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High living was well nigh killing him. Lesley Hammond, Viscount Hartleigh, staggered out of the hired hackney in front of the narrow four-story brownstone in Kensington that he maintained for just such occasions. The occasions were occurring with such remarkable regularity, he hadn't stepped foot in the family pile in Grosvenor Square in months.
His head was splitting, his stomach was roiling, and he stank of spirits, cigars, and scent, but he had a roll of flimsies with which to pay the jarvey. He must, therefore, have had a lovely evening. In actuality, he'd had more of a full night, since rosy-fingered dawn was plucking at London's sooty skirts. Either that or he was seeing the world through bloodshot eyes.
As the quiet neighborhood prepared to face the new day, Viscount Hartleigh prepared to traverse the front yard of his pied-à-terre. The grounds were as big as his handkerchief, he knew, yet the front door seemed miles away to his bleary eyes, and up a flight of seven steps. Steps, by Zeus. At least this wasn't lofty Hammond House, home of his stepmother, her stepsisters, and more steps than the stairway to heaven. These seven seemed insurmountable enough. Lesley fumbled at the gate and then lurched forward, while his legs still remembered how to hold him upright. He immediately fell into a freshly dug hole. His forehead hit the brass stair rail before his cheek hit the bottom step. "I am going to murder that dog," he muttered, tasting blood from a cut lip.
As he lay there in the dirt, the viscount thought that he really ought to take control of his life one of these days. Take back Hammond House from the harpy and her half-witted stepsisters, take awife, take his proper place in London Society. Right now he thought he'd take a nap.
No, Lesley told himself, this would never do, not at all. The sedate neighborhood of merchants and retired schoolmistresses was shocked enough by his comings and goings--and the company that came and went with him. The Applegate sisters next door were like to have apoplexy to find Viscount Hartleigh in his supine position, half in a hole, half draped over the riser, half conscious. He owed it to his name, his class, his pride, to at least go inside before passing out.
By dint of the dogged determination that made him such a renowned sportsman, gambler, and carouser, Lord Hartleigh dragged himself up the stairs and through the unlocked door. Such purpose and perseverance would have made him an admirable officer, if he'd been permitted to join the war effort. But Lesley was a viscount, heir to a dukedom. He was expected to provide the country with gossip, glamour, and another generation of overbred, overdressed, and underwhelming fribbles. He did what he could, sailing his yacht to bring home casualties. And he didn't drink French wine. The swill he did swallow was perhaps responsible for his current condition, but a fellow had to have the strength of his convictions.
He did not have the strength for the flight of stairs to his bedroom, however. "Bloody hell, who needs a bed anyway?" The sofa in his study would do, as it had for the past few nights, or weeks. He stumbled into the room, which would have fit into the butler's pantry at Hammond House, and tripped over the large hound that was asleep in the middle of the room, the same hound that hadn't sounded an alarm when someone entered the house at dawn and hadn't bothered to greet his own master. Luckily the viscount fell onto the couch. "I am definitely going to murder that dog," he vowed. "As soon as I wake up."
Awareness returned a great deal sooner than his lordship expected, desired, or was prepared for. After a deal of rattling crockery, a tray was slammed down next to his nose. Curtains were opened to let in enough light to pierce his closed eyelids, nay, to pierce his very brain. And someone was shaking his shoulder. Lesley groaned. "The house better be on fire, Byrd, or you're a dead man."
"It's worse'n a fire, Cap'n. You have to get up." Byrd was the viscount's sailing mate, majordomo, and longtime, long-suffering valet. "I brung coffee."
"Coffee isn't going to help. Get a pistol and put me out of my misery. You'd do as much for a lame horse." Hartleigh rolled over, moaning from the activity.
"Devil take it, Cap'n, this ain't no time for your gammon." Byrd hauled his employer to an upright position, propping his limp form in the corner of the couch.
Lesley tried to fix his eyes on the man--both of him. Byrd was a huge fellow who'd been a prizefighter or a pirate, or both. He never said, and Hartleigh never asked too closely. The bloke was useful to have around, except for times like these. With trembling hand, the viscount accepted the steaming mug from Byrd's massive mitt. "So what is it, Byrdie?" he asked with a sigh of resignation, knowing he'd get no peace until the man had his say. "Have the French invaded Kensington?"
"The Frogs we could handle, Cap'n. This, I'm not so sure about." Byrd shook his bald head, making the viscount's head spin even worse. "A package came this morning."
"A package? You disturbed a perfectly good hangover to tell me a package has been delivered?" The viscount would have shouted, but his tongue was stuck to the top of his mouth. He sipped at the scalding coffee and succeeded in scorching his esophagus. "Bloody hell!"
"It's not just any package," Byrd said, with a jerk of his head toward a large hamper that reposed near the fireplace. "And this came with it." He held out a folded note.
