ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Mary Jo Putney, Inc.
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-1-4201-1727-1
When two gentlemen are closely related by blood, they do not usually address each other with formality. In this case, however, the gentlemen in question were first cousins once removed, the younger had come from nowhere to inherit a title and fortune that the older had assumed would be his, and their relationship had been formally announced moments after they had come within a sword slice of killing one another.
Hence, it was not surprising that relations between the two were somewhat strained. Which is why Reginald Davenport, notorious rake, gambler, and womanizer, known in some circles as "the Despair of the Davenports," greeted his noble cousin with a terse, "Good day, Wargrave."
The Earl of Wargrave rose to his feet behind the massive walnut desk and offered his hand. "Good day. I'm glad you were able to come by."
After a brief, hard handshake, Reggie took the indicated chair and stretched out his long legs. "I make it a point to obey summons from the head of the family," he drawled. "Particularly when that person pays my allowance."
Wargrave's mouth tightened slightly as he sat again, a fact that pleased Reggie. Among the earl's many irritating virtues was his calm, good nature. Equally irritating was his politeness. Rather than issue a summons, the earl left the time and place of meeting to his cousin, implying a willingness to transact family business in a tavern if that was the older man's choice.
While giving Wargrave credit for that willingness, Reggie had no objection to calling at the family mansion in Half Moon Street to see what changes had been wrought. He had to admit, rather reluctantly, that the changes were all for the better. In his uncle's day, this study had been a dark, poky room designed to intimidate callers. Now it was bright, airy, and quietly masculine, with leather chairs and an air of settled comfort. The new owners had good taste.
Since he could find nothing to criticize in his surroundings, Reggie turned his observant gaze to his host. Whenever they chanced to meet, he looked hopefully for signs that the new earl was running to fat, turned snobbish, decked out in green stripes and gold watch fobs, or showing other signs of decadence, arrogance, or vulgarity. Alas, he was always disappointed. Richard Davenport continued to be well dressed in a discreet and gentlemanly way, he retained his trim soldier's figure, and he treated everyone he met, from prince to scullery maid, with the same well-bred courtesy.
Nor did he have a decent temper. Reggie had tried his best, but he was seldom able to provoke his cousin into anything more than infinitesimal signs of irritation. Sometimes it was hard to believe the blasted fellow was really a Davenport. Reggie himself was the epitome of the breed, very tall, very dark, with cool blue eyes and a long face that seemed more designed for sneers than smiles.
In contrast, his cousin was of only average height with medium brown hair, hazel eyes, and an open, pleasant countenance. However, the young earl was the best swordsman Reggie had ever seen, and Reggie had never liked him better than on the occasion when Wargrave had lost his temper and demonstrated that fact.
The earl interrupted Reggie's musings, saying, "Your allowance was one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you."
So he was going to cut his scapegrace cousin off with a shilling. Well, it was not unexpected. Reggie wondered what kind of position he might find to support himself if gambling proved too unreliable a source of income. Many shirttail relations of the nobility held government posts such as Warden of the Port of Rye or Postmaster of Newcastle, but nobody in his right mind would give such a post to Reggie Davenport. Even government officials had some standards.
Perhaps he could open a shooting gallery like Manton's. Or, he thought with an inward smile, he could start charging women for his services, rather than giving them away for free. Coolly he said, "And the other reason?"
"Caroline and I are expecting a child in November."
"Congratulations." Reggie kept his face carefully expressionless. It was typical of Wargrave to personally transmit the news rather than let his heir find out through casual gossip. Well, it hardly came as a shock; to heir was human. Though Reggie was technically heir presumptive to the earldom, he'd always known that a healthy, happily married man eight years his junior would likely be starting a family. Politely he added, "I trust that Lady Wargrave is well?"
Wargrave's face lit up with a smile that his cousin uncharitably described as fatuous. "She feels wonderful and is playing the piano so much that the child will probably be born with a music score in its hand." His expression sobered. "However, that news is not the main reason I asked you to call on me."
"Ah, yes, you were about to cut off my allowance before we got sidetracked on the subject of your progeny," Reggie said, his voice even more drawling than before. He'd be damned if he'd grovel for money to the head of the family.
"Ending your quarterly allowance is only part of what I had in mind." Wargrave opened a drawer and removed a sheaf of papers. "I decided it was time to make different provisions for you. As an interim measure, I had continued the allowance granted by the old earl, but it strikes me as . . ." he hesitated, searching for the right word, "as inappropriate that one adult male should be dependent on the goodwill of another."
