What an Earl Wants
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“She’s a pernicious troublemaker, and that’s in the best of times. Who’s to be the gullible groom—and you’ll notice hearing Trixie has cultivated a whore as bosom chum holds no shock. No, it’s the groom who interests me.”
Max grinned wickedly. “So you see it, too? I did a bit of checking. It’s Wickham’s only grandson. Geoffrey something-or-other. Second in line to the dukedom until his papa, cursed with a spotty liver and still sucking up gin morning till night, sticks his spoon in the wall. Which will probably happen any day now according to Trixie, as they’ve already laid straw outside the man’s door in Grosvenor Square so the invalid isn’t pestered on his sickbed by the noise of traffic, and called in the Autum bawlers for some final-ditch prayer vigil. He should be toes cocked up just in time for the new heir—that would be this Geoffrey fellow—to present his fait accompli bride to his grandfather, shocking the old fellow to the point of apoplexy.”
“Two deaths? That’s ambitious, even for our grandmother. She’s counting on an even pair?”
“Apparently. She’s already had me scribble a wager in the betting book at White’s. A certain interested party offers odds of eight-to-five a certain duke Wdot-dot-dot—as if nobody would know it’s old Wickham—will depart this earthly coil on or before fifteen June of the current year. Lord Alvanley’s holding the stakes.”
“Of course it’s Alvanley. The man’s always in need of funds, and I’m sure Trixie is paying him well. Plus, I think she once had him as a lover. So. Wickham. It took her long enough,” Gideon said, nodding approvingly. “Damn near twenty years. I wouldn’t wager against her, or attempt to stop her. Go with God, Max.”
“I’ll go with most anyone, as well you know. But first—what’s this about twenty years? This isn’t just her usual mischief? What did old Wickham do to set her off?”
Gideon leaned back in his chair, mulling the idea that his brother should be made aware of their grandmother’s motive. After all, Max had already decided Trixie was up to something. “I suppose it’s time you knew. Trixie has always felt she had some…scores to settle. One of them is that, hard on the heels of our family shame, Wickham suggested the Saltwood title and holdings be dissolved and returned to the Crown, due to the scandal. More than suggested. The petition grew legs and damn near got as far as to have an airing in Parliament before it could be squashed. We stood to lose everything.”
“He gives bastards a bad name. Self-righteous prig, that’s what he was, casting stones while setting himself up as some holier-than-thou man of impeccable morals. And it wasn’t only him. There were three others heading up the action, until they were shown to be not as moral as they purported themselves to be, and the petition was withdrawn.”
“And Trixie was the one to point this out?”
“I never said that, but you can draw your own conclusions.One was discovered at a house party, in bed with the host’s wife—he died in the inevitable duel. Only weeks later, the second was bankrupted over gaming debts suddenly being called in by the person who’d bought up his vouchers—he shot himself rather than face ruin. And the third was actually imprisoned and barely escaped hanging after it was learned he’d been diddling a family footman, the pot boy and, rumor has it, his own nephew, with or without their agreement. But as I said, all that was years ago.”
“God, I adore that woman, much as she terrifies me,” Max said in some admiration. “Why did she wait so long with Wickham?”
“Probably because she was diddling him. You’ve seen her diamond choker, that ruby bib she sets such store by? They’re only a sampling. She’s been bleeding the fool dry on and off for years. Oh, close your mouth. You know Trixie. She’s a cat with a mouse, playing with it as long as it amuses her, and then, once bored, she pounces. I remember her telling me a few months ago that the man has developed what she termed a disky heart, making him of no further use to her. She’s probably already ordered the gown she’ll don as one of the chief mourners when they wall him up in the family mausoleum.”
“And had the bill sent to Wickham?” Max added, pushing himself up from the desk. “‘Frailty, thy name is woman.’”
“True enough. A true possessor of all the better vices, both moral and spiritual. We lesser mortals can only admire and aspire. But as she has ever pointed out, she isn’t evil. She’d never strike just for the thrill of the thing. All her targets are deserving of her attention in one way or another, at least to her mind.”
And then Gideon frowned.
“What? You’re suddenly back to that same puss that greeted me when I came in here. Is it something to do with Trixie?”
Four men, dead in separate accidents in the past year. All four former members of the secret society founded by Trixie’s son. Twenty years. Some would think that too long to wait for revenge, for some perverted sense of justice. But then how did he explain Wickham?
“No,” Gideon said firmly, not liking his thoughts and definitely unwilling to share them. “Nothing to do with Trixie. I was simply searching my mind for a way to rid myself of that primping, posturing fool I’ve inherited.”
“Adam?” Max said unnecessarily. “Aren’t you going to toss him back to school next term?”
