The Beleaguered Earl
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Abandoning the curb he'd held on his temper for the past two days, Maxwell Longford, Earl of Merimont, slammed his study door hard enough to rattle the wall. Emptying a glass of brandy in one long gulp, he poured another, then paced the floor.
Damn Montcalm! Why did he have to come the tyrant over everyone within reach? And damn himself for thinking his father might have mellowed. The Marquess of Montcalm would never mellow. He was a disapproving perfectionist who demanded instant obedience to even the stupidest orders.
"Never!" he spat, emptying and refilling his glass. How could he live with himself if he abandoned his hopes, his dreams--his very soul--to a hidebound fool?
"Balderdash!" He shook his head to dislodge his conscience.
The man hated independent thought and never missed an opportunity to prohibit pleasure--like that incident five years ago.
He knew better than to complain near his father, but conflicting invitations from two friends had irritated him into reckless grumbling. Montcalm had overheard, disparaged both gentlemen, then ordered him to remain at Widicomb Abbey for the rest of the summer.
That was when Max had moved permanently to London, a change he'd never regretted. Remaining at home would have locked him into perpetual childhood, for Montcalm refused to admit that he was capable of making his own decisions. If he'd stayed, he would have become an abject creature with no will or mind of his own. And that would bode ill for the marquessate when it finally came into his hands.
Or so he had claimed at the time, for protecting his inheritance was a noble goal. The truth was less lofty. He'd been tired of hisfather's demands and the constant reminders of past blunders. The only way to find peace had been to leave.
He reached for the brandy decanter, then shook his head. Fogging his brain would solve nothing. Only clear thinking would extricate him from the bog tugging at his knees.
His latest trek home had been a disaster because of bad planning and worse execution. He should have known that his summer in Brighton would still be an issue. Montcalm hated Prinny, considering him disloyal to the king and a shocking influence on impressionable young men. He'd opposed the Regency bill last winter and dismissed Brighton as a den of iniquity because of Prinny's patronage. So he interpreted Max's visit as a personal insult.
But that wasn't his only mistake, he admitted, kicking aside a stool so he had more room to pace. Montcalm respected no opinions but his own. He even ridiculed friends who ignored his advice, so why would he treat his son any differently? Never mind that Max was thirty years old and considered intelligent and sensible by those who truly knew him. By now Montcalm was too set in his ways to change.
He cursed himself for not recognizing that truth earlier. He'd been so wrapped up in his plans that he'd forgotten the nature of his opponent. So he'd made his request to a man already nursing a dozen grievances, had begun his argument in the middle instead of the beginning, then had allowed Montcalm to divert him into side issues that touched off new disputes.
Thus he was now in a worse position than before.
Yet approaching his father had been his only option, he admitted, dropping into a chair. If only he had kept his head and introduced his request differently! But his mind had ceased working the moment he'd crossed the Abbey's threshold.
"Idiot!" he murmured.
His father had been in the hall when he'd arrived, giving him no time even to wash away the dust of travel.
"So you finally came home," he'd growled. "Have you stopped toadeating that fat popinjay, or are you fleeing your creditors again? I will never forget the ignominy of having to haul you out of the River Tick."
The words had stung, as they'd been meant to. Only once had he overspent his allowance--ten years ago, and by a paltry ten guineas--but Montcalm never let him forget it, decrying his profligacy to everyone he knew. The constant complaints made Max seem incompetent, though in truth his allowance was less than half of what his friends enjoyed.
"Of course not," he'd protested. "But I--"
"Then you are headed for another of your disgraceful hunting parties. Wasting the summer consorting with fools was bad enough, but this is beyond bearing. Have you no care for the family name?" With that, the man had launched his favorite tirade, decrying the calumny Max was heaping upon a name that had been respected for centuries. He interpreted every incident in the worst light, accepted exaggerated rumors as truth, and even believed that the latest parody of society's young bucks depicted Max instead of mixing his funniest scrapes with those of a dozen others. Montcalm conveniently ignored the very real scandals perpetrated by previous marquesses--such as his grandfather, who had fleeced more than one unsuspecting greenling, and a more distant ancestor, who had fled the country after killing a baron.
Max had been unwilling to endure an hour of the same old complaints, so he'd interrupted--another serious misjudgment, he admitted now. "I wish to run Dearborn," he'd said, naming the poorest of the family estates. "It could be--"
Montcalm's face had purpled. "Never!" he'd hissed. "I won't have you conducting your debaucheries on my land. I have put up with your nonsense long enough, Maxwell. You must settle down and prove that you are worthy of your breeding."
