Authors: Suzanne Enoch
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical
For Saundra Stark,
who wanted to appear as a sexy diva villainess,
but unfortunately doesn’t have a Regency name.
So instead I give you the book’s first page.
What do you think of that, Colonel? He’s brought in…
As Theresa stepped down from the coach, Amelia gave her…
Bartholomew awoke with a start, springing out of bed before…
First Theresa had wanted Tolly James to attend the party,…
Tolly stared after Theresa as she and the lumbering Adonis…
I’m so pleased you’re living at James House again,” Violet…
Your cards this morning, Miss Tess.” Inclining his head, the…
Bartholomew awoke with a start, his hands half raised to…
Theresa played the two of hearts, then feigned a frown…
Theresa followed Amelia into the upstairs hallway of James House.
The front door opened, and Bartholomew held his breath. The…
Whether Tolly could read minds or merely had a good…
Miss Tess,” Sally said, leaning out of the coach’s open…
The moment Lackaby rolled him into the ballroom, Bartholomew’s gaze…
How long do I need to push you back and…
He still didn’t want to tell her. But Theresa had…
Well?” Lackaby prompted, glancing up from the red and white…
Bartholomew was beginning to wish he’d kept his damned mouth…
Tom hadn’t been happy to be roused from sleep well…
You’re off to see Amelia again?”
Michael and Lord Gardner arrived at James House together. Theresa…
Bartholomew kept his eyes closed for several minutes after he…
“Being a true lady means making even a mundane topic such as the weather interesting. A gentleman must
to approach you, and a gentleman does not want to be bored.”
hat do you think of that, Colonel? He’s brought in another one.”
Annoyed, Colonel Bartholomew James opened one eye. At the far end of the room, beyond the two dozen comfortable chairs and tables, past the billiards table and the generous stand of liquor bottles, the Duke of Sommerset stood speaking with a tall, dark-haired fellow wearing the uniform of a naval captain.
“It’s Sommerset’s club,” he returned, giving up on feigning sleep; clearly Thomas Easton meant to converse with him whether he was awake or not. “I suppose he can invite whomever he pleases to join it.”
“Damned navy,” Easton grumbled. “Let him try spending a year in the desert like we did, and see how fine his uniform looks.”
“I wasn’t in the desert.”
“Part of India is desert.” Easton cursed under his breath. “Damn. They’re walking this way. Pretend to be asleep.”
“That doesn’t seem to be very effective,” Bartholomew noted dryly, shifting in the deep chair a little and ignoring the sharp pain jabbing through his left knee.
“This is Mr. Thomas Easton,” Sommerset drawled as the two men approached. “He spent a year in Persia to encourage the expansion of the silk trade to Britain. Easton, Captain Bradshaw Carroway.”
“Carroway. So now the only qualification to join the Adventurers’ Club is what, to survive a rough sea?”
“The only qualification,” the duke returned, still cool and unconcerned, “is my say-so. I see you’re awake, Colonel.”
Bartholomew sent a sideways glance at Easton. “Under the circumstances, there’s little else I could be.”
Sommerset’s mouth twitched. “Captain Carroway, this is Colonel Bartholomew James. Tolly served for a time in India.”
Served for a time
. Interesting that four words could so completely describe ten years of his life. Bartholomew nodded. “Captain.”
“Colonel.” The naval officer straightened. “I read about your ordeal. My condolences.”
So it was an “ordeal” now. Better than an “incident” or an “unfortunate occurrence” or even an exaggeration, he supposed, and he’d heard it described as all of those things. “Thank you,” he said aloud.
“Come, Sommerset,” Easton broke in, “you always have a reason for admitting another uncivilized beast into your club. What’s our dear Captain Carroway here for?”
“That’s for him to tell, if he wishes to do so—just as I only mention the parts of your tale that you’ve made public knowledge.” The duke motioned Carroway to follow, and the two men walked over to greet the Earl of Hennessy, the only other club member present at the moment.
Easton leaned over the arm of his chair. “What do you think it is, Colonel? A shipwreck? Capture by pirates?”
Bartholomew made one last attempt to ignore the blast of hot air that was Thomas Easton. He shut his eyes again. And immediately rocky hills, bone-dry stream beds, twisted trees hanging over crumbling ravines filled his mind. It was nowhere he particularly cared to revisit, but he could never seem to be anywhere else. He deserved to still be there, he supposed. Everyone under his command was still there, beneath the stones.
“We’re fifteen now,” Easton went on, unmindful of the fact that no one else wanted to talk to him. “Fifteen outcasts, unfit for proper Society. Ah, the tales we could tell, with only us to listen.”
“Some of us stopped listening to
ages ago,” Hennessy commented from across the room. Bartholomew snorted.
“The Adventurers’ Club is supposed to be a damned refuge, Easton,” the earl continued. “Not a place for you to torment the rest of us. Leave be.”
