“I NEVER touched that girl.” Alec looked from the girl in question to her father, whose triumph shone even through Alec’s drunken haze.
“That is neither here nor there,” Lord Winger said smugly.
“It is both here and… there,” Alec replied, then washed down his disgust at his own stupidity by taking another swig of brandy. It wasn’t very good—Napoleon’s continued escapades on the Continent made it difficult to obtain the better stuff—but it did its job, wrapping him in a warm, comfortable blanket of inebriation. “I don’t know how the girl came to be in my room, but I had no knowledge of it. Nor of her. And I have no wish to wed.”
“Your wishes have no bearing on the matter, my lord. You were discovered alone in your room with my Daphne, thereby thoroughly compromising her, and therefore you shall wed. We will work out the details of the engagement tomorrow morning,” Lord Winger said, holding out his hand to his daughter. When she hesitated, turning to Alec with apology in her large gray eyes, Lord Winger said her name, a note of warning in his tone. She scuttled over to him like the frightened rabbit she was.
The poor girl was being ground to dust in her father’s greedy grasp. Alec pitied her, but marriage to him would only make her life worse. He had always been quite clear about his wish to remain a bachelor. When the ton was being kind, they saw Alec Ferguson, Earl of Whittlesey, as an eccentric who preferred living on his own in the country. When the veneer of civility slipped, they called him a shameful, unsociable drunkard. They might have considered him a romantically tragic figure had he been more inclined to conversation or more handsome, but he kept his thoughts to himself. Whatever cleverness or wit he possessed tended to remain hidden behind his heavy brow, blunt nose, and square jaw. When he made the undesired yet necessary trips into London, he heard the whispers behind his back criticizing everything about him, from the amount of liquor he drank to how short and unfashionable his dark hair was. But he was most harshly judged for his refusal to do his duty to the title and seek out a wife to provide him with an heir.
Winger had commented on Alec’s bachelor state when Lady Caldwell had introduced them. “And this is Lord Winger’s daughter, Lady Daphne,” their hostess had told Alec in meaningful tones, fluttering with excitement as Winger pushed his daughter forward. Alec had smiled, bowed, then made his excuses and walked away, hoping Winger and Lady Caldwell would both take the hint.
Apparently he had vastly underestimated Winger’s desire to see his daughter married to an earl.
The whole situation made Alec want to kick himself—or better, Winger. Despite Winger dangling Daphne in front of him for two days, Alec hadn’t fully understood how far the man was willing to go. Had he understood, he would never have remained in the same house as Winger and his daughter. He would have kept a clearer head and not drunk so much wine at supper, so that he might have discovered the girl cowering in his room before her father burst in. However, he had dived into the bottle as usual, and now he had to find a way to extricate himself from the impending doom of marriage.
“There will be no engagement,” Alec growled, holding on to the bedpost for balance. “I can’t fathom why you want to tie your daughter to a drunkard in the first place.”
“A titled drunkard is better than a sober cit. You will request her hand tomorrow morning, my lord, or I will see to it that your reputation, and that of your family, is destroyed in the eyes of every member of society.”
“Even if you destroy your own daughter’s reputation in the process?”
“You won’t let that happen. Or rather, your mother will see to it that an innocent young girl’s life isn’t ruined.”
Alec gripped the bottle tightly to keep from throwing it at Winger’s head. “You would bring my mother into this?”
“Only as a last resort, you understand. Lady Caldwell told me that your mother would surely welcome your betrothal.” Winger smiled with no warmth, only smug satisfaction. “Shall we say ten o’clock, in the drawing room? Come, Daphne.” He opened the door, then took his daughter by the wrist and dragged her from the room without waiting for a response from Alec.
Alec slammed the door behind them and then sagged against it. He wanted nothing more than to leave that room, escape from the house entirely, but the corridor was crowded with other guests eager for some gossip that would make it worth their while to have left London at the height of the season. Lady Caldwell could not have foreseen such a shocking turn of events—or could she? Had she played a part in it?
He lifted the bottle and drained it, then stumbled to the wardrobe and dug through his clothes until he found the other bottle he had hidden there in case of emergency. If having an unwanted engagement foisted upon one wasn’t an emergency, Alec didn’t know what was.
