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A Rational Romance
By Melinda Hammond
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2007 Melinda Hammond
All rights reserved.
'Damn you Ullenwood. You win again.'
Elliot Malvern, seventh Marquis of Ullenwood, smiled as he reached out and pulled the pile of rouleaux towards him.
'It's the luck of the cards, Ashby.'
'And you have had more than your share of it this past se'ennight.' grumbled Sir James Ashby. 'I wish I had stayed in the country.'
'Nonsense, James,' murmured the marquis, a gleam of amusement in his hard eyes. 'Playing spillikins or pitch and toss with your nephews? I hardly think so.'
'You are right, of course,' said Sir James gloomily. 'I am always happy to spend Christmas with m'sister, but after a week I am itching to get back to Town.'
'No doubt you told her you had work to do,' murmured the marquis.
Sir James wagged a finger at him.
'You may mock, Elliot, but there is always something to be done at the Foreign Office. And don't you be thinking that the peace with France has made matters any easier. Damned patched-up piece of nonsense – I cannot bear to think of it.'
'Then do not,' retorted Lord Ullenwood. 'Concentrate on the cards instead. It might improve your game.'
'Little chance of that when you are on such good form,' growled Sir James. He signalled to the footman to refill his glass. 'You have the devil's own luck with cards and women, Elliot. The first I put down to your intellect; the latter, well, 'tis a mystery to me: you love 'em and leave 'em, and there's still more ready to fall at your feet.'
'The ones I – er – love and leave, as you so eloquently put it, James, do very well while they are under my protection.'
'But none of 'em stays under your protection for long.'
'No. As soon as they begin to bore me, I give them their congé.'
A gentleman in a powdered bag-wig snorted.
'You are a cold-hearted devil, Ullenwood.'
'Merely a rational one, Leighton. Emotion clouds the brain. I do not allow my mistresses such power over me.' He smiled. 'I like to keep a clear head for my gambling.'
'Talking of gambling,' said Sir James, 'I suppose you will be at Northby's tomorrow night? The talk is that the play is going to be very deep – starting at midnight.'
'I might look in.'
'I heard Northby is quite done-up. Bailiffs will be closing on him any day now,' remarked Mr Leighton, the gentleman in the bag-wig.
'So why go?' asked Sir James.
'My dear Ashby, everyone who likes deep play will be there!' cried a stout baronet. 'Brooks's and White's will be empty tomorrow night.'
'Then let us hope the evening lives up to its promise,' murmured Lord Ullenwood. He shook back the ruffles at his wrists and picked up a fresh pack of cards. 'Another game, gentlemen?'
The windows of the grand house blazed with light illuminating the impressive portico, but no torches burned at the edges of the drive. Although the darkness might hide the weeds encroaching on the gravel, it could not disguise the potholes, and the final few yards of the journey were very uncomfortable for the occupants of the various carriages pulling up at the entrance. Lord Ullenwood entered the great hall and was shown up to the Red Saloon, a large apartment on the first floor where he was greeted at the door by Sir James Ashby, who was surveying the scene with a moody scowl.
'Evening, Elliot. What do you think Northby is about this evening? No ladies invited, no supper laid on.'
The marquis shrugged, his keen eyes surveying the scene.
'Northby is devoting the evening to play, Ashby. Food and females would merely be a distraction.'
'Damn it all, even Almack's provides supper!'
'I have no doubt you will survive, my friend.' Lord Ullenwood reached out, took a glass of wine from the tray of a passing waiter and sipped it. 'At least the wine is tolerable.'
Their host came up at that moment and the gentlemen turned to greet him.
'Lord Ullenwood ... Sir James.' Lord Northby bowed stiffly, his upright bearing belying his advanced years.
'My lord.' Sir James waved towards the crowded room. 'Quite a crush, sir.'
Lord Northby's lip curled. 'Aye, every gambler in Town is gathered in my house tonight. They turn out quick enough if there's the chance to win a fortune.'
'Had you a special reason for this evening, my lord?' asked the marquis.
'You'll know soon enough,' muttered the old man, before moving away.
'Well!' exclaimed Sir James, watching their host's retreating figure. 'Dashed odd behaviour – why, he has turned the house into a gambling hell for the night. Truth to tell, I have never much liked the fellow. Proud old dog, too surly for my taste. And he made some damnably cutting remarks about one of my waistcoats a few months ago. I've not forgotten.'
Lord Ullenwood's eyes drifted towards the garishly patterned creation that was displayed beneath Sir James's dark evening coat.
'Remarkable,' he murmured. 'Well, since we are here, shall we join the play?'
With so many like-minded gentlemen in the saloon, the marquis had to choose between a hand of piquet with a close acquaintance or joining a group intent on faro. From other tables came the rattle of dice boxes, but my lord decided to begin with piquet. The initial chatter in the room soon died away, replaced by quiet murmurings, with only the dealers' calls and the occasional shouts of elation or groans of despair breaking the tension. The candles were burning low in their sockets by the time the marquis made his way to the hazard table. Copious quantities of wine had had their effect on the company, many of whom were slumped in their chairs, snoring gently.
