Keating Blackwood came awake with the sharpness of gunfire. Someone was in the room with him. Someone he hadn’t invited. Keeping his eyes closed, he stirred enough that he could slip his hand under the pillow and curl his fingers around the hilt of the knife resting there.
“You do know it’s the middle of the day, don’t you?”
Straightening his fingers again, Keating opened his eyes and sat up. In the near total blackness of the room he could just make out the dark figure walking to the nearest set of heavy, dark curtains. “Wait. Don’t–“
Blinding light filled the room. The sun seemed to spear directly into his brain and lodge there, thrumming.
“God dammit, Fenton,” he growled, squeezing his eyes closed again. “What the devil are you doing here?”
“Looking for you. I need your help.”
“Then close the bloody curtains and go sit in the drawing room until I join you there.”
“Very well. That’s a lovely black eye you’re sporting, by the way.”
“You should see the other fellow.” With a rustling of material the room behind his eyelids darkened again. When he opened his eyes blinding red dots still swam across his vision, but at least for the moment he didn’t feel the pressing need to cast up his accounts. “And have Barnes fetch you a very large pot of tea,” he added, pressing the heel of his hand against his temple.
“I don’t want tea.”
“I do. Go away.”
Once he was alone again in his bed chamber, Keating dug a shirt and trousers out of his wardrobe and shrugged into them. His boots were by the door, but he ignored them, just as he did the jacket and waistcoat Pidgeon had laid out for him sometime yesterday. Sending a dubious glance at his door, he did pick up the freshly-pressed cravat and knot it tightly around his forehead. If he was lucky, it might hold his brain inside his skull. God, he needed to stop drinking Russian vodka. Or at least that quantity of it.
“Are you supposed to be a pirate?” Fenton asked, as Keating made his way into the drawing room with liberal help from the walls on either side of the hallway. “You might at least have put on slippers.”
“I don’t own any.” Keating limped over to the far window and closed the curtains, then sat opposite his cousin. “Why do you need my help? And make it quick, will you? I may pass out at any moment.”
“‘Why do I need your help?’” Stephen Pollard, the Marquis of Fenton, repeated, eyeing him. “I know you’ve been avoiding London, but surely you’ve been reading the newspaper.”
“I’m avoiding London. Why the devil would I wish to read about it?” The tea tray arrived, and without being asked Barnes poured a cup, dropped in five lumps of sugar, and carried it to him. “My thanks,” he said to the butler, taking a long, slow swallow.
“Why bother with the tea?” Fenton asked, sitting forward to pour himself a cup and making a show of adding a solitary sugar.
Ignoring the question, Keating sipped carefully at the too-hot, too-sweet brew. “I thought you didn’t want any tea.”
His cousin looked down at the cup in his hand, then with a grimace set it aside. “I don’t. I was attempting to make a point, I suppose. About sugar.”
“Yes, I noticed that. I was positively wounded by the jab.”
“The morning – or midday – after being three sheets to the wind, I would think sweet tea would do you in.”
“I’ve had a great deal of time and opportunity to experiment. Sweet tea helps. A little. Occasionally.” With a breath he swirled the tea around in the full cup. “So do you actually wish to discuss tea, then?” Keating took another swallow, trying not to anticipate the dulling of the hollow chasm of pain in his skull.
“No, I don’t.”
“Good. Because otherwise you’ve traveled a great distance for a very poor reason. Let’s get to your point, shall we?”
Fenton hung his hands between his knees. “Yes, of course. Do you remember Lord and Lady Hatchel? The idiotic agreement they made with my parents?”
Finally Keating cracked a grin. “God, she’s one-and-twenty now, isn’t she? You getting the shivers over being leg-shackled to a chit you’ve never met? I suggest closing your eyes and thinking of England.”
“She’s two-and-twenty now.” The marquis scowled. “The thing is, I was actually looking forward to not having to court chits, to foregoing all the wooing nonsense and simply getting on with fathering an heir.”
“You make domesticity sound exciting as a tombstone.” More interested now despite himself, Keating kneaded a knuckle against his bruised eye. The swelling was going down a bit now, anyway. Yesterday he hadn’t even been able to open the thing. “What’s your trouble, then?” he prompted. “Or should I guess? You did meet her, and she has the face of a harpy. She squints. She’s missing a leg. She–“
”Do shut up, Keating, will you?”
