Read Chapter One of Champagne and Chocolate by Bestselling Romance Author Denysé Bridger
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Austin Standish is a man of refined tastes. Intelligent and educated, Austin enjoys all of the best life has to offer. A gambler, a gunslinger, and a man who has plans to taste the sweetest prize at The Palace Casino and Saloon - the lovely owner, Chantille L'Amour, the most sought after jewel on the Barbary Coast.
Running a high-class brothel and casino isn't exactly the life she was born to but Chantille is determined to overcome the ruin her family was left in once the Civil War ended. But, she has chosen a difficult path... one that demands much and leaves her lonely. She's noticed the handsome man who comes into her world from time to time, and when she chooses to give in to desire, the passion evoked by Austin's touch may change her life forever....
“Will you be needin’ anything else, Miss Chantille?”
Chantille L’Amour turned and looked at her maid. Carrie was hovering close to the door, clearly eager to get on with other chores if she wasn’t needed here.
“No, Carrie,” Chantille said with a shake of her head. “I just want a few quiet minutes before business begins for the night.”
Carrie hesitated, her mouth opened to speak, then she shook her head and nodded. A moment later, the door to the suite of rooms closed with a soft thud.
Chantille sighed heavily and walked to the French doors, then leaned against the door frame. The last faint rays of the glowing afternoon were giving way to the steady encroachment of evening as she stared out at the glittering, sun-dappled beauty of San Francisco Bay. For several more moments, she delayed the increasingly wearisome task of preparing herself for the evening ahead. For a few precious moments, she allowed her heart to pine for a simpler world in which to live. The world her parents spoke about with such longing, life as it had been before the Civil War tore everything to pieces. Born in the midst of that conflict, Chantille had never enjoyed the peace and happiness her parents had known in their youth. She’d resented it deeply, and, because of the devastation wrought by the war, she’d made choices that weighed heavily on her. Those dictates had done their part to age her spirit well beyond her twenty-five years.
The scents and sounds of the Barbary Coast wafted up to her, assaulting her senses now where they had once caressed. She’d arrived in San Francisco several years ago, bright-eyed and determined to be the mistress of her fate. She’d been tired of living on the dead dreams that sustained her family, fully aware that the South would never again possess the lazy, luxurious languor that had enabled it to fall to its own complacent arrogance. In San Francisco, Chantille’s money and family meant nothing to the hordes of men who flocked to her place of business. They cared only about the quantity of drink and companionship to be found at The Palace. The quality was another wasted effort on her part, though she steadfastly refused to compromise it.
With a barely audible groan, Chantille pushed herself from her casual slouch and went to her bed. She’d laid out her clothes before bathing, a custom she often found soothing. She slipped the silk dressing gown off her shoulders and reached for the soft, ribbon-trimmed cotton drawers. The ritual of dressing eased her nerves, as it always did, and her spirits lifted as she closed the hooks on her corset and carefully tugged free the hand-woven froth of lace that decorated her chemise. Layers of crinolines and petticoats came next, and, once she’d fastened them, she walked to her dressing table and sat before the mirror. She applied a slight hint of rouge to her high cheekbones, and then repeated the color in darker tones on her lips. She selected earrings, and a sparkling diamond necklace that was worth more than most of her customers would see in their lifetimes. She’d done her hair earlier and turned her head to survey the results of her work. The pale ash blonde of her hair was set off by the inky black, velvet ribbons that she’d taken time to weave into the intricate knot. Strands of fair hair had already escaped the confines of her careful design, but she knew better than to attempt to contain them further—by night’s end, many more curling wisps would be falling around her face, giving her a deceptively angelic appearance that she knew appealed to men.
Her gaze fell to the ivory swells of her breasts, the ample curves made more prominent by the corset she wore. Her waist was naturally tiny, and the tightness of the shaping undergarment made her appear delicate, almost fragile. Another illusion, she thought, as she laughed inwardly. She walked to the bed to retrieve the glowing silk gown she’d selected for the evening. It was pale amethyst in color, trimmed with deep plum lace and ribbon. She settled the heavy dress over her hips, pulled it closed, tight to her body, then tugged the wide straps downward so her shoulders were almost bared. As she bent forward to retrieve a handkerchief from the top drawer of her dressing table, she caught her reflection in the mirror. Her parents would have been horrified to see her like this, her bosom all but falling from her dress, her face painted, and her dark brown eyes filled with knowledge that decent women would run from.
Oddly, the sadness that would once have accompanied the observation was missing now, and she realized she’d grown beyond caring what other people thought of her. There was no profit in opinion, and she’d learned that money was the only real power that mattered. So she dismissed the whisper of censure from her past. However, the appealing image in the looking glass created an entirely different kind of ache within her. Loneliness, yes, but not the heartbreaking pain she’d known when she’d first arrived in San Francisco. This evening, she was lonely for the very companionship the girls who worked for her sold on a nightly basis. Chantille seldom accepted any of the numerous propositions that came her way in the course of an evening, but, tonight, she decided, she would attempt to be more receptive to the invitations she received.
