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The Taming of the Rake
July 2011 | HQN Books
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*Starred Review from Publisher's Weekly*
and worms have eaten them, but not for love.
As You Like It
Oliver Le Beau Blackthorn was young and in love, which made him a candidate for less than intelligent behavior on two counts.
And so it was that, with the clouded vision of a man besotted, and more than a tad guilty of what some might term hubris (others would simply say he was an arrogant, upstart puppy), that same Oliver Le Beau Blackthorn, raised to think quite highly of himself, the equal to all men, did with hat figuratively in hand, hope in his heart, and a bunch of posies clutched to his breast, bound up the marble steps to the mansion in Portland Place one fine Spring morning and smartly rap the massive door with the lions’ head brass knocker.
He performed a quick mental inventory of his appearance, one he’d worked over for a full two hours, crumpling both a half-dozen neck cloths and his valet’s abused nerves in the process.
Beau was presenting himself in a morning rigout of finest tan bucksins, dazzlingly white linen, a stunning yet unobtrusive waistcoat of marvelously brushed silk shot through with cleverly designed stripes made of the lightest tan thread (carrying through the tone of his buckskins — he was hoping he might start a new fashion), and a darkest blue jacket that so closely followed the lines of his young, leanly muscled body that he could not manage to get his arms in or out of the sleeves without assistance.
He’d practiced the jaunty positioning of his curly-brimmed beaver in front of the pier glass in his dressing room for a full ten minutes before pronouncing the angle satisfactory; showing off his thick crop of sun-streaked blonde hair rather than crushing it, providing just enough cover from the brim that his bright blue eyes were not cast into the shade.
It only just now occurred to him that the hat would be handed over to the Brean footman, along with his new tan kid gloves and walking stick, and Lady Madelyn would never see them.
Hmm, no one had as yet answered his knock. Shabby, that’s what that was. He lifted his hand to the knocker once more, just as the door opened, and very nearly tapped on the footman’s nose.
Beau glared at the fellow, who stepped back quickly, and the well-tailored Mr. Blackthorn sauntered into the black and white marble tiled foyer, feeling his cheeks growing hot and damning his lifelong tendency to blush.
Shortly thereafter he was admitted to the Grand Drawing Room by the family butler, who seemed disapproving in some way as he looked at the flowers, to await the appearance of Lady Madelyn Mills-Beckman, elder daughter of the Earl of Brean, and Beau Blackthorn’s Beloved.
“Quite a lot of Bs in there,” he murmured to himself, an outward sign of the nervousness he felt but had thus far managed to conceal. There had been that small slip with the footman, but by and large, Beau was still feeling quite confident.
“Talking to oneself is considered by some to be an indication of madness. At least that’s what Mama said once about Aunt Harriet, and she was mad as a hatter. Aunt Harriet, that is. Mama was simply silly. I once saw Aunt Harriet with her clothes on backwards. Are those flowers for Madelyn? Should I tell you that she loathes flowers? They make her sneeze, and her eyes water, and then her nose begins to drip ...”
Beau had already turned about smartly, to see Lady Chelsea Mills-Beckman, a rather pernicious brat of no more than fourteen, ensconced on a flowered chaise near the window. She had her bent legs tucked up under the skirts of her sprigged muslin gown, and an open book was perched on her lap.
His reluctant scrutiny took in her long and messily wavy blonde hair that had half-escaped its ribbon, the eyes that were neither gray nor quite blue below flyaway eyebrows that could make her look devilish and pixyish at the same time, the budding young body that should certainly be positioned with more circumspection.
The wide, teasing grin on her face, he ignored.
Beau had suffered the misfortune of Lady Chelsea’s presence twice before in the past month, always with a book in her hand and a too-smart tongue in her head, and he was as loathe to see her this morning as he’d been either of those other times.
“Your father should order a lock put on the nursery door,” he drawled now, even as he strode to the French doors and unceremoniously tossed the posies out into the garden.
Lady Chelsea laughed at this obvious silliness, be it directed at his statement or the flowers he couldn’t be certain. But then she told him, drat her anyway.
"I’d only find another way out. I’m motherless, you understand, and allowances must be made for me. Too young for a Come-out, too prone to mischief to be left with my governess in the country while Madelyn is being popped off. I suppose you want me to vacate the room now, before Madelyn makes her grand entrance and you delight her by drooling all over her shoe tops. Oh, look at that, you’ve got a wet spot from the stems on that odiously homely waistcoat. I’ll wager that’s put a crimp in your airs of consequence."
