Giles Everhart Langley—nineteenth Earl of Langley, tenth Marquess of Braymore—reclined against his chair. He fixed his gaze, not on Lord Farring at his left, nor on Lord Rayne at his right, but on the young Lord Markham, who sat opposite, completing their rakish quartet.
“Put down the card, Markham.”
Markham’s cheeks faded to white. He fingered the rough edge of his card. Anticipation burrowed under Braymore’s skin, buzzing with a hornet-hum. Then, Markham placed the ace of spades over his existing ten.
“Vingt-et-un! Devil take you, Markham.” Lord Rayne slammed his fist on the table. “You’ve won.”
“So it seems,” Markham said.
Lord Farring pulled his pipe from his mouth. “Unfold the vowel.”
“Yes,” Rayne said, “what item of singular value has Bray wagered?”
Markham met Braymore’s gaze. “You don’t seem nervous, Lord Braymore.”
“Go on.” Farring said with a wave of his pipe. “When has Bray ever betrayed his sentiments?”
“He’s a paragon of control,” Rayne added, “just like his departed father.”
“Secret bets were my suggestion,” Braymore said. “To begrudge them now would be,” he paused, “dishonorable.”
Markham rubbed his lip. “A damned odd way to play.”
“Hold your complaints and open the vowel, pup.” Rayne tossed back his remaining port. “You’ve been lucky enough to play a master and win.”
“Whatever Bray wagered,” Farring said with a chuckle, “is surely up-to-scratch.”
Braymore inhaled, letting the sting of Farring’s pipe-smoke linger in his lungs. Only everything he owned.
“Go ahead, Markham. My vowel is yours.”
“If he won’t read it,” Rayne said, plucking the correct sheet from the cuts of folded parchment carefully piled at the table’s center, “I will.”
Braymore stood. The deed was done.
“Gentlemen, I bid you goodnight,” he said. “Markham, we will discuss details on the morrow.”
Port sloshed over the rim of his glass as he pivoted. With long strides, he headed toward his study. His study, at least, for the remainder of the night.
He had executed everything just as he planned. Satisfaction, however, remained an elusive bitch.
Was planting a card cheating if one was playing to lose?
Damn the triumph-stealing question. Now was not the time for doubt. Not when he’d served justice. Finally.
His mother’s voice rang again in his ears.
Langley name and Braymore honor. You haven’t the right to forbid my marriage in their name, do you hear me? You are not the Marquess’s son. You may be Braymore by law…but not by blood. The power you wield like a weapon is a lie. My lie.
He’d recoiled, the shame of his secret bastardy stinging like a felon’s brand on his soul. Later, when she’d seen the devastating effects of her words, she’d tried to placate.
My husband was the last Braymore heir. Had I failed to bear a child, the title would have ceased. I had to conceive. You must understand.
But he couldn’t understand, any more than she could take back the terrible truth.
Langley name, Braymore legacy…those words had shaped every hour of his youth and every blood-soaked military battle of his dawning manhood. Long before he’d been fitted in the crimson velvet and white taffeta of the Braymore parliamentary robes, he’d been stitched into the privileges and encumbrances of the title—drilled to sacrifice for his name’s dignity and veneration.
Tonight, he’d made his greatest—and last—sacrifice. A return of the lands and holdings Markham, who, unlike Braymore, could truly claim Langley blood.
For months he’d haunted the rooms of Braymore Castle under the watchful eyes of portrait after portrait of venerated ancestors he could no longer claim, seeking a way to right his mother’s wrong and appease the hell-hounds her unburdened secret had set snapping at his heels.
From the start, his choices were few. No man could renounce a title. His mother had been married to the third marquess, in the eyes of the law, he was legitimate. However, the deed to Braymore Castle was fee simple and not entailed—in that, he his opportunity to make things right. So, he’d studied each of the tangled tendrils of the family tree. Though no heirs existed through the male line, four generations back, through the line of the fifteenth’s Marquess’ sister, a single branch had borne male fruit.
Tonight’s deception had been merely the means to reach an honorable end.
He emptied his glass and then rolled the stem between his fingers, waiting for a sense of rightness. None came.
Perhaps if he downed a drink more bracing than port…
The door swung open, clattering against the wall.
“Markham,” he barked. “Do you wish to begin examining the books straightaway?”
The young earl’s disordered hair framed eyes a-glow with speculation. “I should request you name your second.”
Braymore stilled a shiver of unease. “Pardon?”
“You heard me.” Markham closed the door. “You cheated. I have every right to call you out.”
“Cheating to lose? No one would believe such nonsense.”
“Nonsense,” Markham enunciated as he crossed the room. “Yes, such a thing would lack sense. But you, Lord Braymore, are in full possession of your faculties.”
