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Harry Pennyngton, Earl of Anneslea, passed his hat and gloves to the servant at White's, squared his shoulders, and strode into the main room to face his enemy. Nicholas Tremaine was lounging in a chair by the fire, exuding confidence and unconcerned by his lesser birth. To see him was to believe he was master of his surroundings, whatever they might be. He reminded Harry of a panther dozing on a tree branch, ready to drop without warning into the lives of other creatures and wreak havoc on their nerves.
And he was a handsome panther at that. In comparison, Harry always felt that he was inferior in some way. Shorter, perhaps, although they were much of the same height and build. And rumpled. For, no matter how much time or money Harry spent on his attire, Tremaine would always be more fashionable. And he did it seemingly without effort.
On the long list of things that annoyed him about the man, his appearance was at the bottom. But it was on the list all the same.
The room was nearly empty, but Harry could feel the shift in attention among the few others present as though there had been a change in the wind. Men looked up from their cards and reading, watching his progress towards Tremaine. They were curious to see what would happen when the two notorious rivals met.
Very well, then. He would give them the show they hoped for. 'Tremaine!' He said it too loudly and with much good cheer.
His quarry gave a start and almost spilled his brandy. He had recognised the voice at once, and his eyes darted around the room, seeking escape. But none was to be had, for Harry stood between him and the door. Harry could see the faint light of irritation in the other man's eyes when he realised that he would have no choice but to acknowledge the greeting. 'Hello, Anneslea.' Then he returned his gaze to the paper he had been reading, showing no desire for further conversation.
How unfortunate for him. 'How goes it for you, old man, in this most blessed of holiday seasons?'
The only response was a nod, followed by a vague grunt that could have indicated satisfaction or annoyance.
Harry smiled and took a chair opposite the fire, facing Tremaine. He took a sip from the brandy that a servant had rushed to bring him. He examined the liquid in the glass, holding it out to catch the firelight. 'A good drink warms the blood on a day like this. There is a chill in the air. I've been tramping up and down Bond Street all morning. Shopping for Christmas gifts. Tailors, jewellers, whatnot. And the fixings for the celebration, of course. What's not to be had in the country must be brought back with me from town.' He waved his hand at the foolishness of it. 'I do not normally take it upon myself. But now that I am alone ' He could almost feel the ears of the others in the room, pricking to catch what he would say next.
Tremaine noticed as well, and gave a small flinch. It was most gratifying.
Harry looked up from his drink into Tremaine's startled face. 'And, by the by, how is Elise?' It was a bold conversational gambit, and he was rewarded with a slight choke from his opponent.
The other man turned to him and sat up straight, his indolence disappearing. His eyes glittered with suppressed rage. 'She is well, I think. If you care, you should go and ask her yourself. She would be glad of the call.'
She would be no such thing. As he remembered their last conversation, Elise had made it plain that if she never saw Harry again it would be too soon. 'Perhaps I will,' he answered, and smiled as though they were having a pleasant discussion about an old friend and nothing more.
It must have disappointed their audience to see the two men behaving as adults on this most delicate of subjects. But their moderate behaviour had not quelled the undercurrent of anticipation. He could see from the corner of his eye that the room had begun to fill with observers. They were reading newspapers, engaging in subdued chat, and gazing out of the bay window while sipping drinks. But every man present was taking care to be uninterested in a most focused fashion, waiting for the cross word that would set the two of them to brawling like schoolboys.
If only it were so easily settled. If Harry could have been sure of a win, he would have met his opponent on the field of honour long before now. The temptation existed to hand his jacket to the nearest servant, roll up his sleeves, raise his fists and lay the bastard out on the hearth rug. But physically, they were evenly matched. A fight would impress no one, should he lose it. And Elise would think even less of him than she did now if he was bested in public by Nicholas Tremaine.
He would have to strike where his rival could least defend himself. In the intellect.
Tremaine eased back in his chair, relaxing in the quiet, perhaps thinking that he had silenced Harry with his indifference. Poor fool. Harry set down his empty glass, made a great show of placing his hands on his knees, gave a contented sigh and continued the conversation as though there were nothing strange about it. Any plans for the holiday?'
'Has Elise made plans?' There was a faint reproof in the man's voice, as though he had a right to take Harry to task on that subject. Harry ignored it.
'You, I mean. Do you have plans? For Christmas?' He smiled to show all the world Elise's plans were no concern of his.
Tremaine glared. 'I am most pleased to have no plans. I intend to treat the day much as any other.'
'Really. May I offer you a bit of advice, Tremaine?'
He looked positively pained at the idea. 'If you must.'
'Try to drum up some enthusiasm towards Christmasfor her sake, at least.'
In response, Tremaine snorted in disgust. 'I do not see why I should. People make far too big a fuss over the whole season. What is it good for, other than a chance to experience diminished sunlight and foul weather while in close proximity to one's fellow man? I find the experience most unpleasant. If others choose to celebrate, I wish them well. But I do not wish to bother others with my bad mood, and I would prefer that they not bother me.' He stared directly at Harry, so there could be no doubt as to his meaning.
