Max was seated in a very comfortable chair at White’s, a snifter of brandy in his hand. Across from him, sprawled out in his usual, careless way was his newly married brother George and next to him sat Nathan.
“I have to say, after the last month or two, this is a much-deserved respite,” Nathan said.
Max silently agreed. The past month had been hectic, what with George and Catherine’s wedding and the mad rush to prepare all the ladies for their curtsy before the Queen. Truth be told, he hadn’t seen his mother so animated in years. He felt a twinge of guilt. As eldest, he should have maintained some form of entertaining, but that would have opened up a completely different kettle of worms in the form of advanced matchmaking by the matriarch of the family.
“Speak for yourself, brother.” George grumbled. “I had to leave my new wife of two weeks to come here and she is a much better company than you two clods.”
“How is Catherine faring since the wedding?” Max asked.
“She fares very well.” The smile that lit up his brother’s face told him more than words ever could. “She is nervous about her upcoming curtsy, but having Caroline, Elizabeth and Miss Darcy alongside ease her disquiet.”
“Given what the two of you have been through, a curtsy before Her Majesty will be nothing more arduous than a walk in the park.”
“I know my Catherine can do anything, but she’s still a young woman finding her way in Society. At times it can be overwhelming.”
“Mother adores her and no one would ever cut her direct.” Max said. “Their bond was solidified when Mother and Mr. Bennet sat down and shared memories of Father.”
“The Lord has a wonderful way of bringing people together,” Nathan mused. “If Darcy hadn’t gone to Hertfordshire in support of a friend, he’d never have met Lizzy, then I would never have met Caroline and George would never have met Catherine. This was all pre-ordained by God.”
“I will add a hearty amen to that,” George said. “His ways are not ours and I am much appreciative of His ways.” George turned his attention to Max. “What of you, Max? Is this the year you choose a wife? Mother said there are some lovely girls making their debut this year and as a young Duke with a fine estate, you will have your pick.”
“I am not rushing to the alter. I wish to marry someone I can respect and love.”
“At one time I thought I knew where your heart lay,” Nathan teased. “The young lady is making her curtsy this year….”
Inwardly, Max groaned. What was Nathan about? To make such a suggestion in front of George, no less? He was grateful Nathan hadn’t mentioned Miss Darcy by name, but that wouldn’t stop George. Like a dog with a bone, he’d worry the marrow of truth out somehow. A trait to be admired when you’re a spy for England, but not so much when you wished to keep your love interest out of anyone’s spotlight.
Max would like nothing better than to declare himself before Miss Darcy made her curtsy, but he didn’t want to overshadow her debut. Always shy and reserved, this past year she’d begun to emerge, like a butterfly coming out of the chrysalis and he did not want to clip her wings too early. She deserved to have fun and dance all night if she wanted. Duty and marriage could wait a few months more.
“I thought at one time you would offer for Lady Celeste. You were quite inseparable and then – poof – she no longer came around.”
“She departed for relatives in Scotland, I believe.” He fought the urge to squirm in his chair. Memories of Lady Celeste Townsend were not pleasant ones.
“She married a successful attorney, if I remember correctly,” Nathan mused. “I guess she got tired of waiting for you to propose.”
“I never intended to propose to Lady Celeste. She was an amiable companion and that was all.”
“Don’t get your cravat all twisted over this. Anyone with half a brain knew she’d set her cap at you,” George teased.
Max refused to comment and keep the conversation going. No one but their deceased father knew the perfidy of Lady Celeste. During a house party hosted by his parents, Lady Celeste and her parents were one of the many guests. Max often joined his father for a cup of hot chocolate in the library. Something they enjoyed on a regular basis, even if there were guests on the premise.
During one of these sessions, his father had gone to the second level to retrieve an old journal that showed ancient crop rotations. Not the most delightful subject for a young man of one and twenty, but even at that young age, Max knew these were things he should learn. His father had barely ascended the spiral staircase when the door to the library eased open. Upon spotting Maxwell, who had risen to his feet, Lady Celeste entered the room and closed the door behind her.
“I hoped to find you in here.” She advanced until their bodies almost touched. “I know you are enamored with me, seeking only the proper incentive to make your feelings known.”
“I assure you, I haven’t.”
“Not even once?”
Her eyes went wide, disbelief evident. Trailing a finger down his chest, she leaned closer. Max, seeking to evade, stumbled when the back of his legs hit the chair. With a squeal of delight, she launched herself into his arms, propelling them both into the overstuffed chair. It was at that exact moment the door flew open and Lady Celeste’s mother rushed into the room.
“What do you think you’re doing with my daughter,” Lady Townsend demanded.
“I believe she’s attempting to compromise my son, which you well knew seeing as you were most likely bent at the door peeking through the keyhole.”
With a gasp, Lady Townsend’s gaze flew to the second floor where his father glared at them over the railing.
“I did not peek through any keyhole. I heard my daughter cry out.”
“I’m sure that was your pre-arranged signal to come into the room and find them dishabille.”
The Duke descended the staircase while Lady Celeste scrambled to her feet and Max moved to the far side of the room.
“What are you going to do about this?” Lady Townsend sputtered in anger as her daughter burst into tears.
“What am I going to do?”
“I, Madam, am going to direct my butler to remove you and your family from the premises. The hour is late, you had better attend your packing.”
He turned his back to her and moved toward the fireplace.
“You cannot. They must marry!” Lady Townsend took a step toward him, her lips tight with anger or fear, Max couldn’t be sure.
