Page 17

His conscience prodded him to go to Penelope. He knew his display of drunken rage had frightened her. Mounting the stairs, Alex vowed that from now on he would be the soul of patience. He would do all within his power to please Penelope. A vision of his future with her stretched before him—long, civilized, predictable years. A bleak smile curved his lips. Anyone would agree that marrying Penelope was the right thing.

As he neared her room, he heard the sound of heart-broken weeping, and a voice so vibrantly passionate that for a split-second he thought it was Lily. But the tones were softer and higher than Lily’s. “I love him, Mother,” Penelope sobbed. “I’ll love Zachary forever. If only I were brave like Lily! Then nothing would have stopped me from going to him.”

“There, there,” came Totty’s soothing voice. “Don’t say such things. Be sensible, darling. As Lord Raiford’s wife, your future—and that of your family—will be secured forever. Your father and I know what’s best for you. And so does Lord Raiford.”

Penelope’s sobbing continued unabated, though she managed to gasp, “I don’t th-think so.”

“I’m right about these matters,” Totty continued. “This is all your sister’s doing. I love Wilhemina dearly—you know that—but she’s never satisfied until she’s made everyone miserable. We owe Lord Raiford an apology. That well-bred, even-tempered man…I can scarcely believe the state Lily has put him in! We should never have allowed her to stay.”

“She was right about everything,” Penelope choked. “She knew how Zachary and I love each other…oh, if only I weren’t such a c-coward…”

Alex walked away, his fists clenched. A self-mocking smile crossed his face. He would have liked to blame Lily, as Totty did, but he couldn’t. The fault was all his, springing from his shattered self-control, the reawakened appetite for something he could never have.

During the ride to London, Henry seemed to consider it necessary to recount every kind and selfless thing Alex had ever done for him, dating back to his infancy. As a captive audience, Lily had no choice but to listen. She endured it with what she considered to be remarkable forbearance. As he lounged on the carriage seat opposite her, Henry described the time when he had been caught up a tree and Alex climbed up to rescue him, and the way Alex had taught him to swim in the lake, not to mention the countless afternoons when they had played soldiers together, and Alex had helped him learn his numbers…

“Henry,” Lily finally interrupted. She smiled and spoke through gritted teeth. “I have the impression you’re trying to convince me of something. Is it that your brother isn’t nearly the heartless brute he seems to be?”

“Yes, that’s it,” Henry said, looking impressed with her astuteness. “Exactly! Oh, I know how Alex comes off at times, but he’s a capital fellow. Hang me if he ain’t.”

Lily couldn’t help smiling at that. “Dear boy, it doesn’t matter what I think of your brother.”

“But if you knew Alex, really knew him, you’d like him. Tremendously.”

“I don’t intend to know any more of him than I already do.”

“Did I tell you about the puppy he gave me for Christmas when I was seven and—”

“Henry, is there any particular reason you’re so determined that I should like your brother?”

He smiled and averted his blue eyes, seeming to consider his answer carefully. “You’re going to stop Alex from marrying Penelope, aren’t you?”

Lily was perturbed. Wryly she thought that she’d made the same mistake most adults did, underestimating a child’s intelligence. Henry was a perceptive boy. Of course he would have grasped the situation between his brother and the Lawsons. “What gave you such an idea?” she parried.

“You’re all very noisy when you argue,” Henry informed her. “And the servants have been talking.”

“Would you be sorry if I did stop the wedding?”

The boy shook his head. “Oh, Penelope’s all right. As far as girls go. But Alex doesn’t love her. Not like…”

“Caroline,” Lily said flatly. Each time the blasted woman’s name was mentioned, she felt an unpleasant stabbing sensation. What had been so bloody marvelous about Caroline that Alex had gone so mad over her? “Do you remember her, Henry?”

“Yes, quite well. Though I was just a boy then.”

“And now you’ve reached the grand old age of…what is it, eleven? Twelve?”

“Twelve,” he said, grinning in response to her teasing. “You’re rather like her, you know. Except you’re prettier. And older.”

“Well,” Lily said wryly, “I hardly know whether to be flattered or offended. Tell me what you thought of her.”

“I liked her. Caroline was a lively girl. She never made Alex angry like you do. She made him laugh. He hardly ever laughs now.”

“A pity,” Lily said absently, remembering Alex’s brief, dazzling smile when they played cards in the gallery.

