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Devon--May 8, 1812
"Of courshe I'm goin' home!" Hiccups punctuated the slurred words.
The ostler shrugged, swallowing the rest of his unsolicited advice as he held the gelding steady. Lord Avery had never been a man who accepted even implied criticism.
Gareth, Lord Avery, stumbled twice before he managed to mount. His stars swayed dizzily overhead. Why had he broached that last bottle? The Golden Stag was known for the quality of its spirits, and the company had been congenial, but that had never led him to overindulge in the past.
At least the evening had started congenially, he corrected himself as he passed the last cottage. When had it changed? Senseless images danced in his head. Something wasn't right. Unnoticed, his hands slackened on the reins, allowing Pegasus to veer off the road.
Business. That was it. Why had he been discussing business at the Golden Stag? Mr. Isaacs had not been there. Nor had he been in his office, so the trip to Exeter had accomplished nothing. He would return, of course, and the banker would accept his latest offer--must accept it if Gareth was to find peace again.
He shivered. One hand patted his jacket pocket, verifying that the papers were still there. Not that his cryptic notes would mean anything to another--they merely jogged a memory not as good as it used to be--but carrying them made her seem closer.
My love, my heart. Damn, but I need yo--
Pegasus stepped in a hole, nearly unseating him. He should not have downed another bottle after bidding his friends farewell. And he certainly should not have left for home after doing so. It would have been better to stay thenight--as the ostler had suggested--but he had already been on his way out when that stranger drew him into a private parlor, and changing his mind never occurred to him. What was the fellow's name again?
Meredith. Stanley Meredith. They had played several hands of piquet before Meredith announced that he was looking for investors in a canal venture that would make them both rich. Or so he claimed. But Gareth did not need--
Without warning, the last bottle of wine spewed onto his horse's neck, where it was rapidly joined by four brethren and the mutton stew served in the Golden Stag's common room. Pegasus took exception to such treatment and bolted, leaving Lord Avery sprawled on the ground, still retching.
The moon had cleared the eastern hills by the time he staggered to his feet. He leaned against a tree, holding his head until the world stopped spinning. A glow to the west defined Exeter, barely a mile away.
It might as well be in France. The fall had done something to his ribs, leaving him feeling very odd indeed. He stumbled back to the road, forcing his thoughts past the thick wine fumes as he considered his health.
His coat. That's what was wrong. It was too tight.
His fingers fumbled to undo its buttons, but the numb digits could not accomplish even so simple a task. He shook his head. It wasn't the coat. His cravat was too tight. He tugged it loose as he tottered along the verge. Fashionable clothing was not made for exercise.
By the time he heard hoofbeats, he was gasping in painful snorts and wheezes that made his close-cut coat pinch even tighter. Only extreme effort raised a leaden arm to signal the approaching curricle.
"Lord Avery, what happened?" exclaimed the driver.
"Meredith?" He had barely choked out the name when his coat shrank three sizes. Cold sweat broke out on his brow. "Help--"
Meredith disappeared, replaced by a radiant woman beckoning him closer. "Come, my love. All is forgiven. We may share eternity together."
The man Gareth had most wronged nodded in agreement, smiled, then joined a black-haired woman and faded into the distance.
But Gareth could not believe them. "All? Even--?" He patted his breast pocket in horror.
"Some transgressions are not wholly wicked, my dearest love," she assured him, drifting closer on a wave of peace and hope. "You have erred often, but good can yet come of your sins. The stage is set. Now the other players must choose their own courses."
"I don't understand."
"He will explain. Are you ready?"
Lord Avery smiled, the long years of pain and sorrow vanishing in an instant. "Together at last. He is merciful, indeed, my love. Oh, how I've missed you!"
Rejoicing at his unexpected reprieve, he grasped her hand and accompanied her to the light beyond.
The man calling himself Meredith remained in his curricle. Only his eyes moved, calmly watching. Pain exploded across Avery's face; one hand clutched his chest; his eyes rolled into his head as he crumpled to the ground, wearing an oddly beatific smile.
Instinct had urged him to follow the inebriated lord. Instinct never failed him. The moment Avery breathed his last, Meredith snubbed the ribbons. In seconds he had rifled Gareth's pockets and regained his seat, turning his curricle back to town.
