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Heavy rain that night meant the streets were almost deserted, and so it was even more startling for the few pedestrians in the vicinity of Pall Mall to see a big chestnut mare being pulled up in a frenzy of sparking hooves outside the porticoed entrance of one of London's most discerning clubs. The mare had been ridden hard. Its glossy flanks were heaving, and its eyes rolled whitely in the gleam of the yellow lamplight. Swiftly the horse's rider dismounted, thrusting the reins and a few coins towards a hovering groom before swinging round to face a footman who watched him uncertainly from the shelter of the imposing doorway. At this time of night, and in this sort of foul February weather, club members usually arrived by carriage or sedan, not like some whirlwind from hell on horseback.
But before the footman could issue a challenge, the dark-haired rider, his mouth set in a grim line, was already striding up the wide steps. It was noticeable now that he had a slight limp, but it didn't seem to slow him in the least. His long riding coat, glistening with rain, whirled out behind him as he crashed open the door, and his whip was still clutched in his hand. As the gust of cold air he'd let in billowed through the lofty reception hall, all the candles were set a-flicker, and a number of disdainful faces turned to stare. A plump butler started busily towards the intruder, but found himself brushed aside, like a moth.
'I'm looking for Sebastian Corbridge,' announced the man. 'Lord Sebastian Corbridge.' His voice was calm, but the menacing gleam in his eyes was like sparks struck from flint.
He looked as if he had been riding hard all day, to judge by the mud on his boots, and the way his dark, unpowdered hair fell in disordered waves to his collar. He was not old, perhaps no more than twenty-five or twenty-six, but the taut lines of fatigue that ran from his nose to his strong jaw made him look older. The butler backed away warily, because he could see that this tall stranger with the limp wore a sword beneath his loose riding coat. And unlike most of the primped, scented men of leisure who frequented this club, he looked as if he would know how to use it.
By now the man's abrupt intrusion had registered even in the furthest recesses of the reception hall. Murmured conversations died away; startled faces, adorned in many cases with powder and patches, turned one after the other towards the doorway. Even the sombre portraits hanging from the oak-panelled walls seemed to gaze disapprovingly at the abrasive stranger whose clothing continued to drip water on the fine parquet floor, creating little puddles around his leather riding boots.
'Lord Sebastian Corbridge. I want him,' the intruder repeated softly, his hand flicking his whip against his booted leg in unspoken warning.
Someone rose languidly from a deep leather chair in a shadowed alcove. He was about the same age as the intruder, but his appearance could not have been more different, for his elegantly curled cadogan wig was immaculately powdered; his blue satin frock coat, with its discreet ruffles of lace at cuff and throat, was quite exquisitely fitted to his slender body. And his haughty, finely bred face expressed utter scorn as he gazed at the man who spoke his name.
'So, Marcus,' he drawled, taking a lazy pinch of snuff from a filigree box. 'You're back. As usual, dear fellow, you seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The army hasn't done much for your manners, has it? Members only allowed in here, I'm afraid'
Sebastian Corbridge broke off, as the dark-haired man threw his whip aside, then covered the ground between them to grasp his blue satin lapels with both hands. 'My God, Corbridge,' the man grated out, 'but you've got some explaining to do. Let me tell you that I've just returned from Lornings, and I didn't like what I found there. You'd better start talking. You'd better think up some excuses, and quickly.'
Corbridge looked down with pointed disdain at the hands that gripped his exquisite lapels. 'So you've ridden all the way from Gloucestershire,' he sneered, the slight tremor of fear disguised by heavy scorn. 'Dear me. And there was I thinking you might have come straight from some modish salonafter all, I suppose it's just about possible that clothing such as yours is permitted at fashionable gatherings now that there are so many unemployed ex-army officers around town '
The taller man's powerful shoulder muscles bunched dangerously beneath his greatcoat, and Corbridge was lifted from the ground.
'Do put me down, Marcus!' breathed Lord Sebastian Corbridge. 'You smell of horse, man. Wet horses. All in all, you're rather overdoing itbetraying your origins, you know?'
All around the room their audience watched the scene in breath-holding fascination. A young footman, who'd just come through from the inner salon bearing a brandy decanter on a silver tray, froze into immobility at the sight, his mouth agape, and the candlelight danced on the golden-amber liquid as it shivered behind the cut glass. Slowly, the dark-haired man called Marcus let go of his victim. His steel-grey eyes were still burning with intensity, and the skin around his grim mouth was white. He drew a ragged breath. 'At least, cousin Sebastian, I don't stink of trickery and theft.'
Nearby an older man whose face was red with indignation jumped to his feet. 'Enough, man,' he rasped at the intruder. 'Guard your tongue, or we'll have you thrown out bodily!'
Corbridge shook his head quickly, smoothing down his satin lapels. 'No need for that, eh, Marcus? Firstly, I'd like to hear you explain yourself. And, secondly, I'd much, much rather you didn't address me as cousin.'
'I'd rather not have to address you as anything,' said Marcus. He was more in control of himself now. 'But the fact remains that we are, unfortunately, related. And you ask me to explain myself; but first I'll ask you this. How do you justify the fact that you've managed to rob my elderly godfather of everything: every acre of land, every penny of savings, and above all the home he loves so dearly?'
