringing her ankle, giving her leg a little cat-clawed shake.
Richard, his face gone almost as scarlet as the dress, leaned close enough that he might brush the tips of his fingers across the sleeve, fleet as a bird on the wing. "Nice," he murmured.
She shrugged. "I begin to dislike it."
"Oh?" His brows rose.
"Because of the dress I cannot play as I usually do. Mama is afraid I will get it dirty, or tear the hem."
"Ah," he said, using the exact same tone, the same nod his father sometimes used, as if he understood entirely. He clasped his hands in the small of his back--a blackbird with wings folded. The color in his cheeks subsided. "Perhaps we could join you in a hand of cards, and save hide and seek for another day, when you are more suitably attired."
The idea, even his unusually formal language pleased her, and yet she was all too conscious of Pip crouched catlike against her knee, his head making a tent of her velvet skirt, a breeze wafting up under the heavy fabric, chilling her everywhere but those places he touched. His hands, the bulk of him leaning into her thigh, were too hot.
Her cheeks warmed. Her mother would faint at once if she ever found out her daughter had allowed a lad freedom to tuck herself beneath her nether limbs.
"That would be lovely," Patience said, and gathered up the deck with a sweep of her hands. "But perhaps you had best find Pip first."
Richard nodded, stepping back from the card table. "No telling where he's gotten off to," he said quietly, and with a quick glance, a shy, smiling glance, he strode from the room as swiftly as he had entered it.
"Gad!" Pip cried out when his footsteps had faded, and he crawled out from under the table. "I thought he would never leave. Whyever did you engage him in conversation? Did you not realize I was suffocating down here?" Giving the hem of her skirt a little kick he said, "Bloody velvet was devilish hot."
His hair did look a bit disheveled, a trifle damp at the nape of his neck.
"I did not ask you to jump under my dress," she said sharply. "It was dreadfully improper of you to do so. I think he knew."
"Richard? Don't be daft. He's not that clever. He would have said something if he knew."
Of course. He would have. It would have meant him winning the game, wouldn't it? And yet, she could not stop playing the moment in her mind, the moment he had looked down at the table, at the crooked rows of cards. Something in his eyes had been so watchful, so intently watchful. Deep within her she was filled with the conviction. He knew.
He knew, and had chosen not to embarrass her.
"Pretty dress," he had said. The compliment meant more to her than anyone else who had noticed the dress. Certainly Pip had not said a word in praise.
She smiled, and wondered if her mother was not right after all. It was time for her to behave like a young lady, not a hoyden.