“Are you going to marry Derek Craven?” Henry asked diffidently, as if the matter were of merely academic interest.

“Good God, no.”

“You could marry Alex, after you get rid of Penelope,”

A laugh burst from Lily’s lips. “Get rid of her? Heavens, you make it sound as if I’m going to dispose of her in the Thames! First of all, my dear, I don’t intend to marry anyone, ever. Second, I don’t even like your brother.”

“But didn’t I tell you about the time when I was afraid of the dark and Alex came to my room and told me—”

“Henry,” she said in a warning voice.

“Just let me finish this one story,” he insisted.

Lily groaned and settled back, resting her head against the morocco sleeping cushion while the list of Raiford’s virtues continued.

Derek and Worthy bent over the desk in the central gaming room. The mahogany surface was covered with a multitude of notes concerning preparations to be made for the upcoming masked assembly. The only thing they had agreed on was that the gambling palace should be decorated to look like a Roman temple. Derek wanted the ball to reflect the grand decadence of the Roman civilization at its zenith. Unfortunately he and Worthy had conflicting ideas on how the effect should be achieved.

“Awright, awright,” Derek finally said, his green eyes glinting with exasperation. “You can ’ave the columns an’ silwer swags ’angin off the walls—but that means I gets my way about the wenches.”

“Painting them all white and draping them in sheets to resemble statues?” Worthy asked skeptically. “What would they do for the entire evening?”

“Stand on their bloomin pedestals!”

“They wouldn’t be able to hold their poses for longer than ten minutes.”

“They does what I pays ’em for,” Derek insisted.

“Mr. Craven,” Worthy said, his usually calm voice edged with frustration, “even if your idea were feasible, which it is not, I believe it would lend the event a tawdry and lurid atmosphere not in keeping with the usual standards at Craven’s.”

Derek frowned. “What the ’ell does that mean?”

“He means,” Lily’s laughing voice came from behind them, “that it would be outside the bounds of good taste, you lowbrow cockney.”

Derek’s dark face lit with a smile as he turned to see Lily standing there. Dressed in a lavender gown embroidered with silver thread, she resembled a dainty confection. Lily launched herself at him, laughing as he swung her around and set her on her feet.

“ ’Ere’s Miss Gypsy, back from the country,” Derek said. “Did you give Raiford ’is come-uppance?”

“No,” Lily replied, rolling her eyes. “But I’m not through with him yet. She gave a sigh of pleasure at being in the familiar atmosphere of the club, and beamed as she caught sight of the factotum. “Worthy, you handsome devil. How have things been without me?”

The small, bespectacled man smiled. “Only tolerable. You are a welcome sight as always, Miss Lawson. Shall I order something from the kitchen?”

“No, no,” Lily said immediately. “Monsieur Labarge will want to stuff me with all his latest puddings and pies.”

“You needs it,” Derek commented. “No bigger than a titmouse. Come ’ere.” He slid an arm around her narrow shoulders and walked her to a private corner. “You looks like ’ell,” he remarked.

“That seems to be the general opinion today,” she said dryly.

Derek’s sharp gaze detected the feverish brightness of her eyes and the pinched look about her a mouth. “What’s the matter, lovey?”

“Raiford turned out to be impossible,” Lily replied briskly. “I’m resorting to drastic measures.”

“Drastic,” he repeated, watching her closely.

“To begin with, I’ve abducted his younger brother.”

“What?” Derek followed Lily’s pointing finger until he saw the handsome blond boy waiting at the far end of the room. The lad was turning a slow circle, viewing the opulent surroundings with wide eyes. “ ’Oly ’ell,” Derek breathed in amazement.

“Holy,” Lily corrected, and looked at him with a sort of sheepish defiance. “I’m setting a trap for Raiford. Henry’s the bait.”

“Jayzus, you done it this time,” Derek marveled softly, in a tone that sent a chill down Lily’s spine.

“I want you to keep Henry for me, Derek. Just for one night.”

All the friendly concern faded from Derek’s face. He gave her a frosty stare. “I never lets chiwdren in my club,”

“Henry’s an angel. He won’t give you any trouble.”

“No.”

“At least come and meet him,” Lily pleaded.

“No!”

“Please, Derek.” She tugged at his arm. “Henry’s been so excited at the prospect of meeting you. He considers you the most important man in England, aside from the king.”

