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A brilliant ray of sunlight poured through a long narrow gap in the curtains and illuminated the tumbled bedclothes at the foot of the bed. Lord Justin St. Clair awoke and shook himself groggily. Lord, he didn't think he'd been that foxed when he had stumbled home in the early hours of the morning, but his head was simply pounding. No it wasn't! Someone else was pounding, and fortunately, they had stopped, let in no doubt by the inestimable Preston, his servant whose soothing accents appeared to be having a calming effect on the importunate visitor. For importunate he was to be calling at this hour of the morning. Justin rolled over and peered at the clock on the mantel. Nine o'clock. Boney must have invaded or the king had died--or something equally earthshaking. No one would think of calling at such an hour for any lesser reason.
"It's your brother, sir," a quiet voice announced from the doorway.
Justin groaned. No one, that is, except his brother Alfred, he thought to himself. It was outside of enough that the Earl of Winterbourne insisted on keeping country hours in town, but that he should inflict them on others was, well, it was just like his brother. Alfred, Earl of Winterbourne, had been born convinced of the rightness of his views on every possible subject and with the assumption that the rest of the world naturally agreed with him. For how could it not look to someone of his social stature and rectitude for its guidance. Unfortunately, nothing and no one, not even his reckless, obstinate, and clever younger brother Justin, try though he would, had been able to change his mind during the past forty years. Having started out as a stolid, humorless child, Alfred hadprogressed into a pompous and overbearing adult who had stepped perfectly and easily into his equally pompous father's shoes, managing at the same time, in his usual overbearing way to tread upon everyone else's toes.
Justin sighed and gazed longingly out the window. More than once he had wished for a handy tree or vine to escape onto--usually from a jealous husband--but now with his brother in the next room wishing to talk about something uncomfortable, such a convenience would truly have stood him in good stead. The last person on earth he wished to speak to at this hour of the morning and in this disordered state of mind was Alfred.
Still, to give the earl his due, Alfred never bothered his younger brother except in the most dire of situations and, for his part, Justin could never be grateful enough for Alfred's having been the firstborn, thereby sparing him a lifetime of responsibility and sobriety, as befitted the one inheriting such a revered and ancient title. He and Alfred had recognized early on--after a few of Justin's amorous forays with village maidens and several exuberant pranks at university--that the two of them were bound to disagree on every point. They had long accepted their differences and had gone their separate ways. Alfred had become Earl of Winterbourne, married a girl with a portion handsome enough to cause everyone to forget her lack of a truly illustrious lineage and less than prepossessing countenance. He had fathered a son whose soberness of mind and conservative spirit made him the perfect heir to the Earls of Winterbourne who had always been more noted for their ability to remain unchanged by the tides of fashion and history than for anything else.
Justin, on the other hand, fulfilling the promise of his rackety youth, had embarked on an erratic but brilliant career at university, where he was at the same time the despair and the pride of his tutors. To a man, they could never understand how one who studied so little and played so much could excel in all his studies, much less hold his own among scholars of considerable stature and renown.
After a time on the town, during which he had cut a swathe among each Season's new offerings--as well as among its more dashing matrons--Justin became intolerably bored with the ton. He had begun casting about for something that would serve as an outlet for his pent-up energy, and a challenge for the intellect that was chafing at the mindless rounds of society.
The military life certainly offered enough excitement to gratify his adventurous spirit, what with Bonaparte laying waste to all of Europe. Various friends had done their best to entice him with stirring tales of glorious charges and deeds of valor. However, Justin, though fond of Captain Wrotham and Lieutenant Danforth, remembered them from days of yore. They appeared to have remained unchanged from the brash schoolboys who were always up for a lark despite the world-shaking nature of the events in which they were participating. Not that there was anything in the least wrong in that, Justin enjoyed a bit of fun as much, if not more than the next fellow, but even the most exuberant spirits could soon appear tedious if they did nothing but fall from one scrape to the next. Their hearty enthusiasm, which remained unaffected by even the most serious reverses, their own or the army's, soon began to pall on their more thoughtful comrade. Having refused to accompany them back to the Peninsula when they returned to their regiments, Justin found that life now seemed even more empty after their departure, and in an attempt to keep himself from dying of boredom, had embarked on a course of excess that, while it kept him tolerably amused for the moment, was not likely to do so for long. One could only enrich oneself so much at faro and hazard, break the record for driving to Brighton in a curricle, and dally with so many beautiful women before it all began to seem almost as monotonous as his brother's staid existence.
