Valentine Corbett, the Marquis of Deverill, lifted his glass. “I see trouble,” he murmured, taking a swallow of whiskey.
“Not my husband,” Lydia, Lady Franch said, lifting her head.
“No, he’s still ogling Genevieve DuMer.” Shifting a little, Valentine could make out Lord Franch’s profile close by the entrance to the gaming room. The elderly Franch’s attention remained steadily on young Miss DuMer’s ample bosom as they chatted.
“The oaf.” Lydia lowered her head again.
Half-closing his eyes, Valentine cupped the back of the viscountess’s neck, encouraging her ministrations. His gaze, though, returned to the more significant little drama unfolding beyond the gauze of curtains.
Lydia paused again. “What trouble do you see, then?” she asked.
“John Priestley is offering Lady Griffin a bracelet of pearls, and she’s allowing him to fasten them around her wrist.”
Lady Franch’s next comment was muffled, but Valentine assumed it to be a request for more information. Setting aside the whiskey, he slid his fingers along the edge of the curtain.
“The two of them are standing in plain view of everyone,” he continued, “including all three of her brothers.” He sighed, firming his grip on Lydia as her bobbing became more enthusiastic. “I very much doubt that the Duke of Melbourne, at the least, approves of his sister accepting gifts from gentlemen – especially in public, and especially from an idiot not deemed worthy to be a suitor.”
He tilted his head back, the antics of his fellows becoming less interesting as Lydia’s motions became more urgent. Even as he allowed himself to go over the edge, though, Valentine kept his eyes open and his attention on the crowded ballroom beyond their cozy little hideaway. He never closed his eyes; with the games he enjoyed playing, that would be both stupid and suicidal.
As Lydia straightened again, he handed her the glass of whiskey. “I do enjoy waltzing with you, my dear,” he said, standing and helping her off her knees.
“Yes, but you enjoy dancing with everyone, Valentine,” she returned, finishing off the whiskey as he buttoned his trousers.
“A fact about which I have always been honest.”
“One of your few positive qualities.”
Valentine returned his attention from the room long enough to lift an eyebrow. “I have at least two positive qualities. And the bosom has found a dance partner, which, I believe, means Franch will be looking for his wife.”
“Yes, with his poor eyesight he likes to have something close by to ogle.” She adjusted the barely-covered objects of her husband’s adoration. “I’ll be at the Beckwith soiree on Thursday,” Lydia continued, smoothing the front of her gown. “They do have that lovely tropical garden.”
“And with insufficient illumination, I hear.” Stepping sideways, Valentine allowed Lady Franch to reenter the ballroom first.
He leaned against the wall for a moment, looking out at the drama which had originally caught his attention. Eleanor, Lady Griffin, was being uncharacteristically foolish. Not only had she permitted Priestley to place the bracelet on her wrist, but now she appeared to be encouraging him to parade her about in a waltz. Emerging into the large, mirrored ballroom, Valentine glanced at Eleanor’s eldest brother. Sebastian, the Duke of Melbourne, continued his conversation with Lord Tomlin, but Valentine knew him well enough to see that he wasn’t pleased. Hm. Perhaps the evening still had a few moments of interest left in it.
Valentine glanced to his left, though he’d already recognized the voice. “I assume you’re referring to Priestley?”
“He’s already been warned.” Standing against the back wall of the ballroom, Lord Charlemagne Griffin followed the meanderings of his younger sister and John Priestley with pale gray eyes.
“Then you have to give him a point or two for bravery.” Valentine gestured for another glass of whiskey.
The gray gaze flicked in his direction and back again. “For abject stupidity.”
“It’s just a bracelet, Shay. At a soiree hardly worth a mention in the Society pages.”
“A bracelet on my sister’s wrist.” Charlemagne straightened. “And I don’t care where in damnation we are. I booted him off the front walk last week, and Melbourne’s already bared his teeth at the idiot. Eleanor knows all of that, as well.”
