Authors: Laura Parker
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Copyright © 1994 by Laura Castoro
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition November 2013
For Michael and Family
London, April 1814
Five men shared the only card table still occupied in the elegantly appointed gaming hell. Four were young acolytes of Dandyism, the exclusive, until recently, preserve of the aristocrat. Collar points touched their cheeks, braced by starchers showing the strain of hours of wear. The requisite cache of jeweled snuffboxes, monocles, gold-headed canes, and trouser fobs attested to the wealth of these exotic birds of fashion. The fifth was a man well into his forties and showing the effects of having lived rather too thoroughly through each and every one of those years. The term “esquire” attached to his name was an affectation adopted to mask his commoner antecedents. It was after five
. They had been drinking deep and gambling even deeper since shortly after one. As they ended the final hand, the entire company sighed in unison.
“I say, Blackburne,” said Lord McEvedy, his concern for his friend betrayed in his tone. “Isn’t that your seventh straight loss?”
“Damme. So it is.” Emory Blackburne, the sixth Earl of Ramsbury and a startlingly handsome young man, smiled ironically at his companions. “But what’s a sport for, if not to buy a man amusement?”
“What say we call it a night?” suggested the Earl of Stanhope’s youngest son, who was Emory’s closest friend. “Games of chance lose their thrill after sunup.”
Instead of replying, Emory cast an anxious glance at the elder among them. Shelby Tibbitts, Esq., smiled mischievously. “My lord is correct. Dawn shall soon be peeking through the drape. Yet as the major beneficiary of the evening’s play, I hesitate to suggest an end to the evening without first offering Lord Ramsbury the chance to recoup his loss. One more hand, my lord?”
Emory reached for his glass of port and used the excuse of drinking deep to think. Four thousand pounds! He had lost four thousand pounds in a single evening. He had gambled often, and lost rather more often than not, yet he had never before lost so much so quickly. What would his brother think?
Emory blinked behind his cup, trying to focus liquor-blurred eyes the shade of moss-covered stones. Hadrian would never know about his losses. His brother Hadrian was dead. Why did he keep forgetting that?
He knew the others were waiting for him to decide. It was a point of honor among his set to be dunned by one’s tailor, but a gentleman always settled his gaming debts on the spot. Only he didn’t have four thousand pounds. If he played another hand he might win at least some of it back but, if he lost …
“Don’t care if I do, or don’t,” he said to end his indecision.
“Then I suggest not,” Tibbitts answered with surprising alacrity.
He came quickly and easily to his feet, unlike his younger companions, who swayed unsteadily as they groped for their belongings. Aided by yawning footmen longing for their own beds, the young aristocrats were soon supplied with cloaks and hats and canes and directed toward waiting carriages.
Emory hung back, cudgeling his brain for an acceptable excuse that would put Tibbitts off a day or two.
“My lord, may I beg a ride?” When he looked up he found Tibbitts was smiling at him across the table. “My rooms are only a few streets away, in your general direction.”
“But of course,” Emory answered automatically because he was by nature a polite and accommodating man, and because their discussion of money—considered beneath a gentleman—might go better in private.
Once they were ensconced in the well-appointed carriage bearing the Ramsbury crest, Emory began his hastily arranged speech. “You will be wanting your winnings. Will step round to my solicitor’s first thing. Check in your hand by noon. Can’t think why I didn’t stop when my pockets were flat.”
Tibbitts leaned back against the cushions upholstered in the emerald-green-and-gold colors of the Ramsbury livery and smiled contentedly. “You are a true gentleman, my lord. To win or lose means nothing to you. ’Tis the gamble that fires the blood. Your friends do not share your appetite for sport. ’Tis a trait of that rare gentleman of extraordinary self-possession and worldliness.”
Emory did not know whether he agreed. Right now all he felt was a nagging mortification that he had run himself into debt and a growing resentment of the lecture his solicitor would certainly read him through before he allowed Emory to extract the funds to pay his debt of honor. Even then, he would be without a ha’penny until the first of the month. It didn’t seem right that an earl should be made to count pence.
When Tibbitts spoke again his voice had changed, become more sharp. “I would not seek to insult you, my lord, but by birth and necessity I am a practical man and a blunt one. You shall come into your full inheritance at your majority on the thirty-first of May, will you not?”
