Authors: Cheryl Holt
Tags: #Romance, #Historical Romance
London, May, 1813...
“When will I see you again?”
Michael Wainwright, Viscount Henley, straightened his trousers and stepped away from his paramour. As sounds of gaiety drifted from the crowded ballroom, he stared at her, struggling to remember her name.
What was it? Mary? Marie?
“Will you be at the Belmont’s supper tomorrow night?” he inquired.
“Perhaps we can sneak off for a bit.”
“I’d be delighted if we could,” she gushed.
She was practically quivering with glee, assuming she’d won his favor, so it was probably time to find a new lover.
With his title and dark good looks, it was never difficult to attract a female, but they all thought they would be the one to tie him down, to geld him with bonds he didn’t intend to form. As a bachelor who’d been shoved onto the unwelcome road to matrimony, he had loose women throwing themselves at him wherever he went, but he simply wasn’t partial to monogamy or fidelity.
Yet, he never declined their offers. He was only human after all.
After serving in the army for over a decade, he was bored out of his mind and trying to fill his days with activity. Unfortunately, he leaned toward debauchery when he ought to be exercising restraint.
His peccadilloes were being bandied at every club in town, and while families were keen for a union with his own, money had recently become an issue. He’d hate to have the wealthiest girl cry off due to rumors that were most likely true.
He nodded to the door. “Why don’t you go out first?”
She rose on tiptoe and brushed a kiss across his mouth.
“I’ll think of you every second until tomorrow night,” she vowed.
He flashed a look—that might have indicated anything—but she took it to be smoldering passion. She hurried over and peeked into the hall, and as she flitted off to rejoin the party, he breathed a sigh of relief.
He dawdled to ensure that she was gone, then he proceeded to the other wing of the house, and to the meeting ordered by his father, Alfred Wainwright, the Duke of Clarendon. Nearly an hour had passed since he’d been summoned by the exalted ass, and although Michael made it a habit to annoy him as much as possible, the Duke couldn’t be ignored forever.
Michael skirted the festivities in the ballroom, content to walk by relatively unnoticed. The cream of London society was present, and he was in no mood to chat.
Couples twirled by, laughing as the orchestra played a fast waltz. Jewels glittered under the chandeliers. The women’s expensive dresses swished in time to the intoxicating rhythm, but Michael couldn’t bring himself to share in the revelry.
With the death of his older brother, John, Michael had become his father’s heir. The calamity had forced him to resign his military commission and return to London, but the position brought a duty and obligation he’d never coveted. Previously, he’d often bragged that he
his brother, and he’d tormented John over the fact that John had had to study and train and behave while Michael had had to do very little at all.
John had been a carefree, happy, and mischievous boy who’d grown to be a dissipated, cynical man, but as a child, Michael had worshipped and emulated his brother. He’d loved John, and he felt it uncouth to be entertaining so lavishly. He didn’t like having so many people in their home, didn’t like them guzzling the liquor and gobbling the food, but the Duke had decreed that the party would go forward, so go forward it had.
Of course John had been deceased for six months, so it wasn’t as if tragedy had struck the prior afternoon. But still, Michael didn’t comprehend why they couldn’t have waited a tad longer to carry on as they always had.
He entered the library and shut the door, and as he glanced around the ostentatious, masculine room, he saw that the Duke had already arrived. He was lounged on a sofa by the fire and was sipping a brandy, and his scowl signified that Michael had been too slow in scurrying to his side.
Michael was thirty years old, a viscount in his own right and would one day be a duke, yet his father treated him like a servant.
“Where have you been?” the Duke queried, dispensing with any greeting.
“Where would you suppose?”
“And fornicating with a harlot is more important than attending to your father?”
“Yes, and much more pleasant, too.”
With the Duke’s latest fiscal revelation, they were constantly at odds, and they seemed on the verge of another argument, but evidently, the Duke was exhausted by their fighting. He bit down a retort and visibly reined in his notorious temper.
At age fifty-two, the Duke was a cunning and sly man, with a full head of white hair and sharp blue eyes that hadn’t lost their ability to intimidate. If there were any limits to his influence or authority, he hadn’t recognized them. He told others to jump, and they asked how high.
He was a despot and bully who’d driven four wives to early graves, and he ran his homes and estates like a dictator. Those around him were the walking wounded, staggering after him, weathering his petty rages and absurd demands.
Michael had joined the army specifically to escape the Duke’s machinations, and he had no idea why he tolerated the obnoxious tyrant, but the Duke’s pull was strong. Michael had tried but had never been able to completely sever the ties that bound them.
“What have you learned?” the Duke asked, moving on to the true reason for their meeting.
“Nothing good I’m afraid.”
“Will she give us the boy?”
“No. She’s refused again.”
“The mother or the aunt?”
“The aunt,” Michael said.
“The insulting jade!” The Duke stood and started to pace. “Who the hell does she think she is? I’ll see her ruined for this! Ruined, I tell you.”
Michael poured his own brandy and flopped down in a chair, eager to stay out of the line of fire as the Duke ranted.
Apparently, John had sired an illegitimate child, and he’d kept the secret for almost a decade. Though he and Michael had had a cordial and close relationship, Michael hadn’t had an inkling of the scandal until the morning John’s will was read. The news had certainly been a fascinating surprise.
