Sighing, she accepted the dice, tossing them at once, flinching when they came up a four and two.
"Six," Radcliffe muttered, frowning with irritation.
Charlie supposed that he had hoped she would lose right away. She had been rather hoping for that as well, she admitted to herself wryly as the other players began placing their bets. Once they were finished, she rolled again. Two threes this time. Six again.
Charlie listened impatiently to the mingled crowing and groans of those around her as they settled up and laid new bets. Radcliffe was the only person besides herself who was silent, and he radiated displeasure. She had more than doubled her money. It meant a delay in being able to leave.
"Go ahead," he murmured impatiently as soon as the last bet was placed and Charlie tossed thedice.
"Nine," he muttered as the bettors broke into excited chatter. Charlie barely waited for them to finish placing their bets before casting again. "Five."
It meant she would roll again and she did.
"Five again!" Radcliffe's irritation was obviously mounting. She knew that he had brought her here to teach her a lesson. Winning was not part of that lesson.
Charlie felt Radcliffe sag beside her, then tense as she snatched up the dice and cast them again and again and again. Her pile of coins grew at an alarming rate. Her arm began to ache from the constant repetitiveness of the game.
And her attention began todrift to the other players again.
The young fellow's mask of indifference was starting to slip. Excitement was glittering in his eyes and giving his mouth a hard edge. Mr. Fat-and-Happy was raking in coins by the handful, dispensing a good portion of them down the blouses of his two companions. And Mr. Tall, Thin, and Desperate was starting to sweat as his coins dwindled. He had started out betting for Charlie, and had originally increased his small pile of coins, but then, several rolls ago, he had started to bet against her. Presumably he had decided to go with the odds.
Unfortunately, Charlie seemed to be immune to the odds.
Glancing to Radcliffe, she saw that he was holding the dice out to her.
While she had been contemplating the other players, they had finished with their bets and were waiting impatiently for her to roll again.
Radcliffe frowned at her reprovingly, and as the dice flew through the air and tumbled end over end atop the table, he found himself clenching his hands and silently chanting in his head, lose, lose, lose. "Damn!"
Charlie snatched up the winning dice again.
"Just a moment." Radcliffe caught her arm to prevent the toss. "What are you doing?" He pointed to her bet. "You should keep some of that back. You have got a hefty sum there."
Charlie merely shrugged. "You play your way. I shall play mine."
Biting back anything else he would have said, Radcliffe watched the game play out, shaking his head with bewilderment as Charlie's winnings grew once again.
"Amazing," Radcliffe breathed, then nudged Charlie and stated the obvious. "You have won again. Shall I take half the money and"
"Leave it there," Charlie murmured distractedly, watching Mr.Tall-and-Desperate lay yet another bet against her. He was almost out of coins, she noticed unhappily. Why did he not simply quit?
Sighing, she faced Radcliffe. "I said, leave it there."
"But you will lose all that money."
" 'Twas only a couple of coins."
"It was at the start. But now"he gestured toward the pile"it is almost as much money as you originally brought with you."
"But only a couple of coins are really mine," Charlie pointed out.
"But" Radcliffe began, then sighed. She knew that he had wanted her to lose and learn a lesson. Still, he obviously now felt uncomfortable at her losing such a large amount. The game rolled on anxiously, and Charlie noticed the tension stiffening Radcliffe's body and making him sag quietly against the table as she won again. She had won a small fortune. She was beginning to attract the attention of gamblers from other tables.
"Leave the money again?" Radcliffe asked, then glanced up when she gave no answer. She'd hardly been paying attention. "Charles?"
Her answer was to toss the dice again, her gaze fixed on Mr.
Tall-and-Desperate as she did. The way he sagged told her that she had won again. And he had lost another coin. He was down to only two coins. Surely he would quit now, she thought, and was mentally willing him to do so. Apparently, he was beyond reason, however. He placed one of his last two pence on the table and waited, hands clenched, face pale, sweat chipping down his forehead as the others laid their bets.