Beau hastily brushed at his waistcoat before his brain could inform his pride that the dratted girl was making a May game out of him. Had he really only considered the nursery for her banishment? He would rather the cheeky brat left the continent, perhaps even the universe, but refrained from that particular honesty. “I would like to converse with Lady Madelyn in private, yes.”
“Oh very well, if you’re going to be all starchy about the thing.” Lady Chelsea got to her feet and smoothed down her gown. She was a rather attractive child, he supposed. She’d probably break a dozen hearts in a few years. But she didn’t hold a patch on her sister, she of the ice blue eyes and nearly white-blonde hair, her mouth a pouty pink, her skin so creamy and flawless above the low bodice of her gowns.
Beau inserted a finger beneath his collar and gave a small tug, as it had suddenly become difficult to swallow.
“Mr. Blackthorn, what a lovely surprise. I hadn’t thought to see you so soon after our dance at Lady Cowper’s ball. Naughty man, showing up uninvited as you did. Quite shocking, really. And just to dance with me and then take your leave? It was all quite romantic and daring.” Lady Madelyn tipped her head to one side as if trying to somehow see behind his back. “Did you bring me a gift? I adore gifts."
Beau bowed to the love of his life and apologized for his sad lack of manners.
Lady Madelyn looked crestfallen for a moment, but then brightened. “Very well, I accept your apology. Next time, perhaps you’ll bring me flowers. I do love flowers.”
A giggle from the corner alerted Beau to the fact that the brat was enjoying another small joke at his expense, but he refused to look at her or acknowledge the hit. “I will buy you an entire hothouse full of flowers,” he promised Lady Madelyn earnestly, bowing yet again. “And now, if I might have a word with you in private? There is something of great personal importance I wish to ask you. After the events of last night, I should think you know what that is.”
She didn’t move, didn’t blink, and yet something changed in dearest Lady Madelyn’s ice blue eyes. Her smile became frozen in place, and her creamy white skin seemed to pale even more, all the way to porcelain, and looking just as cold and hard.
“Now, Mr. Blackthorn, you know that is quite impossible. No young lady of quality is ever without a chaperon in the presence of a gentleman, as we both know. I do believe, if I am interpreting your statement correctly, that it is my absent father you should be asking for, not me,” she scolded in a rather strangled tone. “Chelsea, would you be a dear and ask our brother to step in here for a moment? Mrs. Wickham is still dressing, I’m afraid.”
“But I saw her earlier on the stairs, and she was completely —”
Lady Madelyn whirled about to glare at her sister. “Do as I say!”
Oliver Le Beau Blackthorn was young and in love, and like many of his similarly afflicted brethren, not thinking too clearly. But it didn’t take a clear thinker to recognize that the rosy scenario he’d pictured in his brain and the scene playing out in front of him now were poles apart.
She was probably nervous. Women tend to be nervous at times like these; they can’t seem to help themselves. He’d make allowances.
“Lady Madelyn … and if I might be so bold, dear, dear Madelyn,” he said, taking quick advantage while they were still alone, dropping to one knee in front of her and clasping her right hand in his, just as he had practiced the move on Sidney, his horribly embarrassed valet. “It can be no secret that I have admired you greatly since the moment we first met. With each new meeting my affection has grown, and I believe it has been reciprocated, most especially after our walk together the other evening when I so dared as to kiss you and you did me the great honor of allowing me to —”
“Not another word! How provokingly common of you speak of such things! No gentleman would ever be so crass as to throw a moment’s folly into lady’s face. A single kiss? It was a lark, a dare, no more than that. Get up! You’re a dreadful creature.”
A single kiss? It had been considerably more than a single kiss. She’d allowed him to cup her breast through the thin fabric of her gown, moaned delightfully against his mouth as he’d run his thumb across her hard, pert nipple. If not for the sound of approaching footsteps, there would have been much more. He’d nearly been bursting, had come within moments of thoroughly embarrassing himself, for God’s sake.
He would have thought her a tease, a cold, heartless bitch, if he was in his right mind. But no, he was in love. And she was clearly upset.
“I know I’m being forward,” Beau persisted — he’d been all night rehearsing this speech. “I ask only that I have your permission to address your father. I would not wish to do so if my affection truly wasn’t returned.”
“Well, it isn’t,” Lady Madelyn responded hotly, pulling her hand free. “You overreaching nobody. Just because your father is one of us, and you’ve been accepted in some quarters because of him and because of that ridiculous fortune he’s bestowed on you, doesn’t mean you’ll truly ever be one of us. You’re a joke, Beau Blackthorn, a laughingstock to everyone in Mayfair, and you’re the only one who doesn’t know it. As if I or any female of any decency in the ton would deign to align herself with a — a bastard like you.”