Valentine looked at the pair of dancers again. Dark hair coiled into an artistic knot at the top of her head and pale green gown swirling about her legs, graceful Eleanor, Lady Griffin actually looked more composed than her dance partner. Her brothers weren’t likely to kill her, however. Priestley might not be so lucky. “Perhaps your sister is staging a little rebellion.”
“If she is, it’s going to be a short-lived one.”
Chuckling, Valentine finished off his new glass of whiskey. “Complications. They are one of the reasons I’m happy not to have siblings. I’ll see you tomorrow, yes?”
Charlemagne nodded. “Melbourne said he’d asked you by.”
With a last glance at Eleanor and Priestley, Valentine headed for the door. He might be friends with the male members of the Griffin family, but becoming involved in their domestic troubles not only didn’t interest him, but left him with a keen desire to be elsewhere. Especially when he’d heard rumors of a rich game of faro beginning at the Society Club.
As he left, he glimpsed several young ladies following him with their eyes. It was something he was used to, and offering the chits a slight smile, he memorized the faces for future reference. One never knew when one might become bored with faro.
Eleanor, Lady Griffin, had lately begun to notice a pattern in her life. Whenever she had an evening she would loosely label as “fun” or “amusing”, the next morning would feature a lecture from one, or perhaps two, or occasionally even all three of her brothers on what she’d done incorrectly and how she should endeavor never to do it again. As if she didn’t already know both the rules and the consequences of breaking them – even if she’d never dare to do more than bend them a little.
“I’m not going to waste my time lecturing if you’re not going to pay attention,” brother number one said, tapping his fingers on the smooth surface of his mahogany desk.
She supposed authority came naturally to Sebastian Griffin; he’d been elevated to the position of the Duke of Melbourne, and the patriarch of their family, at the age of seventeen. If the ensuing fifteen years had done anything to him, though, it had made him even more blasted arrogant and sure of himself than when he’d begun.
It seemed her duty to take him down a notch or two, or at least remind him that he was human, whenever possible. Eleanor straightened. “Good. I’ll be in the music room, then.”
“The point being, pay attention. If I meant to talk merely for the purpose of hearing my own voice, I’d go to Parliament.”
“Has anyone told you that you’re insufferable, Sebastian?”
Dark gray eyes gazed at her. “Someone has to demonstrate a little dignity and restraint in this family. You don’t seem capable to doing it.”
She blew out her breath. “Don’t you ever tire of proclaiming us the perfect and almighty Griffin clan? Look upon us in awe and despair.”
“You wouldn’t find it so humorous from the outside looking in.” The Duke of Melbourne resumed drumming his fingers. “Men wouldn’t be trying to give you jewelry if you were a shopkeeper.”
“The jewelry, Sebastian, is not the point. All three of you seem to delight in chasing men away from me before they can even say hello.”
“We only chase the wrong men away.” He leaned forward. “And today, jewelry is precisely the point.”
”Shall we focus on your behavior, then? Though if you wanted to demonstrate that your actions can cause damage, I’m already aware of that.”
“For heaven’s sake, Sebastian, you have no idea–“
”Perhaps then it was about you intentionally making trouble for me. Whatever the reasons, Eleanor, today we will focus on what you did. You will tell me – promise me – that you will no longer accept sparkling baubles from gentlemen while in public places.”
Sometimes Eleanor wanted to scream – even when her brother was correct, which happened surprisingly often considering that he usually didn’t deign to look beyond her actions to try to understand why she did things. But even if he was basically correct, he didn’t need to talk to her as if she was a half-wit child. “I agree. I will only accept sparkly things from gentlemen in private.”
The expression on the tanned face beneath his dark, wavy hair didn’t change. Only his eyes grew cooler, but it was enough. Sebastian had a long fuse to his temper, but she was nearing the end of it – again.
Slowly he stood, forcing her to look up to continue meeting his gaze. “If you don’t wish to spend the Season in London, I can arrange for Charlemagne to escort you back to Melbourne Park.”
