The Earl's Revenge
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by Allison Lane
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: The Earl of Bridgeport plots the perfect revenge for Elaine Thompson, the insignificant chit who left him standing at the altar, tarnishing his reputation. But Elaine doesn't cooperate, instead initiating a battle of wits that threatens to destroy them both. Will she discover his deepest secret, or will he uncover hers? Regency Romance by Allison Lane; originally published by Signet
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1997
eBookwise Release Date: October 2005
94 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [331 KB]
Reading time: 213-299 min.
"What do you mean, she isn't here!" Lord Grimfield slammed both fists onto the breakfast table, bouncing two knives onto the floor. "We leave in two hours."
"I'm sure ... I mean ... I d-don't know ... my palpitations ... vinaigrette!" His gray-haired aunt squeaked and stammered until Grimfield's red face turned purple. "There is n-no one in her room," she finally managed through chattering teeth as a footman waved smelling salts under her nose.
"Nonsense!" He glared at the rigidly composed butler. "Summon my daughter immediately."
Miss Thompson slumped further into her chair and grasped the vinaigrette for herself, inhaling deeply.
Fifteen furiously silent minutes later, the butler returned. "Miss Mary is not in the house."
Lord Grimfield loomed over his hapless aunt. "What kind of establishment do you run that you can misplace an innocent girl?"
"P-perhaps Mary just stepped out for a b-breath of air," she suggested, paling before his black glare. The vinaigrette waved faster.
"Her maid is also missing," reported the butler, not mentioning that the front door had been unlocked when he arose that morning. Miss Mary was sweet and thoughtful--a favorite among the servants. Lord Grimfield, on the other hand, was a pompous bore who had complained unceasingly since his arrival the previous afternoon.
"I want a thorough search from attic to cellar," ordered his lordship.
The house was not large; the search took only half an hour. Another hour turned up no one in the neighborhood who admitted seeing either Miss Mary or her maid.
"What are we to do?" moaned Miss Thompson, wringing her hands between sips of weak tea.
"Imbecile!" snapped Lord Grimfield. "I should have known better than to trust my daughter to the care of a stupid woman. You are too incompetent to look after yourself, let alone a seventeen-year-old girl. What was my father about to let you live in London alone? The man should have been locked in Bedlam."
"How can you t-talk about dear Arnold that way?" she wailed. "My b-brother had nothing to say about my care. I lived with my aunt, God rest her soul."
"God won't. She was a cursed sinner, wasting her life on immoral frivolity and ignoring her responsibilities. And you are no better! Why did I not insist on my sister's escort? She is the only reasonable female I have ever met!"
"Fanny would have been a most unsuitable chaperon!" Miss Thompson stormed, his implacable antagonism triggering her temper. "She is as ignorant of town as you. Poor Mary was as gauche and untutored a girl as I have ever seen, lacking even the rudiments of female accomplishments. I am amazed she lasted the month without creating a scandal. She hasn't the slightest idea how to go on in society, as must be obvious from this current start. Oh, how are we to find her?"
"We aren't," he announced. "She has abandoned her duty, repudiating both family and God. I want nothing more to do with her."
"B-but how do you know she left of her own free will? There was no note, and all her p-possessions remain upstairs."
"You are hysterical to suggest anything so ridiculous. Who could want so disobedient a chit?" He scribbled a message and summoned a footman. "Deliver this to Bridgeport House. It is now their problem. I refuse to be tarnished by the girl's sins."
"Sins?" squeaked Miss Thompson. "How dare you! I have never seen a more pious young lady."
"Honor thy father," he quoted grimly. "One of the ten commandments. Children, obey your parents-- That exhortation appears more than once. She will fry for all eternity. As for you, Aunt Mabel, you should consider blessed are the meek. Your unholy tendency to criticize your betters and argue with your superiors will guarantee that you spend the hereafter with my former daughter." With that, he called for his luggage. In half an hour, he was gone. * * * *
Viscount Staynes kept an expression of expectant pleasure on his face with considerable effort. He had no interest in the current proceedings, wanting nothing more than to attend the morning's auction at Tattersall's.
This is your duty, he reminded himself. Thinking of other activities was pointless, for it only increased his annoyance. Amusement flickered in his eyes when he remembered the surprise that awaited his mother, but it quickly passed. Ennui returned.
