She turned to address her audience. "Does anyone else want to try to snatch me?"
Every single man inside the tavern shouted his denial. And they kept shaking their heads in unison.
It was an amusing sight, but Christina hid her smile. She didn't want them to think she was laughing at them.
"Is your promise true?" she demanded, just to make certain it was safe to put her knife away.
Christina did smile then. She couldn't help herself. The men's vigorous nods were too amusing a sight.
"Arthur, go and wash your cuts now," Christina instructed over her shoulder as she walked over to the bar to wait for the attendant. "I shall send medicine to soothe the sting just as soon as I'm finished here. Does anyone happen to know where Mr. Bleak Bryan is?" she asked the silent men.
"Connor went to fetch him, miss," a man called out.
Christina smiled at the thin little man. She noticed then that he was holding cards in his hand. "Are you having a game of chance?" she called out, biding her time until Bryan arrived and trying at the same time to ease the tension in the room. "I'm sorry if I interrupted you, sir."
"No, no," the man replied. "I couldn't get no one to play."
"Why is that?"
"Nitty is too lucky, miss," another shouted out.
"Are you a patient man, Nitty?" Christina asked.
"Don't rightly know, your grace," Nitty answered.
Christina decided against explaining that she shouldn't be addressed as "your grace." The man looked very nervous to her.
"Shall we find out?" Christina asked. Her husky laughter warmed smiles onto the men's faces. "I would like to learn to play cards, sir, and if you have the time and the inclination, now would be fine with me. I must wait to speak to the owner…"
"I would be honored to teach you the ways," Nitty announced. His shoulders straightened. "Poppy, clear a space for the lady," he ordered. "Get her a clean seat, Preston. What game were you wanting to learn, miss?" he asked.
"What game do men like to play?"
"Well now, your husband's game is poker, miss, but of course you wouldn't be wanting to learn—"
"Oh, but I would," Christina announced.
"Here, miss," another shouted. "I'll stake you to a few coins when you've caught on."
"To bet with," another eager man said.
Christina couldn't believe how helpful the men were. The man named Poppy made a dramatic flourish with his arm as he bowed. "Your chair awaits, my lady," he announced. "Spit's dry now. It's clean as can be."
After taking her seat at the round table, Christina nodded to Nitty. "Do you know my husband, then?" she asked as she watched him flip the cards together. "You said poker was his game," she added as explanation for her question.
"We all know of him, miss," Poppy announced over her shoulder.
"Oh, that is nice," Christina said. "Now then, Nitty. Explain this game to me. Thank you for your coins, sir, and you as well, and… oh, I don't believe I need this much money, gentlemen," she added when the coins mounted into a heap in front of her. "You are all so very generous. My husband is fortunate to have such good friends."
Christina's husband was thinking much the same thought as he finished giving his orders to five seedy-looking but very loyal men behind the tavern. Bryan stood by his side, wishing with all his heart he could take part in the charade.
"Damn it all, Lyon, I wish I could be there to see Rhone's expression. Remember, lad," he told the man who was going to imitate Jack, "to stay in the background. Your eyes aren't as green as Rhone's are. Someone might notice."
"Bryan, you got to come back inside," the bartender nagged for the third time. "I'm telling you a fight is brewing. Didn't you hear the screams?"
"I only hear men having a good time, Connor. Whoever sparked the fight must have changed his mind. Now get back inside before I'm robbed blind."
Bryan scowled Connor inside, then stayed beside Lyon, listening to him advise the men.
A sudden roar of laughter caught his attention. Bryan nodded to Lyon and then strolled back inside the tavern to see what everyone was cheering about. He immediately noticed the crowd had gathered around the corner table, and he started forward just as several men shifted their positions. He was able to see the occupants of the table then. After a long disbelieving minute, Bryan turned tail and ran out the back door.
"Lyon, are you finished yet?"
"I was just leaving," Lyon answered. "Why? Do you have a problem?" he asked. The tone in Bryan's voice had put him on his guard. His friend sounded like he was strangling.
"It isn't my problem, it's yours," Bryan answered.
When Lyon tried to walk inside, Bryan blocked the entrance with his arm. "Are you still a betting man, Lyon?"