Fortunately, before he had been forced to seek even more dangerous sport, Justin had crossed paths with Sir Charles Stewart, another choice spirit. Forced to leave the turmoil of the Peninsula, Stewart had been suffering from the boredom of his own enforced inaction and had been charmed to discover that someone else who demonstrated his own reckless disregard for life and limb still remained in London. In the course of their budding friendship, it slowly dawned on the dashing peer that his new acquaintance was possessed of a clever mind that was going to waste in the social round of the ton. Though not particularly bright himself, Sir Charles had spent enough time in the company of his half brother Castlereagh to recognize brilliance in others and to appreciate its value. Thus, he invited Justin to accompany him when he was posted as adviser to the allied sovereigns in Berlin. From there Justin had followed him to Vienna, where in the heady atmosphere of the Congress, he had found his true metier.
The women were beautiful, clever, and willing, and some of the finest minds in all of Europe were competing for stakes that made even as veteran a gamester as St. Clair nervous. He had worked unobtrusively as Stewart's envoy, gathering and dispensing information, and smoothing feathers that his mentor was all too inclined to ruffle.
But at long last the Congress had finished its business, too soon for Justin's tastes and the tastes of several illustrious ladies. Having discovered his flair for things diplomatic and political, he had sought out Castlereagh upon his return to London and had soon made himself as indispensable to the foreign minister as he had to his half brother. In addition to this budding career, he found himself heir to his Great-Uncle Theobald, who had scandalized the entire family by amassing a fortune in trade and speculation and had left it all to the only St. Clair who had had anything to do with him. To honor his benefactor, Justin attempted to manage his inheritance with the same skill by which it had been made. He had found himself highly intrigued by the world of finance, and had plunged into this new area of endeavor with his usual energy. It was not long before he was as well-known around the 'Change as he was in the ballrooms of the Upper Ten Thousand.
"Enough, enough, I'm coming," Justin muttered testily as he splashed some water on his face and allowed Preston to help him into a fantastically embroidered dressing gown. "I suppose I must see him, but do arrange for some breakfast if you will, Preston. A man can't take someone like my brother on an empty stomach."
"Yes, sir, very good, sir." Preston's face remained impassive, but he was very much in agreement with his master. Facing the Earl of Winterbourne did require some fortification, self-important fool that he was. It seemed the greatest shame that Mr. Justin hadn't been born to the title. Now he would have brought the right sort of air to it, but Mr. Alfred ... Preston shook his head. Becoming the Earl of Winterbourne had only increased Master Alfred's self-consequence and had made him more self-centered and overbearing than he had been.
Years of looking after the two boys had given the old retainer a unique perspective and, unlike the rest of the household who had lavished all the attention on the heir, Preston had never had the least use for him. He had preferred the exhausting task of keeping up with the escapades of the younger brother to ministering to the older. While it was true that Alfred had never caused anyone an anxious moment while Justin proceeded from one life-threatening adventure to the next, the younger boy had at least acknowledged his caretaker as a human being. No matter how much trouble the lad might embroil Preston in, he was always aware of its effect on the older man. "I'm most dreadfully sorry, Preston. I didn't mean to put you in a tight spot," he would apologize with his charming grin when he had been doing something he shouldn't--riding his father's favorite hunter, playing with the gypsies camped nearby, or dallying with a local barmaid. And Preston, well aware that his charge's reckless ways sprang more from a wish to enliven a very constrained existence, would forgive him as he accounted yet again for his charge's whereabouts to some disapproving superior.
More and more, the lad, ignored by the rest of the household, had come to rely on Preston for companionship, and thus it was natural that Justin should take him with him when he set up his own establishment, a move Alfred could never comprehend. The earl knew what was owing to his family's consequence, and felt it keenly that his younger brother employed only a manservant instead of a proper butler or, at the very least, an imposing valet.
In fact, Alfred was ushered in with yet another complaint about Preston on his lips. "Really, Justin, I do not know why you do not get yourself a proper butler. Preston is getting quite above his station. Why, he kept me cooling my heels as though I were some common caller."
"No, no, Alfred," his brother soothed, "I kept you waiting."
"You?" Lord Winterbourne's already beefy countenance flushed with annoyance.
"Yes. I really can't in good conscience encourage you to call at such an hour. It's dreadfully bad ton, you know. Besides, I was a moment waking up. Rousing time last night, you know." Justin grinned reminiscently.
The earl's face was apoplectic. "You mean you were in bed? At this hour?"
Justin's eyes glinted with amusement. "But of course. You wouldn't expect me to be abroad before noon like some greasy country squire would you?"