“Insightful of you to notice.”
“You,” Markham pressed on, “are not acting like a man who just wagered everything and lost.”
“I have my honor.” Without name, without land, honor, in fact, was all he had.
“Please,” Markham said with a dismissive scowl. “I read the truth in your face. You knew I would draw the ace of spades. What I cannot understand is why you’d wager everything.” Markham shook his head. “For shame, Braymore. You have dependent tenants.”
Braymore narrowed his eyes, swallowing bile and the urge to thrash the ungrateful wretch.
God damn, he was well-aware of his tenants—as well as the servants who ran the various Braymore properties. He was attempting to ensure they all remained with a true, blood Langley…the family they’d been yoked to for centuries.
He was attempting to ensure he alone would live the lie.
“Your charge,” he said, “is absurd and insulting.”
“Absurd, insulting, and true,” Markham said.
“Come, Markham.” He fisted his hand against his desk. “Acknowledge your win. We all agreed to high stakes, no bank notes allowed.”
“Yes, but wagering the entire Braymore estate—castle, lands, and holdings—does not constitute high stakes! High stakes is what Rayne wagered—a pair of matched greys. Or Farring—a new phaeton. Or my own—a bloody box at the theater.” Markham stalked to the fireplace and threw in the vowel. Orange flames wrapped their fingers around Braymore’s black script. “That is what I think of your wager.”
Fissures snaked through Braymore’s infamous composure. Unprecedented. Unsettling. Not even when he’d learned the truth about his birth had he questioned the necessary actions he must take. He planted his feet farther apart on the rug and folded his hands behind his back, seeking the iron core he’d relied on then and during his military years.
“You cannot decline to win when you agreed to play. What if I had done the same—or Rayne or Farring?”
Markham matched his posture. “I did not agree to play with a cheat.”
“Take the deeds, would you?”
“If you force this point, I’ll let Rayne and Farring in on your rouse.”
For God’s sake, why? “I’ll not admit to cheating.”
“I’ll not accept your responsibilities.”
“We’ll settle your concern with another round, then,” Braymore bluffed. “…a cup and die, this time. The higher of two throws wins?”
Grim resolve settled behind Markham’s gaze. “No.”
Braymore studied the young earl, trying to unlock the source of his wholly unanticipated reaction. Figuring Markham’s angle was harder than playing chess blindfolded. Difficult, but not impossible.
“There is,” he said, “something you wish of me.”
“Payment I would accept comes to mind.” Markham’s color returned as quickly as it had disappeared—shades of crimson blossoming up from his cravat. He cleared his throat and began again in a changed tone. “When your mother wed again, the Braymore estate lost its chatelaine.”
Braymore could think of no reply fit for a civilized man’s ears.
“Correct,” he managed.
There was no longer a Marchioness of Braymore, Dowager or otherwise. His mother was now wed to a foppish fool—divorced, no less. Following her revelation of his parentage, Braymore had withdrawn his protest against her second marriage. He had, in fact, withdrawn from her entirely. If he could not speak to his mother with civility, he would cease speaking to her altogether.
After all, she’d gotten what she wanted for the mere cost of everything he held dear.
“I do not want your land,” Markham said. “But I do want you.” He took a sharp breath. “That is to say, I want you to offer for my sister.”
Markham’s demand physically arrested Braymore, leaving his mind free to tumble through the branches of the Langley family tree just as surely as he’d been shoved. Vaguely, he recalled finding Markham’s name scrawled between two women. He’d barely given them a glance.
“You decline all I possess,” his lips curled into a chilling version of a smile, “but wish to win me.”
“Well, yes.” Dawning assurance suffused Markham’s voice. “If I won by chance, you owe me. If I won because you cheated, you still owe me. Keep your lands. Take my sister.”
“Forgive me if I find betrothing myself to a woman sight-unseen just a touch unreasonable.”
“Forgive me if wagering one’s estate fails to scream reason.”
Braymore really did need that drink. He swiveled toward the cabinet and flung open the doors. Of course the single man with Langley blood would turn out to be a madman.
The crystal decanter clinked against the rim as he filled his glass.
Markham’s suggestion was ridiculous. It was beyond the pale. It was…
Whoa. The iron in him cooled, regaining its former strength. She had the blood-line. He had the name. If he married Markham’s sister, a child of their union would be both a legal and a rightful heir.
Braymore set down the decanter.
It was risky…and quite possibly brilliant. There must be a catch.
“Your sister, you say?” His hand was steady as he filled a second glass.
“I do not recall being introduced.”
“Likely, you were not. She’s been out of society for nearly five years. Surely you have heard of her.”
“Notorious, is she?”
“Beau Brummell deemed her the most unmarriageable lady in the kingdom.”
