This story was inspired by a line from the late, great Warren Zevon's song of the same name, and by the many memories I have of playing Sheepshead with my grandparents. See you on the other side. Stephenie Meyer owns all things Twilight. *sigh*
The Werewolves of London
There are secret places and places with secrets, and The Club was both. To use its actual name would compromise such secrets, so the venerable establishment at the heart of this story shall be referred to only as The Club.
But we digress.
Only the most privileged and best connected men could join The Club. One of those men, sitting alone in the lounge, awaited the time when he would enter Cullen's private dining room. Within The Club's walls, all members, regardless of rank, were addressed by surname only, including Cullen, known to the rest of Britain as Carlisle Cullen, Earl Marshal of England, and Most Noble Duke of Norfolk. Cullen was also The Club's chairman.
As dictated by the name of the room, our man lounged in a leather chair, preoccupied with thoughts of Jasper Whitlock. Scotch swirled in a heavy glass engraved with The Club's crest. He hid a melancholy half smile behind the rim and took another sip, savoring the peat and the burn. For a moment, he closed his eyes and, lost in thoughts of Jasper's mouth, unconsciously touched a fingertip to his own bottom lip.
The Club cherished secrets that remained undisclosed generation after generation. Edward Masen, Baron Middleton and youngest chief trustee in the history of the York Museums, guarded his own just as closely. It was a lesson he'd learned, painfully but decidedly, at the hands of Jacob Blackstone, second son of the Duke of Grafton and a notorious media mogul. Tonight, he would do everything in his power to protect Jasper from Blackstone, even if it cost him his own chance with him—a chance he secretly and deeply desired.
Since mobile phones, laptops and all other connections to the outside world were checked at the concierge's desk when entering The Club, Edward consulted his very fine watch and threw back the last of his drink. He rose to straighten himself, unaware he was being watched by a man in the window seat, which was currently hidden from view by a curtain pulled just so to block the slanting rays of evening sun. The man savored a few salacious recollections of Edward before becoming distracted by the thought, I'd like to meet his tailor. The artisan who made Masen's suits was a mystery, but Jacob Blackstone knew what lay under those impeccable clothes. He'd had a younger, more naïve Edward in one of the sumptuous bedrooms at Euston Hall, the Blackstone ancestral home, for one extraordinary weekend. It was a shame Masen took things so personally at the end; Jacob would have enjoyed the occasional encore.
Though Edward was unaware of Jacob's scrutiny, Blackstone dominated his thoughts. The man was impossibly shrewd and improbably lucky, the deck seemingly always stacked in his favour. For a moment Edward felt, with a sickening certainty which no one could have guessed, that he would lose.
In truth, he didn't have much chance at prevailing against Blackstone's powers of persuasion, especially if Jasper was susceptible to his charms. Or his money. But Edward thought of Jasper's lips again and dared to hope, for he was an expert player at the night's main event, a game of chance and skill called Sheepshead.
It was an obscure variation of skat, and Club members considered it superior to all others. It was the only card game played at The Club, in keeping with the members' deeply held conviction that when gentlemen of taste and distinction embrace the eccentric, it transmogrifies into the ideal.
According to Club lore, the game migrated from the Continent during the Terror in France, and was introduced to The Club by returning British diplomats. Some claimed they were also spies. Legend had it those diplomats kept a safe house in Germany, where the game originated, from which they reconnoitered into French territory to gather information valuable to Britain's interests. As with most Club legends, this story remained studiously unexamined, lest fact checking trump the well-polished tale.
Tonight, facts weren't likely to trump anything. Chance and skill would determine the victor. In Sheepshead, each hand changed the momentum of the game, with a new distribution of trump and fail cards, with new alliances as the cards determined partners. Could Edward defeat Blackstone? What would he win if he did?
Nathan, The Club's concierge, appeared in the door to the lounge. "The chairman is ready for you, Mr. Masen, Mr. Blackstone."
To Edward's dismay, Jacob emerged from the window seat and gave him a glittering smile. The man possessed a wolfish charm. Paired with his dark-haired, black-eyed, almost exotic looks, it had a devastating effect on those caught unaware. Because of their history, Edward instantly felt himself at a disadvantage.