Alfred was speechless as he thought to himself that really, Justin had only become more infuriating as he had grown older. Here he. Earl of Winterbourne, had taken the trouble to come to town expressly to call on him, and Justin just sat there mocking him in that absurd dressing gown, his lanky frame draped carelessly in the chair. It was beyond all that was annoying. Alfred knew his brother to be possessed of a restless energy that on the rare occasions when he visited the family seat, had him up and out riding almost before the stable boys were awake, yet now he had the effrontery to play the bored man about town. The earl fumed helplessly, then, remembering the original purpose of his visit, gathered himself together with considerable effort.
With a placating laugh, he began, "Well, those of us whose responsibilities keep us in the country are not accustomed to your town hours." Try though he would, the earl could not keep the resentful note from his voice, though actually he would have died rather than change places with his younger brother. The fact was that he quite gloried in those responsibilities, but it would not do to let that on to Justin, who refused to accord such things their proper respect. No, it was all very well for a younger brother to go gallivanting around Europe, flirting with women who were no better than harlots despite their high stations; but he, Alfred, was head of an important family and bore the burden of his hereditary duties with great solemnity. "Well, never mind that," the earl continued. "What I really came for was to discuss a most delicate matter with you."
"Ah yes, the purpose of your visit," Justin murmured. "I was wondering when we would get around to that, it being inconceivable that you should call on me simply for the charm of my company."
"If you're going to talk fustian, Justin, I can see I had best take myself elsewhere," the earl began ponderously.
His younger brother's eyes widened, "Fustian, I?" Then, recognizing that the earl truly was laboring with some weighty problem, he relented. "What is it, then, Alfred?"
"Reginald? That pattern card of perfection? I thought he was every parent's dream, the model child," Justin replied sardonically. Difficult though it was to believe such a thing, he found the earl's heir more boring than the earl himself.
"He is," Alfred rose swiftly to his son's defense, "and he has done nothing wrong. It's that harpy."
"Harpy?" Justin uncoiled himself and leaned forward. 'This sounds interesting. Why, I had no idea that the lad had it in him." He grinned wickedly.
Choosing to ignore this sally, Alfred continued. "Well, it was not his fault. During the holidays, he came to London with some friends from school, the Duke of Bellingrath's son," Alfred could not refrain from adding proudly. "And, like the good lad he is, he very properly called upon his Great-Aunt Seraphina in Brook Street, just as he knew I would wish. It was there that he met her."
"Who?" Justin looked blank. "Oh, the harpy. At Great-Aunt Seraphina's? How intriguing. I must become better acquainted with Great-Aunt Seraphina if that's the sort of company she keeps." In fact, Justin only had the dimmest memory of the lady, she being a distant relative of his brother's wife who only recommended herself to the earl by the size of her fortune, her widowhood, and her lack of heirs. It was Alfred who had dubbed her "great-aunt" in the hopes of securing this fortune for his son. Beyond that, all Justin could recall hearing of her was that she was a bluestocking who had married a nabob late in life, none of which fit the lurid picture his brother was now painting.
"I'm glad you find it so amusing," the earl responded stiffly. "You would not if your son were about to throw away his good name on a, on a..." Words failed him.
"By that, I conclude you to mean that the fool intends to offer her marriage. Any son of mine would know how to enjoy a little dalliance for what it was."
Too upset to respond to this comment, Alfred nodded glumly.
"But how did such a person make the acquaintance of Great-Aunt Seraphina?" Justin wondered.
"Great-Aunt Seraphina had business to attend to in town, and as she does not keep an establishment in London, she was invited by her niece to stay with her at her house in Brook Street."
"Well, then, how is it that this niece allowed such a harpy near her aunt?" Justin continued patiently.
"You don't understand, it's the great-niece who is the harpy." Alfred was thoroughly exasperated. Really, for someone who had recently been helping to rearrange the map of Europe, Justin could sometimes be singularly obtuse. "She asked Great-Aunt Seraphina to visit simply because she wants to cozen the old lady into leaving her her fortune, and now she puts her hooks into my son as well. I tell you, Justin, it doesn't bear thinking of."
Privately, Justin thought that the infamous niece had a great deal more claim on Great-Aunt Seraphina and her fortune than Reginald did, but he tactfully refrained from saying so, merely asking her name instead.
"It's Lady Diana Hatherill," the earl snapped.
"What, Ferdie Hatherill's sister? That connection seems unexceptionable enough."
"Not his sister, his widow and an older woman," Alfred moaned.
"Well then, she does have need of the fortune. The last time I saw Ferdie, he was going through his at a merry pace," Justin remarked reasonably.
The earl glared at him.