Nought but the moon remained to watch over the earthly remains of the third Lord Avery.
"This is absurd!"
Richard Avery, sixth Marquess of Carrington, raised his quizzing glass to grimace at his reflected image. Kesterton had trussed him up like the veriest dandy, with a blue satin jacket, embroidered white waistcoat, and silver pantaloons. His cravat was tighter than he preferred, tied in an intricate variation of the oriental that cut into his chin with its unaccustomed height. He snorted.
"Your lordship promised her ladyship," Kesterton reminded his employer, twitching the last wrinkle from the close-cut jacket.
"Who cares what I wear? There is not a chit in the house who sees aught but my title and purse," he grumbled. "I could dress as an American savage, and they would still simper and bat their vacant eyes."
Kesterton merely handed him his gloves.
Richard dropped his quizzing glass and headed for the door. Complaining was beneath his dignity. He knew how the game was played. Duty demanded that he secure the succession, a task he could not accomplish without a wife. His mother was pressing him to wed, and at three-and-thirty he could hardly blame her. Nor could he protest a dearth of candidates. She was giving him ample opportunity to make his choice, entertaining constantly in town and holding frequent house parties at Carrington Castle, each including a good selection of eligible young ladies.
And her taste was not an issue. Unlike some mothers, she did not sponsor weak-willed, brainless chits in an attempt to preserve her own authority. Her protégées included every conceivable sort, from ignorant to bluestocking, inept to accomplished, antidote to beautiful, clinging to independent, impoverished to well dowered, breathless seventeen-year-olds to assured widows. Their only commonality was the breeding necessary for a marchioness.
But he had accepted none of them.
The world considered him hard to please, a description he abhorred, for it made him sound like a fussy eccentric. Yet every candidate possessed at least one intolerable fault. The current guest list was no exception: Lady Evaline's fluttering lashes made him dizzy; Lady Edith's giggles rasped his nerves; Ernestine agreed with even ridiculous statements; Martha never spoke above a whisper; Maude laughed immoderately; Melanie contradicted him; Caroline was clumsy; Cora mistreated her maid; Charlotte's mother was a harridan; and on and on...
Were any of them capable of friendship? He wanted more from marriage than a dutiful bed partner, an accomplished hostess, or an ornament to grace his arm. Was that too much to ask?
Unwilling to spend the half hour preceding dinner with fawning misses and calculating parents, he slipped into the library. Were they too stupid to recognize their own insincerity, or did they believe him incapable of doing so? He was tempted to plant a facer on the next girl who called him handsome. He wasn't. Nor was he witty, charming, or entertaining. He had too many responsibilities to waste time on frivolity. And though he considered himself well-read, he knew many who were more intelligent, starting with his friend Mark.
He paced the room, finally stopping in the last alcove to leaf through a book on Coke's agricultural experiments. The door opened, but before he could make his presence known, the intruders spoke. He stepped farther into the corner.
"Oh, good, no one is here," exclaimed a girl. "Let's wait until the final bell. Mama will never think to look for me in a library, and I simply cannot face him again."
"What happened?" demanded her friend. "Surely he didn't take unwelcome liberties! I never met a colder man."
"Of course not! He is not that sort. Sally claims he doesn't even keep a mistress."
"She would know." Both girls giggled. "Her mother would die if she found out how much Sally hears from her brother. But if he didn't steal a kiss under the stairs, why are you afraid of him?"
"I am not afraid, even if he does glower most of the time. He is so old I cannot feel anything for him. But he spoke to me for all of five minutes this morning, and smiled while he did it. You know he disapproves of everything, so his good humor convinced Mama that he means to make me an offer. I will die if he does! Can you imagine living with such an iceberg?"
"It would turn me to stone."
"Oh, Lizzy! If only Sir Harold could cover Papa's debts, we could marry. I love him so! But Mama turns livid at the very suggestion. She will never let Papa approve his suit."
Lady Angela Bradburn. Richard identified her as she paused to stifle a sob. And the other was her bosom bow, Miss Elizabeth Sandbourne. His face twisted into a frown. Angela had been flirtatious since her arrival, but she did not even pretend to be sincere about it. That had piqued his curiosity, though he had never considered offering for her; she was barely seventeen. Pity welled up, and he shook his head. Lady Bradburn was a shameless schemer who would use her daughter to better her own social standing. Poor Angela.
