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London, March 1800
Certain persons will be fascinated to learn that an announcement of the forthcoming marriage of one of the ornaments of the beau monde will appear tomorrow, albeit rather cryptically, in the South Devon Gazette. We take the liberty to print the notice as it will appear, to wit: "The Earl of Marrick announces the betrothal of his daughter, Lady Gillian Carnaby, to Josiah, Baron Hopwood, of London." Can it be that the earl does not know Baron Hopwood to be but an honorary styling for the notorious M—of Th—?
Portly, fair-haired Peregrine, Lord Dawlish, along with two other dinner companions at Brooks's Club, had been watching the rapidly changing expression on the Marquess of Thorne's face as he silently read the notice, which Dawlish had obligingly pointed out to him only after they all had finished their meal. Dawlish said, "Well, coz, what about it? We knew you were up to something with these secret little jaunts of yours, but marriage? And to Marrick's daughter? Bad blood there, Josh. You don't want anything to do with that lot. Does he, Andy?"
The exquisitely attired gentleman thus addressed was twisted about in his chair, his handsome features screwed up in a frown as he peered anxiously about the eating room at Brooks's. "Where are the damned waiters? Never about when you want them. Here, waiter," he shouted, "can you not see that our glasses are empty? Stir your stumps, man, and bring a fresh bottle! And take away these damned platters while you're about it. That poultry is as old and tough as your grandmother. Moreover, the pastry was made with rank Irish butter, and that cheese, which you claim is cheddar, is nothing but a pale imitation, damme if it ain't!"
Dawlish, balked of support from that quarter, turned to the fourth gentleman at their table, a slim, lanky gentleman with the muscular shoulders and thighs of a sportsman and the demeanor of a man about town. "You tell him, Crawler. The duke won't like this. You can take my word for it. A Tartar, that's what he is. You don't know him as well as I do. Stands to reason, since you mostly went home on holiday, while I went as often as not with Josh to Langshire, but my uncle's said he won't stand any more of Josh's nonsense. Means it too. Never says what he don't mean."
Lord Crawley glanced at the marquess, then back at Dawlish before he said, "His grace is not noted for tolerance, I know, but Josh is his only son, after all. He won't eat him, Mongrel."
"Don't be too sure of that," Dawlish replied, paying no heed whatever to the odd nickname, for the simple reason that he had lived with it since his days at Eton, where his name had undergone transformation, thanks to his chums, from Pedigree Dawlish—thanks to his relationship to the marquess—to Pedigree Dogless, to the present, much simpler appellation, about which he had long since ceased to complain. He went on, "After that bit of fluff in Brighton last summer—saying she wanted to be set up in a castle of her own—and then the opera dancer, followed by that little incident at Badminton when we went for the shooting—stands to reason, he ain't going to look kindly upon a betrothal to the daughter of a man who marries any woman who picks him up when he falls off his horse. Shouldn't have done that, Josh."
"I didn't," Thorne said brusquely, sitting back in his chair and absently thrusting a lock of his dark hair out of his eyes.
"Says you did, right there in the London Gazette. Be in the Times, I daresay, by morning. Your father don't necessarily read the Gazette, of course. Stands to reason. Mine don't. Don't read any of the popular press. But he's bound to read the Times. And when he does, my lad, he'll want your liver for carving."
"Here's that damned waiter," the exquisite interjected, adding, "That bottle had best be a sight better than the last, my man. When a club's wine cellar extends clear under St. James's Street, a man expects better than a mere infusion of malt with his meal. The port was musty, and the sherry we had was sour. I don't know what Brooks's is coming to, but I can tell you that both our dinner and dessert were not fit for the consumption of gentlemen. If you cannot do better, we shall soon find ourselves under the necessity to change our subscription to White's. And how will that suit you, my man? Answer me that!"
"Ignore him," Thorne said to the waiter, "and put the dinner to my account." When the waiter, clearly relieved, had taken himself off, the marquess added gently, "You mustn't run your rigs here, Andy. They may do for a coffeehouse or tavern, but you mustn't play them off in Brooks's. First thing you know, you will have the secretary demanding your resignation."
The exquisite blinked at him, then grinned ruefully and drawled, "Habit, I expect. One does so dislike being made to waste the ready on mere foodstuffs when one might keep it for the tables through the use of a simple ruse or two. It's too much like giving money to one's tailor, that is. So frequently, when one complains that the fish is not warm through, or the port has turned to vinegar, mine host begs one not to pay. Damned decent of you, Josh, to stand the nonsense for us today."
The marquess shrugged, turning his attention back to the Gazette. He read the notice again, his lips tightening as he did so, and when he looked up again, it was to glare at the others. "If this is someone's notion of a jest, I hope I may discover his identity without further loss of time so that I can make plain to him its lack of humor."
