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Devil in My Bed
By Celeste Bradley
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Celeste Bradley
All rights reserved.
A little more than three years and nine months later ...
Gentlemen weren't supposed to stare at ladies, but Aidan couldn't help but stare at the female gracing the top step of his London club, shifting her bottom restlessly on the cold stone.
She was very pretty and very clean, if one ignored the smudge of city soot on her nose, so he had no objection there. No, the problem — if indeed there was one — was the lady's maturity.
She looked to be no more than a very young three years of age.
Not quite the sight one expected — a tiny female person dwarfed by the imposing Georgian façade of Brown's Club for Distinguished Gentlemen. Even the shuttered windows seemed to look down upon her with dour disapproval, just as the grand portico threatened to make a mouthful of her.
It was not as intimidating as the clubs known as Brooks or Boodles, though, fiercely Palladian structures that they were with their Grecian columns, standing down the more fashionable end of St. James Street. No, Brown's was like an old uncle, stout and brick-shaped and rather too fond of its port to be truly daunting. Brown's hovered here, among the shops that sold fine tobacco and liquor, as if unwilling to trade proximity to its pleasures for a more fashionable address.
The club's elegantly curved semicircle of steps were marble, and though they'd been scuffed into genteel fatigue by generations of "Distinguished Gentlemen," Aidan would have comfortably wagered his grand estate of Blankenship that they had never before been used as a bench by a very small female person.
In general, Aidan avoided females of all sorts. As it was the week before the opening of Parliament, Aidan had with great relief left his mother in queenly solitude at the Blankenship estate. Usually if he took great care, he found that he could claim duty for a great part of the year. He traveled between his various estates and played his part in the House of Lords. He took care to avoid balls and house parties of any kind, for attendance would be construed by Lady Blankenship as consent to look for a bride. That was the very last thing on his mind.
Still, even a house party full of fawning debutantes and social-climbing Society mamas would be preferable to endless weeks of cool, impersonal conversation with the woman who had borne him but with whom he'd spent less than half an hour a day as a child.
Mother, unfortunately, had promised the London house to Aidan's cousins, the Breedloves — whom his friend Jack had once dubbed "the Breed-loads" — for the introduction into Society of the eldest female offspring of that numerous brood.
The idea of such raucous company was nearly as repellent as the thought of spending a single further inert day with Lady Blankenship. For the sake of his own sanity, Aidan had taken himself off to live at his club for the duration of Parliament. Excellent Brown's, that bastion of male solitude, devoted to life without women.
So here he stood, gazing at what should not have been there. Aidan was no longer one to mind someone else's business for them, not even when that someone was only slightly higher than his knee. After all, children were the province of women, and since Aidan didn't care to complicate his life with one of those, this miniature, painfully neat female person could have nothing to do with him.
Still, he stopped as he came halfway up the stairs and stood there, gazing at the wee creature now at eye level. She gazed evenly back at him with eyes wide and bright blue. She sat primly on a sort of lumpy satchel with her plump little hands clasped about her knees and her feet neatly tucked together. Dark brown ringlets covered her head, bound by a blue ribbon that was a bit frayed at the ends. Her little face was round and pink, and her features rather indistinct in that childish way — not that he looked carefully at many children. Did he even know any children? He thought not.
He could have passed her easily, for her tiny figure didn't block the way, yet he found himself unable to ignore her. He looked about but didn't see any maternal sort of person nearby. At this time of early evening, the gentlemen of London had not yet begun to orbit their brandy bottles, and ladies ... well, ladies were never a common sight on St. James.
There was no help for it. He was going to have to offer his assistance to a lady. How annoying. He tried so hard to avoid situations like these, for his knight errant days were long over.
He cleared his throat. How did one address such a person? "Er ... child?" That didn't sound too odd. "Child, where is your mother?"
She didn't change her even, cornflower gaze. "I don't know." She spoke clearly enough, her high voice lilting easily above the clatter of hooves and wheels on the cobbles behind him. St. James was a busy enough street, even this less fashionable end.
"You've lost your mother?"
She considered that for a moment, tilting her head slightly to one side. "I don't have a mother. I have a Nurse Pruitt."
"Did Nurse Pruitt lose you in the crowd?"
The little mite shook her head firmly. "No. She didn't lose me. I held her hand all the way."
Aidan did not allow a fragment of his frustration to show. "All the way to where?"
She drew her brows together again, this time in a way that implied that he wasn't very bright. "To here."
"Here? Brown's Club for Distinguished Gentlemen?"
She looked a bit unsure at the full title of the establishment. "My papa is in there." She pointed over her shoulder at the once-grand, now somewhat-outdated entrance of Brown's. "He's going to take me home and give me a kitten." She plunked her chin down on her clasped hands. "A white kitten," she informed him in a confidential tone.
