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The butler's discreet cough interrupted what was promising to be a most rewarding encounter.
Lord Leo Aikenhead raised his head from the naked breast of the damsel sitting in his lap and swore fluently. She might be only a member of the muslin company, albeit a highly paid one, but even she did not deserve to have her charms exposed to the gaze of a disapproving servant. Unhurriedly, he began to restore a semblance of decency to her clothing, all the while keeping his back between his light o' love and the butler. Gibson knew better than to gawp. He would wait by the door until Leo was good and ready to attend to him.
'Have to excuse me, m'dear,' Leo said at last, allowing a touch of regret to enter his voice as he retied the final silken ribbon of her bodice. 'Much as I should like to continue our um conversation, I fear that pressing business calls.' He put his hands to the girl's trim waist and set her on her feet.
When she began to protest coquettishly, Leo looked up into her lovely face, spoiled now by the mulish curve to her mouth. 'Go and find William,' he said easily. 'You know he's been ogling you since the day he arrived. He'll be more than happy to take over where I left off.'
She made no move to obey.
'Go along now, do,' he said, rather more sharply, giving her a friendly slap on the bottom. 'He's a better bet than I am, you know. Much more of a stayer. And richer, to boot.'
With a sudden giggle, the girl ran from the saloon.
Leo quickly checked the state of his own dress before turning to the butler, who stood impassively by the door, staring straight ahead. 'You may cast off your puritan blindness now, Gibson. The young woman has gone. For themoment, at least.'
'As you say, my lord.' The butler's tone was clipped.
Leo rose and walked slowly across to the fireplace. In the huge gilt-framed mirror hanging above it, he saw that, although his coat was surprisingly uncreased, his cravat looked as if he had been rolling around in bed. Pretty near the truth, too. He began to straighten it. In the glass, he could see that Gibson's patience was under strain, for he was almost hopping from one foot to the other. Just what he deserved for that unwelcome interruption. Leo deliberately spent another thirty seconds carefully rearranging his cravat. Then he said into the mirror, 'Well, Gibson?'
The butler did not make any apologies. He merely said crisply, 'Your lordship's brother has arrived. He asks to see you urgently. He is waiting in the small saloon.'
This time, Leo's curses were even more choice, but he managed to swallow most of them. Leo's elder brother, Dominic, Duke of Calder, had been sent to Russia on government business some weeks before. That left only Lord Jack, the youngest of the Aikenheads. He was an engaging lad, and both Dominic and Leo were very fond of him, but his scrapes were becoming increasingly expensive. Dominic and Leo, both older than Jack by more than ten years, had indulged their brother for too long, as both would now admit. Jack would soon be twenty-five, an age when he ought to be preparing to become master of his own estate. But he was still far from ready.
It seemed that life, to Jack, was one long, rollicking spree in which responsibility played no part. His problem would be gambling again, no doubt. Whereas Leo's tastes ran to womenand lots of themJack had a fascination for the gaming tables. Sadly, and predictably, he tended to lose much more than he won. Well, if he needed yet another tow out of River Tick, it was perhaps time to refuse. Let the boy struggle a bit and get the feeling of what it would be like to drown before anyone threw him a lifeline. It really was time he began to grow up.
Leo started for the door. Gibson reached to open it for him, but Leo stopped him, slapping a hand flat on the panel. 'How does Lord Jack seem on this occasion, Gibson?'
Gibson stared unblinkingly past his master's shoulder. 'Not er not precisely à point, my lord. As if he had undertaken his journey in some haste.'
'Hmm. Has he not brought his valet?'
'No, my lord. And no valise either.'
Leo grunted and flung open the door. If Jack had fled from London to The Larches without even taking the time to pack a valise, he was undoubtedly in deep, deep trouble.
His anger mounting, Leo strode down the corridor and into the blue saloon. 'So you decided to come and join my little orgy after all, brat?' Behind him, Gibson closed the door without a sound. 'Good of you to favour us with your company. Planning to remain long?'