Acquaintances at Harrow, they met again after university, when they were automatically admitted to The Club because their fathers were members in good standing. Edward was immediately caught up in the force that was Jacob. Their whirlwind affair cost Edward more than he could ever have realized in the brief ecstasy of it: his virginity was the least of it. To this day, Edward only spoke to Jacob when compelled by necessity. And necessity always revolved around The Club.
Blackstone wouldn't think twice about sabotaging him or anyone else, Edward reminded himself as Jacob approached. It was a conviction formed when he first read the note left for him on a breakfast tray on Jacob's personal stationery. Beneath the words that made it clear he'd been nothing but a passing fancy, the creamy linen page bore at its foot, in small but crisp typeface, a quote only slightly obscured by a slashing, cursive J:
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being,
with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life,
with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
Yes, Jacob took what he wanted without scruple, whether the matter was personal or professional. He had done it that weekend and still did, from what Edward had observed in the years since. Hence Edward's nickname for Jacob and his faction within The Club: the Werewolves of London. For The Club, like all other human enterprises, had factions.
Lifting his chin by way of acknowledgement, Edward murmured, "Blackstone." He indicated that Jacob should precede him out of the room. And since Jacob considered it his due, he obliged.
Edward had long since trained himself to maintain eye contact and hold steady under Jacob's scrutiny; still, he breathed a silent sigh of relief in the moment before following Jacob and the ever-stoic Nathan to Cullen's dining room.
Jacob Blackstone was the worst kind of wolf, and he looked hungry tonight. It would be Edward's pleasure, if the cards broke in his favour, to bring him to heel.
Carlisle caught his own pale reflection in the window as he looked out over the Thames and awaited the arrival of the last two participants in the evening's ceremonies of admission. If he weren't so aware of how even the smallest gestures could give a man away, he might have rested his forehead against the cool glass and, for just a moment, closed his eyes. But knowing McCarty and Whitlock were likely watching him, Carlisle did no such thing.
To a man, the members of The Club were somebody: educated at the best schools, possessors of titles and/or seats in Parliament, descended from long lines of somebodies. Soon, if Carlisle could carry it off, the membership would include men possessing talent and/or resources that eclipsed their less auspicious pedigrees—otherwise known, in old guard terms, as the nouveau riche. Carlisle had insisted on this change, which was approved by the slimmest of margins after hours of heated and windy debate among the older members. They still chafed because finally, the decision came down to money. The Club, sumptuously and discreetly situated on one of the finest streets in Mayfair, was short on funds.
Thus The Club, at Carlisle's behest, had given previously impossible consideration to the most recent candidate put forward for membership. He was the fourth candidate considered under the new rules; the previous three had been voted down by members stubbornly committed to the old standards. Carlisle would be forced to resign the chairmanship if Whitlock wasn't approved, preferably unanimously. He couldn't let that happen. Jacob Blackstone stood next in line, as dictated by who had the highest ranking in the peerage, and if he took over, members both old guard and new would leave in droves. No one trusted Blackstone, even his friends. In short, The Club would not survive.
Powerful men like Carlisle, charged with responsibilities as grave as coronations and state funerals, are susceptible to the notion that they are objective when making decisions. Thus, it never occurred to Carlisle that he might be also be vulnerable to Dr. Whitlock's considerable charms.
From his delight in Roman history in Britain to his small measure of fame as a television expert to his hybrid London and West Texas accent, Jasper Whitlock, PhD, was captivating. A product of a British mother and American father, he was born in London, but spent his teen years outside Fort Stockton, Texas, and earned his bachelor's degree from Baylor University in Waco. A Fulbright scholarship had returned him to Britain, though he could certainly have paid his own way. He came from money on his British mother's side. She was a Hale.
The quietly persuasive Whitlock had been put forward by the unfashionably enthusiastic Sir Emmett McCarty. As a member of an old family whose fortune had been lost long ago, he had pursued a career with his characteristic energy. Carlisle admired McCarty's drive; he also appreciated the almost philanthropic nature of his work. As a structural engineer, McCarty specialized in preserving historic buildings and sites, whether that meant shoring up a manor house or preserving whatever might lie below the site of a new highway bridge or tube line.
McCarty had met candidate Whitlock, an archeologist specializing in Roman Britain, in the course of one such project. Whitlock had also gained a measure of fame, as well as an enthusiastic female following, after a television interview about his work on that project. He was exceedingly telegenic: intelligent, handsome and easygoing, and possessing an accent that lingered with people for days after they heard him speak.