Beau would later remember that the lady’s brother entered the drawing room at some point during this heart shredding declaration, along with two burly footmen who quickly grabbed hold of Beau’s arms and hauled him to his feet, and beyond, so that he was dangling between them, his boots a good two inches off the floor.
He called out his beloved’s name, but she had already turned her back and was walking away from him, holding up the hem of her skirts as if to avoid stepping in something vile.
A dare? A joke? That’s all he’d been? She — and God only knew who else — had been encouraging him, yet secretly laughing at him? Is that how Society really saw him? As some sort of monkey they could watch dance? A performing bear they could prod with a stick, just to see how he’d react? Here, bastard, kiss me, touch what you’ll never have. And then go away. You’re not one of us.
His mother had warned him, warned all three of her sons. Beau had never believed the dire predictions that she ascribed to the ridiculous notions and actions of their father. The world had to have been better than she’d painted it. But she’d been right, and he and his father had been wrong.
At last Beau, his dreams, all of the assumptions and hopes of his young life shattering at his feet, came to his senses. He struggled violently to be free, to no avail, until he was carried out the way he had come in and been thrown down the marble steps to the flagway. He could hear as well as feel the crack of a bone in his left forearm as it made sharp contact with the edge of one of the steps even as all the air left his lungs in a painful whoosh.
Then the first snap of the whip hit him across his back, and he could do nothing more than curl himself into a ball and take each blow, trying to protect his face, his eyes, his injured arm.
“Insult my sister, will you? Take advantage of her innocence?” The viscount flourished the coach whip again and again, the braided leather with the hard, metal tip slicing through Beau’s new morning coat and straight on through to his skin, setting his back on fire. “Putting on airs above your station? That’s what coddling your type leads to, damn it. Society in shambles! The very breath you take is an abomination to all that is decent. I should have you bound and tossed in the Thames like the worthless dog you are!”
At last the assault with the whip ended, followed briefly by some well-placed kicks from the footmen, and Beau heard the slam of a door. He tentatively got to his feet, his body a mass of pain, his heart and soul in tatters, just like his fine coat. One of the footmen spat at him before they both shouted at him to go away, their coarse oaths drawing the attention of any passersby who hadn’t already stopped to stare at the spectacle.
Still crouching like a whipped dog as he supported his broken arm, Beau turned to look back at the mansion, only to have the door open slightly and the face of Lady Chelsea peek out at him, her eyes awash in tears.
“I’m so, so sorry, Mr. Blackthorn,” she said, sniffling, tears running down her cheeks. “Madelyn is vain and heartless, and Thomas is just an ass. They can neither of them help themselves, I suppose. I don’t think you a joke. I…I think you’re entirely worthy, if a little silly in your head. But perhaps you should go away now. Very far away.”
And then she closed the door and Beau was left to stare down his own groom, who had been waiting with the new curricle that had also been purchased to impress Lady Madelyn. He’d planned to take her for a drive once he’d spoken to her father, and perhaps steal another kiss (and more) as they rode out to Richmond Park.
“Thank you, no, and thank you so much for springing to my aid with all the loyalty of a potted plant,” Beau said stiffly as the room stepped forward to lend him support, gritting his teeth against the nausea that threatened. “Return that damned thing to my stables. I’ll walk back to Grosvenor Square.”
And that’s just what Beau did. He walked all the long blocks to his father’s mansion. Staggered at times, but always righted himself, kept his chin high, his spine straight, looking each passerby in the eye. Let them see, let them all see what they’d done to him while calling themselves gentleman and ladies, thinking themselves somehow better than he, more civilized. Let them laugh now if they could. And let them remember, so that the next time they saw Oliver Le Beau Blcckthorn, crossed his path, they’d know well enough to beware.
With each step, as those he encountered quickly crossed the street to avoid the torn and bloody sight of him, while none of them, acquaintance or supposed friend, raised a hand to help him, that same Oliver Le Beau Blackthorn left more of his youth behind him, until he was left with only one thought, one remaining truth.
His money, his looks, his charm, the friendships he’d believed he’d forged at school and here in London, the acceptance he’d thought he’d found? At the end of the day, they meant nothing.
The oldest son of the Marquess of Blackthorn, at two and twenty years of age, had at last seem himself as the world saw him. Not as a man, not as a friend, not as a mate. They saw him as he was. Illegitimate. Born on the wrong side of the blanket, son of a marquess and a common actress. An educated and well-heeled bastard, yes, but a bastard all the same.
When they saw him again, they would think differently. By God they would!
Lady Chelsea Mills-Beckman, always the epitome of grace and charm, launched the thick marble-backed book of sermons directly at the head of her brother Thomas, as of the last two years the seventeenth Earl of Brean.
