Blame It on the Duke(6)

By: Lenora Bell

Alice held her breath, waiting for him to signal to his manservant, who stood a discreet distance away, that he wished to pack up and leave.

To her chagrin, the earl made a visible effort and forced a smile to his lips. “Please forgive me for startling you, Miss Tombs. I was carried away by your beauty. Have you had ample opportunity to prepare yourself now?” He glanced meaningfully at her lips and bent near again.

Drat! This one was remarkably persistent. He must be truly desperate for funds.

Time to utilize the fail-safe method; proven to be effective one hundred percent of the time in dissuading amorously inclined fortune hunters.

“My father thinks very highly of you, Lord White,” she said sweetly.

He stopped halfway to his target. “Of course he does.”

“Just the other day he was speaking of you.” She pretended to have to think about what she’d supposedly overheard. “He said, ‘Don’t let the earl slip through your fingers, he has a remarkably ancient title.’”

Lord White nodded approvingly. “Sensible fellow, your father.”

“And then he said, ‘Don’t let on about the disaster, though. We mustn’t worry him with details of that storm off the Cape of Good Hope.’”

Lord White stared in consternation, his nose twitching with the scent of scandal. “What’s that you say? A storm?”

“Oh, silly me.” Alice covered her mouth with her hand. “I wasn’t supposed to mention that. I’ve really no idea what he meant. Of course, he has so many trading ships in his fleet that losing a dozen or more couldn’t mean much to him.”

The earl gulped. “A dozen, you say?”

“It was nothing, really. Only heavy cargoes of silk and porcelain. I’m sure Papa has simply boatloads more. Though he was tearing his hair out the other day when that nasty newspaper writer paid us a visit.”

The earl’s face began to match his title. He scooted back from her on the blanket, rising to his knees.

“Why, my lord, is anything the matter?” Alice asked innocently.

He glanced at his waiting servant, clearing his throat and drawing an ostentatious gold timepiece from his waistcoat pocket. “Oh lud, it completely slipped my mind. I’m late. Ever so late. I must be going. I’ve an appointment at . . . Tattersall’s . . . to see a man about a horse.”

Alice hid a smile behind her lacy parasol. “Must you go?”

“I really must. I’m ever so late.”

He couldn’t return her from the courtyard back to the parlor fast enough.

Hodgins had to run to catch them, and only arrived after Lord White had rudely left Alice without even saying good-bye to her parents, escaping out the front door and fairly leaping into his yellow phaeton.

Alice laughed softly.

Another one down.

Now her third social season was well and truly over. Lord White had been the last prospect standing.

One step closer to her journey to India and to returning her fragment of the Kama Sutra to its proper home.

“Oh! There you are.” The excitable Lady Tombs entered the parlor, her blue eyes shining and white cap ribbons floating.

“I’m sorry, Mama.” Alice tensed her shoulders in anticipation of a sound scolding. “I’ve no idea why Lord White left in such a—”

“Never mind the earl, my dear.” Mama waved the words away. “He was a frivolous fop and you’re best rid of him.”

Alice stared at her mother suspiciously. “Yesterday you said he was the quintessence of masculine perfection.”

“Oh! That was yesterday. This is today. And your father has the most wonderful news. Follow me to the study, if you please.”

Alice’s senses twitched to high alert like her pet cat’s nose twitched when she scented a mouse in the walls.

She and her mother had opposite ideas of what constituted wondrous tidings.

Maybe she had received an unexpected offer of marriage from a mystery gentleman.

Alice smoothed the peony-pink skirts of one of the ridiculously beribboned and frilled gowns her mother forced her to wear.

No impoverished rake would ruin her Eastern adventure.

She jabbed her hairpin back into place.

Whoever he was—she’d make short work of him.

They found Sir Alfred pacing up and down the length of his study, hands clasped behind his back and deep furrows lining his forehead. “Damned good-for-nothing boy,” he muttered as he walked. “Ruined. Utterly ruined.”

“What’s the matter, Papa?” Alice asked, puzzled by the tirade. Hadn’t her mother said there was good news?

“We’ve had a letter from Fred,” Mama whispered.

“Oh? What news? When will he arrive?” She was eager to set their plan in motion and obtain permission to accompany Fred to Calcutta. They’d agreed it would be best if Fred suggested the idea.

“What news? I’ll tell you what news,” Sir Alfred sputtered. “The worst news. Damned empty-pated boy.”

“Language, sir,” fluttered Lady Tombs, following after her husband with small, worried steps.

“I’ll damn him to hell and gone! I’ll damn him right out of my will and testament! Marry an opera singer, will he? Throw away everything? If I were there I could have bought her off easily enough, the greedy little trollop. But now the damage is done.”