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Authors: A Special License

Karen Harbaugh

BOOK: Karen Harbaugh
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A SPECIAL LICENSE

 

Karen Harbaugh

 

Chapter 1

 

William Staynes, seventh Earl of Rothwick, sat at the breakfast table, immersed in his newspaper. He had almost finished a short article on a Whitechapel ax murder when a feminine voice pierced the breakfast parlor.

“He will surely let me in when he understands the urgency of my case!” The door opened, and Lady Wrenton stepped in, followed closely by a profusely apologetic footman. The footman encountered my lord’s uninterested eye, subsided abashed, and slipped quickly out the door.

Except for a momentary movement of Lord Rothwick’s eyebrows, however, my lady’s entrance did not seem to pierce his concentration on the newspaper. She sniffed. It had always been so. He had been an annoying baby brother; now that he was grown, with a title and vast estates, he was no less annoying. Less impetuous, perhaps, but that was hardly saying anything at all.

Lady Wrenton twisted a lock of her hair nervously. She did not feel very hopeful in appealing to her brother when there was any sort of trouble, except, of course, when it dealt with his duty as her trustee. It was not in William’s nature to put himself out for anyone. She thought there was a lesson in it somewhere—it had always seemed to her that one so indulged as a child ought naturally to be indulgent toward others.

This was not true about her brother, however. He could almost be called a care-for-nobody, except he was unrelenting in his determination to make her stay within her allowance. And he had a disagreeable habit of jumping to the most unpleasant conclusions—at least not the conclusions one
wanted
him to come to. She sighed. Perhaps she could persuade him by appealing to his sense of duty, although her problem had little to do with the trust.

Her ladyship plumped herself down upon a chair, gazing at the newspaper that separated her from her brother. For all that it was only a newspaper, it almost acquired a personality of its own in the hands of the earl. It was as if it set itself up as a guard between Rothwick and the rest of the world. Lady Wrenton sighed, knowing his attention would not go past the newspaper until he chose. She surveyed the laden table instead. “Sausages!” She made a face. “I am surprised you have such a vulgar thing at your table.” She herself never had more than her cup of chocolate or tea and toast in the morning.

“I am grieved you have found me out,” replied the newspaper calmly. “I trust you will not spread it about, Lydia. I am sure I would not be able to show my face for more than a fortnight should you do so.” That face, revealed during the turning of a page, was the picture of unconcern. “I am glad you sought to warn me so quickly, my dear. A serious case indeed.” A cup of coffee disappeared behind the paper, then reappeared, empty.

Her ladyship looked taken aback. “Serious? Sausages, serious?”

“Of course. Anything which reflects a vulgar light upon me is a serious matter. You relieve my mind, Lydia. I had thought at first you had come to me about that tiresome boy of yours. I see I was mistaken. My eyes have been opened. Your sisterly affection for me was more than I knew. How fortunate it is to have someone who looks out for my interests—fond older sister that you are,” he added wickedly.

A fork pierced the offending sausage. Lydia could see its shadow briefly behind the advertisement “Dr. Thompson’s Superlative Baldness Cure” before it merged with Lord Rothwick’s.

“Hardly old!” She patted her thick black hair. “Why, we might even be mistaken for twins.”

A corner of the newspaper tweaked down for a minute, exposing her brother’s ironic eye. “Perhaps I am mistaken, but I thought you had the advantage of me in years—ten, is it not?”

Lady Wrenton shifted uncomfortably. How they had got off the subject she wanted to pursue, she did not know. “Well, as a matter of fact, I did come here about Paul. And he is not tiresome! I do not know why you should call him that, for he is the most darling boy a mother could want for a son.” She hesitated. “It is only... he is so susceptible to those who would lead him astray.”

The eyebrows moved again, but not with total skepticism. Though Paul was the younger of Lydia’s two children, he was twenty years of age and could not be called a boy much longer. Indeed, thought Rothwick, briefly reviewing some of his nephew’s forays into the muslin company, Paul was entering into more manly pursuits than before. One could suppose that meant he was susceptible to being led astray. His lordship’s expression gave away none of what he was thinking, however.

