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Anne Barbour

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A MAN OF AFFAIRS

 

Anne Barbour

 

Chapter One

 

Someone was scratching at the door, disturbing the afternoon silence. Heretofore, the only sound in the room had been the hiss of pen on paper and the whisper of one ledger pushed against another. Seth ignored the interruption, knowing full well that it would be repeated within a moment or two.

“Come,” he called in some exasperation when the sound could be ignored no longer.

An elderly butler entered. “It's His Grace, sir,” he said before Seth could utter a reprimand for fracturing his concentration. “He wishes to see you in the library, at your convenience.”

Seth said nothing, but nodded and rose at once. Setting aside pen and ledgers, and pausing only to rub his fingers on the tails of his coat, he hastened from the room.

Seth's office lay in the rear of the Duke of Derwent's elegant town residence in Grosvenor Square, and the distance to the library was considerable. Still, it took Seth only a few minutes to reach the quiet, book-lined chamber.

The duke was slumped in a leather chair near the fire, his fingers cupped around a snifter of brandy as though to draw comfort from it. He lifted the glass in a curt gesture and, turning to the decanter that stood on a small table at his side, poured another. A thin smile creased his long face, still relatively unlined at the age of eight and fifty. His hair, combed back severely from his temples, showed but a few strands of gray.

He handed the snifter to Seth.

“Your Grace,” murmured Seth, accepting the brandy. He seated himself in a chair opposite the duke.

“I wish you'd stop that 'Your Grace' nonsense, Seth. You'd think you were one of the footmen.”

Seth smiled ruefully and glanced down at the ink-stained coat he wore for the days he spent at the ducal accounts. “Behold my livery—Father.”

“Tchah!” exclaimed the duke distastefully. “I don't know why you don't push all that nonsense off on one of the people we pay for that sort of thing. Young sprout like yourself— should be spending the day at White's, or at Gentleman Jackson's.”

Seth smiled inwardly. How like Father. His foster son was to serve competently as business and social manager, but would be chastised for not living as a gentleman. “Gambling in the middle of the day does not appeal to me. Father, as you well know, and I visited the Gentleman just yesterday at his saloon. In fact, he let me pop a hit over his guard.”

“Let you, did he?” The duke rubbed his nose. “At any rate, that's more like it.”

The duke paused to sip at his brandy and sank into a meditative silence.

“Was there something you wanted, Father?” Seth asked at length.

A frown creased the duke's aquiline features.

“Yes, I'm afraid so,” he said, his expression one of unwonted gravity. “Seth, I'm afraid it's time to do something about Bel. I know.” He lifted a hand as Seth opened his mouth. “We've spoken of this before, but the situation has become urgent. Now, a wedding has become imperative. You must find a bride for your brother.”

“But, Bel does not wish—” Seth whispered. A sour taste flooded his mouth as it always did at the mention of Charles Lindow, Marquess of Belhaven.

“I know that,” interrupted the duke harshly. “But if we wait any longer. God knows what irrevocable mischief he'll get up to. One day he'll kill himself—or someone else.” The duke's eyes narrowed. “Look at the mess you just pulled him out of. Besides that, he's six and twenty. He's my heir. It's time he settled down.”

Seth almost laughed aloud. The prospect of Bel's settling down, in or out of the bonds of matrimony, was extremely dubious.

“Yes, I know,” agreed the duke, as though reading Seth's mind. “He's said often enough that he doesn't wish to marry, but...” His expression hardened. “His wishes in the matter have ceased to interest me. Frankly, I very much fear that if we don't line up an eligible
parti
for him soon, there won't be a female in the realm who will have him.”

Seth raised his head to encounter the duke's gaze, dark and implacable.

“Yes,” continued the older man, “I've heard the rumors—his groom beaten almost to death—the unspeakable sexual practices—the drunken spectacle he makes of himself in public.” He shifted his shoulders. “I've tried to excuse him at every turn, but there's no doubt the boy is wild to a fault.” He laughed harshly. “And that's dishing it up with sauce.”

“Father, no. You must not talk this way. As Bel grows older, surely—”

The duke lifted a hand to silence him, saying harshly, “As he grows older he becomes more unmanageable. Good God, Seth, he almost ended up on a marble slab this last time. If you hadn't pulled him out of that stable, he would have been consumed in the flames—to say nothing of the serving wench he'd taken out there for a bit of dalliance.”

“He was drunk. Father. He kicked over the—”

The duke lifted his hand to make a chopping motion. “Yes, I know what he did, and I see no point in discussing his flaws any further. He must have a son to carry on the line. You will find a bride for him, and I shall persuade him to marry her, even if I have to bind and gag him.”

Seth clenched his fists. He knew very well that if any binding and gagging were required, the binder and gagger would be he. For, having found the perfect dogsbody in the person of his adoptive son, the duke had no compunction in relegating his life's most distasteful tasks to him. Dear God, Seth wondered, as he seemed to do so often of late, how had things come to such a pass? He had once idolized this man, and now he could barely stand to be in the same room with him. He had always known he had no right to the love the duke lavished on his other children, but he had worked so hard—and to no avail—for something more than the careless affection bestowed on him by His Grace when the mood struck him. The slights, the indignities, the neglect had taken their toll over the years. Was it merely habit that kept him in the duke's service?

No, he thought, it was more than that. He had made a promise, and his mother, whom he remembered only as a small person with a sweet voice, had taught him that a promise must be kept for all one's life, no matter what the cost.

Seth swallowed. “Very well. Father,” he said simply. “I shall set about it immediately.”