"Ah." Excellent. No rescue needed. If her father was a servant in the club, the fellow couldn't very well bring his child to work with him. She didn't seem to be in any danger waiting out here on a sunny afternoon and he supposed it was preferable to the alley.
"Then if you'll excuse me, miss." Out of habit, he bowed, lifting his hat. Catching himself, he straightened. To a child! He really had no idea how to deal with children.
Yet she gurgled a charming laugh in response, making his lips twitch. "You're a funny man," she said.
He grunted. "You are the first and only person to tell me that." Well, there had been one person to laugh at him in the past, but she was long gone. Now the world treated him with distant respect, just the way he preferred. Even so, he could still hear that rising peal of delight, playfully mocking, yet fond. She'd found him so amusing, mostly when he wasn't trying to be.
Old thoughts, old pain. Nothing to do with the present. Nothing at all.
"Really, Blankenship, have the courtesy not to block the steps with your extreme lordliness." The mocking voice was familiar and very unwelcome.
Colin. Bloody hell.
Tall, lean, and as fair as he himself was dark, Sir Colin Lambert was an annoying complication in Aidan's otherwise smooth existence. Unfortunately, Colin came attached to Aidan's close friend, Jack. Since their days at school, Colin had made it his business to needle Aidan as much as possible.
With a barely concealed grimace, Aidan turned to Colin. "I am attempting to assess a delicate situation."
"You? That's like asking a blacksmith to take out a splinter." Colin took a knee on the steps to make himself eye level to the little mite.
Of course, Aidan thought, that's what one does with children. He was both relieved that Colin seemed to know what to do with the creature and annoyed that Colin seemed to be making a better job of it than he.
"Ask her who her father is," Aidan prompted.
The little girl looked up at him with a tilt to her head and a slight frown that clearly said, I can hear you, you idiot.
So familiar ...
Colin gave the child a conspirator's grin. "Himself wants to know who your father is, pet — but why don't you tell me your name first?"
She dimpled at Colin. "Melody."
What a little flirt! Not sure why he did so, Aidan found himself kneeling beside Colin. "What is your surname?"
Melody crinkled her brow. "My name is Melody."
"Yes, but what is the name that comes after Melody?"
Colin elbowed him. "Don't bark at her. She obviously doesn't know."
"How can she not know her own name?"
Colin turned his head to stare at Aidan. "Because she's not yet three years of age. I doubt she can count the fingers on one hand yet."
Aidan scowled at the child as if she'd kept something from him. How did Colin know such things?
Melody began to look wary now. Colin tugged gently on a curl. "Don't worry, lemon drop. He's just a big —"
"My apologies, my lady," Aidan interrupted. He bowed as graciously as he could from one knee. He was not about to allow Colin Lambert to make social excuses for him! "My curiosity has outmatched my manners, I fear."
Melody switched her attention to Aidan, gratifyingly entranced once more. "You're funny."
Colin rolled his eyes and raised his hands in defeat. Aidan felt a little silly then, competing for the smiles of a child. Colin stood and dusted off his knee.
"I'll just leave the two of you —"
"There's a note." Aidan leaned forward. Colin bent down as well. Sure enough, there was a folded note pinned to the rough wool of Melody's tiny coat, half-hidden beneath the lapel.
Aidan gently pulled the pin and removed the note. Melody watched calmly as the two men unfolded it and read with their heads tilted close together.
The mony stopped coming from the mother. I can't keep her no more. The father can take her now. Don't know his name. He's a memmber of Brown's.
Simple became complicated in a heartbeat.
"Oh, damn," Colin breathed. "She's not a lost child — she's a foundling!"
"Indeed," Aidan murmured. They both gazed somberly down at the child who was no longer simply a little girl, but a large and awesome responsibility.
One that Aidan wanted no part of. "We should take her to the local magistrate."
"They'll put her in one of those places."
"An orphanage, yes. Isn't that what's done in these cases until they find her family?"
"Look at the little mite — she'll be eaten alive!" Colin turned to glare at him. "Think, Aidan. Her father is a member of this club, correct?"
"According to a misspelled note."
Colin tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. "She's probably not quite three years. It's spring now, meaning she would have been conceived perhaps end of summer of four years past."
"I commend your mathematics, but what does that have to do with taking her to an orphanage?"
Colin grabbed his arm and pulled him aside. "Stop saying that word in front of her!" he scolded in a whisper.
Aidan shook him off. "Get to your point then."
Colin glared at him. "Do you think any of the men in that club were out sowing their oats so recently?"
Aidan had to admit Colin had a point there. Most of the members of Brown's were of the geriatric variety. He wasn't entirely sure that the two dotty old fossils permanently installed before the fire playing chess were actually still breathing. Aidan doubted a single game piece had been moved in a decade.
He folded his arms and gazed narrowly at Colin. "What about you? You're a member of Brown's and you're still full of oats."
Colin snorted. "I was keeping my oats to myself right about then, thank you very much." He looked suspicious, however. "What about you? Weren't you mooning over some lovely creature three and a half years ago?"
