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'Ho, there, Chepstow! Need some advice.'
Lord Chepstow, who'd been sauntering across the lobby of his club, paused, recognised Lord Havelock and grinned.
'From me?' He shook his head ruefully. 'Lord, you must be in the suds to want my advice.'
'I am,' said Lord Havelock bluntly. Then glanced meaningfully in the direction of the club's servant, who'd stepped forward to take his coat and hat.
Chepstow's grin faded. 'Need to find somewhere quiet, to talk in private?'
'Yes,' said Lord Havelock, feeling a great weight rolling off his shoulders. Not that he had much hope that Chepstow, of all men, would come up with any fresh ideas. But at least he was willing to listen.
As soon as they'd passed through the door to the librarythe one room almost sure to be deserted at this, or any other, time of the dayhe said it.
'Got to get married.'
'Good grief.' Chepstow's jaw dropped. 'Would never have thought you the type to get some girl into trouble. Not one you feel you have to marry, at any rate.'
Havelock clenched his fists in automatic repudiation of such a slur on his honour, causing Chepstow to raise his own hands in a placatory gesture.
'Now I come to think of it ' Chepstow said, carefully moving a few feet out of his range, 'sort of thing could happen to anyone.'
'Not me,' Havelock insisted. 'You know I've never been much in the petticoat line.' He lowered his fists as it occurred to him that, actually, Chepstow might be the very chap to help him, after all.
'You have been though, Chepstow. You've had some really high-flyers in keeping, haven't you? And still managed to stay popular with ladies of the ton. How d'ye do it, man? How d'ye get them all eating out of your hands, that's what I need to know.'
'By opening my purse strings to the high-flyers,' said Chepstow candidly, 'and minding my manners with the Quality. It's perfectly simple '
'Yes, if all you are looking for is something of a temporary nature. But if you had to get married, what kind of woman would you ask? I mean, what sort of woman do you think would make a good wife? And how would you go about finding her, if you only had a fortnight's grace to get the knot tied?'
Chepstow froze, like a stag at bay. 'Me? Married?' He slowly shook his head. 'I wouldn't. The trick is avoiding the snares they lay for a fellow, not deliberately walking straight into one.'
'You don't understand,' Havelock began to say. But Chepstow wasn't listening. He was looking wildly round the room, like a hunted animal seeking cover. And then, with obvious relief, he found it in the form of a pair of young men just barely visible above an enormous mound of books on one of the reading desks, engaged in earnest conversation.
'Let's ask Ashe,' he said, grabbing Havelock by one arm and towing him across the floor with an air of desperation. 'Kind of chap who reads books when he don't need to is bound to know something worth knowing about matrimony.'
Which was rot, of course. But Chepstow was clearly panicking. Anybody who thought they could get away with manhandling him across a room, whilst babbling about books, had obviously lost his wits.
But then the topic of matrimony was apt to do that to a fellow. He wouldn't willingly put his head in the noose if there was any alternative. But, having racked his brains for hours, Havelock simply couldn't find one.
So he'd decided that the only thing to be done was to see if he couldn't somehow sugar-coat the pill he was about to swallow. Find some way, unlikely though it seemed, to find a woman who wouldn't oblige him to alter his entire way of life.
Who wouldn't try to alter him.
'Ashe, and, um ' Chepstow floundered as he shot a blank look at the second man at the table with Ashe.
'Morgan,' said the Earl of Ashenden, waving a languid hand at his companion. Havelock had seen Morgan about, at the races, Jackson's, this club and various social events, though had never had cause to speak to him before. Son of some sort of nabob, if memory served him. Nothing wrong with him, so far as he knew. Just not out of the top drawer.
Not that he cared a rap for any of that. Not at a time like this.
Introductions dealt with, Chepstow thrust Havelock into a chair, then perched on the edge of his own as though ready to take flight at a moment's notice.
'Havelock has decided he wants to get married,' he announced, rather in the manner of a man who has just tossed a hot potato out of his burnt fingers. Then he practically pounced on the waiter, who'd ventured into the library to see if any of the young gentlemen needed refreshment.
'We need a bottle of wine,' declared Chepstow with feeling.
'Not want to,' Havelock explained once the waiter was out of earshot. 'Have to. Need to. And before you start questioning my ton, no, it isn't because I've suddenly started seducing innocents,' he growled, shooting Chepstow a resentful look. 'That's not it at all.'