The measured footsteps of Nathan stepped from the marble hallway onto the Persian rug of Cullen's private dining room. "Masen and Blackstone, sir."
"Very good, Nathan." Carlisle had kept his back to McCarty and Whitlock after they had settled into their seats; it was the most effective method of asserting the upper hand. And Carlisle needed the upper hand tonight. After the initial interview process, his membership committee stood three to one in favour of admitting Whitlock. Since the ballots were secret, butMcCarty could be ruled out, as he'd nominated Whitlock, so only two possibilities remained: Blackstone or Masen.
To trump the old guard, Carlisle hoped to sway the vote to unanimous over the course of the evening. Though admitting members without a unanimous endorsement was acceptable according to The Club's written charter, the unspoken rules discouraged it.
This membership was more important to Carlisle than any other since he became chairman of The Club. He told himself this was because of the new admissions rules. But in truth, Carlisle held the firm though irrational belief that if Dr. Whitlock could attract funding for archeological digs in the backwaters of Yorkshire, he could somehow attract money to The Club.
When Nathan's footsteps receded, Carlisle at last turned to face all four. "Good evening, gentlemen."
"Tell me more about about yourself, Whitlock," Cullen suggested as the port made its way around the freshly cleared table. Dinner had been long, heavy, predictable. Cullen found this gave all parties at the table the ability concentrate on the real matter at hand.
Jasper smiled his most blinding yet self-effacing smile, eyes alight with a modest but genuine pride. "Well, if we were talking about work, I could prattle on ASPROM's re-excavation of the mosaics at Chedworth Roman Villa. But since we seem to be talking in more general terms, let's just say I'm an overgrown kid who lives to dig for treasure in someone else's back yard."
Jacob laughed harder than strictly necessary. "And dazzling my pretty young reporters sent out to cover the story."
Like phones and other technological gadgets, discussion of work was forbidden at The Club, and Blackstone had been pushing that limit all through dinner. Though Jasper looked ready to offer another charming Texan bon mot that steered the conversation away from the verboten without being disagreeable, Edward had had enough. He directed his words to Jasper, but glared at Blackstone as he said, "Isn't there a saying where you're from, along the lines of, 'If you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is stop diggin'?" His awful imitation of a Southern drawl would, under other circumstances, have made Jasper laugh.
Instead, he gazed at Edward, momentarily at a loss for words, for Edward was beautiful. Shockingly so, with his hand, poised as it was, to pick up his glass of port. The planes of Edward's face were like the most exquisitely conceived architecture: balance and symmetry, with one flaw that completed the perfection: a nose that though fine and slim had clearly once been broken. His hair was perfect: bronze and finger-combed into a state Jasper had only ever seen on men with their heads on his pillow, sated half-smiles on their faces. Jasper had that effect—always had—but Edward was different. Ever since that single, slow, unexpected and electric kiss, shared after hours under the warmth of a spotlight trained on a stone carving in a visiting Constantine exhibit at the Yorkshire Museum, Jasper had the distinct feeling Edward disliked him.
No, that wasn't exactly it. More that he seemed to anticipate and thereby thwart Jasper's natural ability to set people at ease. Either way, it was a damn shame: Jasper was drawn to Edward, but he could also take a hint. "Don't you know you should never ask a man where he's from?" Jasper kept his tone friendly, but challenged Masen with his eyes. "If he's from Texas he'll tell you; if not, don't embarrass him." He didn't add, of course, what Edward must already know from his CV and Club application: that he was born in London and spent the first 12 years of his life here before the move to Texas.
Since Cullen and McCarty were deep in conversation, Blackstone dared to gaze at Whitlock in open appreciation then smirked at Edward, who lifted his glass to hide his own sour expression. "Speaking of dazzled young women, Blackstone, how is your wife?"
The smirk morphed into a grimace as Edward's words hit home, but Jacob quickly schooled his expression. "Very well, thank you."
Though Whitlock had a remarkable ability to keep his reactions to himself, Edward was pleased to see his eyes widen a fraction. It seemed like a good time to give him additional food for thought. "And the twins?"
"Thriving," Blackstone snapped. His wife had recently borne him twins, a boy and girl, just over a year after giving him a namesake. Whatever his inclinations, Blackstone understood what was expected of him with regards to lineage, and therefore kept a wife and family. He simply took his pleasures elsewhere, and Jasper Whitlock was delicious. Jacob hoped for at least a taste of him.
