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London, April 1820
"What is he doing here?" Lady Leonard eyed me as if I were a dead mouse the cat had deposited on her settee. If there was anyone less welcome in a drawing room than a prospective son-in-law breaking off an engagement, it was the prospective son-in-law's uninvited and entirely superfluous cousin.
Teddy fidgeted. "Lord Beningbrough is here to lend me moral support," he said, not only making himself sound as if he were still in leading strings but making me look like a gudgeon with no life of my own.
I rather resented the latter point, as I was the only one in this affair who'd shown any sense at all. Hadn't I told Teddy he was making a mistake, asking the Leonard chit to marry him? Why shackle yourself to some feather-brained girl, I'd advised him, when you have years before you need to worry about setting up your nursery and she'll probably play you false anyway? Marriage was one of those unpleasant duties best put off until the last possible moment.
But of course Teddy refused to listen. He was too amiable and trusting by half. Most of my mother's family were like that, if you came right down to it. They had regrettably dreamy, unrealistic notions about life. In Teddy's case it hadn't taken long for my warning to prove true.
He looked earnestly to Lord and Lady Leonard. "I don't want to hurt Helen. I do love her. But I depend on my father for my allowance, and he'd never accept our marriage if she's...she's..."
"She could be carrying some other man's child," I furnished, since I saw no point in mincing words. "You can hardly expect my cousin to marry your daughter if it means forgetting what's due his position. Cliburne here will be the Earl of Daventry someday. It would be a grievous injustice to his family if the title and fortune were to end up in the hands of some nobody's by-blow."
Lord Leonard made a choking sound, and his wife gasped.
Teddy shifted in his chair. "I say, Ben, you needn't put it quite that bald"
I gave him a quelling look. Really, I didn't know why I let myself be dragged into these personal messes. I'd never asked for anyone's help in my life, yet I was always the first fellow others came to when they found themselves in a fix. It was one of life's little jokes, the way Fate punished a man for keeping his wits about him. But I was three years older than Teddy and had a good deal more experience of the world, so when he asked for my support, how could I turn him down? If you couldn't count on family, you couldn't count on anyone.
Lord Leonard's face had gone an alarming shade of scarlet. "What I don't understand, Cliburne, is what gives you the audacity to imply my little Helen is anything less than pure."
Teddy flushed. "Believe me, it's not an accusation I make lightly. When I first heard she'd been seen with another man, I wanted nothing more than to dismiss it as spiteful gossip."
Lord Leonard's face turned an even deeper red, if there was any shade redder than scarlet. Cinnabar, perhaps? Vermilion? "Who is this other man, and who told you she'd been seen with him?"
Teddy looked down. "I'm not at liberty to say."
"It was your neighbor's footman, and Cliburne here heard the news from his own brother," I answered. "He may be too diplomatic to say so, but I'm not."
"Indeed, Lord Beningbrough," Lady Leonard said faintly. "I doubt anyone has ever accused you of being too diplomatic."