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'Good God, Nathaniel, what have you done to yourself?' Lord Gabriel Faulkner, Earl of Westbourne, exclaimed with less than his usual haughty aplomb.
Gabriel had come to an abrupt halt in the doorway of the bedchamber on first sighting his friend as he lay prostrate upon the bed. Lord Nathaniel Thorne's, Earl of Osbourne's, face was an array of cuts and rainbow-coloured bruises; a wide bandage about the bareness of his muscled chest attested to the possibility of several ribs also being broken.
'Begging your pardon, ma'am.' Gabriel recovered himself enough to turn and give an apologetic bow to the lady standing in the hallway beside him.
'Not at all, my lord,' Mrs Gertrude Wilson, Osbourne's aunt, dismissed briskly. 'I suffered the same feelings of shock upon first seeing the extent of my nephew's injuries four days ago.'
'Would the two of you stop discussing me as if I were not here?' The patient was obviously less than pleased with this development.
'The physician said you are to rest, Nathaniel,' his aunt instructed sternly before turning that same steely-eyed attention on Gabriel. 'I will leave the two of you to talk now, my lord. But for no longer than ten minutes,' she warned. 'As you see, Nathaniel is more in need of peace and quiet than conversation.' She turned back into the hallway. 'Come along, Betsy,' she added. 'It is time for Hector's walk.'
Gabriel was rendered completely mystified by this last comment until another figure stepped out from the shadows of the hallway: a young, slender girl, with ebony curls surrounding the pale oval of a face made beautiful by huge blue eyes, clutching a small white dog in her arms.
'If I have to suffer much more of this mollycoddling I will very likely resort to wringing someone's neck,' Nathaniel grumbled as soon as his aunt and her companion had departed and the two gentlemen were at last left alone in the bedchamber. 'It is so good to see you, Gabe,' he added more warmly as he struggled to sit up, the grimace on his face evidence, despite his denials, that it was a painful business.
'Stay where you are, man.' Gabriel crossed to his friend's bedside, the usual look of determination now back upon a haughtily handsome face dominated by shrewd midnight-blue eyes. Tall and dark, and dressed in a perfectly tailored black superfine, silver waistcoat and grey pantaloons above black Hessians, the Earl of Westbourne gave every appearance of being the fashionable English gentleman, despite having spent the last eight years roaming the Continent.
Osbourne relaxed back against the many pillows behind him. 'I had thought it was your intention to go straight to Shoreley Park when you arrived from Venice, rather than come up to London, Gabe? Which begs the question?'
'I believe your aunt has advised that you rest, Nate,' Gabriel murmured, arching one arrogant brow.
Osbourne scowled. 'Having summarily removed me from my own home and into her own cloying care, I believe if my Aunt Gertrude were to have her way she would now have me tied to the bed and all visitors refused entry.'
Despite his friend's grumbling, Gabriel realised Nate's aunt had done the correct thing as Nate so obviously found any movement extremely painful and couldn't fend for himself. 'What happened to you, Nate?' he asked as he folded his elegant length on to the chair placed beside the bed.
The other man grimaced. 'Well, despite what you said when you first saw me, I certainly did not do this to myself.'
But having served with Osbourne in the King's army for five years, Gabriel knew better than most how proficient Osbourne was with both sword and pistol. 'So how did it happen then?'
'A little disagreement outside Dominic's new club, with four pairs of fists and the same amount of hobnailed boots.'
'Ah.' Gabriel nodded. 'And would these four sets of fists and hobnailed boots have any connection to the gossip now circulating about town concerning the sudden demise of a certain Mr Nicholas Brown?'
The other man gave him an appreciative grin. 'You have seen Dominic, then?' He referred to their mutual friend, Dominic Vaughn, Earl of Blackstone, who had won a gambling club called Nick's off a rogue named Nicholas Brown, who had then tried to sabotage and threaten Dominic any way he could until Dominic had had to deal with him in no uncertain terms.
'Unfortunately not. I called at Blackstone House on my arrival in town earlier this morning and was informed that Dominic was not at home. That he has, in fact, gone into the country for several days.' Gabriel looked thoughtful.
The three men had been friends since their schooldays together, that friendship continuing despite Gabriel's sudden banishment to the Continent eight years ago. He dearly hoped that Dominic's sudden departure from town did not mean his friend was about to face the same fate after being forced to shoot dead that scoundrel Nicholas Brown
'It is not at all what you think, Gabe.' Nathaniel's grin had widened as he reached for the letter on the bedside table and handed it to the other man. 'The authorities have accepted Dominic's account of what took place between himself and Brown; it would appear that Dominic is even now travelling into Hampshire with the intention of visiting the family of the woman he has every intention of making his wife. Look, see what he wrote to me before he left.'
Gabriel quickly scanned the contents of the missive from their friend. A brief, unhelpful letter, obviously written in a hurry, with little real informationapart from the news that Dominic had indeed gone into Hampshire with the intention of asking permission from this woman's guardian for the two of them to marry. 'And who, pray, is Miss Morton?' He placed Dominic's letter lightly back on the bedside table.
'An absolute beauty.' Osbourne's eyes lit up appreciatively. 'Not that it was apparent immediately, of course, because of the jewelled mask and ebony wig she wore when I first saw her. But once they had been removed'
'She was wearing a mask and wig?' Gabriel repeated in astonishment.
Osbourne looked less sure of himself in the face of that Gabriel's utter incredulity. 'She was singing at Nick's the evening the fight broke out, and so Dom and I had no choice but to step in and' He broke off as Gabriel raised a silencing hand.
