She was a damned fine-looking female .Â .Â .
But no decent woman he knew would be with him at this hour of the night, unless she was interested in getting him in her bed.
That thought didn't appall him, exactly.
She gazed up at him, studying his face, as though seeing things in it that he had never seen, looking as fascinated by him as she was by the portraits of his ancestors.
He took a quick step back from her, feeling as though he'd stood too close to the edge of a precipice. Of course she was tempting. He was a man, and she was a lovely young woman, and more, she seemed free of all the constraints and restraints of polite society.
She was an interesting woman, he had to grant her that. And a promising-looking one. But he had no time or reason to contemplate her.
He had a mission
.Â .Â .
For Miss Daisy:
dear companion, inspired jester,
and master thief who pirated my heart,
but still has some pretty big pawprints to fill.
hey say I have everything, but they're wrong,” the gentleman said. “There's one thing I lack. Your hand, in marriage. Will you marry me, Miss Winchester?”
The lady nodded. “I will, Lord Wylde.”
“You have made me the happiest of men,” he said.
They were in the lady's salon, alone for the first time since they'd met, because they'd been allowed this private moment together.
He bent to her and placed a light kiss on her lips. Then he straightened and smiled. “Well, then. Shall we place the notice in the papers?”
“I believe my papa has already prepared one,” she said. “In fact, I believe he has already sent it to the papers. It should appear this very day. I hope you don't mind.”
“Why should I?” he asked. “I asked him for your hand, and he agreed. I assumed that you would as well.”
She smiled. She was a passably attractive young woman, too angular for beauty, but thin enough for fashion, and sufficiently pale and blond for current tastes. “Father told me about your offer, of course, and after he had you investigated, he broached the matter to me.”
Constantine asked, raising one eyebrow.
She shrugged. “There is talk about everyone in the
, and he's a thorough man. When he was satisfied, he told me of your proposal. When I said I'd accept, he and Mama said they would take care of the business of being wed. October, you said?”
“So I did. But perhaps you think that's too soon? It is April now, after all.”
“My thoughts exactly,” she said. “Marrying in such haste might give rise to gossip. Shall we say January, instead?”
“If it pleases you. I think we will be quite happy together,” he added, raising her hand to his lips. “Shall I see you at the Blaynes' ball tomorrow night? I should have asked you as my guest, but had you not accepted my offer it would have been, you'll grant, uncomfortable.”
“Did you really think I would not accept?” she asked.
They both laughed.
There was little chance she, or any woman, would have refused him, and he knew it. Constantine Wylde, Lord Wylde, was an attractive man, long limbed and fit. He had dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and winged eyebrows that gave his handsome face a slightly wicked cast. But that was an illusion; he was a gentleman in name and behavior. He also had a title, and a considerable fortune. His reputation, if not spotless, was at least less spotty than many other young gentlemen of similar breeding. He was intelligent, and knew how to be charming. If he'd any fault, his friends agreed, it was that he was too moderate, sober-sided. But even they agreed that was because of his excellent upbringing by his uncle, a vicar and justice of the peace, and his very correct wife.
Still, he did everything a young gentleman about London was supposed to do: he fenced; he rode handsome Thoroughbred horses and, as a member of the four-in-hand club, drove a fine light high curricle. He belonged to the right clubs and knew the right people, and had political ambitions with the right party.
He also knew the best wrong things to do, and did them well. He occasionally gambled, but never too high. If he kept any light ladies, he kept their names as secret as his doings with them. In short, he was a prize, a
he knew his new fiancÃ©e could be proud of landing.
Catching had been no part of his proposal though. He'd studied the available crop of unwed ladies, and after much thought decided upon Miss Charlotte Winchester, daughter of a baron, wealthy in her own right, educated and nicely behaved.
“Until tomorrow night, then,” she said comfortably.
He bowed, left her, and went to celebrate.
The sun was sinking low in the west, so he went to his favorite club, and gave the news to some of his friends.
“Well done,” one of them said.
“Going to be shackled soon, are you? How many of us does that leave single?” another asked.
They talked about that a while, and then repaired to a nearby inn to toast him in louder fashion. They soon found the place too dull, and took their newly engaged friend to a gambling den. That palled, and they dragged him to a bawdy house, where all they did was sing bawdy songs.
“We'd do more,” one of his friends told a disappointed young woman who was sitting on his knee. “But that wouldn't be polite. That is, knowing the guest of honor wouldn't takes some of the fun from it. Connie .Â .Â . Con here is very laced straight, y'see.” He frowned. “Straitlaced, I mean.”
“Lord Wyatt?” she asked with a laugh. “No, he's just a very sober fellow, and so say all.”
