What an Earl Wants
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ďSheís a pernicious troublemaker, and thatís in the best of times. Whoís to be the gullible groomóand youíll notice hearing Trixie has cultivated a whore as bosom chum holds no shock. No, itís the groom who interests me.Ē
Max grinned wickedly. ďSo you see it, too? I did a bit of checking. Itís Wickhamís 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 theyíve already laid straw outside the manís door in Grosvenor Square so the invalid isnít 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 heiróthat would be this Geoffrey fellowóto present his fait accompli bride to his grandfather, shocking the old fellow to the point of apoplexy.Ē
ďTwo deaths? Thatís ambitious, even for our grandmother. Sheís counting on an even pair?Ē
ďApparently. Sheís already had me scribble a wager in the betting book at Whiteís. A certain interested party offers odds of eight-to-five a certain duke Wdot-dot-dotóas if nobody would know itís old Wickhamówill depart this earthly coil on or before fifteen June of the current year. Lord Alvanleyís holding the stakes.Ē
ďOf course itís Alvanley. The manís always in need of funds, and Iím sure Trixie is paying him well. Plus, I think she once had him as a lover. So. Wickham. It took her long enough,Ē Gideon said, nodding approvingly. ďDamn near twenty years. I wouldnít wager against her, or attempt to stop her. Go with God, Max.Ē
ďIíll go with most anyone, as well you know. But firstówhatís this about twenty years? This isnít just her usual mischief? What did old Wickham do to set her off?Ē
Gideon leaned back in his chair, mulling the idea that his brother should be made aware of their grandmotherís motive. After all, Max had already decided Trixie was up to something. ďI suppose itís time you knew. Trixie has always felt she had someÖscores 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.Ē
ďHe gives bastards a bad name. Self-righteous prig, thatís what he was, casting stones while setting himself up as some holier-than-thou man of impeccable morals. And it wasnít 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.Ē
ďAnd Trixie was the one to point this out?Ē
ďI never said that, but you can draw your own conclusions.One was discovered at a house party, in bed with the hostís wifeóhe died in the inevitable duel. Only weeks later, the second was bankrupted over gaming debts suddenly being called in by the person whoíd bought up his vouchersóhe shot himself rather than face ruin. And the third was actually imprisoned and barely escaped hanging after it was learned heíd 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.Ē
ďGod, I adore that woman, much as she terrifies me,Ē Max said in some admiration. ďWhy did she wait so long with Wickham?Ē
ďProbably because she was diddling him. Youíve seen her diamond choker, that ruby bib she sets such store by? Theyíre only a sampling. Sheís been bleeding the fool dry on and off for years. Oh, close your mouth. You know Trixie. Sheís 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. Sheís probably already ordered the gown sheíll don as one of the chief mourners when they wall him up in the family mausoleum.Ē
ďAnd had the bill sent to Wickham?Ē Max added, pushing himself up from the desk. ďĎFrailty, thy name is woman.íĒ
ďTrue 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 isnít evil. Sheíd 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.Ē
And then Gideon frowned.
ďWhat? Youíre suddenly back to that same puss that greeted me when I came in here. Is it something to do with Trixie?Ē
Four men, dead in separate accidents in the past year. All four former members of the secret society founded by Trixieís 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?
ďNo,Ē Gideon said firmly, not liking his thoughts and definitely unwilling to share them. ďNothing to do with Trixie. I was simply searching my mind for a way to rid myself of that primping, posturing fool Iíve inherited.Ē
ďAdam?Ē Max said unnecessarily. ďArenít you going to toss him back to school next term?Ē
Gideon fingered the letter that had arrived in the morning post. ďAccording to the headmaster, thatís 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 canít say I blame them. The headmaster went on at some length about my wardís 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.Ē
ďIíd never say the boy doesnít rattle when he walks, so many loose screws in his brainbox. But thereís other schools.Ē
ďYes, there are. Heís been asked to vacate several of them. If I buy him a commission the tongues will wag that Iím 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, Iíve been sitting here this past hour or more cudgeling my brain to discover what sin it was Iíve committed Iím being punished for in the form of that paper-skulled twit.Ē
ďSome sin? Only one? If I werenít in such a hurry to be off, I could pen you a list. Not only that, but I donít think I can stand watching you this way, brother. Glum. Defeated. Itís so unlike you. So much so, I find myself wondering if thereís something youíre not telling me, something much more disturbing than locating a deep well in which to deposit your latest ward.Ē
Maximillien could play the fool with the best of them, but he was rarely fooled.