Where was the stupid chit? He had heard that it was fashionable to be late for one's wedding, but Miss Thompson was not a fashionable female. And ten minutes was beyond enough. He tried to deflect his growing irritation by reviewing his plans for the future.
It didn't help.
The voices behind him buzzed louder as speculation intensified. Bishop Ramsey clicked open his watch. A quarter past eleven. Staynes grimaced.
Sudden silence assaulted his ears. The rustle of five hundred people shifting in their seats echoed from the vaulted roof. He produced a smile for his bride and turned, but saw only growing fury in his mother's eyes and trepidation in his father's that changed to stark terror as a Bridgeport footman hurried up the aisle, a folded piece of paper clutched in one hand. The bishop glanced at the note, then passed it to Staynes.
A giant fist landed in his stomach, driving all the air from his lungs. His eyes hardened into green ice, an angry flush galloping up his face to merge with his russet hair. By God, she would pay for this!
Ignoring even his best friend, he strode out a side entrance.
"There will be no wedding today," announced the bishop. Abandoning his dignity, he beat a hasty retreat lest the Countess of Bridgeport vent her considerable spleen on his ears. * * * * Chapter One
Dear Mr. Thornton,
Regrettably, Mr. Beringer will be unable to accept your commission as he died Thursday last. Enclosed herewith are all materials belonging to you that were in the possession of my client at the time of his demise.
Andrew Holyoke, solicitor
"Hell and damnation!" muttered Thornton, glaring at the letter clenched in his left hand. It was dated two months earlier. Why had it not been forwarded until now?
He strode furiously about the room, kicking aside a footstool with such force that it smashed into the wall. His publisher had been unenthusiastic about this project from the beginning, citing excessive costs and a limited market. A conservative who abhorred risk-taking, the man would undoubtedly pounce on this disaster as an excuse to proceed in his own way.
But the attached note removed that fear, not that it improved his temper any. Murray declared that Mr. Beringer's assistant, Mr. M. E. Merriweather, was equally talented, as the enclosed sketches would prove.
A louder and more graphic string of curses bounced off the library walls. Damned officious toad! Murray must have known of this problem for weeks. What gave him the right to consult another artist without even discussing it? And an unknown at that!
Unfortunately, Thornton knew the answer. That was the publisher's business. But Murray's timing for finally revealing Beringer's death was execrable. He could not possibly visit the man for at least two days. Thornton frowned at the packet that had accompanied the letters. Dared he trust an illustrator he had never heard of? This was the culmination of a dream he had nourished for years. Failure was unthinkable.
He threaded long, slender fingers through his hair, disturbing the artfully arranged curls. Writing was an essential part of his life. Starting while still in school, he had published articles of many types under a variety of names, but his greatest love was poetry. And he was good at it, though stating that fact sounded odiously conceited. His first book of verse had been acclaimed three years before. The second had enjoyed even more success, especially among the members of London society, which was why Murray had agreed to his ideas for the third.
Several years earlier Thornton had come across a folio of lavishly illustrated verses by Blake, titled Songs of Innocence and Experience. Blake was an artist as well as a poet and had done everything himself, including inventing an illuminated printing process that quickly etched both the illustrations and the text on a single plate, thus reducing the cost of printing. Very few people knew of his efforts, however, for the meticulously hand-tinted folio had been privately published twenty years earlier. Ruinously expensive, it had found a limited market. And not just because of the cost. While Blake had long made his living as an illustrator, his literary work had been little known, his verse only now being recognized. But current volumes lacked illustrations.
Though Blake's poetry was very different from Thornton's, the existence of his folio had provided the later poet food for thought. His own verse, which extolled the power and majesty of natural forces, was ideally suited to visual imagery. Suppose he published an illustrated version for sale to the upper reaches of society. It would not replace the regular volume, which would be priced to sell to a broader audience, but the special edition would provide an extra cachet lacking in the works of other writers.
Without resorting to arrogance, he believed that his name was sufficiently respected to make such a venture profitable despite its high production costs. He would avoid the mistake of using color, of course. That could be added if a demand arose for prints of individual pages.
He had carefully honed the idea, working out details and devising rebuttals for the anticipated objections. When his second volume achieved such success, he had broached the subject to Murray.