Braymore frowned as he handed Markham a drink. “Unmarriageable.”
“She is now,” Markham said with frustration, “all because of a quip from a valet’s son with an inflated opinion of his wit.”
“Brummel is the Prince Regent’s favorite. His quips have ruined many a peer.”
“Does his opinion really matter to you?”
“It matters if I am to marry her. Although the problem is not”—he paused— “insurmountable.” He raised a brow. “Is she hideous?”
The earl plucked a miniature from his waistcoat pocket and handed it to Braymore. “See for yourself.”
The painter captured a round, girlish face framed by a riot of barely-ribbon-tamed, amber waves. Her nicely proportioned nose sat above a wide mouth.
He lifted his quizzing glass, studying more closely.
…A wide mouth with plump, upturned lips made for kissing.
Braymore shrugged away the thought, letting his quizzing glass drop on its chain. The thought had been nothing more than a natural consequence of his long-time celibacy. More disquieting, however, was something else the painter had captured.
…She had the devil in her eyes.
“The likeness is remarkable,” Markham said.
“So she is not hideous,” he said. “She could, however, be mad.” Markham certainly seemed touched.
“Difficult, perhaps. A Bedlamite? No.”
“She is smart and competent but…” Markham flashed a hard look, “she can be contrary.”
He raised a single brow. Also not insurmountable. Doubtless, he’d be a more difficult mark than her younger brother.
“What prompted Brummel’s quip?”
“Broken betrothals,” Markham hesitated. “Three.”
Scandal. He hated it. And yet, he was mired to his neck and about to sink deeper.
“Groom number one: Septimus Chandler, the village vicar’s son.”
He raised his brows. “A step down.”
“A love match.”
As if there was such a thing. “Yet this love match failed to reach the altar.”
Markham swallowed. “He died.”
“Ah.” The tragic twist almost left him ashamed of his curt dismissal. Almost. “Groom two?”
“Lord Cartwright. On the eve of their wedding, Cartwright fought a duel to protect his mistress’s honor and then fled with said mistress to the Indies.”
“Unfortunate, but not of her doing. And the third?”
“By this time, my father was in the final stages of illness and desperate to secure Katherine’s future. He arranged a match with a widowed friend of his—Sir James Blighton.”
“She was not happy with the match?”
Markham shrugged. “She was resigned.”
…So not always contrary.
“Following the second reading of the banns,” Markham continued, “Blighton withdrew. He refused to give a reason for his action, so my father demanded—and he paid—an obscene amount for a pecuniary heart balm. The money is in trust, and she the beneficiary.”
Braymore closed his fingers around the miniature. Was Lady Katherine a victim of a bad run of luck, or was there a more sinister explanation?
“Perhaps she could have recovered,” Markham speculated, “were it not for Brummell’s quip.”
“It’s been five years, you say?” Braymore asked. “How has she passed the time?”
“She’s lived on Southford, our—” Marham cleared his throat “—that is to say my estate.” Markham looked into the fire, his distant expression a churning mix of frustration and affection. “In truth, I do not know what I would have done without her help. She raised our youngest sister and takes care of many estate concerns before they reach me. She even teaches weekly classes to the tenants’ children.” He turned back toward Braymore, worry in his brow. “But when I marry—and I must—she will lose all authority. If she stays, she’ll be in hell.”
“But,” Braymore finished the thought, “as the Marchioness of Braymore, she would have her own estate to manage.”
Braymore’s estimation of Markham rose. The pup hadn’t been trying to rid himself of the problem of a dependent sister—he’d been trying to secure her a utile future.
“She has agreed to your scheme, then?”
Markham paled again. “God, no! She’d be horrified. She has no respect for my position. I couldn’t make her listen if I tried.”
Wonderful. “So how, exactly, am I win her hand?”
“I…I thought you could return with me to Southford.”
“…and sweep your unwilling sister right off her spinster feet?”
Markham had grace enough to blush. “Something like that.”
Once again Braymore was trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. Then again, navigating between a rock and a whirlpool had become something of second nature. Without asking Markham if the miniature was his to keep, he slipped it into his waistcoat pocket.
A shiver snaked up his spine—fate’s blessing, or a warning? Either way, he hadn’t a better option than wooing Lady Katherine.
“I do not appreciate being manipulated.”
“But you will agree?” Markham asked.
“I’ll relieve you of your spinster sister—”
“Thank you,” Markham interrupted.
“On one condition,” Braymore continued. “Should the anticipated nuptials fail to happen, you will take possession of Braymore.”
“Because I honor my debts.”
“Very well, but it does not signify.” Markham swallowed. “You will succeed.”
Clearly, the earl was trying to convince them both.