Her aim was woefully off and 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 quarter hour 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, Thomas. 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 adverse 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,” the earl 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 breast 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 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 have 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 less than four gentlemen of breeding.”
“And one out-and-out 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 and stop frowning. A mountebank, since you obviously aren’t of an inferior 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 wet nosed brood of brats (it having taken her 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, and Madelyn free to at last 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 disease-spreading 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’ 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 congè and was now, for the first time in their marriage, faithful to his wife (who, 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?”
“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. 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.”
“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 fat — not 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? Hells bells, 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 cushion —not without experiencing a modicum of cranial discomfort — to 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 please — how 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,” yet another victim of their dear actress mother’s intense admiration for William Shakespeare replied, lifting his head and squinting through the long dark blonde hair that fell across his face as he commenced staring intently at a brass figurine depicting a scantily-clad goddess with six, no eight oddly 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 half-empty 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 weak-brained 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?”
“Oh, deary me, good thing I’m drunk. 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 upwards far enough to swivel about and sit facing his brother. He pushed his hands straight back through his nearly shoulder length hair, so that he could tuck it behind his ears. “See my riband 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 am to be Puck, then I shall be Puck. Mischievous. A sprite, a magical, fairylike woodland creature.”
“And none too bright.”
“Ha! So you say. But still, much better looking 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.”
Puck merely shrugged, clearly not taking offense at his brother’s words, as a less confrontational fellow would be difficult to locate within the confines of England. “You long for acceptance where there is no acceptance. Brother Jack would spit in the eye of anyone who dared to call him respectable. And I? I applaud myself for my complete indifference to it all. I have more money than any ten men with rich appetites would ever need, thanks to our guilt-ridden father. I have been educated, and dressed up, and taught to be mannerly, and there is nothing left for me to aspire to than to be happy with my lot. Which, brother mine, I am. Besides, you and Jack are deadly serious enough for all of us. Some one of us should have some fun. You look like hell, by the way. I must remember to give up strong spirits before I reach your age.”
At last, Beau smiled. “You’re only four years my junior, and at thirty I’m far from tottering about with one foot hovering over a grave.” But then he stabbed his fingers through his own thick shock of sun streaked blonde hair. “Although, at the moment, I might consider it. I don’t remember the last time I felt like this. You’re a bad influence, little brother. One might even say noxious. When do you return to France?”
“Hustling me back out the door only a few days after I’ve come through it, and after only a single night’s celebration of my return to the bosom of my wretched family? Papa keeps this great pile for all of us, you know. Why, I might just decide to take up permanent residence in London. Wouldn’t that be fine? Just the two of us, rattling around here together, driving the neighbors batty to know that there are now two Blackthorn bastards in residence rather than just the one. Never be all three, considering Black Jack won’t come within ten miles of the place.”
Beau attempted to straighten his badly wilted cravat. “Oh, he’s been here. Haughty, grumpy, scowling, and bloody sarcastic. Don’t wish him back, if you don’t mind. Neither of us would like it.”
“He would have made a fine Marquess, aside from the fact that you’d be first in line. And if our dearest mother had deigned to marry our doting papa. There is still that one other niggling small detail.”
“Jack wouldn’t take legitimacy if someone were to hand it to him on a platter. He likes being an outlaw.”
Puck raised one finely-arched eyebrow. “You mean that figuratively, don’t you? Outlaw?”
“God, I hope so. Sometimes, though, I wonder. He lives damn well for a man who refuses our father’s largesse. I’d reject it as well, if it weren’t for the fact that I do my best to earn my keep, running all of the Blackthorn estates while you fiddle and Jack scowls.”
“Yes, I admit it. I much prefer to gad about, spending every groat I get and enjoying myself to the top of my bent, and feel totally unrepentant about any of it.”
“You’ll grow up one of these days. We all do, one way or another.” Beau got to his feet, deciding he could not stand himself one moment longer if he didn’t immediately hunt out Sidney and demand a hot tub to rid him of the stink of a night of dedicated drinking with Puck.
“He’s lucky with the cards? The dice?” Puck persisted, also getting to his feet, triumphantly holding up the black riband he then employed to tie back his hair.
“I don’t know. I don’t ask. Jack was never the one for inviting intimacies. Now come along, baby brother. We need a bath and a bed, the both of us.”
“You might. I’m thinking lovely thoughts about a mess of eggs and some of those fine sausages we had yesterday morning.”
Beau’s stomach rolled over in protest. “I remember when I could do that, drink all night and wake clearheaded and ravenous in the morning. You’re right, Puck. Thirty is old.”