“I’m talking to the colonel, not you. If he doesn’t like it, he can tell me so.”
“Shut up, Easton,” Bartholomew muttered.
Yes, the Adventurers’ Club, established several months ago by the Duke of Sommerset and located in the east wing of his massive town house, was a refuge for misfits. Explorers, adventurers—how had Sommerset put it? A place for those who’d learned to view the world and Society with clearer eyes than the rest of London. That was he, Bartholomew supposed. Because most of the time he couldn’t see London at all any longer.
A moment later he heard Thomas Easton rise and wander off, likely to torment Hennessy or the new fellow. Thank God. Perhaps now he could manage a few minutes of sleep, given the way it tended to evade him at night. Then the scent of sandalwood touched his nostrils, and someone else settled into Easton’s vacated chair. “Sommerset,” he drawled.
“Hervey tells me you’ve been here for three days now,” the duke said, pitching his voice lower.
Inwardly sighing, Bartholomew opened his eyes again and straightened from his current I’d-rather-not-speak-with-you slouch. The movement twisted his knee again, but he hid his flinch. “I don’t feel like going out,” he admitted aloud.
“And you don’t have to. That’s why the Adventurers’ Club provides spare rooms for whichever of us requires one. If I’m not mistaken, Tolly, didn’t your sister and brother arrive in Town the day before yesterday?”
He didn’t recall that Sommerset had ever been mistaken about anything. “Hence me being here rather
than at James House.” Bartholomew cocked his head. “You’re using my nickname. What do you want?” Lifting his cane, he twirled it idly in his hands. Somewhere in the past few months it had become another limb, an extension of his body. He required it and hated it all at the same time.
“I recall you speaking fondly of your siblings,” the duke countered, ignoring his question.
“I am fond of them. But Stephen and Violet are very…chirpy. I’m not.” Not any longer, anyway.
“Just keep in mind that I won’t have them here. Nor do I want them searching London for you and raising all sorts of alarms that point here.”
“Ah. So that’s what you want.” It was the first rule of the Adventurers’ Club. Members only. As far as Bartholomew had been able to determine in the six weeks he’d been a member, no one else in London had ever heard a word about its existence. “I’ll go see them tomorrow and let them know I’m staying elsewhere.”
“Do it today. They’re already asking around for you.”
A murmur of uneasiness went through his gut. Sommerset made the rules at this club, however, and Bartholomew had no desire to be asked to leave. It was, after all, the only place where he seemed able to close his eyes for more than a few minutes at a time. Apparently there was something to be said for being surrounded by people who knew how to manage themselves in a crisis. “I’ll have my horse brought around, then.”
The duke stood again. “I’ll see to it.”
Drawing a breath and clenching his jaw, Bartholomew braced both hands against the arms of the
deep chair and muscled himself upright. He’d gotten better at it; when he’d first begun, he’d ended up on the floor more often than not. Now, however, with another sharp, lingering stab and grind in his left knee, he stood. The end of the cane clicked against the polished hardwood floor, his third leg. One short of a horse.
He didn’t have to go at that moment, he supposed. Sommerset had only told him to take care of it today, and going by the longcase clock in the corner, it was barely eleven. The sooner he saw to it, though, the sooner he could return to the refuge of the Adventurers’ Club.
Outside the well-hidden entrance of the club, Harlow held the reins of his big, dark gray gelding, Meru. The groom had already circled the gray so Bartholomew could mount from the right side—a damned shame, but the only way he could make it into the saddle these days. Thankfully Meru had caught on quickly and stood still as a rock while he slid the cane into the straps that would normally have held a rifle or a sword, then swung up into the saddle.
With a nod to the groom, Bartholomew sent Meru down the Ainsley House drive and out onto the streets of Mayfair. It was odd; he’d grown up familiar with these streets, attending parties, recitals, whatever his parents could drag him to first as a lad and then as a very naive young man down from Oxford. Even later there had been an army leave here or there when he’d returned, visiting family and friends, attending parties, but not quite seeing it any longer as the raison d’être his less-traveled fellows seemed to think it.
Now it all seemed foreign. As he turned onto Davies Street a pair of cart drivers stood arguing and throwing produce at one another over some slight or other. Smashed peaches littered the street, attracting a slew of dogs, pigeons, and street urchins. Bartholomew leaned out and caught one of the fruits as it soared by, then dropped it into a small girl’s outstretched hands. She fled back into an alley, skittish as the dogs.
Once he reached the white, multi-windowed front of James House he stopped. For the past few weeks since his return from India he’d been living more or less in the family home, though most nights he seemed either to end up riding the streets or sleeping in one of the back rooms of the Adventurers’ Club—or one of the chairs in front of the fireplace there. Now that the Season had begun in earnest, of course Stephen and Violet would have come to London. He supposed he’d just been pretending ignorance of that fact—until he’d received Stephen’s letter four days ago.