Lesley reached for the letter. It was on heavy, expensive paper, with his name scrawled across the front. Even if he hadn't recognized the handwriting, or the scent that perfumed the letter, he would have known the seal on the back. How could anyone not recognize the lions and crowns and mountains of Ziftswieg, Austria? His lips twitched in an effort at a smile. "Ah, Princess Fredericka Haffkesprinke. Find out where she is staying, Byrdie, and I'll call later. Much later." His eyes drifted shut.
"Ain't you going to see what she wants?" Byrd demanded.
Now Lesley smiled in truth, a soft, sensual grin. "Oh, I can guess what she wants. Not even for a command performance could I perform right now. Her Excellency will have to wait."
"There ain't no waiting, I tell you!" the big man almost whined. "Read the blasted letter!"
The viscount broke the seal, after much tooth-gnashing and hand-wringing from his servant, and fixed his eyes on the awkward script. " 'Liebchen Lesley,' " he read aloud. " 'Here is a souvenir of our interlude in Vienna. Salut.' " He tossed the note aside. "She sent me a gift, is all. Nothing to get your britches in a bumblebroth. I'll look at it later and compose a very proper thank-you." He shut his eyes. When he did not hear the sounds of his heavy servant lumbering out of the room, the viscount added, "You're excused."
Instead, the wicker hamper was slammed into his lap.
"Just what my stomach needed, a bit of jostling. At least the princess's gift will be useful if I decide to cast up my accounts."
Byrd snatched the basket away. "Please, Lord Hartleigh, just look."
The use of his title finally roused the viscount. Poor Byrd must be more upset than he'd thought. So Lesley sat up straighter and nodded. After Byrd carefully laid the large hamper on the sofa next to him, the viscount reached out and gingerly raised the lid. All he saw was blankets. He raised an eyebrow in Byrd's direction, but the man just kept staring at the basket. "Damn if you don't think the princess is sending me Austrian adders, if they have such there. I swear I left the lady with a smile on her face, Byrdie."
Byrdie must have lost his sense of humor along with two of his teeth, Lesley decided. Gold caps were no substitute, none at all. He shrugged and folded back the top layer of soft wool. "I still don't see why this couldn't have waited until-- Bloody hell, it's a baby!"
"That's the first thing you've got right today, Cap'n."
Lesley was gulping the coffee, burnt tongue bedamned. He held the cup out for more. A man needed his wits about him at a time like this. "A baby, by George!"
"By you, is more like it! What are you going to do about it?"
The viscount was doing some mental calculations. "Do you think he's about three months old?"
"How the bloody hell should I know how old the nipper is? I do know that foundling hospital is right across the square. Want I should take it there?"
Lesley was staring at the sleeping child, all pink and rosebud-lipped. He hadn't been the princess's first lover, he knew, and probably not her last, but the timing seemed right that this was, indeed, his child. The pale fuzz on its head could have been a match to his own blond curls--or Byrd's bald pate. He touched the infant's cheek with the tip of his finger, and sky-blue eyes opened, eyes with the same distinctive black rim of Lesley's own eyes. "My son."
The babe stared up at him, yawned, and went back to sleep, obviously not as impressed by what it saw as the viscount was. "My very own son."
"How do you know?" Byrd asked.
"Did you see those eyes? There can't be any question."
"There never was. Even a princess can count on her fingers. But how do you know it's a boy?"
The viscount reread the note. And again.
Byrd shook his bald head. "It don't say."
"It has to be a boy, is all. You check."
Byrd jumped back. "Not me. I weren't laying with no highborn bird of paradise. And I weren't hired on to be no wet nurse, neither, so you better figure how to get rid of the little bugger. I'll take it to the foundling home, but that's all."
His son, in an orphanage? "I don't think those places are very healthful. I'm sure I can find a decent family to take him in. That must be why Fredericka left him here."
"She sure as Satan couldn't think you'd make the bantling a proper da," Byrd said, laughing.
The viscount frowned. "She could have left him at a church. Isn't that what women always do in novels? "
Byrd hadn't read many novels. "What's a bishop to do with a bastard? I'm sure he's got enough of his own. And even that popish church is tended by women what never wanted infants of their own. They'd all just take it to St. Cecilia's Home."
Where every whore dumped her unwanted get. Where mill owners and chimney sweeps came to buy likely workers. Where there wasn't enough food or heat or money to go around. No education, no name, no affection. "No, not my son."
Byrd cursed through his gold teeth. "Tarnation, Cap'n, you still don't even know if it is a lad or a lass. And if you're thinking of keeping the mite here, I'll be off to start my packing."
"You can't leave me, Byrdie. Not now." He gingerly peeled back two more layers of blankets to reveal a lace-trimmed infant gown and soft white woolen booties. "Look at how tiny those feet are," he marveled.
"Just find out what else he's got tiny, Cap'n, and get rid of him."
Lesley placed one finger under the skirt's hem and lifted, while Byrd leaned over the basket. The manservant jumped back, waving one hand in front of his nose.
The dog got up and left the room.
"My friend," the viscount said, "we are in deep . . . trouble."