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"Up and at 'em, milord."
The valet's gruff voice reached through the thick fog in his brain, disturbing the peaceful slumber and the lingering effects of the red smoke. "Sod off, Vallery," Lindsay groaned.
His valet, ever the dutiful gentleman's gentleman, groaned under Lindsay's weight as he pulled him up from the brocade divan. "Any other time I would, milord, but Lord Darnby and his chits will be here within an hour and I've got a day's debauchery to rid you of."
Lindsay felt his arm being thrown around Vallery's thick neck. His head lolled just a bit, forcing him to open his eyes. He was in his pleasure den, the remnants of last night's bacchanal still surrounding him.
With his valet's steadying hand and a few blinks of his burning eyes, Lindsay found himself slowly acclimating to the world around him. From the windows, he saw that the sky was not bright with the sun, but dark, the color of twilight. Bloody hell, what time was it?
"'Tis nearly seven, milord," Vallery answered as he saw Lindsay's confused gaze focus on the darkening skies. "You've been asleep all day. Now 'tis time to clean up."
Yes. A bath and shave would set him to rights. It always did.
"Now then, will you bathe in the waters or do you wish me to take you to your apartments via the servants' stairs?"
"My mother is around, then?"
The coarse visage of his valet came sharply into the line of his vision. Vallery was no effeminate Frenchman who clucked over him and his clothes. His unorthodox background and upbringing was what had made Lindsay desire him as his most trusted servant. It was Vallery's steadfast loyalty that Lindsay appreciated most, not the intricate folds of a starched cravat.
"Would I be traipsing up those rickety old stairs carrying you if the marchioness was not about, flying high in the boughs?" Vallery grumbled.
Lindsay chuckled and removed his arm from his valet. He was sober as a monk now, although he could tell from the look in Vallery's gaze that his appearance still lingered with a hint of debauchery.
"I think my mother is probably clucking about like a mother hen. She usually does when company is expected."
"Thought you might like to know that the Duke of Torring-ton has already arrived."
"Not yet, milord."
Lindsay snorted as he pulled the already untied cravat from his neck. "I'm not surprised. Wallingford has made it his solemn vow to never be in his father's company. Why would things change today?"
Vallery said nothing as Lindsay continued to strip out of his clothes. Like the dutiful servant he was, his valet reached out for the wrinkled garments, draping them carefully over his arm. "So, it's the baths then, is it?"
With a nod, Lindsay draped his trousers over Vallery's arms and headed for the mineral bath. He stepped into the hot water and allowed it to engulf his body and soak his muscles. With a sigh, he looked up at the arched ceiling above his head, then back down to the water that bubbled around him. A hot mineral spring ran beneath the house, allowing him this small luxury. Naturally, he had designed his pleasure den around the baths, which now resembled a Middle Eastern hammam. It was something straight out of the Arabian Nights. The only thing it lacked was a lovely odalisque.
Lindsay smiled to himself. He knew exactly who he would like to have in that particular role. She was going to be there in his home tonight. Already desire swirled in his veins. He had denied himself for too long. It was time, far past time in actuality, to see if the lady desired him in the same manner.
"You'll need to be quick about it this evening," Vallery called over his shoulder. "You will not want your Lady Anais to see you in such a state."
Lindsay closed his eyes against the prick of pain in his chest. He did not want her name soiled with his other vice. How well Vallery knew him, for the last thing Lindsay wished was for Anais to know how he dabbled in opium. Anais would not understand.
"You place your arrows well, Vallery."
"I intend for them to wound, milord. Never kill."
"And wound they have." Lindsay knew what Vallery thought, but his valet was wrong. He could stop. He was not a habitué. He could and would stop. Once he had Anais in his life and in his bed he would have no further use for the opium.
He dunked himself beneath the water, no longer desirous to see his valet looking at him with what Lindsay knew was concern. When he arose he wiped the water from his eyes, shook his curly mane free of wetness and pulled himself out of the bath. Vallery was there, holding out a black dressing gown.