Edward was painfully aware of Blackstone's interest in Whitlock; he wondered if Tanya had any idea what she'd gotten herself into. She seemed smart enough. He'd met her often enough over the years at all of the obligatory functions, and had for a time admired her rapier wit. Things became uncomfortable when she took that admiration for something more, hinting that they should see more of one another. But as beautiful as Tanya was, Edward had never felt any desire for her. At the time, he was still telling himself he just hadn't met the right girl yet. Jacob Blackstone, for better and worse, had changed that forever.
At that moment, sensing the tension in the room, Carlisle turned his attention from McCarty and asked Nathan to refill their glasses of port and open the door to the games room. Then he withdrew a very old wooden casket from the buffet beside him and placed it in the middle of the table.
Emmett, the nominating member, did the honors, opening the lid to reveal a slim, sealed box. He nodded at Jasper, who took his cue and reached in to extract the most expensive deck of cards he'd ever touched.
In a moment of ceremony, Emmett and Carlisle each cut open one end of the box with knives kept for that purpose in the wood casket. Once the seals were cut, Carlisle passed the box to Emmett, who again presented it to Whitlock. "You are invited to play."
Prior to their arrival at The Club, Emmett had instructed Jasper on what was expected at this juncture. Jasper hadn't let on that by the strange coincidence of having a Wisconsin-born paternal grandfather, he already knew how to play Sheepshead. Very well, in fact. So he was careful to look tentative as he discarded the jokers and everything below seven.
Edward watched his hands, and the way the dim lighting made Jasper's hair shine. What would it look like wet? He bit hard at the inside of his cheek, willing his body to stand down before it was necessary to stand up.
Jasper set the 32-card deck in the center of the table. Carlisle reached for it and rose. "Gentlemen, shall we?"
The gaming table was more than 300 years old, older than the game they'd play, with a dull gleam borne of generations of care with beeswax and soft chamois. In other circumstances, Jasper would have liked to turn it upside down so he could better appreciate its construction. There were no chips or tokens, just a pad of paper and an elegant pen at Cullen's place for scoring. As they approached the table, Emmett nodded to Jasper and flashed a supportive smile while Blackstone stood too close and Masen glowered at the floor. Suddenly, Jasper was certain that Masen didn't favor his admission, and the realization stung. Members of The Club had unparalleled access to power and connections, which Jasper didn't care about in the least, though he stood to gain from them. But he'd been so sure he felt a connection with Edward during their one kiss. Sure enough that, though a loner by temperament, Jasper had accepted McCarty's offer to put him forward for membership.
Blackstone's less-than-subtle attentions were clearly meant to be flattering, and they should have been. He was, after all, remarkably handsome and wildly successful. Instead, a wave of melancholy rolled through Jasper. He was here under false pretenses. He would still play the game and play it well, but what he'd hoped to win appeared out of reach. Membership in The Club would be a sorry consolation prize.
Carlisle directed Whitlock to the chair at his right, and in accordance with tradition, nodded to McCarty to take the seat on Jasper's other side. Tradition also required him to offer the seat on his left to Blackstone. He would have preferred Masen, but it wouldn't do to breach protocol. Despite his unprecedented financial success, Blackstone had remained silent regarding the membership question. Carlisle suspected he was playing both sides of that fence.
Edward seated himself stiffly between Blackstone and McCarty. Emmett was a nice enough fellow, the envy of many Club members because his exquisite blonde wife featured prominently in Burberry's adverts. But he was also prone to overly personal conversations that Edward avoided whenever possible. Still, Edward placed his chair slightly closer to McCarty, leaving the largest distance between himself and Blackstone without drawing attention to the fact. There didn't appear to be any love lost between Cullen and Blackstone, but Edward wouldn't insult Cullen by openly snubbing the man in the chairman's private games room. Cullen, like many in his generation, appeared oblivious to the possibility that some of the relationships in The Club carried far beyond the fraternal and collegial.
When all were seated and Scotch were poured, Cullen shuffled the deck and set The Club's traditional terms for the game as he dealt the cards. "Jack of Clubs is partner. Picker may play cut-throat. Picker may call Sheepshead. One crack per player. No blitzing."