"What?" Charlie turned around.
"Roll the damn dice!"
She blinked in surprise at Radcliffe. Something had changed. He was no longer stiff and disapproving. Excitement was gleaming in his eyes. Energy was rolling off of him in waves. Frowning, she cast the dice, noting the way he leaned against the table, hands grasping the edges tightly as he watched the dice tumbled end over end.
"Eleven!" he crowed jubilantly as the dice settled. "You won again!"
Charlie's gaze narrowed suspiciously as she caught a whiff of whiskey fumes as he grinned at her. "How much have you had to drink?"
Radcliffe blinked at her question, then glanced at The table, eyes widening at the four empty glasses that stood in a row. "Surely I didn't drink all of those," he began. "There was that redhead waitress and then" His gaze slid back to the table and the mountain of coins Charles had won. The question of how much he had drunk was apparently forgotten. "Hurry and roll again," he said.
Charlie shook her head and glanced toward Mr. Tall-and-Desperate as he fingered his last coin. Nay. Enough. Not again. Do not bet a"Damn!" she cursed with disgust as he pushed his last pence forward.
"Dammit, Charles, will you roll those dice?"
"Nay." Turning suddenly, she began raking up her coins, shoving them into her hat for want of a better place. Good God, she had won a small fortune! "What?" Radcliffe seemed horrified. "You cannot quit now."
"Of course I can."
"But you are on a winning streak. You have made more money at the table than you got for cashing in your jewels. You cannot quit now!" he wailed.
Charlie rounded on him with disgust. "Have you not had enough? Really, Radcliffe, your behavior is shocking. I would think that you, of all people, would know better than to waste time and money on gambling. Just look at these people. 'Tis a sickness. Come, let us go home."
When he merely stared at her rather blankly, she took his arm with her free hand and turned him firmly toward the door. "I would suggest that you not risk entering such an establishment again," she said. " 'Tis obvious you get too caught up in the game. I would not wish to see you mill yourself in one of these places."
Radcliffe allowed her to drag him away, and Charlie heard groans from the people behind them who had been winning by betting on her and had hoped to win more.
Radcliffe had the decencyto look somewhat contrite. Charlie shook her head as they exited the establishment.
"Oh, my lord!" a voice pleaded, "Please. If you could? They won't let me in to find my husband. If you could just nip back in and fetch him out for me? I'd be ever so grateful."
Charlie glanced around at that soft, imploring voice as they stepped out of the gaming hall. It was the woman who hadbeen begging entrance on their arrival.
"Your husband?" Charlie glanced from the boy who clung to the woman's skirt, to the girl who held her hand firmly and looked so solemn.
"Aye. He" She hesitated, lip trembling, then shook her head in despair.
"He's in there gambling our lives away. He don't mean to do it. Don't even want to, I don't think, but he just can't help hisself. We lost our inn to his debts six months ago, and we moved to the city. He took a job as a driver, and I found one as a half-time cook in an inn here, and we've been hobbling along, I thought.
I'd buy groceries and he'd pay the rent. Or at least he was supposed to, only I found out today he hasn't been paying the rent. I came home to find the landlord bailing the way. My husband hasn't paid rent for three months and 'til he pays up we are out. We cannot even collect our things. And today is payday. I know he has the rent money with him and is even now losing it. Please. Please,"
she begged. "If ye'd jest fetch him out so I can tell him about the landlord. He'd stop then, I know he would."
Charlie gazed at the woman, taking in her clean, plain gown and the children in clean but poor quality clothes and scrubbed faces with a sinking heart and asked, "Is he very tall and thin?""
"Aye. You saw him in there?" she asked hopefully, and Charlie felt her heart constrict. She suspected the woman's husband was Mr.