Gideon looked at his brother. ďGo away, Max.Ē
ďAh, then Iím right. Iíll have to write Val and tell him. Where is our baby brother, by the way?Ē
ďI was unaware Valentine still required a keeper.Ē
ďAnother subject open to debate. But we should at least be aware of where he is, donít you think?Ē
ďNot if we donít want to know,Ē Gideon suggested, smiling in real amusement. ďBut, 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.Ē
ďThatís kind of him. So heís off to be a supporting prop at some deathbed?Ē
ďHardly. 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.Ē
ďHeís 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 weíve got residing with us now, have you? Itís your soft heart, both you and Val are stuck with soft hearts. Thankfully, Kate and I escaped the taint.Ē
Gideon directed yet another cool, dispassionate stare at his brother. ďAre we done here now?Ē
ďOh-ho, speaking of briars,Ē Max said, putting up his hands in mocking defense. ďHow about I leave you to your troubles and be on my way?Ē He turned to quit the room, but at the last moment turned back to add, ďThorndyke told me of your rather unusual visitor this morning. Showed up all unaccompanied and left in some sort of huff. Spirited, thatís the world Thorny used. Curious. But sheís not the reason for that long puss, correct?Ē
ďGoodbye, Max. Safe travels.Ē
ďI thought as much. Thorndyke said sheís quite the looker. Red hair. Iíve always been partial to red hair on a woman. I donít even mind the freckles. She have freckles, Gideon? Even where the sun doesnít reach?Ē
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.
ďRight,Ē Max said, nodding. ďForgive me. Clearly the lady is not a subject open to discussion. Iím 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 youíreówell, whatever it is youíre doing, I suppose youíll let the rest of us know in your own good time.Ē
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 grandmotherís 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.
Sheíd 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 didnít care a whit what he thought of them. It was rather loweringÖ .
ďGideon, my pet, what terrible thing have I done that brings you to my door?Ē
Giving the dogs one last warning look, Gideon got to his feet to admire Lady Beatrixís entrance, accomplished, as always, with a mixture of imperiousness and panache that was the envy of her detractorsóall 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 sonís 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 sheíd had to bed and then blackmail her sonís 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 husbandís 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 wouldnít 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. ďOh, so very vaillant. You must cut a wide swatch through the ladies with that little trick.Ē
ďI can only do my best.Ē
ďYes, and I hear you do your best quite a lot, you naughty scamp. I can excuse Lady Malvern, I suppose, as sheís passably attractive, save for those unfortunate ears. Theyíre not her fault, and she usually has the good sense to keep them covered. But the widow Orford? Honestly, pet, that womanís so tight in her ways, I fear for your eventual progeny. She could take you in and snap you rightóĒ
ďTrixie,Ē he interrupted quickly before his own grandmother could put him to the blush, ďwhat the hell are you up to this time?Ē
He had to give her credit; she didnít attempt to dissemble, bat her kohl-darkened lashes and trill, ďBut whatever do you mean?Ē No. She simply smiled that smile that had her clear blue eyes sparkling.