Jasper pondered The Club's particular the rules. The most important was the jack of clubs, a variation he hadn't previously encountered. It was most common for the picker of the two-card blind to call an ace from a fail suit for partner. In the rare game Jasper had played with the jack-as-partner rule, it was always the jack of diamonds, a much less powerful trump card. And cut-throat: the picker against all the other players. It wasn't unheard of; in fact his grandfather's friends permitted it. Still, he could almost hear his granddaddy Whitlock's grumbling chuckle, these boys played for keeps.
Cullen dealt in traditional fashion: two cards to each player, two cards to the blind, then two more sets of two cards each to every player. When he had his six cards, Edward picked them up and began setting them in order, highest trump to the left, lowest fail cards—those with no trump power and worth no points—to the far right. He had the queen of spades, the second highest trump in the deck after the queen of clubs, but neither of the red queens, nor any jacks, the "midrange" trump. However, he had the king, ace and nine of diamonds, all weak trump, and he had points: the ace of clubs and ten of hearts.
It was a dodgy proposition: technically, a four-trump hand meant he should pick the blind. But three of his trump were weak. He'd make a better partner. Still, he held nearly 40 of the 120 points in the deck. If no one picked and they defaulted to a "leaster," won by having the lowest number of points at the end of the hand, he would lose. Unfortunately, since the order of play went from the dealer's left, only Blackstone stood between Edward and a decision.
This inauspicious beginning only got worse when Jacob passed, then asked, "Are we playing for points or pounds?"
Edward narrowed his eyes. "Not everything is about money, Blackstone." Jacob laughed in a way that set a small muscle in Edward's jaw ticking. He fought to hold back the flush that would further betray his irritation.
Blackstone unfurled his most devilish smile. "When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men."
"Quoting Rand again?" The bastard was toying with him. "Contrary to her dubious opinion, Blackstone, money is not the root of all good. You are practically walking proof of that." Somehow, Edward managed to deliver this with a lightness of tone that allowed it to pass for a joke.
Even Cullen permitted himself a brief chuckle as he considered his cards. "Masen makes an interesting point." Cullen appreciated the need for money. He saw it as chairman of The Club; he considered it carefully when taking a position in Parliament. But he also appreciated money's limitations, and chose a life of comfort rather than extravagance in order to devote a substantial portion of his family fortune to philanthropy. "Surely, there are greater pursuits and pleasures." Comfort and love; though he was far too discreet to make any grand declarations about it to anyone but her, his beloved Esme was a treasure worth more than any wealth.
Blackstone took a satisfied look at his cards. "That may be, Cullen, but most of those 'greater pursuits and pleasures' aren't possible without it." He turned to Jasper and raised an eyebrow. "Isn't that right, Whitlock?"
Edward chafed. It was no secret that Blackstone intended to sign Jasper to host a television series on all matters archeological. His pockets were deep; he could likely bully or bribe Jasper's entry into virtually any dig on the planet. The tragedy would be that Jasper's talent in the field would be lost to his talent before a camera. He wouldn't work on a dig of his own again while the television career lasted. That hurt Edward almost as much as the certainty that Blackstone would doggedly pursue and flatter Jasper until he won him to his bed.
By comparison, the project Edward hoped to offer Whitlock was obscure and not lucrative. But it involved what Jasper seemed to most relish: a chance to dig for treasure in someone's back yard. And it had the potential to unearth a find of great historical significance. Not the glittery type that drew public attention, but one that could really forward scholarship. Compared to what Blackstone could offer, the word sounded dusty, even to Edward.
Jasper nodded, acknowledging Blackstone. "It may be the root of all evil, but it does come in handy sometimes." He wasn't surprised by Edward's almost silent snort of derision, which he saw rather than heard, but he didn't appreciate it. A bona fide offer was almost on the table; he'd be a fool not to at least hear the terms and give it honest consideration.
But he was surprised when Edward picked up the blind. Jasper had a strong enough hand that he had expected the blind to make its way around the table to him. But he was pleased: it saved him from a hand of cut-throat.
In Sheepshead, the partner knows he's the partner, but until he plays the card that identifies him – in this case, the jack of clubs – no one else does. Not even the picker with whom he's partnered. He wouldn't offend Blackstone, but he didn't trust him, either. He needed to communicate that to Edward without letting on to Blackstone if he was going to have any chance to change Edward's mind about him. Perhaps handing Edward a victory would make his intentions clear—eventually. To be certain they'd win, Jasper would have to keep Edward in suspense for a while, which delighted him more than it should. He kept his smile to himself.