'Steady on,' said Chepstow, pushing enough books aside that the waiter would have room to put a bottle and some glasses down when he returned. 'Sort of mistake anyone could make. With you looking so out of sorts. And then broaching the topic the way you did.'
'Gentlemen,' said Ashe in that quiet way he had that somehow made everyone listen. 'Perhaps the best thing to do would be to let Havelock explain, in his own words, just what his problem is and how he thinks we may be of assistance? Before he feels compelled to call on his seconds.'
At Morgan's look of alarm, Ashe chuckled quietly.
'It is a foolish man who casts a slur on Havelock's honour these days.'
'I don't, and never have, challenged my friends to duels.'
'You shot off half of Wraxton's ear,' put in Chepstow.
'He wasn't my friend.' Havelock folded his arms over his chest and glared across the table at Ashe. 'And it wasn't me he insulted. But a lady.'
'Oho! And I thought you said you weren't in the petticoat line.'
'I'm not. Never have been. It wasn't like that' 'From what I heard,' put in Ashe mildly, 'if it hadn't been you, it would have been her husband who challenged him.'
'He should have done,' snapped Havelock. 'Only ' He sighed, and pushed his fringe out of his eyebrows irritably. 'I lost my temper with him first.'
'Never mind,' said Ashe soothingly. 'At least someone shot him. That is the main thing.'
'I shouldn't have done it,' admitted Havelock, as the waiter returned with a tray of wine and clean glasses. Meeting Wraxton had been nothing like the first duel he'd fought. Wraxton would have killed him stone dead if his pistol hadn't misfired. And therefore he'd wanted to kill him right back. If it hadn't been for a freakish bout of hiccups throwing his aim off, causing him to nick the man's ear rather than put a hole through what passed for his heart, he would have done. And would then have had to flee the country or face charges for murder.
Seeing how close he'd come to bringing dishonour on his family through sheer anger had pulled him up short. Since then, he'd made much more effort to keep a rein on his temper.
Although few people were foolish enough to think they could get away with goading him, after the affair with Wraxton. The tale had got about that he'd deliberately marked the man. That he was a crack shot.
Which just went to show what idiots most people were.
'I only wish,' he said, pouring himself a generous measure of wine, 'my problems now could be solved by issuing a challenge, picking my seconds, then putting a bullet into someone. But the fact is I need to get married,' he said glumly. 'And soon. But I don't want to end up shackled to some harpy who will make my life a misery by constantly nagging at me to reform. And the thing with women,' he said, lifting the glass to his mouth, 'is that you never can tell what they're really like until after they've got you all legally tied up.' He took a gulp as he recalled just how many times he'd seen it happen. One minute they'd been blushing brides, tripping down the aisle all sweetness and light, and the next they'd become regular harpies, henpecking the poor devil who'd married them into an early grave.
'Well, the answer, then, is to make sure of the woman's character before you wed her,' said Ashe with infuriating logic.
'And just how am I supposed to do that in the limited time I have available?'
'Marry someone you know well,' said Morgan as though it was obvious.
'God, no!' Havelock seized his glass and threw the rest of its contents back in one go. 'I can't face the thought of actually living, in the same house, with any of the girls I know really well. And anyway, they wouldn't oblige me by marrying quickly. They'd want a big society affair.' He shuddered. 'Not to mention a massive trousseau, and so forth.'
'So, to be blunt, you want a girl who will take you exactly as you are, and won't demand a big society wedding.'
'You are looking for a mouse,' put in Morgan. 'A mouse so desperate for matrimony she'll take what little you're prepared to offer.'
'That's it,' he cried, startling the sneer from Morgan's face. 'That would work. Morgan, you are a genius.'
'You'd better be prepared to accept someone plain, then,' returned Morgan, somewhat taken aback by his enthusiasm for a suggestion he'd made with such sarcasm. 'And probably poor, as well.'
Havelock leaned back for a moment, considering. 'Don't think a plain face would put me off, so long as she's not a complete antidote.'
'Just a moment,' put in Ashe. 'Though, for whatever reason, you have decided to marry now, and in such haste, you must not forget the matter of succession. All of us, except perhaps you, Morgan,' he said, giving the nabob's son a dry smile, 'have a duty to marry and produce sons to take over our responsibilities in their turn.'