She lurched less gracefully to her own feet, her heartbeat accelerating at the threat. For heaven’s sake, the Season had just begun, and Melbourne was half the island away in Devon. “Shay wouldn’t do it.”
One eyebrow lifted. “Yes, he would.” The duke leaned forward, setting his knuckles against the desktop. “I wouldn’t choose to play this game if I were you, Eleanor. You will lose.”
With a growl she yanked the pearl bracelet out of her pocket. She didn’t even particularly like pearls, but it had felt romantic when Viscount Priestley had placed it around her wrist, particularly when he’d been banned from anything more than the occasional dance with her. She did have to admire John’s bravery. “Fine. Send it back, then. Heaven forbid that some gentleman should like me enough to actually give me a gift.” She slammed the bauble onto the desk.
At least she’d managed the last word. Lips clamped together, Eleanor stalked to the office door. With a disdainful sniff she pulled it open.
“A true gentleman wouldn’t cause a scandal by giving you a gift in the middle of a crowded ballroom. He would come to me and ask my permission to call on you.” She heard the bracelet slide across the desk and fall into a drawer. “Lord Priestley,” Sebastian continued, “will not be receiving that permission.”
Gripping the door handle, Eleanor forced in a deep breath. “You already told him that.”
“Then he had no business giving you anything.”
That settled that. She was simply going to have to take up drinking. “I’m going to a nunnery,” she said, “so at least I won’t expect to find gentlemen calling on me.”
“Don’t tempt me, Nell.”
Ha. She’d like to see him try it. “Good day, Your Grace. Shall I send in a peasant for you to behead?”
“No, thank you.”
One day she intended to knock the wind out of his arrogant, condescending sails. The only thing worse than Sebastian treating her like a child, was that he made her feel like a child. Of course she knew accepting baubles in public was improper; if her brothers hadn’t turned Lord Priestley away from her on four previous occasions she never would have felt sorry enough for the viscount that she allowed him to fasten the bracelet around her wrist. Last night, though, it had seemed the only way to show the tyrants that they couldn’t completely control her life.
Except that apparently they could. And turning away suitors they found unacceptable was one thing; now that she’d past her twenty-first birthday she’d begun to worry what would happen when they decided to find her an acceptable one. For all she knew, they already had one – or several – dull, thin-blooded prospects in mind. Prospects who would, of course, acknowledge the superiority and authority of the Griffin males. Someone who wouldn’t challenge their leadership and who therefore would never be a match – or a challenge – for her.
Zachary and Charlemagne, Shay for short, were upstairs playing billiards, and it abruptly annoyed her that they could be having fun while she was being lectured and while she’d begun worrying about what they might have planned for her future. Heaven help them if they decided she needed further chastisement today. With the way Sebastian had a counter for every argument, her blood boiled for a fight she could win. And each loss only made the determination stronger. This morning she felt like Mount Vesuvius. Eleanor stalked up the wide, curving staircase, her blue muslin skirt gathered in one hand as she stomped to the second floor.
At the open door to the billiards room, though, she stopped. Inside her brothers conversed, their voices joined by a third, who spoke in a low, sardonic drawl. For a moment she listened, enjoying the smooth, cultured tone. She knew the rules as well as any Griffin – no family rows in public. Thankfully this guest didn’t count as public.
“You two are cowards,” she announced, entering the room.
The taller of the two, Zachary, straightened from the table. “Damnation, Nell,” he cursed, standing his cue upright. “You just cost me five quid.”
“Good. I thought it was your duty to protect me.”
“Not from Sebastian.”
“Besides,” Shay broke in, leaning on his own cue, “Melbourne’s correct. We don’t want a member of the family giving the impression that she can be bought for a short string of pearls.”
“He wasn’t buying me!” she retorted. “And apparently he tried to give me the bracelet in a more discreet setting, and on more than one occasion. Someone – several someones – made it impossible for him to do so.”