"What will you do?" asked Elizabeth.
"I don't know." Lady Angela's voice trembled. "Mama is so determined to attach Carrington that I fear she will try something dishonorable. Papa has already announced that we will not go to London next Season. But you know how Mama loves society. She condemns his efforts to improve our estate, and counts on a wealthy son-in-law to repair his fortune so she can resume her place in town. How can I fight her? It will be four years before Harry and I can wed without their consent. I can never dodge her schemes that long."
"Have you considered eloping?"
"That would destroy Harry's career," Angela admitted with a sigh. "Scandal is not tolerated in government circles. You know that."
"Then you must resign yourself to Carrington. Thank heaven I do not need to consider him. My parents will never force me to wed without affection."
"You do not like him, either?"
"I don't dislike him," objected Elizabeth. "He has been all that is polite. But he is too old, too harsh, too solemn, and not nearly handsome enough for my taste."
The dinner bell rang.
"Come on," urged Elizabeth. "Mama will scold if I am late."
"As will mine. Perhaps if I flirt with Mr. Walper, Carrington will leave me alone tonight. How I wish I was of age!"
Richard stepped from the alcove and frowned at the library door. Matchmaking parents were bad enough, but impoverished ones were despicable. He had already sidestepped one compromise plot in recent months and had no intention of succumbing to another. His eyes hardened. He had seen enough of this house party to dismiss every chit from contention. Summoning a footman, he sent his regrets to his mother and requested a tray in his room. But he did not immediately leave the library.
Those two girls were honest and intelligent, rare traits in the ton. Elizabeth needed no help, but Lady Angela was another story. She would make an ideal wife for a rising diplomat and did not deserve the misery that Lady Bradburn would force upon her. Lord Bradburn had gamed away considerable sums the previous Season, though not enough to threaten him with disgrace. He had apparently faced his folly and was bent on addressing his problems. But if his wife was determined to sell their daughter, there were any number of lecherous rogues who would be willing to buy. Picturing her in the arms of one of society's reprobates did not bear thinking on, especially when she had already found a man she could love. Pulling out a sheet of crested stationery, he sharpened a quill.
My Lord Bradburn,
It has come to my attention that Lady Angela and Sir Harold Compton wish to wed. Please consider his suit. He has gained much respect in government circles, earning the patronage that will raise him to the heights in time. Already he has acquired the means to support a wife in style.
No one deserves a spouse who loves another. If Lady Bradburn compromises a wealthier gentleman into taking Lady Angela, I will be compelled to ruin both of you in the eyes of society.
Sealing the missive, he summoned his secretary. "See that this is delivered tomorrow morning."
Cawdry's brows lifted, but Richard refused to explain. At first light, he turned his curricle down the drive.
Penelope Wingrave stared in horror at her fifteen-year-old half brother. Michael shuffled his feet for several seconds before meeting her eyes.
"I lost a hundred pounds at piquet."
"How could you!"
"I am so sorry, Penny," he choked out. "I know I shouldn't have done it, and I swear it will never happen again, but I must send Gerald the funds immediately. There is no way to honorably renege. How could I hope to return to school?"
Sighing loudly, she took a turn about the bookroom. Michael's return for long break had filled her with joy, though she had hardly recognized him when he walked through the door. He was six inches taller than on his last visit, boding ill for her budget, for he would need yet another new wardrobe when school resumed. His voice had dropped at least an octave, and his already slim physique had turned positively lanky. But the joy was short-lived. Within minutes he had exploded disaster in her face.
A hundred pounds.
Where could she possibly find a hundred pounds? Yet ranting would do no good. She took a deep breath, resuming her seat behind the desk.
"What happened, Michael?"
"There was a party for Wiggy." Michael paced the room in turn. "His great-uncle died last month, leaving him the barony. He had barely known the man, so you can understand that it was cause for celebration rather than sadness."
"Gerald arranged the festivities down at the Laughing Pig." He hesitated.
"I suppose everyone was rather foxed," she said helpfully.
"Exactly. There were cards and dice and--" He hesitated again.