Perfect. Harry's smile turned sympathetic. 'Then I wonder if you will be any better suited to Elise than I was. She adores this season. She cannot help it, I suppose. It's in her blood. She waits all year in anticipation of the special foods, the mulled wine, the singing and games. When we were together she was constantly dragging trees where they were never intended to be, and then lighting candles in them until I was quite sure she meant to burn the house down for Twelfth Night. I doubt she will wish to give that up just to please you. There is no changing her when she has an idea in her head. I know from experience. It is you who must alterto suit her.'
A variety of emotions were playing across Tremaine's face, fighting for supremacy. Harry watched in secret enjoyment as thoughts formed and were discarded. Should he tell Anneslea what to do with his advice? It had been offered innocently enough. Accuse him of ill treatment in some way? Not possible. Should they argue, Tremaine would gain nothing, for society would find him totally in the wrong. Harry's only offence was his irrational good humour. And Tremaine was at a loss as to how to combat it.
At last he chose to reject the advice, and to ignore the mention of Elise. 'I am adamant on the subject. I have nothing against the holiday itself, but I have no patience for the folderol that accompanies it. Nor am I likely to change my mind on the subject to please another.'
'That is what I thought once.' Harry grinned. 'And now look at me.' He held out his arms, as if to prove his honest intentions. 'I'm positively overflowing with good will towards my fellow men. Of course, once you have experienced Christmas as we celebrate it at Anneslea Manor ' He paused and then snapped his fingers. 'That's it, man. Just the thing. You must come out to the house and see how the feast is properly done. That will put you to rights.'
Tremaine stared at him as though he'd gone mad. 'I will do no such thing.'
The other men in the room were listening with obvious interest now. Harry could hear chuckles and whispers of approval.
'No, I insist. You will see how the season should be shared, and it will melt your heart on the subject. I doubt there is a better gift that I could offer to Elise than to teach you the meaning of Christmas. Come to Lincolnshire, Tremaine. We are practically family, after all.'
There was definitely a laugh from somewhere in the room, although it was quickly stifled. And then the room fell silent, waiting for the response.
If it had been a matter of fashion, or some caustic witticism he was directing at another, Tremaine would have loved being the centre of attention. But today he hated the idea that he was the butt of a joke, rather than Harry. There was a redness creeping from under Tremaine's collar as his anger sought an outlet. At last he burst out, 'Not in a million years.'
'Oh, come now.' Harry pulled a face. 'We can make a bet of it. What shall it be?' He pretended to consider. 'Gentlemen, bring the book. I am willing to bet twenty pounds to Tremaine, and any takers, that he shall wish me a Merry Christmas by Twelfth Night.'
Someone ran for the betting book, and there was a rustling of hands in pockets for banknotes, pens scratching IOUs, and offers to hold the stakes. It was all accompanied by a murmur of agreement that hell would freeze before Tremaine wished anyone a Merry Christmas, so well known was his contempt for the season. And the chance that anything might induce him to say those particular words to Harry Pennyngton were equal to the devil going to Bond Street to buy ice skates.
But while the room was raised in chaos, the object of the wager stared steadfastly into the fire, refusing to acknowledge what was occurring.
Harry said, loud enough for all to hear over the din, 'It does not matter if you do not wish to bet, Tremaine, for the others still wish to see me try. But it will be easier to settle the thing if you will co-operate.' Then he addressed the room, 'Come out to my house in the country, all of you.' He gestured to include everyone. 'Bring your families, if you wish. There is more than enough space. Then, when Tremaine's resolve weakens, you will all be there to witness it.' He stared at the other man. 'And if it does not, if you are so sure of your position, then a wager on it will be the easiest money you could make.'
The mention of finances brought Tremaine to speechjust as Harry had known it would. 'I no longer need to make a quick twenty pounds by entering into foolish wagers. Especially not with you, Anneslea. A visit to your house at Christmas would be two weeks of tedious company to prove something I already know. It would be an attempt to change my character in a way I do not wish. It is utter nonsense.'
Harry grinned. 'You would not find it so if the wager were over something you truly desired. Now that you have received your full inheritance, I suppose twenty quid is nothing to you. I have no real desire to spend a fortnight in your company either, Tremaine. For I swear you are one of the most disagreeable fops in Christendom. But I do care for Elise's happiness. And if she means to have you, then you must become a better man than you are.' He touched a finger to his chin, pretending to think. 'I have but to find the thing you want, and you will take the wager, right enough.' Then he reached into his pocket and pulled the carefully worded letter from his breast pocket. 'Perhaps this will change your mind.'
He offered it to Tremaine and watched the colour drain from the man's face as he read the words. Others in the room leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the paper, but Harry stepped in to block their view.
'For Tremaine's eyes only, please. This is a matter between gentlemen.' For a moment he gave vent to his true feelings and let the words drip with the irony he felt at having to pretend good fellowship for the bastard in the seat in front of him. Then he turned back to the crowd. 'The side bet will in no way affect our fun. And it will be just the thing to convince our victim of the need to take a holiday trip to Anneslea.'
Or so he hoped. Tremaine was still staring at his offer, face frozen in surprise. When he looked up at Harry their eyes locked in challenge. And it was Tremaine who looked away first. But he said nothing, merely folded the paper and tucked it into his own pocket before exiting the room.
Harry smiled to himself, oblivious of the chaos around him.
And now he had but to wait.