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Upon his arrival Justin Avery, Viscount Kenelm, was ushered into the library, a somber room lined with books and furnished with several pieces of handsome furniture. A fire crackled on the hearth, adding a touch of warmth to the chill atmosphere.
The graying man seated at the mahogany desk that commanded one side of the library gave no sign that he had heard his son announced. He continued to give his entire attention to the sheaf of papers before him. He picked up a pen, dipped it in the inkwell, and leisurely made a notation.
The viscount, after eyeing his lordship for a moment, went to the grate and spread his fingers to the heat. The firelight silhouetted his face. His profile was stern, almost forbidding, a circumstance made more noticeable by the thinning of his lips. He was not best pleased to be summoned by his father, the Earl of Belchester. He did not anticipate a pleasant interview.
A rustling caught the viscount's ears and he turned quickly.
The Earl of Belchester neatly shuffled his papers and laid them aside, looking toward his son as he did so. His expression was one of weary boredom. "Well, Justin?" There was a sardonic twist to his lips. His gold-flecked eyes reflected mild cynicism.
"I am here, sir, as you see," said the viscount, slightly angered. The earl had not invited him to seat himself, and as a consequence he felt not unlike an erring schoolboy being brought to task.
"As I see," agreed the earl gently.
Silence fell. The viscount became increasingly restless under his father's dispassionate gaze. Unconsciously he put a hand to his cravat as though it were suddenly tight. His gesture amused the earl.
"I believe yourealize my reason for ... requesting your company, Justin," said the earl.
"As to that, sir, I am not certain. You have never before interfered," said the viscount. He leaned against the shoulder-high mantel and thrust his hands into the pockets of his fawn breeches.
"This time, as I am certain you will agree, is different. The lady in question is the wife of a very powerful man. In short, Justin, the lady has been indiscreet and her husband is reputed to be out for your blood," said the earl.
"Gad, sir, surely you do not believe such hearsay," exclaimed the viscount scornfully.
The earl imperturbably flicked open a gold snuffbox with one finger and took a pinch. "On the contrary. I sustained a visit from the tearful lady herself. I was not amused, Justin. However, I found the lady's tale illuminating and I judge that she has cause to fear for your safety."
The viscount stared at him a moment, disconcerted. Then he gave a crack of laughter. "That is just like Charlotte. Surely you do not credit her bird-witted prattle."
"She is, isn't she?" agreed the earl. "Nevertheless, I do credit her with some sense. I wish you to terminate your entanglement with her."
"That is easily done. She was beginning to pall on me in any event," said Justin with a shrug.
The earl did not appear to hear and continued smoothly, "Also, I wish to hear of your approaching nuptials very shortly."
The viscount stared at him, stunned.
"Your ears did not deceive you, Justin," said the earl, allowing a hint of amusement to enter his suave voice.
Flushing, the viscount straightened. "Why this sudden interest, sir? 'Tis complimentary, I swear," he said, assuming an air of lightness.
"Very likely. However, my feelings are quite the reverse. I do not enjoy the task of forcing you into wedlock," said the earl.
"Then why do you do it?" asked the viscount with sudden savagery, his eyes flaring a strange yellow color.
"You are nine-and-twenty, Justin. Yet you behave with no thought of moderation. For years your excesses have been a constant source of gossip for the curious and the vulgar. I have held my peace over your gambling and your string of mistresses. I even managed to restrain my annoyance at news of your Cyprian ball. Out of a mild curiosity, Justin, did you indeed hold an 'auction' of the most infamous 'untouchables' to the highest bidders among your drunken, rowdy guests?"
The viscount bowed, unsmiling. "It was a rare evening's entertainment, sir."
The earl grimaced. "Quite so. Justin, you have made my point for me very well. I flatter myself that I have withstood all with an admirable composure. But I must draw the line when the ladies begin to call on me."
"I beg your forgiveness for the inconvenience, sir. Your disgust is obviously such that it is a wonder you have not cast me off," said the viscount.
"My dear Justin, I have indeed toyed with the notion of making your younger brother my heir. While it is true that William is a bit thickheaded at times, he is at least respectable," said the earl. There was a hint of steel in his soft tone. "I do hope that you will abide by my wishes in this delicate matter, Justin."
The viscount stared into his father's suddenly hard brown eyes. His own eyes seemed to gleam a brighter yellow. "It seems that I have little choice, sir. You will read of my engagement in a twelvemonth," he said, controlling his fury.
"Then that will be all, Justin." The earl smiled pleasantly, the sardonic twist to his lips more pronounced.
"With your permission, sir, I will return to London tonight. I must make my adieus to the fair Charlotte," said Justin, bowing with grace.
"Of course," the earl agreed. He fell to contemplating the engraved design on his snuffbox as his son strode to the door. His gentle voice stopped the viscount with his hand on the knob. "Justin, how do you rate such devotion? I never did."
