Read an Excerpt
Thomas, Marquis DeGuis, stood before his host's well-stocked liquor cabinet and, for the first time in his life, considered getting roaring drunk. As he never did anything in excess, he wasn't entirely sure how much he would need to consume to render himself unconscious. Nor was he certain how long it might take. There lay the rub. The only reason to get drunk was to obliterate the last few minutes, and the sooner, the better.
Unfortunately, the firelight reflecting in the depths of the fine liquors only made him remember the fire of contempt in Lady Janice Willstencraft's green eyes when she had refused him.
"A sorry performance, my lord," she had sneered. "Do you truly think I would agree to marry anything less than a real man?"
He shut his eyes against the memory. He would be very tempted to put the whole horrid scene down to a case of pre-wedding jitters on his part. Only this was the second time it had happened.
The faintest of noises caused him to snap his eyes open and glare about the study. The darkly paneled room, so far down the corridor from the ballroom, had seemed an excellent escape from the crowds attending the Baminger's ball. He detested gossip, and returning to the room without the lady on his arm would cause just that. He would have to make his farewells of his host eventually, but, for the moment, a quiet place to think had been more welcome. Now the gold velvet draperies covering the shutters on the twin windows looked like a perfect hiding place for some trysting couple, or a gossip-hungry guest.
"Is anyone there?" Thomas demanded.
A decided snort puffed up from the vicinity of the sofa. Thomas watched as a head bobbed into view overthe back. Two startled blue eyes blinked at him under a thatch of straw-colored hair. Blinked, and then widened fatuously.
Thomas smothered a groan and strode for the door, clipping out his regrets with equal haste. "Sorry to have disturbed you, Pinstin. My mistake. Another time."
He wasn't fast enough. Reginald Pinstin, related to half the best families of England and avoided by most of them, leapt off the sofa and scurried to intercept him. "My lord, dear Lord DeGuis," he implored in his reedy voice, neatly blocking the way to freedom. "No harm done! Please, join me for a chat. It has been an age."
Thomas kept a polite smile in place while he sorted through options to rid himself of the fellow. Pinstin had a legendary way of turning rejection into gossip. The normal expressions of regret would never work.
"Yes, it has been a while," Thomas allowed. "But I was just about to leave."
Pinstin cocked his impish face, giving his linen cravat another wrinkling after the sofa. "But my lord," he protested, smiling coyly, "are not congratulations in order? I understood you were to offer for the fair lady tonight."
As usual, Pinstin's sources were infallible. Thomas kept his face composed. He could not mistake the patent desire in Pinstin's pale blue eyes. The fellow could hardly breathe he was so anxious to be the first to hear the news, and the first to spread it. His gloved hands clasped and unclasped before his brown velvet coat and breeches.
"Come now," Pinstin urged as Thomas hesitated. "Don't keep the tidings to yourself. Is Lady Janice off somewhere showing the DeGuis diamond to a few choice friends?"
Thomas had to answer the question, yet he could not bring himself to lie, even to a gossip like Pinstin. Nor could he admit the truth. The man's familiarity was cloying; his pity would be unthinkable.
"Perhaps you should ask the lady," he suggested, attempting to pass the fellow. Pinstin, shorter and thinner, was also surprisingly quick on his feet, easily dancing to block his way. For an instant Thomas wondered whether he had it in himself to strike the fellow. His fists curled at the idea, but his conscience was appalled by the thought, even more appalled than it had been over his desire to drink himself into a stupor. A DeGuis did not display his emotions in public. He clearly needed to take himself in hand.
Pinstin must have sensed the struggle, for his eyes brightened. "Is there something you want to say, my lord?" he asked with an encouraging smile. "Shall we drink a toast to your happiness?"
At the moment, Thomas' only chance at happiness lay beyond the yawning door. As if in answer to his unspoken prayer, his friend, Courtney Dellington, Viscount Darton, strode past.
"Lord Darton," he called, annoyed that his voice had the hint of desperation. "In here. A moment of your time."
