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Dominic's response was unprintable. Kyle had him, and they both knew it. In dire need of refreshment, he stepped in the pantry and pulled a jug of ale from the cupboard, then poured a full measure into a tankard that was fairly clean. He did not offer his brother a drink.
After a deep swig, Dominic returned to the sitting room, claiming the most comfortable chair. "Explain why you want me to play the role of Lord Maxwell."
His brother began to pace again. "When we were boys, Wrexham and the fifth Earl Grahame talked of a match between me and Grahame's daughter."
Dominic nodded. It was one of the times he'd been grateful to be a younger son. But the plan had been dropped. He thought a moment. "Isn't the girl mad?"
"She's not mad," Kyle said sharply. "Just ... different."
It sounded as if his brother had met the girl and liked what he saw. "Do you mean she's merely eccentric? If so, she'd make a fine Renbourne."
Kyle stopped at the window, staring out at soot-stained London chimneys. "Earl Grahame was in India on a political mission when he and his wife were killed by bandits. Lady Meriel was taken captive. She was only five. More than a year passed before she was restored to the British authorities, and by then the damage was done. Her ordeal changed her into a mute lost in some private world, but she is no raving lunatic."
That was far beyond eccentric. "The fact that she doesn't rave doesn't make her sane," Dominic exclaimed. "You're willing to bed a lunatic for her fortune? Jesus, Kyle, that's disgusting."
"It's not like that!" Kyle swung around angrily before recapturing his control. "Though I'll admit that Wrexham favors thematch because she's an heiress."
"I always knew he was greedy, but I'm amazed that he's willing to sully the noble Renbourne line with a madwoman's blood."
"He discussed the matter with her physicians. Since she was born a healthy, normal child, there is no reason to suppose that her children will be afflicted."
Dominic's lips curled with distaste. "This all sounds like an elaborate rationalization to disguise the fact that the two of you will do anything for money. Does marriage really mean so little to you, Kyle?"
His brother flushed. "This isn't about money. Lady Meriel will suit me well."
"Where do I come into this pretty picture?" Dominic swallowed a generous mouthful of ale. "Do you need help in bedding your idiot bride? It's true that I'm very good at bedding. You, I suppose, have never stooped to anything so undignified as making the beast with two backs."
"Damn you, Dominic!" Kyle's hands knotted into fists. "You badly need a lesson in manners."
"Perhaps, but not from you," Dominic said coolly. "I ask again--what do you want of me?"
His brother took a slow breath, visibly wrestling with his temper. "The betrothal has not yet been announced because her guardian, Lord Amworth, wishes me to spend several weeks at Lady Meriel's estate to become acquainted with her. If the girl shows signs of dislike, the marriage is off, and I presume he'll look for a different groom."
Dominic grinned maliciously. "And you know yourself to be so charmless that you wish me to substitute and win the poor girl's cooperation in this travesty."
"By God, I knew it was a mistake to come to you," Kyle pivoted and stalked toward the door.
Seeing that he'd gone too far, Dominic raised a hand to stop him. "Sorry. You shouldn't have called when I have an aching head. I'll grant that you need no help with your wooing--girls always fancied you." Heirs to earldoms were always vastly popular, but Dominic didn't point that out. Any more insults, and he'd never learn what was so important it was worth Bradshaw Manor. "Why do you need my help?"
Kyle wavered a moment before expedience won. "I have another ... obligation. Since I can't be in two places at once, I want you to go to Warfield."
Dominic stared at him. "Good God, Kyle, what can be more important than becoming better acquainted with the girl you intend to marry? You need to be there yourself, to decide if you truly wish to make such a strange match. How can I possibly substitute for you?"
"My other obligation is none of your concern," his brother snapped. "As to your relationship with Meriel, though it's probably a stretch to assume you're a gentleman, anyone who rescued as many broken-winged birds as you is unlikely to injure an innocent, unless you've changed beyond all recognition."
Dominic clamped his jaw shut on an automatic retort, knowing it was a mistake to let Kyle anger him. Thinking regretfully of Bradshaw Manor, he made the obvious suggestion. "Surely the best solution is to postpone your visit to Warfield until your other business is finished. Or vice versa."
"Neither can be delayed." Kyle's brows drew together, dark and intimidating. It had been so long since the two of them had spent any time together that Dominic found it unnerving to see his own mannerisms reproduced by his brother. Their habits should have diverged more by now.
"Lady Meriel has two guardians, brothers to her mother and father," Kyle explained. "Her maternal uncle, Lord Amworth, is the one who supports the match. He believes that the right husband, and perhaps children, might help her become normal."
"Surely after so many years, that's unlikely."
"I suspect that Amworth's secret wish is for Meriel to have children. He was very close to his sister--this might be his way of trying to get her back, or at least continuing her line."
Dominic repressed a shiver of distaste. "I suppose that makes sense in an unwholesome way, but why the hurry? If you're the selected stud, a few weeks' delay shouldn't make much difference."
"There is a complication. Her paternal uncle, Lord Grahame, is opposed to the idea of Lady Meriel being wed. He considers it a travesty, a sin against nature."
Dominic agreed with that wholeheartedly. "So Amworth wants the deed done before Grahame finds out. It appears that you risk becoming involved in what could become a nasty scandal."
