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London-June 3, 1814
The skeleton clock on the overmantel struck four. No point in going to bed. Besides, he was thoroughly foxed, although not drunk enough to keep him from lying awake, wondering what had possessed him to make this insane plan. And worse, to follow through with organisation so ruthlessly efficient that to cancel now would throw his entire staff, financial team, estate management and social life into disorder-and make it seem he did not know his own mind.
'Which I do not,' Rhys Denham informed the ragged-eared ginger tom that sat on the hearthrug eyeing him with the disdain that only a feline or a dowager duchess could muster. 'Know my own mind, that is. Always do, just not this time.'
The appearance of the kitchen mouser on the principal floor, let alone in the study of the third Earl of Pal-grave, was unheard of. The household must be stirring already, too distracted by their master's imminent departure for the Continent to notice an open door at the head of the servants' stair.
'It seemed a good plan at the time,' Rhys mused. The brandy at the bottom of the glass glowed in the candlelight, and he splashed in more and tossed the lot back. 'I'm drunk. Haven't been this drunk in years.' Not since he had woken up one afternoon and realised that drink was never going to blot out the disaster of his wedding day, restore his faith in friendship or his delusions about romantic love.
The cat switched its attention to the plate with the remains of the cold beef, cheese and bread that had been left out with the decanters. 'And you can stop licking your whiskers.' Rhys reached for the food. 'I need this more than you do. I have to be more or less sober in three hours.' That seemed improbable, even to his fogged brain.
'You have to admit, I deserve a holiday. The estate is in order, my finances could hardly be better, I am bored to the back teeth with town and Bonaparte has been out of harm's way on Elba for a month,' he informed the cat around a mouthful of beef. 'You think I am a trifle old for the Grand Tour? I disagree. At twenty-eight I will appreciate things more.' The cat sneered, lifted one hind leg and began to groom itself intimately.
'Stop that. A gentleman does not wash his balls in the study.' He tossed it a scrap of fat and the cat pounced. 'But a year? What was I thinking of?' Escape.
Of course, he could come back at any time and his staff would adjust to his demands with their usual smooth efficiency. After all, if there was some kind of crisis, he would return immediately. But to cancel on a whim was not responsible behaviour. It put people out, it let them down, and Rhys Denham despised people who let others down.
'No, I am going to go through with this,' he declared. 'It will do me good to have a complete change of scene, and then I'll be in the mood to find a pretty, modest, well-bred girl with a stay-at-home temperament and good child-bearing hips. I will be married by the time I am thirty.' And bored out of my skull. A vision of the succession of prime bits of muslin who had worked their magic in preventing just such boredom flitted across his memory. They had never expected dutiful monogamy. A wife would. Rhys sighed.
The friends who had deposited him on his doorstep an hour ago after a convivial farewell night at the club were all married, or about to be. Some even had children. And, to a man, they seemed cheered by the thought of someone else falling into parson's mousetrap. As Fred Herrick had put it, 'About time a rake like you stops nibbling the cheese, takes a proper bite at it and springs the trap, Denham.'
'And why is that such a damnably depressing thought?'
'I could not say, my lord.' Griffin stood in the doorway, his face set in the expressionless mask that signified deep disapproval.
What the devil had his butler got to be disapproving about? Rhys levered himself upright in his chair. A man was entitled to be in his cups in his own house, damn it. 'I was speaking to the cat, Griffin.'
'If you say so, my lord.'
Rhys glanced down at the rug. The ginger beast had vanished, leaving behind it only a faint grease stain on the silk pile.
'There is a person to see you, my lord.' From his tone it was clear this was the cause of the stone face, rather than his master's maudlin conversations with an invisible cat.
'What kind of person?'
'A young person, my lord.'
'A boy? I am not up to guessing games just at the moment, Griffin.'
'As you say, my lord. It appears to be a youth. Beyond that I am not prepared to commit myself.'
Appears? Does Griffin mean what I think he means? 'Well, where is it____Him?' Her? 'Below stairs?'
'In the small reception room. It came to the front door, refused to go down to the tradesman's entrance and said it was certain your lordship would wish to see it.'
