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Merrick St Magnus did nothing by halves, including the notorious Greenfield Twins. Even now, the legendary courtesans were delectably arranged in varying degrees of dishabille on the drawing room's long Venetian divan. His eyes on the first Greenfield twin, Merrick plucked an orange slice from a silver tray and gave it an indolent roll in powdered sugar, in no way oblivious to the charms of her lovely bosom pushed to the very limits of decency by the dual efforts of a tightly laced corset and a low decolletage.
'One sweet temptation deserves another, ma chere; he said in liquid tones, his eyes meaningfully raking her body, noticing how the pulse note at the base of her long neck leapt in appreciation of his open seduction. Merrick skimmed the orange slice across her slightly parted lips, the tip of her tongue making pretty work of licking the powdery sugar, all the while suggesting she'd be quite apt at licking more than her lips.
He was going to enjoy tonight. More than that, he was going to enjoy winning the bet that currently filled pages of White's infamous book of wagers and collecting the winnings tomorrow. He stood to make a respectable sum that would see him through a recent bad run at the tables. Certainly men had 'had' the lovely Greenfield sisters, but no man had obtained carnal knowledge of them both at the same time.
At the other end of the divan, twin number two gave a coy pout. 'What about me, Merrick? Am I not a temptation?'
'You, ma belle, are a veritable Eve.' Merrick let his hand hover over the fruit platter as if contemplating with great deliberation which fruit to select. 'Ah, for you, my Eve, a fig, I think, for the pleasures of Eden that await a man in your garden.'
His literary references were for naught. She pouted again, perplexed. 'My name isn't Eve.'
Merrick stifled a sigh. Think about the money. He flashed a rakish smile, popping the fig into her mouth and giving her a compliment she would understand. 'I never can tell which of you is the prettiest.' But he definitely could tell which one was smarter. He dropped a hand to the expanse of twin number two's exposed bosom and drew a light circle on her skin with his index finger, winning a coy smile. Twin one had her hands at his shoulders, massaging as she pulled the shirt-tails from his waistband. It was time to get down to business.
That was when it happenedhis manservant began banging on the receiving room door.
'Not right now,' Merrick called, but the banging persisted.
'Maybe he wants to join us,' twin one suggested, unfazed by the interruption.
His man of all work would not be deterred. 'We have an emergency, milord.' He pressed from the other side of the door.
Damn it all, he was going to have to get up and see what Fillmore wanted. Between lost literary references and intrusive servants, this could be going better. Merrick pushed to his feet, shirt-tails loose. He placed a gallant kiss on the hand of each twin. 'A moment, mes amours'
He purposely strode across the floor and pulled open the door just a fraction. Fillmore knew what he was doing in here, of course, and Fillmore probably even knew why. But that didn't mean Merrick wanted him to witness it first-hand. If he thought too much about it, the whole scenario was a bit lowering. He was broke and trading the one thing he did better than anything else for the one thing he needed more than anything else: sex for money, not that anyone else realised it.
'Yes, Fillmore?' Merrick managed a supercilious arch of his eyebrow. 'What is our emergency?'
Fillmore wasn't the normal manservant. The arched eyebrow affected him as much as the Miltonesque reference had affected twin not-so-smart. Fillmore puffed himself up and said, 'The emergency, milord, is your father.'
'Fillmore, you are aware, I believe, that I prefer my problems to be shared.'
'Yes, milord, as you say, our emergency.'
'Well, out with it, what has happened?'
Fillmore passed him a white sheet of paper already unfolded.
Merrick had another go at the arched eyebrow. 'You might as well tell me, clearly you've already read the message.' Really, Fillmore ought to show at least some slight remorse over reading someone else's post; not that it wasn't a useful trait on occasion, just not a very genteel one.
'He's coming to town. He'll be here the day after next,' Fillmore summarised with guiltless aplomb.
Every part of Merrick not already in a state of stiffness went hard with tension. 'That means he could be here as early as tomorrow afternoon.' His father excelled at arriving ahead of schedule and this was an extraordinarily premeditated act. His father meant to take him by surprise. One could only guess how far along the road his father had been before he'd finally sent word of his imminent arrival. Which meant only one thing: there was going to be a reckoning.
The conclusion begged the question: which rumours had sent the Marquis hot-footing it to town? Had it been the curricle race to Richmond? Probably not. That had been weeks ago. If he'd been coming over that, he would have been here long before now. Had it been the wager over the opera singer? Admittedly that had become more public than Merrick would have liked.
But it wasn't the first time his affaires had been conducted with an audience.