After opening the bottle, he took a gulp, then went to listen at the door. Raised voices drove him, stumbling, away from the door and across the room, where he flung open the doors to the balcony and breathed in deeply.
Everyone knew about his drinking, but until now, he had managed to avoid any serious scandal. That would all end if he were forced into a marriage. His secret would surely be discovered, his family ruined. Alec himself would most likely be executed, thus leaving behind a rich widow. Alec tightened his fingers on the bottle. Perhaps Winger already knew about Alec’s curse and had arranged his daughter’s compromise with that end in mind.
Alec wracked his brandy-sodden brain for a solution, but none came to him. And none would, as long as he remained trapped in that house, feeling as if the walls were closing in on him. He had to get out… but not without the brandy.
He corked the bottle and put it inside his shirt as he stepped out onto the balcony. The vines that grew up the side of the house didn’t bend when he pulled on them to test their strength, so now he had only to climb down them. As children, he and his brother had been quite adept at using vines to sneak out of their nursery on moonlit summer nights. At twenty-eight, however, he was decidedly less agile than he had been as a child, and the brandy he’d drunk would not improve his agility.
Grasping the vines, he swung one leg over the railing. After finding a foothold, he swung his other leg over and started downward. Stretch out one leg, find a foothold, let go with a hand—Alec repeated the process until he got within ten feet of the ground. There, he let out an oath upon discovering the vines narrowed to a single trunk. Holding on to the lowest horizontal branches, Alec slid his feet down the trunk, said a quick prayer, then let go, landing with a thump and falling backward onto his posterior. Not dignified, but he made it to the ground without breaking his neck or the bottle.
He got to his feet, then staggered through the gardens, which were brown and dead-looking this time of year, casting glances over his shoulder to make sure no one had followed him. The winter chill nipped at Alec’s skin, but he didn’t regret leaving his overcoat in the house; he had the brandy to keep him warm. Alec remembered how he used to fasten Hugh’s cloak for him. Even in summer they had needed to wear them, at least until they reached the lake, where they kept warm by running along its muddy shore. Alec had taught Hugh early on that if they could keep from laughing until well away from the house—no mean feat—they would have hours to play in the night.
Alec left the gardens and moved into the trees at the edge of the Caldwell estate, then tripped over a tree root. “Damnation,” he muttered as he fought to keep his balance, and only by miraculous luck was he able to keep from falling or dropping the bottle. He continued more slowly, and after a good twenty minutes of bumping into trees and shrubs, he arrived at the lake.
The lake sat between his family’s estate and the Caldwells’; in fact, the far side was where he and Hugh had gone adventuring at night. They caught frogs and glowworms in one marshy corner, waded and splashed in the water, and tried, usually unsuccessfully, to skip rocks. They looked for animal tracks in the dirt, and if they remained quiet and still enough, the animals that left those tracks would come to the lake to drink. Deer, rabbits, and even badgers took no notice of the two boys hidden behind a large shrub or tree. The foxes were not fooled though. They came to the water’s edge warily, as if they knew intruders were about.
Alec stared at the water. Of course he would rather think about the past; his present was a disaster. He uncorked the bottle and took a long drink, and then he walked along the shore. When he found a comfortable, mossy patch of ground at the base of a tree, he sat down and let himself fall fully into the memory of the last time he and Hugh had visited the lake at night. As they headed home, they heard a noise behind them. When they turned to look, a fox stepped out from behind a tree. They stared at the animal, which stared back at them.
“Alec? Is it going to bite us?” Hugh asked, his voice quavering.
Alec made sure to keep his own voice steady when he replied, “No. It’s just curious. Let’s keep going.”
They turned away from the fox. Ten-year-old Alec pushed seven-year-old Hugh in front of him, and they began walking again. After a few feet, he looked over his shoulder and saw the fox was following them. He stopped and turned to face the animal.
Hugh stopped too. When he saw the fox, he let out a whimper, huddling close to Alec. Alec shushed him, then shouted, “Shoo!” at the fox.
The bold creature sat on its haunches and gave them a look as if to say, “Whose forest do you think this is?”