Thornton was even more adamant about the project now, for Byron had just burst into fame. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, with its worldly and self-destructive hero, was very different from his own work--indeed more than a little autobiographical if rumor was correct--but Thornton needed to return the public's attention to himself.
Laying the letters on his desk, he sighed in frustration. Beringer had been a lauded illustrator for many years and would have made a perfect collaborator. But the man was now dead. Could anyone really expect an unknown assistant to produce the quality he demanded? Would the special volume sell without the attraction of an established artist?
Reluctantly, he opened the package and pulled out two pieces of parchment, resigned to abandoning his grandiose ideas.
Five minutes later he was staring in wonder. Murray was right. It would do. It would more than do. Merriweather was a genius. This was even better than he had envisioned. It was better than what Blake had achieved, the artwork enhancing the verse by providing an imaginative extension of his words, finding nuances in his ideas that he had not thought of himself--almost as if the artist had crawled inside his head. It was amazing.
Rapidly scribbling a note of acceptance, he summoned his secretary. "Take this to Murray, Cramer. You may be cautiously enthusiastic." He slid the illustrations across his desktop.
"Exquisite," agreed Cramer.
"While you are out, you can deliver these." He pulled two packages from a drawer. The one addressed to the Times contained Mr. Germain's analysis of the effect on the French army in Spain of Wellington's recent victory at Ciudad Rodrigo. The other, to Life in London, was Mr. Anstey's satirical tale detailing the latest adventures of that fictional dandy, Sir Godfrey Fishface. "By the way, my appreciation of Merriweather is tempered by irritation at Murray's high-handedness as shown by the long delay in bringing this problem to my attention."
"And perhaps you could spend the rest of the day finishing that research we discussed last week."
The secretary grimaced at his employer's familiar impatience and departed.
Examining the sketches one last time, the poet locked them securely in his desk, not wanting curious maids to see them. Or even the butler. Only Cramer was privy to his literary life.
Whistling a jaunty tune, he smoothed his hair, resumed his public identity, and headed for Jackson's. He had a full day planned. * * * *
"Beautiful hit!" Harold Parrish pounded the Earl of Bridgeport enthusiastically on the shoulder. "Only you could land a facer on Jackson himself."
"Don't be absurd," scoffed the earl. "And what has prompted this sudden burst of conviviality?" His cousin Harold had never been so affable in all his three-and-thirty years.
"Can't a fellow congratulate you without prompting a miff?"
"Of course. I accept your good humor and your accolades, and will stifle this nagging voice that claims you are trying to turn me up sweet." He moved away to converse with the other spectators who had crowded into the largest of the pugilist's sparring rooms. Jackson's practice of personally going a few rounds with the best of his pupils kept the rest eagerly returning for instruction.
An hour passed before Harold again approached the earl. Bridgeport had dressed and was striding down St. James's Street.
"Some friends would like to meet you," Harold commented.
"Why?" Bridgeport stared at his cousin. The dandy's extravagant cravat forced his chin high into the air. It must have taken all of thirty minutes to squeeze his frame into the bright green coat, and as many more to stuff him into the yellow pantaloons. The fancy wardrobe was one of the reasons Harold was usually under the hatches, though not the only one. He also had a penchant for gaming hells and unwise investments.
"They are founding a company to provide deluxe passenger service on the canal system and are looking for influential backers. After spending several weeks investigating their plans and interviewing both operators and potential users, I am convinced it must reap large profits." He chattered for several minutes about the details, ignoring Bridgeport's silence and the fury growing in his eyes. "So you see, it is a foolproof investment. I trust we can count on your support."
"How much are you staking?"
"Very little," he admitted. "Things are at low water just now. But perhaps you can loan me enough that I can buy shares."
"Finance is not something I know much about," began the earl.
"I know, but I have already checked all the facts," interrupted Harold.
"If you want my backing, you will have to convince my man of business. His decision is final. But I should warn you that he believes canal enterprises have already peaked. The future will belong to rail-type machines like Trevithick's steam engine."
"But that is absurd!" protested Harold.
"Nevertheless, I trust Nelson's judgment, which is why I employ him. Without his endorsement, I will back nothing." He turned into White's, leaving a furious Harold standing on the sidewalk. * * * *
The Marquess of Carrington was also annoyed with a cousin. "That is the fourth idiotic wager you have lost this week, Reggie. At this rate, you will drown in the River Tick by the end of the month, and your father will cut up my peace with complaints for the next ten years."