'Does he say why?' Merrick searched the short letter.
'It's hard to say. We've had so many occasions,' Fill-more finished with an apologetic sigh.
'Yes, yes, I suppose it doesn't matter which episode brings him to town, only that we're not here to greet him.' Merrick pushed a hand through his hair with an air of impatience. He needed to think and then he needed to act quickly.
'Are we sure that's wise?' Fillmore enquired, 'I mean, based on the last part of the letter, perhaps it would be better if we stayed and were appropriately penitent.'
Merrick scowled. 'Since when have we ever adopted a posture of penitence when it comes to my father?' He wasn't in the least bit intimidated by his father. Leaving town was not an act of cowardice. This was about being able to exert his own will. He would not give his father the satisfaction of knowing he controlled another of his grown sons. His father controlled everything and everyone that fell into his purvey, including Merrick's older brother, Martin, the heir. Merrick refused to be catalogued as another of his father's puppets.
'Since he's coming to town to cut off our allowance until we reform our ways. It's later in the note,' Fill-more informed him.
He'd never been the fastest of readers. Conversation was so much more entertaining. But there they were at the bottom of the letter, the words so curt and glaring he could almost hear his father's voice behind them: I am curtailing your access to funds until such time as your habits are reformed.
Merrick scoffed. 'He can curtail the allowance all he wants since "we" don't touch it anyway.' It had occurred to him years ago that in order to be truly free of his father, he could not be reliant on anything his father offered, the usual second-son allowance included. The allowance lay tucked away in an account at Coutts and Merrick chose instead to live by the turn of a card or the outcome of a profitable wager. Usually it was enough to keep him in rent and clothes. His well-earned reputation for bedroom pleasure did the rest.
His father could halt the allowance for as long as he liked. That wasn't what bothered Merrick. It was the fact that his father was coming at all. The one thing they agreed on was the need for mutual distance. Merrick liked his father's jaded ethics as little as his father liked his more flexible standards. Coming to London was a death knell to his Season and it was barely June. But Merrick wasn't outmanoeuvred yet.
He needed to think and he needed to think with his brain as opposed to other body parts. That meant the twins had to go. Merrick shut the door and turned back to the twins with a short, gallant bow of apology. 'Ladies, I regret the emergency is immediate. You will need to leave.'
And so they did, taking his chance at two hundred pounds with them at a point where money was tight and his time was tighter.
'Fillmore, how much do we owe?' Merrick sprawled on the now significantly less-populated divan. He ran through the numbers in his head; the boot maker, his tailor and other sundry merchants would need to be paid before he left. He wouldn't give his father the satisfaction of seeing to his debt. It might create the illusion his father had room to negotiate.
Damn, but this was a fine pickle. He was usually an adequate steward of his funds and usually a fair judge of character. He never should have played cards with Stevenson. The man was known to cheat.
'Seven hundred pounds including this month's rent on the rooms.'
'How much do we have?'
'Around eight hundred to hand.'
It was as he'd thoughtenough to clear the bills with a little left over. Not enough to survive another month in the city, however, especially not during the Season. London was deuced expensive.
Fillmore cleared his throat. 'Might I suggest that one way to cut expenses would be for us to stay at the family town house? Rent for rooms in a fashionable neighbourhood is an extravagance.'
'Live with my father? No, you may not suggest it. I've not lived with him for ages. I don't mean to start now, especially since it's what he wants.' Merrick sighed. 'Bring me the invitations from the front table.'
Merrick searched the pile for inspiration, looking for a high-stakes card party, a bachelor's weekend in Newmarket that would get him out of town, anything that might assuage the current situation. But there was nothing amusing: a musicale, a Venetian breakfast, a ball, all in London, all useless. Then at the bottom of the pile he found it: the Earl of Folkestone's house party. Folkestone was hosting a party at the family seat on the Kent coast. Originally, he'd not considered going. It was three days to Kent on dry roads to even drier company. But now it seemed the ideal locale. Folkestone was a crusty traditionalist of a man, but Merrick knew Folkestone's heir, Jamie Burke, from their days at Oxford, and he'd attended a soiree hosted by Lady Folkestone early in the Season, which explained where the invitation had come from. He'd been a model guest, flirting with all the wallflowers until they had bloomed. Ladies liked a guest who knew how to do his duty and Merrick knew how to do his superbly.
'Pack our bags, Fillmore. We're going to Kent,' Merrick said with a finality he didn't feel. He didn't fool himself into believing a house party in Kent was an answer to his woes. It was merely a temporary salve. London was expensive, yes, but his freedom was proving to be more so.