August 2003 (ISBN 0-8217-7486-7, Zebra Historical Romance)
"So that's him?"
The whisper pierced the gloom of the gaming parlor. Brandon Pellidore, Marquess of Hartley, didn't acknowledge the sound. That would ruin the image he'd been cultivating since returning to London six months ago. He laid the ace of hearts down in the precise center of the table and leaned back as much as the elegant Sheraton chair would allow.
His comrades for the evening had less reputation to protect. Chas Prestwick's mouth quirked in a smile, and his tawny head tilted as if to listen more closely, but he did not pause as he tossed the four of hearts onto Brandon's ace.
"No, no," the whisperer was protesting. "I need no introduction, don't you know. I must speak to him directly."
Prestwick's partner, Leslie Petersborough, raised a dark brow and shook his head. The candlelight from the gilded wall sconce behind Brandon made the gold buttons on his richly embroidered waistcoat glint in the dusky air.
Across from Brandon, his father's half-brother Lord Edmund Pellidore threw the seven of hearts into the center and frowned, gray brows drawn over his long nose. Petersborough followed suit, then sighed as Brandon took the trick.
"You shall clean me out if you keep on like this, Hart," he predicted.
"Did I not warn you?" Prestwick reminded his friend, reaching for the glass of Madeira at his elbow.
"You will survive," Brandon predicted. He leaned forward to sweep in the cards, keeping his gaze low and movements slow, as if watching what he did. Under his brows he eyed the gathering crowd.
And he'd thought a gaming parlor would be more conducive to privacy than White's. The corner table at the back of Madam Zala's select establishment had seemed perfect for his intentions. Even Edmund couldn't complain, as he would be allowed to smoke the cigars he so favored. Now, thanks to a country rudesby, the other attendees were alerted to their presence. Already two of the tables in the main salon had emptied, and the dandies who had been playing hazard nearby were trotting over to join them. Someone discompose the infamous Lord Hartley? Now, that would be a rarity worth watching. He could almost see the wagers being laid down.
A tall young man with a weathered complexion obviously made ruddy by drink elbowed his way closer to the table. A short, round dandy intercepted him.
"Easy, Arlington. You're up against the best here."
Arlington shook him off. Brandon squared up the cards, taking the man's measure. Large hands but empty-no immediate threat there. Broad shoulders and long arms-the fellow would have a considerable reach in a fight. No telltale bumps in his simple brown coat and tan chamois breeches, but anything from a dagger to a pistol could be hidden in those out-of-fashion boots. He laid the cards in the growing pile beside him.
"I want a word with you, Hartley, don't you know," Arlington proclaimed.
"I am engaged," Brandon replied. He pushed back his chair as if to stretch his long legs and led with the queen of hearts.
"You can bloody well get unengaged," Arlington declared, stepping up to Prestwick's side. "I want to know what you've done with Celia Rider, don't you know."
Prestwick, green eyes glinting, snapped shut his hand and threw it down. Before he could rise, Petersborough was on his feet and coming around the table.
"Mr. Arlington," he said in a friendly tone that nonetheless had an edge of determination to it, "you are making an ass of yourself. I suggest you leave while you can."
Some in the crowd crowed encouragement to Arlington to stay and fight it out. Others cautioned retreat. Arlington took a step away from Prestwick, but squared his shoulders resolutely. "By your leave, I have no quarrel with anyone save Lord Hartley. I need to know what he's done with my fiancée, don't you know."
Prestwick retrieved his cards as if bored. "Not like you, Hart, to poach on another man's territory."
"Ridiculous," Edmund added, ignoring the cards before him to eye Arlington. His look was nearly as dark as his evening wear. "You obviously have the wrong person, young man."
"Indeed, Mr. Arlington." The silky voice of the establishment's owner was almost a purr as Madam Zala prowled through the crowd. "We have had such a pleasant time that I would be disappointed to have to turn you away."
Arlington blinked at the curvaceous beauty. With her piles of golden hair and black dress dripping jet beads, she exuded sophistication. He did not seem to appreciate the fact, or the strategic positioning of her burly footman beside the door.
"You cannot turn me away," he insisted. "I have a duty."
She raised a hand as if to put it on his arm. He dodged past her and sidestepped Petersborough to close the distance between himself and Brandon. Edmund's dark eyes flashed a warning. Tensing, Brandon shook his head once.
Arlington stared down at him, fists clenched at his sides. "How can you sit there so calmly? Do you think to put me off the scent? I knew whom to seek. Tall fellow, dark hair, dark eyes, dressed in black as if on his way to a funeral. Bit of a legend here in London, don't you know. Lord Heartless."
A murmur rippled through the crowd. Not the most pleasing of epithets, but Brandon could hardly argue with it. He'd worked too hard to give that impression. He thoughtfully thumbed the jack of hearts in his hand and calculated how long it would take him to get to his feet. The position of the table offered protection at his back, at least. Though he did not know them well, he was certain he could count on his comrades to hold off any others. Of course Madam Zala was unlikely to let things get out of hand. She too had a reputation to protect.