"But I fail to see what all this has to do with me, for I am sure if it didn't, you wouldn't be here. I daresay you'll get around to it eventually. Perhaps we should fortify ourselves with some coffee, as I have the distinct feeling I am about to be asked to do something unpleasant." Justin stretched out a languid hand toward the bellpull and was just giving it a tug, when there was a knock on the door and Preston entered bearing a steaming pot and two cups. "A man past price. You divine my every thought. Thank you, Preston."
"Thank you, sir." Standing between his master and the earl, only Preston was able to see Justin's rueful grimace, and he winked sympathetically before turning to leave.
"Justin! Have you no family feeling? You must extricate Reginald from this woman's lures," Alfred continued the moment the door was closed.
"Forgive me for appearing slow-witted, Alfred, but I quite fail to see what I have to do with the situation at all. He's your son. Simply tell him that you disapprove."
"He won't listen," the unhappy parent groaned.
"What, the peerless Reginald?" Justin could barely conceal a wicked grin. "The lad has more to him than I thought."
"And the lady is dead to all sense of decorum. I offered her a hundred pounds to stop seeing Reginald, and she absolutely refused."
"I should hope so. A hundred pounds compared to Reginald's expectations is paltry indeed. Didn't she press you for more? I should have. Besides, if she is after Reginald, the lad stands a better chance of getting his hands on Great-Aunt Seraphina's fortune." Justin was beginning to enjoy himself.
"Really, Justin, you are the most..." The earl was beside himself with exasperation. "This is no laughing matter. No, she did not press for more, but showed me to the door in the rudest way and said that friendship could not be bought, and besides, they are both of age. So you see, she means to have him willy-nilly."
The fact that the lady in question appeared to have the very principles in which Alfred judged her so lacking, only served to amuse Justin all the more. But he merely commented, "Well, then, you had best resign yourself to it. After all, Reginald is his own master, she is connected to a perfectly acceptable family, and though Hatherill ran completely through his inheritance, she must not be completely in dun territory if she is still at the Hatherill's house in Brook Street." Justin refrained from observing that the real cause of Alfred's annoyance was that Reginald's interest in a lady of good but unremarkable antecedents and with only the prospect rather than the certainty of a fortune kept Reginald from making a truly brilliant match. Knowing full well the height of his brother's ambition, Justin did not doubt that Alfred had singled out several dukes' daughters as suitable partners for his son and heir.
"Faugh, that is very likely why she fell all over herself inviting Great-Aunt Seraphina, for Ferdie Hatherill's wife must be well enough versed in the ways of creditors to know they will let her alone if she is expecting an inheritance, especially now that they see she has every hope of leg-shackling Reginald," he concluded gloomily. "I tell you, Justin, only you can save the situation now."
"I rather thought we were coming to that," the earl's brother replied sardonically. "And, pray tell me, how do you propose that I should succeed where you have failed?"
"Damn it, Justin, how do I know?" Alfred leapt from his chair and began to pace the room. "It's you who is supposed to be the diplomat--haring off to Vienna with Metternich and Talleyrand and those fellows. Though, I can't see that all that talking you did was to any purpose. When it came right down to it, it was decent men, men of action like Wellington who put the stop to that monster. Politicians, faugh, why all they are good for..." the earl continued, warming to his theme. Then, realizing the infelicitous nature of his remarks, he gave a discreet cough. "Well, all water under the bridge, as they say. What I mean is that I should be most obliged to you, Justin, if you could see the lady ... ah, er, woman, and try if you can make her see that this is a most unsuitable match."
Justin raised a cynical eyebrow, "And you expect me to be more persuasive than a hundred pounds? You flatter me."
"Not at all." The earl failed entirely to detect the ironic undertone. "Everyone knows you have a way with women. Lord knows why, but they appear to find you irresistible. You might as well put your fatal charm to good use."
"Oh, but I do, brother, I do," Justin assured him smiling broadly as he rose to look dreamily out the window at the beautiful morning.
"There, if that isn't just like you. I knew it was useless to come. You have no family feeling," the ear] responded bitterly. He snatched up his hat and made for the door.
His brother held up a restraining hand. "Relax, Alfred. I shall see what I can do. I daresay it will be quite amusing if nothing else. And as to family feeling, I may lack the proper amount of it, but I do owe you a debt of gratitude for having kept me from having to inherit it."
"I daresay." Thoroughly annoyed, but knowing that Justin, once challenged, would do his best despite his irritating manner, the earl bid him good day and hurried back to his hotel, eager to give orders for his immediate departure. Though possessor of an imposing residence in Grosvenor Square, he preferred to let to others for an enormous sum while he remained secure in the comfort of Winterbourne Hall, absolute master of all he surveyed.