Dominic Renbourne's head was pounding like a regimental drum. He came awake slowly, knowing he shouldn't have drunk so much at the boxing match the night before. A good evening, but he'd pay for it all day.
Belatedly he realized there was pounding on the door as well as in his head. Where the hell was Clement? Damn, his valet was still in the country visiting his ailing mother. Bloody nuisance.
Since the knocking showed no sign of abatement, Dominic swung his legs to the floor and took stock. The sun's rays said early afternoon, not morning. He still wore crumpled breeches and shirt, but had managed to get his coat and boots off before collapsing on the bed.
Yawning, he ambled from his bedroom into the sitting room. He hoped Clement's mother recovered soon; Dominic's rooms were a shambles. If matters got much worse, he'd have to find a charwoman to clean the place.
He swung open the door and saw--himself.
Or rather, a cold-eyed, immaculately tailored version of himself. The shock of seeing his twin brother in the passageway was like a splash of ice water.
Before Dominic could think of a suitably acid greeting, his brother pushed past him into the sitting room. "You need a shave and a haircut." Kyle kicked aside a rumpled coat with one shining black boot. "And a bonfire to purge this place."
"I don't recall asking your opinion." Dominic's normally easy temper flared with the special kind of irritation that only his brother and father could inspire. How long had it been since he'd seen Kyle? At least two years, and then only in passing, with cool nods exchanged. They didn't move in the same circles. Both of them preferred it that way. "Whyare you here? Has Wrexham died?"
"The earl enjoys his usual health. Robust, in an invalidish sort of way." His brother began to prowl the room, unease showing in every line of his body.
Dominic closed the door, then leaned against it and folded his arms across his chest, beginning to enjoy his twin's obvious discomfort. Kyle had always concealed a tense, restless nature under a rigidly controlled exterior, but today the control was slipping badly. He looked ready to jump out of his skin. "If our dear father is still among the living, why are you stooping to visit my poor chambers?"
Kyle frowned. In another few years his sour disposition would carve hard lines around his mouth, yet for now his features were still eerily like the image Dominic saw in the mirror every morning. Kyle's face was a fraction fuller, his eyes perhaps a shade less blue, but the pair of them were still alike as peas in a pod. Both a little above middle height, leanly built but with broad shoulders, dark hair with a slight wave. As a boy, Dominic had reveled in that resemblance. Now he resented it. It seemed wrong that they should appear so similar when they were utterly different.
"Perhaps I am visiting from brotherly affection."
"Do you think I'm a fool, Lord Maxwell?"
"Yes," his brother said bluntly, his contemptuous gaze scanning the cluttered room. "Surely you can do better than this with your life."
Dominic's mouth hardened. His manner of living was not a subject he would discuss with his brother. "I presume you are here because you want something, though I can't imagine what a useless younger son could possibly offer to the lord and heir of Wrexham." And if Kyle did want something, he was going about it the wrong way.
Apparently realizing that, his brother said in a more moderate tone, "You're right, I need help, and only you can supply it."
His eyes showing how much he hated asking for aid, Kyle said flatly, "I want you to pretend to be me for several weeks."
After a moment of shock, Dominic laughed. "Don't be absurd. I could fool strangers easily enough, but not anyone who knows you well. Besides, what is the point? Deception is a child's game." Dominic had always been better at impersonating his brother than the other way around, but they hadn't changed places since they'd started school. Or rather, schools. Sometimes Dominic wondered how different his life would have been if they'd both gone to Eton.
"There are ... special circumstances. You would be among strangers, not anyone who knows me." Kyle hesitated, then added, "I'll make it worth your while."
Dominic had been heading toward the small butler's pantry, but at that he swung around, eyes glittering. "Out. Now." Though he had been bullied and betrayed by his brother, he would never be bought.
Kyle pulled a folded sheaf of papers from an inside pocket and tossed them at Dominic. "Your reward if you carry this off successfully."
Dominic caught the sheaf and opened it, then stopped in his tracks, stunned by what he held. "This is the deed to Bradshaw Manor!"
"I'm quite aware of what it is." Kyle plucked the deed from his brother's hand and tucked it back inside his coat.
As a younger son, Dominic received a modest allowance, barely enough to live as a gentleman, while Kyle would eventually receive the entire Wrexham fortune. Quite a reward for emerging from their mother's body a mere ten minutes earlier. And not only would Kyle someday be one of Britain's great lords, on their twenty-first birthday he had received Bradshaw Manor outright. It was a fine estate in Cambridgeshire, well cultivated and including a handsome house. Dominic would sell his soul for Bradshaw Manor--and Kyle knew it. "You bastard."
"I could hardly be illegitimate without you being the same, dear brother." Kyle smiled as he saw the power shifting into his hands. "And you malign our mother, of hallowed memory."
Dominic's response was unprintable. Kyle had him, and they both knew it. In dire need of refreshment, he stepped in the pantry and pulled a jug of ale from the cupboard, then poured a full measure into a tankard that was fairly clean. He did not offer his brother a drink.