“You will make it your first priority,” the duke commanded. Seth had no desire to fulfill the onerous task that had been set for him, but if that was what the duke desired of him, he would, as he had done since he was a child, bend heaven and earth to grant him this wish. Had he not vowed many years ago to give his life, if need be, to secure the old man's happiness? God knew it was a vow he'd since regretted, but it was iron-clad, nonetheless. He nodded and in a few moments left the duke, returning to his office to stare at the wall opposite his desk.

* * * *

Some hours later, Seth Lindow, adopted son of the Duke of Derwent, stood before the cheval glass in his bedchamber. Near him, several strips of linen in his hand, stood a short, rather stumpy personage garbed in the somber raiment of a gentleman's gentleman. With due care, he handed Seth one of the linen strips and watched with solemn attention as Seth folded it about his neck, transforming it at last into a complicated arrangement known to the informed as the
Trone D 'Amour.

Jason Moppe, whose plebeian antecedents were distressingly obvious in aspect and speech, scarcely fitted the role of gentleman's gentleman. He had been hired some ten years before on a murky evening in London's Limehouse district. Seth had unwisely ventured into that area on business in a hackney driven by Moppe. When a group of thugs had set upon the vehicle and the toff inside, it was Moppe's quick action that had helped Seth save them both. Seth had taken on the underfed Cockney out of gratitude, and because his erstwhile valet had departed the week before for employment elsewhere. To his surprise, the little man proved himself as adept with a sadiron and boot polish brush as he had been with a team of horses. He was Seth's most dedicated employee and loyal supporter, but this did not preclude a salutary lecture now and again when the valet thought it necessary, or a judicious interference in his master's affairs when circumstances demanded.

On this occasion, Moppe surveyed his master with a well-concealed affection. Mr. L. was a well-set-up fellow, sporting a fine crop of dark, curly hair. He was lean as a whip, but required no padding about shoulders and calves. His eyes were darkish as well and gazed at the world with an authoritative, damn-your-eyes stare that usually brought instant obedience from any underling unfortunate enough to find himself under its glare. Sure to God, concluded Moppe with a sour grin, he looked more the duke's heir than the heir hisself.

“So, what's the mort's name? The one you're off to snabble for the markee?”

“I'm not looking for a mort,” replied Seth frostily. “And I'm not going to snabble anyone.”

“Ho, that's not the word going about belowstairs.”

Seth growled inaudibly. Good Lord, he might have known that word of his quest would have flown about the duke's household like a winter megrim. Hell, the servants had probably known of his conversation with the duke before it was concluded. Gloomily, he made a last-minute adjustment to the
Trone D'Amour
and left his chambers.

Although the Season would not be in full swing for several weeks, there were a sufficient number of prominent families in town to make his efforts worthwhile. Mentally, he perused his list of young females worthy of the title. Marchioness of Belhaven and ultimately Duchess of Derwent. To be sure, the duke's heir had damaged himself almost irreparably in the eyes of the
ton,
but it might be assumed that for at least some families, Bel's title and wealth would outweigh any of his more unpleasant character flaws.

Seth had danced with Lady Winifred Woodhouse and Miss Charlotte Grey. He had fetched punch for the Misses Gilbert and Houghton and had been introduced to Miss Zoë Beckett. Under ordinary circumstances, the latter would be far down on any roster of potential mates for the heir of the Duke of Derwent. Though she was the daughter of a lord, the peer was far from wealthy and dwelled for most of the year on his small country estate. Miss Zoë had thus not been invited into the sacred precincts of Almack's. However, she had caught Seth's attention. She was beautiful, a critical quality if she was to interest Bel. After some minutes in conversation with her, and after a quiet chat with her parents, Frederick, Lord Beckett, and his lady, of Surrey, he concluded that Miss Zoë was the ambitious son. He hoped she was also the sort who would be willing to accept almost any flaw in a husband as long as it was accompanied by a title and wealth.

Seth ordered a discreet investigation of Lord Beckett and discovered that the gentleman was a rarity among the English peerage; he was virtually landless. Several generations before, a feckless Lord Beckett had let the entail lapse, and his son, falling victim to gambling fever, sold off the family holdings to feed his habit. A once wealthy and powerful title fell into disrepair, and it was not until the present Lord Beckett acceded to the title that matters began to look up. Though regarded by his neighbors as little more than a country squire. Lord Beckett was fiercely ambitious and determined to return the family name to its former status. Through hard work and shrewd dealings, he had, bit by bit, purchased land from the surrounding holdings and was now living comfortably, if not lavishly. His progeny consisted of five daughters, three of whom had made advantageous marriages. The oldest was a spinster of twenty-six summers, and the youngest was Zoë. From all reports, both her father and mother were eager for Zoë to marry well. Precisely how eager remained to be seen.

Now, several evenings after his first encounter with Miss Zoë, Seth stood on the perimeter of yet another ballroom—this one in the town home of the Earl and Countess of Saltram— searching for his quarry. Ah, there she was, near the refreshment table, surreptitiously adjusting the neckline of her silk gown so that it revealed another inch or two of pretty bosom and flirting enthusiastically with the Earl of Breecham's cub. He grinned cynically as the boy's mother approached, rather in the manner of a bitch defending her pup, to pry him from Zoë's beguilements.

As he watched, another figure intruded on his view. He was a little above medium height and muscular. His features were regular, and the smile that crinkled eyes of a pale, almost milky blue was charming in the extreme. His careless style of dress and the golden thatch of hair swept into an untidy Brutus proclaimed him the complete Corinthian. As he made his way through the room, several women drew their skirts aside.

Seth drew in a sharp breath. Good Lord, what was
he
doing here? Cravenly, he turned to bolt into the card room, but it was too late. Bel's eyes met his across the throng of guests, and, his mouth twisted in a crooked grin, he sauntered across the room.

“What, ho, brother mine?”

“Hello, Bel,” replied Seth calmly. “What brings you here?”

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