The Sum of All Kisses Online - Julia Quinn



Quite late at night

Spring 1821

“Piquet favors those with a vivid memory,” the Earl of Chatteris said, to no one in particular.

Lord Hugh Prentice didn’t hear him; he was too far away, over at the table by the window, and more pertinently, he was somewhat drunk. But had Hugh heard Chatteris’s remark—and had he not been intoxicated—he would have thought:

That is why I play piquet.

He would not have said it out loud. Hugh had never been the sort to speak merely for the sake of making his voice heard. But he would have thought it. And his expression would have changed. One corner of his lips would have twitched, and his right eyebrow might have arched—just the barest hint of a movement, but still, enough for a careful observer to think him smug.

Although the truth was, London society was quite devoid of careful observers.

Except for Hugh.

Hugh Prentice noticed everything. And he remembered it all, too. He could, if he wished, recite all of Romeo and Juliet, word for word. Hamlet, too. Julius Caesar he could not do, but that was only because he had never taken the time to read it.

It was a rare enough talent that Hugh had been disciplined for cheating six times during his first two months at Eton. He soon realized that his life was made infinitely easier if he purposefully flubbed a question or two on his examinations. It wasn’t that he minded the accusations of cheating so much—he knew he hadn’t cheated, and he didn’t much care what anyone else thought of it—but it was such a bother, getting hauled up before his teachers and being forced to stand there and regurgitate information until they were satisfied of his innocence.

Where his memory really came in handy, though, was cards. As the younger son of the Marquess of Ramsgate, Hugh knew that he was due to inherit precisely nothing. Younger sons were expected to join the army, the clergy, or the ranks of fortune hunters. As Hugh lacked the temperament for any of these pursuits, he would have to find some other means of support. And gambling was so very easy when one had the ability to recall every card played—in order—for an entire evening.

What had become difficult was finding gentlemen willing to play—Hugh’s remarkable skill at piquet had become the stuff of legend—but if young men were drunk enough, they always tried their hand. Everyone wanted to be the man to beat Hugh Prentice at cards.

The problem was that this evening, Hugh had also drunk “enough.” It wasn’t a common occurrence; he’d never been comfortable with the loss of control that flowed from a bottle of wine. But he’d been out and about with friends, and they’d gone to a somewhat salty tavern, where the pints were large, the crowd was loud, and the women uncommonly buxom.

By the time they’d reached their club and pulled out a deck of cards, Daniel Smythe-Smith, who had recently come into his title as the Earl of Winstead, was well in his cups. He was offering vivid descriptions of the maid he’d just tupped, Charles Dunwoody was vowing to go back to the tavern to improve upon Daniel’s performance, and even Marcus Holroyd—the young Earl of Chatteris, who had always been a bit more serious than the others—was laughing so hard he nearly tipped over his chair.

Hugh had preferred his barmaid to Daniel’s—a little less fleshy; a little more lithe—but he just grinned when pressed for the details. He remembered every inch of her, of course, but he never kissed and told.

“Going to beat you this time, Prentice!” Daniel boasted. He leaned sloppily against the table, his signature grin nearly blinding the rest of them. He’d always been the charmer of the group.

“For the love of God, Daniel,” Marcus groaned, “not again.”

“No, no, I can do it.” Daniel wagged a finger in the air, laughing when the motion made him lose his balance. “I can do it this time.”

“He can!” Charles Dunwoody exclaimed. “I know he can!”

No one bothered to comment. Even sober, Charles Dunwoody seemed to know a lot of things that were untrue.

“No, no, I can,” Daniel insisted, “because you”—he wagged a finger in Hugh’s general direction—“have had a lot to drink.”

“Not as much as you have,” Marcus pointed out, but he hiccupped when he said it.

“I counted,” Daniel said triumphantly. “He had more.”

“I had the most,” Dunwoody boasted.

“Then you definitely should play,” Daniel said.

A game was struck, and wine was served, and everyone was having a grand