“I’m merely attempting to scribble in the blanks you’ve left.”
“She’s pretty enough. Just over a year ago my solicitor took the paperwork to her, she and her parents signed in all the proper places, we placed an announcement in the newspaper, and I went to the church. I even invited you to attend the ceremony.”
“Fancy that.” The invitation must have been buried in the middle of one of Fenton’s ten-page sprawling letters. As if he had the least bit of interest in who’d invited his cousin to dine or which duke had nodded in his direction. “Last year? What happened, then?”
“The chit fled.”
Despite the fact that he expected to hear that some calamity or other had occurred, Keating blinked. “She fled? Do you mean she balked at marrying you?”
“I mean she appeared in the church doorway wearing a lovely white gown, and then she turned around and ran. Knocked over a candelabra and nearly set the church ablaze.”
Keating gazed at his cousin for a long moment. They’d grown up nearly as brothers, but in the past decade or so had drifted apart. The difference in destiny between the son of a marquis and the son of a marquis’ younger brother, Stephen had always said. To Keating it had meant that once Stephen had realized he was to inherit a title and wealth and lands he’d become so insufferably high in the instep that none of his lessers could stand to be in the same room with him. As for him, well, he’d inexorably become one of those lessers.
“Well, you’re a fairly...pleasant-looking fellow,” he returned, fighting the urge to squint his eyes even in the dim room, “and you are a marquis with a fortune you keep bragging about and then refusing to lend me, so I have to ask if you said something to frighten her.”
“Frighten her? Why would I frighten her? How could I frighten her, when I’ve never spoken a word to the chit?”
“Not a single word?”
“I saw her on several occasions, from a distance, but I...” Fenton flung up his hands. “You know me; I’m not glib. I don’t have a charming conversation like you do.”
“You would, if your spine wasn’t stiff as a broomstick and forcing you to look down your nose at everyone.”
“There’s no need to be insulting. I am as I am. And you are as you are.”
That didn’t sound promising. In fact, it sent a belated alarm coursing through his already throbbing skull. “Considering that she’s been signed over to you, Fenton, perhaps you should attempt writing her a letter or – I’m merely speculating here – speaking with her to discover what happened.”
“I would do so, except that my bride-to-be ran all the way to London and...found employment.”
If his cousin hadn’t been sitting there, anger and frustration and embarrassment etched into his expression, Keating would have laughed. He was tempted to do so anyway, but he’d only just gotten both eyes open. Two or three days between brawls seemed more reasonable than beginning another one immediately. “Employment as what? A lady’s companion? Surely not as an actress. That would be too–“
”At The Tantalus Club.”
“What the devil is The Tantalus Club?” From Stephen’s tone alone it didn’t sound promising, and the name was certainly provocative. Had London become even more sinful in his absence? That was unexpected. He’d thought that after he left everyone would have turned into saints simply to avoid the strikes of lightning headed in his direction.
“Good God, you have become a hermit.”
And abruptly Keating wasn’t amused any longer. Setting aside his tea, he pushed to his feet. “Considering that you know why I’m here,” he ground out, “I can only wish you luck in your pursuit. If I may suggest, attempt a small measure of... well, if you can’t manage compassion, then at least humanity. Now get out of my home.”
“Damnation, Keating. It’s been six years. I hadn’t realized the subject was still so raw. You–“ Fenton cleared his throat. “I apologize. It’s only that everyone knows about The Tantalus Club. It’s the newest rage in London. Lady Cameron – or rather, Lady Haybury now – opened a damned gentlemen’s club just under a year ago, and she only hires chits.”
With a breath, Keating returned to his chair. Fenton had never been concerned with anyone but Fenton, and the present fiasco certainly didn’t point to the fact that the marquis had altered his behavior. Expecting him to be different would simply be an error on his own part. And if the marquis needed assistance...well, that could benefit his wayward cousin in several ways. “Haybury’s married?”
“Yes, to the former Earl of Cameron’s widow.” Fenton scowled. “Don’t alter the subject. This is about my bride, not Oliver Warren’s.”
Keeping his jaw clenched, Keating nodded. “Very well. The Tantalus Club. Is it a brothel, then?” he commented, deciding it wouldn’t be that far-fetched for the Marquis of Haybury to be involved with such a thing. “If that’s where your betrothed has gone, then you’d best look elsewhere for a bride.”