"Lady Meriel is twenty-three. No court has declared her unfit, so technically she doesn't need her guardians' permission to wed." Despite his smooth explanation, Kyle looked uncomfortable as he continued, "Amworth assures me that Grahame will accept a fait accompli as long as the girl seems content with the result. Since Grahame is traveling on the Continent, Amworth wants his niece wedded and bedded before he returns."
"Why do you want this match, Kyle? There are other heiresses, most of whom would provide you with a more acceptable relationship. Surely you can't have fallen in love with a mute madwoman."
His brother's face hardened. "Lady Meriel is my preference. We will both benefit by the marriage, I believe."
It still sounded like a devilish bad bargain to Dominic, but he and his brother saw things very differently. Their own parents had lived largely separate lives, and apparently Kyle wished to do the same. "I still don't see how a substitution could be done successfully. Oh, I could certainly play a convincing Lord Maxwell for people who don't know you, but I can't live at this estate for weeks, then have you step in without the difference being noticed."
"Lady Meriel lives with a pair of vague old cousins and a household of servants. No one who matters. Simply keep to yourself, avoid becoming intimate with anyone, and spend enough time with the girl so that she is comfortable in your presence."
"She most of all is likely to notice a substitution," Dominic said, exasperated. "Even our dogs and horses could tell us apart instantly."
"She ... doesn't notice people. I made a brief visit to Warfield." Kyle fell silent for a moment. "At dinner, she glanced at me once and returned to her soup. I doubt she'll see the difference between you and me."
Dominic tried to imagine a wedding night with a girl who behaved like a wax doll. "This sounds more like rape than marriage."
"Damn you, Dom, I didn't come to listen to your objections!" Kyle exploded. "Will you help me, or not?"
The whip-crack words made Dominic recognize what he should have known the minute his brother walked into the room: Kyle was suffering. Under his arrogance something was terribly wrong. A love affair so unhappy that he literally didn't care who he married? Once Dominic could have asked, but his brother would not answer, not the way things stood between them now.
Equally clear was how desperate Kyle was to get Dominic's cooperation. Granted, someday his brother would be an earl and Bradshaw Manor merely a minor holding, but the estate was still a huge payment for a few weeks of work.
Despite the friction between them, Dominic didn't like seeing his twin so upset. As much because of that as for the potent lure of acquiring his own property, he said, "Very well. I'll do as you ask."
Kyle sighed with relief. "Good. I'm expected at Warfield on Monday, so there isn't much time to prepare you."
"Do you have business so urgent that you can't leave town right away?"
No, blast it, he didn't. He'd have to cry off a couple of dinner engagements, and his friends would miss him in a casual way, but there was nothing and no one to whom his presence was vital.
As a younger son, Dominic had gone into the army just in time to be blooded at Waterloo. Though he hadn't disgraced himself, the experience had taught him he wasn't cut out to be a soldier. Worse, the peacetime army had proved damned boring.
So he'd sold his commission and lived the carefree life of a young gentleman ever since. The heady delights of London during the Season, and long lazy visits to the country homes of friends the rest of the year. He was just reckless enough to be considered dashing, and innately prudent enough not to get himself into serious trouble. But he was twenty-eight now, and beginning to tire of having no purpose beyond pleasure. Of never doing anything that mattered.
If he owned Bradshaw Manor, his life would have meaning. The broad, fertile fields, the spacious stables and gracious house--the yearning was so sharp he could taste it. "I'll be ready. What needs doing?"
"First, a haircut," his brother said dryly. "Plus you'll have to take some of my clothing. Your tailor leaves much to be desired."
Dominic made a mental note to "accidentally" wreck at least one of his brother's overpriced coats before this escapade was over. "Anything else?"
"Morrison will go with you. He'll be the only one who knows of the substitution."
Dominic almost groaned aloud. Morrison was as stuffy a valet as Kyle was a master. "Can Morrison get in touch with you if necessary?"
Kyle hesitated. "He'll know where I am, but it will be almost impossible to reach me. I will probably be gone three to five weeks. I expect you to cover for my absence in whatever way is necessary. When you've built an adequate relationship with Lady Meriel, leave. The less time you spend at Warfield, the less likely anyone is to notice the differences between us."
That Dominic agreed with heartily. "Clothing, haircut, valet. I'll also need to know about your meetings with Amworth and your visit to Warfield."
"A good point. I'll make notes." Kyle frowned. "You can't come to Wrexham House--the servants would be shocked to see us on visiting terms. Morrison and I will return tonight with clothing and the information you need. He'll cut your hair then."
Dominic repressed a sigh. It took so little for his brother's natural high-handedness to bloom. "One thing. I want a signed letter from you saying that Bradshaw Manor is mine if I accomplish the goal we have discussed."
Kyle had been about to leave, but at that he swung around, his eyes dangerous. "You doubt my word, Dominic?"
Oddly enough, he did not. "No, but if you get thrown by a horse and killed on this mysterious mission, I'd like to get my payment."
Kyle's brows rose sardonically. "If that happens, brother dear, you're the next Earl of Wrexham, and I wish you much joy of your inheritance."
Then he stalked out the door, closing it hard behind him.