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Lord Robert Deveril Mountford propped himself up on his elbow in his bed. He brushed aside Maggie, Lady Caldwell's waterfall of chestnut curls and kissed her creamy shoulder. 'Two weeks from now?'
Dark eyes sparkling, she cast him a dazzling smile. 'Evil one. Can't you fit me in any sooner?'
'Sorry. I'm going out of town for a few days. Hunting.'
'Furred, feathered or female?' She stood up, slipped her chemise over her head and reached for her stays.
He slapped her plump little bottom. 'Whatever comes along, naturally.' Pleasantly sated, he yawned and stretched.
Maggie sighed. 'It is time you settled down, you know.'
Robert tensed. 'Not you, too.' He leaned across to lace her stays, then pulled the silky stockings off the blue canopy over the bed and tossed them at her.
She sat to pull them over her shapely legs. 'Why not? There are all kinds of nice young things available. Take my niece. She has a reasonable dowry and her family is good quality.'
A sense of foreboding gathered like a snowball rolling downhill, larger and colder with each passing moment. It wasn't the first time one of his women had tried to inveigle herself or a member of her family into the ducal tribe, but he hadn't expected it from this one. He had thought he and Maggie were having too much fun to let familial obligations intrude.
He didn't want a wife cramping his lifestyle, even if the ducal allowance provided enough for two, which it didn't.
Dress on, Maggie went to the mirror and patted her unruly curls. 'Just look at this mess. Caldwell will never believe I was at Lady Jeffries's for tea.' She gathered the scattered pins from the floor and tried to bring some order to her tresses.
Naked, he rose to his feet and stood behind her. Her eyes widened in the glass, the heat of desire returning.
He picked up the hairbrush, all at once disturbingly anxious for her to be gone. 'Let me.' With a few firm strokes, he tamed the luxuriant brown mane, twisted it into a neat knot at the back of her head, pinned it and teased out a few curls around her face. 'Will that do?'
A lovely lush woman still in her prime and wasted on her old husband, she turned and laughed up at him. 'My maid doesn't arrange it half as well. If you ever need a position as a lady's maid, I will be pleased to provide a recommendation.'
He gazed at her beautiful face, then brushed her lips with his mouth. 'Thank you. For everything.'
He liked Maggie. Too bad she had to bring up the subject of marriage. He bent to retrieve her shoes and she sat on the stool. As he put them on her small feet, he caressed her calf one last time. A faint sense of regret washed through him. Too faint.
She sighed and ran her fingers through his hair.
The clock in the hall struck four.
'Oh, botheration,' she said, jumping to her feet. She took another quick peek in the glass. 'I think I will pass muster.' Her trill of laughter rang around the room.
He stood up with a wry smile. Maggie always maintained such good spirits. She never indulged in tantrums or fits of jealousy about his other women. She'd been the perfect liaison. Until now.
He'd send a token tomorrow, a discreet little diamond pin with a carefully worded message. No fool, Maggie. She'd understand.
She reached up and cupped his cheek with her palm. 'One of these days some beautiful young thing is going to capture that wicked heart of yours and you'll be lost to me and all the other naughty ladies of the fon, mark my words.'
Too bad she couldn't leave well enough alone. He caught her fingers and pressed them to his lips. 'What? Be tied to just one woman when there are so many to enjoy?'
'You are a bad man,' she said. 'And I adore you.'
She whirled around in a rustle of skirts, a cloud of rose perfume and sex. She opened the door and dashed down the stairs to her waiting carriage.
Yes, Robert thought, he would miss her a great deal. Now whom did he have waiting in the wings to fill his Tuesday afternoons? A knotty, but interesting problem. The new opera dancer at Covent Garden had thrown him a lure last week. A curvy little armful with come-hither eyes. And yet, somehow, the thought of the chase didn't stir his blood.
It wouldn't be much of a chase. Perhaps he should look around a little more. Looking was half the fun.
He whistled under his breath as he readied himself for an evening at White's.
It was almost perfect. Wasn't it? She just wished she could be sure. In the library's rapidly fading daylight, Frederica Bracewell narrowed her eyes and compared her second drawing of a sparrow to the one in the book. The first one she'd attempted was awful. A five-year-old would have done better. Drawn with her right hand. She sighed. It didn't matter how hard she tried, right-handed she was hopeless.
Devil's spawn. An echo of Cook's harsh voice hissed in her ear. Good-for-naught bastard. She rubbed her chilled hands together and held the second drawing up to the light. It was the best thing she'd done. But was it good enough?
