Very few things in the world could make Oliver Warren, the Marquis of Haybury, flinch. He could count these things on one hand, in fact. The yowling of small children. The squeak of rusted metal. And the mention of that name.
Stilling, he looked up, the stack of coins between his fingers forgotten. “What did you say?”
To his left James Appleton nodded. “I thought the Benchleys would have found a way to keep the manor, it being in the family for so long. But it’s the widow opening up old Adam House. Just arrived last night, from what I heard. At any rate, it’s the first time in better than three years that anyone’s lived there.”
Oliver placed his wager on the three of spades, keeping his eyes on the game as the dealer turned over a four, a nine, and the queen of hearts. “Hm,” he said, deciding vague interest would be the expected response to this particular gossip. “Lady Cameron. She’s been on the Continent, hasn’t she? What’s her name? Marianne?”
“Diane,” Appleton corrected, finally noticing that he’d lost the wager he’d just placed on the four of spades. “Blast it all. I heard Vienna or Amsterdam or some such. I suppose with Frederick dead for more than two years now, she decided she missed London.”
“That seems likely.” A flash of long, raven-black hair and startling green eyes crossed his mind before he shoved the image away again. Damn, damn, damn. Oliver sent a bored glance at the man seated to his left. “London must be dull as dirt indeed, Appleton, if the most intriguing bit of gossip you can find is that a widow is settling back into her late husband’s townhouse.”
Across the table Lord Beaumont laughed. “You’ve hit on the Season’s failing, Haybury. No good gossip. I don’t think we’ve had a scandal since January, and that doesn’t even count because no one was in Town to enjoy it.” The earl lifted his glass. “Here’s hoping for some bloody entertainment soon.”
Oliver drank to that. Anything that kept him from having to hear damned Diane Benchley’s name on everyone’s lips for the next six weeks had his vote. “Are you finished with wagering for the evening, Appleton?” he pursued. “We could fetch you an embroidery hoop, if you prefer to continue your tongue wagging.”
Appleton’s cheeks and throat flushed a ruddy red. “I merely thought it interesting,” he protested. “The former Earl of Cameron and his wife flee London just ahead of the dunners, and now she comes back alone in a half dozen of the grandest black coaches anyone could let – and in the middle of the night.”
“Perhaps she found herself a Prussian duke,” the fourth of their party, Jonathan Sutcliffe, Lord Manderlin, finally put in. “She always was a pretty thing, as I recall.” He patted Oliver’s shoulder. “You weren’t in London back then, were you? In fact, didn’t you spend some time in Vienna?”
“Among other places.” A sideways glance accompanied by a lifted brow convinced Manderlin to release his shoulder. “I returned in a grand black coach as well, Appleton. My own. Did you gossip about me?”
Finally, Appleton grinned again. “Did and still do. Almost constantly.”
“Good. I work very diligently to keep all the wags occupied.”
“That’s true!” Lord Beaumont motioned, and one of the club’s liveried footmen approached to refill his glass. “You’re the one to blame for the quietude, then. Give us a damned scandal, Haybury.”
Oliver inclined his head. “I shall do my best. Or worst, rather.”
Diane Benchley, Lady Cameron, in London. And he supposed they’d run across one another at some soiree or other, now. After all, Mayfair was a small place. Smaller even than Vienna. He downed the remainder of his glass of whiskey and pour himself another.
Mention of her name might have caught him unawares tonight, but if – when – he saw her face-to-face, he wouldn’t be the one flinching. Not a muscle. Not any muscle. And she’d best keep her pretty mouth shut, as well, or he would be forced to do something unpleasant.
“Are you wagering, Haybury?” Manderlin asked. “Or are you taking up embroidery?”
Gathering his less than pleasant thoughts back in for later, private contemplation, Oliver glanced at the rack of spent cards and put two pounds on the knave. In his experience, the knave always won.
* * * * * *
“Diane, you have a caller.”
Diane Benchley, Lady Cameron, looked up from the spread of papers on what had been her late husband’s desk. “I’m not seeing anyone,” she muttered, and returned to sifting through the figures and decimals and subtractions every sheet seemed to feature. “No exceptions.”
“I know that, my dear,” her companion returned, not moving from her position in the office doorway. “It’s Lord Cameron.”
For a heartbeat, ice ran up Diane’s spine. In that swift moment, every hand she’d shaken, every breath of wind on the passage from the Continent, every thunderclap to her chest since she’d left Vienna, caught in her throat. It had all been for nothing, if...
Swearing beneath her breath, she shook herself. Frederick Benchley had died. Two years ago. She’d been by his bedside when he’d drawn his last breath. She’d stood at his graveside when the pair of workmen had shoveled dirt into the hole where they’d placed his cheap pine coffin. “For God’s sake, Jenny, don’t do that,” she stated aloud, setting her pencil aside and rubbing at her temple with still-shaking fingers.
