Bennett Wolfe stepped down from the hired hack and tossed the driver a shilling. “My thanks,” he said, catching the bag the man heaved down at him and then pulling a second satchel from the shoddy interior of the vehicle. Not a great deal of luggage to show for three years away, but his trunks and specimen crates were on the way to Tesling, the small estate Prinny had given him six years ago just outside of Tunbridge Wells in Kent.
“You owe me another three shillings,” the man rasped, pocketing the one in his possession.
“Four shillings for five miles?” Bennett retorted. “Drive that bloody thing into the Thames and I’ll pay you four shillings for the boat ride. And even that would be steep.” He hefted his things out of the road and dropped them again on the bottom step of the house looming over them. He hoped the dwelling hadn’t been sold as a boarding school since he’d last stopped by.
“You have two passengers there,” the driver said stiffly.
“Mm hm.” Bennett lowered his shoulder, and a black simian face fringed with white and gray hair appeared in the coach’s uncurtained window. “Come here, Kero.”
At his summons the young vervet monkey leapt onto his forearm and scampered up to perch on his shoulder. From there she chittered at the driver.
Bennett handed her a shilling, and aimed his arm at the top of the coach. “Up, Kero. Nende juu.” He looked at the driver as the cat-sized monkey jumped effortlessly onto the roof and sat. “If you’re willing to take that from her, then it’s yours.”
The driver opened his mouth, frowning, until the vervet monkey yawned at him. After taking a look at her rather impressive canines he subsided, taking up the reins again. “Get that blasted thing away from me.”
Chuckling, Bennett clucked his tongue, and Kero returned to his shoulder, handing him back the coin. Of course she didn’t want it, because it wasn’t edible. He flipped it up at the driver. “Two passengers, two shillings.”
The fellow caught it, ramming it into a pocket as he sent the vehicle back into Mayfair’s early evening traffic. “I’ll starve to death, I will,” he muttered as he departed, “with every bloke who gets himself a monkey thinking he’s some kind of daft old Bennett Wolfe and refusing to pay his full share.”
That was a bit unsettling, since he was some kind of Bennett Wolfe, though not particularly daft or old. That having a monkey was now a requirement for being him was unexpected, since he’d only adopted the orphaned vervet a year ago and he’d been away from London for at least three times that long. He had more pressing things to see to at the moment, though, so he set that bit of oddness aside for later contemplation.
As he topped the steps and reached the house’s small portico, the front door opened. A blue-liveried servant stopped well back in the doorway, eyeing him. “May I help you?” he asked, frowning either at him or the monkey – or both.
A new fellow – not unexpected, since old Peters had been aged enough to have shaken hands with Noah. And that had been four years ago. “I’m looking for Jack Clancy,” Bennett returned. “He wouldn’t still happen to reside here, would he?”
“Lord John Clancy is entertaining at the moment,” the servant said, lifting his head so he could apparently look down his nose to a greater degree. “Is he expecting you?”
Considering that Bennett hadn’t set eyes on Jack since his last sojourn to London, that didn’t seem likely. While it would be...polite to give the Marquis of Emery’s fifth son a bit of warning that he stood on the doorstep, he hated ruining a surprise. “Just tell him it’s Deborah Mason’s brother and I’ve just now tracked him down. And I’m not happy.”
The door clicked closed, which was better than slamming in his face. Bennett pulled a peanut from his pocket and handed it up to Kero, who chittered at him happily as she pulverized the shell to pull out the meat.
As he was beginning to lose the small bit of patience he’d been able to summon, the door flung open again. “Deborah Mason does not have a brother, my good–“ The tall, fair-skinned man, a stunning shock of short red hair atop his head, closed his mouth with an audible snap. “Good God,” he whispered, going stark white.
A heartbeat later Lord Jack Clancy took a long stride forward and grabbed Bennett in a hard, tight embrace. Clearly alarmed, Kero squawked and jumped onto the metal stair railing. Abruptly alarmed himself but for different reasons entirely, Bennett returned the embrace, then pushed his friend back a step. “What’s amiss?” he asked. “Your parents? Are they–“
”No, no.” Jack clapped him hard on the shoulder and held on. “Everyone’s well. By God, Bennett, if this all turns out to be some kind of jest, I’ll shoot you myself.”
Bennett frowned. “What kind of jest?”
“You were declared dead five months ago.” Jack stopped for a moment, eyeing him. His expression slowly went from stunned joy to deep concern. “You didn’t know, did you?”
Dead? Christ, Langley. The realization hit him like a blow to the chest. “I didn’t know,” he said in a retort that came out more as a growl.