Blowing out his breath, he urged Meru up the drive and around the side of the house to the stable. As soon as he appeared two grooms hurried out, Harry to take the gray by the bridle, and Tom to gingerly pull Tolly’s left foot from the stirrup and then circle around to take Bartholomew’s weight as he dismounted.
As his left foot settled on the ground the sharp, familiar pain shot from his toes all the way up his spine. For a moment he held still, not so much waiting for the pain to subside as allowing his body to adjust to it again. If he could live on horseback, he would hardly mind the injury at all. Unfortunately, Meru couldn’t
manage the stairs at James House. Even more unfortunately, Bartholomew couldn’t, either.
“Thank you, Tom,” he said, reaching over to free the cane and shifting to settle his weight on it.
“Lord and Lady Gardner and Miss Violet arrived the day before yesterday, Colonel,” the sturdy groom said, taking a step back, out of the way. “They’ve been inquiring as to your whereabouts.”
“Yes, I know. I’ll see to it.”
He’d just reached the front of the house when the door swung open. “Tolly!”
Black-haired Violet flew down the steps at him. Bartholomew braced himself, digging the tip of his cane into the dirt and clenching his jaw against the pain that he knew would come. Just short of colliding with him, though, Violet skidded to a stop.
“Stephen said you’d been hurt,” she said, looking up at him with concerned brown eyes. “You’re still hurt, aren’t you?”
“I heard you’ve been looking for me,” he said gruffly.
“Of course we’ve been looking for you! May I hug you, or should we shake hands?”
Bartholomew didn’t quite know how to answer that. Thankfully, before he could decide, Stephen, Viscount Gardner, descended the front steps, as well. “Stephen,” he said, nodding. His gaze lifted to the young light-haired lady following his older brother outside. “And you must be Amelia.”
She nodded. “I’m pleased to finally meet you, Colonel.”
Knowing what he must look like, he had to give his new sister-in-law credit for not shrieking. He
couldn’t remember whether he’d shaved that morning or not, and his brown hair was badly in need of a trim. And then there was the cane. At least his cravat hid the marks around his throat. “Call me Tolly,” he returned, and offered his free hand to Stephen.
His brother shook it. “Where the devil have you been?”
“Staying with a friend,” Bartholomew hedged.
“But this is your home!” Violet exclaimed, finally stepping in to wrap her hands around his left arm. “Do come in. Do you need assistance? I can fetch Graham.”
Bartholomew shrugged free of her grip. “Leave be, Vi. Graham and I already have an understanding.”
“Which is?” Stephen prompted as Bartholomew limped past him.
“He opens the door and then goes away,” Bartholomew returned, clenching his jaw as he reached the first of the three shallow steps. It wasn’t so much that he minded looking ungainly as he didn’t want to appear weak. He glared at the step, willing it to sink into the drive.
“Violet, Stephen,” Amelia’s too-sweet voice came from the doorway above, “why don’t we sit in the morning room? The Colonel—Tolly—can join us when he pleases.”
He glanced up at her. At least someone understood that he didn’t want to be stared at. She was fairly pretty, he decided, blond-haired and green-eyed, with that cheery look that suited Stephen’s own manner. He wasn’t certain he would have given her a second look under other circumstances, but for this moment he was grateful for her presence.
“Right.” Stephen collected Violet and the two of them pranced up the steps with no noticeable effort and vanished into the house behind Stephen’s new wife.
Once left to himself, Bartholomew reached out to hook the door frame with the cane’s handle. Gripping the shaft with both hands, he pulled himself up, one slow, painful step at a time. When he reached the foyer a light sweat covered his brow. Wiping it away impatiently, he shrugged out of his overcoat and set his hat onto a hook. Then, shaking himself, he walked three-legged into the morning room.
“You should sit down,” Violet said immediately, bouncing to her feet to make room for him close by the door. She’d been out for a year now, and by his count would be nineteen by the end of the month, but she still flounced and chirped like the child he remembered.
If he sat, he would have to stand again. “I’m fine,” he said, moving across the room to lean against the fireplace mantel.
“You knew we were coming to London, didn’t you?” Stephen asked, taking Amelia’s hand and drawing it across his knee. “I wrote you nearly a week ago.”
“Then why have you been missing for the past two days?”
“I haven’t been missing. I’ve been elsewhere.”
The viscount cocked his head. “Are you angry with me?”
“Good, because I’m quite happy to see you. It’s been three years, nearly, since you were last home.”
“I’m aware of that.” Bartholomew took a breath. “I’m poor company these days. You’re newly wed, and I know that Vi has never missed a dance in her life. So proceed with enjoying the Season, and I’ll be about.”