Jacob sat up taller, watching from the corner of his eye as Masen added the cards from the blind to his hand, arranged and rearranged, then removed the two cards he was burying until the end of the game. To Jacob's eye, Masen didn't look confident, and that pleased him. So did his view across the table. Whitlock looked delicious, and didn't seem averse to the open pursuit of money. Besides, Jacob mused, Whitlock had all but flirted with him. Hadn't he?
Edward certainly thought so. He'd picked up the king and queen of diamonds, both trump, and had been able to bury 21 points. If his partner had any kind of hand, they would win in a landslide. Since he'd buried all of his fail suits, his entire hand consisted of trump. He led with his most powerful card, the queen of spades, which drew an appreciative snort form McCarty, who played the eight of diamonds. Edward weighed the possibilities: McCarty could be his partner, saving higher trump to take a trick they might otherwise lose; he could be an opponent, saving higher trump to steal tricks worth more points; or he might not have many trump cards. Though McCarty wore his usual untroubled smile, Edward thought the latter.
Jasper kept his eyes on his cards and played the lowest trump in the deck, the seven of diamonds, reserving his higher ones for tricks worth more points. Best to draw out the rest of the minor trump now so Jasper could see where they stood. Jasper nodded when Cullen threw in the jack of hearts, but was surprised when Blackstone threw out the queen of clubs to take the trick, looking far too pleased with himself for Jasper's tastes.
Strategically, it was a poor decision, since the trick wasn't worth many points. Blackstone knew he could have used the card to greater advantage later in the game, but he wanted to impress Whitlock, and new players were typically impressed by bold gestures. Sometimes you had to lose the hand to win the game.
Jasper eyed Blackstone impassively. The man had passed on the blind, so unless he was a maurer, the most conservative of players, Blackstone wasn't armed with trump. But the queen couldn't have been his only trump, either, or he wouldn't have been happy to give it up because he had to follow suit. Being forced to play a powerful card at an inopportune moment didn't produce the momentary triumph Jasper had watched pass over his face. He could only conclude that Blackstone had something to prove. But what? And to whom?
McCarty's easygoing smile never faded as the next two tricks were played. The partner was still officially in doubt, and the convenient accumulation of points between Jasper and Edward could be the result of rivals with almost equal hands. But Emmett had eyes, wide hazel eyes that looked innocent but saw through to the heart of the matter more often than anyone gave him credit for. He was sure, as Jasper scooped up the third trick, that Jasper was Masen's partner. McCarty nodded to himself as if he were pondering a private joke. Whitlock and Masen did seem particularly well matched. Just their names together in his head sounded like a business partnership. Or a hyphenated married name. Though this fleeting thought pleased him, Emmett's smile never varied. It was again his turn. Masen had taken the last trick and led with trump, but Emmett was out, so he played the ace of hearts. When Jasper scooped it up using the jack of clubs, Emmett was more satisfied than he had any right to be. But he was happy to lose points over it.
Blackstone took the next hand cut-throat, then the game settled into a more steady match. Partners won and lost; when no one picked up the blind they played a leaster hand which McCarty won. Blackstone cracked, doubling the stakes on the value of a hand, only to lose and have double points deducted from his score. Masen, sick at heart because of the steady back-and-forth banter between Blackstone and Whitlock, regretted his stand against Jasper. Even if he couldn't have him, or save him from Blackstone, he couldn't bear the thought of not seeing him again.
It was selfish, he knew, but when Cullen next met his eye, Edward signaled that his vote had changed. Cullen cocked his head as if contemplating his hand; Edward nodded as if deciding something in his. Then Cullen smiled. It was warm, fatherly and approving, and Edward wondered what it meant. He admired Carlisle, though their relationship had grown progressively more awkward each time Cullen inquired after Edward's social life. Edward believed Cullen was genuinely concerned when he asked. Still, he'd been unwilling to risk alienating Cullen by divulging the real reason he remained unmarried.
Jasper watched the subtle conversation unfolding between Masen and Cullen while nodding along to Blackstone's current story, something about being overheard in Mayfair, or overhearing someone else—the details were fuzzy. Jasper's attention was fully riveted on Edward.
Masen had gone gradually silent during the course of the game. Of course he spoke when politeness required it, but the man looked, to Jasper's surprise, quite dissatisfied for a man with the top score.