"Exactly. Dearborn could become far more producti--"
"You will obey your father! Cease your drunken revels and your despicable raking. Remain at home where I can prevent you from making a greater fool of yourself. How can I hold my head up when I hear your name on every tongue? It is long past time that you grew up."
Max rubbed his temples, trying to block Montcalm's final tirade from his mind, but the charges echoed as they had for two days--profligate ... fool ... wastrel ... embarrassment to the noble family of Longford ... wish you had never been born...
He'd heard them a hundred times before, but this time Montcalm had gone a step further. Instead of ordering him to give up his London rooms and return to Widicomb--which he'd done at every meeting for five years--he had canceled Max's allowance to force obedience. With the new quarter due in less than a month, he must find another source of income if he was to remain free.
"I won't return to Widicomb," he swore, again pacing the floor. He would flee the country before he'd give his father that satisfaction. Living at home would land him in Bedlam in a month. He couldn't tolerate constant argument, couldn't live with abandoning his dreams, couldn't remain silent while listening to his father's outdated ideas. Reaching accommodation was impossible, for the man heeded no one and never changed his mind.
Max's reputation was an example. He might be a little rakish and indulge in occasional pranks, but so did his friends, and he was welcomed everywhere. He was no saint, but neither was he the profligate his father depicted. In truth, he was more serious than many heirs to great titles.
Heirs were rarely allowed to do anything productive, but he was bored with idleness. He wanted to practice estate management so he would be ready to handle his inheritance--which was what had prompted this latest trip home. He had meant to describe his interest in agriculture and ask to run Dearborn.
"I'll find another way," he swore, again pacing the room.
He had to. Enduring another thirty years under his father's thumb would drive him to an early grave.
Donning what she hoped was a cheerful smile, Hope Ashburton carried a dinner tray into her mother's bedchamber. This chill was the latest in a long line of ailments that had attacked in recent years. The lady spent more time in bed than on her feet.
"Squire Foley brought you some lovely pork jelly," she announced, setting the tray on a table. "It should have you up in no time. Everyone swears by its restorative powers."
Her mother shrank into the pillows. "You should not have accepted it, Hope. It makes us beholden," she whispered. "Who knows what he will demand in return?"
"One jar of pork jelly hardly creates an obligation." She pulled her chair closer to the bed. "Helping one's neighbors in times of trouble is a friendly gesture that requires no recompense. Did you expect payment for visiting his son when he broke his leg last year? Billy might have remained abed far longer if your efforts had not kept him quiet, as his father knows quite well."
"It was nothing."
"Not according to the squire. He remains grateful."
"So he claims, but I saw how he looked at you the last time he called. Never trust men, Hope. Especially when they smile and bear gifts. They are scheming liars who always want something in return."
"Do not fret yourself into a megrim, Mama. He flirts with all the girls, for he needs a mother for his children. But I have no use for a marriage of convenience, as you well know. So we will accept this gift as recompense for entertaining Billy."
Her mother gasped for breath as she struggled to sit, raising new fears in Hope's heart. If illness had exhausted her this early in autumn, what would happen when winter descended?
"Eat, Mama," she urged gently. "You need to build your strength. I do not like the sound of your cough. Nor do I like your lethargy. If you don't make a firmer effort to recover, I must petition Uncle Edward to send us a London doctor."
"No!" The thin face paled alarmingly. "If he learns that I am ill, he might send one of his servants to help us--or come himself. How can you risk such persecution?" She suddenly blanched. "What if he locked me away, leaving you at his mercy? Don't ever ask a favor of him, Hope. He is evil and will turn any weakness against us." A coughing spasm cut off her voice.
"Then eat, Mother," urged Hope, already regretting her words. This was the worst attack yet. Mentioning her uncle had produced a dangerous amount of agitation. She would never petition him, of course, especially when illness made her mother vulnerable. But she had hoped to spark some interest in recovering.
And her empty threat had done some good, she decided half an hour later. Her mother had consumed more food than in the last three days combined.
Hope bit back a sigh, for their roles had reversed in recent years. Despondency made her mother timid and indecisive, forcing Hope to take charge of the house, nurse her through increasingly serious ailments, and handle Uncle Edward's calls.
Each new illness brought the end closer. One day there would be no recovery, and she would be on her own. Not that it would relieve her of other responsibilities, but she needed her mother's support to stifle her doubts and give her courage.