“Then he should have acted like a gentleman and desisted.”
Eleanor folded her arms, turning her attention to the tall, dark-haired man pouring himself a whiskey at the liquor table. “Humph. And what do you think, Lord Deverill?”
“Actually,” Valentine Corbett, the Marquis of Deverill, returned, “your brothers are completely correct.”
“See? You may not listen to–“
”Shut up, Zachary,” she snapped, glaring not at her brother, but at the lean face and half-lidded green eyes of the man she’d always considered not her champion, but her best example of how she wished she could behave but knew she wouldn’t ever, ever dare to emulate. “Explain yourself, Deverill.”
He inclined his head. “Little as I like to give the Griffin brethren credit for anything, any male knows not to show favor in public to the female he pursues. Causes all sorts of difficulties.”
“I’m not speaking of your clandestine relationships with married ladies and opera singers,” she retorted. “I’m discussing a true gentleman with a genuine regard for a lady, one who wanted to demonstrate his honest interest by giving her a small gift.”
A slight smile touched that famously capable mouth and vanished again. “You should have been more specific, then. I don’t know anything about that sort of nonsense. ‘Honest’ interest?”
“You see?” she exclaimed, flinging her arms in her brothers’ direction, “you don’t know what you’re talking ab–“
”On the other hand,” Lord Deverill interrupted, “in the case of an ‘honest’ regard, Priestley should have joined the bracelet with a necklace and ear bobs. Then at least we could be assured that he didn’t just nick the trinket from his mother’s jewelry box.”
While Shay and Zachary laughed, Eleanor looked over into those deceptively lazy green eyes, one of them obscured by a falling lock of coal black hair. Some mamas with impressionable daughters claimed that if the devil could choose a countenance with which to lure young ladies into sin, he would look precisely like Valentine, Lord Deverill. Thank God she knew what a scoundrel he was. And how charming he could be. Her lips twisted. “I’ve already determined to keep you off my side in this argument.”
“I can understand that. I wouldn’t want me on my side, either. You should be ashamed of yourself, anyway, allowing Priestley to approach and speak to you in public. Next you’ll tell me you were just standing there and he accosted you.”
“That’s not the point, Deverill,” Shay interrupted. “She didn’t have to accept the bracelet, regardless.”
“Bravely said by a brother who should have done a better job of warning Priestley away from her in the first place,” the marquis said, his easy drawl deepening, “before the fellow could tempt her with a pretty trinket. Not that I’m taking sides, but it does seem to me that you three are the ones who made the error.”
Zachary’s complexion darkened. “We can’t be expected to–“
”And you continue to err,” Deverill broke in, leaning across the billiards table to take his shot as he spoke. “For instance, if you’re concerned over Lady Griffin’s maidenly virtue, why the devil did you let me into the house yet again?”
“I was just about to ask myself the same question,” Sebastian’s dry voice came from the doorway.
Hm. At the beginning Eleanor had thought Lord Deverill had been at least partially on her side, but declaring her brothers rather than herself responsible for her actions didn’t precisely leave her feeling any better. In fact, it was almost more insulting than her brothers’ original argument. She could easily have turned Lord Priestley away if she’d wanted to, after all.
It was far more likely that Deverill wasn’t on anyone’s side, and didn’t give a whit about the outcome. He did seem to have a penchant for arguing simply because he enjoyed it. Which of course meant he was frightfully good at it, as he was with everything he attempted. “I think you should all leave,” she muttered, folding her arms across her bosom.
“I was invited,” the marquis returned, unflappable as always.
“So you were,” Sebastian admitted. “Care to join me in the stable?”
Deverill tossed his cue to Charlemagne. “You still want my opinion of your new mount, then?” he asked, making for the doorway.
The duke nodded, stepping aside to let Valentine to pass. “I actually thought you might want to take him off my hands. The beast tried to nip Peep yesterday.”