Aidan stiffened. "A bit more than that, actually. She was already in my past at that point in time." He was quite sure of his own mathematics — if the child were not yet three.
Colin nodded. "My point still stands. If it isn't one of them," he hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the club, "and it isn't one of us —"
"Oh, God," Aidan breathed. "Jack."
Colin nodded. "Precisely. That was just the time he came home from the war. Remember how grim he'd become?"
Aidan rubbed his hand over his chin. "And then that little Clarke creature jilted him ... God, what a mess that was!"
Colin grimaced in remembered worry. "There were weeks that summer when we couldn't find him at all, if you'll remember."
"I'm not likely to forget it." Aidan shrugged uncomfortably. Jack's black and disheartened bender had been frightening enough at the time. Now it took on a new significance indeed. "Does she look like Jack?"
As one they turned to gaze intently at her. She gazed solemnly back while chewing the end of her wispy little ribbon. Her features were still too babyish and unformed. Colin shrugged. "She doesn't not look like Jack."
Aidan straightened. "Yet that doesn't prove —"
Colin lifted his chin. "I don't care. If there is the slightest possibility that she is Jack's child, then I refuse to expose her to some filthy, crowded orph — institution for even a single moment. You'll have to take her to your house."
"Er — that's a problem." God, the Breedloves would think the child was his, no matter what story was told them. They, in turn, would instantly inform his mother. "Unless you want me to bring Lady Blankenship into this matter?"
Colin shrank back slightly. "Crikey, no."
"What of your house?"
Colin shrugged. "Rented out. I hate rattling about in that thing alone. Besides, I wanted to wait for Jack here at Brown's."
They might not have much else in common, but Aidan knew that Colin was just as worried about Jack as he was. "Right then. We'll all wait at Brown's. You, me, and Melody. She can stay in my rooms. There's hardly anyone in residence nearby to hear or see her. It won't be long. Jack is due back from his plantations in Jamaica any day now."
Colin's eyes widened. "Aidan de Quincy, best boy at Eton, break a rule? Should I inform the Prince Regent that the world is at an end?"
Aidan gazed at Colin gravely. "It's for Jack."
Sobering, Colin nodded. "Right then. For Jack."
It was all very well and good to decide to conceal a child in his rooms for the few days until Jack returned, but Brown's wasn't known for its excellent service for nothing. The house man, Wilberforce, chief of staff and general captain of the ship, was not the sort of fellow to let a mouse take up residence in the linen closet, much less allow a female of any size into the male bastion of Brown's Club for Distinguished Gentlemen. No wives, no mothers, not even so much as a girl to scrub the steps.
Wilberforce was tall, with the profile of an eagle and black eyes just as sharp. Add a shock of coal black hair and the elegant blue and gold livery of Brown's and one had the impression of a general very much in control of his troops. The various footmen and chambermen followed his orders to the letter, without chatter or hesitation. It was one of the blessings of Brown's — no cheeky commentary, no grudging service, no miffed feelings because one forgot to notice someone's new hairstyle. Only seamless attendance without a single shrill voice to break the tranquility.
Melody would hardly fit in his pocket. Too bad the weather was too fine for a cloak.
"You go first," Aidan told Colin. "Hold Wilberforce's attention while I get her through the entrance hall."
Colin shook his head. "We'll never get that far. Haven't you noticed the doorman?"
Aidan had forgotten the fellow, quite frankly. He usually simply walked up to the club and through the open door without seeing who opened it for him. "Right."
Colin tapped his fingers on his folded arms while thinking. "The kitchens."
"Aren't they full of cooks and such? It's nearly supper."
"Exactly. They'll be far too busy to notice anything. I'll carry her and you walk between to block their view. If someone gets curious, just give them the Blankenship Glare. That'll stop them in their tracks."
Aidan shook his head. "No, that's my mother."
Colin gave him an unreadable look. "You think so?" Then he shrugged. "All set then. Let's go."
Surprisingly, the mission began much as Colin had suggested. The kitchen staff never even looked twice as they scurried past the steaming kitchens burdened with pots and racks and large, indescribable hunks of meat.
Such luck never lasts long. Footsteps, military-crisp on the tiled hall between the kitchens, rang unmistakeably ahead.
"Damn," Colin whispered. "Wilberforce is on the move!"
Prompted by what self-sacrificing instinct he could not be sure, Aidan handed the tiny child off to Colin. "Take her while I distract him!"
A flare of respect in Colin's usually ironic gaze was all the answer there was time for. Wilberforce rounded the corner just as Colin leapt back into the shadows.
"Ah, there you are, Wilberforce!" Aidan strode forward with his hand raised high, waving energetically and, he realized, foolishly, for there was no possibility of Wilberforce missing his presence.
Excerpted from Devil in My Bed by Celeste Bradley. Copyright © 2009 Celeste Bradley. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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