“How would you know that?”
Tibbitts appeared to smirk, but the gas streetlight they were passing provided such little light that Emory could not be certain. “I should not have mentioned it. Yet to prove that my knowledge was randomly come by, I will admit that I overheard Lords Stanhope and McEvedy discussing preparation for a celebration in your honor. There, ask me no more about it.”
Emory grinned. Stanhope and McEvedy were planning a party in his honor? Dashed good friends, they were! He frowned as another thought occurred to him. “That don’t explain how you know about my inheritance.”
“An entailment is customary, is it not, when the title comes to one who’s not yet reached his majority?
“Suppose that’s so,” Emory replied, but it had come as a surprise to him when Hadrian’s will was read. A year later, it remained the black thundercloud in his otherwise sky-blue financial future. As for the new duties and responsibilities, full authority would require …
“Are you ailing, my lord?” Tibbitts inquired. “You look suddenly peaked.”
“My brother would have been thirty years yesterday,” Emory murmured, having forgotten the reason he had drunk so much in the early part of the evening.
and the three girls had wept and sniffed in grief-stricken memorial to the day. He had taken to drink as refuge. Saluting a dead soldier, he had privately called it. Dulling his own bleak sense over loss of an adored older brother had been closer to the truth.
“A brave man, I’ve heard. Decorated soldier. Wellington’s man, so I understand. You must be very proud.”
“Yes. I must be.” Emory felt a stab of pain deep down. Hadrian had been dead fifteen months. He had last seen him three years ago. Why was the pain keener now than at the beginning?
“My lord?” Emory blinked. Tibbitts continued, “I am a man of common sensibilities, so perhaps I see things differently. As I am privy to the particulars which momentarily constrain your purse, I would not be averse to waiting upon my due. Until the first of June, none need ever learn of the contingency.”
“Why, the one we are discussing. I should think the matter of four thousand could be set aside for nine weeks.”
Emory felt the weight of his world lift like a balloon ascending from his belabored mind. Credit among the nobility was not done, but then Tibbitts was not an aristocrat so perhaps it did not count. “A gentleman can count himself lucky to know you, Mr. Tibbitts.”
“You do me too much honor, my lord. For a friend, a small adjustment of accommodation scarcely signifies.” He paused before adding, “To soothe your conscience in the matter, I’m willing to accept whatever sum you think proper as a boon for the favor.”
Startled, Emory sat forward. “You’re suggesting a percentage! Why, I’d as lief go to a money lender!”
Tibbitts shrugged. “The matter is entirely yours to dispose of, my lord. Only I will warn you, once they have their claws in you, you’ll never be free. I, on the other hand, would never think to mention the subject after this night. You will, of course, insist upon a voucher, stating the date and payment.”
Emory nodded, feeling slightly ruffled by the request for a writ of debt but uncertain how to protest it without threatening Tibbitts’s magnanimous offer.
When the carriage stopped before Tibbitts’s address, Emory stepped down with him to use his pen and ink. Five minutes later he was back in his carriage, headed toward his own address.
Satisfied to have the matter resolved, Emory did what he always did with problems: he forgot about it.
He was surprised to find not the family butler nodding by the front door of Ramsbury House but Melsham, Hadrian’s former valet, and now his own.
“My lord!” he greeted Emory anxiously and almost slammed the door behind him. “ ’Tis home ye are at last and past time. The family waited up ’til three o’ the clock. Her ladyship said I was to wake her the minute ye arrived.”
Emory waved him away, annoyed that his mother should wish to know the precise moments of his comings and goings. I’ll speak with her in the morning. I’m fagged out and ready for bed.”
“My lord!” Melsham cried in alarm as Emory moved away. “Ye must go up! She’ll be wantin’ to tell ye herself.” He looked beside himself, rocking on his toes as if his greatest necessity were the need for a privy. “We’ve had news, my lord. The very best news!”
Emory paused on the first riser of the main staircase. “What sort of news?”
Melsham grinned up at him, revealing his missing tooth. “We’ve had a letter, my lord. From the War Office. Captain Blackburne ain’t dead, my lord. He’s alive! And coming home!”
The young earl went perfectly still. “Hadrian is alive?”
“That is so. Lord Blythe brought the message.”