Prestwick eyed Brandon. "Do you intend to let him get away with that, Hart?"
"Damme if I would," Petersborough growled, moving up behind Arlington.
The young man paled, but he held his spot as if daring them to attack him. Madam Zala beckoned to her man.
"I cannot swat every fly that annoys me," Brandon replied to Prestwick. "Your card, sir?"
Prestwick threw down a card with an admiring shake of his head. Edmund followed suit more slowly. Brandon nodded to Petersborough, who returned to his seat with obvious reluctance and played a card. Brandon reached out to sweep in the trick.
"Damn you!" Arlington's hand came down hard on the cards, pinning them to the table. "Look at me!"
Brandon slowly raised his gaze. Arlington let go of the cards and stumbled back. Brandon squared the cards, laid them aside, and played the ten of hearts. The footman parted the crowd like a hot knife through butter. He laid a heavy hand on Arlington's broad shoulder.
"You can't get away with this!" Arlington railed as he shrugged out of the footman's grip. "First you took her fortune and when she came to confront you, you did away with her too!"
"Have a care, fellow!" Edmund snapped. "My nephew is known as a gentleman."
"So now you seduce virgins and take the food from widows and orphans, too," Prestwick said, playing a three of spades.
Brandon watched Edmund play the nine of diamonds. "And if I did the ton would only admire me the more for it."
"Particularly the virgin part," Petersborough readily agreed, laying down a ten of clubs.
"I'll find someone to believe me," Arlington persisted as the footman grasped his arm and began hauling him toward the door. "I don't care if you're the bloody prince, don't you know. You cannot get away with murder."
"Murder, is it?" Edmund shook his graying head as Brandon pulled in the trick. "I should think murder will be done if that pup keeps yapping."
"Tell me what you've done with her," Arlington cried, digging his heels into the Oriental carpet to keep from being carried off, "or I'll k-k-kill you with my b-b-bare hands!"
This time it was laughter that rippled through the crowd. Arlington sagged with a sob. Brandon surged to his feet.
The room went silent.
He tossed the remaining cards onto the table. "I am finished. Release the fellow."
Prestwick and Petersborough exchanged glances. Edmund rose as well. Brandon shook his head again. The footman obligingly dropped his hold and stepped back, scarred face lighting in a grin at the prospect of violence. The crowd muttered wagers on how many blows Mr. Arlington could stand. Arlington raised his head and brought up his fists. They shook.
Brandon eyed him. "Mr. Arlington, you seem to have a great deal to say to me. I am inclined to be indulgent."
Madam Zala appeared at his elbow. "A private room, my lord? This way." Arlington stood his ground, though he dropped his fists. "I'm not going anywhere with you, by your leave. How do I know you won't serve me as you did poor Celia?"
Brandon paused in the door to the main salon. "You wanted a moment of my time. I intend to give it to you. You can join me or go to hell, whichever you like."
"You are indeed a gentleman, my lord," his hostess purred as she led him down a short carpeted corridor. "You should have let me throw him out."
Brandon didn't respond. She was no doubt right, but he could not explain how Arlington's pathetic stammer moved him.
She paused before a polished door, hand on the gilt knob. Dark eyes met his own in speculation. "Or perhaps you have other uses for the fellow?"
His silence must have told her that he had no intention of gratifying her curiosity, for she pushed open the door. Glancing at the tall-backed arm chairs surrounding an oak table, Brandon nodded.
"Wine?" she asked Brandon as Arlington slunk in and gazed about himself with obvious suspicion.
"He hardly needs it," Brandon replied.
She did not bother asking whether he wanted any. He had been clear that he wouldn't drink in her establishment.
Brandon walked to the nearest chair and sat, watching as Arlington flung himself onto the chair opposite him. A small chandelier overhead lent a golden glow to the room, but the youth didn't seem to notice. Seeing the fellow up close, Brandon would have guessed that Arlington was in his early twenties. He had thick, curly blond hair, disheveled now; pale green eyes; and a long nose that ended in a round flat knob, as if God had pressed His thumb print into the clay as He molded him.
"Who," Brandon said, "is Celia Rider?"
"As if you didn't know," Arlington said. It would have been a growl, but his voice cracked on the last word. He crossed both arms over his chest. The gesture seemed more to keep himself from shaking than to look intimidating.
"If I knew," Brandon told him, "I would scarcely ask. I have no time for foolish games."
The youth glared at him, but something in Brandon's face seemed to confuse him. Slowly his dark look faded. "You don't where she is, do you? My God, what am I going to do?"
Brandon leaned back in the chair. "Calm yourself. Think. I take it your Miss Rider recently left for London?"