"I wanted to tell you last night, before your celebration," Vallery said awkwardly as he glanced at the elaborate spread, "how thankful I am for you allowing me into that stock sale. I made a bundle, and I wouldn't even have been allowed in the Exchange if you would not have placed my bid for me."
Lindsay slapped his long-suffering valet on the shoulder. "We both made a packet, my friend. Besides, knowledge is to be shared amongst menamongst all classes. You frown now, Vallery, but mark my words, you'll see in another twenty-odd years how the middling classes will supersede the aristocracy. Like the dinosaurs on display at the British Museum, the aristocracy will one day weaken and become extinct."
"If you say so, milord."
"You doubt me, but I believe what I say."
"Your thoughts will get you kicked out of parliament once you gain your seat."
"There are others like me, Vallery. There is a whole class of men who think just as I think."
"That was university, when you were young and idealistic. Every young man at that age wants to change the world. Everyone thinks they can. Then they get out into the real world, and they then decide that the privilege of their birth is more important to fight for than the miserable lives of those born below them."
"Idleness and indolence. That is what you always say of my class."
"I do not mean to insinuate that you are always indolent, milord."
Lindsay reached for the towel Vallery held out to him and dried his hair. "But you do think my wealth could be better spent than on lavish opium dens."
"You have been known to be gone for days, milord."
"Let me worry about that. You worry about what I've said. The world is changing, Vallery. Slowly, but surely. I know it can change. I know it will change."
"The haves will continue to have, and the have-nots will continue to go without. It is the way of things. The foundation of our empire."
"I see the failures of our aristocratic forebears. No longer can our huge estates thrive and survive on the backs of the working man. In time, Vallery, we aristocrats will be working men, too."
"You already do, milord. Making money is your full-time vocation."
Lindsay grinned. "I do have a knack for it, I'll admit. But what I find just as thrilling is teaching others how to double, triple their income."
"You've the heart of a merchant, hoarding your treasures and counting your money, you've the mind of a mercenary who strategizes every move. You will forgive me for saying, my lord, but you are unlike any aristocrat I've ever met."
"And that's why you jumped at the chance to be my valet once your soldiering days were over." Vallery, the taciturn man, rolled his eyes. Lindsay threw the wet towel at him. "You may accuse me of many things, but never of withholding knowledge from the everyday man. They, too, deserve a chance. I'm only seeing to it they get it. Why should it only be blue bloods who are given the chance to increase their fortunes? We're born rich, the untitled man is not. He is the one who needs the chances in life."
"You're a good man, my lord. I wonder when you'll see it? You are not your father, nor are you likely to become like him."
Lindsay grimaced. "Good God, Vallery, don't go all sentimental on me now. It gives me hives. I'd rather you call me a stupid ass for my behaviors than talk this melodrama. I've told you time and time again, I'm a dabbler. A dilettante, if you please. I am no rookery addict."
"Of course, milord."
Lindsay knew the man was lying. Knew his manservant was worried. But there was nothing to be worried about, because he could throw out his pipe whenever he damned well pleased. He did not have a habit.
"I am always available to you, Vallery. Lord knows you've put up with enough of my shenanigans since Cambridge. The least I can do is see to it that your retirement will be prosperous."
"There is no denying your skill at the 'Change.You've certainly saved this place from demolition," Vallery muttered as he looked around the lavish Moorish architecture that surrounded them.
"My father has wallowed in his cups for too many years. He hasn't seen to the proper running of this place for decades."
"I hope he knows to whom he is indebted."
Lindsay laughed as he tied the sash around his middle. "My father is too busy drinking and whoring to notice what has gone on around him. Hell, the walls could crumble about our heads and he'd be too drunk to noticeor care. No, my father worries about his hounds and his drink, my mother and her comforts have been gone from his mind for many years."
Running two fingers over his chin, Lindsay felt the growth that had erupted since last night. He bent and looked at the shadowed reflection in the mirror. "What do you think? Too much?"
