Authors: Grace Burrowes
Copyright © 2013 by Grace Burrowes
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This book is dedicated to anybody who has ever made a poor choice and felt overwhelmed by the consequences. Maybe you can’t overcome all those consequences today, but never give up hope. Someday, things
be better, and positive change may come from the direction you least expect it.
“If one knows precisely where to inquire, one hears you provide favors to a select few ladies in exchange for the next thing to coin.”
William Longstreet—the Fourth Viscount Longstreet, no less—delivered this observation without so much as a quaver to his voice. His veined hands were rock steady, and his tone cordial as he held his glass out to his host. “Just a touch more, perhaps? The wind is bitter, even for November.”
And Darius Lindsey, veteran of more unnerving moments, stiff beatings, and bad luck than any earl’s younger son ought to have endured, took his guest’s glass to the sideboard and filled it with another finger of cognac—a scant finger.
Lord Longstreet was known as a shrewd politician, capable of quietly negotiating compromises between embattled factions in the Lords. He’d sent around a note asking to make a call privately, after dark, and Darius had accepted out of curiosity.
A curiosity he was apparently going to regret at length.
Darius crossed his arms and leaned back against the sideboard. “You’re repeating rumor, my lord, and slanderous rumor at that. Just what did you come here to say?”
“Blunt.” Lord Longstreet’s faded brown eyes gleamed with humor. “Suppose you’ve learned to be, and that’s all to the good. Excellent libation, by the way, and I notice you aren’t keeping up, young man.” Longstreet raised his glass with gentlemanly bonhomie, while Darius wanted to smash his drink against the hearthstones—not that he had the coin for even such a small extravagance of temper.
“You needn’t confirm or deny these rumors,” Lord Longstreet went on, shifting a bit in a chair more sturdy and comfortable than elegant. “I have no intention of recalling the information or where I came by it once I leave you tonight.”
“Gracious of you, when you’re repeating the kind of insinuations that can get a man called out.”
“Involving as they do, the honor of several ladies,” Longstreet rejoined. “
one can call them that.”
Darius didn’t rise to the bait. Tonight was not a night when he was expected elsewhere in the wee hours—thank a merciful God—and in deference to his guest’s age, Darius had for once built up the fire to the point where his quarters were cozy. This also resulted in more illumination cast on threadbare carpet, scarred furniture, and a water stain high up on the outside wall.
“Ah, good.” Longstreet’s amusement was in evidence again. “You don’t rile, and you neither gossip nor disparage the women. This comports with your reputation as well.”
Darius set his drink aside while foreboding and distaste—for himself, his guest, and this topic—roiled in his gut. “While I am pleased to have your approval for mere gentlemanly reticence, I must ask again if you troubled making my acquaintance only to banter gossip. You are an important man, both politically and socially, while I am the proverbial impoverished second son, making my way as best I can. What errand brings you to my doorstep, my lord?”
Longstreet nodded, as if acknowledging that opening arguments were over. “Lady Longstreet—”
Darius paced off to the door, wanting to pitch the old man onto the stairs.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I will not be procured for your wife’s entertainment,” Darius said, “or for yours, or yours and hers. Finish your drink if you must, and I’ll show you out.”
“I would far rather you heard me out. Had I any other alternative, Lindsey, believe me I would be pursuing it.”
Darius turned his back to his guest and resisted the urge to slam his fist into the wall. “Despite what you’ve heard, my lord, there are limits…”
“You don’t swive them,” Longstreet said briskly, as if conceding an otherwise unimpressive mount had good quarters and a sane eye. “You won’t, in fact. Which is why you find me here, because any other man—any other
man with a need for coin and the ingenuity to go on as you have—would have taken what was offered and considered it his revenge on the feckless women throwing their money at him.”
Darius turned a granite stare on his guest, even knowing the man had the ear of the regent. “I find this conversation exceedingly tedious.”
Longstreet met that stare. “Lindsey, do sit down.
. I am older than your braying ass of a father, and this is difficult enough without your wounded pride added to the general awkwardness.”
“Did she put you up to this?” Darius took the other chair—the one that rocked slightly, though it wasn’t supposed to—and didn’t touch his drink.