Justin laughed. "It is my eyes, sir. The color fascinates the female sex!"
He was gone on the words, but both men felt they understood each other very well.
A carriage drew up at the door of an imposing residence of red stucco. The postilion jumped down from the carriage to let down the iron step and open the door. A well-built young man descended to the walkway. He waved the equipage away and walked up the stairs to ring the bell. A porter peered out, recognized him, and immediately ushered him inside.
"Is her ladyship in?" asked Lord Kenelm, handing his beaver and cane to a footman.
"Yes, milord, in the salon," said the footman. He was newly assigned to his post and committed the faux pas of leering slightly.
Lord Kenelm raised a mobile brow. His brown-gold eyes fixed upon the footman's countenance and under his stare the footman paled slightly. "Exactly so," said Lord Kenelm softly. He smiled, dispelling the uncanny likeness he bore to an unblinking lynx, and strode to the salon with the air of long familiarity.
At his entrance a pretty young woman in a long-sleeved round dress of semi-transparent blue muslin glanced up. She cast down The Lady's Magazine, whose pages she had been languidly turning. "Justin!" She ran to him on satin-slippered feet.
Lord Kenelm received her with amusement as she flung her exquisite figure into his arms. "My dear Charlotte, such an affecting welcome," he drawled.
"How can you tease me so, Justin, when you know how deeply attached I am to you," said Lady Albion. She raised reproachful violet eyes to him, and her rosebud mouth trembled.
"I am persuaded that you are. Certainly you persuaded my father of it as well. I must thank you for apprehending him of my doubtful future," said Lord Kenelm dryly, releasing her.
"Oh, Justin, pray do not be too angry with me. I am just so very much afraid that he will call you out. That would be too horrid for words," said Lady Albion breathlessly, clasping her hands before her low décolletage.
"You need not fear, Charlotte. I shouldn't kill him, only wing him a little," said Lord Kenelm.
"Justin, I was thinking that he might kill you and then be forced to flee the country, leaving me destitute," said Lady Albion. She gave an artistic shudder.
Lord Kenelm stared at her, astonished. "Well, I hope that he don't call me out then, Charlotte, if that is how he means to conduct the affair. I'll be dashed if I let some cowhanded whipster who hasn't a particle of talent with pistols show good against me. I should have to kill him," said the viscount bluntly.
"Justin!" Lady Albion's bosom swelled becomingly and her eyes flashed. "He is not cowhanded."
The viscount was startled by her vehemence. He looked searchingly at her indignant face, and as her color rose under his scrutiny, he said very softly, "Charlotte, I believe that I understand. You have fallen in love with him." Her blush deepened and she nodded almost shyly. The viscount bowed. "Then I most certainly apologize and I give you my sincere felicitations."
"Thank you, Justin," said Lady Albion, smiling waveringly.
"But why didn't you tell me this at the outset rather than pretend that he was making dark threats at me? My father was none too pleased by your story, Charlotte," Lord Kenelm said sternly.
Lady Albion turned the gold wedding band on her finger. She glanced up at him half-fearfully. "I rather thought it might hurt your pride," she said timidly.
The viscount sternly suppressed a quivering lip. His Charlotte had always been a vain little creature. He said gravely, "I see. You were right of course."
"Yes." Lady Albion nodded, satisfied.
"I believe it is time that I take my leave of you, Lady Albion," said Lord Kenelm, raising her fingers to his lips.
"You aren't angry with me, Justin?" asked Lady Albion, glancing at him anxiously.
"Do I look it?" asked the viscount, amused.
Lady Albion shook her head, smiling. "Your eyes haven't turned that queer yellow."
Justin smiled. He said softly, "You are a silly widgeon, Charlotte." He shut the door of the salon behind him and left the house.
The velvet curtains across the connecting door to the library stirred and a tall man stepped out from behind them. He caught Lady Albion's startled hands. "Did you have to cast yourself upon him. Charlotte?" he inquired quizzingly.
Lady Albion quickly recovered from her surprise and defiantly tossed her head. Dusky curls bobbed on her neck. "Certainly I did. The viscount's pride is very high. He knows that he is attractive and he expects females to throw themselves at him."
Lord Albion's fingers tightened on his wife's hands. "Do you still find him attractive, Charlotte?"
"Yes, Edward, but I much prefer you. His eyes are so unsettling," said Lady Albion, dimpling.
"I believe Viscount Kenelm was correct, Charlotte. You are a very silly widgeon," Lord Albion said gravely.
"Edward!" Lady Albion gasped, affronted. She attempted to free herself.
"Yes, Edward!" Her husband mocked her, laughing down into her indignant violet eyes. Suddenly he caught her up into his arms, heedless of the danger to his beautifully tied cravat. Her squeal of surprise was cut short.