Derek’s eyes narrowed.

“Please,” she wheedled.

“Awright,” he finally said. “I says ’ello, then ’e’s off.”

“Thank you,” Lily said, bestowing several approving pats on his arm.

Muttering under his breath, Derek allowed her to pull him to the doorway, where Henry was waiting. “Mr. Craven,” Lily said, “I would like to present Henry, brother of the earl of Raiford.”

Adopting his most courteous smile, the one usually reserved for visiting royalty, Derek gave Henry an elegant bow. “Welcome to Craven’s, milord.”

“It’s even better than I imagined,” Henry exclaimed. He seized Derek’s hand and shook it vigorously. “Smashing! Capital!” He left them and searched the room like an inquisitive puppy. His small hand dipped into a bowl of cribbage-counters, then traced the elaborate backs of the Empire-style chairs. He approached the hazard table as reverently as if it were a shrine.

“Does you play?” Derek asked, vaguely amused by the boy’s enthusiasm.

“Not well. But Miss Lawson’s teaching me.” Henry shook his head in wonder. “I can’t believe I’m here. Craven’s. Damn and blast, what it must have taken to build this place!” He regarded Derek with an awestruck expression. “You’re the most amazing man I’ve ever met. Only a genius could have done this.”

“Genius,” Derek snorted. “Not by ’alf.”

“But you are,” Henry insisted. “To think of starting with nothing and going so far above your buttons…Craven’s is the most famous club in London. Hang me if you ain’t a genius! Me and the fellows at school, we all admire you more than any man alive!”

Lily thought that Henry was laying it on a bit thick.

Derek, on the other hand, was warming rapidly to the boy. He turned to Lily with a pleased expression. “Certainly no cock-brain, this one.”

“I’m just repeating what everyone says,” Henry said sincerely.

Suddenly Derek gave him a hearty clap on the back. “Bright as a new copper,” he said. “Fine boy. Come with me, you little cheeser. I ’as some comely wenches for you to meet.”

“No, Derek,” Lily warned. “No dice, drinking, or women for Henry. His brother would have my head.”

Derek looked down at Henry with a crooked grin. “What, does she think this ’ere is, a bloody nunnery?” He dragged Henry away with him, assuming a lecturing tone. “Finest girls in England I ’as. There’s no man what’s ever got crinkums or the clap from my wenches…”

Lily and Worthy exchanged rueful glances. “He likes the boy,” Worthy commented.

“Worthy, don’t let anything happen to Henry. Keep him out of sight. He can amuse himself with a deck of cards for hours at a time. Make certain he’s not corrupted or harmed in any way.”

“Certainly,” the factotum assured her. “When would you like him returned?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Lily sighed thoughtfully, her forehead puckered in a frown.

In a courtly manner Worthy crooked his elbow. “I’ll escort you to your carriage, Miss Lawson.”

Lily slipped her hand through his arm. “By this time Lord Raiford should be quite frantic, wondering where Henry is.”

“Did you leave him a note?” Worthy inquired matter-of-factly.

“No, the earl’s no fool—it won’t take long for him to figure out what became of Henry. He’ll be in London by nightfall. And I’ll be ready for him.”

Whether Worthy approved or not, he showed her the same loyalty he gave to Derek. “How may I be of assistance?”

“If by chance the earl shows up here first, direct him to my terrace. You must keep Henry hidden from him, or my plan will be ruined.”

“Miss Lawson,” the factotum began respectfully, “I consider you to be one of the most valiant women I’ve ever known—”

“Why, thank you.”

“—but are you quite certain you know what you’re doing?”

“Of course I do!” A smile of pure delight spread across her face. “I’m in the process of teaching Lord Raiford a lesson he’ll never forget.”

When Henry’s absence was noted and the search for him began, one of the housemaids revealed that she had seen the young master conversing with Miss Lawson shortly before her departure. The driver returned from London, and was startled to be on the receiving end of a barrage of questions. He admitted he had not seen Master Henry entering or leaving the carriage, but Henry was an agile lad and could have maneuvered about undetected. Alex was certain his brother was with Lily. The blasted woman had taken Henry with her, in order to make him come to London. Well, he would go and take the city apart, brick by brick. He couldn’t wait to reach her…and make her rue the day she had decided to cross him.

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***