It had been a very long time since she’d permitted a man’s arms around her. Longer still since she’d enjoyed more intimate pleasures. Smiling, she turned and headed down to the main room of the vast saloon she owned and ran.
Austin Standish alighted from his carriage and glanced at the incongruous, regal splendor of The Palace Saloon and Casino. He paid his driver, then headed into the sprawling building, an old opera house that had been abandoned for a number of years before Chantille L’Amour bought the place and set about reinventing it. He’d come to this particular establishment on numerous occasions since first discovering its existence and had enjoyed most of the pleasures offered. He’d thus far failed to make one conquest, however, and he was honest enough to admit it was that very challenge that kept him coming back. The owner of the saloon was an enigmatic and alluring woman who’d quickly seen through the charm and easy arrogance with which he had enticed so many ladies before her. Despite several invitations, she’d never granted him an audience.
Inside the grand saloon and casino, the décor was a reflection of surprising sophistication and good taste. It was wasted on most of the clientele.
Austin spotted several gentlemen who frequented the place, gentlemen who preferred not to be seen in the company they presently enjoyed. He ignored them and went through to the casino’s private room. He was known to the doorman and was immediately granted entrance. He spotted his quarry the minute he walked in; she was standing near the polished bar, surveying the customers and their talent at the tables.
Somewhere inside him, he felt a familiar flutter of excitement, but he dismissed it as ludicrous. He’d long ago learned the high price one paid for infatuation, and he refused to be swayed by it ever again. He wanted this alluring woman, but nothing more than that. A night in her bed, and he’d be content to never again step inside The Palace.
When the lovely Miss L’Amour glanced his way and held his eyes with her dark gaze, he had to ignore the self-mocking laughter that bubbled up inside his head. He inclined his head in a casual bow of acknowledgment, then went to purchase his usual thousand dollars’ worth of chips. He seldom lost, but his starting sum always remained the same; when he deviated from the practice Lady Luck withdrew her favor more often than not. He entered the casino with a thousand dollars, and usually left with considerably more than he’d had upon his arrival.
The chandeliers set in the high ceiling threw off enough light to rival the early afternoon sun, and the noise level, while something that couldn’t be entirely disregarded, was nowhere near the din that pervaded most saloons on the Coast. Standish was content for the moment to enjoy himself. He’d concentrate on the beautiful saloon owner after he’d indulged his more mercenary tendencies.
Less than two hours later, Standish’s winning streak forced a division of his attention. His last bet at the roulette wheel had earned him in the vicinity of ten thousand dollars. The man in charge of the table was looking more than a little bit worried, and he requested a moment to consult with the owner. Austin smiled and waited for the pretty woman to join them. He watched her for a few moments as she listened to whatever was being whispered in her ear. Once again, his stomach reacted with a disturbing flutter when she glanced at him, her stare bold and refreshingly direct as she considered her course of action. He realized, much to his inner horror, that he’d been holding his breath while he waited; he almost gasped in air when she smiled and began to walk toward him.
“Mr. Standish,” she murmured when she had reached the roulette table. “How lovely to see you again.”
He was surprised by the familiarity, and he arched one eyebrow, the response reflexive. “I wasn’t aware we’d met, Miss L’Amour.”
She laughed softly, and he was further enchanted.
“I don’t believe we have,” she agreed. “Not officially. But I do know who you are, Mr. Standish. Otherwise,” she added with a hint of irony, “you wouldn’t be permitted to gamble in this suite.”
“And am I to be permitted to continue this game, ma’am?”
“How lucky do you feel tonight, Mr. Standish?”
He grinned with an expression he knew was both confident and charming, a device well used over the years. Miss L’Amour’s tinkling amusement whispered in the space between them. Then she nodded and went around the table herself.
“Place your bets, gentlemen,” she said, gesturing at the numbered black and red table surface. She picked up the gleaming white marble and prepared to send the roulette wheel spinning.
When she bent forward, giving him a deliciously full view of her cleavage, Austin placed a reckless bet and sat back to watch the outcome.
“Your luck holds, Mr. Standish,” she said less than a minute later. “It would seem that I now owe you a substantial sum of money.” She walked from behind the table. “I’ll inform the cashier of your good fortune. When you wish to cash in, the money will be in my office.”
With a brief nod of her head, she left the table, smiling despite the loss of revenue. Standish was charmed all over again.
He turned to look at the man next to the roulette wheel. They were waiting for his next bet. He shook his head.
“Not this time, Marty,” he said with a laugh. “I think I’ll quit while I’m still winning.”
