Blame It on the Duke(10)

By: Lenora Bell

“Alice,” her mother wailed. “Such an indelicate topic! Are you just going to stand there, Sir Alfred? You must do something to stop your daughter! She’s behaving most impertinently.”

Sir Alfred hooked his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets and regarded Alice with an amused smile. “I’m rather enjoying myself, my dear. It’s obvious they suit each other perfectly.”

“Pardon?” Alice and Hatherly said in unison.

“We don’t suit,” the marquess growled.

“Not in the slightest,” Alice agreed.

What a preposterous notion.

She could never care for an idle nobleman with thoroughly unwholesome appetites, and he could certainly never care for her.

All he cared for was his immediate gratification.

He’d drink himself into an early grave, if he didn’t go mad first.

Of course the lady didn’t suit him.

Not in temperament—she’d just implied he had brewer’s droop, for God’s sake—or in appearance. Overly sweet and freshly scrubbed—exactly as he’d remembered—with those deep, symmetrical dimples and glossy, light brown hair clustered in ringlets on either side of her face.

Her dress made his teeth hurt—all strawberry muslin and sugary lace—like a confection placed in a shop window to entice him into ruining his supper.

Fortunately, Nick hated sweets and he never took dessert.

He accepted a glass of sherry from a footman. He needed fortification after the night he’d had. Only a few fitful hours of sleep and then he’d gone to his friend Dalton, Duke of Osborne’s house. Dalton had intimate knowledge of every gaming hell in London, and his brother Patrick was a lawyer who had promised to help determine the legalities of his father’s wager.

The duke had never gambled before.

Despite his uncle’s insistence, Nick had never filed the writ de lunatico inquirendo and been appointed his father’s committee. He hadn’t wanted to drag his father through the lengthy and humiliatingly public process of being found insane.

Where the devil was Stubbs? The caretaker had vanished without a trace. Nick found it difficult to believe that the gentle, caring giant he’d hired to watch over the duke could have led him so very far astray.

Nick swallowed more of Sir Alfred’s lamentable sherry. He needed something to alleviate the worst of the pounding in his skull.

Slamming his glass down on a table for emphasis, Nick planted his feet firmly and crossed his arms. This had gone on long enough. “We need privacy, Sir Alfred.”

He and the baronet would talk gentleman to gentleman.

There would most likely be fists involved.

Though the baronet didn’t appear easy to topple. Brawny arms and bushy whiskers. Looked like he should be throwing logs onto a barge somewhere.

Sir Alfred’s calculating smile said he knew he had Nick over a barrel and was enjoying every moment. “Certainly, Lord Hatherly,” he said with a jovial chuckle. “Come, my dear, privacy is required.” He set a hand under his wife’s elbow and nudged her toward the door.

Lady Tombs dug in her heels and turned her head, twining one of the ribbons of her lace cap around a plump finger. “It was gratifying to make your acquaintance, Lord Hatherly,” she said in a high, tremulous voice. “I do fervently hope that we shall become far more intimately acquainted in the coming days. Why, as I was saying to Sir Alfred—”

“Come, come, the marquess wants privacy.” Sir Alfred propelled her forward.

Miss Tombs shot Nick a pointed barb of a glance and followed after her parents.

Sir Alfred nodded at the footmen and they left the room first. The wife followed after one last bright smile at Nick.

Sir Alfred flashed Nick a conspiratorial grin. “I’ll leave the two of you to become better acquainted.”

Before Nick could protest, the wily baronet was gone, slamming the door, leaving his daughter behind.

A key turned in the lock.

“Wait,” Nick shouted after him. “I meant privacy with you. Gentleman to gentleman.”

“Father.” Miss Tombs pounded on the door. “This isn’t funny.” There was no answer. “Father?”

She slowly turned around, keeping her back against the door, eyeing him warily. “This is his idea of a little joke, I’m afraid.”

Clearly, Nick was being outmaneuvered.

He probably should have eaten some breakfast before he came charging over to the baronet’s house. Last night’s brandy still sloshed in his belly and it wasn’t mixing well with the inferior sherry.

Only one thing to be done.

Drink more.

Nick poured another glass of sherry, willing his hands not to shake again before the damnably perceptive Miss Tombs.

She sashayed to the windows and flung the curtains wide.

He winced in the sudden slash of sunlight.

“Oh, I do hope you didn’t overimbibe last night, Lord Hatherly,” she said with a sugary smile, her voice dripping with false concern. “I’ve heard you rarely venture out of your house in the daylight.”

Her dimples were truly impressive.

They’d be lethal if she had any idea how to use them.

“Does your father often lock you in libraries with strange gentlemen to become better acquainted, Miss Tombs?”