Pinstin spun, and Thomas could feel his eagerness increase again as the viscount filled the doorway. Court's welcoming smile froze on his face at the sight of the gossip monger, but he recovered nicely. As Thomas had hoped, he recognized the situation immediately.
"There you are, DeGuis," he said with just the right amount of pique in his controlled voice. "Your sister has been looking for you for an age. I'm sure you'll excuse us, Pinstin. Wouldn't want to keep the lady waiting."
"No indeed, no indeed," Pinstin warbled. "A lovely woman, Lady Catherine. So modest, so self-effacing. I shall soon be wishing you happy as well, eh, Lord Darton?"
Court raised a quizzing glass from his evening black and eyed Reggie as if he'd developed spots. As few boasted the iron brown eyes of the viscount, few could use the move to such advantage. It also did not hurt that the viscount was an Englishman's Englishman--tall, blond, clean-jawed, and strong-limbed. He had so impressed Thomas, in fact, that he had arranged for the fellow to marry his younger sister Catherine, although he had not yet broached the subject with his sister. Even with Pinstin's noted abilities to ferret out the truth, he was more than a little surprised that the little tattle-monger had guessed about the arrangement. Time for him and Court to beat a retreat while they still shared a few secrets.
"Excuse us," Thomas said pointedly, managing to out-maneuver the fellow at last. Pinstin, shaking off the effects of the viscount's glare, scurried to the liquor cabinet.
"A toast," he proclaimed, fumbling with the crystal goblets and a decanter of brandy. "To Lady Catherine DeGuis."
Court froze, and Thomas was forced to halt.
"He has us there," the viscount murmured for him alone. "Can you hear the ton when he tells everyone we refused to honor your sister?"
"There's a reason he's dreaded," Thomas grumbled back. "Let's get this over with."
As one, they strode back to the cabinet to accept the goblets Pinstin poured for them with hands that visibly shook in his eagerness. Thomas took the barest of sips. Court threw back a mouthful. Pinstin guzzled his and reached hastily for the decanter.
"And to Lady Janice Willstencraft," he said, refilling his glass and topping off Court's. "Soon to be Lady DeGuis."
The two drank again, but Thomas set his goblet quietly down on the cabinet. "And now we must leave," he said firmly.
Pinstin frowned. "But my lord," he all but whined, "you did not drink to your lovely bride."
Curse the fellow for his sharp eyes and curse his own inability to lie. Even Court was looking at him with the slightest of frowns. He would have loved to fob them off with generalities, but he could not dance around the truth forever. Better to get it over with. "She turned me down."
Court had the good manners merely to blink. Pinstin went so far as to gasp.
"That's impossible," he declared. "All the wagers have been placed. She's been seen riding with you twice in one week. She allowed you to escort her to any number of balls. She can't have turned you down. My God, Lord DeGuis, you're the catch of the Season!"
"Apparently not everyone agrees," Thomas replied. The man's disbelief was almost as disgusting as the expected pity. Apparently this evening was a trial he was meant to endure. Funny--he had always considered he had developed enough character.
The trial was not nearly over. Like some newly shingled attorney, Pinstin dragged out all the facts why Lady Janice could not possibly have refused him.
"Your family name is as old as the Norman Conquest," he chided. "It's well known your estate is worth thirty thousand pounds per annum, enough to purchase a small country and more than enough to satisfy the most spendthrift of wives. You're intelligent, well spoken, and a staunch Tory. At thirty-and-two, you're not even ancient!"
"Certainly not," the twenty-eight-year-old Court seemed compelled to remark.
"Your health may be questionable given the DeGuis tendency toward heart trouble," Pinstin continued. "But has you have not had an attack, I do not see how anyone would not agree that you are a perfect specimen."
Thomas exchanged glances with Court, thankful that for once Pinstin did not know everything. Apparently last December's attack remained a secret.
"Women," Court said with an exaggerated sigh, obviously trying to put the fellow off the scent. Pinstin eagerly refilled the viscount's glass and his own. "I daresay they can be far more demanding than the most temperamental of horses. Of course, I do not include Lady Catherine in that assessment," he hurriedly added as Pinstin leaned forward, nose twitching as if he caught the hint of scandal.
