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'Why don't we just leave?' Max Ransleigh suggested to his cousin Alastair as the two stood on the balcony overlooking the grand marble entry of Barton Abbey.
'Dammit, we only just arrived,' Alastair replied, exasperation in his tones. 'Poor bastards.' He waved towards the servants below them, who were struggling to heft in the baggage of several arriving guests. 'Trunks are probably stuffed to the lids with gowns, shoes, bonnets and other fripperies, the better for the wearers to parade themselves before the prospective bidders. Makes me thirsty for a deep glass of brandy.'
'If you'd bothered to write that you were coming home, we might have altered the date of the house party,' a feminine voice behind them said reproachfully.
Max turned to find Mrs Grace Ransleigh, mistress of Barton Abbey and Alastair's mother, standing behind them. 'Sorry, Mama,' Alastair said, leaning down to give the petite, dark-haired lady a hug. When he straightened, a flush coloured his handsome face; probably chagrin, Max thought, that Mrs Ransleigh had overhead his uncharitable remark. 'You know I'm a terrible correspondent.'
'A fact I find astonishing,' his mother replied, retaining Alastair's hands in a light grip, 'when I recall that as a boy, you were seldom without a pen, jotting down some observation or other.'
A flash of something that looked like pain passed across his cousin's face, so quickly Max wasn't sure he'd actually seen it. 'That was a long time ago, Mama.'
Sorrow softened her features. 'Perhaps. But a mother never forgets. In any event, after all those years in the army, always throwing yourself into the most dangerous part of the action, I'm too delighted to have you safely home to quibble about the lack of notice—though I fear you will have to suffer through the house party. With the guests already arriving, I can hardly call it off now.'
Releasing her son's hands with obvious reluctance, she turned to Max. 'It's good to see you, too, my dear Max.'
'If I'd known you were entertaining innocents, Aunt Grace, I wouldn't have agreed to meet Alastair here,' Max assured her as he leaned down to kiss her cheek.
'Nonsense,' she said stoutly. 'All you Ransleigh lads have run wild at Barton Abbey since you were scrubby schoolboys. You'll always be welcome in my home, Max, no matter how circumstances change.'
'Then you are kinder than Papa,' Max replied, trying for a light tone while his chest tightened with the familiar wash of anger, resentment and regret. Still, the cousins' unexpected appearance must have been an unpleasant shock to a hostess about to convene a gathering of eligible young maidens and their prospective suitors—an event of which they'd been unaware until the butler warned them about it upon their arrival half an hour ago.
As he'd just assured his aunt, had Max known Barton Abbey would be sheltering unmarried young ladies on the prowl for husbands, he would have taken care to stay far away.
He'd best talk with his cousin and decide what to do. 'Alastair, shall we get that glass of wine?'
'There's a full decanter in the library,' Mrs Ransleigh said. 'I'll send Wendell up with some cold ham, cheese and biscuits. One thing that never changes—I'm sure you boys are famished.'
'Bless you, Mama,' Alastair told her with a grin, while Max added his thanks. As they bowed and turned to go, Mrs Ransleigh said hesitantly, 'I don't suppose you care to dine with the party?'
'Amongst that virginal lot? Most assuredly not!' Alastair retorted. 'Even if we'd suddenly developed a taste for petticoat affairs, my respectable married sister would probably poison our wine were we to intrude our scandalous presence in the midst of her aspiring innocents. Come along, Max, before the smell of perfumed garments from those damned chests overcomes us.'
Thumping Max on the shoulder to set him in motion, Alastair paused to kiss his mother's hand. 'Tell the girls to visit us later, once their virginal guests are safely abed behind locked doors.'
Max followed his cousin down the hallway and into a large library comfortably furnished with well-worn leather chairs and a massive desk. 'Are you sure you don't want to leave?' he asked again as he drew out a decanter and filled two glasses.
'Devil's teeth,' Alastair growled, 'this is my house. I'll come and go when I wish, and my friends, too. Besides, you'll enjoy seeing Mama and Jane and Felicity—for whom the ever-managing Jane arranged this gathering, Wendell told me. Jane thinks Lissa should have some experience with eligible men before she's cast into the Marriage Mart next spring. Though she's not angling to get Lissa riveted now, some of the attendees did bring offspring they're trying to marry off, bless Wendell for warning us!'
Sighing, Alastair accepted a brimming glass. 'You'd think my highly-publicized liaisons with actresses and dancers, combined with an utter lack of interest in respectable virgins, would be enough to put off matchmaking mamas. But as you well know, wealth and ancient lineage appear to trump notoriety and lack of inclination. However, with my equally notorious cousin to entertain,' he inclined his head toward Max, 'I have a perfect excuse to avoid the ladies. So, let's drink to you,' Alastair hoisted his glass, 'for rescuing me not only from boredom, but from having to play the host at Jane's hen party.'