“She would never do such a thing. Vivian is a lady in every sense of the word.”
“Though you are procuring for her.” Darius said it flatly, as nastily as he could, for this scheme Lord Longstreet was about to propose, it purely, rottenly stank. For all involved.
“I have my reasons, and Vivian understands them.”
For the first time, Longstreet’s patrician features showed a flicker of sentiment. Whatever the man’s motivations, there was nothing prurient about them, and his lordship was very determined on his goal.
“As best I recall, you have two sons, my lord. What need have you of a… gallant for your wife?”
Gallant. A euphemism that loomed larger than the stain behind his lordship’s head.
“Aldous died at Waterloo, and his older brother lost his life on the field of honor this fall.” Longstreet ran a hand through thinning sandy-gray hair, then stared at his drink.
“God, man, so am I,” Longstreet replied, shifting his gaze to stare at the cheery blaze Darius really could not afford. “We put it about that Algernon eloped to the Continent, but he lies in the family plot at Longchamps. Some creative tale will be woven when the other fellow’s family has recovered a bit, for each of the young fools managed to kill his opponent.”
Darius pushed aside pity—burying two sons merited pity—and focused on practicalities, something he was good at. “So you seek somebody not only to bed your lady, but also to get her with child? If so, then I am assuredly not your man.”
“That would be part of the bargain.” Longstreet’s voice did not betray a hint of shame about this proposition. “Hear my reasons before you make an old man face that bitter wind.”
A lady’s honor was to be compromised, but an old man was to be spared the nippy weather. This was what Darius’s life had come to.
“Make your words count, my lord. While I am sensible of the dilemma you face, surely there must be cousins or nephews somewhere who can solve the problem by inheritance and spare your lady this unseemly contrivance you contemplate.”
“There are none. If I die without legitimate male issue, then the entire estate reverts to the Crown.”
“This has happened in many a family, and you will be dead, so what does it matter to you?”
Longstreet shifted again in his chair, though Darius suspected that was a seasoned parliamentarian’s delaying tactic.
“Were it simply a question of my needs, young man, you’d be absolutely right. However, upon close examination, I find the Crown could make a credible argument that there is virtually no personal estate. My wealth is significant, but the Crown’s lawyers will twist matters such that none of that wealth is personal, but rather, all attached to the title. The regent would get everything, and Vivian would be literally a charity case.”
“Your wife has no dower portion?”
“None worth the name. I am pained on her behalf to be so honest, but ours was not a romantic match. She needed marrying rather desperately, and I could not abide to see her taken advantage of by those who prey on women in such circumstances. I suppose I needed a bit of marrying too.”
Darius sipped his drink, angling for time to absorb his guest’s words. Usually, a woman desperately in need of marrying had conceived a child desperately in need of legitimacy. Lady Longstreet’s difficulty was the absence of children.
“I cannot agree to anything without knowing all the facts, Lord Longstreet.”
His lordship ran a bony finger around the rim of his glass. “Fair enough. Her stepfather would have sold her to any grasping cit with the coin,” the older man said wearily. “Vivian deserved better than that. She was my first wife’s devoted companion for the duration of Muriel’s illness. Vivian and I became friends, of a sort, and when Muriel died, there was Vivian’s stepfather, ready to snatch her back and auction her off.”
“And she wasn’t of age, that she couldn’t avoid such a fate?” Darius frowned, because this sounded all too much like his sister Leah’s circumstances, though the Earl of Wilton himself was the one intent on procuring for his older daughter.
“She was not quite twenty-one, so she was not of age in the sense you mean. Then too, Vivian lacks the… animal cunning to thwart her stepfather’s schemes. She’d kill a man outright, but never by stabbing him in the back. And as you well know, a woman’s lot in life leaves her little enough discretion regarding her choice of mate, particularly a woman raised in Polite Society.”
Apparently Lord Longstreet was familiar with Leah’s circumstances too, which notion brought no comfort. “So you’ve convinced Lady Longstreet to secure her future by disporting with me,” Darius concluded. “How flattering.”
