Passing Madame Claude's, she reached the mouth of the alley and hesitated. It was extremely dark in there. And there was a most unpleasant odor emanating from it.

Biting her lip, Charlie peered into the darkness nervously, then took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and plunged into the alley. The first thing that overwhelmed her was the odor. It smelled as if something had crawled into one of the alley's dark corners and died. Covering her nose with distaste, she continued forward, peering carefully into the shadows, trying to ensure that she was not passing anyone who might come out from behind and jump her.

She might as well not have bothered. It was impossible to penetrate the inky blackness around her.

"Hurry up, damn you."

Charlie stiffened at that husky whisper from ahead, eyes widening as she searched the black wall she faced. She had just spotted a slightly darker shape among the blackness when the voice hissed impatiently again. "Come on.

Come on.

We don't have all night."

Swallowing, she took several steps toward the shape, then paused to ask warily, "Is that you?"

There was no mistaking his disgust as the shape shifted impatiently.

"Who else would it be, Charlotte? Now give me the damn money."


Charlie grimaced at her proper name. "How do I know you will not demand more? Or tell on us?"

"You do not. You will just have to take your chances."

Charlie scowled at the shape. He sounded educated. One of the nobility.

A gentleman, she guessed, even though blackmailing and forcing a lady to meet him in this alley were hardly the actions of a gentleman. He was probably one of her uncle's mates. Which was worrisome. The last thing she and Beth needed was his informing their uncle of their whereabouts. She was trying to come up with a way to elicit a promise that he would not do so when the blackmailer suddenly shrank back into the darkness, whispering angrily, "I told you to come alone."

"I did," Charlie said with some surprise.

"Charles! Is that you?"

Gasping, she whirled toward the mouth of the alley, recognizing Radcliffe's backlit form at once. "What are you doing here?" she cried with alarm.

"More to the point, what are you doing here?" he snapped, starting up the alley toward her. "You are suppose to be at home resting."

"Get him out of here," the blackmailer hissed behind her.

"Good Lord! This alley smells." Pausing, Radcliffe tugged a handkerchief from his pocket, covered his nose, and continued forward.

"Go!" the voice from the darkness hissed, giving Charlie a shove forward.

Radcliffe grabbed her by the collar as she stumbled forward, then turned to drag her back out of die alley. "This is deplorable. Hanging about in alleyways.

What did you do, spot me following you and duck in here to try to lose me?"

"Of course not," Charlie snapped, pulling free and straightening her collar before turning to glare at him. "And what are you doing following me?"

"Trying to keep you out of trouble."

"I am not in trouble."

An inelegant snort was his only response.

"My lord," Charlie got out between clenched teeth. "I am a full grown wo er man. I do not need a keeper."

"I fully agree, and if it were not for your sister, I would leave you to ruin yourself."

"What has my sister to do with this?"

"Did you really think I would allow you to gamble her money away?" When the lad stopped walking to peer at him blankly, Radcliffe stopped as well. "I saw Mr.

Silverpot this afternoon, Charles. I know about thejewels you sold. I wasn't sure if Elizabeth knew what you were up to, so I wanted to confront you alone about it but did not get the chance. When you said you were feeling weary and wished to stay in and rest this evening, I decided our talk could wait until tomorrow."

Charlie arched one eyebrow at this. "What changed your mind?"

"Elizabeth." .

Charlie stiffened. "Beth told you"

"Nay. Nay. But she was so distracted and anxious on the way to the ball, I realized that something was amiss. I hurried home just in time to see you hail the hack. I had my driver follow you. As soon as I saw the hack drop you off, I realized what your plans were, and I will not allow it."

"Allow what exactly?" she asked curiously.

"I will not allow you to gamble away yours and Elizabeth's money," he snapped impatiently. "Now give them to me."

"Gamble the money away?" she murmured with bewilderment, ignoring the hand he held out for the coins. "How did you come to the conclusion that that was my intent?"

