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Lady Chelsea MillsBeckman, always the epitome of grace and charm, launched the thick marblebacked book of sermons directly at the head of her brother, Thomas, as of the past two years the seventeenth Earl of Brean.
Her aim was woefully off, and the tome missed him completely, which did nothing to improve her mood.
His lordship bent down to retrieve the book, inspecting the spine for any hint of damage before closing it and setting it on his desk. He was a man in his early forties, too well fed, and with a pink complexion that always seemed to border on the shiny. He thought himself handsome and brilliant, but was neither. He more closely resembled, Chelsea believed, an expensively dressed pig.
"God's words, Chelsea, delivered through the holy Reverend Francis Flotley himself. 'A woman's role is to obey, and her greatest gift her compliance with the superior wisdom of men. Let her gently be led in her inferior intellect, like the sheep in the field, or else otherwise lose her way and be branded morally bereft, a harlot in heart and soul, and worthy only of the staff.'"
The siblings had been closeted in the study in Portland Place for little more than a quarterhour on this fine late April morning, and yet this was already the fourth time her brother had quoted from the book of sermons. Which, clearly, had been at least one time too many, as it had prompted the aforementioned action of her ladyship wrenching the book from his hand and sending it winging at him.
"Herd us poor, silly, brainless women, lead us gently by the hand as long as we obey, and beat us with the staff if we refuse to behave like sheep. That's what that means. What a pitiful mouthful of claptrap," Chelsea countered, attempting to control her breathing in her agitation. "You're a parrot, Thomas, mouthing words you've learned but haven't taken the time to understand. And did you ever notice, brother mine, that all of this nonsense is always penned by men? Is that what's next for me? You're going to beat me? As I recall the thing, you were once rather proficient with the whip, and not averse to employing it on someone who could not defend himself."
The earl quickly rose to his feet, open hand raised as if to strike his sister down, but then just as quickly seated himself once more, pasting a truly terrible smile of brotherly indulgence on his pink face.
"Certainly not, Chelsea. But you have just proved the reverend's point," he said, joining his hands in a prayerful attitude. "Women have not the intellect of men, nor do they possess the cerebral restraint necessary to combat rude and obnoxious outbursts. But I will forgive you, for it is just as the reverend has said, again, only delivering God's message as he hears it spoken to him."
"God talks to the man? Well, then, perhaps I should try having a small chat with God myself, and then the next time He talks to the reverend He can tell him to stop trying to rub up against my bosom as he pretends to bless me. That may not do much to enlarge my small intellect, but it might just save the reverend from a sharp kick in the shins."
The earl sighed. "Scurrilous accusations will get you nowhere, Chelsea, and only show your willingness to impugn the reverend's character by spouting baseless charges in order to
in order to get your own way."
"Forgot the rest of the words, did you? I mean it, Thomas, you're a parrot. You're devout by rote, certainly not by inclination."
"We aren't discussing me, we're discussing you."
"Not if I don't want to, and I don't!"
"We've moved beyond what you want, Chelsea. You've had your opportunities. Three Seasons, and you're still unwed, and very near to being on the shelf. Papa was much too indulgent of your fits and starts, and you missed a Season as we mourned his passing, may the merciful Lord rest his soul. Now we are halfway through yet another Season, and you have thus far refused the suits of no fewer than four gentlemen of breeding."
"And one outandout fortune hunter who had you entirely hoodwinked," Chelsea reminded him as she paced the carpet in front of the desk, unable to remain still. Her brother had always been stupid. Now he was both stupid and holy, hiding his fears behind this new supposed devotion, and that somehow made it all worse. She believed she'd liked him better when he'd been just stupid.
"Be that as it may, and there is still a question on that head, if you will not choose a husband, it is left to me to select one for you, as I helped do for your sister. You should be immensely flattered that he has taken an interest, most especially as he has firsthand knowledge of your.your proclivity for obtrusive behavior. I can think of no one finer than Reverend Flotley."