Lord Corbridge arched his pale eyebrows, just a little. 'Facts, dear Marcus, let us look at the facts! Though facts, I remember, were never your strong point. Always emotional, weren't you? Must be your unstable heritage showing through.'
Marcus's face darkened and his fists clenched dangerously at his sides. Corbridge, after taking a hasty step back from him, went on hurriedly, 'I've robbed Sir Roderick Delancey of absolutely nothing, I assure you! In fact, I tried to help him, tried to dissuade him from plunging into yet greater debts. Gambling is such a sad sickness, especially at his age.' He shrugged, an expression of concern creasing his smooth features. 'But in spite of my every endeavour, Marcus, the foolish Sir Roderick continued to plunge yet deeper into the mire. I extricated him from the likelihood of a debtors' prison at vast personal expense. In return, he agreed to offer me as security the great hall at Lornings and the land that goes with it.'
'If he loses Lornings, he'll be a penniless bankrupt!'
'Wrong again, Marcus.' Corbridge gave a thin-lipped smile, drawing confidence from those who'd gathered around him. 'Your godfather will always have a roof over his headthe Dower House, to be preciseand some income from the home farm. Though it's more than the pitiful old fool deserves. Gambling is a quite fatal disease, I fear.'
'And one that he was never infected with, until you decided to poison him!'
Corbridge shook his head. 'You've been away for two years, Marcus. What's the matter? Didn't find fame and fortune soldiering in the Americas? Managed to get yourself a lame leg instead? Hoped to come back and live off weak-witted old Sir Roderick's fat purseonly to find the purse no longer so fat? What a shame.' He turned with mock concern to his rapt audience. 'Something should be done about our returned war heroes. They should be awarded a better pension, perhaps. We heard about your promotion, Marcuspity it wasn't with a decent regiment, though. Perhaps the beautiful Miss Philippa Fawcett would have revived her interest in you if you'd had a little more to offer her on your return.'
The other man's eyes blazed. 'You know damn well why I didn't get in with a fancier regiment, Corbridge. It was because I didn't care to go around oiling palms with false compliments and fistfuls of money that would have kept some of our badly paid foot soldiers in luxury for the rest of their lives.'
'How noble,' breathed Lord Sebastian Corbridge. 'How infinitely noble of you, Marcus. Of course, your particular family circumstances don't exactly endear you to your superiors, do they?'
Someone in the audience laughed jeeringly. 'Have the man thrown out, Corbridge. Unstable streak in the whole family, if you ask me. Isn't he the fellow whose mother went mad? Mad as a hatter, they say. She actually ran off with one of his father's grooms.'
Marcus turned. In the blinking of an eye, so fast that no one there had time to register it, he had whipped out his sword and held it so that its point just nicked the lace ruffles at the throat of the man who had spoken. The man's eyes were suddenly round with fear; his plump face had gone as white as a sheet. After a second's paralysing silence, Marcus let his sword fall. He turned back to Sebastian, slamming the long blade back into its sheath.
'This quarrel is becoming too public for my liking,' he said flatly. 'I don't care to discuss my private affairs, or my family, in front of specimens like these. Let us arrange a duel.'
The flash of fear that crossed Lord Sebastian's face was quickly concealed. 'A duel? With an injured man?' he queried, looking pointedly at Marcus's leg. 'My dear cousin, what must you think of me?'
Marcus lifted his dark, expressive eyebrows. 'Do you really want me to explain exactly what I think of you? In words of one syllable, so everyone here understands?'
But Lord Sebastian Corbridge did not reply. Instead he was looking furtively over Marcus's shoulder; and Marcus, seeing that look, swung round, his sword once more at the ready, to face several burly-looking footmen who were advancing rapidly towards him with their fists clenched.
Then, suddenly, another figure moved swiftly out from the shadows, knocking Marcus's weapon aside with a deft blow of his arm. A voicecheerful, almost laughingcalled out, 'Now, Marcus! Time for the disengage, dear boy! Live to fight another day, eh?'
And Marcus found himself being hustled, almost pushed, towards the big outer doors, which were kicked open with a crash by his companion as he hurried Marcus down the wide steps into the chilly street.
Once on the pavement Major Marcus Forrester shook himself free and reluctantly sheathed his sword. 'Hal,' he said with a sigh. 'You're a good friend, but you should have let me hit him, at least.'
Hal Beauchamp, whose compact, expensively dressed frame nevertheless hid considerable physical expertise, relaxed into a smile and handed Marcus the riding whip he'd tossed aside earlier. 'What, and give those beefy minions who were creeping up behind you the chance to beat you black and blue?' he objected. 'Not the best of ideas, Marcus! A strategic retreat is definitely in order, I think, before those painted fops in there combine their scanty brain power and come after us!'
Marcus grinned back at his friend. 'A pursuit? And you reputedly the best swordsman in the regiment? Hardly likely, I think, Hal.'
'No. Hardly likely.' Hal held out his hand warmly for the other to shake. 'Good to see you back in London, Marcus. Really good. Now, I assume from your attire that you arrived here on horseback?'
'A hired horse, yesI paid a groom to see to it.'
'Very well, then, dear fellow; so now I insist you come and share a bottle of claret with me, somewhere more congenial than that hole, and tell me' Hal's brown eyes gleamed 'absolutely everything.'