"I think you will frighten off the ladies, milord."
"Really?" He doubted Anais would be frightened of a little beard. Not her. She was not a silly chit. Perhaps she might even like it. He grinned, running his fingers over the stubble. Perhaps Anais would care to learn the benefits of a little facial hair. With the proper tutor, Anais might very well welcome such lessons. Certainly she would enjoy the scrape of his chin against her soft, fleshy thighs. He knew he certainly would.
"It is not my place to ask, milord"
"When has that ever stopped you?" Lindsay interrupted as he took a chair and allowed his head to be tipped back in preparation for a shave.
"You do allow me unheard of freedoms, milord."
"Yes, well, I'm a Renaissance man. I keep telling you that, Vallery."
"And I keep telling you I don't know what that means."
Lindsay saw him reach for the silver blade and swirl it in the water of the blue ceramic basin. "It means I am rather liberal and my way of thinking is new and perhaps a bit nonconformist."
Vallery grunted and brought the blade to Lindsay's throat. "What I was going to ask, milord, is if you wanted the blue jacket and the ivory waistcoat this evening."
Lindsay could almost hear his valet finish his question with "you know, the new ones you've been saving for just the right evening."
"You must have found the box I hid in the waistcoat."
Vallery flushed. "I did, indeed, milord."
"What did you think of it?"
"I think you shall have to get the lady some sort of support for her hand. That gem is the largest I think I've ever seen."
Lindsay smiled. "It came all the way from India. Cost me a packet, but what does that matter when I shall have the privilege of seeing it every day on her finger. I think of it as my brand, Vallery. I hope to claim her with that ring."
"I think any woman would be claimed by such a bauble, my lord."
Lindsay chuckled. The diamond was very big, but not garish. He hoped it said devotion and undying love, not greed. "Do you think tonight would be a good night to ask her, Vallery? Is that what you are suggesting?"
"It is not my place to suggest, milord."
He laughed. Bloody hell, his bossy valet was always suggesting. Just last night he suggested that he'd had enough of the red smoke. Lindsay had spited him by blowing another cloud.
All finished with the shave, Lindsay stood and strolled over to the divan where Vallery had prepared his evening clothes. The new blue jacket and ivory brocade were there. Lindsay wondered if his valet had been kind enough to put the brown box containing the emerald and diamond ring in the pocket.
"You've the look of the cat that just ate the canary," Vallery muttered as he cleaned up the shaving things.
"It's obvious, is it? And how am I to help it?"he asked. "I'm going to ask the most beautiful woman in the world to be my wife."
"What a relief," his valet taunted. "Now I won't have to listen to ye bellyache anymore over the girl. 'Tis unnatural how you're lovesick for her."
"No," Lindsay whispered as the image of Anais came to mind. "It's the most natural thing in the world to love her as much as I do."
"Well, you had best get yerself out of this wicked pleasure den and make your way to your mother's salon. You're late."
Lindsay dressed quickly and left the den, which had, at one time, been his mother's sorely neglected and run-down conservatory. When he'd come into money from his business investments, he'd claimed the crumbling monstrosity for his own and made it into an escape. Designed like the Alhambra in Spain, it was the height of decadence. With its Moorish influence, and the hot spring bath, it was a world within a room. An escape he craved at the end of the day.
He thought of it as his harem. And he'd decorated it as such.
"Ah, here he is at last," his father, the Marquis of Weatherby said in a voice that was already slurred by drink.
"Good evening, sir." Lindsay nodded in the direction of his father, then reached for the gloved hand of his mother.
"Mama, you look lovely this evening."
Her gaze drifted over his, as if taking stock of his appearance. There was nothing left in his eyes for her to catch on to. Nothing but the dutiful and loving son standing before her, kissing her hand. The stains of his mistress were washed away from his body. He was clean. For how long, he didn't know. It didn't matter, for tonight he was not thinking about her, and when he would next require her services.