Aggressive play had the garrulous Blackstone trailing only by the slimmest margin. Jasper wondered if Blackstone ever played poker. He would assuredly lose because he had a tell: the more he wanted to win, the more he talked. As the hour grew later, Blackstone filled every potential silence with a continuous stream of banter directed first at the now-silent Masen, and later toward Jasper himself. The man was relentless.
Despite Jasper's British upbringing, followed by a solid decade of his father's American Southern gentility, Jasper found himself in an uncharacteristic struggle to remain polite. For many reasons, he couldn't afford to offend Blackstone; still, the more Jasper saw of him, the less he liked him. How Blackstone had become such a financial success, Jasper couldn't begin to grasp.
Jasper's eyes wandered to Edward again. Edward had set his cards down and steepled his fingers before his mouth. Jasper wondered what he was thinking, and wished he would move his hands. He wanted to see his mouth.
McCarty discretely nudged him and slid something into Jasper's hand.
A deck of cards.
The official deck remained in play on the table, but it would be Jasper's turn to deal next. He glanced at McCarty, whose dimples deepened for a moment before he returned his attention to the game and followed suit, tossing the king onto Edward's lead, the eight of spades.
A few furtive glances were enough to show Jasper the opportunity McCarty had just given him: a deck stacked in such a fashion that Jasper could ensure Edward's win. He caught McCarty's gaze and widened his eyes a fraction. McCarty simply shrugged.
In truth, Emmett had been surreptitiously at it all night. As a boy, he'd gone through a phase of wanting to be the next great performing magician. He'd attempted every card trick in the books he ferreted out on the subject, but never mastered them. Still, he'd learned enough that, in the years between first discovering the pleasures of sex and meeting his Rosalie, he'd unclasped an impressive number of brassieres with a one-handed finesse not typical in teenage boys.
Tonight, he'd managed to pinch a deck from the empty dining room on his way to Cullen's office, and to open it with his own pocket knife on a trip to the loo. He'd carefully flattened the box and put it and the superfluous cards in his back pocket. If he removed his suit jacket, it would look like his wallet, which was carefully stowed in his inside breast pocket instead. Once the seating arrangements became clear, it was a simple matter to arrange the cards. Since he'd practiced enough as a child, and cheated enough at poker while at university, he could still manage the deck with one hand.
His smile disarmed many, and that was fine with Emmett. It often worked to his advantage when people underestimated him. Jasper was one of the few who didn't, so it was particularly entertaining to hand him the stacked deck and watch him work out what it meant. Emmett understood attraction, and the chemistry at the table was undeniable. And true to his secret addiction to his wife's romance novels, he couldn't help hoping for happy endings.
The last trick of the hand fell to Blackstone and Masen who were, ironically, forced by the cards to be partners for the hand. Since Blackstone, as picker, earned more points for the victory than his partner, Masen was now only two points ahead of Blackstone. The final hand would determine the winner.
Jasper sat up straighter in his chair and kept his face down as he counted his points, for fear that he might actually be glowing with pleasure. He pictured himself surrounded, as gods and muses often were in Roman mosaics, by a halo of light. He had ridden the fence, remaining neutral in the battle of words between Blackstone and Masen, even as Edward fell into a defeated silence. From the silent conversation between Masen and Cullen, it was clear Edward had opposed his membership.
Jasper glanced at Blackstone, who was discussing the points tally with Cullen. In profile, he looked aggressive, almost lupine, and yet for all of his heated, almost reckless play, he looked cold. Beautiful but cold.
A sudden, visceral memory of Edward's warm lips gripped Jasper. That kiss, so full of longing and inquiry.
Edward looked up from tallying his points to toss his cards to Jasper, who would deal the final hand, and their eyes met. Edward had avoided this when possible during the game; his longing and regret were sure to show. He shouldn't have opposed Jasper; it was selfish. But now, he couldn't tear his eyes away.
Jasper saw it then: Edward had conceded the floor to Blackstone. Not because he wanted to, or because he thought that Blackstone was the better man with the better offer. No, it was because he had Jasper's best interests at heart. The warmth that ran through Jasper then was indescribable. He had to tear his eyes away. It was time to shuffle the deck.
McCarty helped Jasper gather up the cards from around the table and nodded. Jasper shuffled the deck thoroughly then slid it to McCarty to cut the cards. Somehow they coordinated their hands so smoothly that no one noticed one deck replacing another.
Then Jasper began to deal.
