“Fold!” he boomed as he viewed his hand with disgust. Val Huntington took another swig of whiskey and threw his cards on the table. Quickly he placed his winnings in a leather pouch in one swift movement as he simultaneously pushed his chair from the table in an almost undetectable motion. “I shall take my leave of you, sir, and thank you to bathe before our next encounter. It will make for a less memorable occasion, which can only be to your advantage.”
“Eh, the night’s young, gov’nor,” his greasy companion growled encouragingly as he hurriedly retrieved the small amount of money left in the center of the table, his eyes moving greedily over Val’s leather pouch, still visible. A stiff grin forced its way into his expression, revealing teeth darkened by tobacco.
“And so it is,” Val agreed. Assuming a nonchalance of manner, Val cloaked the intensity with which he watched the burlesque man seated across from him.
When he observed a brief flash of anger in his opponent’s eyes, unable to hide an unnatural eagerness to relieve him of his winnings, Val placed his hand deftly on his pistol under the table, watching for any signs of trouble. “There are finer pleasures to be had than wasting my time with a stinking soldier.”
“Beggin’ yer pardon”—the hulk of a man seated opposite Val frowned. Momentarily his unshaven face assumed a contrived humility—“I were honorbly discharged,” he mumbled with a forced politeness.
“Right.” Val made no effort to conceal his amusement. “Discharged.”
Val surveyed the illustrious establishment in which he found himself. It was dark and dirty, and his companion smelled like…like…well, it defied description. Possibly there was a dead camel somewhere that could match it, but that was questionable at best.
It was even damp in here. Damp. How was that possible in the desert?
There were a dozen card players left in the room, all having had too much to drink, and most as dirty as their surroundings. He felt a smile forming on his lips as he pictured the elegant setting and companions of his stylish London club, mentally comparing the conjured image to his present circumstances. With the reflection, melancholy encroached upon his mood, but he refused to surrender his amusement. His might be a morbid, unnatural smile, but it would be a smile nonetheless. After what he had seen in his life, he would be damned before he would let a mere gaming hell dampen his spirits.
Involuntarily Val reached to his neck with his free hand to straighten the Ascot knot, the cravat that had been all the rage when he left London. Instead, his hand found the emblem of the 7th Dragoon Guards, the Princess Royal’s, reminding him that he wore only his officer’s uniform.
If only there were something reminiscent of a more dignified and civilized existence. He glanced at his shining black Hessians and reflected that his boots might be the whole of it.