'To evading your duty as host,' Max replied, raising his own glass. 'Nice to know my ruined career is good for something,' he added, bitterness in his tone.
'A temporary setback only,' Alastair said. 'Sooner or later, the Foreign Office will sort out that business in Vienna.'
'Maybe,' Max said dubiously. He, too, had thought the matter might be resolved quickly until he spoke with Papa. 'There's still the threat of a court-martial.'
'After Hougoumont?' Alastair snorted derisively. 'Maybe if you'd defied orders and abandoned your unit before Waterloo, but no military jury is going to convict you for throwing yourself into the battle, instead of sitting back in England as instructed. Some of the Foot Guards who survived the fighting owe their lives to you and headquarters knows it. No,' he concluded, 'even Horse Guards, who are often ridiculously stiff-rumped about disciplinary affairs, know better than to bring such a case to trial.'
'I hope you're right. As my father noted on the one occasion he deigned to speak with me, I've already sufficiently tarnished the family name.'
It wasn't the worst of what the earl had said, Max thought, the memory of that recent interview still raw and stinging. He saw himself again, standing silent, offering no defence as the earl railed at him for embarrassing the family and complicating his job in the Lords, where he was struggling to sustain a coalition. Pronouncing Max a sore disappointment and a political liability, he'd banished him for the indefinite future from Ransleigh House in London and the family seat in Hampshire.
Max had left without even seeing his mother.
'The earl still hasn't come round?' Alastair's soft-voiced question brought him back to the present. After a glance at Max's face, he sighed. 'Almost as stubborn and rule-bound as Horse Guards, is my dear uncle. Are you positive you won't allow me to speak to him on your behalf?'
'You know arguing with Papa only hardens his views—and might induce him to extend his banishment to you, which would grieve both our mothers. No, it wouldn't serve though I appreciate your loyalty more than I can say—' Max broke off and swallowed hard.
'No need to say anything,' Alastair replied, briskly refilling their glasses. '"Ransleigh Rogues together, for ever,"' he quoted, holding his glass aloft.
'"Ransleigh Rogues,"' Max returned the salute, his heart lightening as he tried to recall exactly when Alastair had coined that motto. Probably over an illicit glass of smuggled brandy some time in their second Eton term after a disapproving master, having caned all four cousins for some now-forgotten infraction, first denounced them as the 'Ransleigh Rogues.'
The name, quickly whispered around the college, had stuck to them, and they to each other, Max thought, smiling faintly. Through the fagging at Eton, the hazing at Oxford, then into the army to watch over Alastair when, after the girl he loved terminated their engagement in the most public and humiliating fashion imaginable, he'd joined the first cavalry unit that would take him, vowing to die gloriously in battle.
They'd stood by Max, too, after the failed assassination attempt at the Congress of Vienna. When he returned to London in disgrace, he'd found that, of all the government set that since his youth had encouraged and flattered the handsome, charming younger son of an earl, only his fellow Rogues still welcomed his company.
His life had turned literally overnight from the hectic busyness of an embassy post to a purposeless void, with only a succession of idle amusements to occupy his days. With the glorious diplomatic career he'd planned in ruins and his future uncertain, he didn't want to think what rash acts he might have committed, had he not had the support of Alastair, Dom and Will.
'I'm sure Aunt Grace would never say so, but having us turn up now must be rather awkward. Since we're not in the market to buy the wares on display, why not go elsewhere? Your hunting box, perhaps?'
After taking another deep sip, Alastair shook his head. 'Too early for that; ground's not frozen yet. And I'd bet Mama's more worried about the morals of her darlings than embarrassed by our presence. Turned out of your government post or not, you're still an earl's son—'
'—currently exiled by his family—'
'—who possesses enough charm to lure any one of Jane's innocents out of her virtue, should you choose to.'
'Why would I? I'd thought Lady Mary would make me a fine diplomat's wife, but without a career, she no longer has any interest in me and I no longer have any interest in marriage.' Max tried for a light tone, not wanting Alastair to guess how much the august Lady Mary's defection, coming on the heels of his father's dismissal, had wounded him.
'I wish I could think of another place to go, at least until this damned house party concludes.' With a frustrated jab, Alastair stoppered the brandy. 'But I need to take care of some estate business and I don't want to nip back to London just now, with the autumn theatre season in full swing. I wouldn't put it past Desiree to track me down and create another scene, which would be entirely too much of a bore.'