"You open your mouth yet again, Thomas, but it's still Francis Flotley's words that come out of it. I can think of no one worse. I'd rather wed a street sweep than put myself in the power of that religious mountebank. I reach my majority in a few weeks, Thomas, and you cannot order me to marry that.that oily creature. Oh, stop frowning. A mountebank, since you obviously aren't of a superior enough intellect to know, is a person who deceives other people for profit. Sometimes it is by selling false cures, and for the reverend, it is selling false salvation. You really think he has a direct conduit to God? I hear Bedlam is full of those who think God speaks to them. You could ask any one of them to intercede for you without paying them a bent penny, and I can go my own way."
"And where would that be, Chelsea?" Her brother was maintaining his composure, something he had struggled long and hard to do ever since he'd nearly died during a bout with the mumps two years earlier, passed to him by one of Madelyn's wetnosed brood of brats It having taken Madelyn a run through a pair of female offspring before she'd succeeded in producing a male heir for her husband, who'd then at long last agreed to leave her alone, so she was free to regain her figure, buy out Bond Street every second fortnight and sleep with any man who wasn't her husband.
At any rate, and Madelyn's diseasespreading offspring to one side, Thomas was devoutly religious now, having promised God all sorts of sacrifices in exchange for rising up from what could have been his deathbed, and it had been the Reverend Francis Flotley who had successfully delivered, and continued to deliver, the earl's messages to God in his name.
Since their father's untimely death and Thomas's own near brush with that final answer to the trial of living, the earl no longer drank strong spirits. He did not gamble. He'd given his mistress her conge and was now, for the first time in their marriage, faithful to his wifewho, Chelsea knew, was none too happy about that turn of events. He wore expensive yet simple black suits with no ornamentation. He did not lose his temper. He read the evening prayers in the drawing room each night at ten and retired at eleven.
And he continued to pour copious amounts of money into the purse of Reverend Flotley, who, Chelsea believed, had decided marrying the earl's younger sister to be a guarantee that the supply of funds would then never be cut off, even if his lordship were ever to suffer a crisis of faith
or meet another lady of negotiable moral standards he might want to set up in a discreet lodging somewhere.
"Where would I be? Are you threatening to toss me into the streets, Thomas?"
He sighed. "I did not wish for it to come to this, but I have sole control over your funds from Mama until you are married. You have a roof over your head because of my generosity. You have bread on your plate and clothes on your back because I am a giving and forgiving man. But more to the point, Francis and I see your immortal soul in danger, Chelsea, thanks to your headstrong and modern ways. I'm afraid you leave me no choice but to make this decision for you. The banns will be called for the first time this Sunday at Brean, and you and the reverend will be wed there at the end of this month."
Chelsea was caught between panic and anger. Anger won. "The devil we will! You think you almost died, and your answer to that is to sacrifice me? I thought it was only your cheeks that got fatnot your entire head. I won't do it, Thomas. I won't. I'd rather reside beneath London Bridge."
The earl opened the book of sermons and lowered his gaze to the page, signaling that the interview was concluded. But he could not conceal that his hands were shaking, and Chelsea knew she had nearly succeeded in rousing his temper past the point the Reverend Flotley had deemed good for her brother's soul. "Not London Bridge at least. We leave for Brean in the morning, where you will be made safe until the ceremony."
Chelsea felt her stomach clench into a knot. He was planning to make her a prisoner until the wedding. "Made safe? Locked up, that's what you mean, don't you? You can't do that, Thomas. Thomas! Look at me! I'm your sister, not your possession. You can't do that."
He turned the page, ignoring her.
She whirled about on her heel and fled the room, her mind alive with bees and possibilities
and filled with one thought in particular, a memory that had been conjured up thanks to Thomas.