Longstreet set his drink down with a thump, the first spark of temper he’d exhibited in a quarter hour of fencing. “You should be flattered, by God. Vivian chose you from a set of candidates I selected for her. There were precious few left on the list once I started discreet inquiries, but you were the one she chose.”
“Am I to know why?”
“You can ask her,” Longstreet replied, showing the guile of a seasoned politician. “She’s a damsel in distress, Lindsey, and you have it in your power to provide her a lifetime of security and to preserve a fine old title from the maw of the regent’s bottomless appetite.”
Darius felt relief as insight struck. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it? You don’t favor Prinny’s politics or priorities, and you’re loathe to see centuries of Longstreet wealth poured onto his side of the scales.”
Lord Longstreet’s brow knitted. “I wouldn’t like that outcome, no.”
“And even less would you like it known you’d schemed with your wife to avoid it by consorting with the likes of me.”
“Shrewd.” Longstreet blew out a breath. “You must see that as much as you desire my discretion, I need yours. I’ve worked for nigh fifty years for the good of the realm, Lindsey, and between the lunatic Americans, the equally mad King, and the greedy, mad Corsican, it hasn’t been an easy fifty years. If word gets out I sent my wife off to some impoverished younger son, like a mare to the breeding shed, then nobody will recall the votes I won, the bills I drafted, the riots I prevented. I will simply be a greedy, unpatriotic old fool.”
Darius reluctantly, and silently, admitted that Lord Longstreet’s reasoning made a peculiar sort of sense. “You don’t mind the old fool part, but the unpatriotic hurts abominably. Again, my lord, I do sympathize, or I would if the nation’s fate interested me half as much as my own, but I cannot help you.”
“You haven’t heard the entirety of my proposal, young man.” Longstreet held out his glass for a refresher, buying himself a few more minutes. Darius understood the ploy and allowed it only because of the pile of unpaid bills silently mocking him from the corner of his desk.
And the other pile in the drawer, aging not half so well as William Longstreet had.
“I’m listening,” Darius said, foregoing any further drink for himself. “For the present.”
Longstreet shoved to his feet in a succession of creaky moves: scoot, brace, push, totter, balance, then pace. “First, you and Vivian must spend enough time together that there is a reasonable likelihood of a child. Second, I’d like you sufficiently invested in the child’s life that you will not, for any amount of money, divulge the facts of his or her paternity.”
“If I may,” Darius interrupted. “The chances are even any child born would be female, in which case your impoverished viscountess is left to support not only herself, but a girl child, which can be an expensive proposition.”
Longstreet’s gaze turned crafty as he propped himself against the mantel. “That would be the usual case, except my title is very old, and only in my great-grandfather’s day was it elevated from a barony to a viscountcy. Nobody has looked at the letters patent in a century, save myself, and while the viscountcy carries a male entail, the barony can be preserved through the female line.”
“It’s that old. When the Black Death came through, there was pressure on the monarchy to liberalize its patents, as tremendous wealth was reverting when family after family lost its male line. Mine is one of the few surviving more liberally drafted letters, and thus the barony—and the estate wealth—will be preserved regardless of the gender of the child.”
This scheme was madness—thoroughly researched, carefully considered, potentially lucrative madness. “The barony will survive if there is a child. If I agree to your terms.”
“Stop putting that bottle up, young man. Having heard this much, I think there are terms you’ll agree to, do we apply ourselves to their negotiation in good faith.”
“Good faith? You’re attempting to cheat the Crown, procure the intimate services of a worthless bounder for your lady wife, perpetrate a fraud on your patrimony, and you speak of good faith?”
“You’re young.” Lord Longstreet resumed his seat in another succession of creaks and totters, this time popping a knee joint as well. “You can afford your ideals. Imagine what might befall your family were your father to lose the Wilton title, his lands, his wealth—how might your sisters go on, if not in some version of the oldest and least-respected profession?”
Darius leveled a look at him such that Lord Longstreet flushed and glanced away.
“So you beat your sisters to it,” he surmised. “Your father isn’t just a braying ass, Lindsey, he’s a disgrace to his kind.”
“And yet it’s his line you’ll be grafting onto your own—if I agree.”