“Astray.” Rothwick put down his paper, touched his lips with his napkin, and gazed at his sister with resigned boredom. “What has he done now?”

She sat back on her chair, raising a hand to her eyes with a small sigh. “It is a—a... it is that vulgar creature he is escorting lately.”

“Yes?” His voice was uninterested.

“You must stop him before she brings ruin upon him! She is nothing but a common strumpet!”

“If she is, as you say, his light o’ love, there is no reason to do so.”

Her ladyship’s lip trembled. “William, I do not see how you can be so unfeeling. He is your heir, after all. You cannot let him sink so low as to marry her.”

Rothwick laughed. “I hardly think he will do that. He has been out on the Town long enough to avoid any such tangles. The only thing he needs to learn is not to let such rubbish reach your ears.” He picked up the coffeepot, gauging by its weight whether it had any coffee left. It did not. He glanced at his sister, then again at the empty pot. Life has its irritations, he thought, sighing. “I will allow some exaggeration arising from mother love, Lydia, but you do have a penchant for tragedy making when it comes to Paul. You are making something out of nothing, I assure you.”

“He is only twenty, and—and persuadable, Will! And he himself told me he was going to marry her.” Lady Wrenton was overcome. She pulled out a lacy square and dabbed her eyes. “I do not know how I could bear it if he should go through with it!”

Rothwick seemed to pay a little more attention to this but said, “Nonsense.”

“He
did
say it! And she had the effrontery to nod to me when they passed in his carriage,” cried Lady Wrenton, incensed. “Her name is Cassey Pickens. She is supposed to be a widow—grass widow, more likely! When I saw her, she was dressed in half mourning—which was, no doubt, what took my poor boy in. Nothing, however, could have hidden her vulgarity from me!”

Lord Rothwick sat back, and his sigh was exquisitely full of ennui. Lydia’s chair felt suddenly uncomfortable, and she was annoyed at him for making her wish she hadn’t come. But he said: “How tedious. It looks as though I shall have to intervene.”

“Oh, William!” cried Lydia, running around the table to him. “I knew you would come to my rescue—dear brother!”

He held off her embrace. “Yes, yes. Just don’t interrupt me at my breakfast again. You know how I dislike it. I might have sausage again if you do.”

His sister wrinkled her nose. “Well, I won’t then. Only get that horrid creature away from Paul, and I will, well, I promise I will keep better account of what I owe my dressmaker!”

Lydia was clearly willing to sacrifice a great deal for her beloved son. She had never before been able to keep her bills in any order. A hopeful light glimmered in Rothwick’s eye, then faded. He sighed again. “You may rest easy, sister. I doubt I shall hold you to it.”

It was true Lord Rothwick did not put himself out for others. He had never had to do much in the way of pleasing people, and like most mortals he avoided change, for he felt satisfied with his life as it was. This was not, of course, to say that he was not a fair and generous man when he chose to be. His many mistresses could attest to that. Though indulged in childhood, he had not escaped without a sense of responsibility—instilled in him, perhaps, by his old nurse, who was always alternately scolding and petting him.

Certainly his parents had had nothing to do with it. He was the result of a last attempt by the sixth earl of Rothwick and his lady wife to beget an heir, and his mother had been almost forty when he was born. It had weakened her, and though she had lived another fifteen years, she never did recover enough to keep up with the active, vital boy he had been. His father did not live very much longer than his mother, but that did not make much difference to the young man; the sixth earl had always seemed a distant figure who appeared only at quarter day to give him his allowance and admonishments toward proper behavior.