"It's not that uncommon in our world," Reggie said with elaborate unconcern. He had been surprised when Wargrave had continued the allowance after the two men had so nearly killed each other, but the earl must have felt he had a responsibility to support his heir. The prospect of a child diminished that obligation.
"I wasn't raised in the tight little world of the ton, and I daresay I shall never understand all the underlying assumptions. In the unelevated circles in which I was raised, most men prefer to have something that is truly their own." The earl tapped the legal papers. "Which is why I am going to sign over to you the most prosperous of the unentailed Wargrave properties. I've cleared the mortgage, so the property should produce about twice the allowance you've been receiving."
Reggie straightened in his chair, as startled as if the earl had hit him with the brass candlestick. Having his allowance cut off would have been no surprise. This was.
Wargrave continued, "The estate's prosperity is due largely to the steward, a man called Weston, who has been there for several years. I've never met him—the one time I visited, he had been called away by illness in the family-but he's done an excellent job. His records were impeccable, and he has increased the productivity enormously. Since Weston is honest and competent, you can live in London off the rents if you don't want to get involved with the management yourself." His expression hardened. "Or you can sell the property, or gamble it away. Whatever you decide, this is all you will ever get from the Wargrave estate. If you have serious debts, I'll help you settle them so you can start with a clean slate, but after this, you are entirely on your own. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly clear. You have such a gift for expression, Wargrave." Reggie's insolence was instinctive, an attempt to disguise his confusion. "As it happens, Lady Luck has been smiling recently, so your assistance will not be required." Struggling to regain his balance, he asked, "Which estate are you giving me?"
"Strickland, in Dorset."
Bloody hell, Strickland! Since Wargrave owned only two or three unentailed estates, the news was not quite a surprise, but Reggie still felt as if he had been kicked in the stomach. "Why that particular property?"
"Several reasons. First, because it would support you most comfortably. Second, I understand that you lived there as a boy, and I thought you might be attached to the place." Wargrave bridged a quill pen between his fingers, a frown on his face. "Judging by your expression, perhaps I was wrong."
Reggie's face tightened. One of the many ways in which he failed to fit the ideal of a gentleman was in his too-visible emotions. A true gentleman would never show chagrin, or anger, or even amusement, as Reggie was all too prone to do when he wasn't concentrating. He was not incapable of maintaining a properly impassive face, but too often his countenance mirrored his every feeling. As it did now, when he would rather have concealed the complex emotions that Strickland raised in him.
"There is another, far more compelling reason why I chose Strickland," Wargrave continued. "It should have been yours in the first place."
Reggie took a deep breath. Too many surprises were being dropped on him, and he didn't like it one damned bit. "Why do you say it should have been mine?"
"The house and majority of the land were owned by your mother's family, not the Davenports. As your mother's sole heir, legally you already own the bulk of Strickland."
"What the devil!"
"According to the family solicitor, your parents met when your maternal grandfather offered to buy a small property adjacent to Strickland," Wargrave explained. "Your father went to Dorset to discuss the matter on his brother's behalf, met your mother, and ended up staying. The Davenport land was added to Strickland, and your parents lived there and managed it as one estate. According to the marriage settlements, Strickland was to go to your mother's heirs."
Reggie swore viciously under his breath. So the old earl had deliberately and illegally withheld Strickland from his nephew—one more tactic in their long-running war.
"I had no idea, or you can be sure I would never have let the old devil get away with it," Reggie said with barely controlled fury. During all the years his uncle had condescended to give him an allowance, that money and more should have been his by right. If the old earl had been present and alive, Reggie might have done murder. A great pity that his damned uncle was now beyond justice.
"Perhaps the old earl never separated Strickland from the rest of the properties because he assumed the title and entire estate would come to you eventually," Wargrave said in a neutral voice. "After all, you were his heir for many years."
Reggie said icily, "Your generous interpretation stems from the fact that you didn't know him. I assure you that he withheld Strickland from the basest of motives. The income would have made me independent of him, and he would have hated that."
For the same reason, perhaps, the old earl had resented his younger brother, who had married a modest heiress and found happiness living with her in Dorset. That would go some way toward explaining the old man's later treatment of his orphaned nephew. It must have been a kind of revenge on his dead brother, who had managed to escape the Wargrave net.
Tactfully Wargrave busied himself with sharpening a quill and checking the ink in the standish. "The more I hear of the old earl, the more I can understand why my father refused to live in the same country with him."