Gideon fingered the letter that had arrived in the morning post. “According to the headmaster, that’s not possible. He was full of apologies, but it would seem he and a few of the instructors convened a meeting concerning young master Collier, and decided they would forego the pleasure of his company in future. I can’t say I blame them. The headmaster went on at some length about my ward’s sad lack of talent save a decided propensity for calamity. He actually set fire to his rooms when he employed a candle to burn loose threads from his waistcoat and the damn thing flamed, so that he screeched and tossed it in a cupboard, then went off to dinner. If not for a quick-thinking proctor, they could have lost the entire dormitory.”
“I’d never say the boy doesn’t rattle when he walks, so many loose screws in his brainbox. But there’s other schools.”
“Yes, there are. He’s been asked to vacate several of them. If I buy him a commission the tongues will wag that I’m trying to have him killed in order to gain his inheritance, and if I send him to the estate Kate will have murdered him within the week. In other words, I’ve been sitting here this past hour or more cudgeling my brain to discover what sin it was I’ve committed I’m being punished for in the form of that paper-skulled twit.”
“Some sin? Only one? If I weren’t in such a hurry to be off, I could pen you a list. Not only that, but I don’t think I can stand watching you this way, brother. Glum. Defeated. It’s so unlike you. So much so, I find myself wondering if there’s something you’re not telling me, something much more disturbing than locating a deep well in which to deposit your latest ward.”
Maximillien could play the fool with the best of them, but he was rarely fooled.
Gideon looked at his brother. “Go away, Max.”
“Ah, then I’m right. I’ll have to write Val and tell him. Where is our baby brother, by the way?”
“I was unaware Valentine still required a keeper.”
“Another subject open to debate. But we should at least be aware of where he is, don’t you think?”
“Not if we don’t want to know,” Gideon suggested, smiling in real amusement. “But, to ease your mind, the last I heard he was heading for some place in Lincolnshire, to lend support to a friend whose father had, to quote our brother, taken a turn for the worse.”
“That’s kind of him. So he’s off to be a supporting prop at some deathbed?”
“Hardly. the bad turn was financial. his friend merely needed someone to put up the blunt for his trip home. Naturally, Valentine offered one of our coaches, and his company on the journey. And probably half his allowance for this quarter, knowing Val.”
“He’s a good friend. Or, as Kate often says, a numbskull. She swears some day that soft heart of his will land him in the briars. Has he ever said no to an appeal? Then again, considering that ludicrous fribble we’ve got residing with us now, have you? It’s your soft heart, both you and Val are stuck with soft hearts. Thankfully, Kate and I escaped the taint.”
Gideon directed yet another cool, dispassionate stare at his brother. “Are we done here now?”
“Oh-ho, speaking of briars,” Max said, putting up his hands in mocking defense. “How about I leave you to your troubles and be on my way?” He turned to quit the room, but at the last moment turned back to add, “Thorndyke told me of your rather unusual visitor this morning. Showed up all unaccompanied and left in some sort of huff. Spirited, that’s the world Thorny used. Curious. But she’s not the reason for that long puss, correct?”
“Goodbye, Max. Safe travels.”
“I thought as much. Thorndyke said she’s quite the looker. Red hair. I’ve always been partial to red hair on a woman. I don’t even mind the freckles. She have freckles, Gideon? Even where the sun doesn’t reach?”
When Gideon was really angry, he went quiet, the sort of quiet that could sound, to the object of his anger, much like a loud clashing of cymbals.
“Right,” Max said, nodding. “Forgive me. Clearly the lady is not a subject open to discussion. I’m off to ease the path of true love, Val is off to be a supporting prop, Kate is steadfastly refusing to leave the estate, and you’re—well, whatever it is you’re doing, I suppose you’ll let the rest of us know in your own good time.”
Once his brother was gone, Gideon rested his chin in his hand for a full quarter hour, thinking, and then pushed back his chair, giving in to the inevitable. There was nothing else for it, he had to confront Trixie.
AN HOUR LATER HE WAS cooling his heels in his grandmother’s drawing room in Cavendish Square, staring down the pair of yellow pug dogs who were eying his highly polished Hessians as if they would take great pleasure in lifting their legs against them.
She’d named the beasts Gog and Magog, after the ancient carved wooden giants that stood just outside the Guildhall, perhaps because they were no more than ten inches from ears to paws, or perhaps because she was amused by the thought the giants were reportedly the product of a coupling of wicked Roman daughters and the demons then inhabiting Albion, one day to be Britain. To Trixie, that would explain quite a bit about her fellow citizens of the realm.
In any case, Gideon thoroughly detested the dogs and, in return, they didn’t care a whit what he thought of them. It was rather lowering… .