She could fill in the rest. Those who had not already discovered women would have done so that night.
"I never understood how heedless one can get while in one's altitudes," he admitted with a groan. "I paid no attention to either the stakes or the cards. Before I knew it, I was a hundred pounds down. I quit immediately, fearing that staying in the game could only make a bad situation worse, but there is no way out of the debt."
"It is done," she said with a sigh. "At least you had the sense to avoid trying to reverse your luck. That rarely works."
"But what are we to do?"
"Send a draft to Gerald, of course. Your reputation is worth more than a hundred pounds."
"I am so sorry," he repeated. "Where will you find the funds?"
"It will have to come out of the next mortgage payment," she acknowledged, holding his gaze so that he could not mistake her meaning.
He blanched. "But that means we could lose everything."
"We could. You know how close to the River Tick we live. But let's not worry about that yet. We have two months to find replacement funds. Perhaps the pottery orders will expand. Or the price of plumes may rise again. We will contrive."
"Dear Lord, Penny. How could I have been so stupid? Should I throw myself on the banker's mercy?"
She shook her head. "We cannot give Mr. Isaacs cause to call in the loan. Our situation is precarious enough without courting his doubts. Somehow we will find the money."
"I am so sorry," he repeated in a voice choked with tears.
"It is done. We must learn from the experience and move ahead. If nothing else, this demonstrates the difference between you and your school friends. Despite your breeding, you have no title. And with fourteen others between you and Uncle Raymond, there is no chance of acquiring one. Most of your friends are bored heirs who spend their time on drinking, gaming, and debauchery rather than learning. You must remain firm to avoid falling into their habits."
"True." He dug at the carpet with the toe of one boot.
"I am not trying to draw the ridicule of the other boys onto your head," she disclaimed with a sigh. "But we haven't the money to increase your admittedly paltry allowance. Thus you cannot join their extravagant pastimes. If the pottery works out, that may change, but for now paying tuition is all that I can manage."
"I understand." He met her gaze squarely, determination stiffening his chin. "And I am grateful that you can do this much. I won't let you down again."
Footsteps raced along the hallway.
"Michael!" shrieked Alice, tossing her bonnet to the floor as she flung herself into her brother's arms. "When did you get home? How was your trip? Oh, I could kick myself for not being here when you arrived, but we didn't expect you until dinnertime. Goodness, how you've grown!"
Laughing partly in jubilation and partly in relief at escaping Penelope's scold, he set her away. "Easy, Allie. It's good to see you, too, but am I permitted to get a word in edgewise?"
Alice giggled. "Of course. It was just the shock of seeing you here. And so tall. I have to look up to you now. Doesn't he look like Papa, Penny?"
"That he does, more so every year. And that is fitting, for you take after your mother."
"I wish I could remember her," said Alice with a sigh. "But this is no time to be maudlin. When did you get back, Michael?"
"Barely half an hour ago. Where were you?"
"In the village." She retrieved her bonnet and a small package. "The pins you needed, Penny. And you'll never guess who I met."
"Who?" Michael smiled indulgently at his sister.
"Terrence Avery. It must be three years since he last spent long break here."
"But how could he not return home with his father so recently gone?" asked Penelope gently.
"Of course." Alice blushed. "How stupid of me. Come along, Michael. Let's leave Penny to finish her work. You won't believe what Ozzie was doing last week..."
Penelope watched her half siblings leave. Much as she loved them, she would never be as close to them as they were to each other.
Terrence's return boded ill, but perhaps he was cut from a different cloth than his father. Never had a death been so welcome, though the thought was unchristian, at best. But the late viscount's demise had removed one of her more pressing problems. Too bad fate had replaced it. Michael's debt already weighed down her shoulders. Despite fifteen years of juggling the demands of their small estate, the burden never grew easier. So many things could destroy them--another rise in prices, bad weather, accident, disease, fire...
Enough! She rarely felt sorry for herself, but today she could not help it. So much responsibility left her weary.
It had started at age twelve when her stepmother died in childbirth. Though they had never been close, the woman had been kind to her, taking her on outings, overseeing her education, and even supporting her on those occasions when her father's indifference turned to antagonism. Walter Wingrave had dearly loved his second wife, falling into a prolonged melancholy after her death that even his long-awaited heir failed to mitigate. Weeks would pass between visits to his children. Penelope did not mind on her own account, but he had previously doted on Alice, who was too young to understand the change.