Alec took a step forward and stamped his foot on the ground. The fox blinked but remained where it was. “Let’s go,” Alec told Hugh, and they began walking again, moving quickly through the forest.
“Is it still there?” Hugh asked again. He sounded near tears.
“No, it’s gone,” Alec said.
But it wasn’t. The fox continued to follow them, keeping its distance but still too close for Alec’s comfort. “Keep going. We’re almost there,” he told Hugh, as he looked around for a rock to throw or a branch he could use to fight off the animal if he had to. It didn’t look vicious, and Alec was fairly certain that if he gave it a kick, he could at least stun it, giving Hugh time to run home, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
“Keep going,” he urged Hugh again. He was afraid if they ran, the fox would chase them down, so they walked as quickly as they could until finally, after what seemed like hours, they saw the windows of their house, glinting in the moonlight. “See, we’re here,” he said, trying to sound much calmer than he felt. They moved out of the trees and onto the lawn, Alec still pushing Hugh ahead of him. He glanced over his shoulder and nearly wept with relief when the fox stopped at the tree line. Alec walked backward toward the house, keeping his eyes on the fox until it turned and disappeared into the forest.
The boys didn’t sneak out to the lake again. Hugh had nightmares about the fox and ended up telling the whole story to their mother in great, gasping sobs. Their father spanked both of them, reprimanded their nursemaid, and had the vines outside the nursery windows cut down to make sure the boys wouldn’t transgress again.
In truth, Alec wasn’t unhappy about being caught. As if the incident with the fox hadn’t frightened him enough, a few days later the county buzzed with the story of a wild boy discovered in the forest not five miles from their home.
“They say Old Villainy wants to adopt him,” one housemaid told another as they hung laundry on the line while Alec and Hugh eavesdropped from behind a hedge. “Can you imagine, adopting a wild boy? They say he’ll likely kill the old man in his bed. Tear his throat out with his teeth.”
Hugh’s nightmares finally stopped just as Alec began to have his own, full of teeth and claws. He didn’t sleep peacefully through the night again until he returned to school at summer’s end.
Alec shook the memories from his mind and shifted on the ground, slurring a few profanities as moisture seeped through the seat of his trousers. Townsend would not be pleased. Then he laughed at himself. He had disappointed everyone else in his life. Why should his valet be exempt?
The brandy seemed to be losing its effectiveness. He wanted to rub his arms to warm himself, but he kept still, watching deer approach the water, their delicate hooves making almost no sound. Brown rabbits hopped forward to drink, then chased each other away. And finally, a fox arrived.
Just like the foxes of his childhood, the creature moved as if it knew Alec was there. However, unlike the animal that had frightened him and Hugh so long ago, this one’s fur was a pure, snowy white, glowing in the moonlight. Alec shivered, wondering if he was seeing a spirit, but when it lifted its leg against a bush, Alec knew the animal was real—no ghostly urine would give off such a strong scent.
When the fox finished relieving itself, it moved several feet from the sodden bush and then stopped when it saw Alec. The way it stared at him gave Alec the feeling the animal disapproved of his obviously drunken state. He couldn’t blame the fox; he knew it was bad form for a grown man to sit under a tree at night in the middle of winter, shivering, pouring bad brandy down his throat, and feeling his trousers becoming more damp and cold by the minute. “You don’t know the half of it,” he muttered at the fox. “You’d drink too, in my situation.” He looked down at the brandy he held loosely in one hand. “And if you could hold a bottle.”
On the one hand, the mildly drunken haze Alec had lived in for the past four years acted as a shield from the madness that threatened to overtake him. On the other hand, he hated himself for abandoning his responsibilities in favor of drink. Even Lord Winger’s wrath, if Alec refused to marry Lady Daphne, would not hurt his family as much as his own continually irresponsible behavior. Nevertheless, he could not stop.
As he lifted the bottle to drink again, he looked out over the lake, at its smooth, moonlit surface, and made a decision. Any man with one ounce of honor or courage would have dealt with his madness and his drinking long ago.
Well, better late than never.