ďYou mean Reggie, donít you? Max never could keep a secret. I gave the duke a good run, more than he deserved. But I canít 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 whoís been sat in more than any village barber chair, if you take my meaning.Ē
ďI do. Iíd go so far as to ask you to tell me where you heard that description, but then youíd tell me.Ē
ďMost probably. In any case, sheís 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. Thatís 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, sheís turned into a tolerable silk purse, thanks to my attention, but the sowís ear of her former, shall we say, occupation? That will soon come to light. Iíll enjoy knowing Reggie will take that realization to hell with him.Ē
ďI can see youíve put considerable planning into the dukeís downfall. Who was it said itís women who most delight in revenge?Ē
ďI have no idea, but I should have, because itís true. You men havenít 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, ĎOld ladies must never be crossed: in their hands lie the reputations of the young ones.í Something to keep in mind, pet, although I would protest Iím not yet old. I suppose I will be, someday, but in my mind and heart, Iím only a girl.Ē
ďYou were as ancient as sin in your cradle,Ē Gideon told her, earning himself a playful tap on the forearm as they sat down beside each other. ďAnd if I recall correctly, it ended badly for the conspirators in that immoral tale.Ē
ďAh, but they were all French. Give me credit for being smarter than any Frenchman, if you please. They chop off heads. How gauche! Iím much more subtle. Now, if you arenít going to cut up stiff with me about a paltry thing like the soon-to-be late dukeóand trust me, his is a paltry thing indeed and sadly lacking in talentówhy are you here?Ē
Gideon smiled sadly. ďIím not certain I remember. Perhaps itís been too long since Iíve felt dizzy, turned around and around by a crafty old woman who should be minding her knitting.Ē
ďOr her grandsonís children, whom Iíve little hope of at the moment, sadly. Donít think the widow Orford will give you sons. Her womb has to have shriveled to nothing by now, as sheís at least fifteen years your senior. Really, Gideon, what could you possibly have been thinking, to bed her?Ē
ďLucile and I arenít lovers, Trixie. You shouldnít put credence in every rumor.Ē
ďYouíre not tipping her? You greatly relieve my mind. But then, for Godís sake, why are you seeing her? Youíve squired her around the Park at least twice in the past week, and youíve stood up with her at balls three times. No, four, I nearly forgot Suffolkís flat affair this past Thursday. It canít be for her conversation, her wit. She possesses neither.Ē
ďHer late husband was one of my fatherís cronies. I was interested in the manner of the manís death last year. Sheís 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.Ē
ďParticulars concerning the manner of hisóHow perfectly morbid of you. Gideon, why would you even care about a thing like that?Ē
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. ďMy fatherís 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 Malvernís uncle, Sir George Dunmore, for another. I know they were members because they all wore the rose. Are you killing them?Ē
Her response was swift. She slapped him hard across the face.
He lifted a hand to his burning cheek. ďI believe I should be remiss if I didnít point out thatís not an answer, madam,Ē he told her coldly.
ďPerhaps not, but it was most deserved. Whatís going on, Gideon? Iíd decided not to ask about the stickpin, waiting for you to tell me, which you would have done eventually. Thank God youíve 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 Iíve always given you credit.Ē
ďForgive 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?Ē
ďBecause heís going to die soon, of course. I settled the others immediately. And, lest youíre 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.Ē
ďNot prison, Trixie. Youíre losing your touch if you didnít hear heís slipped his mind entirely, and is now raving in some small cell in Bethlehem Hospital.Ē
ďDelicious! May he survive another two decades and sleep every night in his own filth. But weíre speaking of Reggie now, arenít we? My mistake with the others was moving too quickly. They barely had time to realize their error in threatening me.Ē
ďMuch more satisfying to destroy them an inch at a time?Ē
ďNow you understand, and with all the inches reserved for the duke since the others were gone. Reggieís known nearly from the first heís on my string, and Iíd tighten it one day. He simply never knew when, or how. Youíve never had anyone at your beck and call, have you, eager to do you any serviceóany 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 youíre 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. Itís heady stuff. I may have grown a touch lazy over the years, as well, content to flaunt the jewels he gives me beneath his wifeís nose as he watches in horror, fearing Iím about to tell her from whence they come.Ē
She shrugged her slim shoulders eloquently, almost sadly. ďOr perhaps I grew somewhat fond of the man over time. Iím not completely heartless. But in the end, Gideon, the bill always comes due, the piper has to be paid. Itís Reggieís 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.Ē
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