Tall-and-Desperate, the man who had gambled every last coin away; the weary woman's troubles were about to increase. The woman's gaze dropped to the hatful of coins Charlie clutched and she frowned slightly. Charlie could easily give the woman her rent money, but if her husband was Mr. Tall-and-Desperate he would be out any moment, and should he get his hands on it, it would go the way of the money she had watched him lose tonight. Mayhap she should just follow them home and pay their rent or "There he is! Papa. Papa!"
Charlie gave a start at the boy's sudden happy cries and turned to see the man now exiting the gaming hall. As she had suspected, it was Mr.
Tall-and-Desperate. He looked even worse now than he had inside. His eyes were empty, his skin sickly white as he gazed at his farmly. Nodding slowly, he walked toward them.
Charlie stepped back as the woman anxiously blurted out the news about the landlord. "Do ye have the rent money?" she asked.
Seeming not to hear her, he hugged and murmured something to each of his children. When she repeated the question, he straightened, and Charlie felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end at the man's expression as he faced his wife.
Taking the anxious woman's face between his hands, he kissed her almost reverently.
"I'm sorry. I love you," he murmured, then released her and stepped back.
He gave her a queer smile, then turned and walked into the street, directly into the path of a passing carriage and four.
Charlie caught that heart-wrenching cry and glanced down at the children with dismay as she realized that this was the last image they would have of their father. A curse choking her, she shoved her hat into her pocket and turned the children away, hiding their faces against her waistcoat and shielding them from the sight. She couldn't prevent their hearing, however, and felt them shudder in horror, then begin to sob as the air filled with the panicked screams of horses and men.
Radcliffe had hurried after the man in an attempt to draw him back, but had not been able to reach him before the horses did. Now he knelt, examining the broken body before straightening. His ashen face was enough to tell Charlie what she needed to know, and she glanced worriedly at the silent woman beside her.
Obviously in shock, the wife waited tensely as Radcliffe approached, probably knowing what he would tell her, but hoping against hope that she was wrong.
"I am sorry. There is nothing to be done for him. He is dead."
The woman slumped at those words, her head drooping like a limp daisy, silent tears coursing down her cheeks. Radcliffe watched her with concern for a moment, then turned and let loose a piercing whistle that brought his carriage forward at once.
"Help them into the carriage, Charles," he instructed. "I shall only be a moment."
Nodding, Charlie ushered the children forward as the driver leapt down to open the carriage door. She lifted first one child, then the other into the carriage before glancing around to see that the mother still stood where she'd been. Even as Charlie started back for her, Radcliffe shoved some money into the hand of a man he had taken aside, then moved to assist the woman. Taking her arm, he gently urged her toward the carriage, speaking to her softly as he did.
Swallowing asudden lump in her throat at the gentle concern he was showing, Charlie turned and got into the carriage, smiling at the weeping children reassuringly. The widow followed at once, with Radcliffe right behind her.
He murmured something to the driver, the door closed, the carriage rocked as the driver regained his seat, and they moved off at a funereal pace. The silence inside the carriage was thick and stifling, but there was little Charlie could think to say as she eyed the trio on the opposite bench. They were like clothes in a wardrobe. Slack and empty. Turning away from their hollow eyes and expressionless faces, she stared blindly out the window at the passing buildings.
It was not until the carriage came to a halt outside a dilapidated boarding house that the woman suddenly regained some expression, and that was panic. Her gaze shot to her children helplessly, tears welling in her eyes.
" 'Tis all right," Charlie reassured her quietly. She knew the woman was terrified of being turned away, but she had every intention of putting her winnings to good use by helping this family.
"I shall see them to the door," she murmured to Radcliffe as the driver opened the door. Stepping down, she waited as the driver assisted the widow out, then lifted down first the daughter, then the son to the street. Casting another reassuring smile at the mother, Charlie started toward the front door of the establishment pausing when it suddenly flew open and an odious little fellow in a filthy and tattered shirt and pants stepped out to bar the way.
"Back are ye, Mrs. Hartshair? Well, yer still not comin' in. I told ye. I'm wantin' my money. Ye owe me fer three months and ye'll pay it or kiss yer belongin's goodbye."