After a long moment Lady Albion sighed ecstatically. "Oh! I really do prefer you, dear dear Edward!"
The viscount, swinging his stick jauntily, repaired to Jackson's Saloon for a couple of hearty rounds and thence to Watier's for nuncheon and a rubber or two of whist. During the game he looked up from his cards and met the quizzical eyes of Lord Albion. "I fear that I must throw in my hand, my friends," Lord Kenelm said.
The viscount rose from the table amid mild protests. "Kenelm, dear boy, give me a chance for revenge," pleaded one acquaintance, striking a tragic pose.
"My dear foolish Howard, you have attempted to revenge yourself upon me for the last hour, and try as I may, my luck is in and I can't seem to lose to you," Lord Kenelm said, sighing in mock sorrow. Good-natured laughter greeted this sally.
The young man with riotous gold curls flung up a hand. "Kenelm, you profoundly wound me," he said sadly.
"I trust not," Lord Kenelm said with a smile. He approached Lord Albion and bowed. "I hope that you can bear me company to Tattersall's, Lord Albion?" he asked, flicking open a gold enameled snuffbox.
Lord Albion hesitated for a moment. "Of course, my lord," he said. He was curious as to why the viscount had singled him out. He was not left long in suspense.
Scarcely had the two gentlemen left the portals of the club when the viscount said abruptly, "I called on Lady Albion this morning. I suppose her ladyship told you?"
"I was present," said Lord Albion blandly.
"The devil you were!" The viscount was momentarily disconcerted, then his strange eyes narrowed in amusement. "I think that I should have expected that." Lord Albion merely glanced at him and Lord Kenelm grinned. "I must beg your pardon for my insulting words, then."
"Your apologies have already been made to her ladyship," said Lord Albion disinterestedly.
"Ah, but I must tell you the reasoning behind my somewhat unflattering description. I called on Lady Albion to sever any relationship between us. I thought that by insulting you, I would kill any lingering interest that her ladyship might harbor for me." Lord Kenelm paused and satisfied himself that he had gained Lord Albion's attention. He said deliberately, "I realized almost instantly that my precaution was unnecessary. Lady Albion was more than usually adamant in her defense of you."
Lord Albion's eyes held an intent, startled expression. "Her ladyship defended me to you?"
"Indeed, and quite often. I realized very early in our ... friendship ... that your wife only turned to me out of loneliness. She very much needed someone to confide in, and it was my sympathetic ear rather than my charm that interested her. It is a lowering reflection for me, is it not?" asked the viscount, his keen eyes scrutinizing Lord Albion's face. He was satisfied with what he saw and he was content to allow silence to fall between them as they walked a few steps.
"Forgive my curiosity, my lord, but how is it that you could abandon such a young and naive bride to the preying wolves?" asked the viscount casually, swinging his walking stick.
Lord Albion's lips twisted. "I believed what I thought to be evidence that she was forced into marriage with me. She once vowed in the hearing of a younger sister that she would never marry an older man no matter what her father decreed. Her sister let drop the remark immediately after Charlotte and I had married. It was too late then, of course, and fool that I was, I thought the least I could do was to leave her strictly alone to lead her life as she chose. Even when that meant turning a blind eye when she took a lover."
"You astonish me, my lord," said the viscount.
Lord Albion laughed with a touch of bitterness. "Yes, I own that it was astonishingly thickheaded of me."
"Frankly, my lord, Lady Albion was bird-witted to believe that a matter of--you are two-and-thirty?--that twelve years makes that great a difference in marriage," said Lord Kenelm.
"She had seen me but once before I asked permission to press my suit, and she believed the age difference to be much greater," said Lord Albion gently.
Belatedly the viscount recalled a tale of Lord Albion's twin brother, who had died on the guillotine for the crime of aiding the hated aristos escape from France. It was said that Lord Albion's hair had turned white overnight when he received word of his brother's death, and as a consequence he appeared several years older than his actual age. "I see," said Lord Kenelm slowly.
The gentlemen's steps by now had carried them into the subscribing room of Tat's. The viscount suddenly announced, "I shall be leaving town for a few days. Otherwise I would ask you to share my hospitality at Belchester. My father would be pleased to make your acquaintance."
"My lady wife and I would have graciously declined," Lord Albion said formally. Laughter had unexpectedly lighted his eyes at the viscount's impulsive behavior.
"It would delight me if your lordship would put a halt to these stuffy conventional phrases and tell me to my head to go to the devil," Lord Kenelm said, a pained expression on his face.
"Of course, my lord. You may freely go to the devil," Lord Albion obliged.
The viscount laughed. "Be damned to you, then."
The gentlemen parted with an underlying understanding, much to the dissatisfaction of some of those about them. It was well-known that Lady Albion and Viscount Kenelm were a pair, and it would have been a piece of choice gossip to have been able to say that Lord Albion had publicly acted the cuckolded husband.