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Justin Wilde mounted the curving right-hand staircase of Carleton House with all the joy of a condemned man being marched to the scaffold, one of his royal majesty's flunkies on either side of him. At least the execution would be formal, not slapdash in appearance.
As his well-polished Hessians confidently struck each marble stair, his alert green eyes saw everything, his exemplary brain cataloguing and recording each detail of his surroundings. One might say the baron lived his life in a state of the highest readiness, prepared to fight or flee, should either necessity present itself.
Not that the pair of ridiculous liveried footmen, matching in their height and build and coloring as well, just as if they had been specifically chosen as a matched setwhich they no doubt had beenwould have entertained the slightest notion that, with little effort on his part, the baron could have dispatched them both to their final reward before they could blink.
And not that the servants could be faulted for their lack of perception. They saw, the world saw, what Baron Wilde wished them to see, and nothing more: a handsome, well-set-up gentleman who appeared to be as harmless as a morning in May.
Only those who knew Justin Wilde welland these numbered less than a half dozensaw more than the exquisite lace at his neck and cuffs, the fashionably fine cut of his coat, the perfection that was his longish, carefully casual black hair that matched in color a pair of wonderfully winged eyebrows.
Most impressive of all was his ready smile, which could be mocking, ironic, amused, open, disarm-ingly friendly and, as those privileged half dozen knew, very rarely genuine.
There was no smile on his lean face at the moment, real or subtly perfected. To receive the Prince Regent's summons at some point in time had not been unexpected. The man had warned of the eventuality at their last meeting. But now, scant months after their agreement, the sure knowledge that he was to consider himself at the man's beck and call for the remainder of one of their lives had been brought home in all of its unpleasantness.
"That chandelier is new since my last visit, isn't it?" he inquired of the footmen, pointing to a crystal-and-gilt monstrosity that hung at the top of the stairs. "I probably paid for it, you know. My God, is that a crystal dove at the center of it?"
The younger of the two servants looked up at the chandelier, nearly losing his step on the marble stairs, so that Justin quickly reached out to steady him.
"Coo, that was a close-run thing, weren't it? Thank you, milord."
"Nonsense. I apologize for distracting you, knowing the danger. My late wife perished on these same stairs some years ago."
"Is that a fact, milord? Took herself a fall, did she?"
"She didn't drown," Justin agreed pleasantly.
"Silas, stifle yourself," the older footman warned, clearly aghast at both the question and his lordship's answer. "This way, my lord, if you please," he then added quickly, gesturing to the leftaway from the ornate public rooms and toward the private area of the residence.
Wonderful. The only thing more off-putting than Prinny at noon would be Prinny at noon and still in his nightcap. Less than five minutes later, Justin's worst fears were confirmed.
Once he was announced, the footmen retreated amid a flurry of deep bows. Justin advanced across an expanse of priceless carpets and parquet flooring, stopping at the foot of a bed so high, so wide, so lavishly hung with velvet draperies that even the Prince of Whales appeared small as he sat propped against pillows in the middle of it, munching on coddled eggs.
Justin smartly clapped his booted feet together and inclined his head and shoulders only enough to be civil. "Your obedient servant appearing at your command, Your Royal Highness."
"Wilde," the Prince of Wales said, sighing as he put down his fork. "You're the only man I know who can turn an expression of respect into an insult. Did you see it?"
Justin racked his brain for a moment, and then nodded. "The dove may have been taking ostentation too far, even for you. What next, sir, pink waistcoats?"
"Ha! Nobody has dared to speak so freely around me since George. How I miss that rascal."
"As do his many creditors, or so I've heard," Justin said, remembering the evening not so long ago he'd spent doing his part in spiriting George "Beau" Brummell out of the city and on his way to safety in Calais. "Is that why I'm here, sir? To somehow assist in raising fond memories of the fellow who was once bosom chum? I'm flattered, yet devastated to admit that my man Wigglesworth doesn't quite possess the man's clever way with boot black."