Rhys blinked at the decanter. How much had he drunk since he got back from White's? A lot, yes, but surely not enough to have imagined that faint hint of desperation in Griffin's voice. The man was capable of dealing with anything without turning a hair, whether it was pilfering footmen or furious discarded mistresses throwing the china.
A faint trickle of unease ran down his spine. Mistresses. Had Georgina failed to take her congé as calmly as she had appeared to do yesterday? Surely she was satisfied with a very nice diamond necklace and the lease on her little house for a further year? Rhys got to his feet and tugged off his already loosened neckcloth, leaving his coat where it was on the sofa. Ridiculous. He might seek pleasure without emotional entanglement, but he was no Lord Byron with hysterical females dressed as boys dogging his footsteps. He was careful to stick to professionals and fast married women who knew what they were about, not single ladies and certainly not unstable cross-dressing ones.
'Very well, let us see this mysterious youth.' His feet seemed to be obeying him, which was gratifying, considering the way the furniture swayed as Griffin preceded him down the hallway. Tomorrow-no, this morning- promised a hangover of monumental proportions.
Griffin opened the door to the room reserved for visitors who did not meet his exacting standards for admission to the Chinese Drawing Room. The figure seated on a hard chair against the far wall came to its feet. Short, bundled into an ill-fitting dark suit of clothes that said 'junior clerk' to Rhys's unfocused eye, it had a pair of portmanteaux at its feet and a battered beaver hat on the chair by its side.
Rhys blinked. He wasn't that drunk. 'Griffin, if that is male, then you and I are eunuchs in the Great Chan's court.'
The girl in the youth's clothes gave an exasperated sigh, set her fists on the curving hips that betrayed her sex and said, 'Rhys Denham, you are drunk-just when I was counting on you to be reliable.'
Thea? Lady Althea Curtiss, daughter of the Earl of Wellingstone by his scandalous first wife, the plain little brat who had dogged his heels throughout his boyhood, the loyal friend he had scarcely seen since the day his world fell apart. Here, in the early hours of the morning in his bachelor household, dressed as a boy. A walking scandal waiting to explode like a smouldering shell. He could almost hear the fuse fizzing.
Rhys was bigger than she had remembered. More solid. More male as he loomed in the doorway in his shirtsleeves, his chin darkened by his morning beard, the black hair that came from his Welsh mother in his eyes, that blue gaze blurred by drink and lack of sleep. A dangerous stranger. And then she blinked and remembered that it was six years since she had seen him close to. Of course he had changed.
'Thea?' He stalked across the room and took her by the shoulders, his focus sharp now, despite the smell of brandy on his breath. 'What the blazes are you doing here? And dressed like that.' He reached round and pulled the plait of mouse-brown hair out of the back of her coat. 'Who were you attempting to fool, you little idiot? Have you run away from home?'
Rhys was thin lipped with anger. Thea stepped back out of his grip, which made it easier to breathe, although it did nothing for her knocking knees. 'I am dressed like this because on a stagecoach in the dark it is enough to deceive lecherous men. I am perfectly aware that I do not pass muster as a youth in good light. And I have left home, I am not running away'
Rhys's lips moved. He was silently counting up to ten in Welsh, she could tell. When he had been a boy he would say it out loud and she had learned the numbers. Un, dau, tri 'Griffin. More brandy. Tea and something to eat for Lady Althea. Who is not, of course, here.'
Thea allowed herself to be shepherded into the study. Rhys dumped her bags on the hearthrug and pushed an ugly ginger cat off one of the chairs that flanked the fire. 'Sit. The cat hairs can't make that suit any worse than it is.' The cat swore at both of them, battered ears flat to its skull.
When she clicked her fingers, it curled its tail into a question mark and stalked off. Hopefully this was not an omen for how her reception was going to be. 'Is it your pet?'
Rhys narrowed his eyes at her. 'It is the kitchen cat and appears to think it owns the place.' He dropped into the opposite chair and ran his hands through his hair. 'Tell me this is not about a man. Please. I am leaving for Dover at seven o'clock and I would prefer not to postpone it in order to fight a duel with some scoundrel you fancy yourself in love with.'