On discovering how much money John had bequeathed to the little devil, Michael had wondered if the Duke would suffer an apoplexy.
The Duke had decided to bring the boy—eight-year-old Thomas—to live with the Wainwrights, but he was stymied by the frustrating reality that they hadn’t yet made contact with the mother. The aunt kept responding on the mother’s behalf, and she had no intention of relinquishing custody.
“Why do you suppose,” the Duke inquired, “that it’s the aunt who replies to your correspondence—rather than the lad’s mother?”
“Perhaps the mother can’t read or write.”
“Perhaps,” the Duke mused.
The door opened, and Michael’s sister, Anne, slipped in.
She was a beauty, with Michael’s same black hair and the Wainwright blue eyes. But at age twenty-five, she was still a spinster, having remained unwed due to the Duke’s ridiculous insistence that there wasn’t a man in Europe with lofty enough blood lines to warrant a union. At least that was the story he told.
The actual reason was that Anne had no dowry—though she wasn’t aware of the dire situation. The Duke had squandered her fortune, and the property that would have gone to her husband was mortgaged to the hilt.
She puttered about in their many spacious mansions, with nothing to do but serve as their widowed father’s hostess. It was a lonely, useless existence, and she was growing bitter because of it.
“Have you explained to Father about the latest letter?” she asked Michael.
“What shall we do now?”
“I’ll get a damned writ,” the Duke threatened. “I’ll have custody like that!”
He snapped his fingers, the sound echoing off the vaulted ceiling with a sad finality.
“You will not.” Anne ignored the Duke’s outburst, and she gazed at Michael. “As usual, you’re the sane male of the family. How should we proceed?”
From the moment they’d learned about Thomas, they’d had unending discussions about what their course of action should be.
They all agreed that he should be raised by the Wainwrights, as the law and the church would deem proper, but they were divided on how to wrest him from his mother.
Anne had pushed for consideration and compromise while the Duke had advocated harsh measures. Michael liked Anne’s approach, and had penned several notes to the mother, requesting an appointment.
To Michael’s amazement, the first two had gone unanswered. The third one, after a lengthy delay, had generated a polite response—from Thomas’s aunt, not his mother—declining the Duke’s offer.
From there, the negotiations had deteriorated.
Michael had written again, being more strident in tone, and he’d been stunned to receive a reply that was equally stern and unbending. The aunt claimed that the Wainwrights had been given numerous opportunities to become acquainted with Thomas, but had rebuffed all overtures, and she found their sudden interest to be offensive and suspect.
She’d accused Michael of having ulterior motives, and he couldn’t believe the woman’s acuity or her audacity. Yes, he’d neglected to mention that John had died, or that Thomas was now in possession of a huge fortune, but she didn’t need to know all the pesky details, and he was furious that she would dare to thwart him.
While he tried not to exhibit too many of the Duke’s more horrid traits, he was the man’s son, and he could definitely be imperious when the situation called for it.
As with his father, no one told Michael
. No one refused him. Not when the topic involved his deceased brother’s only child.
“What is the aunt’s name?” the Duke inquired.
“Frances Carrington—although she signed the letter as Fanny.”
“Fanny Carrington,” the Duke muttered. “What is to be done with her?”
Anne glared at him as if he were an idiot. “Why must you make this so difficult, Father?”
“What is difficult about it, Anne?”
“We needn’t quarrel with these people.”
“Really? And what would you—in your infinite wisdom—suggest?”
“Simply send Michael to speak with the mother in a friendly and courteous manner. Explain the circumstances to her. You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
The Duke glowered. “When I want spurious, meaningless phrases, I’ll let you know.”
“And your plan is better?” Anne said. “You’ll menace and frighten and wound, and in the process, you’ll hurt everyone. Particularly Thomas.”
“The boy will be fine,” the Duke declared. “You have my word on it. If you’ll excuse us...?”
He gestured to the door, indicating that her presence was no longer welcome. Briefly, she tarried, contemplating further argument—which would be pointless—then she marched out in a huff.
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” she hissed to Michael as she passed.
He chuckled. “Don’t worry. I won’t let him do anything cruel.”
“How will you stop him?” she countered. “You’ve never tried very hard before.”
She continued on, clearly feeling that Michael would side with their father in his every devious deed. More and more, she chastised him for being too much like the Duke, and her low opinion of him rankled. Michael could be ruthless, but he had a conscience and knew when to let it kick in.
They were silent until her footsteps receded, then the Duke said, “I’ll get that writ. Then I want you to travel to Sussex, serve it on those two imbecilic females, and bring the child home with you. I won’t tolerate any nonsense.”
“What if they fight you in court?”
“Fight me?” He scoffed. “Pray tell, how? You read the report prepared by our investigator. By all accounts, they’re two indigents who can barely keep a roof over their pathetic heads. They couldn’t find two pennies to hire a lawyer, and if they managed it, can you actually presume the courts would rule against me?” He was standing next to his massive oak desk, and he pounded his fist on the polished wood. “For God’s sake, I
the law in this country. How soon can you leave?”