Since Leo Fitzmanning returned to London, he's kept his seat at the card table warm, his pockets full of winnings and his mind off a certain raven-haired heiress.
Until whispers at the gaming hell reveal that Miss Mariel Covendale is being forced into marriage with an unscrupulous fortune hunter!
Leo must re-enter the society he detests to help her, before returning to his clandestine existence. But he hasn't counted on Mariel having grown even more achingly beautiful than he remembers. Soon Leo realizes that there's nothing respectable about his reasons for stopping Mariel's marriage!
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Loud pounding forced Leo from a dead sleep.
He opened his eyes and was stabbed by a sliver of sunlight, harbinger of a fine spring London day. He clapped his hands to his head.
Too much brandy. Now he was paying the price.
More pounding. A caller at his door.
Why the devil did Walker not send them away?
Walker was Leo's valet, but likely not out of bed himself. He and Leo had engaged in a bout of celebratory drinking after Leo returned from the card tables the previous night.
Walker might act as Leo's valet, but he looked nothing like a gentleman's gentleman. He'd been a ruffian from the Rookerie, caught by circumstance in Paris and hungry for a new life. Leo encountered him by accident and they had become more than gentleman and gentleman's man. They'd become friends and now business partners.
The pounding resumed and Leo could just make out the voice of a man demanding to be admitted.
He groaned and roused himself from the bed, searching around the room for the clothes he'd shed the night before. The sound stopped and he sat back on the bed. Excellent. Walker would deal with it. Send the caller away.
Once, Leo would have been up and out to his stables at dawn. He'd have done a half day's work by this hour. He rubbed his face. That had been an age ago. A different lifetime. Being in London brought back the memory, but he'd carved out a new life for himselffrom very rough rock, he might addbut it was a life that suited him surprisingly well.
Walker knocked and entered his bedchamber. 'Your family calls.'
His family? 'Which ones?'
'All of them.'
All six? His brothers and his sisters? 'What the devil do they want?'
'They would not tell me,' Walker replied.
Leo ran his hand through his hair. 'Why didn't you make some excuse? Say I was out?' It did Leo no credit that he'd avoided them for the fortnight he'd been in town, but he'd been busy. Besides, they'd never understand the direction his life had taken while he'd been away.
Walker cocked an eyebrow. 'I thought it unwise to engage in fisticuffs with a duke, an earl and one tiny, growling dog.'
Good God. His sister Charlotte brought one of her pugs.
'Very well. I will see them.' He pulled his shirt over his head. Walker brushed off his coat with his hand.
Leo's siblings had, no doubt, come with help to offer and would scold him for his behaviour, which had taken a downward path since last he'd been in London, although he trusted they'd never know the half of it. Let them believe the stories about him, that Leo was as much a libertine as his father had once been, but they would not know that Leo had faced situations their father would never have imagined facing.
He shoved his arms into the sleeves of the coat and pulled on his boots. 'I have the feeling I will not enjoy this.'
He left the bedchamber and entered the sitting room.
His brothers and sisters immediately turned to him. They stood in a circle. In fact, they'd even rearranged his seating into a circle.
'Leo!' Nicholas spoke first. As duke, he was head of the family. 'Good morning.'
Charlotte's pug yapped from under her arm.
Justine rushed over to him, clasping both his hands. 'Leo, how good it is to see you. You look dreadful.' She touched his cheek and spoke with some surprise.
'Indeed.' Brenner joined her.
He must look a sight. Unshaven. Rumpled clothes. Bloodshot eyes.
Brenner searched his face. 'Are you unwell?'
'Not at all,' Leo replied. 'Late night.'
Brenner and Justine comprised the most complex of his unusual sibling relations. She was his half-sister by his father, and Brenner, now Lord Linwall, was his half-brother by his mother. They were married to each other. Their love affair happened right after Leo's parents died.
Brenner flashed him one more worried look before wrapping his arms around Leo in a brotherly hug. The others swarmed around him. Charlotte burst into tears and wept against his chest. Nicholas and Stephen slapped him on the back. Even the pug raced around his feet and tried to jump up his legs. Only Annalise held back, but that was typical of her. She was observing the scene and would probably make a painting of it and call it The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Only he had no intention of returning to the well-meaning bosom of his family. He was just passing through, literally waiting for his ship to come in.