'Here comes Ullenwood,' Mr Leighton greeted him with a bleary smile. 'Will you play, my lord?'
'I believe the marquis considers hazard as his particular game.' Sir James Ashby raised his glass. 'Well, Elliot, will you join us?'
Lord Ullenwood glanced around the table. A dozen or so gentlemen were watching him, including his host. He shrugged.
'I'll tell you why not,' sneered one, a gentleman with red hair and a discontented look in his pale eyes. 'Ullenwood's had the devil's own luck recently.'
'If you don't wish to play against me, Granthorpe, you can leave the table,' said the marquis.
Mr Granthorpe stood up.
'I will. I won't bet against you at hazard, Ullenwood. I've lost more than enough tonight.' With a bow he turned and walked off, swaying slightly.
'Don't mind Granthorpe,' said Sir James, 'he's drunk as a wheelbarrow. Come, I'm caster and I've called a main of six – will you set against me?'
The dice were cast and cast again: sums were wagered, won and lost until the dice box was handed to Lord Ullenwood. He threw his stake on the table, called a main of seven and threw the dice.
'Quatre-trey!' declared Sir James. 'Blast you, Elliot, you've nicked it. Damn your winning form!'
Lord Ullenwood continued to cast and the pile of rouleaux and notes of hand stacked on the little table beside him grew steadily. Gentlemen staked their last rouleau then left the table, groaning as the marquis continued to win.
'It seems your lordship cannot lose,' remarked his host.
Lord Ullenwood threw another stake on the table.
'The game favours those who can calculate the odds, my lord, you know that.' He picked up the dice box and rattled it gently.
'Well, man, call a main,' demanded Lord Northby, impatiently.
'I'll set you,' said Lord Northby, matching the marquis's stake.
With an expert twist of his wrist Lord Ullenwood upturned the box and the two cubes of ivory danced across the table.
'Quatre-deuce – six,' called Sir James gleefully. 'Hah, Elliot, perhaps your luck is changing at last.'
The marquis smiled. 'It cannot last for ever, James.'
'I'll wager you cannot throw that again before you throw another seven,' said Lord Northby.
The marquis scooped up the dice and dropped them back into the box.
'You think not?'
With a smile he picked up the little rouleau table and tipped its contents onto the green baize. A gasp ran round the table.
'Elliot, have you lost your senses?' Sir James expostulated.
'No, James, but I grow bored.' He looked around the table. 'Does anyone care to match my stake?'
There was silence, then Lord Northby leaned forward. Slowly the old man put his hand inside his coat and pulled out a parchment document, folded and sealed.
'It's play or pay with me,' he said. 'No point in writing vowels that I can't cover, so here it is. My final bid.' He placed the document on top of the pile. 'My house and everything in it, Ullenwood.'
A murmur of surprise ran around the table. A red-faced gentleman in a puce coat shook his head in protest.
'No, my lord, you cannot —'
Lord Northby rounded on him, snarling.
'I'll do what I want in my own house, damn you.'
The marquis waited patiently until the mutterings had died down. Then he looked across the table.
'My lord, I beg you will consider before you do this.'
Lord Northby pulled himself up.
'I have considered, sir. My house and all its contents.' His lip curled. 'Mark you, Ullenwood, that means everything: my dogs, my debts, my servants – and my damned granddaughter. Will you accept?'
The two men regarded each other. The marquis's face was impassive.
'I have never yet refused a stake, my lord,' he said at last.
'Very well then. Make your play.'
The dice rattled in the leather box and danced out on to the table while the onlookers held their breath. A seven would see Lord Northby the winner, six would give the marquis everything.
'Quatre-cinque – nine!'
'My dear James, we are all capable of adding the numbers,' murmured the marquis, giving his friend a pained look. He picked up the dice and cast again. The little cubes left the box with some force and one bounced off the rebated table edge before coming to rest in front of Lord Northby. There was a terrible silence around the table.
'Cinque-ace,' said Lord Ullenwood. 'My game, I think.'
No one replied. Lord Northby gazed for some minutes at the dice, then he pushed back his chair and rose stiffly to his feet.
'Congratulations, sir.' He bowed, turned and walked slowly out of the room. As the door closed behind him the chattering began.
'Well I'll be ...!' Sir James wiped his brow with a large red handkerchief and looked up at Lord Ullenwood.
'By Gad, Elliot I have never seen you so cool.'
The marquis was staring at the parchment, its red seal gleaming in the candlelight.
'Why should I not be?' he said slowly. 'I had little to lose. As for Northby ... I'll talk to him in the morning.'
'I'd say it was the brandy,' opined Sir James. 'He was drinking pretty heavily this — My God, what was that?'
'A pistol-shot,' replied the marquis.
A momentary silence had followed the loud retort but now chairs were overturned as the gentlemen jumped up and moved as one towards the door. The marquis shouldered his way through and came up to a bewildered footman standing on the landing.