Could she continue alone? She was twenty-six years old. Despite reading widely, she knew little of the world beyond this small corner of Devonshire. Once her mother was gone, she would have no one who could discuss ideas, share a moment of beauty, or commiserate over defeats. The future loomed as a lonely road leading nowhere.
She shook her head. Such thoughts would encourage melancholy, making it harder to carry on. Fretting was pointless. She would adjust to whatever fate had in store, and at least her home was safe. Grandfather had protected them from most of Edward's malice.
Thoughts of her grandfather stirred ancient dreams, forcing a sigh from her lips. If he had lived another year, she would have married, for he'd planned to bring her out in London.
Stop wishing for the moon, demanded her conscience. His death was fate's way of protecting her from misery. Life was better here, full of purpose and reward. Her mother needed her. Even the tenants needed her, for she was all that stood between them and Uncle Edward's spite.
Unless he forces you to wed...
That was the fear she had been trying to ignore, she admitted. Once her mother was gone, he would give her to the worst man he could find. And not just to remove any claim she might make on him. He wanted her miserable, under the thumb of someone who would treat her like an animal.
This time the shiver sank icy claws deep into her chest.
She had learned much about men in the ten years since death had revealed how dangerous her childhood fantasies had been. Men were bad enough when contentedly pursuing their own interests, as her neighbors demonstrated all too often. But when forced to act against their wills, they became intolerable--like Uncle Edward; like her father; like others her mother had once known. Men were violent creatures who could never be trusted. Rank added an arrogance that worsened their natural tendencies.
So she welcomed spinsterhood. It meant she would never suffer as her mother had done.
"Rest, Mama," she murmured. "I will return in an hour to read to you." Hoisting the tray, she slipped from the room.
"How is she?" asked Mrs. Tweed when Hope reached the kitchen.
"The same, though she ate most of the food this time."
"Wonderful!" The elderly housekeeper clasped her hands to her breast. "I knew it wasn't serious. You fret too much."
"It is early days for rejoicing." Sometimes Mrs. Tweed's optimism irritated her. "Her cough has moved deeper into her chest. This may turn into something worse."
"But she will recover. She is still young." Tears shimmered in her eyes. "I will never forget the day she arrived here--so thin and weak I feared she would lose the babe. That man was a bad one, as I knew from the moment I saw his--"
"Enough, Mrs. Tweed. Those days are far behind us. We will do what we can to aid Mother's recovery, but the outcome is out of our hands." She bustled about, dishing up dinner for herself and her three-person staff and trying to forget the past. But it was difficult.
She was weary of Mrs. Tweed's tales, which had intruded into every conversation for ten years. She saw no reason to dwell on her father now. Besides, the story had a happy ending, for the babe had survived. It was he who had died.
Her childhood had been quiet, with only her grandfather's annual visits to vary the routine. But his death had changed everything. Not only had it brought her uncle into her life, but she still rued that their last meeting had ended in harsh words.
For years, she had foolishly woven dreams of what life would have been like if her father had not died so tragically young. But her grandfather's last visit had destroyed those fantasies. He'd bared her father's crimes, believing she was old enough to hear the truth. In a burst of disbelief, she'd cursed him for maligning his own son. So he'd left--and died of an apoplexy on the way home. Her guilt had increased when her mother verified every one of his claims.
She had left childhood that day. Never again would she accept people's facades as truth. Even her grandfather must have feigned his affection, for he could not have enjoyed those annual reminders of his son's perfidy. Thus his visits must have been an unwanted duty.
Stop this maudlin prattle!
Her life was good. She had a roof over her head, clothes on her back, food in her stomach, and friends nearby. If a meager income meant she must cook and clean, it was a small matter. The highest sticklers might consider her position humiliating, but it was hardly a serious breach of propriety. And who were they to judge? Was she supposed to turn Mrs. Tweed and Rose off because they were too old to do a full day's work? While it was true that Mrs. Tweed was growing forgetful and Rose's rheumatism made it difficult to negotiate stairs, they had nowhere else to go and no money with which to support themselves.
So she kept the house running and took the years one at a time. Brooding on things she could not change served no purpose.
If only her mother's spirits would revive...
Max stumbled into Brook's near dawn. He had two days to find the next quarter's rent or he would be out on the street. Montcalm had placed a notice in the Times declaring that he would no longer pay his son's debts, making Max an instant pariah. Families with well-dowered daughters shunned him, his mistress looked at him askance, and several tradesmen now refused him service. Longfords rarely died young, so it would be years before he inherited his father's fortune.