'Point taken,' said Havelock before Ashe could state the obvious. It went without saying that he'd have to find someone it wouldn't be too much of a hardship to bed.
'I notice you haven't denied needing a girl with a sizeable dowry,' said Morgan, looking at him through narrowed eyes. 'Is that why you need to marry in such a hurry? In need of an heiress, are you?'
At that point Chepstow, who'd got through two drinks to Havelock's one, let out a bark of laughter.
'Just because I'm not one of the dandy set,' said Havelock, self-consciously putting his hand to his neckcloth, which he'd knotted in a haphazard fashion much, much earlier that day, and no doubt looked even further from the apparently effortless elegance attained by the other men about the table, 'that don't mean I haven't a tidy income.'
Morgan eyed the pocket of Havelock's jacket, which had somehow got ripped half off during the course of the day, and then lowered his gaze to his muddied boots, which he hadn't stopped to change after the devastating interview with his lawyers. He'd walked and walked whilst trying to come up with a solution, before he'd noticed he was passing his club, and decided to come in and see if anyone else could come up with any better ideas.
'I don't need a woman to bring anything but herself to the union,' he finished belligerently.
Once again it was Ashe who defused the tension, by summoning the waiter who'd been hovering at a discreet distance, and asking him to fetch ink and paper.
'What we need to do, I think, is to make a comprehensive list of exactly what you do need, before we set our minds to the problem of how you may acquire it.'
'There,' cried Chepstow triumphantly. 'Didn't I say that Ashe was the very fellow to help? I'll just ' He half rose from his chair.
Havelock only had to glare at him for a second or two to take the wind out of his sails. A gentleman didn't bail out on his friends when they'd gone to him for help. Havelock had stood by Chepstow every time he'd needed help getting out of a scrape. Now the boot was on the other foot, he expected a similar show of loyalty.
Chepstow subsided into his seat with an air of resignation and, in a hollow voice, asked the waiter, who just then arrived with the writing materials, to bring them another bottle of wine.
'So,' said Ashe, dipping the pen into the ink, 'you do not require beauty, or wealth, in your prospective bride. But you do require a compliant nature'
'A mouse,' repeated Morgan derisively.
Ashe shot him a reproving look over the top of his spectacles.
'Undemanding. And not one of the circle in which you habitually move.'
At Havelock's shudder, Ashe wrote, not of the upper ten thousand on his list.
'Any other requirements?' He paused, his hand hovering over the paper.
Havelock frowned as he considered.
'Quite a few, actually. That's what makes it all so damned difficult.' He ran his fingers through his hair, for what felt like the thousandth time that day. Not that it made any difference to the style, or rather lack of it. It was fortunate he wasn't obsessed with his appearance, for his thick, curly hair did whatever it wanted. Impervious to comb, or pomade, the only thing was to keep it short and hope for the best.
'I don't want a woman with any family to speak of,' he said with feeling.
'You mean no titled family?' The nabob's son shot him a glance loaded with sympathy. 'Wouldn't want them looking down on you.'
Before Havelock had a chance to get up, seize the fellow by the throat and give him a shaking, Ashe put in mildly, 'Morgan is not aware of how very well connected you are, Havelock. I am sure he meant no insult.'
No, Havelock sighed. He probably didn't. And anyway, he'd already decided to forgo the pleasure of indulging in a decent set-to with anyone within the walls of this club.
'Look, I'm related to half the bloody ton as it is,' he explained to the bemused Morgan. 'What with stepbrothers, and stepsisters, and all the attendant stepcousins and aunts and uncles and such like all thinking they have a right to poke their nose into my affairs, I don't want someone bringing yet another set of relatives into my life and making it any more complicated, thank you very much.'
He saw Ashe write the word orphan on the list.
Morgan nodded. 'Makes sense. And an orphan, a girl with no family to support her, is all the more likely to agree to the kind of bargain you seem determined to strike.'
'What do you mean by that?'
Chepstow poured a large measure of wine into Have-lock's empty glass and nudged it towards him.
'I am sure Morgan meant nothing you need take offence at, Havelock,' reproved Ashe in the reasonable tone that so many men found damned supercilious.
He was beginning to understand why.
Havelock folded his arms and glared across the table.
To his credit, Morgan met his look without blinking.