He drank the last of the brandy and set the empty bottle aside. With drunk-clumsy fingers, Alec untied his cravat—the blue one he’d purchased several years earlier at the recommendation of Brummel himself, who had said, “It will draw the eye from your jawline and shoulders. You look more a pugilist than an earl.” After folding it neatly, he got to his feet, holding on to the tree for support. He tumbled over as he tried to remove his boots, so he remained sitting until he’d taken both of them off, as well as his stockings, then he stood again, and, leaning against the tree, removed his shirt and trousers. He dropped them onto the ground next to his boots and walked unsteadily down the bank, letting out a yelp when his foot touched the cold water.
An answering yelp came from a few feet away. Alec turned to see the fox still watching him, now with its mouth open in what looked like a canine grin. “Don’t you laugh at me,” he muttered.
Clenching his jaw, Alec continued deeper into the lake, the water coming up to his ankles, then his knees. The mud on the floor of the lake was warmer than the water and soft against the soles of his feet. He stopped for a moment, shivering, watching the reflection of the moon on the water broken up by the ripples he had made. He didn’t need to go any further; he could do it from here. Just lean forward, put his face into the water, and breathe deeply.
Drowning wasn’t the easiest way to kill oneself, but it was undoubtedly the tidiest.
It was really rather clever and considerate of him to end his life in a way that would cause the least amount of pain and disgrace to his family. A bullet to the brain was too unambiguous, but a man known to drink to excess, drowning after being mad enough to go for a swim in the middle of winter? Tragic, but accidental.
Alec took a deep breath of cold night air to prepare for doing the same in the water. He would breathe in the lake water, fight through the inevitable fear and panic, and let Death take him. It couldn’t be any worse than the fear and panic he lived with every day—fear that he would be found out, panic at the thought of losing control of himself and hurting someone. He couldn’t do it anymore. He would go on to a better place.
He took another deep breath, then another and another. “Almost there,” he whispered to himself, closing his eyes. The world drifted and fell away from him. He moved further into the lake, barely aware his smalls had become soaked with lake water, hardly noticing the cold, or the moon, or anything except that each step took him closer to the end of his problems… until his nether regions dipped into the cold water. Alec’s eyes flew open, and he let out another yelp.
This time the fox replied with a bark, a sharp sound that cut through the quiet night. The world that had fallen away now slammed back into place around Alec, and he let out an oath. Nothing ever went right for him.
He looked over his shoulder and saw the animal nosing about his clothes. “Get away from there,” he snapped.
The fox ignored him.
Alec turned and took a step back toward the shore. “Go on, shoo! Can’t you let me kill myself in peace?”
The fox looked up at him for a moment, and then it continued sniffing the clothes.
“I said get away!” Alec began walking out of the lake, the mud on its floor slowing his progress. The serenity of his heretofore-impending death was well and truly shattered, and his only desire now was to give the fox a swift kick.
The fox lifted its head, the cravat in its mouth.
“Oh no you don’t!” Alec tried to move more quickly, but his once-strong body had grown weak from years spent drinking in his library rather than playing cricket or riding in the countryside.
The fox turned and trotted away with the cravat.
When he finally got to shore, Alec gave chase. The fox dropped its prize and escaped into the woods.
Alec picked up the cravat. Stupid to have gone after it—he wouldn’t need a cravat once he was dead. But he liked this one. His mother had told him it brought out the blue in his eyes.
His mother. He squeezed the cravat in his fists. Whether by design or by accident, his death would hurt her. She would still have Hugh, Yvette, and little Geordie, but Alec knew his mother would feel his absence and end up blaming herself for his death.
Shivering, Alec dried himself as well as he could and dressed, then folded the cravat and tucked it into his pocket. He retrieved the brandy bottle, then made his way back to the house. A sleepy and surprised footman let him in, and he crept quietly up to his room without anyone seeing him, the gossip-hungry houseguests having retired to their rooms. Alec pushed the bottle under the bed with the others he had emptied during his stay, removed his clothing, including the cold, damp smalls, and then crawled under the duvet. As his body warmed, his mind turned to his failure at the lake. Apparently he wasn’t ready to shuffle off this mortal coil just yet, not if a stupid animal could distract him from the task. Just before Alec fell asleep, he wondered if Townsend knew how to get fox saliva out of silk and if anyone in the whole of England knew how to get an earl out of an engagement.