Constantine raised an eyebrow, and then his glass to her. When the clock struck ten, he left with a few friends who took him to another festivity, because the nightlife of London was just starting, and he'd a sudden longing to be less sober.
He celebrated the next night, and on the next, he began to believe that the celebrations were becoming a bit forced. He had many friends, and even more acquaintances, so it was hard to refuse anyone willing to propose a toast to his future. Being polite, he drank with them; being politic, he decided to stay away from his friends for a few days until the novelty of his engagement wore off. Still, he had obligations.
It was almost dawn on the third night after his announcement when Constantine began to weave his way home again. He was a little unsteady on his feet. But no one accosted him. The villains in the shadows knew that sometimes a young blade like him, dressed to the nines and looking like easy prey, was just looking for a chance to fight with people they, and the law, didn't care about killing. And such young gents often carried pistols in their pockets, or sword-sticks, or iron fists hardened by bouts at fashionable boxing salons. Constantine had nothing in his pockets but coins, his walking stick was only that, and he disliked sparring because he'd been taught, and believed, that hitting his fellow man was no way to prove he was a superior man. But the lurkers didn't know that, and so he wasn't bothered by any of London's many thieves.
He never got very drunk either, and so he was walking straighter and humming a little tune to himself when he made his way into a better district. Like everything else about him, the tune was perfectly on key. It was a wedding march. He finally stopped in front of his town house, and went up the stair to the front door.
The door swung open.
“Good evening, sir,” the butler said.
“Still up, Clarke?” Constantine asked in a clear, sober voice. “I told you not to wait for me.”
“Indeed, my lord, I had not thought to. But you've a visitor.”
Constantine frowned. “At this hour?” His eyes grew wide.
“It is no one I know, my lord. I doubt, in fact, that you know him either. But he was most insistent, as well as persuasive. He's waiting in the library.”
“That I am not!” a loud voice announced.
Constantine looked up at the man standing behind his butler. He shook his head to clear it. He wasn't that drunk, but damned if the fellow didn't look like a villain. He was a big, wide older man with a seamed face and a scruffy gray beardâand two heavy old horse pistols in each huge hand. Constantine squinted, wondering if it was the liquor or his eyes playing tricks on him. Such a fellow didn't belong in his house, or indeed, in his world. Then he smiled. Of course. It had to be one of his friends playing a joke on him after their night of revelry.
“That you, Richard, behind that gray bush?” he asked, smiling. “I don't mind, but you've no right to frighten the breeches off my butler.”
“Aye, well, I didn't,” the man said in a voice more like a roar. “Because he had none on when he came to the door. I don't hold with nightshirts, myself. A fellow has no place to stow his pistols and knives. Be that as it may. I've got to have a word with you, my lord, and now.”
“Very well,” Constantine said, “but let us go into my library, shall we? That way Clarke can go back to bed.”
“Indeed I will not, my lord,” his butler protested, making little movements of his head to indicate the man behind him.
“I think you should, it lacks some hours till dawn,” Constantine said. “Don't worry about my guest, Mr.Â .Â .Â . ? Sorry,” he told the big man with the pistols, “I didn't catch the name.”
“Didn't throw it,” the fellow growled. “But it's Captain Bigod.”
“Indeed?” Constantine said, still just enough under the influence to not be taking any of this seriously. “I don't believe we ever met.”
“Nor did we, but I'll wager you heard of me.”
“How much?” Constantine said with interest. “Because you'd lose. At any rate, Clarke, be at ease. If the captain here wanted to shoot me, he'd have done it by now.”
“Right you are, lad!” the big man said, shoving one of his pistols into his belt. “Well, then, come on,” he said, gesturing with the other pistol. “We've got to talk, and now!”
Constantine led his strange visitor down the hall and into his library, and shut the door behind him. He knew his butler would have the watch and all the footmen in the house at the door within minutes. He turned up the lamp on his desk, and studied his visitor.
“Well, sir, and what is it that couldn't wait until morning?”
“Wait?” the man roared. “Not another hour, lad. It's this,” he said, extracting a rumpled newssheet from a pocket of his coat. He put it down on the top of a highly polished mahogany desk and pounded his fist on it so hard that the desk trembled.
“It is difficult for me to read it from here,” Constantine said. He took the top off a decanter on his sideboard. “Can I interest you?” he asked. “I find a jot in the morning after a hard night often clears the head.”
“No!” the captain shouted. “Not until you tell me what's the meaning of this.”
Constantine poured brandy into a goblet that stood on the sideboard. He picked it up, swirled it in his hand, and cocked his head to the side. “If my eyes do not mistake me,” he said, “that is a copy of the
. What does it have to do with your visit?”
“Everything,” the fellow said darkly. “It's a notice of your engagement to Miss Charlotte Winchester, daughter to Baron Pierce of Sussex.”