Amazement and joy surged through Emory like the bracing flow of an icy river. Hadrian was alive! Everything would be as before. All his worries were over. Hadrian was coming home to England!
Surrey, England, April 1814
Heloise Viscountess of Arbuthnott, peered into the tea tin and then shut the lid with a snap before raising stormy blue eyes to her majordomo and butler. “This is not Oolong! I precisely requested Oolong tea. You’ve attempted to swindle me, Potsman. Were we in India, you’d lose your hand for such an offense.”
“Beg pardon, my lady,” the long-suffering servant began in his most tolerant voice. “There was no mention made of Oolong tea on the order you returned to Mrs. Crawford.”
“That is because we have a sufficiency of the stuff. I made an inventory of the larder myself just last week. There were three tins of tea on the shelf!” she responded indignantly.
“Just so, my lady. That tin is one of them.”
“It is not,” she maintained in her most petulant voice. “I drink only Oolong. Someone stole my tea!” Her enormous blue eyes rounded as she pinned the family retainer with an accusing stare.
took it. You and Lord Arbuthnott were forever drinking together in the old days. Don’t bother to deny it!”
Potsman did not, though a smile of reminiscence curved up one corner of his long thin mouth. He and the viscount had shared many an evening together in their younger years. But it was Scotch or Portuguese port, not tea, they had drunk until, each supporting the other, they had climbed the stairs to bed. Life had been exciting and unpredictable when Lord Arbuthnott resided here. But those days were over. Quentin Holton, the Viscount of Arbuthnott, God bless him, was dead.
“Well? Have you nothing else with which to torture me?” Lady Arbuthnott prompted her butler.
“Yes, my lady,” he answered and formally produced from his pocket a thick letter. “The milkman brought it just now.”
man?” Lady Arbuthnott echoed as she reached for it. “Whyever should the milkman deliver the post?”
“Hiram is ailing again, my lady.”
“His lungs, isn’t it? Tell Mrs. Crawford to remove a vial of Lobelia from my medicine cabinet. That’s L-O-B-E-L-I-A. See that it’s delivered to Hiram with the instructions that he is to take one-half teaspoon every six hours.”
Potsman sighed inwardly but replied, “Yes, my lady.”
As he turned toward the door, he regretted his slip of the tongue. Poor old Hiram. It was bad enough to be ailing, but now he’d be obliged to suffer through one of her ladyship’s noxious heathen remedies. The viscountess’s interest in herbal medicine had begun with the Holtons’ journey to Egypt twenty years earlier. She had returned to fill the ancient manor house with enough foul-smelling potions to physic the inhabitants of Surrey for years to come. Any illness or injury immediately resulted in the use of her strange concoctions. Consequently, scarcely a complaint was voiced within her hearing.
When the butler was gone, Heloise placed two teaspoons of what she knew to be Oolong tea into the pot and smiled. The altercation with Potsman was just what she had needed to set up her appetite. There was so little stimulation to be had in the country. Of course, had he been here, Quentin would have scolded her roundly for having abused poor Potsman in such a fashion. Even in her worst fit of pique, she had never thought to cross
Her gaze softened as she looked up toward the painting hanging over the mantel. It was a huge painting of the fifth Viscount of Arbuthnott. But unlike the formal portraits in family tartan preferred by his ancestors, Quentin had commissioned his portrait to be done in his favorite costume, that of a Persian prince. He wore an elaborate red turban with gold trim, diamond diadem, and heron feathers; voluminous scarlet trousers; a brilliant blue tunic trimmed in gold braid; and a vivid multicolored sash into which a wickedly curving scimitar had been stuck. It was a costume to put a peacock to the blush, but it did not abash its wearer. The last of the “wild” Highland Holtons—whose history was legend—gazed down from that portrait with a devilish gleam in his black eyes and an indecent smile that had made many a lady swoon.
“Handsome rascal! You cannot so easily placate me!” Heloise challenged the portrait. “All England thinks you’re dead, but I know better. You deserted me, and for that I shall never forgive you. Never!”
She dabbed at the bright tears that sprang to her eyes and reached for her teapot. Missing three years. And never even a note of explanation. No wonder his family and friends thought him dead. It was most uncivil of him to humiliate her in this manner. After a year of waiting, she had been forced to retire from London society in order to quell the rumors of her heartlessness in refusing to mourn a man whom all but she thought dead.