Jack jumped up guiltily from the wing chair by the fireplace. There was the beginning of a flush on his neck. He was wearing evening clothes, with silk knee-breeches and hose, and dancing shoes. Totally inappropriate dress for driving well over a hundred miles. Leo let his gaze travel disapprovingly over his brother's dishevelled and grubby cravat, his creased coat, then on down to Jack's feet and, finally, back up to his face. Jack's mouth had opened, as if he were straining to speak. The flush had reached his cheekbones.
'Valet abandoned you at last, has he?' Leo said sardonically. 'Can't say I blame him. But we can't present you to the ladybirds looking as if you've been dragged through a hedge, y'know.'
Jack's jaw slackened and his mouth opened even wider.
Suddenly, Leo had had enough of playing games. 'Oh, sit down, for heaven's sake, and stop looking like the village idiot at the May fair. You've come hot-foot to The Larches, without so much as a spare cravat. So you're in trouble again. I take it you were planning to tell me what you've done this time?'
Without waiting for a response, Leo crossed to the small piecrust table by the window, poured two large brandies and thrust one of them into Jack's hand. Jack tossed it down in a single swallow and held out his empty glass for a refill. Leo said nothing. He set the empty glass aside and replaced it with his own full one. Jack barely seemed to notice the switch. Shaking his head, Leo took his seat in the wing chair opposite Jack's and waited for the story to tumble out.
Jack sighed out a long breath, took a large swig of his drink, and then sat forward in his chair with his elbows on his knees, nursing the brandy balloon in his cupped hands as if it were his most treasured possession. He stared at the floor. 'I'm in real trouble this time, Leo. I don't think even you can help me out of it.'
'Perhaps you'd best let me be the judge of that. Well?'
'I I played cards at one of the halls, after Lady Morris-sey's ball. With Falstead and Hallingdon and and a host of other fellows. I was on a winning streak.'
Leo raised his eyebrows, but Jack's gaze was still fixed on the floor.
'I won nearly six thousand pounds, Leo.' Jack looked up then. His eyes were shining. Then, as if a veil had descended, the light of triumph died. 'But I I lost it again. All of it. And more.'
Leo waited. Jack seemed to have shrunk in his skin. This was going to be very bad.
At length the silence was too much. Leo's patience snapped. 'How much?' he snarled.
'Thirty-two thousand.' Jack's voice was barely audible.
'Damn you, brat! D'you intend to ruin us all? Even Dominic couldn't lay hands on that much. And I certainly can't. It's more than three times my income.'
'I'm sorry, Leo.'
Leo flung himself out of his chair, forcing himself to unclench his fists and to master the urge to plant his brother a facer. Jack deserved it, of course, but it would not do. Leo sucked in a deep breath and went to pour himself a brandy. He needed it now almost as much as Jack did.
'Who holds your vowels? And how long has he given you to pay?'
'Er that's the problem. It's'
Leo exploded. 'Dammit, Jack, it is not the problem. You are the problem. You and your insatiable lust for gaming. You know you can't afford it, yet you will persist. You are a fool. And a damned expensive one, too.'
'I am sorry, Leo,' Jack said again. He had not moved even an inch in his seat.
'So who is this problem friend of yours?'
'No one you know. One of the secretaries at the Prussian Embassy. He's been summoned back to Berlin. To prepare for the Congress of Vienna, I understand. He's leaving in two days' time. That's why I had to get here in such an almighty rush. I didn't even have time to'
'And this secretary fellow expects to be paid before he leaves, I collect?' Leo interrupted in icy tones.
Jack tried to reply, but failed. He nodded wretchedly into his brandy.
'In other words, I have two days to come up with a fortune, or risk having the Aikenhead name dishonoured across Europe.' It was not a question.
'Confound it, Jack, if you say you're sorry just one more time, I'll wring your miserable neck. Sorry? You don't begin to know the half of it.'
Jack straightened in his chair. 'I was going to say that I'm s-sensible of the wrong I've done the family, Leo. I will give you my word that I'll never gamble again, if it will help.'
Astonished, Leo stared at his brother. Jack returned his gaze unflinchingly.
'By Jove, he means it,' Leo whispered.
'I do,' Jack said, with dignity. And I will keep my word. Though it's precious little consolation in the circumstances, I know.'
