Every woman he met, most of whom he didn't even know, wanted him for his money. They posed, postured, smiled, cooed and followed him everywhere. Some were bold enough to touch him. Some even salivated, though whether it was because of his handsome face and well toned body or for his money was anybody's guess.
"My money," Josiah Stephens muttered, surveying the guests at the dinner dance he felt obligated to attend. His disgust was obvious; the display of feminine pulchritude waiting for a glance from him was more than he could stomach. He signaled a waiter for another drink and left the ballroom to join the men in the smoking lounge.
A card game was in progress.
She knew that tonight she was the darling of the men's club. It had taken guts and sass to join the game - only men were allowed - but that was such an insignificant obstacle, Molly Doyle decided to play. She knew she could win and she needed the cash. There was one slight drawback; she was addicted to cheating and did so whenever possible.
Dressed demurely - floor-length cream colored gown, a gauze wrap surrounding her shoulders and hiding her cleavage, long sleeves with lace at the cuffs - the picture of innocence and purity.
The men chuckled at her insistence that she be allowed to join the game. "I'm just a woman; surely you'll indulge my dream to play cards just this once. Won't you?" she asked, a shy smile behind a gloved hand.
"No women allowed" was the pronouncement.
"Just this once?" Molly asked again, her gray eyes wide and beginning to tear up.
"Can't have the ladies blubbering over every loss. Not going to put up with that sort of nonsense."
"And if I keep my countenance when I lose?" she asked. *If* I lose. "Will you let me play?"
"One round and one round only," the men agreed, too gentlemanly to refuse such a sweet pleading request.
Several rounds of cards later ...
"I didn't mean to take all your money," Molly sighed as she looked around the room. Her hands gently patted the untidy pile of dollars in different denominations before her and deftly, she swept them into her handbag. "I do thank you for the chance to play with all of you. I've learned so much."
"And took us for a bundle, too," one of the men laughed. "Where did you learn to play cards, little lady?"
"From my pa. He was a very patient man," Molly smiled, her hand over her heart, her look wistful. And a professional card player and a thief and a varmint to boot! May he rot somewhere awful!
"What's this?" Josiah Stephens exclaimed when he entered the card room. "A lady? And a winning one from the looks of it."
"I'm leaving, sir," Molly demurred, rising from her chair. "These fine gentlemen were kind enough to teach me how to play this game and indulge my fantasy."
"Looks like they taught you well," Josiah replied, his eyes twinkling at the thought that this little bit of feminine fluff had taken the boys to the cleaners.
"Good evening, gentlemen," Molly waved as she headed for the door.
"You can't leave yet," Josiah exclaimed. "I've just arrived and I insist on a game."
"Another time perhaps?" Molly demurred.
"Now!" Josiah insisted, spotting the tip of a card peeking from beneath the lady's sleeve. "I demand a chance to play with the lady who won the winning hand."
"Several hands," one of the men snorted.
"Madam?" Josiah arched a brow and took Molly's elbow, his other hand surreptitiously sliding the card from under her sleeve to his own.
Molly felt the move and froze. She couldn't bear to look at the tall handsome man holding her arm. "It's been a long evening and I really am feeling fatigued," she stammered. "A gentleman wouldn't insist ..."
"Of course, how ungallant of me. Gentleman," he addressed the others. "Will you reference me and assure this lovely lady that I am also a gentleman and if you do, allow me to escort her home?"
"Not necessary," Molly smiled and turned to go.
"I insist," Josiah returned her smile but his eyes met hers and they were not smiling.
She conceded. "If you insist."
He bundled her into his own carriage and after giving instructions to his driver, settled in beside her.
"I ... I haven't given you my direction yet," Molly protested. "Your man won't know where to go."
"He knows," was the enigmatic reply.
"Relax, my little card shark. I'll have you home safe and sound in short order."
"Butt ..." Josiah smiled. "Interesting word."
The dinner dance had been held at a neighbor's home so it was only a short ride to his own place at that hour of the evening. In no time, they were pulling up to the main house of Josiah's estate.
Molly looked out the window and for a moment wondered where she was, then realized it was more important to wonder about what would happen when the horses stopped in front of the door.
"Sir, I think ..." she began.
"Don't think," he instructed. "Just come with me."
"But sir, this is not my home!" Molly exclaimed, folding her arms across her chest. "I demand that you take me home this instant!"
"You're not in any position to make demands," Josiah said sharply and reaching for her, lifted her out of the carriage. Despite her protests, the carriage moved on and held securely in his arms, Josiah carried her up the few steps to his front door.
"Good evening, sir," his houseman announced. "An evening repast?" he asked as if his master's arrival with a protesting female in his arms was an ordinary event.
"Yes, Jarvis. A bite to eat is definitely in order. The dinner guests were enough to curb my appetite but now I'm hungry and I believe the lady is, too," he added with a chuckle. "She's hell-bent on biting into something and I'd prefer it wasn't me."
"A taste of roast beef, sir?"
"Hot or cold, sir?"
"Cold will do. And bread, horseradish, and port."
"Should I stoke the fire first, sir?"
"I'll take care of that, Jarvis, and maybe light one of my own."
"Begging your pardon, sir, but I'll add a bite of cheese in case your guest is one of those ladies who are not inclined to eat red meat."
"She eats red meat," Josiah said with assurance and chuckled, catching the lady's glare. "But cheese will be fine."
"What's your name?" he asked when the servant left the room.
"What's yours?" Molly retorted. "And why am I here and not in my own home?"
"Just where is your home?" Josiah queried as he assessed her stance, spine straight, arms folded over her bosom and eyes as fierce as any predator's.
"In town," was the vague reply.
"Where in town?" he persisted, slowing walking toward her.
"Not your concern," the querulous woman replied and turned her back on him.
"Not your best move this evening," he whispered as he came up behind her and enfolded her in his arms.
"Sir!" Molly sputtered.
"Another good word," he murmured and dropped a kiss on the back of her neck.
"I am not a woman lacking in morals!" Molly exclaimed. "Unhand me now!"
Josiah laughed and taking her hand between both of his own, he pulled her into a tight embrace. "You are a beautiful woman, my little card shark. Give me a kiss."
"I insist that you take me home this instant," Molly hissed. "I demand that you do!"
"You're not in any position to make demands my little thief. Now tell me your name."
Molly remained silent and fuming, disgusted that she couldn't pull away from his embrace.
"I need to know your name," Josiah insisted.
"Because I'd like to call you something other than my little card thief when the parson shows up."