“We held a memorial in your honor. Thousands attended. I kept thinking it would be just like you to appear in the middle of it, having miraculously escaped from some disaster or other, but you didn’t. And then finally...” His friend trailed off, swallowing. “No matter. It’s damned good to see you, my friend. Come in.”
“The butler said you’re entertaining,” Bennett countered, pulling back. He didn’t like being pawed over, and certainly not when he’d had no idea what was afoot. “I’m only here because you know everyone in London, and I’m trying to find word about David Langley.” If the bastard had reported him dead, it wasn’t only word that he would be after now, either. Slow anger slid through him.
“Lang...Come in, Bennett. Please. No striding away into the dark just when you’ve crawled out of your own grave.”
He nodded, though inside his mind he was spinning out webs of now-likely circumstances. Of all the things he’d expected at journeying to London, finding out that he was dead hadn’t been one of them. The Africa Association would have taken ownership of his journals, his estate had more than likely gone to his damned uncle Fennington – and damnation, his specimens were all headed there.
“I don’t want to interrupt your festivities,” he grunted, following Jack into the depths of the house. “Apparently I have to catch several people up about my not being deceased.” A moment later Kero was back on his shoulder, making annoyed sounds at his grabby friend. Bennett reached up and scratched her behind the ears. However unlikeable he generally found civilization, she’d never even experienced it before. “Is Langley in Town? I’d like to flatten his face with my fist.”
“We’ll get to that in a moment.”
Bennett took hold of Jack’s shoulder and yanked him to a stop. Lord John Clancy was a tall man, but Bennett was larger – he had been since they’d met at Oxford. “I’ve spent the last day and a half in four different coaches, and the two months before that on a ship. And the weeks before that, flat on my back. Not pleasant. At all. Whatever patience I used to have is long gone, Jack. What is going on?”
“I haven’t seen you in four years, my friend,” Jack said in a quieter voice, pulling away and continuing forward again. “However off balance you feel at the moment, at least you knew you were returning to London. Until five minutes ago, I thought you were dead. So give me a damned minute, will you? Chat with my guests, say hello and be a bit civilized, while I stop shaking in my boots.”
“Fine.” Clearly Jack was shaken, and a few hours after five months wasn’t going to make a damned lot of difference. He didn’t have many friends, and he valued Jack as the closest among them. “Fine.”
“Thank you. Now, have you and Kero eaten?” Jack asked, turning to face them for the fifth time since they’d entered the house. “No, I don’t suppose you have. You’ll eat anything, I know, but what does she prefer?”
Just short of the closed doors to the drawing room, Bennett stopped again. “How the devil do you know Kero’s name?”
Jack frowned. “How do you think I know? And be forewarned, we’re reading the book tonight. I know it’s been out for weeks, but I...Well, I figured I shouldn’t be the last one to know what exactly happened to you. Even though it apparently didn’t. Happen, I mean.”
Shaking his head and beginning to wonder if the brief meal he’d eaten hours ago in Bristol had been poisoned and he was actually at this moment chained to the floor of some room in Bedlam, Bennett swallowed his frustration and growing annoyance and walked behind Jack into the drawing room. He could be patient and mostly pleasant for a few minutes. He stopped in his tracks. Or not.
“–isn’t a misuse of the word savagery, Flip,” a hatchet-faced woman with a dress up practically to her chin was saying. “Three people were murdered. That is savage.”
Nearly two dozen people, mostly female, sat about the drawing room, all of them with open books in their hands. Several of them were mumbling to one another, while closer to the door a younger man and woman made eyes at one another over the book’s spines. So now he’d moved from Bedlam to some sort of lending library of the insane.
“I have to disagree, Wilhelmina,” a sweet voice said from the left half of the room, somewhere he couldn’t quite see. He liked the sound of the voice, though it may have been because he hadn’t heard a cultured female accent in over three years. That said, the Wilhelmina chit hadn’t stirred him in the slightest – though that might have been due to the excessive chin ruffles.
Chestnut hair beneath a blue hat came into view for a moment, then vanished as the wide fellow on the sofa shifted. Bennett took a step sideways, trying to get her into view again.
“Savagery implies the use of more force than is strictly necessary,” she continued. “In this instance, Captain Wolfe had to kill those three men or his party would have been discovered and attacked. And he had to do it silently. Hence the knife and the spear. That is not savagery. It is practicality.”
He agreed with that. Savagery was more a matter of perspective and circumstance than most people seemed to think. Again, though, that was something that could await contemplation until later – except that no one should have known that he faced down three men with a knife and a spear. That had happened nearly a year ago, and he’d been back in London for less than an hour. “What are you playing at?” he asked Jack in a low voice. “And who is–“
A pretty blonde-haired girl with large brown eyes stood. “Who is your very handsome friend, John?” she cooed, smiling.