“Now you’re just trying to frighten me. Ho, what’s that? Was that the knocker? Am I about to meet one of your London friends?”
“I have acquaintances, Puck. I have no need of friends.”
“Now that is truly sad,” his brother said, shaking his head. “You had friends, surely, during the war?”
“That was different,” Beau said, his headache pounding even harder than before. “Soldiers are real. Society is not.”
“The French are much more generous in their outlook. To them, I am very nearly a pet. A highly amusing pet, naturellement. My bastard birth rather titillates them, I think. And, of course, I am oh-so very charming. Ah, another knock, followed closely by a commotion.” Puck headed for the foyer. “This becomes interesting. I’d think it was a dun calling to demand payment, but you’re entirely too deep in the pocket for that. Let’s go see, shall we?”
Beau opened his mouth to protest, but quickly gave that up as a bad job. He followed his brother into the foyer, where they both saw a woman, her face obscured by the brim of her fashionably absurd riding hat, quietly but fiercely arguing with Wadsworth.
“Wadsworth?” he said questioningly, so that his major domo (once an actual Sergeant in His Majesty’s Army), turned about smartly, nearly saluting his employer before he could stop himself.
“Sir!” he said, all but bellowed as he tried to position his fairly large body between that of the female and his employer, “there is someone here who demands to be seen. I am just now sending her on the right-about — that is to say, I have informed her that you are not at home.”
“Yes, well I suppose we needs must give that up as a bad job, mustn’t we, now that I’ve shown myself. Or do you think she’ll agree to go away now?”
“She most certainly will not,” the woman said from somewhere behind Wadsworth. And then a kid riding glove encased hand was laid on Wadsworth’s elbow and the man who had once single-handedly subdued a half dozen Frenchman during a skirmish by means of only his physical appearance, his commanding voice (and the bloodied sword he held in front of him menacingly), was rudely shoved aside.
Her gaze took in the two men now before her, sliding from one to the other. “Oliver Blackthorn? Which one of you is he? And the other must be Mr. Robin Goodfellow Blacktorn, as I hear the third brother is dark to your light, unless that’s simply a romantic statement and not fact. Such an unfortunate name, Robin Goodfellow. Did your mother not much like you? Oh, wait, you are Oliver, aren’t you?” she said, pointing a rather accusing finger at Beau. “I believe I recognize the scowl, even after all these years. We must talk.”
“Gad, what a beauty, if insulting,” Puck said quietly. “Tell her she’s wrong, that I’m you. Unless she’s here to inform you that the bastard has fathered a bastard, in which case I’ll be in the Breakfast room, filling my belly.”
Beau wasn’t really listening. He was too busy wracking his brain to remember where he’d ever seen eyes so strangely grey yet blue, so flashing with fire, intelligence, and belligerence, all at the same time.
“You remember me, don’t you?” the young woman said — again, nearly an accusation. “You should, and the mumps to one side, you’re a large part of the reason I’m in such dire straits today. But that’s all right, because now you’re going to fix it.”
“She said mumps, didn’t she? Yes, I’m sure she did. I’ve been abroad for a few years, brother mine. Are they now in the habit of dressing up the Bedlamites and letting them run free on sunny days?”
“Go away, Puck,” Beau said, stepping forward a pace. “Lady Chelsea Mills-Beckman?” he enquired, positive he was correct, although it had been more than seven long and eventful years since last he’d seen her. But why was she here? And where was her maid? Maybe Puck was right, and if not quite a fugitive from Bethlehem Hospital, she was at least next door to a Bedlamite; riding out alone in the city, calling on him, of all people. “Do what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Ah, so you do remember me. And there’s nothing all that pleasurable about it for either of us, I assure you. Now, unless you are in the habit of entertaining your servants with aired laundry best discussed only in private, I suggest we adjourn to the drawing room. Not you,” she added, pointing one gloved finger at Puck, who had already half-turned to reenter the drawing room.
“Oh yes, definitely. You heard the lady. It’s you she wants, brother mine, not me. I’m off, and may some merciful deity of your choosing protect you in my craven absence.”
“Wadsworth,” Beau said, still looking at Chelsea, “the tea tray and some refreshments in ten minutes, if you please.”
“Wadsworth, a decanter of Mr. Blackthorn’s best wine and two glasses, now, and truth be told, at the moment I really don’t much care whether you please or not. Mr. Blackthorn, follow me.”
She then swept into the drawing room, leaving Wadsworth and Beau to look at each other, shrug, and do what they’d been told to do. That was the thing with angry women. Experience had taught him that it was often just easier to go along with them until such time as you could either locate a figurative weapon or come up with a good escape route.