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They would make every second count...
London, Spring 1846
Nicholas Cantry, Viscount Lancaster--known to friends, family, and every single person in the ton for his unerring charm and constant good humor--was furious. His vision blurred faintly at the edges, and his teeth ached from the pressure of being clenched together, but as he made his way through the crowd of the waning dinner party, people still offered him smiles. If they thought anything at all, perhaps they wondered if he had a touch of dyspepsia. Certainly, they didn’t suspect him of anger.
He was, after all, an ornament. A pleasant way to pass the time. A fairly harmless fortune-hunter. And that was the way he liked it. No one ever looked past his humor and good-will. No one looked deeper. He could hardly regret a reputation he’d taken pains to cultivate.
But finding his fiancée spreading her legs for another man had ruffled even Lancaster’s carefully groomed façade. The hateful things she’d screamed at him hadn’t helped his temper. Neither had the knowledge that he could not simply turn and walk away.
“My good Viscount Lancaster!” a voice trilled from his left. Lancaster stopped in his tracks, spun toward the petite matron and bowed in one fluid motion.
“Lady Avalon,” he murmured over her offered hand. “A light in my dismal evening.”
“Oh, pah,” she giggled, and smacked him in the shoulder with her oversized fan.
“Lady Avalon, I had no idea you’d returned from the country so early. Fleeing an ill-thought affair, are you?”
“Lancaster, you are scandalous.”
“Only occasionally. You are acquainted with Mr. Brandiss?” He gestured toward their host and resisted an urge to massage the tight pain from the back of his neck.
“Oh, yes. Mr. Brandiss may be a merchant, but he’s as much a gentleman as any peer of the realm.” She leaned a little closer. “I’ve also met Miss Brandiss. What a beautiful bride you’ve chosen, Lancaster.”
Beautiful, yes. And treacherous. And surprisingly loud when backed into a corner.
But he only inclined his head in modest agreement.
“Lovely,” Lady Avalon continued, “and a very smart alliance. I told everyone you would do quite well, and you have.”
“Yes, Miss Brandiss was willing to overlook my fearsome face and thread-worn title for a chance to get her delicate hands on my apple orchards. They’re quite profitable.”
“Ha! If you’d had a fortune, young man, you’d have reigned as the bachelor king for a decade. It takes a barrel of charm to be seen as a decent catch even in your straits. Very impressive, Viscount. Mr. Brandiss is a stickler when it comes to his little Imogene.”
“Quite,” Lancaster managed to grind out past a smile. “Now if you’d be kind enough to excuse me...”
“Oh, yes! I’m sure you’d like to get back to that darling fiancée of yours.”
He turned, but not quickly enough to avoid another whack of her fan. The whalebone cracked against his arm, and Lancaster imagined his nerves as taut wires, popping with just that sound as they snapped apart.
Darling fiancée indeed. He’d thought her darling enough until a few moments ago. He’d thought her demure and shy and as pretty as she was intelligent.
“Demure,” he growled out as he moved out of the crowded hall and closer to the front door. He’d made it past the densest of the crowd, but he wasn’t free yet. Mr. Brandiss himself stood near the door, bidding farewell to the first of his guests to leave.
He’d not be as easy to fool as the rest of these people, and he was the last man Lancaster wished to speak with right now. Martin Brandiss was shrewd, smart, and almost preternaturally astute. Though perhaps not where his daughter was involved.
He edged past the cluster of Brandiss and his guests without notice, but there was no way to escape completely. He had to request his greatcoat and hat, had to wait for his coachman to be summoned. Lancaster hardly even winced when he felt a hand slap his shoulder.
“Off so early, sir?”
Lancaster made himself chuckle as he turned to shake his future father-in-law’s hand. “I’ve an appointment at my club, I’m afraid, but it was a truly delightful evening. Your wife is an estimable hostess.”
“Never worry. She insisted that Imogene participate in all the planning. She’ll make a fine viscountess.”
“I’ve no doubt.” She’d managed to pretend affection for a suitor she hated; Imogene would play the part of the Lady Lancaster with aplomb.
A sudden idea sparked. If she backed out, he would have no choice. The decision would be beyond his control. The wedding could not go forward. “Mr. Brandiss, are you certain she is eager for this match?”
Brandiss’s bushy white brows slowly lowered until Lancaster could hardly see his eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I mean...” His neck burned with strain, but he managed to look merely concerned. “Your daughter has been quiet these past weeks. Since the betrothal dinner.”
“Imogene is an obedient girl,” Brandiss answered, his voice hardening to steel. “She is happy with this betrothal, milord. She knows her duty.”
Her duty. Yes, she had screamed something about duty while her lover tried to shut her up. Duty. Despite the circumstances he’d still hoped for something more.
Instead of shouting at the man that his daughter was nothing close to happy, Lancaster inclined his head. “Of course. Please convey my farewells to your wife and daughter. As always, it’s been a pleasure.”