Lyon let Bryan see his exasperation. "I am."
"Then I'll wager you're about to get the surprise of your life," Bryan said. He moved to the side, then crooked his thumb. "Your surprise is waiting inside."
Lyon didn't have time for foolishness. He hurried inside, believing Bryan wanted him to disarm a man or two.
The crowd of men blocked his view of the table. "There's no danger here," he told Bryan. "What's the attraction, I wonder," he added. "Does Nitty have a new victim for his card tricks?"
"Oh, it's a card game all right," Bryan drawled out. "Frankie, how's the game going?"
"The little miss just bested Nitty with a paltry pair of tens," someone called out from the crowd.
"Ain't my fault," Nitty bellowed goodnaturedly. "She's got a quick mind. Why, she took to the game the way crabs takes—"
"Watch your mouth, Nitty," another man shouted. "The Marquess of Lyonwood's woman is respectable, you stupid little sod. Talk clean in front of her."
The Marquess of Lyonwood's woman.
He couldn't have heard what he thought he'd just heard. No, it couldn't be…
Lyon turned to Bryan. His friend was slowly nodding. Lyon still had trouble believing. He walked over to the crowd. Some of the more anxious men moved out of his way.
The cheering abruptly stopped. Christina wasn't aware of the tension in the atmosphere, or the fact that her husband was standing directly behind Nitty, staring at her.
She was concentrating on her hand, her frown intense. Nitty, on the other hand, was afraid to look behind him. He could see the expressions on the faces of the men who stood behind Christina. None of them looked too happy. "I believe I'll fold, miss."
Christina didn't look up, but she drummed her fingertips on the tabletop and stared at the five cards she held in her other hand. "No, Nitty, you can't fold now. You told me I had to put up or fold." She pushed the pile of coins into the center, then glanced up to smile at her new friend. "I shall see you."
Nitty dropped his cards on the table. "Uh, miss, you didn't have to put all the coins in the pot. I've got you beat with my three kings, you see, but you can have the coins back. It's only a teaching game."
The men nodded. Some grumbled their approval while others cast fearful glances in Lyon's direction.
Christina didn't dare look up from her hand. Nitty had warned her that the expressions on players' faces often revealed what they held in their hands. Since Nitty had already shown her his cards, she wasn't sure if that law still applied, but she wasn't about to take any chances… not with the wonderful cards she'd been dealt.
"Fair is fair, Nitty. Winner takes all. Didn't you say that?"
"I did, miss," Nitty stammered out.
Christina placed two sevens down on the table. She'd deliberately withheld the other three cards. "Gentlemen," she told the men hovering around her, "Prepare to collect your winnings."
"But miss, you've got to best my…"
Nitty stopped his explanation when Christina flipped over the other cards.
"Good God, she's got three aces," Nitty whispered. His voice was filled with relief. Lyon's woman had won the hand.
Christina's husky laughter wasn't echoed by her audience. They all watched the Marquess of Lyonwood, awaiting his judgment. He didn't look too happy. If the powerful Marquess wasn't amused, then neither were they.
Christina was busy stacking the coins in several piles. "Nitty? While we continue to wait for Mr. Bleak's return, I would like you to show me how to cheat. Then, you see, I'll know how it's done and won't be easily tricked."
Nitty didn't answer her request. Christina glanced up at her teacher.
The man looked terrified. The silence finally registered in her mind. She didn't understand until she looked up and found her husband staring down at her.
Her reaction was immediate, her surprise obvious. "Lyon, what are you doing here?"
Her sweet, welcoming smile infuriated him beyond measure. The woman appeared to be pleased to see him.
Christina's smile did falter as her husband continued to stand there staring at her without giving her a greeting.
A tremor of apprehension slowly straightened her shoulders. The truth finally settled in her mind. Lyon was furious. Christina frowned in confusion. "Lyon?" she asked, her voice hesitant. "Is something the matter?"
Lyon ignored her question. His cold gaze swept over the crowd of men.
He cleared the tavern with one word. His voice had cracked like a whip. While Christina watched, the men rushed to do his bidding. Nitty tripped over his chair in his hurry to leave the tavern.