“YOU MUST be Whittlesey. Your mother said you were a drunkard.”
Alec opened his eyes with difficulty and tried to focus on the stranger who stood in the doorway. The man had brown eyes and a grin that turned into outright laughter when Alec’s eyes met his, and by God, no man with hair that red had any right to laugh at another.
“Unless you’ve brought my breakfast,” Alec growled, “I suggug—suggest you take yourself away from here.” He pushed himself into a sitting position, rubbed his eyes, and then picked up the glass of wine that sat on his bedside table.
“And just as rude as she said you would be.” The stranger shut the door, and then he walked around the bed, plucked the wineglass from Alec’s hand before he could drink from it, and carried it over to the dressing table. “Let’s take a turn about the gardens. It will clear your head.”
Insolent bastard. Alec thought it, even if he didn’t dare say it out loud. He didn’t know how much offense the epithet would cause, and he didn’t want the bother of a duel… although the man didn’t look to be the dueling sort. “Give me back my wine.”
“Come and get it.” The stranger stood in front of the dressing table and folded his arms across his chest. His hair, which fell nearly to his shoulders, appeared to have been tossed about by the wind, and his cheeks were pink, as if he had just arrived after a long journey on horseback. It was possible. Just because Alec couldn’t imagine rising before dawn, that didn’t mean others more energetic might not have done so. Flecks of mud dotted the man’s boots, and bits of leaf were caught on his close-fitting trousers and jacket, as well as in his dreadfully red hair.
Alec looked past the stranger to his glass of wine. It was mere feet away. All he had to do was get up out of his warm, comfortable bed, walk over to the dressing table, reach past this… this nuisance, and take it. The work of a moment, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to stand up. “Give me back my wine,” he said again, trying to add a threatening note to his tone.
Just as Alec gathered the energy to give the nuisance a tongue-lashing, there came a pounding on the door.
“I know you’re in there, Whittlesey!”
“Damnation,” Alec muttered, putting his head in his hands. He’d hoped the disaster with Lady Daphne had been a nightmare, but her father’s shout was all too real.
“It’s Winger, isn’t it?”
“What do you know of it?”
Instead of answering, the redheaded man strode over to the wardrobe and opened it, then threw a shirt and trousers at Alec. “Quickly, get dressed. I’ll handle Winger, and then you and I must speak privately as soon as possible.”
“I cannot dress with you here in the room—”
“Such modesty,” the stranger mocked, but he turned around to face the door.
Winger pounded on the door again. Alec threw back the duvet and sheets and dressed as quickly as he could, then snatched the glass of wine from the dressing table and gulped it down before the man could stop him. “I don’t understand why you’re here,” he grumbled as he pulled on his boots.
“I’ll explain everything to you later. Right now, let Winger in. I’ll deal with him. Wait….” He reached out and brushed his thumb across Alec’s cheek. “You had a smudge. All right, let him in.”
The impertinence of the man was beyond belief. His cheek tingling from where the man had touched it, Alec opened the door. Winger stood on the other side, his hand raised to knock again.
“It’s about time you showed your face,” Winger sneered. “I have the papers ready in the library, awaiting your signature.”
“What is he talking about, Whittlesey?” the stranger asked. His innocent tone contrasted sharply with the knowing look in his eyes.
Alec’s head was still in a jumble from sleep and last night’s brandy. He could think of nothing to say except the truth. “Lord Winger… claims I compromised his daughter and must now wed her. He’s already prepared the betrothal agreement.” Even those few words exhausted him, and he sagged against the doorframe.
The redhead’s eyes widened. “Well, obviously there has been a misunderstanding,” he said, turning to Winger. “Whittlesey would not compromise any young lady, and he cannot enter into an engagement with your daughter.”
“And why, pray tell, would that be?” Winger glared up at the man.
“Because he is already engaged to my sister.”
It took all of Alec’s will not to show any surprise at the comment. He could tell Winger didn’t believe it.
“And who are you, sir?”
“An old friend of the family.”
Winger looked at Alec for confirmation. Alec nodded, even though his head spun with confusion.