So she had been left to look after Alice and the newborn Michael. The servants helped, of course, but even in those days the Wingraves had had a limited staff. Her only rewards were an absentminded thank you when Walter eventually questioned the nursery arrangements and the trust implied in his will, which appointed her as their guardian.
When Walter's failing health had removed his last interest in worldly affairs, she'd assumed control of the estate, appalled to discover that it was both run-down and heavily mortgaged. She'd fired their hidebound steward and initiated the changes that would eventually produce a comfortable income.
Walter's death had led to her biggest battle--convincing a skeptical banker that she was an acceptable steward. The bank could have called in the loan or insisted that she hire a man to oversee operations. Either action would have cost them the estate. There was no money for additional help. But she had won the day, for the books showed an improving financial picture in the years she had run Winter House.
Now she faced a new challenge. Their resources would not cover a hundred-pound gaming debt. How was she to replace the money before the next payment was due?
Lord Carrington restlessly paced the terrace at Bridgeport Abbey, his eyes fixed on the flagstones at his feet instead of the spectacular view.
What was he doing here?
Escaping. And not just from his mother's house party, which surely must have died a natural death by now.
He grimaced, rejecting every one of his supposed reasons for this unannounced visit. Running away did not accord with his position in the world, but that was exactly what he had done. Why else was he intruding on his closest friend barely two months after the man's wedding? There were plenty of other places he could have gone--London, Brighton, any of half-a-dozen estates he had not visited in over a year, his ward's estate, the homes of friends who were not in need of privacy. Yet he had come here, needing a holiday from both business and matchmaking.
Not that Mark had questioned his arrival. Richard had a standing invitation from both the earl and the new countess, but it was gauche to arrive at this time. Despite their professed pleasure in his company, he felt decidedly de trop. And more than a little envious. They were so very much in love.
Elaine was already expecting, so excited that she discussed her condition freely, even around Mark's six-year-old daughter. Worse, the Bridgeports matched wits in a continuing quotation game that left Richard feeling ignorant and stupid, for he could identify less than half of the lines that they threw at each other. Nor could he follow the silent conversations that arose from the uncited surrounding text and brought a blush to Elaine's cheeks or a rakish sparkle to Mark's eyes. Even young Helen could cite facts Richard did not know. It was all rather lowering, more so when he realized that despite being Mark's closest friend for five-and-twenty years, he was acquainted with only one facet of the total man. Before his marriage, Mark had been a notorious libertine and renowned Corinthian. Who would have believed that he was also intimately familiar with poetry and philosophy?
But Richard was not ready to return home. His mother would never condemn his unannounced departure, but she would be disappointed. And how could he explain his objections? His ideas were changing, but even he was not yet sure how. He had always wanted a wife who could look past the marquessate and see the man beneath the title, a wife who cared for more than social position, a wife who was also a friend. But now he wanted more--a wife whose eyes would glow with pleasure, who could share conversation or silence in equal comfort. After a fortnight at Bridgeport Abbey, he yearned for the love that Mark enjoyed. Yet he had no idea how to find it. He could be peg-legged, squint-eyed, and mad without affecting girls' fawning flirtatiousness and simpering smiles.
And time was running out. He must settle the succession. He had worked too hard at building his fortune to allow his holdings to fall into the hands of a fribble who would dissipate every penny until the marquessate was flirting with indebtedness as it had done under most of the previous lords. No one currently in the line of succession possessed the intelligence and backbone to manage his holdings--as he knew all too well; he'd already rescued most of them from ineptitude, some more than once.
Mark had helped him acquire his new wealth by allowing him to share the services of his extraordinary man of business, a financial wizard who had multiplied his fortune many times over. Richard would do nothing to jeopardize those gains. To increase the odds that his heir would be competent, his wife must be both intelligent and strong-willed. Only love would prevent such a one from becoming a managing harridan.
"Damnation!" he muttered as a horseman dressed in the maroon and gray Carrington livery pounded up the drive. Who needed help now?