"And again to Lady Catherine!" Pinstin declared, rising his glass once more. "That paragon who is never effusive, never emotional. What a shame the other women of the ton are not more like her."
"Here, here," Court agreed with more enthusiasm than Thomas had seen in him. Thomas was forced to retrieve the glass and take another sip, when in fact he actually found his sister a little too quiet. He could seldom fathom how she felt on a particular subject and had given up trying years ago. The only strong attachment he had seen was her devotion to their elderly aunt Lady Agnes DeGuis. The only fair-haired DeGuis in several generations, Catherine appeared almost colorless at times. As he loved her dearly, her reticence and reserve was a matter that concerned and perplexed him. Still, he was pleased the young viscount liked her as he had hoped. Now if only he could put his own life in order.
"And to gentle ladies everywhere," Pinstin continued magnanimously, sloshing drink on the inlaid wood of the cabinet as he refilled his glass. "May Lord DeGuis soon find one to his liking. I ask you," he waved at the gilt-framed mirror over the fireplace, "what woman in her right mind would refuse that?"
Thomas spared a brief glance in the mirror. He supposed that in his own way, he cut as good a figure as Court did. He was taller than most of the men of his circle and well muscled. His short-cut hair was a shiny black. His piercing blue eyes and chiseled features had served him well when putting his opponents in place during Parliamentary debates. Catherine had said he had a noble chin, whatever that meant. He could see nothing to make Lady Janice suddenly take him in such disdain. But then, it wasn't how he looked but how he performed certain functions that seemed to be his undoing. He schooled his face to impassivity to hide the frustration the thought caused him. Perhaps if he remained his usual composed self for the few minutes it would take to make his excuses to his host, he might survive this ball with dignity.
"It simply isn't fair," Pinstin protested, and Thomas noticed with a frown that the goblet had been emptied and filled yet again. "You're the paragon of paragons, and you get refused." He swallowed the brandy in one gulp and slammed the glass onto the top of the polished maple cabinet. "Well, we'll have no more of that! We'll beat this, even as Wellington beat Napoleon on the Peninsula." Pinstin seized his arm.
Thomas' frown deepened at the overly familiar gesture, but that didn't stop Pinstin from attempting to tow him to the study door. As it got him closer to freedom, he decided not to protest. Court set his glass down and strolled after him. The half smile on his face indicated he had imbibed just enough to find his friend's predicament amusing.
"Take heart, man!" Pinstin was urging. "If Lady Janice won't have you, it is her loss. There is an entire ballroom of women just like her waiting for your attentions."
As if to belie his words, from down the corridor came the sound of someone laughing. The laugh was deep throated and hiccoughing, as if the person was absolutely overcome with mirth. Court frowned, but Thomas found it impossible not to smile. Someone at least was enjoying themselves tonight. He wished them well.
Pinstin had paled and frozen at the sound. Thomas removed his arm from the fellow's suddenly slack grip. "Thank you for your concern, Pinstin, but I think I'd rather not try my luck again so soon. I'll have my carriage brought around. Lord Darton, I trust you can see Lady Catherine home?"
Court nodded, moving around them for the door. Thomas realized belatedly that he had given the viscount an opportunity for escape, an opportunity his friend lost no time in taking. He didn't even look guilty about leaving Thomas standing next to a still-frowning Pinstin. The look in those cool brown eyes could only have been called relieved. Thomas executed a bow that managed to take him a little farther from the Pinstin and turned to go.
"Wait," Pinstin begged. The urgency in his voice pulled Thomas up short but just for a moment. It could only be another trick. He took another two steps and found Pinstin at his elbow.
"Wait, my lord, please," Pinstin whined, scurrying to keep up as Thomas lengthened his strides. "I think I have the answer to your problems."
"Somehow, I doubt that," Thomas replied, refusing to halt. He could see the ballroom coming up on his left and ahead of it, the grand entryway.