The prince swept out his arm, sending the silver tray loaded down with chocolate pots and plates and pastries crashing to the floor. "Damn you! Who are you to speak to me thatWhat do you want? Get out!"
This last was directed at the guardsmen who had entered at the sound of crashing silver and crockery, their swords drawn.
Justin stood his ground. And waited.
"For all of George's faults, it's true, I do miss him," the prince said at last, almost wistfully, his well-known mercurial mood having shifted yet again. "He was well when you last saw him?"
"Alas, I cannot answer that question, sir, as I fear I've never actually met the man," Justin lied smoothly.
"Yes, of course," Prinny said, apparently remembering that he should show no interest in the Beau, or the fact that he'd cared enough to have ferreted out Justin's participation in the scheme to extract the fellow from the clutches of the duns and even incarceration in debtor's prison. "Let us move on to other things."
"As you wish, sir. I am yours to command."
"Good, you remember who I am. There are times I find that difficult to believe. Then you recall our private agreement as well, Wilde?"
Justin inclined his head yet again. "I believe I've committed it to memory, yes. If I might paraphrase for you?"
"Yes, yes, go on. I want to be assured you remember it."
Justin's smile was brilliant. "As I would a badly throbbing tooth, sir. In exchange for a sum of money numbering somewhere in the vicinity of what could in some twisted way be termed a king's ransom, all of it deposited directly into Your Royal Highness's private purse"
"That is never to be mentioned."
"I stand corrected. Although it was fifty thousand pounds, to be precise," Justin said, actually beginning to enjoy himself. "Your Royal Highness, known to his intimates as George the Kind, I might venture, acting purely out of a generosity of spirit acknowledged throughout the realm and without thought to personal enrichment, pardoned my sorry self for the crime of firing in self-defense when the fool I'd been forced to challenge to a duel turned and discharged his pistol on two. A mistake that proved fatal to him and disastrous to me, as I then had to flee England or else be arrested and summarily hanged."
"Better, although you fail to mention that dueling itself has long been outlawed, no matter the result of the meeting," the prince pointed out smugly.
"How remiss of me. Shall we dig up Robbie Farber and charge him for his crime, do you think?"
"You're impertinent. Go on, finish it."
Justin really would rather not, so that the insult wrapped in his answer came to him easily. "In return for this grand and noble gesture, I, Baron Wilde, grateful to be once more standing on the ground first trod by my illustrious ancestors long before yours, sir, had ever heard of England and were still happily speaking German and feeding on cabbages, after eight long and painful years of exile, and once again in possession of both my estates and my fortune most of the latter, at any rateam the eager and obedient servant of Your Royal Highness, ready at all times to assist him whenever the need arises. That is our agreement, until such time as Your Royal Highness believes sufficient penance has been served."
"I can't abide cabbages, so your paltry attempt at yet another insult will be ignored. But I would be remiss if I weren't to point out that you're running perilously close to the limits of my forbearance." Prinny wagged a finger in Justin's direction. "You actually did quite well, Wilde, until the last. Handsome devil, I'll give you that, but your jaw went rather hard there for a few moments. You aren't eager and obedient?"
"I'm here," Justin said, taking out his snuffbox. He wasn't having fun anymore. In fact, he was very nearly bored, which was always dangerous. He deftly opened the chased-gold thing with one hand and then, delicately holding an infinitesimal pinch to his left nostril, sniffed. "For eager and obedient, I suggest His Royal Highness might accept my gift of the pick of my favorite bitch's recent litter."
"Damn, that was brilliant. Such understated flair, Wilde. You have to show me how you do it. Didn't even sneeze."
"Sneezing is so declasse," Justin said, returning the snuffbox to his pocket. "It's all in the measure, sir. That, and I've had my blacksmith line my nostrils with lead."
"I'd almost believe you. But enough banter. I'm due at the palace at three, to present myself to mine father, who please God isn't ranting or drooling today. I'm about to make you a very happy man, Wilde."
"How interesting, Your Royal Highness. And here I am, under the impression that I am already happy. Perhaps you plan to make me ecstatic?"