His position as head of the Avery family was more of a bother than an honor. He had acceded to the title at age fifteen, his determination and maturity standing out in a family long cursed with weak wills and poor judgment. Averys muddled through life from crisis to crisis, averting disaster only by soliciting outside help--which he had provided for eighteen years now. At first it had felt odd being consulted by uncles and cousins who were thirty or forty years his senior, but it did not take long to realize that he had inherited the only backbone in the family. He had addressed many crises over the years, from financial embarrassments and unsuitable attachments to personal conflicts, potential scandals, and estate problems. He had discharged dishonest servants, introduced girls and boys to society, patched up a longstanding quarrel, and bought colors for three young cousins. What would it be this time?
Mark brought the letter outside ten minutes later. "Bad news?" he asked as Richard groaned.
"It could be worse. It's from my Aunt Mathilda."
"Have I met her?"
"I doubt it. I've not seen her myself in several years. Uncle Gareth died back in May, naming me guardian for his two children and trustee for the estate until Terrence is five-and-twenty."
Mark grimaced. "How old is the lad now?"
"Twenty. At least the estate will be solvent. Gareth was the wealthiest of my father's second cousins, and my aunt had a substantial dowry. I should have gone there instead of here, I suppose, but I was not in the mood to cope with her histrionics. Not after wasting a month on Reggie's love life." His cousin Reggie was the greenest lad he'd ever introduced to society. The boy's father had contrived urgent business elsewhere to avoid the job himself, then thrown a fit over the results.
He glared. "You wouldn't laugh if you had been the one to face Uncle George with the news that you supported his son's desire to marry a chit who had not even made her bows to society and whose guardian was half a step in front of the tipstaffs."
"Did you mention that you approved it to prevent the girl from compromising you?"
"Of course not! And I would never have allowed her to do so, in any case. But all is now well. Her guardian has accepted a governorship in the Indies, which will take care of his financial problems. And knowing his conniving wife won't see London for a few years pleases me no end. Reggie will wed at Christmas and live on Uncle George's estate, where he is unlikely to get into trouble. At least I will no longer have to bear-lead him in town. I never saw a greener cub."
"Nor I. So what does the excitable Aunt Mathilda want?"
"More cousin trouble. Terrence has fallen into the clutches of an unscrupulous seductress."
"Not another one!"
"Fortune hunters lie rather thick on the ground just now," he agreed. "And Terrence has enough blunt to attract them. I have a very bad feeling about this."
"You had best make haste, then," urged Mark, frowning. "I've never known one of your feelings to fail."
He nodded. All his life, he had exhibited an uncanny sense of trouble, both for himself and for his closest friends. It had saved him from harm when he balked at accompanying a group to Richmond--the subsequent carriage accident had badly injured all passengers. It had proven prescient the day Mark's daughter escaped her governess. Mark had immediately dispatched several search parties, finding Helen in a collapsed cave before she succumbed to her injuries. Now the feeling was back.
Mark returned indoors. Frowning, Richard reread the missive. Were his aunt's fears exaggerated? Despite her confused agitation, her terror seemed genuine, but she included few details.
You must help! she had scrawled untidily. Poor Terrence has succumbed to the blandishments of an unscrupulous seductress and believes himself in love. All nonsense, of course, but those unspeakable farm girls will stoop to anything to get their hands on his inheritance. They've nothing of their own. Come soon! I fear he will elope, for he claims that I am plotting against him.
There was much more, but he set the recrossed page aside. He despised fortune hunters. Instead of the classics, schools should teach young men the dangers lurking behind the seductive smiles and other wiles that women inevitably employed to mask their plots. There ought to be a law against allowing young cubs into mixed company without intensive training in how to recognize traps. Not one of them was capable of rational thought when they first arrived in town. Poor Terrence. The lad was at least as green as Reggie.
Pray God he would be in time to stop the scheming jade!
Resigned to spending the rest of his life rescuing incompetent relatives from their own unwitting mistakes, he strode into the Abbey, his mind already outlining plans--his secretary must join him to help check the books; he would need his own horses, for Gareth Avery had never been complimented on his stables; a wardrobe suitable for a house in mourning...
Half an hour later, the messenger returned to Carrington Castle, a sheaf of orders tucked into his pocket.