A stacked deck does not guarantee victory. As Blackstone had demonstrated several times during the course of the game, players don't always make the expected choices. It was still a game of chance.
Jasper held his breath, releasing it only when Edward did indeed pick the blind. As in the first hand, they were partners; Edward just didn't know it yet.
Edward won the hand and therefore the game, and for that everyone aside from Blackstone was glad. Cullen himself tucked the deck of cards and scoring pad back into the old wood casket and returned it to the buffet, a beautiful piece of furniture he'd admired since his first day as director. He took a steadying breath and ran a hand along its smooth surface, grateful it, and the chairmanship, was still his.
Then he removed an envelope from his jacket pocket and presented it to Edward, murmuring, "In keeping with tradition."
He turned to Jasper and held out his hand. "Congratulations, Whitlock. You are, by unanimous consent of the membership committee, admitted as the newest member of The Club."
Whitlock shook his hand. "Thank you, sir."
McCarty shook Jasper's hand, but also pulled him into a brief hug. "Congratulations, my man." Jasper flushed when Emmett leaned in to add, sotto voce, "Since it's a quoting kind of night, I'll go with the immortal words of Ice T: 'Passion makes the world go round. Love just makes it a safer place.'" Emmett clapped him on the back and joined Cullen near the doorway.
With a raised eyebrow and a smirk, Blackstone extended his massive hand and engulfed Jasper's. "Whitlock. I look forward to seeing more of you."
Jasper released his hand with a nod. He wasn't agreeing, but couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't offend or entice.
"Blackstone, McCarty, shall we?" Cullen led them out of the room and through The Club. Edward stood, eyes locked on Jasper and unable to speak or move, until he heard the distant thump of the outer door.
They were alone.
Club tradition gave the honor and responsibility of orienting the newest member to the Sheepshead winner. Edward had escorted a new member through The Club once before, but this was Jasper.
Heart pounding in his throat, Edward opened the envelope from Cullen, slid out the lapel pin bearing The Club's crest and stepped toward Jasper, who leaned into him as if drawn by a magnet. Edward stilled, breathing in the scent of him: Aramis and warm skin.
Then, with shaking hands, he pinned the crest to Jasper's jacket. Jasper closed his eyes, trembling with the effort of keeping his hands at his sides when he so desperately wanted to touch Edward.
Though he wanted to stay that close—closer even—Edward took a step back and extended his hand. "Congratulations, Jasper." He'd cleared his throat before speaking, but the words still came out husky.
Jasper gripped his hand, warm and slightly rough, and nodded. He couldn't manage words.
Edward released him and tipped something from the envelope into his palm. Then he handed the envelope to Jasper. "Your paperwork." Jasper nodded, never taking his eyes from Edward's.
"Are you staying?" The words came out in a rough whisper. Members could keep a room at The Club, to stay the night when in London. It was a tradition that dated back to The Club's founding. Tradition also dictated that new members pass their first night at The Club.
Jasper wrapped his fingers around the key and murmured, "Yes."
"Good." Edward gently pried open Jasper's fingers. Jasper relented immediately, opening his hand. Edward took the key, but not before stroking Jasper's palm with his thumb. "Let me show you to your room."
A/N: This story would not be worth reading if it weren't for the help of these wonderful women: my beta and true north, SerendipitousMC, aka MeilleurCafe; my kindred spirit prereader, Isabeausink; and two wonderful Brits who helped this American navigate the streets and protocols of London: Emanuelle Nathan, author of the mysterious and incredibly sexy This Buried Life, and Sipit, who not only read with great care, but had her daughter pitch in as well. Ladies, thank you for everything.
Thanks also to Squally, Miss Betty Smith, and BarnesGirl11. You each know why. ;-)
Sheepshead is a popular card game in Wisconsin, where I grew up. I had the good fortune to learn it in high school, of all places. Our German teacher taught us, and we had to play auf Deutsch. It was a treat, reserved for after quizzes or when we had a substitute teacher for the day. Once I knew how to play, my grandparents quickly drew me into games at family gatherings. I have many warm memories of playing sheepshead with them. Grandma always won. If you'd like to learn more about the game, Wikipedia's page is quite accurate and as good a place as any to start: .org/wiki/Sheepshead
If you're interested, my WIP story is Release: .net/s/6313679/1/. You can follow me on Twitter, writingbabe, or visit the Release forum on Twilighted.