"You've forgotten your coins," Christina called after the men.
"Do not say another word."
Lyon had roared his command to her. Christina's eyes widened in disbelief. She stood up to face her husband. "You dare to raise your voice to me in front of strangers? In front of our friend, Bleak Bryan?"
"I damn well do dare," Lyon bellowed.
The chilling rebuke stunned her. She turned to look at his friend, caught his sympathetic expression, and was suddenly so ashamed she wanted to weep.
"You are humiliating me in front of another warrior." Her voice trembled and she clasped her hands together.
He believed she was afraid of him. Her forlorn expression cut through his haze of anger. Lyon's expression slowly changed until he looked almost in control.
"Tell me what you're doing here," Lyon demanded. His voice was still harsh with his suppressed anger. Lyon considered that a victory of sorts over his temper, for he still felt the need to shout.
She hadn't understood the danger. Lyon kept repeating that statement inside his head until it became a litany. No, she hadn't realized what could have happened to her…
He was all too aware of the horrors awaiting a gentle lady in this part of London. Lyon forced himself to block the black possibilities from his thoughts, knowing he'd never regain control if he didn't.
Christina couldn't look at her husband. She stood with her head bowed, staring at the tabletop.
"Lyon, your wife must have had a terribly important reason for coming here," Bryan stated, trying to ease the tension between husband and wife.
Christina's head jerked up to look at Bryan. "My husband is angry because I came here?" she asked, her voice incredulous.
Bryan didn't know what to say to that absurd question. He decided to ask one of his own. "You didn't know what a sorry area this is?"
She had to take a deep breath before she spoke again. Her hands were fisted at her sides. "I will go wherever I wish to go… whenever I want."
Oh, hell, Bryan thought to himself, she's done it now. He gave Lyon a quick glance before looking back at Christina.
The sweet innocent didn't know her husband very well yet. Why, she'd just waved a red flag in front of his face.
Lyon wasn't over his initial anger. It helped little to prod him the way Christina was doing. Bryan rushed to intervene before Lyon had time to react to his wife's ill-chosen remark. "Why don't you both sit down? I'll leave you to your privacy…"
"Why? He already humiliated me in front of you," Christina whispered.
"Christina, we're going home. Now."
Lyon's voice had turned into a soft whisper. Bryan hoped Christina would realize that wasn't a good sign.
No, she hadn't realized. She turned to glare at her husband. Bryan had to shake his head over her indiscretion.
Lyon moved with the speed of lightning. Christina suddenly found herself pinned up against the back wall, her sides blocked by his hands. His face was only inches away from hers, and the heat of his anger was hot enough to burn.
"This is how it works in England, Christina. The wife does as her husband orders. She goes only where the husband allows her to go, only when he allows it. Got that?"
Bryan was pacing behind Lyon's back. His heart went out to the delicate flower Lyon had wed. The poor dear had to be terrified. Why, even he was a bit nervous. Lyon's temper still had the power to frighten him.
When Christina answered her husband, Bryan realized she wasn't frightened at all. "You have shamed me. Where I come from, that is sufficient reason for a wife to cut her hair, Lyon."
He was trying to calm down, but her absurd remark made him crazy. "What the hell does that mean?"
She didn't want to take the time to explain. No, Christina could feel her anger burning inside her. She wanted to scream at him. But she wanted to weep, too. That made little sense to her, but she was too upset to reason the contrary emotions clear. "When a woman cuts her hair, it is because she has lost someone. A wife cuts her hair when her husband dies… or when she casts him aside."
"That is the most ridiculous notion I've ever heard of." Lyon muttered. "Do you realize what you're implying? You're speaking of divorce."
The enormity of her folly and her outrageous remarks suddenly hit him full force. Lyon dropped his forehead on top of hers, closed his eyes, and started to laugh. Her blessed arrogance had pushed his anger away.
"I knew you'd change when you knew my past, you inferior Englishman," she raged against him. "You're nothing but a… stupid little sod," she announced, remembering one of the men's earlier comments to another.
"You and I are going to have a long talk," Lyon drawled. "Come along," he ordered as he grabbed hold of her hand and started to pull her after him.