'Where is Lord Northby?'
'The ... the library sir. He's shot himself!'
A doctor was summoned, but everyone knew it was already too late. The guests returned to the saloon to revive themselves with more of the dead man's brandy while Lord Ullenwood took charge of the situation.
'And who else should do so?' demanded Mr Granthorpe. 'After all, this house is yours, now, my lord.'
Lord Ullenwood picked up the document still lying on the hazard table and broke the seal. He spread the crackling parchment on the table and studied it, frowning.
'It seems my lord had planned this: it looks very much like a will, with myself as sole beneficiary.' He sighed. 'I'll get my own man to go through it tomorrow.'
The butler came up to him, bowing.
'My lord, Miss Beaumarsh has asked if you would spare her a few moments.'
'Who the devil is Miss Beaumarsh?' demanded Sir James.
'Lord Northby's granddaughter, sir,' replied the butler woodenly.
Lord Ullenwood refolded the parchment.
'You had better look after this for me, James. I'll be back shortly.'
He followed the butler to the next floor and along a narrow corridor to a small, book-lined room. There, seated at a desk, he found a dark-haired young lady in a grey gown. She was studying a large ledger, a quill held between her ink-stained fingers. She looked so slight that at first he thought she must be a child, fifteen at the most; then she looked up and he realized his mistake. The face with its candid grey eyes that regarded him so steadily was that of a young woman. She put down her pen and rose.
'That will be all, Royd. Please leave us.'
After dismissing the butler she turned to face the marquis. She was pale but seemed perfectly composed. Her dark hair was scraped back into a tight knot at the back of her head with no ornament or ribbon. Her sober appearance struck him as entirely appropriate for the occasion.
'Miss Beaumarsh, may I say how sorry I am that we should meet in these tragic circumstances?'
'Thank you,' she said quietly. 'It was not entirely unexpected. I wondered what Grandfather would do if he lost his wager.'
'You knew what he was planning?'
'Oh yes.' She moved to a chair on one side of the empty fireplace, and gestured him to take a seat opposite. 'My grandfather informed me of it yesterday morning. He said he would either recover his fortune or lose everything.'
'Then perhaps, too, you will know why he chose me to take on his wager?'
Again those grey eyes met his gaze without flinching.
'Everyone knows the rich Lord Ullenwood, with his fortune, his racehorses and his ... women. As much as Grandfather admired anyone he admired you, I think. He always said you played square.' Her dark brows lifted slightly. 'You are shocked, my lord. Perhaps you did not know Lord Northby well?'
'No, Miss Beaumarsh, I did not.'
'Then I will explain. He was eccentric, and very selfish,' she said bluntly. 'For years he has been selling off the land and gambling away his fortune. Then, last quarter day, he discovered there was nothing left save the house, a little of the estate – and me.' She sighed. 'I am – was – a sad disappointment. As Grandpapa's only relative it was incumbent upon me to redeem the family: I was to marry a fortune and provide a male heir to continue the title, but when I was presented at eighteen I did not take, you see. The Northby debts are so great they overshadowed the advantages of marrying into a line that goes back to the Conqueror. And, as you can see, I am no beauty to tempt a suitor.'
'You need not be quite so frank, my lord!'
'What? Oh.' In spite of the situation he found himself grinning. 'My apologies, madam, I was agreeing that your family's debts would be a disadvantage, I did not mean to insult you.'
'I believe you. But pray, tell me, what happens now?'
He frowned. 'I am not sure. I must consider the legality of that document —'
'Oh it is perfectly legitimate,' she interrupted him. 'Grandpapa called in his lawyer to draw it up: he was very pleased with the result.'
'I am very sorry,' he said. 'You are placed in a most difficultsituation. I would not wish to make it worse for you.'
Again that infectious laugh. She looked truly amused.
'Lord Ullenwood, I have lived for the past five years under the thumb of a petty tyrant. I have kept house for him, made every shift possible to keep the creditors at bay and acted as his hostess when required, which was not often. What could you do to me that could be worse than that? Unless,' she added thoughtfully, 'you mean to ravish me?'
'Whatever you may have heard of me, Miss Beaumarsh, I do not ravish innocent young women!'
'I am glad to hear it, Lord Ullenwood.'
He looked at her sharply, wondering if she was laughing at him, but she met his fierce gaze with an innocent look.
'Very well then, madam, let us consider: is there no one you can turn to, no aunt or cousin?'
'None that I know. There may be some distant relatives, but why should they want to help me? No, I shall have to make my own way in the world. I have a little money saved: that must suffice until I can find a way to earn my living.' She rose, as if to bring the interview to a close. 'Perhaps you will give me a day or two to make my arrangements?'
He found himself saying, 'I should like you to stay on for the moment, Miss Beaumarsh. If that document is found to be legal, and I am indeed the owner here, I shall need someone to look after the house for me until I decide what to do with it, and to carry out a full inventory.'
Excerpted from A Rational Romance by Melinda Hammond. Copyright © 2007 Melinda Hammond. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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