Radcliffe heaved a sigh of exasperation. "Charles, you had the driver drop you off right in front of a gaming hall."

"I did?" she asked with surprise. Charlie had not been paying close attention to where she'd been dropped off, she'd been too busy watching the riffraff on the street.

"You know you did," Radcliffe snapped. "But I did not go in," she argued.

"You must have seen the Radcliffe coach pull up as you alit," he said with a shrug.

"All aye. I must have." A slow grin began to spread across her face. His explanation for this night's jaunt was far preferable to the truth, and while she could no longer pay the blackmailer tonight, she had no doubt he would arrange another meeting. The scoundrel could hardly hold her accountable for this night's failure. Especially since she was sure he had overheard every word of the discussion she and Radcliffe had just had.

"Well, you have found me out," she confessed eagerly now. "I suppose gambling is in my blood. Runs in the farmly. All, well, 'Tis for the best that you stopped me, I suppose Let's go." Grabbinghis arm, she urged him toward the mouth of the alley, eager to escape the fetid atmosphere.

"Just a moment." Radcliffe turned on her grimly and held out his hand.

"What?" She glanced warily from his hand to his face and back.

"The money."

"Oh." Her lips twisted with displeasure. "There is no need for that. I will not gamble it away now."

"The money, Charles," he repeated firmly and Charlie shifted impatiently.

"It is mine, Radcliffe."

"Yours and Beth's. Were you the only one involved, I would let you gamble the coins away. But they are yours and Elizabeth's. Now, give them to me."

Her teeth ground together in frustration. "I shall give them to Beth."

"I shall give them to Beth." He pushed his hand out until it nearly touched her bound and vested chest.

Charlie glared at him resentfully, but dropped the sack of coins into his hand.

"There. Can we go now?"

"Not quite," he announced calmly, bringing her to a halt when she would have whirled on her heel and stormed out of the alley. Reaching into the sack, Radcliffe retrieved a couple of coins and handed them to Charles, then stowed die sack in his pocket.

"What are these for?" she asked dryly.

"For you to use in the gaming hall. Since you are so determined to go, I shall take you. But."

he added when her eyes widened in surprise, "that is all you shall play with.

Once those are lost, you are done. I only hope this will teach you what a foolish venture gambling really is and dissuade you from frittering your inheritance away in such a manner."

Charlie gaped at him as he turned to leave the alley, then hurried after him.

"You are taking me to a gaming hall?"

"Much against my better judgment, aye."

Charlie sighed at this news. She had failed to pay the blackmailer, so still had that to worry about. Worse yet, Radcliffe had confiscated the payoff and she would have to replace it. Obviously, Mr. Silverpot could not be trusted to keep his mouth shut, so they would have to find another jeweler. Which was risky. The new jeweler could rob them blind. On top of that, she had been tense and anxious since receiving the blackmailer's letter, then terrified and nervous tonight on her escapade, and simply wasn't in the mood for a gaming hall tonight.

But she could hardly say all that and did not wish to make Radcliffe suspicious, so she would have to humor him and go.

Radcliffe paused suddenly and Charlie glanced up to see that they had retraced her route along the block and now stood at the entrance to the hall. Their way was blocked by a rather large, bald, muscular looking man. Arms crossed, he was shaking his head at a tall woman in rather poor quality but clean, plain clothes who stood before him, holding hands with a small boy on one side and a young girl on the other. "Yer not gettin' in, I tell ye."

"But" the woman began desperately, pausing when she realized that he was no longer paying attention and was glancing from Radcliffe to Charles.

"Evenin', me lords," lie murmured, opening the door, then moved the woman and her children aside not ungently to clear the path for them. "In ye go and good luck to ye."

Radcliffe nodded and strode inside. Charlie, dismayed that the woman would even consider taking her children into such a place, followed more slowly, her gaze taking in the tear-stained face of the woman, along with the exhausted and hungry expressions of the children. They should have been home in bed, not standing outside a gambling den while their mother begged for entrance.