The door opened behind her. She jumped to her feet. Heat rushed to her hairline. Heart beating hard, she turned, hiding the drawings with her body.
'Only me, miss,' Snively, the Wynchwood butler, said. A big man, with a shock of white hair and a fierce bulldog face, but his brown eyes twinkled as he carried a taper carefully across the room and lit the wall sconces.
Her heart settled back into a comfortable rhythm.
'I didn't realise you were working in here this afternoon or I would have had William light the fire,' the butler said.
'I'm not c-c-cold,' she said, smiling at one of her few allies at Wynchwood. She didn't want him losing his position by lighting unnecessary fires.
She picked up her rag with a wince. She'd completed very little of her assigned task: dusting the books. Uncle Mortimer would not be pleased.
In passing, Snively glanced at the pictures on the table. 'This one is good,' he said, pointing at the second one. 'It looks ready to fly away. People pay for pictures like that.'
'Do you think so?'
'I do.' Snively's face hardened. 'You ought to have proper lessons instead of copying from books. You've a talent.'
Always so supportive. Sometimes she imagined the starchy butler was her father. It might have been better if he was. Who knew what kind of low man the Wynchwood Whore had bedded.
'It is not s-seemly for a woman to d-draw for money,' she said quietly, 'but I would love to go to Italy and see the great art of Europe. Perhaps even s-study with a drawing teacher.'
His mouth became a thin straight line. 'So you should.'
'Lord Wynchwood would never hear of it. It would be far too expensive.'
Snively frowned. 'If you'll excuse me saying so, the wages you've saved his lordship by serving as housekeeper these past many years would pay for a dozen trips to Italy.'
'Only my uncle's generosity keeps me here, Mr Snively. He could just as easily have left me at the workhouse.'
He glowered. 'Your turn will come, miss. You mark my words. It will.'
She'd never heard the butler so vehement. She glanced over her shoulder at the door. 'I beg you not to say anything to my uncle about these.' She gestured at the drawings.
'I wouldn't dream of it, miss. You keep it up. One day your talent will be recognised. I can promise it.'
She smiled. 'You are such a d-dear man.'
The library door slammed back.
Frederica jumped. Her heart leaped into her throat. 'Uncle M-M-Mortimer.' The words came out in a horrible rush.
The imperturbable Snively slid the book over her drawings and turned around with his usual hauteur. 'Good evening, Lord Wynchwood.'
Uncle Mortimer, his wig awry on his head, his cheeks puce, marched in. 'Nothing better to do than pass the time with servants, Frederica? Next you'll be hobnobbing with the stable boy, the way your mother did.'
Beside her Snively drew himself up straighter.
She trembled. She hated arguments. 'N-n-n'
'No?' the old man snapped. 'Then Snively is a figment of my imagination, is he?'
'My lord,' Snively said in outraged accents, 'I was lighting the candles, as I always do at this time. I found Miss Bracewell dusting the books and stopped to help.'
'I'm not chastising you, Snively. My niece is the one I need to keep in check.' Frederica wasn't surprised at her uncle's about face. A butler of Snively's calibre was hard to come by these days.
'S-s-s' she started.
'Sorry? You are always sorry. It is not good enough.' He frowned. 'Didn't you hear me ringing?'
She took a quick breath. 'N-no, Uncle. You asked me to d-d-dust the books in here. I d-d-did not hear your bell.'
'Well, listen better, gel. I've some receipts to be copied into the account book. I want them all finished by supper time.'
Frederica hid her shudder. Hours of copying numbers into columns and rows. Trying to make them neat and tidy while not permitted to use anything but her right hand. Her shoulders slumped. 'Yes, Uncle.'
'Come along. Come along, don't dilly dally. It is cold in here. My lungs cannot stand the chill. Snively, send word to Cook to send tea to my study.'
Snively bowed. 'Don't worry, miss, I'll return everything to its proper place.
He meant he'd put her drawings in her room. If Mortimer found she'd been wasting her time drawing, he'd probably lock her in her chamber for a week. Which might not be so bad, she reflected as she hurried out of the room. She threw the butler a conspiratorial smile.
Without Snively and her impossible dream of travelling to Italy and learning from a real artist, her life would be truly unbearable.
Refreshed and relaxed after his afternoon with Maggie, Robert strolled through the front door of White's and handed his coat and hat to the porter. 'Lord Radthorn here yet, O'Malley?'