“Gideon, my pet, what terrible thing have I done that brings you to my door?”
Giving the dogs one last warning look, Gideon got to his feet to admire Lady Beatrix’s entrance, accomplished, as always, with a mixture of imperiousness and panache that was the envy of her detractors—all of them women.
She was no young girl, but the extraordinary beauty of her youth had for the most part stayed with her as she moved through the years, softening a bit about the edges, her blond hair lighter now that it was streaked with silver, her blue eyes alive and sparkling even as small laugh lines framed them. Her chin and swanlike neck remained those of a much younger woman, perhaps because of the queenly way she held her slim, fit body erect, perhaps because a crafty Mother Nature had decided a determined chin was the only warning a sane man should need.
There was, Gideon had decided long ago, a true dearth of sane men in England.
The Dowager Countess of Saltwood had been married to her late husband at sixteen, had borne her only child at seventeen, buried her husband at twenty-one and been terrorizing society ever since. First it was her son’s guardian who had learned Beatrix Redgrave may not have been in control of her life for those twenty-one years, but she was in control of it now, even if she’d had to bed and then blackmail her son’s guardian to do it until the underage earl reached his majority.
Marriage, to the widowed countess, was little more than a way for men to control women, beget heirs and have someone to satisfy their base desires when they were too lazy or cheese-paring to seek out a whore. Beatrix would not willingly put her head in the marital noose again, although she had rather elevated the discreet taking of lovers to a sort of art form. Reportedly, thanks either to her late husband’s prowess or her own appetites, she was very good at what she did, but whether she truly enjoyed what she did was her secret. Her grandchildren rather thought she did, or she wouldn’t indulge herself quite so much, although they were secretly appalled that she continued to indulge now and then as she drew ever closer to her seventieth birthday.
Mostly, with the marked exception of her grandsons, Trixie, Gideon believed, loathed men as a clearly inferior species.
Now, wafted along on dainty slippers and a soft cloud of the intoxicating scent that was her own special mix, she held out her arms to her oldest grandson, allowing him to capture and kiss her hands. He did take her hands in his, but only so that he could pull her closer, lean in and kiss both her artfully powdered cheeks.
She tilted her head and smiled archly. “Oh, so very vaillant. You must cut a wide swatch through the ladies with that little trick.”
“I can only do my best.”
“Yes, and I hear you do your best quite a lot, you naughty scamp. I can excuse Lady Malvern, I suppose, as she’s passably attractive, save for those unfortunate ears. They’re not her fault, and she usually has the good sense to keep them covered. But the widow Orford? Honestly, pet, that woman’s so tight in her ways, I fear for your eventual progeny. She could take you in and snap you right—”
“Trixie,” he interrupted quickly before his own grandmother could put him to the blush, “what the hell are you up to this time?”
He had to give her credit; she didn’t attempt to dissemble, bat her kohl-darkened lashes and trill, “But whatever do you mean?” No. She simply smiled that smile that had her clear blue eyes sparkling.
“You mean Reggie, don’t you? Max never could keep a secret. I gave the duke a good run, more than he deserved. But I can’t simply let him die peacefully in his bed, now can I? Lilyann Smithers, late of Bath, Tunbridge Wells and the beds of whomever, soon to be the next Wickham duchess? Delicious! Just think, pet. Reggie condemned us Redgraves as not being fit for a peerage, and now his heirs will henceforth descend from a whore who’s been sat in more than any village barber chair, if you take my meaning.”
“I do. I’d go so far as to ask you to tell me where you heard that description, but then you’d tell me.”
“Most probably. In any case, she’s been instructed to tell Reggie of her great and most helpful friendship with me when her husband first introduces her on their return from Gretna. That’s part of our bargain, and I paid dearly for it. Modistes, tutors. Why, I myself taught her the intricacies of proper behavior at table. Comely girl, biddable and really quite fetching, but shocking table manners. In any case, she’s turned into a tolerable silk purse, thanks to my attention, but the sow’s ear of her former, shall we say, occupation? That will soon come to light. I’ll enjoy knowing Reggie will take that realization to hell with him.”
“I can see you’ve put considerable planning into the duke’s downfall. Who was it said it’s women who most delight in revenge?”
“I have no idea, but I should have, because it’s true. You men haven’t the proper appreciation for a well thought-out revenge. I do know the source of my most favorite quote, if that helps you in any way. The dear Pierre Laclos, in his marvelously naughty Les Liaisons dangereuses, warned, ‘Old ladies must never be crossed: in their hands lie the reputations of the young ones.’ Something to keep in mind, pet, although I would protest I’m not yet old. I suppose I will be, someday, but in my mind and heart, I’m only a girl.”
