Excerpt: The Princess and the Diamonds

 

Chapter ONE

Paris, 1687

     “Are you absolutely certain you want to do this, Montfort? You’ll be turning on your peers,” Renault de Sard asked from behind his desk.
     Mathias Paul Thomas de Tesson, Marquis de Montfort, found himself seated in the home of the Lieutenant General of Police of Paris, sequestered in his private study—rather than at his public office.
This was no ordinary meeting. Its secrecy paramount. The mission at hand was to topple some of the highest-ranking nobles of the realm, aristocracy that considered themselves untouchable. Above the law.
      Unfazed by the Lieutenant General’s comment, Mathias sat back in the silk upholstered chair.
“You need a spy. The King wants his ban on Basset en-forced. And I am at your disposal.” He’d been eager since Sard approached him two days ago. In fact, this was the first time since Victor’s death that he felt any fire at all. “Besides, you know as well as I do they turn on each other every time they sit at a Basset table.” He couldn’t keep the disdain from his tone. His disgust wasn’t simply directed at those breaking the King’s new law, but at himself.
      He hadn’t been any different than those who still gambled at the game. Lord knows he was no stranger to the gaming tables. Women and gambling had been his favorite forms of recreation. He’d enjoyed vice. And with his wealth and skill, the monetary losses had been minimal and without detriment.
      Gambling had never really cost him. Until five months ago. Five months ago Basset had cost him the life of his closest friend.
      “Yes, well, I have finally impressed upon His Majesty that if we don’t make examples of men of high rank, his edict will continue to be ignored—and more prominent families will be brought to their ruin,” Sard said.
      Mathias didn’t need anyone to explain to him the damage Basset caused. The card game wildly popular among those wealthy enough to play with high stakes, Basset could make or break fortunes in minutes. He’d seen both men and women lose staggering sums.
Lose everything.
      He’d stopped playing when the King had issued his decree. He only wished Victor had done the same. He’d be alive now. His wife wouldn’t be a widow, and his young daughter would still have her father.
      Victor would never have lost all that he owned—or committed suicide.
      “I quite agree,” Mathias said. “Unless you bring to heel those involved who are of the highest rank, the wealthy will continue to pay the King’s edict no mind.” He stretched out his legs and crossed his arms over his chest. “What do you wish me to do, and how soon may I begin?”
      “I like your enthusiasm, Montfort.” Sard smiled. “I need you to gather names. Tell me who the regular players are, who the biggest players are. And of course, most importantly, who the dealer is—the one that minds the bank—and reaps the biggest rewards at the game.”
      Mathias gave the Lieutenant of Police a mirthless smile. “No problem.”
      “Do you have anyone in particular in mind we can focus on? If we’re to make an example of him, he must be highly notable.”
      Mathias’s smile broadened. “I’ve the perfect man to suggest. The Duc de Navers. Is that notable enough for you, Sard?”
      Sard lifted his brows. “A duc?” His brown eyes danced with delight. “Oh, Navers will do just fine. Perfectly, in fact.”
      It was perfect. In so many ways. Victor lost his wealth to Navers. In his very own mansion in the city—Hôtel de Navers—the Duc was making a fortune from his semiweekly private gaming den. Right under the nose of the Paris police. Without concern. Or regard for the royal edict.
      Navers wasn’t the only noble who hosted Basset games. But he was the one Mathias wanted to focus on.
      “Navers’s games are masked,” Mathias added. “Only those with funds enough to play are permitted. That includes any wealthy merchants from the bourgeois. The mask allows for anonymity and makes everyone equal while playing Basset, regardless of title. Money is the only thing that is held in esteem at the gaming table. If you lose everything, then and only then are you unmasked. Before you’re permitted to leave the table, you are made to sign your ruin.”
      At that Sard frowned. “How will you know who is who?”
      “I’ve played many years with the same people. It won’t be difficult for me to determine who is in attendance. Manner-isms, expressions of speech are not covered by a mask. Nei-ther is one’s style of play. No one will go unreported.”
      “And you’ve no conflict of conscience or qualms in ad-vising me of each and every person there?” Sard pressed. Clearly the man wanted to be assured of his commitment to the mission.
      “None,” he said without hesitation. “The rule in Basset is that you have no friends.” He didn’t have any friends left. At least none like Victor.
      For Victor and his family, for others who’d suffered the same fate and for any further such tragedies, Mathias was going to put an end to Basset once and for all.
      Nothing and no one was going to stop him.