"Leaving England was the most intelligent thing Julius ever did," Reggie agreed. Though he didn't voice the thought aloud, more than once he had wondered if he should have done the same. Perhaps it would have been wiser to escape his uncle's iron hand rather than to stay and fight the old man's tyranny with inadequate weapons. Well, the earl had won the game by dying, and Reggie had no desire to bare any more of his feelings before the young man who had come on the scene only after the final curtain had come down.
Wargrave looked up from his desk. "Would you prefer a different estate? Strickland is the best available property, but other arrangements could be made."
"No need. Strickland will do well enough," Reggie said brusquely.
Apparently Wargrave did not expect courtesy from his cousin. He scribbled his name several times, sprinkled sand on the wet ink, then pushed the documents across the desk. "Just sign these, and Strickland is yours."
Even furious, Reggie took the time to scan the papers, but all was in order. He scrawled his name across the deeds. As he signed the last one, the sound of a light footstep caused him to look up. A small, delicately blond young woman entered the study. Caroline, Lady Wargrave, had a dreamy face and an extraordinary talent for musical composition.
Both men rose as she entered, and the earl and countess exchanged a glance that gave Reggie a pang of sharp longing. He envied his cousin's inheritance of the wealth and power of Wargrave, and even more he envied the warmth that hummed between the earl and his wife. No women had ever looked at the Despair of the Davenports like that, nor ever would.
After that brief, silent interchange with her husband, Lady Wargrave turned and offered Reggie her hand.
The last time they had met, Reggie had been very drunk and behaved very badly, and Wargrave had damned near killed him for it. In spite of his lurid reputation, terrifying shy virgins was not something Reggie made a practice of, and he felt some awkwardness as he bowed over the countess's hand. Mustering his best charm, he straightened and said, "My felicitations on your happy news, Lady Wargrave."
"Thank you. We are very pleased." She smiled with quiet confidence. Marriage clearly suited her very well. "I never properly thanked you for the wedding gift you sent. Where on earth did you find one of Handel's original music scores? Every time I look at it, I feel awe that he actually drew those notes and wrote those words."
Reggie smiled for the first time in this unsettling visit. The young countess had written him a formal thank-you for the wedding gift, so her desire to greet him in person must mean she had forgiven his boorish behavior. Perhaps that was one less sin that he would fry for. "I came across the score years ago in a bookshop. I knew that someday I would know who it was for."
"You could have chosen nothing that would please me more." She started to turn away. "I'm sorry to have interrupted. I will leave you to your business."
"I'm about to depart," Reggie said. "Unless you had something else you wished to discuss, Wargrave?"
The earl shook his head. "No, there was nothing more." Reggie hesitated, knowing he should thank his cousin. Not all men in the earl's position would have the honesty to compensate for the sins of their predecessors. But Reggie was still far too angry about his uncle's duplicity to be gracious. He gave an abrupt nod of farewell and left, barely aware of the butler, who ushered him from the house.
Outside, Reggie tossed a coin to the footman who had been walking his horses, and vaulted into his curricle. But after settling in the seat, he simply held the reins in his strong hands as the horses tossed their heads, impatient to be off.
Strickland. Bloody, bloody hell. He now owned the place that had been the site of his greatest happiness and most profound grief, and he had no idea whether he felt pleasure or dismay.
His lips tightened, and he snapped the reins over the horses, turning the carriage neatly in the street. He needed a drink.
Better yet, he needed a dozen.
Caroline Davenport drew aside the curtain and watched her husband's cousin depart, noting the tension in the whipcord lean figure as he drove away. Dropping the curtain, she asked, "How did he react to the news?"
"Fortunately I didn't expect gratitude, because I received none. Cousin Reggie is not a man who likes surprises. If I had simply cut off his allowance, it would have been easier for him to accept." Richard limped to the window and put an arm around his wife's waist. "He was also understandably furious to learn that my late, unlamented grandfather had illegally deprived him of his own estate."
Settling herself against her husband, Caroline said, "Do you think that becoming a man of property will make a difference to him?"
Richard shrugged. "I doubt it. My grandfather must bear much of the blame for ruining him. Reggie once told me that he had wanted to go into the army, but the earl would not allow it. Instead my cousin was kept on a short leash, his debts paid but his allowance insufficient to give him any real freedom."
"What a horrid old man your grandfather was."
"True. But Reggie must take some of the blame himself. He's highly intelligent and almost uncannily perceptive about people. Becoming a rake and a drunkard were not his only choices."