Winger appeared to think that over for a few seconds, and then he rounded on Alec again. “You told me last night that you had no wish to wed.”
“Obviously he was referring to women other than his betrothed,” the stranger interjected, earning a glare from Winger.
“And when did this engagement take place? I have seen no notice in the newspapers.”
The stranger blinked, looking from Winger to Alec. “No notice? Whittlesey, never tell me that your man of affairs forgot to contact the papers! That’s the third task he’s botched in as many weeks. You simply must dismiss him.”
Alec had no words. Thankfully he didn’t need any, as Winger burst out angrily, “What about the matter of my daughter’s honor?” His face flushed red under his white hair.
The stranger took another step forward, using his superior height to his advantage. “Lord Winger, is it?” he asked in a low voice. “I know for a fact that you were the one who inserted your daughter into Whittlesey’s room.”
“That is not—”
“I have a witness to it. Furthermore, if you insist on pressing your claim against the earl, I—or rather, he—will have no choice but to go public with that information. It would be a matter of minutes to place the engagement notice in the papers and, at the same time, arrange for the paper to publish the facts of your callous disregard for your own daughter.”
Winger grew red, then redder, then spun on his heel and left the room. Alec watched him go, then turned disbelieving eyes on the stranger.
“I would never make this matter public. I won’t allow you to do so, either. It would ruin Lady Daphne.”
“Of course you wouldn’t. I know that. But Winger doesn’t.” He smiled. “Let’s take that walk now, shall we?” He held up Alec’s jacket.
Alec stared for a moment, then allowed the stranger to help him into it.
“It’s going to be a bit chilly without an overcoat, but that’s for the best,” the stranger said, taking Alec’s arm and pulling him from the room.
“Let go of me.” Alec jerked his arm free, lost his balance, and fell against the wall.
“Still drunk from last night’s wine?” The man put one of Alec’s arms over his shoulders, and then practically dragged him along the corridor, down the back stairs, and out of the house before Alec could find his tongue.
The cold air slapped at Alec’s face. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Morgan Villenie. I’m here to help you.”
The name seemed familiar; however, Alec couldn’t concentrate with this stranger grabbing at him. “I don’t need help.” He punctuated the statement by removing his arm from Villenie’s shoulders and then disproved it by starting to topple. Villenie caught him, worked his way underneath Alec’s arm again, and pulled him tight against his side.
“I should think you do, if that scene upstairs was any indication. Your mother is the one who is concerned about you, and from what I can see, I agree with her.” He hurried Alec along the gravel path. “Some fresh air and a chat, then breakfast, then we’ll talk more. How does that sound?”
“Miserable.” Alec tried to pull free from Villenie’s grip, but the man was stronger than his lean frame suggested. “Let go of me, you blackguard! And how do you know my mother?”
“All in good time.” When they had moved away from the house, Villenie loosened his grip and slowed his step, allowing Alec to get his feet under him. “Better?”
“No.” Although the air and the walk had cut through the effects of the brandy, he wouldn’t give Villenie the satisfaction of knowing how good it felt. “Let me go.” He tried once again to pull away.
“If you promise you won’t run away or fall over. We’ve got to talk, and I thought you’d want this conversation to take place away from other ears.” He allowed Alec to move away and slowed his pace.
“It’s cold,” Alec complained, looking back at the house. It wasn’t as cold as it could have been; they were having an unusually mild winter, but Alec knew, somehow, he would not like what Villenie had to say.
“We won’t stay out long. But I do need to speak to you about your marriage.”
“My marriage?” Alec’s wits had now fully returned to him. “There is no marriage, nor will there be.” He hesitated, then added, “I suppose I must thank you for that.”
Villenie shook his head. “That’s not what I meant, although I was more than happy to help. I’m speaking of the fact that you are unmarried, and not even engaged to be wed. That’s the problem. Your mother has sent me to remedy the situation, since you won’t discuss it with her. She seems to think I will be able to convince you.”
“No.” Alec stopped. “You will explain yourself, now. Who are you, and why have you come here?”
Villenie’s narrow, freckled face split in a grin. “I’m the man who’s going to solve all your problems.”