The other man nodded, and, the moment Austin left his chair, he was aware of another man taking his place. He headed for the bar, intent on exchanging more than a few words with Miss L’Amour.
Chantille watched Standish from her vantage point at the end of the bar. He was a handsome man, one she’d noticed on several occasions. As he stood, she took quick inventory of his appearance, chewing her bottom lip unconsciously as she absorbed the man’s almost palpable presence.
At a height of over six feet, Austin Standish was a man not easily overlooked. He had sandy blond hair with a lock that perpetually fell over his forehead. Under the shaggy blond hair, the most startling green eyes Chantille had ever seen missed nothing that came within their scrutiny. His face was a fascinating blend of angles and contours, the individual features not perfect, yet the overall combination completely arresting and pleasing to the appreciative eye. He was slender, yet there was an undeniable sense of strength and power in the long line of his body. Tonight, as on other nights, he’d chosen a suit of black, the inky shade contrasted sharply by the stark white of his shirt. The frills at his cuffs and along the front of the shirt could have lessened the impact of strong masculinity that emanated from him, but, instead, they only added to his imposing aura. His brocade waistcoat was a shade of palest gray, adorned by a gold watch chain that disappeared in a pocket at his left. Silver-trimmed boots finished the polished and cultured image, and Chantille wondered how he’d remained a free man for so long. She didn’t doubt for an instant that the company of women was something he never lacked.
She straightened when he caught her gaze and began to walk in her direction. Deep inside, she began to quiver, and the awareness that he could shake her so intensely with no effort was both disconcerting and annoying. Yet….
“Miss L’Amour.” Austin smiled when he reached her side. “Would you do me the honor of joining me for dinner?”
“Thank you, no,” she replied. “Have you come to collect your winnings, Mr. Standish?”
“If you can’t be persuaded to grant me your company, then I’ll have to settle for your money.”
“You’re far too charming to suffer loneliness,” she countered. She walked away from the bar and led him into her office. She arched one eyebrow in subtle surprise when he closed the door behind them.
“I assure you, Mr. Standish,” she said, her tone cool, “money is all you will be collecting in this office.”
Austin continued into the small room until he was directly in front of her and she had to tilt her head back to hold his gaze. The gleam of amusement in the deep green eyes that bored into her was irritating, and intriguing.
“Are you certain I can’t change your mind about dinner?”
“Not entirely,” she conceded with a smile that wanted to become laughter.
“Ahh,” he whispered. “Hope at last.”
“Hope has a way of disappearing just when you’re learning to count on it, Mr. Standish.”
“But the times it doesn’t are so sweet it makes the disappointments bearable, Miss L’Amour.”
“Right you are, sir,” she agreed with a thoughtful smile. She made a decision then, a reckless choice that she didn’t take time to consider. “Perhaps I could persuade you to dine with me in my suite?”
Austin’s gaze was pensive, and she wondered, with a tiny leap of panic, if she’d miscalculated his interest.
“It’s never a good idea to offer a man paradise if your plan is to shut the gates before he has a chance to come inside, Miss L’Amour.”
It was a veiled warning, but a warning just the same. This man was not one to be toyed with or played for a fool. He was drawing her a little more deeply into his presence, in spite of herself.
“And you think I’m offering you paradise, Mr. Standish?”
“I’m fairly certain of it, yes,” he murmured, voice low and compelling.
She smiled and went past him to the safe that was in her office. She collected his money and brought it to him.
“Your winnings, Mr.—”
“Austin,” she said.
He took a double-eagle from the pocket of his waistcoat and held it between his index and middle fingers. With a quick grin, he slipped it into the valley between her breasts, caressing silken skin for the briefest instant before drawing his hand back. Something betrayed her reaction and made his smile deepen.
“You take liberties with great ease,” she whispered, her voice husky and exotic.
“Before the night’s over, I plan to take a great many more,” he assured her.
“Perhaps I’ll be the one to take liberties tonight, Mr. Standish.”
“I’d be delighted to put myself in your hands, Miss L’Amour.”
She smiled. “Would you wait here for a few moments? I have to speak to my maid.”
He settled in an armchair near the fire and contemplated his current run of luck. He intended to take full advantage of the rare chance to be close to the remarkable woman who owned The Palace. He’d been waiting longer for her than he’d ever waited for any other woman. The scent of her lingered in the air, and he inhaled deeply, intoxicated by the combined fragrances of wildflowers and Chantille’s unique essence. Her style was imprinted on the very air, as well as the impeccable surroundings. The uncluttered elegance told him a great deal about her, that she was educated, cultured, and fiercely independent. What he couldn’t discern was her choice of occupation, it was very much at odds with what he sensed was her background. The faint lilt of the South in her speech was his only clue that perhaps she had escaped the poverty that had been the bane of so many families since the war. Her return moments later brought him into the present, and he rose from his chair, laughing inwardly at his eagerness to be with her.