Blame It on the Duke(3)

By: Lenora Bell

“You’re all right,” he soothed, as his father stared wildly about him, frightened by the sound of splintering wood and the shouting from the gentlemen in the audience.

Captain Lear helped Venus off her shell and draped his evening coat about her shoulders.

She glared at Nick. Her expression did not bode well for the night of debauchery he’d planned.

Lear made a chivalrous bow and kissed her hand. “Captain Lear, at your service, Miss Venus.”

“Sally’s the name,” she cooed in her smoky, sensual voice. “Though you may call me anything you like, Captain.” She tossed her long gold curls and narrowed her eyes at Nick. “If you take me away from here.”

“I believe that could be arranged.” Lear glanced at Nick.

Nick gave his friend a brief nod. Who could blame the lovely opera singer for wanting to leave? They hadn’t even become lovers yet. Nick had promised her sensational success and the adulation of every gentleman in the room, and delivered only farce. She’d no doubt be happier with Lear tonight.

Lear flashed Nick a triumphant grin as he led his prize away. Goddess, he mouthed. Mine.

Nick groaned. This evening was plummeting to hell faster than a bishop in a bawdy house.

Members of the acting troupe had already cleared away the ship’s wreckage. Nick caught the manager’s eye and gestured for the next act to begin.

The show must go on.

Nick placed an arm around his father’s shoulders and helped him across the room, shielding him from the swarm of inebriated gentlemen who all seemed to be speaking at the same time.

“Did you truly wager the marquess, Your Grace?”

“Who’s the lucky lady?”

The Earl of Camden’s heavy jowls wobbled into Nick’s peripheral vision. “Not to worry, Hatherly.” He laughed. “I’m sure the girl will be gentle with you on your wedding night.”

Loud guffaws.

Elbow jabs to the ribs.

Everyone howling with merriment.

Nick laughed along, pretending this was all a huge joke.

With such an unpredictable father, he’d learned to hide his emotions and appear cavalier no matter what happened.

“Back to your seats, gents,” he called. “You won’t want to miss what comes next.”

When they were safely away from the ballroom, Nick relaxed his grip on his father’s shoulders. “That was a fine show, Barrington. You could have injured yourself.”

His father grinned sheepishly. “I’ve always loved a good climb. Haven’t I?” His voice wobbled as he asked the question, filling with uncertainty.

He’d been an adventurer before the madness claimed him, scaling mountains the world over, finding rare orchids for his collections.

“Always.” Nick smoothed his father’s wiry white hair down but it sprang right back up. “Let’s find your bed, shall we? Where’s Stubbs?”

“Don’t know. Maybe still at the Crimson?”

The Crimson? Had his father truly visited such a notorious gaming hell? Didn’t seem probable. His many vices had never included gambling, and Nick trusted that Stubbs would never have allowed the duke to enter such a place.

“You didn’t really gamble, did you?” asked Nick.

His father cast his gaze to the carpet. “I did.” He clutched Nick’s hand. “It was you or Sunderland. Had to make a choice, you see?”

The aging duke loved Sunderland House with the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a scrap of driftwood—the house was his last, tenuous link to sanity. Here, in the familiar surroundings of his childhood, with his orchid conservatory and his son to care for him, the duke remained relatively tranquil and his malady harmed no one.

“Easy now.” Nick unclenched the duke’s gnarled fingers. “We’ll speak of it in the morning,” he said lightly, steering his father up the stairs.

The duke leaned heavily on Nick’s arm as they climbed the stairs. “Lost you to Sir Alfred Tombs. Had the devil’s own luck . . .” He yawned. “Daughter’s name is Alice. Hear she’s . . . pretty at least . . .”

His chin nodded near his chest and Nick propped him up, half carrying him to his chambers.

Sir Alfred—wealthy shipping merchant. Reputation for ruthlessness.

Nick had even met the daughter once at an art exhibition. He remembered her perfectly.

Miss Tombs was pretty, Nick would give her that. On the tall side for a female, with a fine complexion, deep dimples, and sparkling turquoise eyes.

Nick had been contemplating a seductive portrait of a gauze-draped woman when Miss Tombs had suddenly appeared, a vision of virginal white lace and rosy cheeks. Very sweet and wholesome . . . until she opened her mouth.

For some reason, she’d decided to beguile him with a gory description of how the portrait artist had died of a putrid fever. She’d described the entire course of the putrefaction in lurid and gleeful detail, with no agonizing or malodorous aspect spared.

Good God. The ghoulish Miss Tombs was as far from a prospective bride as Nick could imagine.

Not that he ever imagined marriage.

That venerable institution was the snare waiting to trap unsuspecting gentlemen into allowing one lady to ruin them for all others, as it had done to his friends the Duke of Harland and the Duke of Osborne, who were foolishly, irretrievably in love with their wives.