“You were as ancient as sin in your cradle,” Gideon told her, earning himself a playful tap on the forearm as they sat down beside each other. “And if I recall correctly, it ended badly for the conspirators in that immoral tale.”
“Ah, but they were all French. Give me credit for being smarter than any Frenchman, if you please. They chop off heads. How gauche! I’m much more subtle. Now, if you aren’t going to cut up stiff with me about a paltry thing like the soon-to-be late duke—and trust me, his is a paltry thing indeed and sadly lacking in talent—why are you here?”
Gideon smiled sadly. “I’m not certain I remember. Perhaps it’s been too long since I’ve felt dizzy, turned around and around by a crafty old woman who should be minding her knitting.”
“Or her grandson’s children, whom I’ve little hope of at the moment, sadly. Don’t think the widow Orford will give you sons. Her womb has to have shriveled to nothing by now, as she’s at least fifteen years your senior. Really, Gideon, what could you possibly have been thinking, to bed her?”
“Lucile and I aren’t lovers, Trixie. You shouldn’t put credence in every rumor.”
“You’re not tipping her? You greatly relieve my mind. But then, for God’s sake, why are you seeing her? You’ve squired her around the Park at least twice in the past week, and you’ve stood up with her at balls three times. No, four, I nearly forgot Suffolk’s flat affair this past Thursday. It can’t be for her conversation, her wit. She possesses neither.”
“Her late husband was one of my father’s cronies. I was interested in the manner of the man’s death last year. She’s just out of mourning, remember? Cultivating her friendship and confidence seemed the easier way of learning the particulars that might not have become public knowledge.”
“Particulars concerning the manner of his—How perfectly morbid of you. Gideon, why would you even care about a thing like that?”
She was so good at playacting. Nibbling around the corner of the subject would get him nowhere; she was too proficient in deception to be caught out so easily. Which left the direct approach. “My father’s fellow members of that damn Society of his have been dying with alarming frequency of late, Trixie, all of them in a variety of accidents or other misfortunes. Orford, for one. Lady Malvern’s uncle, Sir George Dunmore, for another. I know they were members because they all wore the rose. Are you killing them?”
Her response was swift. She slapped him hard across the face.
He lifted a hand to his burning cheek. “I believe I should be remiss if I didn’t point out that’s not an answer, madam,” he told her coldly.
“Perhaps not, but it was most deserved. What’s going on, Gideon? I’d decided not to ask about the stickpin, waiting for you to tell me, which you would have done eventually. Thank God you’ve stopped. I was not, however, expecting you to come to me today with an absurd inquiry more suited to a man possessing less of the strong intelligence for which I’ve always given you credit.”
“Forgive me. I only learned of your plans for Wickham this morning and probably acted hastily. But twenty years, Trixie? It all happened so long ago. Why bring down the ax now?”
“Because he’s going to die soon, of course. I settled the others immediately. And, lest you’re confused on that head, I killed none of them. If I made it advantageous to them to destroy themselves, that was their decision. Save Perkins, who is still living in his disgrace in prison.”
“Not prison, Trixie. You’re losing your touch if you didn’t hear he’s slipped his mind entirely, and is now raving in some small cell in Bethlehem Hospital.”
“Delicious! May he survive another two decades and sleep every night in his own filth. But we’re speaking of Reggie now, aren’t we? My mistake with the others was moving too quickly. They barely had time to realize their error in threatening me.”
“Much more satisfying to destroy them an inch at a time?”
“Now you understand, and with all the inches reserved for the duke since the others were gone. Reggie’s known nearly from the first he’s on my string, and I’d tighten it one day. He simply never knew when, or how. You’ve never had anyone at your beck and call, have you, eager to do you any service—any service, Gideon. Able to pick that person up and then put that person down, time and time again. To listen to the pleas for your favors, the piteous weeping when made aware there are others to whom you’re at times bestowing those favors. Imagine that person suffering, loving so deeply, desperately, yet living constantly in fear that one day the blade will fall. It’s heady stuff. I may have grown a touch lazy over the years, as well, content to flaunt the jewels he gives me beneath his wife’s nose as he watches in horror, fearing I’m about to tell her from whence they come.”
She shrugged her slim shoulders eloquently, almost sadly. “Or perhaps I grew somewhat fond of the man over time. I’m not completely heartless. But in the end, Gideon, the bill always comes due, the piper has to be paid. It’s Reggie’s time to learn the full cost of his crime against the Redgraves, and most especially my grandchildren, who he would have stripped of lands and title. That is not a small thing, Gideon, and never forgivable. Although I suppose I may miss him. A little.”
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