Arlington nodded. "Nearly a fortnight ago, by your leave."
"And you think she came to see me."
Another nod. "She must have. It was the only way."
"The only way to do what?"
"To find her fortune. You stole it and . . ."
"Yes, so I heard. Let us try for reality, Mr. Arlington."
He frowned. "I thought that was reality. Celia said her stepmother took the money, but I knew a woman could never be so devious. You want someone accustomed to working with money to steal an inheritance this size."
Brandon cocked his head. "Ah, that Rider."
Arlington's eyes lit. Brandon held up his hand. "I recall the name. That does not make me a murderer. Let me understand you. You talk of Miss Celia Rider, David Rider's daughter?"
"Damn right! You cannot claim ignorance! She is your own cousin's stepdaughter."
"Second cousin," Brandon replied. "I met her twice, once at my second cousin's marriage to Miss Rider's father and once at her father's funeral." He remembered no more than a thin-faced child with her father's expressive eyes. Obviously, Miss Rider had grown if she was engaged to this fellow.
"You didn't need to know her to know of her fortune," Arlington insisted. "It was in all the papers, don't you know."
The constant peppering of catch phrases like 'don't you know' was beginning to annoy him, but he decided to ignore it for now. Very likely the trait was caused by Arlington's inexperience and insecurity. "David Rider was famous in his day, I agree," Brandon told him. "However, your knowledge of the fortune is just as damning. You could have learned of the girl and come here with false claims, thinking to gull me into agreeing with you."
Arlington sat bolt upright. "Do you doubt me, sir? Where are your seconds? I am a gentleman."
Brandon merely raised a brow.
Arlington deflated just as easily. "Oh, very well. I am the son of a country squire. But Celia is my betrothed. We were to marry as soon as she received her dowry."
And here was another reason for the urgency behind the man's search. "Miss Rider cannot marry without the inheritance?"
He nodded, reddening. "Father insisted on it. I would have married her anyway, you understand. But Celia said a bargain was a bargain. She was determined, don't you know."
"She came to London alone?"
He squirmed. "I don't exactly know. She wouldn't tell me all her plans. She's a bit strong-willed, my lord, but I assure you that will change once we are married."
Brandon thought that highly unlikely but decided Mr. Arlington had entirely too many problems already to appreciate having that pointed out to him.
"She's had some queer starts from time to time," he continued, "but she wouldn't just disappear."
"Could she have changed her mind?" Brandon offered. "A fortune that size might give any young lady ideas that excluded returning to the country."
"If it is that size," Arlington muttered darkly. "She was told otherwise. It was supposed to be given on her twenty-first birthday, you see, only the day passed with no word. She did try writing, but they insisted her father left her penniless. My father would believe that story." He snorted. "David Rider was wealthy. Stands to reason he left something to Celia."
"So I gather. What made you decide I had taken it?"
"You are the head of the Pellidore family," Arlington pointed out. "The will names you as guardian."
Interesting. He had never been apprised of that duty. Was this another instance of his aunt Lady Honoria talking liberties? She was one of the reasons Edmund had insisted on raising Brandon on their Scottish estate, with only occasional trips to their other estates and London. She liked to see herself as head of the family, and his second cousin Patrice apparently didn't argue the fact, even when it came to raising her son and stepdaughter.
Brandon eyed him. "Let us assume for a moment that you are correct in that I can control what my family chooses to do. Let us also assume I could miraculously conjure away David Rider's considerable fortune. Why would I do so?"
Arlington licked his lips.
"Oh, come now. You called me a murderer and a thief, Mr. Arlington. Do not turn faint-hearted now."
"Very well. I have it on good authority they won't let you at your own money. Figured you might need some now and again. Look what you do for entertainment."
Brandon did not point out that he had been winning, as usual. "And I am maniacal enough to steal it, even though I returned to the country only six months ago?"
Arlington sighed. "So I thought. From what everyone said, you seemed just that sort of black-hearted bastard."
"Flattery will get you nowhere, my dear sir." He rose. Arlington scrambled to his feet as well. He brought his fists up again. Brandon raised a brow. Arlington slowly lowered his fists. "You aren't going to call me out?" The tremor in his voice told Brandon how little he relished the idea.
"I would not waste my time, Mr. Arlington. I would rather resolve your difficulty than fight."
Arlington blinked. "You're going to help me? How?"
"It amuses me to look into your story. If you want to hear what I learn, visit my solicitors, Carstairs and Son, in the financial district, on Friday."
"But that's three days!"
"Do you find fault, Mr. Arlington?"
The youth scowled. "It strikes me that three days is a damnably long time. You could have posted to the Continent for all I know by then, don't you know. Why should I trust you?"
"Do you have a choice? I shall see you at three in the afternoon. Until then, make sure we have no more of these incidents. Think how sad Miss Rider would feel if I were forced to kill you."
Copyright ©1998-2013, Regina Scott