Alarm crossed her companion’s face, and Genevieve Martine hurried into the room. “Oh, good heavens. You know I meant the new earl, of course. I never thought–“
”Don’t trouble yourself, Jenny. You did startle me nearly out of my skin, however. Where is Anthony Benchley?”
“In the morning room. He asked for you, and then for tea.”
Diane pushed away from the desk and stood. “Well. At least we may assume that word of my arrival in London has traveled swiftly. That’s something, I suppose.”
“Yes, we may count one fortunate thing since our return here, then.” Jenny blew out her breath. “And two dozen unfortunate things. To which column do I add Lord Cameron?”
“The unfortunate one. Come with me, if you would. I want to be rid of him as swiftly as possible.”
“What do you think he wants?” Genevieve asked in the light French accent that seemed to fade or intensify according to her mood.
“Money, of course. That’s what all the men of the Benchley family want. And as far as I’ve been able to determine, none of them are capable of keeping their hands on any of it they touch.” She frowned. “And Adam House, most likely. He can’t have that, either.”
“Perhaps he only wishes to reminisce,” Jenny suggested dubiously. “You were married to his brother, after all.”
“There is very little about my life as part of that family that I care to remember,” Diane retorted, lowering her voice as they reached the foot of the stairs. She’d known that eventually she would have to speak with a Benchley, but for heaven’s sake, she’d been in London for less than two days.
And with everything else that had happened in that time – Jenny might have compiled a list of two dozen unfortunate things, but considering that it had merely taken one disaster to set her entire plan on its ear, the only thing she could think of to make things worse would be if it was Oliver Warren, the Marquis of Haybury, waiting for her in her morning room. Anthony Benchley was an annoyance. Nothing more.
That thought actually steadied her as she stepped into the room. Her former brother-in-law stood looking out the front window. His dark hair and ruddy complexion and even the way he tapped his fingers against his thigh reminded her forcibly of his older brother, and she didn’t like that. Not at all. “Lord Cameron,” she said aloud.
He started, then turned to look at her. “Diane,” he returned, and walked forward to take both her hands in his. “Please, do call me Anthony. We were once siblings, after all.”
She nodded, withdrawing her hands as swiftly as she could. “Anthony, then. Is there something you wanted?”
His brow furrowed, and then smoothed again. “Ah. Don’t mistake me for my brother, Diane. He did me no favors, either, by gambling away the family fortune.”
That was true, she reluctantly admitted to herself. “You t–“
”But you’re wearing black,” he interrupted. “I apologize if I’ve off–“
”You haven’t. It’s only that I’ve just arrived, and the fellow with whom I’d intended to...do a bit of business met with an accident. I’m rather frazzled, I’m afraid.” It wasn’t entirely the truth, but it was as much as she was willing to divulge to anyone. The fact that Anthony was a Benchley only made her more cautious. She’d learned her lesson.
“Business?” he repeated. “You know I’d heard that you arrived the other night with a dozen carriages full of your possessions. And – well, I’m not certain how to be delicate about this, but my solicitors keep telling me that Frederick signed Adam House over to you. I thought perhaps you might consider...especially given that you have business to attend to...returning the house to the Benchley family. God knows I could use it to settle some of Frederick’s remaining debts.”
“Yes, you wrote me about that last year, as I recall. But I believe I’ve settled most of Frederick’s debts,” she returned, keeping the abrupt surge of anger from her voice. “You still have Benchley House and Cameron Hall, Anthony. Adam House is all I possess.”
She glanced at Jenny, who sat in the corner playing her role of companion. Adam House was all she possessed. And considering the news about her investor that had greeted her upon her arrival in London, she needed to make use of it. Fortuitously enough, she knew just how to do so.
“Well, then. I’d hoped you might be more amenable, especially considering that most everyone knows why you and Frederick were forced to flee the country, but if you wish to face the censure of your fellows, there’s nothing I can do to protect you.”
As if she needed his protection. “Thank you for thinking of me, Anthony, but I’ll manage somehow.” She drew a breath. “And now if you don’t mind, I have some correspondence.”
“Yes, of course.” He headed into the foyer, with her and Jenny on his heels and keeping him, whether he realized it or not, from venturing any further into the house. “I look forward to seeing more of you, Diane. Feel free to call on me as you would a brother.”
The moment he left the front step, she closed the door. “I have an idea, Jenny.”
“I do hope it’s a good one, considering that your business partner, as you call him, is being put beneath the ground this very afternoon.”
“We need a venue. I think Adam House would suffice, don’t you?”
“Good heavens.” For a long moment Genevieve gazed at her. Then the overly-thin blond smiled. “I think it would, at that.”
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