Ah, that chit was worth a bit of distraction, now. Before he could respond, though, Jack took him by the arm and led him into the center of the room. Bennett didn’t like that; it was hardly a defensible position. With a scowl, he pulled free of the grip.
Jack cleared his throat. “Friends, fellow reading club members, this is my friend, Captain Sir Bennett Wolfe. The news of his death was evidently premature.”
In as coordinated a move as he’d ever seen from anyone other than the military, the members of Jack’s book club launched to their feet. Roaring, chattering, even one shriek – good God, they looked like a pack of baboons – they surged toward him. Christ. He’d seen baboons in concert take down a leopard. Kero screeched and leapt onto the nearest shelf. For a moment he contemplated joining her there.
He’d been mobbed before by admiring readers, and he’d taken advantage of more than one female who found his books and the adventures therein heroic and arousing. But this was not fun. He’d returned too recently, and he’d been away for too long. He backed up – and knocked squarely into someone, sending her to the floor.
Bennett turned around. The chestnut haired chit. Immediately he reached a hand down, gripping her fingers, and hauled her back to her feet. The pretty brown eyes that gazed at him made her the other lady’s relation – a sister, most likely – but the similarity ended there. Where the other one had been tall and willowy and blonde and stunning, she was more petite, and more...curved. Not fat, but she had a bit of meat on her bones. As though she enjoyed the taste of food.
For some reason he found that compelling. Of course he had quite an appetite himself. And not just for food. “You smell like lemons,” he said, wanting to hear her speak again.
Lady Phillipa Eddison pulled her fingers free from the large, well-built man looking down at her and attempted to settle her nerves. “Thank you,” she replied, hoping he’d just handed her a compliment.
An instant later she frowned, then had to wipe that expression away. Thank you. Was that what one said upon first meeting a famous explorer, a man whose work she admired and a man who, until recently – until two minutes ago, actually – had been deceased?
“You’re Bennett Wolfe,” she continued. Oh, good heavens. Shut up, Flip.
“I am,” he agreed.
She looked at him again, harder. No one, Captain Wolfe included, had ever spent many words describing him, but she imagined that this man looked very much like a famous explorer should. Tall he was, but it wasn’t only that. He wasn’t fat at all, but he still appeared...mountainous. Broad-shouldered, clearly well-muscled even beneath what looked like a very well-used brown jacket and some sort of buckskin trousers and leather-looking boots.
With skin darkened by sunlight brighter than that found in England and eyes of deep, perfect, emerald, he seemed to radiate power. Confidence. And it abruptly didn’t surprise her that this man could have taken on three native warriors and defeated them with a knife and a spear.
A shiver of warmth ran up her spine. Bennett Wolfe. It couldn’t be him, and yet she knew it was. The man who had explored a good part of eastern Africa, Egypt, and now the Congo. Dusky hair of uncertain length that looked as though it had been combed through by, well, by a monkey, a long gait, and that air of utter self-possession. He couldn’t be anyone else but himself.
“The last time Bennett Wolfe was in London I was only seventeen,” she heard herself say. For a fleeting moment she wished her sister Olivia would walk up behind her and smack her in the head before she could say something even more idiotic.
“The last time Bennett Wolfe was in London I was only twenty-five,” he commented, ignoring the questions – some of them not very polite – being put to him by the club’s other members.
“I mean to say, I wasn’t out yet, and that’s why we haven’t met. Until now, of course.” She’d regretted that ever since, and especially in the five months since she’d learned of his death. A man of the Renaissance – well educated, well spoken, able to write very eloquently and to speak several languages. A man of science and of the arts. She swallowed. Her hero, in a manner of speaking. After all, she’d read both of his books numerous times, and even this last one, authored by David Langley but at least discussing Bennett Wolfe, had graced her bed stand for the month since it had been published. And that was despite her skepticism over some of the passages.
Phillipa shook herself. The man himself was standing there, looking at her. And now she was babbling at him like an utter Bedlamite. This was not the intellectual, scientific conversation she’d imagined having with Bennett Wolfe if they’d ever chanced to meet. “I’m reading your book. I mean, the new book. We all are. Reading it.”
A furrow appeared between his eyebrows. “What new b–“
John abruptly appeared between them, making her jump. “Bennett, I see you’ve met Flip. Lady Phillipa Eddison, Captain Sir Bennett Wolfe.”
The captain inclined his head. He still didn’t seem to note that anyone else remained in the room at all. “Phillipa.”
A warm shiver ran down her spine. She was fully aware that she had one of the least romantic-sounding names in history, with the possible exception of poor Wilhelmina, and she’d rather liked not being thought of as flighty and frilly before anyone actually met her. But she also liked the way he’d said her name even if he hadn’t addressed her properly – as though a kiss went along with it.
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