After a deep swig, Dominic returned to the sitting room, claiming the most comfortable chair. "Explain why you want me to play the role of Lord Maxwell."
His brother began to pace again. "When we were boys, Wrexham and the fifth Earl Grahame talked of a match between me and Grahame's daughter."
Dominic nodded. It was one of the times he'd been grateful to be a younger son. But the plan had been dropped. He thought a moment. "Isn't the girl mad?"
"She's not mad," Kyle said sharply. "Just ... different."
It sounded as if his brother had met the girl and liked what he saw. "Do you mean she's merely eccentric? If so, she'd make a fine Renbourne."
Kyle stopped at the window, staring out at soot-stained London chimneys. "Earl Grahame was in India on a political mission when he and his wife were killed by bandits. Lady Meriel was taken captive. She was only five. More than a year passed before she was restored to the British authorities, and by then the damage was done. Her ordeal changed her into a mute lost in some private world, but she is no raving lunatic."
That was far beyond eccentric. "The fact that she doesn't rave doesn't make her sane," Dominic exclaimed. "You're willing to bed a lunatic for her fortune? Jesus, Kyle, that's disgusting."
"It's not like that!" Kyle swung around angrily before recapturing his control. "Though I'll admit that Wrexham favors the match because she's an heiress."
"I always knew he was greedy, but I'm amazed that he's willing to sully the noble Renbourne line with a madwoman's blood."
"He discussed the matter with her physicians. Since she was born a healthy, normal child, there is no reason to suppose that her children will be afflicted."
Dominic's lips curled with distaste. "This all sounds like an elaborate rationalization to disguise the fact that the two of you will do anything for money. Does marriage really mean so little to you, Kyle?"
His brother flushed. "This isn't about money. Lady Meriel will suit me well."
"Where do I come into this pretty picture?" Dominic swallowed a generous mouthful of ale. "Do you need help in bedding your idiot bride? It's true that I'm very good at bedding. You, I suppose, have never stooped to anything so undignified as making the beast with two backs."
"Damn you, Dominic!" Kyle's hands knotted into fists. "You badly need a lesson in manners."
"Perhaps, but not from you," Dominic said coolly. "I ask again--what do you want of me?"
His brother took a slow breath, visibly wrestling with his temper. "The betrothal has not yet been announced because her guardian, Lord Amworth, wishes me to spend several weeks at Lady Meriel's estate to become acquainted with her. If the girl shows signs of dislike, the marriage is off, and I presume he'll look for a different groom."
Dominic grinned maliciously. "And you know yourself to be so charmless that you wish me to substitute and win the poor girl's cooperation in this travesty."
"By God, I knew it was a mistake to come to you," Kyle pivoted and stalked toward the door.
Seeing that he'd gone too far, Dominic raised a hand to stop him. "Sorry. You shouldn't have called when I have an aching head. I'll grant that you need no help with your wooing--girls always fancied you." Heirs to earldoms were always vastly popular, but Dominic didn't point that out. Any more insults, and he'd never learn what was so important it was worth Bradshaw Manor. "Why do you need my help?"
Kyle wavered a moment before expedience won. "I have another ... obligation. Since I can't be in two places at once, I want you to go to Warfield."
Dominic stared at him. "Good God, Kyle, what can be more important than becoming better acquainted with the girl you intend to marry? You need to be there yourself, to decide if you truly wish to make such a strange match. How can I possibly substitute for you?"
"My other obligation is none of your concern," his brother snapped. "As to your relationship with Meriel, though it's probably a stretch to assume you're a gentleman, anyone who rescued as many broken-winged birds as you is unlikely to injure an innocent, unless you've changed beyond all recognition."
Dominic clamped his jaw shut on an automatic retort, knowing it was a mistake to let Kyle anger him. Thinking regretfully of Bradshaw Manor, he made the obvious suggestion. "Surely the best solution is to postpone your visit to Warfield until your other business is finished. Or vice versa."
"Neither can be delayed." Kyle's brows drew together, dark and intimidating. It had been so long since the two of them had spent any time together that Dominic found it unnerving to see his own mannerisms reproduced by his brother. Their habits should have diverged more by now.
"Lady Meriel has two guardians, brothers to her mother and father," Kyle explained. "Her maternal uncle, Lord Amworth, is the one who supports the match. He believes that the right husband, and perhaps children, might help her become normal."
"Surely after so many years, that's unlikely."
"I suspect that Amworth's secret wish is for Meriel to have children. He was very close to his sister--this might be his way of trying to get her back, or at least continuing her line."
Dominic repressed a shiver of distaste. "I suppose that makes sense in an unwholesome way, but why the hurry? If you're the selected stud, a few weeks' delay shouldn't make much difference."
"There is a complication. Her paternal uncle, Lord Grahame, is opposed to the idea of Lady Meriel being wed. He considers it a travesty, a sin against nature."
Dominic agreed with that wholeheartedly. "So Amworth wants the deed done before Grahame finds out. It appears that you risk becoming involved in what could become a nasty scandal."