The marquis’ face reddened. “It’s not a damned brothel. But you’re not the first to think it is.”
“Perception, my friend. It is what everyone thinks it is. Look elsewhere.”
Slamming his fist on the arm of his chair, Fenton scowled. “If she had become...soiled, I would look elsewhere. But the place is wildly popular, and members swear it’s above-board. I know for a fact that it’s very exclusive. And I’m a laughingstock, because the daughter of the Earl of Hatchel would rather work for a living, serving my peers, than marry me. She didn’t even have the decency to go hide away in the country somewhere where everyone could forget her – and what she did to me.”
“Then go fetch her.”
“I’ve considered that, as well. Firstly, Lady Haybury has refused to grant me admission to The Tantalus Club even as someone else’s damned guest. I’ve been blackballed. Me. Secondly, I have no idea how to approach such a...rebellious, self-absorbed chit, and thirdly I’m not even certain that’s how I should proceed. I want her back in that church beside me, and I want her to be grateful to be allowed a second opportunity to live the kind of life she should be thankful for.”
“Ah. So a bit humbled, then.”
“She made a mistake. A large one. I am willing to give her a second chance for the sake of her future and–“
”And to stop everyone from laughing at you.”
“Yes, that, as well,” Fenton snapped. “But you, of all people, should appreciate the rarity of second chances. She could return to her family’s good graces, have a comfortable, pampered life, and see her children enjoy the same. I’m not a cruel man; yes, I suppose I’m a bit pompous, but if a ninth generation marquis cannot be proud of that fact, then he may as well be a farmer.”
Keating refrained from glancing about the morning room of his small, comfortable house. Havard’s Glen might not be a farmhouse, but it was close enough. And he’d certainly sheered enough sheep to earn the title of gentleman farmer, himself. “Indeed.”
“All I’m saying is that she would be wise not to squander a second chance. There won’t be a third.”
That, he did understand. And it bothered him immensely that his cousin knew precisely how to manipulate him and seemed to have no hesitation at all about doing so. Clearly he needed to bury his scars more deeply if he didn’t want anyone else picking at them. For a moment Keating gazed toward the darkened window. “I want something in return,” he said.
“I thought you might. That five thousand pounds you’ve been asking me to give you for the past four years, perhaps?”
“That would suffice.” Hm. He’d hadn’t thought it would be that simple. Which meant that Fenton wanted Lady Camille Pryce more badly than he cared to admit. “If accompanied by an additional five thousand pounds.”
Fenton blinked. “Ten thousand pounds in exchange for bringing a chit to a church? I think not.”
“We both know it’s more complicated than that. But if the price is too steep, find your assistance elsewhere.”
“Damnation, Keating. You’re a villain, you know.”
“So I’ve been told. Do we have an agreement?”
“I wish you’d take that cravat off your head. It doesn’t inspire much confidence.”
“I’m not here to inspire your confidence. In fact, as you’re the one who came to see me, I’m perfectly content to sit here in my bare feet and glare at you until you stop insulting me and leave.”
“Just say you’ll do it, will you? Some subtlety is required. I don’t trust anyone else to step in as my second.”
“And my poor reputation eclipses your status as a laughingstock.”
“There is that. I doubt many even remember we’re cousins. But your presence will...shift that negative attention away from me.”
“To gawk at me.” With a sigh, Keating closed his eyes. “I don’t owe you any favors, Stephen. Ten thousand pounds. And yes, you know you may trust me.”
With a hard breath the marquis pushed to his feet and stuck out his hand. “Yes, damn it all. Ten thousand pounds, twenty-four hours after I am a married man.”
Keating rose and shook his cousin’s hand. “I want it in writing. And I expect you to do as I say in this matter. Because clearly following your own advice where this Lady Camille is concerned didn’t go well.”
“Yes, yes. In writing, and I will follow your advice. Just be in London by Friday.”
“Just have the agreement ready for my signature when I arrive, or I’ll be leaving again.”
Once Fenton exited, Keating sank back into the near darkness to finish his tea. Returning to London. At one point he’d sworn never to do so. Lady Camille Pryce had just made a great deal of trouble for him, but at the same time perhaps she could be the means to something in which he’d ceased to believe six years ago. Redemption.
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