Years ago, Captain Jack Endicott's half-sister vanished after a carriage accident. He now sets out to honor his father's dying wish and find her. Jack plans to open a lavish gaming parlor and hire only beautiful ladies to deal cards, possibly finding his sister. All he needs is a little luck. Instead he finds prim schoolteacher Allie Silver, who needs a guardian for one of her most precocious pupils. With such an unlikely duo, all bets are off in a wild game of romance.
The Honorable Jonathan Endicott, or Captain Jack as he was known, was finally home from the wars.
Six years of war had been hell, terrifying and tedious in turn. Peace was simply boring. The first peace, the false lull between the Corsican’s exile and his return, had been a pageant. Jack had thrown himself into the festivities with the same fervor he’d ridden into pitched battles, with his heart leading the way. Wine, women, and who cared what song they were playing if he could hold a sweet-smelling lady in his arms?
Jack’s older brother had even traveled to the Peace Congress with his bride to reunite their small family, making the celebrations more joyous yet. Everyone knew Ace had to take a wife, for he was Alexander Chalfont Endicott, Earl of Carde, with a succession to ensure, the poor blighter.
If Jack had thought about it, he would have guessed Ace would hide behind his spectacles, studying the field of possibilities, researching their pedigrees, examining each filly for temperament and soundness before making his choice of countess. He was that meticulous and logical about everything else and always had been. Who would have thought he’d fall arse over Adam’s apple for skinny little Nelly Sloane, their deceased stepmother’s young cousin? Why, Ace had helped Jack put frogs in Nelly’s bed, although he had drawn the line at snakes down her back.
Of course Nelly, who insisted upon Nell now that she was Lady Carde, was not little, skinny or merely someone’s poor relation. She was all grown up, gorgeous in looks and giving in nature, great of heart. In other words, Nelly was everything Jack would have wished for in a wife—for his brother. The best of brothers, Ace had been Jack’s anchor since they were orphaned as boys. He deserved nothing less than the perfect bride, his own true love.
The love Ace and Nell shared glistened more than all the jewels at all the balls in Vienna, and softened the hardest hearts, turned to stone by years of war. Some day Jack would find a woman like that—after he had waltzed and wined and wooed his way through the ranks of warm and willing womanhood.
Vienna had been as glowing and glorious as a springtime rainbow, but it had been as fleeting.
The current victory celebrations in London were a travesty, abhorrent to Jack. The country should have been in mourning for all the men they had lost, for all the blood shed at Waterloo. Instead they were holding fireworks and festivals in the streets of London, sparing no expense while the returning veterans were begging in the alleys.
Jack took part in as few of the events, public or private, as possible. He sold his commission as soon as he could, refused a position at the war office despite the promise of a knighthood, and burned his uniform. He locked his pistols away, vowing never to kill another man, and gave his sword as a belated christening gift to his brother and Nell’s first born son, Jason, named after the previous earl, Jack and Alex’s father.
Jack was six and twenty, home to stay, his life ahead of him. So what was he going to do with it?
“You are always welcome here,” Alex said when Jack traveled to Carde Hall in Northampshire. Nell was breeding again, and feeling too ill to travel to London. They had begged him to come to Cardington to visit. Or to stay, making his home with them. Jack thought he’d sooner rejoin the army than sit by while his brother and sister-in-law made sheep’s eyes at each other and cooed over their young son. How many times could even a doting uncle chuck a babe under the chin—under the four chins the little dumpling seemed to have—before going cross-eyed? And with another brat—baby—on the way, Jack would feel like a trespasser, a voyeur, if he did not go batty from boredom.
“You could take over some of the duties of the earldom,” Ace proposed, while Jack pondered how soon he could make his departure. “Act as overseer for me. I hate to leave Nell and the baby to travel to all the properties and holdings. Appearing in Parliament is duty enough.”
“I know nothing of crops and cows. And wish to know less.”
“Then you could handle some of the financial affairs.”
Jack used a word he should never have uttered in front of a gently bred female. “My apologies, Nell. I have been too long out of polite society.”
Nell nodded graciously, turning back to embroidering tiny roses on a tiny white gown for the daughter she hoped to have this time.
“But we both know I have no head for investments. I let you handle my own accounts, don’t I? By the way, thank you for making my inheritance grow, far more than I could have hoped. The only numbers I am good with is gambling odds.”
“You have the wit, just not the patience. As always.” Alex wiped his spectacles while he considered his sibling’s future. Jack was taller, broader, far more muscular than Alex was, but he was still his little brother. They shared the same dark hair, although Jack’s was curlier, and cut longer. They had the same brown eyes, but Jack’s vision needed no glasses. Unfortunately, they had the same nose. Lucky Jack had his broken, more than once, it seemed, so the Endicott eagle beak was not as prominent. Alex said a silent prayer skyward for his future daughter’s feminine features, then turned his attention back to Jack.
Alex wanted his restless brother here, safe, but he knew the decision was not his to make. “You do have that piece of farmland in Kent from our mother,” he reminded Jack.
“What, I should sit back and watch the turnips grow?”
Alex’s gaze traveled to his wife’s burgeoning belly. “There are worse things.”
Not for Jack, there were not.
“Then go back to London and take up the high life. Your bank account can stand the expense, and the estate can afford the rest.”
“What, I should live on my brother’s largesse? What do you take me for?”
“A hero, that’s what,” Alex promptly replied, and Jack felt his cheeks grow warm, knowing his brother believed it.