"Lady Meriel is twenty-three. No court has declared her unfit, so technically she doesn't need her guardians' permission to wed." Despite his smooth explanation, Kyle looked uncomfortable as he continued, "Amworth assures me that Grahame will accept a fait accompli as long as the girl seems content with the result. Since Grahame is traveling on the Continent, Amworth wants his niece wedded and bedded before he returns."
"Why do you want this match, Kyle? There are other heiresses, most of whom would provide you with a more acceptable relationship. Surely you can't have fallen in love with a mute madwoman."
His brother's face hardened. "Lady Meriel is my preference. We will both benefit by the marriage, I believe."
It still sounded like a devilish bad bargain to Dominic, but he and his brother saw things very differently. Their own parents had lived largely separate lives, and apparently Kyle wished to do the same. "I still don't see how a substitution could be done successfully. Oh, I could certainly play a convincing Lord Maxwell for people who don't know you, but I can't live at this estate for weeks, then have you step in without the difference being noticed."
"Lady Meriel lives with a pair of vague old cousins and a household of servants. No one who matters. Simply keep to yourself, avoid becoming intimate with anyone, and spend enough time with the girl so that she is comfortable in your presence."
"She most of all is likely to notice a substitution," Dominic said, exasperated. "Even our dogs and horses could tell us apart instantly."
"She ... doesn't notice people. I made a brief visit to Warfield." Kyle fell silent for a moment. "At dinner, she glanced at me once and returned to her soup. I doubt she'll see the difference between you and me."
Dominic tried to imagine a wedding night with a girl who behaved like a wax doll. "This sounds more like rape than marriage."
"Damn you, Dom, I didn't come to listen to your objections!" Kyle exploded. "Will you help me, or not?"
The whip-crack words made Dominic recognize what he should have known the minute his brother walked into the room: Kyle was suffering. Under his arrogance something was terribly wrong. A love affair so unhappy that he literally didn't care who he married? Once Dominic could have asked, but his brother would not answer, not the way things stood between them now.
Equally clear was how desperate Kyle was to get Dominic's cooperation. Granted, someday his brother would be an earl and Bradshaw Manor merely a minor holding, but the estate was still a huge payment for a few weeks of work.
Despite the friction between them, Dominic didn't like seeing his twin so upset. As much because of that as for the potent lure of acquiring his own property, he said, "Very well. I'll do as you ask."
Kyle sighed with relief. "Good. I'm expected at Warfield on Monday, so there isn't much time to prepare you."
"Do you have business so urgent that you can't leave town right away?"
No, blast it, he didn't. He'd have to cry off a couple of dinner engagements, and his friends would miss him in a casual way, but there was nothing and no one to whom his presence was vital.
As a younger son, Dominic had gone into the army just in time to be blooded at Waterloo. Though he hadn't disgraced himself, the experience had taught him he wasn't cut out to be a soldier. Worse, the peacetime army had proved damned boring.
So he'd sold his commission and lived the carefree life of a young gentleman ever since. The heady delights of London during the Season, and long lazy visits to the country homes of friends the rest of the year. He was just reckless enough to be considered dashing, and innately prudent enough not to get himself into serious trouble. But he was twenty-eight now, and beginning to tire of having no purpose beyond pleasure. Of never doing anything that mattered.
If he owned Bradshaw Manor, his life would have meaning. The broad, fertile fields, the spacious stables and gracious house--the yearning was so sharp he could taste it. "I'll be ready. What needs doing?"
"First, a haircut," his brother said dryly. "Plus you'll have to take some of my clothing. Your tailor leaves much to be desired."
Dominic made a mental note to "accidentally" wreck at least one of his brother's overpriced coats before this escapade was over. "Anything else?"
"Morrison will go with you. He'll be the only one who knows of the substitution."
Dominic almost groaned aloud. Morrison was as stuffy a valet as Kyle was a master. "Can Morrison get in touch with you if necessary?"
Kyle hesitated. "He'll know where I am, but it will be almost impossible to reach me. I will probably be gone three to five weeks. I expect you to cover for my absence in whatever way is necessary. When you've built an adequate relationship with Lady Meriel, leave. The less time you spend at Warfield, the less likely anyone is to notice the differences between us."
That Dominic agreed with heartily. "Clothing, haircut, valet. I'll also need to know about your meetings with Amworth and your visit to Warfield."
"A good point. I'll make notes." Kyle frowned. "You can't come to Wrexham House--the servants would be shocked to see us on visiting terms. Morrison and I will return tonight with clothing and the information you need. He'll cut your hair then."
Dominic repressed a sigh. It took so little for his brother's natural high-handedness to bloom. "One thing. I want a signed letter from you saying that Bradshaw Manor is mine if I accomplish the goal we have discussed."
Kyle had been about to leave, but at that he swung around, his eyes dangerous. "You doubt my word, Dominic?"
Oddly enough, he did not. "No, but if you get thrown by a horse and killed on this mysterious mission, I'd like to get my payment."
Kyle's brows rose sardonically. "If that happens, brother dear, you're the next Earl of Wrexham, and I wish you much joy of your inheritance."
Then he stalked out the door, closing it hard behind him.