The beefy red-haired man blinked owlishly. 'No, Lord Tonbridge.'
Robert didn't bother to correct the fool. It never did any good. Only close family, friends and the odd woman could ever tell him and Charlie apart.
He took the stairs up to the great subscription room two at a time. The dark-panelled room buzzed with conversation and laughter despite the youth of the evening.
A group of gentlemen crowded around a faro table, the game in full swing. Guineas and vowels were heaped at the banker's elbowViscount Lullington, a fair-haired Englishman with thin aristocratic features whom many of the ladies adored. He had a Midas touch with gambling and women. Only Robert had ever bested him on either countsomething that did not please the dandified viscount. But that wasn't the reason for the bad blood between them. It went a whole lot deeper. As deep as a sword blade.
The one Robert had put through his arm dueling for the favours of a woman. Robert glanced around the panelled room. No sign of Radthorn amongst the crowd, but a glance at his fob watch revealed he'd arrived a few minutes earlier than their appointed time. He drifted towards the faro table.
'Who is in the soup?' he asked Colonel Whittaker as he took in the play.
'Some protege of Lullington's,' Wittaker muttered without turning. 'The young fool just bet his curricle and team.'
Lullington smoothed his dark blond hair back from his high forehead, his intense blue gaze sweeping the players at the table. A clever man, Lullington, his fashionable air a draw for unwary young men with too much money in their pockets.
Too bad the man had chosen tonight to play here.
As if sensing Robert's scrutiny, Lullington glanced up and their gazes locked. His lip curled. Slowly, he laid his cards face down on the green baize table.
'Mountford?' Lullington never confused him with his twin. 'How did you get into a gentleman's club?' he lisped.
Robert recoiled. 'What did you say?' The viscount's lids lowered a fraction. He shook his head. 'You never did have a scrap of honour.' All conversation ceased.
The hairs on the back of Robert's neck rose. Fury coursed through his veins. He lunged forwards. 'You'll meet me on Primrose Hill in the morning for that slur. Name your seconds.'
The young sprig to Lullington's right stared opened mouthed.
'Gad, the cur speaks. Does it think because it is sired by a duke, it can mix with gentlemen?'
An odd rumble of agreement ran around the room.
Robert felt as if he'd been kicked in the chest. 'What the deuce are you talking about?'
Lullington's lip lifted in a sneer. 'Unlike you, I would never sully a lady's reputation in public.'
Robert felt heat travel up the back of his neck. So that's what this was all about. Lullington's cousin, the little bitch. He should have guessed the clever viscount would use the incident to his advantage. 'The woman you speak of is no lady,' he said scornfully. 'As you well know.'
'Dishonourable bastard,' Wittaker said, turning his back.
'No,' Lullington said softly, triumph filling his voice. 'Mountford is right not to bandy the lady's name around in this club. Mountford, I find the colour of your waistcoat objectionable. Please remove it from our presence at once. None of us wants to see it here again.'
One by one each man near Robert turned, until Robert stood alone, an island in a sea of stiff backs. Some of these men were his friends. He'd gone to school with them, drunk and gambled with them, whored with them, and not a single one of them would meet his eye.
One or two of them were the husbands of unfaithful wives. The triumph in their eyes as they turned away told its own story.
Good God! They'd decided to send him to Coventry, because he'd refused to marry a scheming little bitch.
The only man who remained looking his way was Lullington, who lifted his quizzing glass as if he had spotted a fly on rotten meat.
'It is a lie and you know it,' Robert said.
'Cheeky bastard,' Pettigrew said.
'Oh, it's cheeky all right.' Lullington's lisp seemed more pronounced than usual. He gave a mocking laugh like splintering glass. 'It remains. Pettigrew, will you have O'Malley throw this rubbish out, or shall I?'
One of the menPettigrew, Robert assumedleft the room, no doubt to do the viscount's bidding. Robert stood his ground, forced reason into his tone. 'I didn't touch the girl.' Damn. If he said any more, he'd be playing right into Lullington's hands.
Ambleforth, round and red about the gills, a man Robert had known at Eton, shuffled closer. He caught sight of Lullington's glass swivelling towards him and stopped, shaking his head. ''Fore God, Mountford,' he uttered in hoarse tones. 'Go, before you make it any worse.'
Worse. Heat flooded his body, sweat trickled down his back. How could this nightmare be worse? Lullington had turned every man in the room against him for a crime he hadn't committed. The girl had brought it on herself.