Prinny readjusted the covers around his ample belly. "There are times I think I'd rather make you mute. A pity we're all now so modern and civilized. A well-maintained torture chamber was often a king's only friend. How does one eat without a tongue, do you know?"
"In very small bites, I'd imagine," Justin said, mistrusting the gleam in the prince's vivid blue eyes, and therefore prudently not pointing out that the man was still one live if hopelessly mad father away from the throne.
"Your wife is dead these eight years or more, yes?"
"I believe so, yes." Now Justin was all attention, at least inwardly. "A date you might remember with more clarity than I, as I was already escaped to the Continent. But I've always wondered, sir. How does one go about disposing of a dead body at the bottom of the stairs? A terrible inconvenience at best, I would suppose. Did you have her hauled away, or just fold her up inside a cabinet while the party went on without her?"
"You're cold, Wilde. She was your wife. Granted, a little too free with her favors, but very beautiful. Exquisite, actually."
Justin remained silent. Yes, Sheila had been beautiful. On the outside. And he'd been young, and beauty had mattered to him very much. Even after Sheila had no longer mattered, he'd found himself involved in a duel to protect her nonexistent honor.
"You don't agree?"
"I scarcely remember her face, sir. There may be a miniature somewhere. Would you like it?"
"Cold. Cold. You make me almost regret what I am about to offer. A single service to put a period to your accessibility. An end to your indebtedness.
You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
Wilde lifted a hand to his face. And yawned. It was amazing what one could dare when one had moved beyond the ability to care.
"I've found you a wife," the Prince Regent stated baldly, his tone clearly implying that he was no longer amused by Justin's antics.
"Oh, I think not, sir. I'm not in the market for a wife."
"You're also not in a cell, awaiting the hangman. Which one of those two alternatives do you choose?"
Justin wouldn't give the man the satisfaction of his answer. Even though they both knew that answer.
"Yes, quite. I will go on now. She is said to be the daughter of a war hero, unfortunately deceased. Allow it to be known only to you that this union is very important to the fellow who still most favors the ancient title of Holy Roman Emperor to that of"
"Francis of Austria," Justin supplied tersely. "Father of Marie Louise, who was wife to Napoleon, until Francis convinced her to betray him. Nephew of the doomed Marie Antoinette, whom he refused to save from the guillotine because he saw no personal profit in it. The man turned his coat so often since ascending the throne it is something of a marvel that he didn't end up hanged and gibbeted by Bonaparteor us. So, this female I'm not going to marry is German? Austrian?"
The prince shook his head. "Bohemian, although I'm assured that her mother, also unfortunately deceased, was English, and her late father a favorite at the court until his death on some battlefield."
Justin was careful to keep his expression blank, even as an event in his life he'd hoped long banished returned to slap at his composure. "I once visited a city in the region. Trebon. I did not enjoy my time there."
"No one but a fool enjoys being anywhere but England. Oh, but I know what you're saying. You think perhaps she's a Gypsy? Certainly not."
"They prefer Romany, sir. Never Gypsy. At any rate, if you were told the lady is Bohemian, even if only less than half of her, I believe I'd prefer being hanged in the morning, thank you."
"They're a dirty people?" The prince's face had taken on a rather haunted look, most probably thanks to a memory of his first sight of his now-estranged wife, Princess Caroline. It had been said that she harbored a decided dislike of soap and regular bathing.
"No, sir. And I'm certain the female in question is thoroughly civilized. I momentarily overreacted to an unpleasant memory, no more than that."
"Please, don't apologize. I believe I enjoy seeing the unflappable Justin Wilde even slightly discommoded. Trebon, was it? Nasty place? At any rate, this young woman, thisone moment." He extracted a slip of paper from the pocket of his nightshirt, then read carefully: "'Lady Magdalena Evinka Nadeja Valentin.' Foreign names are all so needlessly complicated, aren't they? Give me a good Mary, or Elizabeth, or Anne. At any rate, this woman is in need of a husband."