“Milord,” Brandiss replied with a cursory bow. Yes, as Lady Avalon had said, Brandiss was every inch the gentleman despite that he was a glorified trader. Lancaster had been disappointed at that, actually. He’d hoped he was marrying into a warmer, more relaxed family. But they couldn’t afford to relax. They were a family on the rise; eccentricities, scandals, and even pleasure in life could not enter into the equation. Lancaster was merely a factor in the mathematics of society and wealth. His feelings did not come into play at all. He’d been foolish to imagine they should.
* * *
The springs of his carriage were in serious need of repair. Lancaster wondered how much longer they’d last as he stepped onto the street and heard the low groan of protest echoing from the underside of the box. The ride was uncomfortable but at least it was no longer embarrassing. His groom had solved the problem of the peeling crest by scraping it off entirely and repainting the door. Obvious sign of poverty gone in a few strokes of a brush. If only the rest of the problem could be solved so easily.
“Milord,” his butler murmured as he bowed Lancaster inside. The young man’s face was unlined, his brown hair unmarred by even a hint of gray. In other words, he was far too young to be a viscount’s butler, but his services came cheap and he was eager and intelligent. Of course, at twenty-five, Lancaster himself was a bit young to be a debt-ridden viscount. He and Beeks had youth in common at least.
“Beeks,” Lancaster offered as he swept out of the dark and into the hall. “Having a pleasant evening, I hope.”
“Yes, sir. Very pleasant. Lord Gainsborough has arrived, sir. I’ve placed him in the white room.”
Gainsborough. Damnation. He wasn’t in any position to cheer the old man up tonight.
“Sir? Shall I tell him you’ve arrived home?”
“No,” Lancaster snapped, then immediately softened his voice. “No, I...” Hell. However unhappy he might be, he couldn’t bring himself to send the lonely widower away. “Just give me a moment, Beeks. Trials of pleasant society and all that. Quite exhausting.” He tossed his hat and coat to Beeks and strode down the hall toward the study. The brandy snifter awaited him on the small table next to his desk. Lancaster poured a glassful before he even took a seat.
The small stack of correspondence tipped from its pile when he collapsed into the chair. Lancaster picked idly through it as he made quick work of the glass of brandy. A brief, friendly letter from a woman who’d once been his lover for a short time. A scrawled note from the Duke of Somerhart, curtly confirming that he and his bride would attend the upcoming nuptials, though he implied that only the duchess was actually pleased to attend. Lancaster managed a ghost of a smile at the thought.
Two creditors’ notes, of course, though they’d gotten friendlier since his betrothal to the daughter of London’s richest silk importer. Still, he dropped them immediately in the waste bin, then thought better of it and retrieved them to sit on the corner of his great-grandfather’s desk as a reminder. He was not free, and he could not afford to forget.
His father had inherited an estate teetering on the edge of ruin and had quickly tipped it straight over the chasm. Not that he’d bothered to inform his heir of the matter. Perhaps he’d thought his son too young to worry over such things. But in the end, Lancaster had inherited at twenty-three.
He poured himself another glass of brandy and picked up the last letter.
It came from the housekeeper of Cantry Manor, the smallest of his estates and the only self-sustaining one. God, he hoped it wasn’t bad news about the sheep. Cantry Manor was the one estate he didn’t worry over; he’d never even visited in the past decade. Lancaster downed another gulp of brandy and slit open the letter.
Throat burning with liquor, he read the words, his brain not quite understanding the meaning of them. They didn’t make sense. But he read the letter again, and his heart sank as reality reared its ugly head.
I regret to inform you... I know you were once close to her...
Miss Cynthia Merrithorpe was dead.
Sad news. Very sad. She could not have been more than one-and-twenty. What had killed her? An accident, a fever?
A sigh broke free of his throat. She’d been only eleven the last time he’d seen her, just before he’d left Cantry Manor behind. He hadn’t seen his young neighbor since, so why did his guts feel suddenly knotted up with grief?
His fingers dug into the mess of his dark blond hair and pressed into his scalp. Perhaps it wasn’t memories of Cynthia twisting his gut. Perhaps it was more that the letter was a sign that his world was on the descent and likely to continue in that direction...
She’d never married. Never left Yorkshire. A short and lonely life.
He’d thought she would have grown into an attractive young woman. Thought her wise gaze and stubborn chin would fit a woman’s face better than a child’s. He must have been wrong. She’d died a spinster. But she’d been so lively in her youth. Honest and open, country-free and peaceful. Nothing, for instance, like Imogene Brandiss.
He grimaced at the thought and tossed back the last inch of liquid in the glass. No, Miss Imogene Brandiss knew nothing of honesty, though the terrible things she’d shrieked tonight had seemed honest enough.
Some weight inside him, some weight that had been slowly adding to itself over the past months, finally made its presence known. It pulled at his bones and tendons, threatening to collapse his body in upon him. Threatening to collapse his whole world.
Too much had gone into this, the plans were too far forward. His family’s creditors had retreated to await the bounty brought by his marriage to an heiress. If he called off now...
He pictured crows picking at his eyes and knew he had no choice.
Something dark and overwhelming breached the surface calm he always displayed to the world. Something black and trembling with strength. Lancaster recognized it. He’d been well acquainted with it all those years ago. Rage. Fury. And fear. All of it coiled so tightly together that it seemed to have formed some heretofore unknown emotion. There was only one way to deal with it ...
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