'Not satisfied with the emeralds you brought when you gave her her conge?''
Alastair sighed. 'Perhaps it wasn't wise to recommend that she save her histrionics for the stage. In any event, the longer I knew her, the more obvious her true, grasping nature became. She was good enough in the bedchamber and possessed of a mildly amusing wit, but, ultimately, she grew as tiresome as all the others.'
Alastair paused, his eyes losing focus as a hard expression settled over his face. Max knew that look; he'd seen it on Alastair's countenance whenever women were mentioned ever since the end of his ill-fated engagement. Silently damning once again the woman who'd caused his cousin such pain, Max knew better than to try to take him to task for his contemptuous dismissal of women.
He felt a wave of bitterness himself, recalling how easily he'd been lured in by a sad story convincingly recited by a pretty face.
If only he'd been content to save his heroics for the battlefield, instead of attempting to play knight errant! Max reflected with a wry grimace. Indeed, given what had transpired in Vienna, he was more than half-inclined to agree with his cousin that no woman, other than one who offered her talents for temporary purchase, was worth the trouble she inevitably caused.
'I've no desire to return to London either,' he said. 'I'd have to avoid Papa and the government set, which means most of my former friends. Having spent a good deal of time and tact disentangling myself from the beauteous Mrs Harris, I'd prefer not to return to town until she's entangled with someone else.'
'Why don't we hop over to Belgium and see how Dom's progressing? Last I heard, Will was still there, looking after him.' Alastair laughed. 'Leave it to Will to find a way to stay on the Continent after the rest of us were shipped home! Though he claimed he only loitered in Brussels for the fat pickings to be made among all the diplomats and army men with more money than gaming sense.'
'I don't know that Dom would appreciate a visit. He was still pretty groggy with laudanum and pain from the amputation when I saw him last. After he came round enough to abuse me for fussing over him like a hen with one chick, he ordered me home to placate my father and the army board.'
'Yes, he tried to send me away too, though I wasn't about to budge until I was sure he wasn't going to stick his spoon in the wall.' Setting his jaw, Alastair looked away. 'I was the one who dragged the rest of you into the army. I don't think I could have borne it if you hadn't all made it through.'
'You hardly "dragged" us,' Max objected. 'Just about all our friends from Oxford ended up in the war, in one capacity or another.'
'Still, I won't feel completely at ease until Dom makes it home and adjusts to life again.' With one arm missing and half his face ruined by a sabre slash, both knew the cousin who'd always been known as 'Dandy Dominick', the handsomest man in the regiment, would face a daunting recovery. 'We could go and cheer him up.'
'To be frank, I think it would be best to leave him alone for a while. When life as you've always known it shatters before your eyes, it requires some contemplation to figure out how to rearrange the shards.' Max gave a short laugh. 'Though I've had months and am still at loose ends. You have your land to manage, but for me—' Max waved his hand in a gesture of frustration. 'The delightful Mrs Harris was charming enough, but I wish I might find some new career that didn't depend on my father's good will. Unfortunately, all I ever aspired to was the diplomatic corps, a field now closed to me. I rather doubt, with my sullied reputation, they'd have me in the church, even if I claimed to have received a sudden calling.'
'Father Max, the darling of every actress from Drury Lane to the Theatre Royal?' Alastair grinned and shook his head. 'No, I can't see that!'
'Perhaps I'll join John Company and set out for India to make my fortune. Become a clerk. Get eaten by tigers.'
'I'd feel sorry for any tiger who attempted it,' Alastair retorted. 'If the Far East don't appeal, why not stay with the army—and thumb your nose at your father?'
'A satisfying notion, that,' Max replied drily, 'though the plan has a few flaws. Such as the fact that, despite my service at Waterloo, Lord Wellington hasn't forgotten he was waiting for me when he was almost shot in Vienna.' The continuing coldness of the man he'd once served and still revered cut even deeper than his father's disapproval.
'Well, you're a natural leader and the smartest of the Rogues; something will come to you,' Alastair said. 'In the interim, while we remain at Barton Abbey, best watch your step. Mrs Harris was one thing, but you don't want to get entangled with any of Jane's eligible virgins.'
'Certainly not! The one benefit of the debacle in Vienna is that, with my brother to carry on the family name, I'm not compelled to marry. Heaven forbid I should get cornered by some devious matchmaker.' And trapped into a marriage as cold as his parents' arranged union, he thought with an inward shudder.
Picking up the decanter, Alastair poured them each another glass. 'Here's to confounding Uncle and living independently!'
'As long as living independently doesn't involve wedlock, I can drink to that,' Max said and raised his glass.