He had regretfully postponed any hope of running his own estate and turned to finding a steward's position. Implementing Coke's reforms on another man's land would not be as satisfying, but at least he would be doing something he enjoyed.
Or so he'd thought. Harvest was not the ideal time to look for a job, though his luck would have been out anyway, he admitted, handing his hat to the porter. Heirs of marquesses did not work--especially for others. He still prayed for success, but hope was dwindling fast.
He'd tried to stretch his purse by selling his horses, but they had brought less than he'd hoped. Though well trained, the team lacked speed, and their color had recently fallen out of favor. He could not bring himself to sell his books, and the proceeds would hardly pay his bills for long, anyway.
So he was penniless, or nearly so. His last ten guineas rested in his pocket. With two bottles of wine curling in his stomach, he no longer cared about tomorrow. Why not enjoy life while he could?
"That'sh enough for me," slurred Bainbridge, rising as Max entered the gaming room.
"And me," agreed Norton, collecting his winnings.
"Anyone else care for whist?" asked Ashburton, shuffling the deck.
Max shrugged, but took a seat. Brook's was noted for deep play. Ten guineas wouldn't last beyond a single game, and no one would accept his vowels after Montcalm's announcement. But he might as well go down fighting. A loss would change nothing, but a win...
As dawn filtered around the window draperies, he stared at the mound of vowels in front of him--five hundred guineas, which could stretch for two quarters, if he was careful.
Quit while you're ahead, whispered his conscience.
Lady Luck is with you tonight, answered Temptation. Six months isn't much of a reprieve.
It's better than nothing, countered his conscience. By then you can convince someone to give you a chance.
"One more game," he murmured in compromise.
He regretted his words almost immediately. Brandy was turning his thoughts to gibberish. The room brightened and dimmed, making it difficult to see. His ears roared, drowning most conversation.
"I'm for bed," announced Timmons, scribbling a vowel.
His voice pierced the fog shrouding Max's senses. He groped for consciousness, then wished he had not. At least an hour had passed. His winnings had dwindled to a single vowel for twenty guineas.
"I must cut my losses," said Peterson morosely. "Lady Luck has obviously deserted me tonight."
"A game of piquet, Merimont?" asked Ashburton.
"It's growing late," he murmured. Later than ever, he silently acknowledged, cursing himself. He'd just thrown away his reprieve.
"One hand," Ashburton insisted, nodding at the heap of vowels at his elbow. "I'll stake my winnings and Redrock House. No points. Winner take all."
Ashburton shrugged. "Don't you want a chance to recoup?"
"I've nothing to bet."
"I'll take a vowel."
"You know my father won't advance me a shilling."
Ashburton's gaze sharpened. "You could bring him round if you wanted to. I offered you a game, Merimont. Are you a man or a mealy-mouthed stripling?"
Don't do it!
What difference does it make? There must be a thousand guineas in that pile, and he's added an estate. If you walk out, you'll have to crawl home to Widicomb. Will groveling be any worse because of a debt? You might as well make Montcalm suffer for putting you in this position.
"Well?" demanded Ashburton.
Max glanced around the gaming room. Only a few men remained, and none was watching. Letting out a long breath, he scribbled a vowel for ten thousand guineas. "One game."
Dizziness attacked the moment he saw his hand. It would take a miracle to win with these cards. The image of facing his father with a ten-thousand-guinea debt churned his stomach until he feared he would cast up his accounts on the table.
Hope rekindled as they began the declarations. He scored, lost, scored again, won one trick, then two, lost the next...
Dizziness blurred his senses. He couldn't hear, couldn't see, couldn't think...
His head smacked onto the tabletop.
Ashburton laughed. "Damn! Worse hand I've had in my life."
Max pushed himself upright. Ashburton was shuffling cards.
"Who won?" asked Brummell as he and Alvanley sauntered over.
"Merimont." Ashburton shoved the vowels across the table and rose. "Well, I'm for home. Enjoy Redrock, Merimont. She has great amenities." Laughing, he strolled toward the door.
Max stared at the vowels, hardly aware that Brummell and Alvanley remained behind him.
"Must have drained an extra bottle," murmured Brummell. "Not like him to laugh at defeat."
"It's even less like him to wager Redrock. You know how he feels about--"
Max ignored them, shakily counting markers. Ten thousand guineas above his own reckless note. An estate named Redrock. Peterson's team of matched bays. So Ashburton had been playing for high stakes all evening. No wonder Peterson had looked green when he quit; half of society coveted those horses.
Awareness filtered slowly through the haze still clouding his mind. He had no idea how, but he'd won.
He was free.
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