Crawley held out his hand. "May I? Mongrel told me what it said, but I have not actually read the thing myself."
Thorne handed him the paper, casting a speculative glance at Dawlish as he did so.
That young man hastened to reassure him: "I had nothing to do with it, I swear to you, Josh. I only told Crawler and Andy. Not that it matters, though," he added. "Nearly everyone in town will have read it by now, except—one hopes—my uncle."
Another of the club servants approached the table with grave dignity, bearing a silver salver in his outstretched hand.
Thorne said grimly, "I think perhaps your faith in my esteemed parent's choice of reading matter is about to be proved faulty, Peregrine." When the servant held out the salver to him, Thorne took the folded missive and grimaced when he saw the ducal seal. Breaking it, he scanned the message briefly, folded it again with exaggerated care, and tucked it into one pocket of his heavily embroidered waistcoat. Only then did he seem to become aware of the avid curiosity on his companions' faces. "I am bidden instantly to Langshire House. Perhaps, Peregrine, you will be kind enough to arrange for my obsequies. Nothing too gaudy, I beg. You must allow Andy to advise you."
Corbin smiled amiably at him. "Damme, but I think I might just exert m'self to do it, too, Josh, for you. Daresay you're having a game with us, though, for if you cannot string the old gentleman 'round your thumb again, you ain't the man we all know."
Dawlish, not taking his eyes from his cousin's face, said abruptly, "It ain't funny, Andy. This is dashed well just the sort of nonsense my uncle meant. You ain't going to try to tell him you knew nothing about it, are you, Josh? I'll lay you any odds you like that he knows the whole, even if we do not."
"Then he knows a deal more than I do," Thorne said, "and I shall beg him to enlighten me."
"But you must know the girl at least," Dawlish exclaimed. "Ten to one she misunderstood your intentions or some such thing. Well, it stands to reason, don't it, but one simply don't announce a marquess's betrothal without his permission, no matter what sort of a misunderstanding there might have been."
"There was no misunderstanding," Thorne said.
"There must have been," Corbin insisted. "Surely you can't marry the chit. She don't even have your name right."
"That was certainly an error in judgment," Thorne agreed.
"Yours or hers?" Crawley demanded, his dark eyes narrowed.
"Mine, I'm afraid."
"Good Lord, coz," Dawlish said, "surely you must know better than to play fast and loose with a girl of our own station, let alone to pretend to be someone else when you do so."
Thorne looked at him and said softly, "You have mistaken the facts, Peregrine. I believe, if you will take a moment to think for once, you will realize that you are very much mistaken."
Dawlish flushed, glanced at the other two, both of whom remained silent and unhelpful, then looked back at his cousin. "To be sure," he said hastily. "I am anything you like."
"So long as you are silenced," Thorne said. "I should not like to hear that you have discussed this business with anyone. Not with anyone at all." He flicked a glance at Crawley, another at Corbin. "Nor you two. I should be rather put out, you see."
Corbin said, "Owe you that much for a fine dinner, Josh. We shall be as close as oysters, the lot of us. You do know the chit, though. Can't be mistaken about that."
"No, you are not mistaken. I have met her. Once."
"Unfortunate," Crawley said. "Is it possible you did say something she misconstrued, or is she simply a lass who—like my humble self—keeps an ear cocked for opportunity's knock?"
"I thought she had cause to be grateful to me," Thorne said, getting to his feet. "You must forgive me, gentlemen. I have been commanded not to tarry, and I've a stop to make on the way."
Crawley said wryly, "South Devon is some distance out of your way to Langshire House, Josh."
"The offices of the London Gazette are not, however."
He left them, making his way past other tables to the doorway without pausing to talk with anyone else, but unable to ignore completely the curious glances of several others who had obviously seen the notice in the paper. His temper was rising, but he had had a great deal of practice concealing the signs, and there was nothing in his demeanor or casual stride to indicate that he was anything but mildly amused by his own thoughts. At the top of the stairway, he paused to exchange a word with Mr. Fox, who was on the point of entering the card room. Then, nodding to another acquaintance, he descended the stairs, claimed his hat and cane from the porter, nodded to the club secretary, and stepped outside into fading sunlight and the clatter of traffic in St. James's Street.
He had a house of his own in Brook Street, and he paused briefly to weigh the merits of repairing there first to change his attire to something less likely than the pantaloons and florid waistcoat he presently wore to inflame his sire's temper even more, but he dismissed the notion. The duke was a greater stickler for promptness than for sartorial perfection, and Thorne did not want to face him before he knew more about the matter at hand than he presently did. Therefore, he went back inside the club long enough to scrawl a message and request that the porter have it delivered at once to his house. Then, since he had walked to Brooks's with the others, he also asked for someone to hail him a hackney coach.