Of the two things his father gave him, William was properly grateful for the first and ignored the second. How else was it to be, after all? He was a handsome youth when he finished Cambridge, with black hair and eyes as grey as slate. Fast on the heels of his diploma came invitations to social functions, both select and not select at all. At the former he flirted happily with maidens and the hopes of ambitious mothers but never succumbed to the matrimonial mousetrap, no matter how prettily baited. At the latter he flirted with the hopes of ambitious courtesans and succumbed happily to the lascivious lures of his light o’ loves, especially if prettily baited.

This last occupation, alas, was soon to end. Or rather, the obvious flaunting of his activities was soon to end. He was to marry a sophisticated miss named Sophia Amberley; he had to do his duty and bring forth an heir, after all. He felt Miss Amberley would do quite well.

He brought forth her image in his mind’s eye. Ah, yes. She was a honey blonde, with periwinkle-blue eyes and full, pouting lips. She was a ravishing sort, because he never consorted with any but diamonds of the first water. She was clever and not so much in love with him as with his title, he was sure. That was all he required. He would go on with his usual activities, and after she bore him an heir, she could do as she wished—discreetly, of course. His activities would not make the marriage an unequal one for Sophia, for he was a reasonably intelligent, realistic man and knew well that the cover of marriage often gave special license to women to act more freely than was customary for a spinster. He shrugged at the thought. His life, for all intents and purposes, would remain pleasantly unchanged.

He was not married yet, however. They were betrothed but two days—nothing had been announced officially yet—and he would enjoy himself to the fullest first. He was fully cognizant of the realities of marriage; he had to give up some of his time to devote to Sophia, put in an appearance at her side once in a while to satisfy convention. Duty was duty, after all. And Sophia’s looks and voluptuous figure were such that fulfilling at least part of that duty would not be distasteful at all....

He shook his head, setting aside Sophia’s undoubted charms to an easily accessible corner of his mind. Paul. He must attend to that troublesome brat’s damned brumble-bath. Rothwick would not bother rescuing the boy except that he remembered the scrapes he himself had fallen into at that age and wished he had had someone to drag him out of them then. Though my lord would never say so, he had a certain fondness for his sister and did not like to see her worried. He sighed, resigned. It was one thing to have a few mistresses, but a man did not marry any of them. Well, if he saw Paul in the course of the next couple of days, he would warn him off.

Rothwick found him sooner than he thought he would. An invitation to meet at White’s by a crony of his took him out on a warm spring day to Bond Street. He would not have noticed the tall man a few yards in front of him had it not been for the man’s companion. He appreciatively eyed the lithe, full-bosomed figure clothed in lavender half mourning, but he jerked almost too hard on the reins when he saw Paul’s profile bending above her solicitously.

It
was
Paul—he could not mistake that yellow-striped waistcoat. Rothwick had attempted to dampen Paul’s enthusiasm for it only a week past by saying it was too dandified. The young woman was not anyone he recognized. She must be that bit o’ muslin Lydia was so upset about. He would certainly find out. He handed the reins to his tiger and stepped from his curricle.

The situation between the two was no better at close range. Rothwick noted with disgust an absorbed look in Paul’s eyes; that harpy had her claws in deeper than he would have thought. She was not, obviously, very intelligent. If she had any notion of propriety, she would not allow herself to be seen in Bond Street, even upon his nephew’s arm. She was probably clever enough to discern that Paul had not yet any notion of it, either. It must be Cassey Pickens. He came directly behind Paul, tapping him on a slightly padded shoulder.

Paul turned. “Uncle Will!” he cried. “Glad we bumped into each other. Not that we bumped, precisely, but you know what I mean.” He turned to the woman at his side. “Uncle, this is—”

“Yes, I know very well who this is,” growled the earl. He gave a cursory bow, and then scanned the woman’s face with more intent. Hers was a piquant face: full of liveliness, humor, and just a touch of sadness about the eyes to make her thin, heart-shaped countenance interesting. A few dusky curls escaped her bonnet; they looked soft, like down from a chick. It was a face that could draw a man to look and look again, for her eyes attracted and her soft, pink, innocent lips invited kisses.

BOOK: Karen Harbaugh
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