'What are you doing here?' he managed to ask.
Nicholas clapped his hands. 'Come. Let us all sit and we will tell you.'
One of the chairs was set just a little inside the circle. That was the one they left for him.
Nicholas leaned forwards. 'We are here out of concern for you.'
Of course they were. 'Concern?' They intended to fix things for him. Take care of him as they'd always done.
'We are so afraid for you, Leo!' Ever the dramatist, Charlotte punctuated this with a sob. 'What will become of you?' Her dog jumped onto her lap and licked her face.
This was all nonsense. 'What the devil are you talking about?'
Nicholas spoke. 'You are spending your time drinking, womanising and gambling.'
He certainly looked the part this morning.
'It won't do,' Nicholas went on. 'It is time you found some direction in your life.'
'Some useful occupation,' Stephen explained.
'Before it is too late,' Charlotte added.
It appeared that rumours of his rakish living had preceded him. To be sure, he often stayed up all night playing cards, but he womanised hardly at all and actually drank very little.
Except for this morning.
They could not know of his more clandestine dealings, one that nearly got him killed, and others that skirted the law and earned him a great deal of wealth.
Leo started to rise from his seat. 'I assure you, I am well able to handle myself.'
Brenner, who was seated next to him, put a hand on his shoulder and silently implored him to stay in the chair.
He sat back down. 'Do not trouble yourselves about me.'
'But we do,' whispered Annalise. 'I mean, we must trouble ourselves.'
Brenner took on a tone of reasonableness. 'We understood your need to get away, to travel. It was good for you to see something of the world, but now'
'Now you are just drinking and gaming,' Justine broke in. 'You avoid the family. You avoid healthy pursuits.'
How easily they believed the worst of him. And how readily they assumed it was their job to fix him.
'You cannot know my pursuits.' He gritted his teeth.
'Oh, yes, we can.' Nicholas levelled his gaze at him. 'We have ways of finding out everything.'
Not everything, Leo thought. They obviously knew nothing about his investments. He'd wager a pony that they had never heard of what he and Walker had been through. And they'd never known the real reason he had fled England, why he still had no use for London society.
One after the other they begged him to change his life, to abandon his pursuit of pleasure. They implored him to care about something again, to invest his hopes and dreams in something.
He ought to tell them, but the shipment of goods he was expecting was not precisely done to the letter of the law. Not that it would hurt anyone.
'The thing is ' Nicholas glanced towards Brenner, who nodded approval. 'We have a surprise for you.'
Stephen moved to the edge of his seat. 'We've rebuilt the stable at Welbourne Manor! And the outbuildings. Bigger and better than before. It is all ready for you. Complete with a fine breeding pair from my stables, already in residence at the Manor. Say the wordtoday, if you likeand I'll take you to Tattersall's to buy more horses. If you need money'
Leo felt the blood rush to his face. 'No.'
Charlotte piped up. 'Nothing has changed at Welbourne Manor. Even the servants are the same. Halton, Signore Napoli, Thomas'
'It is waiting for you,' Justine added. 'What do you say, Leo?'
Leo regarded each of them in turn. 'I sold Welbourne Manor to all of you. It is not mine any more. I no longer wish to breed horses. And I am not staying.'
'Leo' Brenner began.
'No.' He spoke firmly. 'I do not need help. And I especially do not need for you to tell me what to do.'
'We are not.' Brenner protested.
It was no use to explain to them. He did not need them to help him. He did not need anyone. He'd proven it to himself. He had left the country after losing everything, and, almost out of nothing, built a solid fortune. Without a good name. Without top-lofty connections. What's more, he no longer sought the good opinion of the ton. He'd discovered self-reliance was more valuable than what society thought of him.
'I refuse to discuss this further.' Leo kept his voice firm. 'If you continue, I will walk out the door.' He softened. 'Tell me about yourselves. How are you faring? How many nieces and nephews do I have? I confess to have lost count.'
He only half listened as they proudly filled him in on their children, their lives. When they spoke, their faces glowed with contentment and deep satisfaction. They were happy and that gladdened him.
But their visit brought back memories. Of his dreams for Welbourne Manor, and a similar happiness that had almost been within his reach.