Gambling was truly a sickness, she thought grimly as the doorman firmly shut the door behind them. And one she did not wish to acquire.

Sighing with sudden depression, she turned to peer at the room she now stood in.

It was brightly lit. Candles and lanterns sat on every surface, the smoke rising from them to join the smoke from the cigars and pipes at least half of the patrons had clamped between their teeth. The combination created a solid cloud that hovered at ceiling-level.

"Why is it so bright in here?" she asked with dismay, peering about at the gamblers and garishly dressed women in the room.

"To reduce the chance of cheating."

"Oh." Lifting a hand, she fanned her face briefly. It was at least twenty degrees hotter in here than it had been outside. Between the smoke, candle flames, and heat, she decided she now knew why some called these establishments gaming hells.

"Come." Radcliffe moved farther into the room and Charlie followed with a grimace. Truly, she would rather have turned around and left. Between her uncle and the little scene at the door, she had been cured of any desire to gamble, and she had seen enough to satisfy any curiosity she may have had. The gamblers seemed to be made up of two types of men, those who played their games with indifference, and those who hovered with a sort of desperation at the tables.

There was only one sort of woman present: cheap, made-up, there to coax winners to make larger bets. Not one bothered to comfort the losers.

"Shall we try 'Laugh and Lie Down' first, or 'Noddy'?"

Charlie wrinkled her nose at the mention of the card games. Then, spotting a table where several gentlemen were playing dice, she drew his attention to it.

"I think I would prefer that game."

"Hazard?" When she nodded, he led hersilently to the table.

Hazard appeared a relatively simple game. The man who held the two dice threw them, and lost or took another roll depending on the results. It appeared that anything under five or over nine on the first roll made you a loser, whereas a five to nine let you roll again. If you were fortunate enough to roll the same sum once more, you won outright; if not, depending on what you did roll, you either lost, won, or were able to roll yet again. Once she'd gathered all that, Charlie turned her attention to the players.

The fellow presently controlling the dice played with an air of bored unconcern.

That, combined with his expensive clothes and the jeweled baubles he wore, told her that this was all just entertainment to him and that the king's ransom in coins he wasthrowing away meant nothing. His supercilious smile as he paid out his losses and handed the dice to the man on his left spoke to the fact that he knew the same was not true for that man.

Charlie felt her teeth clench in offense for the new caster as he accepted the dice. Not that he seemed to even notice the other gambler's slight. Tall and thin to the point of emaciation, he wiped sweaty palms on his frock coat before taking the dice. His concentration was intense, his expression desperate as he clutched the small cubes tightly to his chest and bowed his head. After moving his lips in apparent prayer, he cast them on the table, almost sagging with relief when he rolled a nine.

A hopeful smile touched his lips as he accepted the comments of the others around the table and listened to them lay their bets, then he picked up the dice again. Tension suddenly gripping him again, he repeated the earlier ritual.

This time his prayer went unanswered. His second roll came up a three.

Shoulders slumping, he paid out to those around the table who had bet, then held the dice out to the man on his left.

His loss, however, did not stop his gaming, Charlie saw with a frown a moment later as the man laid a bet on the caster following him. Disgust claiming her briefly, she watched the new caster roll. Like the first man, this one could obviously afford to lose. Short, tubby, and with more hair on his chin than on his head, he wore a doublet made from a cloth woven with gold. Jewels flashed on his fingers. He tumbled the dice with a certain flair, then took the time to slide a coin down the top of the tall, brassy woman on his left as he kissed her, turning to do the same to the dark-haired woman on his right before taking up the dice again. He had quite a long winning streak. Charlie felt sure his lips must be sore from so much kissing by the time he lost and leaned past the brunette to offer the dice to Charlie.

She stared at the dice as if he were offering her a live snake until Radcliffe nudged her impatiently, hissing, "Go ahead. You wanted to play this game."