“I can and they won’t.” His father turned around. “You and your daughter set to entrap my son and are no longer welcome in my home. Leave now before I make her shame public knowledge.”
“I call your bluff, your Grace,” Lady Townsend almost crowed with pleasure. “If you made this public, they would have to marry.”
“Madam. If this became public knowledge, your family would become social pariahs. I will hold back no facts in the re-telling of the whole story as I saw and heard everything.”
Max recalled Lady Townsend angrily badgering her father after Lady Celeste ran from the room. All to no avail. His father gave her no quarter and the Townsend’s left that very night.
He’d often wondered why Celeste had attempted such a desperate venture until his father quietly advised him, some months later, she’d been seen in Scotland, heavily enceinte with a child. That was when he realized how deep her treachery ran and how close she’d come to ruining his chance at happiness with his beloved Miss Darcy.
“I thought his membership was rescinded,” Nathan’s comment brought Max out of his reverie.
“Who?” Max twisted in his seat to glance around the room.
With a nod in the direction of the entrance, Nathan murmured, “Sir Reginald Slade.”
Slade picked his way through the crowd and joined two other men, known for their outlandish bets and gaming.
“The Marquis of Dorchester brought his membership up to scratch – he said he felt sorry for his circumstances.” George murmured quietly. “If Slade would quit the gaming hells, his circumstances wouldn’t be so dire.”
“I’m surprised Dorchester would do that, considering the old boy had been sniffing around the skirts of his betrothed, Lady Susan for the past six months.” Nathan settled back into his chair and sipped his drink.
“Anyone with eyes in their head knew Lady Susan’s only interest lay in the Lord Dorchester. Slade’s losing his touch if he thought he stood even a ghost of a chance.”
“That’s not all Slade’s lost,” George said. “I have it on good authority his estate is mortgaged to the rafters and all his holdings are nothing but vowels in the hands of those he’s wagered against and lost.”
“How do you find these things out?” Max leaned back in his chair and assessed his brother. Just as he surmised. Like a dog with a bone, nothing remained hidden when George decided to ferret out the truth. “You amaze me.”
“I may be out of the game, but I still know most of the players.”
“I for one am glad you are out of the game. It was by far too dangerous.”
Max nodded his head in agreement at Nathan’s words. George had played a very dangerous game indeed. For over five years he worked for the Crown as a spy, letting any and all believe he was a lecherous cad interested only in the next skirt he could lift. He’d played the part well, so much so even he and Nathan believed the worst of him, convinced his soul was on a perilous ride to an eternity in Hades. They’d had no clue he ruthlessly ferreted out those who would harm the King and Country, making numerous trips to Paris in disguise.
“Slade has made inquiries about Miss Darcy.”
“Miss Darcy!” Max almost choked on his brandy and a slight panic chased through his body.
“What type of inquiries, George?”
Thank heavens Nathan had the sense to ask.
“Her dowry and inheritance."
“I must warn Darcy of Slade’s intentions.” Max murmured.
“I’d offer to carry the message, but as you know I have a young wife waiting at our new house in Mayfair. I should not even be here with you tonight.”
“I’ll have a word with Darcy.” Max placed his snifter on the table and leveled a dark look at George. “Speaking of your new house in Mayfair, remind me to punish you for stealing my under butler.”
“Fields? I did not steal him, he volunteered.”
Nathan laughed outright and Max gave him a frustrated glare. Their youngest brother shrugged his shoulders and continued to grin.
“Poppycock.” Max continued. “Fields has been at Kerr house for almost fifteen years and with Benson nearing retirement, his promotion to butler was imminent. What incentive did you offer?”
“Nothing. I find all I have to do is introduce my beautiful wife and her grace and charm has everyone eating out of her hand within the hour. They adore her.”
“Who are ‘they’?” Nathan asked and given the tone, Max knew he was greatly amused.
“Well… Max might have to hire a new upstairs maid and a few footmen.”
“Would it help if I told you Fields promised to find another capable man to fill his shoes?”
“Good butlers are extremely hard to come by. You owe me, little brother.” Max signaled the majordomo to call for his carriage. “Give my newest sister a hug and say hello to all of my previous staff members who have joined you in your new home.”
“I shall, and I promise not to pilfer any more staff, although you do have a wonderful cook, and my Catherine loves her strawberry tarts…”
“No. Reconnoiter Nathan’s estate and leave mine alone.”
“I am not worried,” Nathan said with a laugh. “My staff are safely ensconced in Derbyshire, far from your wife’s charms.”
“Your carriage is ready, your Grace.” The majordomo bowed slightly and Max stood.
Even though it was not in fashion, they gave each other a brotherly hug. Max retrieved his cape and hat before proceeding out into the night, his carriage and driver waiting patiently.
“Where to, your Grace?” The driver asked.
Max entered the carriage closed the door and pondered on the news George had relayed. It bothered him that Sir Reginald Slade was actively gathering information on Georgiana Darcy. This could only mean one thing. When she made her debut, Slade intended to pursue her diligently. He must advise Darcy of Slade’s financial troubles. Once Darcy had all the facts, he’d move heaven and earth to protect his sister.
Max knew that between Darcy and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam she was not in any direct danger, however, he’d also maintain a quiet vigilance at social functions. He caught himself smiling. Watching out for Miss Darcy was not a new thing. In fact, quietly observing the beautiful, talented young woman had become second nature. A fact few people were aware.