"No, truly," Pinstin protested, shameless in his pursuit. "Perhaps you've chosen the wrong kind of women. After all, this is the second one to refuse you in the last eight months."
Any thought of charity for the fellow vanished. Thomas stopped and affixed him with a glare to equal Court's. "I certainly hope," he said in his most chilling tones, "that my other acquaintances are more forgetful or more tactful, sirrah."
"They won't be," Pinstin replied, obviously too foxed to see the danger signs. "Allison Munroe was the belle of the season last year. No one could ever believe she preferred that country bumpkin she wed to you. Now, with Lady Janice turning you down as well, people are bound to talk."
"They may talk all they like," Thomas replied, resuming his pace. "But I am finished with discussing this topic. Good night, Mr. Pinstin."
Pinstin started to protest, but Thomas refused to let the fellow stop him a second time. A man could only take so much abuse, and he had had more than his share this night. All he wanted was to leave. Before he could reach the entryway, the laugh came again from the ballroom, but this time it grated on his nerves, as if all one hundred of the Baminger's exalted guests had joined together to mock him. Despite himself, he drew up short. "Who the devil is that?"
His pause allowed Pinstin to catch up with him. "That's my cousin, Miss Margaret Munroe. You've met her. She's related to your past fiancé, Miss Allison Munroe. Now there's a woman who wouldn't turn you down. She's an Original, a kind use of the term, I assure you, but perfectly suited to your needs."
Thomas had no interest in hearing about Pinstin's cousin, related to his past love or not. "I told you, Mr. Pinstin, I am no longer in the petticoat line. If you don't persist in this conversation, I shall be forced to plant you a facer."
Pinstin blinked, then his eagerness heightened. "You would strike me, my lord? You, who are so noted for his composure? This is unseemly. Lady Janice must have been vicious. You should try my cousin. She is a bruising rider, not unlike yourself. She dances divinely. She has an intriguing sense of humor."
He had no idea why, but Thomas found himself hesitating. Another time, he was sure Pinstin would be been delighted in the way his news had snared Thomas at last. Now the fellow was positively sweating to introduce him to his cousin.
"All right, Pinstin," he allowed. "You have been sufficiently interesting that you have my attention. If your cousin is such a paragon, why is she unwed?"
Pinstin appeared to be struggling with himself. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly, like an ornamental fish in a bowl, and he tightened his cravat until Thomas thought the fold would surely strangle him. "I, I really cannot say, my lord," he managed at last, although the sweat on his narrow brow attested to the fact that he wanted to say something very much. "She might be considered a bit odd by some, I suppose. She is nothing like the society belles you've chose to pursue. You might say my cousin is the farthest thing from a belle while still remaining in polite society. But that should not be seen as a detriment. She is from the poorer side of the Munroe family, in wealth, beauty, and number of beaus. Anyone with such deficits would surely welcome the attentions of so presentable suitor as yourself."
The fellow could not even refrain from gossiping about his own cousin, even when trying to arrange an introduction. Thomas shook his head in disgust. He didn't much like the way the fellow was maligning Miss Munroe. He also didn't like being told that a woman with severe social deficits was all he could get as a bride. As if he needed to find some ape leader, some maladroit, lackluster, impoverished spinster to fawn over him. The very idea made his bile rise. Surely there existed some intelligent, talented, beautiful woman of breeding who would be as pleased to marry him as he would be to ask her. Why should he settle for less?
Pinstin obviously took his brooding silence for agreement, for he seized Thomas' arm again. "She's perfect, I tell you, a complete contrast to Lady Janice. I'll introduce you, and you can see for yourself."
Horrified, Thomas attempted to remove himself from the fellow's clutches even as Pinstin drew him inexorably toward the ballroom door. He had no interest in starting another courtship after the dismal endings of his last two. He certainly had no interest in meeting the Original Miss Munroe. And he had absolutely no interest in appearing in public on the arm of a mad man. But it was too late. Just as he managed to disengage his arm, Pinstin stumbled against him, forcing him through the open door and straight into the arms of Margaret Munroe.