                                                               ***************
      “Is there anything I can say that will stop you from doing this?” Bernadette asked, worried.
      “Or I?” Caroline looked just as concerned.
      “No.” Gabrielle’s response was unequivocal as she studied her attire in the mirror with a critical eye. “I think it looks perfect. The binding around my chest is a tad too tight, though.” She squirmed, uncomfortable. “But overall, I think I’ll pass for a man.”
      She was taller than most women. For once, her height was an asset.
      Bernadette sighed. “I’ll loosen it a bit, but you do have breasts, Gabrielle. You are a woman. For God’s sake, you’re a princess wearing men’s clothing. This mad plan of yours has me worried sick.”
      “Everything will be fine,” Gabrielle said, desperate for the statement to be true. Removing the blue satin justacorps she wore, she handed it to Caroline. She fumbled with the closures on her breeches a bit before opening them and pulling out the shirttails.
      Her plan had her more than a little anxious, too, but she refused to show her unease to her two closest confidantes, her ladies-in-waiting. Both distant cousins, they were a few years older than Gabrielle and the only ones she trusted to take with her on this secret trip from Versailles to Paris.
      The only ones she’d divulged her true intentions to. There were only three people she trusted in the world, her half brother Daniel and the two women before her.
      “Hold up your arms,” Bernadette said, slipping her hands under the shirt and loosening the binding around Gabrielle’s breasts. “There, is that better?”
      Gabrielle took a deep breath. “Much better. Thank you.” She readjusted her clothing and accepted the justacorps Caroline handed to her.
      “What if the King realizes you’re not in the country with your uncle at his château?” Bernadette asked.
      “Never mind that.” Caroline waved off Bernadette’s comment. “What if His Majesty learns you stole some of the royal diamonds and intend to gamble them at the Basset table? He’s put a ban on the game.” She shook her blond head. “I don’t even want to think about what he would do!”
      “The King has done nothing to enforce the ban. And as for the diamonds, I didn’t steal them. I’m borrowing them. Stealing implies I intend to keep them. I don’t,” Gabrielle said. “They’ll be returned once I win enough to cover Daniel’s debt.” Listening to Caroline carry on only spiked her fears. She knew what she was doing was risky, but really, what choice did she have? “I’ll not abandon him. He is barely seventeen and they took advantage of him.”
      Her half brother was not in the habit of gambling. He was coaxed and bamboozled into it by those much savvier than he, and it infuriated her.
      “At seventeen, he is a man, has been a man for two years now. He should have known better than to gamble and lose a vast fortune—at an illegal game,” Caroline argued.
      “There are those twice his age and older who have been lured to the Basset tables,” Gabrielle countered. She adored Daniel and was crushed when their mother, who had once been the King’s mistress, passed away. She’d lost her mother and Daniel in the same week. He was removed from the pal-ace—sent to live with his father’s family. The King having legitimized all his illegitimate children from his many mistresses had lost interest in her mother once Gabrielle was born. She’d married the Baron de Leclerc, Daniel’s father, shortly thereafter, but sadly he’d died within the first year of their marriage.
      The King had permitted Daniel and her mother to re-main at the palace, close to Gabrielle, but once her mother was gone, her beloved brother was torn from her. He was only eight.
      They’d been inseparable until then.
      She wrote to him constantly. Worried about him always. Missed him madly, for she rarely saw him.
      When he came to her last week and told her what had happened at the Duc de Navers’s hôtel, Gabrielle was devastated for him.
      He was in financial ruin. He couldn’t pay his servants. Couldn’t maintain his château.
      She refused to see him financially destroyed. It was difficult enough seeing him so heartbroken and dispirited. Daniel would do anything for her. No matter what. She, in turn, would do anything for him. Including taking some of the Crown gems and using them to win back Daniel’s fortune.
      “I’ll not see my brother destitute, Caroline.” Gabrielle picked up the periwig off the bed and placed it over her hair. If she didn’t help him, no one else would. No one in his father’s family or on her mother’s side would ever cover his gambling debt. Especially one so sizable.
      And the King had never cared a whit about Daniel.
      Bernadette swiped an errant curl from her cheek, her dark hair a sharp contrast to Caroline’s fair coloring. “We don’t wish to see him destitute either. We’re just . . . well, we’re most concerned about your scheme.”
      “I know you are.” Gabrielle placed her hand on Bernadette’s shoulder. “But I am no novice at Basset. I’ve played many times at court with His Majesty and the courtiers—until the King banned the game. I’ll do fine.” She was far better than most. “I’m not without wit and luck,” Gabrielle added.
      One didn’t survive the politics and intrigue at court with-out having a good dose of both.
      Or without being resourceful and clever.
      Gabrielle had fooled His Majesty into believing she was visiting with her uncle. Fooled her uncle into allowing her the use of his private townhouse in the city while he was in the country at his château. With no funds at her disposal—for members of the royal family didn’t carry coin—she’d thought of a solution and slipped away from the palace with a pouch of diamonds. She’d even managed to turn her entourage of musketeers back to the palace without raising suspicion.
Trickery and deception weren’t things she liked. But they were part of her world and deeply entrenched in the royal palace.
      Being a convincing liar was more than an essential skill at court.
      Her skills in dupery were finely honed after her mother’s death. Only then, when she found herself alone in the palace without her mother’s protection, did she learn just how much her mother had shielded her from. Duplicity hadn’t come easy to her at first. Her conscience had weighed on her in the beginning.
      Now she was numb to it.
      Besides, desperate situations required desperate measures.
      She had two weeks.
      Clearly, luck was on her side; she’d made it to her uncle’s townhouse in Paris. From here she had easy access to the Duc de Navers’s gaming den at his hôtel—and what amounted to four nights of Basset.
      If she was to succeed in recouping Daniel’s losses and not lose the diamonds she’d gamble with, luck had to remain on her side.
      She couldn’t—wouldn’t—fail. Nothing would get in her way.


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