'Let me see if I have understood you correctly,' Gabriel said grimly. 'Are you really telling me that Blackstone is about to ask for the hand in marriage of a woman who, until a short time ago, sang in a gentlemen's gambling club disguised in a jewelled mask and ebony wig?' His tone had gone positively icy with disapproval.
'Iwellyes, I suppose I am ' Osbourne confirmed uneasily.
'Has Dominic completely taken leave of his senses? Or perhaps he also received a blow to the head from one of those fists or hobnailed boots?' Gabriel exploded. He could envisage no other explanation for his incredibly eligible friend even contemplating proposing marriage to a singer in a gambling clubno matter how beautiful she was!
Nathaniel gave a shrug. 'His letter says he will explain all upon his return to town.'
'By which time it will no doubt be too late to save him from this reckless venture; no guardian of such a woman would even consider turning down an offer of marriage from an earl. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if Dominic does not return to town already married to the chit.' Gabriel scowled his displeasure at the thought of his friend's obvious entrapment by this "absolute beauty".
'I had not thought of it in quite that way.' Nathaniel frowned his own concern. 'She seemed very much the lady of quality when I spoke with her.'
'My dear Nate, I may have been absent from London society for some years,' Gabriel drawled drily, 'but I do not believe it has changed so much that ladies of quality now seek employment in gentlemen's gambling clubs.'
'Hmm.' Nathaniel considered the matter further. 'Perhaps, as you are travelling into Hampshire yourself, you might seek Dominic out and'
'My original plan to go to Shoreley Park no longer stands.' Gabriel's mouth tightened at the thought of the conversation that had taken place earlier that morning in the offices of his lawyer, that had succeeded in altering all his plans. 'I arrived back in England only hours ago, to find an envoy from my lawyer awaiting me upon the quayside in possession of a letter requesting that I come to town immediately and meet with him. It would appear that the three Lady Copelandshaving, as you are well aware, all decided to refuse my offer of marriagehave now chosen to absent themselves from Shoreley Park completely. No doubt in anticipation of my arrival there.'
It was an occurrence that did not please Gabriel in the slightest. Insult enough that his offer of marriage to one of his wards had been refused, sight unseen, without his now being put to the trouble of having to seek out all three of the rebellious chits!
The previous two Westbourne heirs having died at Waterloo, Gabriel had surprisingly come into the title of the Earl of Westbourne six months ago, along with guardianship of the previous earl's three unmarried daughters. In the circumstances, and as he had a complete lack of interest in taking any other woman as his wife, Gabriel had deemed it appropriate to offer marriage to one of those daughters. Not only had they all refused him, but, to add insult to injury, they had now all taken it into their heads to defy even his guardianship. A defiance Gabriel had no intention of tolerating!
'I called upon Dominic earlier with the intention of taking him up on his offer that I stay at Blackstone House with him when I returned to town.' Gabriel shrugged. 'It appears, in light of his disappearance into the country, that I shall have to make Westbourne House my home, after all.'
'It's been closed up these past ten years,' Nathaniel grimaced. 'It's nothing but a mausoleum and it's probably full of mice and other rodents, too.'
Gabriel was well aware of the dereliction of West-bourne House. It was the very reason he had been putting off his arrival there all morning. Once he had finished talking to his lawyer he had first called upon Dominic at Blackstone House, only to learn of the other man's disappearance into the country. A similar visit to Nathaniel's residence had garnered the information that he was currently residing at the home of his aunt, Mrs Gertrude Wilson, meaning he couldn't stay with him either.
'There's absolutely no reason why you cannot stay at Osbourne House in my absence,' the earl assured him, as if suddenly aware of his thoughts. 'We could have both moved back there if my aunt had not taken it into her head to remove me to the country later this afternoon.' He looked less than happy with the arrangements. 'Take my advice, Gabenever let a woman get the upper hand; she's apt to take advantage while a man's down.'
Gabriel had no intention of allowing a woman, any woman, to take advantage of him ever again, having learnt that hard lesson only too well eight years ago.
'Oh, I say!' Osbourne instantly looked contrite. 'I did not mean to imply'
'No implication taken, Nate, I assure you. And kind as your offer is, I fear, as I must take up residence at Westbourne House at some time, it may as well be now.' Gabriel rose languidly to his feet. 'I will see if I can find someone suitable to go into Hampshire and locate Dominic, and hopefully return him to his senses before it is too late,' he added darkly.
Society, as Gabriel knew only too well, did not, and would not, ever forgive such a social indiscretion as an earl aligning himself in marriage to a woman who had previously been a singer in a gentlemen's gambling club.
'Now I believe it is time I took my leavebefore Mrs Wilson returns and has me forcibly ejected from the premises!' He fastidiously straightened the lace cuff of his shirt beneath his superfine.
'Can't see it m'self,' his friend snorted as he rang the bell for one of the servants to escort Gabriel down the stairs. 'My Aunt Gertrude may have me at a disadvantage for the moment, but I very much doubt she would ever have the same effect on you.'
In truth, Gabriel had found Mrs Wilson's polite if cool attitude towards him something of a relief after the years of being shunned by society. Obviously coming into the title of earl did make a difference! 'Think it lucky that you have a relative who feels enough affection for you to bother herself about you,' he said drily. His own family, such as it was, had not troubled themselves to even learn of Gabriel's whereabouts this past eight years, let alone enquire about his health.