Giving his order to the jarvey, he climbed inside and settled back against the shabby leather to do what he could to calm his temper. Finding that the offices of the Gazette were still open soothed him a little; however, he was kept waiting for some time only to learn that the sole person who might prove helpful to him was not on the premises. That combination of events set a muscle high in his cheek to twitching.
The young clerk who had given him the unwelcome information said, "I am very sorry, my lord, that Mr. Thistlethwaite was so unexpectedly called away, but if you would care to have him wait upon you at a future time, I will certainly inform him of the fact." The man's eyes were wary. He had clearly heard of the Marquess of Thorne, and what he had heard stirred him to speak with extreme courtesy.
"You can tell me nothing of how this notice came to the paper?" Thorne's voice was gentle, even mild.
The young man colored up more furiously than ever. "Only that it was Mr. Thistlethwaite who made the decision to print it, my lord. He does, now I think of it, have a cousin or a brother in Honiton, who is on the paper there. Perhaps that is how word came to him. If you like, I—"
"You may tell Mr. Thistlethwaite that I look forward to making his acquaintance," Thorne said in the same mild tone. "He must do me the honor to call upon me at his earliest convenience. You will remember to tell him that, will you not?"
"Oh, yes, my lord. Certainly, my lord."
"See that you do."
The young man, pale now, agreed fervently that he would, and Thorne left him. His own carriage appeared some moments later, as he had commanded in the message sent to Brook Street, and he permitted himself a small sigh of relief at the sight. He did not mind hacks, and the distance from Fleet Street to Langshire House was not so great that comfort was a factor, but since he was certain he would need every ounce of his dignity to face what lay ahead of him, he was glad to see not only the elegant crested carriage but the liveried driver and footman who accompanied it.
He considered what little he could tell his father. The duke would not be interested in the business that had taken him to Braunton Burrows, for he had already made it clear that he wanted no part of Thorne's interference in anything having to do with the Langshire estates, giving it as his opinion that Thorne should practice patience and wait until the estates were his own before he meddled with their management. And since Thorne had not the least notion what might have been in Lady Gillian's mind to have done what she had, he was at something of a loss.
He smelled the Thames before he saw, through the dusky twilight, the tall, blue, gilt-trimmed iron gates of the house. Langshire House, nearly two hundred years old, was tall, massive, imposing, and was surrounded by extensive, well-tended grounds that overlooked the busy river. When the carriage rolled briskly through the gates into the walled, torchlit forecourt and drew up at the entrance, the footman jumped down from his perch and moved swiftly to open his master's door and let down the step.
Thorne emerged, twitched a cuff into place, brushed a bit of lint from the lapel of his coat, and firmly suppressed the recurring wish that he had chosen a less flamboyant waistcoat. Taking a deep breath, he turned toward the wide, shallow stone steps leading to the arched entrance. Both doors opened as he approached, but hearing his carriage roll away toward the stables at the rear of the house, he felt strangely forsaken. Reminding himself sharply that he was nine and twenty and not a ruddy schoolboy, he nodded casually to his father's porter, handed his hat and cane to a starched and heavily powdered footman, and said casually, "His grace is in the library, I expect."
"No, my lord," the porter replied. "His grace requested that you attend him in his dressing room."
These words conjured up childhood memories that, under the circumstances, were most unwelcome, but when the footman moved to a side table to set down his things, Thorne turned in his wake to cross the huge hall. Behind him the porter cleared his throat.
Thorne looked back to see the man grimace sympathetically and roll his eyes toward the cross-vaulted ceiling. A moment later the expression was gone, and the wooden countenance of the perfect servant had fallen into place again, but this time when Thorne turned away, his step was lighter.
He did not have far to go, for his parents' private rooms were on the ground floor. He had only to cross the great hall and pass through the formal dining room to reach the nearest door to his father's dressing room. Short though the journey was, however, his lighter spirits did not survive it, and his expression was grim again when, with the lightest of scratches to announce himself, he pushed open the door and entered the room.
The curtains had long since been drawn, but the room was lit by a multitude of wax tapers in wall sconces and in candelabra set upon nearly every piece of furniture that would bear them. A fire roared in the marble fireplace, reflected in a red glow on the fender and in flickering highlights on the marble hearth.
His grace sat in a caned armchair beside a dressing table of exquisite floral marquetry, his right hand held out to a servant who knelt to pare his nails. The duke still wore his wig, but he had removed his coat and replaced it with an elegant dressing gown of sapphire-colored silk that matched his still brilliant eyes. He was a man of regal bearing, who had been handsome in his youth and had retained his youthful figure. He looked up when Thorne entered, and his demeanor was stern, but he did not speak for several moments. The servant continued with his task as though there had been no interruption.
Excerpted from The Infamous Rakes by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1992 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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