Eleanor stood there for a moment, her mouth hanging open. “Of all the nerve,” she finally blurted. “That is my horse, and Peep already said she was teasing him with an apple.”
Valentine stopped in the doorway to look from her to Sebastian. “I won’t deprive a lady of her mount,” he said, and his lips curved in a sly smile. “Not without offering a suitable replacement, at any rate.”
“Valentine,” the Duke of Melbourne said, his tone clipped.
“I’m damned well not going to be pulled into the middle of a family feud. I cancelled luncheon with L . . . with a very nice young lady to answer your summons.”
“Lydia Franch, perhaps?” Shay suggested, rolling the “L” on his tongue.
“Or Laurene Manchester?” Zachary put in.
The marquis chuckled. “I never kiss and tell.”
Oh, this was too much. “Excuse me, but I believe we were discussing my horse,” Eleanor interrupted. “Ask Peep if you don’t believe me. She promised to be more cautious.”
Sebastian gazed at her with an expression in his eyes that could allegedly make grown men quake in their boots. Even growing up under his command, it made her either want to punch him or flee. The lord knew she’d never asked to have a duke for an eldest brother. Lately that circumstance had been gnawing her insides raw.
“Eleanor,” he said in the cool, patient voice which belied the glint in his eyes, “my daughter is six years of age. I trust my opinion over hers.”
“You trust your opinion over everyone’s, Sebastian. And you are not taking my horse.”
“No, I’m not. Deverill is.”
“I haven’t even seen it yet,” the marquis cut in, “though I do have to wonder why you would think I would want a lady’s animal.”
“He’s not a lady’s animal,” Sebastian returned. “Eleanor’s been training him to tolerate the side saddle.”
“I have trained him to do so.” She put her hands on her hips. “Don’t you dare take my Helios, Valentine Corbett.”
“That is enough, Eleanor,” Sebastian snapped, the remaining humor leaving his voice.
“Yes, it is,” Deverill seconded. Inclining his head in Eleanor’s direction, he headed past Sebastian out the door. “If you’ll excuse me, I may still be able to salvage my luncheon engagement.”
As the marquis descended the stairs, Eleanor’s brothers stood glaring at her. “Scowl all you want,” she said, turning her back on the lot of them. “You may take my bracelet, and you can attempt to steal my horse, but that doesn’t make you right. It only makes you bullies.”She strode into the hallway.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Sebastian’s even, controlled voice came.
“I think I’m going shopping,” she returned over her shoulder as she stalked to her bedchamber. It would have been more effective if she’d had something stronger with which to retort. “I’m going off to sea,” or “I’m joining the army” would have sounded so much more defiant. Still, even shopping was something, and it did show the brothers Griffin that they didn’t rule her or her schedule entirely, as much as they might like to think so.
Eleanor stifled a frustrated sigh. No, a declaration of shopping didn’t prove much of anything. And no distraction was as effective as it used to be at calming her desire to do something outrageous, something completely . . . wicked, something that wouldn’t show her brothers so much as it would show her that she could be free.
She paused in her search for a pair of gloves to look out her bedchamber window. Below her, Valentine took his horse’s reins from a groom and swung into his saddle. Blast it, she envied the Marquis of Deverill, able to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted and with whomever he wanted. And no one told him it wasn’t proper, or correct, or threatened to withhold his allowance or even frowned at him – well, some of the old, tight-laced patronesses might frown, but he certainly didn’t care what they might think. He didn’t care what anyone thought.
Drawing a deep breath, Eleanor pulled on her gloves. Hm. She might not be able to gamble or smoke cigars or go about . . . fornicating with whomever she chose, but her brothers hadn’t won, yet. Eventually they would, when they’d decided they were tired of her rebellions and forced her to marry. She had no illusions about that. It would happen, and Sebastian had such complete control over her finances that realistically she would be unable to refuse his orders.
That was then, however, and this was now. And tonight she meant to make a stand.
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