If he was sober, it would help. As for duelling, she wondered if he was capable of hitting a barn door with a blunderbuss in this state. 'Of course it is not a man.' Of course it is, but if I tell you the details we'll never get anywhere. 'Don't be ridiculous. And why would you be fighting duels on my behalf, pray?' It was surprising how difficult it was to keep her voice steady. She must be more tired than she had realised.
'I always used to be,' Rhys said with a sudden grin and drew his index finger down the line of his nose. Its perfect Grecian profile had been lost in a scrap with some village boys who had called her names when she was six and he was twelve. The smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared. 'So if it isn't a man '
'It is, in a way.' She had rehearsed all this in the smelly darkness of the stagecoach through the long hours on the road. Not quite lies, not quite the truth. 'You recall I have had three Seasons. No, of course you do not-our paths never crossed in town. You weren't attending all the Marriage Mart ghastliness that I was expected to.'
His jaw set hard and she bit her lower lip. Stupid, tactless, to mention marriage. He still cares; it must still hurt. 'Anyway, Papa said I was wasting money and another Season with all the other girls so much younger would be even worse. So he sent me back to Longley Park and set about finding me a husband locally.'
'Do you mean you didn't have any offers-?' Rhys broke off as Griffin brought in a tray, then waved a hand for her to help herself as he sloshed dark liquid into his glass. 'I mean, I know that with your mother '
'Oh, yes, several very eligible younger sons offered. My dowry is respectable and there's my trust fund, of course.' Both were considerable inducements to make up for the other things-her plain speaking, her intellectual enthusiasms, her very average looks. Not to mention a mother who had been an actress and her father's mistress before their impetuous marriage and her tragic death in childbirth. 'I turned them all down.'
'Why?' Rhys squinted at her over his glass, apparently in an effort to bring her into focus.
'I didn't love any of them.' They didn't love me . None of them. 'Papa has settled upon Sir Anthony Mel-dreth.' Would Rhys understand if she explained why she felt so betrayed now? Why she had to leave? The old Rhys would have done, but this man, in this condition? No, better to fudge. 'We did not suit, but Papa says that either I marry Anthony or I must remain at Longley and be a companion for Stepmama for the rest of my days.'
'Hell.' Rhys obviously recalled her stepmother's capacity for hypochondria, vapours and utterly selfish behaviour all too well. He rubbed long fingers against his forehead as though to push away a headache, or perhaps push coherent thought in. 'I understand your problem.'
Does he understand? Probably not, a man like Rhys couldn't be expected to comprehend the sheer mind-numbing dullness a spinster daughter was supposed to dwindle into. It would be like being buried alive. Nor could she expect him to comprehend the horrors of finding herself married to a man she did not like or trust or have a thing in common with.
'I can see it would be tiresome,' he continued, confirming her belief in his lack of understanding. 'But running away ' He frowned at her. 'I do not have time to deal with this now. I am about to leave for a Continental tour.'
'I know, Papa told me. He considers it shows a commendable enthusiasm for culture he had hitherto not recognised in you. Please listen, Rhys. I am twenty-two and of age. I am not running away, I am taking control of my life.'
'Twenty-two? Rubbish. You don't look it.' It was not a compliment.
Thea gritted her teeth and ploughed on. 'All I need is the approval of two of my three trustees in order to take control of my money and be independent.' It wasn't a fortune, but it would give her freedom, give her choice. 'If I do not get consent, then I will receive nothing unless Papa approves my marriage.'
'One of the trustees is your father, I presume.' Rhys picked up the decanter, studied it for a moment then put it down. 'Tempting as complete oblivion is at this moment-'
'He is,' she interrupted. 'And Grandmother was quite well aware of what he is like.' There was no point in feigning filial piety. Her father had been a distant, shadowy figure throughout her childhood, only taking any notice when she was of an age where she could not be relegated to the nursery. A girl was bad enough. A girl without a glimmer of her mother's legendary beauty and charm was worthless unless she made a useful marriage. Thea felt she hardly knew him, and, regrettably, felt no desire to do so.