Leo fetched the decanter and added a generous measure to Jack's glass. 'You give me your solemn word never again to gamble more than you can afford to lose?'
'I won't gamble at all in future, Leo. Not even for chicken stakes.'
'Don't say that. I'm not asking for a promise that would be well-nigh impossible to keep. Especially given the fellows you run with.'
Jack dropped his gaze.
'If you give me your word that you will not play beyond your own means, I will find a way of dealing with this little er inconvenience.'
Jack drew in an audibly shaky breath and looked up at Leo with glowing eyes. 'I give you my word, Leo. You may rely on it. And I will find a way to repay you, I promise.'
Leo laughed mirthlessly. 'I shall pretend I did not hear that last promise, brat. You know, and I know, that you could no more find thirty-two thousand pounds than you could swim to America. Now' he laid a friendly hand on Jack's shoulder 'I suggest you go and get some sleep. I don't want you appearing in front of my guests, male or female, until you are presentable again. At the moment ' Leo looked his brother up and down and shuddered. He reached out to pull the bell.
Gibson appeared so quickly that he must have been hovering outside the door.
'Conduct Lord Jack to a bedchamber, Gibson. And direct my man to provide whatever he may need by way of clothing. Lord Jack is extremely fatigued after his journey and will not be joining us again this evening. He will take a light supper in his room.'
Jack rose and straightened his back. He yawned theatrically.
Leo felt his lips twitch. It was very difficult to remain furious with Jack for long, even when he thoroughly deserved it.
'If your lordship would follow me?' Gibson said, opening the door for Jack.
'Goodnight, Jack,' Leo said harshly. Then, more gently, 'Sleep well, brat.'
As the door closed behind them, Leo's mask of control shattered. He knew that, if there had been a mirror in this room, it would have shown him the face of a stricken man. Thirty-two thousand pounds! What on earth had possessed the boy?
Leo began to pace, but the room was too small. He needed space, and air. He made his way along the corridor and out on to the terrace. Low laughter from the shadows announced that the terrace had become a place of dalliance. He tried his library. It, too, was occupied. For the first time in the ten years since Dominic had given The Larches to him, Leo regretted having invited his boon companions and their ladybirds to make free of his hospitality. It seemed that nowhere in the whole house could provide the seclusion he craved.
He returned to the hallway just as Gibson emerged from the back stairs. Leo raised an eyebrow.
'Lord Jack is in the Chinese bedchamber, my lord.'
Leo snorted with laughter. The Chinese bedchamber had been a flight of fancy of a previous tenant and Gibson, it seemed, had been indulging in a spot of retribution on his own account.
'I am going riding.'
Gibson's eyebrows shot up towards his hairline.
'Have Jezebel saddled and brought round in ten minutes. And tell the kitchen that dinner is to be delayed by one hour.'
'Very good, my lord. If any of your lordship's guests should ask ?'
'Tell them I have gone out. I am sure they will be able to find some means of diverting themselves until I return.'
Dinner was almost over when Leo made his announcement. Afraid that some unexpected business requires me to return to London. I'll be leaving at first light.'
His guests reacted with dismay. 'But we've been here less than a week,' one said, slurring his words a little.
Leo smiled round the table. 'And you are all most welcome to continue to enjoy my hospitality until I return.'
The ladybird on Leo's immediate right laid a caressing hand on his sleeve. 'But it wouldn't be the same without you, dear Leo. Who shall take charge of our frolics?' She fluttered her long, dark eyelashes at him and gave his flesh a tiny squeeze.
Leo lifted her hand and set it gently on the polished wood table. 'Have no fear. M'brother, Jack, shall act as host in my absence. He is fixed here until I return.'
'Jack?' The protest came from one of the older men at the far end of the table. 'No offence, Leo, but I can give Jack the best part of fifteen years. As can others.' Some of the other gentlemen nodded. 'We didn't come to The Larches to gamble with your madcap little brother. If you're off tomorrow, then so am I.' There were murmurs of agreement around the table.
Leo was not sorry. He would not show his friends the door, but he was heartily glad they had decided to leave.
'Quite understand, of course, if you feel you wish to leave. And I cannot, at this moment, say how soon I might return. Apologies for that.'