When she reached the main foyer she told the footman to order her mare brought round and then raced up the sweep of staircase to change into her riding habit before her brother came to his senses and realized that a prisoner tomorrow, warned of that pending imprisonment, should also be a prisoner today.
"So, I've been lying here thinking, and I've come up with a question for you. Are you ready? Hell and damnation, man, are you even awake?"
There was a muffled and faintly piteous groan from somewhere in the near vicinity, and Beau turned his head on the couch cushionnot without experiencing a modicum of cranial discomfortto see his youngest brother lying on the facing couch, facedown and still fully dressed in his evening clothes. Although one of his black evening shoes seemed to have gone missing.
"A moan is sufficient, thank you. Now, here it is, so pay attention if you pleasehow drunk is it to be drunk as a lord?" Beau Blackthorn asked Robin Goodfellow Blackthorn, affectionately known to his siblings and many friends as Puck.
"Sterling question, Beau, sterling. Not sure, though," Puck, yet another victim of their dear actress mother's intense admiration for William Shakespeare, replied, lifting his head and squinting through the long, dark blond hair that fell across his face as he commenced staring intently at a brass figurine depicting a scantily clad goddess with sixno, eightoddly extended and bent arms. At least he probably hoped that was it, because if there were, in reality, only two arms, then he was as drunk as any lord had been in the history of lords. "Twice as drunk as a.a what's it called? Three wheels, place to pile things. Dirt, stones. Turnips. Wait, wait, I'll figure it out. Oh, right. A wheelbarrow? That's it, drunk as a wheelbarrow."
Beau stared at the halfempty wine bottle he held upright against his chest as he lay sprawled on the matching couch in the drawing room, realizing that he no longer possessed any urge to relieve it of the remainder of its contents. Not if he was still drunk enough to be asking his irreverent and weakbrained brother for answers to anything. Besides, his stomach was beginning to protest, threatening to throw back what had already been deposited in it.
"Still the halfwit, aren't you, Puck? Wheelbarrows don't drink. Stands to reason. They don't have mouths. Remember old Sutcliffe? He once said he was drunk as David's sow. Don't know any Davids, do you? One with a sow, remember, that's the important part. Not enough to know a David. Has to be a sow in there somewhere."
"David Carney is married to a sow," Puck said, grinning. "Says so all the time. I've seen her, and he's right. Are we still drunk, do you think? Shouldn't be, not seeing as it's light outside those bloody windows over there, and the mantel clock just struck twelve while you were talking sows. Or that might have been eleven. I may have lost count. Or perhaps we're dead?"
"The way my head is beginning to pound, that might be best, but I don't think so. Now, back to the point. I'm drunk, you're drunk. We're drunk as bastards, surely. But are we as drunk as lords? Can bastards be as drunk as lords?"
"You going to start prattling on again about bastards and lords? Thought we'd done with that by the time we'd cracked the third bottle. Bastards, I have found, can't be anything as lords," Puck said, cautiously levering himself upward far enough to swivel about and sit facing his brother. He pushed his hands straight back through his nearly shoulderlength hair, so that he could tuck it behind his ears. "See my ribbon anywhere? It'll all just keep falling in my eyes otherwise."
"I could ring for somebody to fetch Sidney. The man owns a scissors, which is more than I can say for your valet."
"Blasphemy! The ladies would never forgive me. My hair is a necessary part of my considerable charms, don't you know. If I am to be Puck, then I shall be Puck. Mischievous. A sprite, a magical woodland creature."
"And none too bright."
"Ha! So you say. But still, much betterlooking and virile, and definitely more amusing. Every maiden's dream, although I've not much time for maidens. They demand so much wooing, and once you've finally got them into bed they don't know what they're doing. By and large, a dreadful waste of time."
Beau had also sat up and placed the wine bottle on the floor, next to the table positioned between the pair of couches, so that he could better rub at his aching head. "Is that it? Are you done now? Because there are times I think you'll never truly grow up. I left and you were a child, and I came back to find you older, yet no wiser."