"You ain't responsible for me," snorted Mr. Taylor.
"That's not what my uncle will claim. Do try to bring a little sense to your capers, for my sake if nothing else." They sauntered along St. James's Street, the afternoon brightening as the sun peeped through a crack in the clouds.
"Who would have thought that anyone possessing the sobriquet of The Curst Lord could land a flush hit on the great Jackson!" mourned Reggie.
"Obviously you know nothing of either Jackson or Bridgeport." Carrington shook his head. "At least learn the facts before you accept a wager. Greenlings like you are ripe for plucking by every sharp in town. Did they teach you nothing at that backwater school of yours?"
"More than you learned at yours!" Reggie glared at his cousin, forgetting for a moment the studied boredom all gentleman should radiate. Once he regained control of his face, he meticulously removed an errant dust mote from his lavender sleeve and continued. "I have heard tales for years about the Curst Lord. He is a dedicated libertine, an unlucky gamester, and has been jilted more than once by ladies fearing the family curse."
"You make an ass of yourself when you rattle on about things you do not understand." Carrington raised his quizzing glass to examine the fledgling dandy at his side. The lad had been in London only a week, but already it was obvious that a greener cub had not been loose on the town in years. "I never expected to see a member of my own family behave like such a nodcock. What's in a name? as the Bard once asked. That silly sobriquet was coined by a wag eight years ago--Bridgeport was still Viscount Staynes at the time--after he suffered an embarrassment on the marriage mart. Yes, he was jilted, but he was lucky to have escaped, for the girl belonged in Bedlam. A groundless rumor surfaced afterward that she fled from a curse, but it died within the week. The name stuck because he is roundly cursed by everyone he bests, and he has bested nearly everyone. He is a nonpareil, the foremost Corinthian in the ton, excelling at fencing, sparring, marksmanship, and driving."
"Do you see why I said you were idiotic? Jackson spars only with his best pupils. Bridgeport is as handy with his fives as the cream of the Fancy and meets Jackson regularly. The reason you got such good odds on that bet is because the earl rarely fails to land at least one punch. As to your other claims, it is true he lost at cards when we were at Oxford together--though never as much as rumor reported. But he has now learned to play wisely, honing his talents until he seldom loses at games involving skill. He never plays at games of chance. He is also smart enough to walk away from the table if the luck turns against him, and he refuses to play when in his altitudes. You might take that lesson to heart. There is no bigger fool than a man who multiplies his vowels in a desperate bid to recoup his losses."
They handed their hats to the porter at White's and crossed the reading room. Brummell and his friends usually occupied the new bow window, but they were absent today. Carrington soon saw why.
"You are about to verify the adage about a fool and his money," he warned Reggie softly.
"What do you mean?"
"Watch. And learn," advised his cousin.
Thirty gentlemen clustered around a table, the size of the crowd signaling that a high-stakes game was in progress. Even before he drew close enough to see, Carrington had identified the players by their voices--Bridgeport and the newly wealthy Mr. Hardwicke.
Mark Allan Parrish, seventh Earl of Bridgeport, had been considered the top catch on the marriage mart for years, despite his determined disinterest in eligible females and despite the curse some still suspected hung over his head. He possessed everything a matchmaking mother could want--a respected title, seemingly bottomless coffers, several estates, a large townhouse in Berkeley Square, and the face and form to make any girl swoon in delight.
Intense green eyes surrounded by long dark lashes glowed under artfully arranged russet curls, providing the focal point of a heart-stoppingly handsome face. Nor was his physique a disappointment. Broad shoulders contrasted with a slender waist and hips above shapely, well-muscled thighs. All this male magnificence was immediately obvious, for he chose to wear the most modest of jackets and the simplest of cravats, leaving only his own splendor on view to the world.
A sigh rose from the crowd as the earl swiftly played out the hand of piquet to a resounding victory.
"Piqued, repiqued, and capotted," murmured a spectator in admiration, accepting several banknotes from his friend.
Hardwicke was paler than even fashion demanded. "How could you have had that spade guard?" he muttered, draining a glass of wine.
Bridgeport made as if to rise.
"No, you don't," objected Hardwicke. "The luck is bound to turn. It never stays away for long. Another rubber, double stakes."
The crowd emitted a collective gasp.
"I have had enough of cards for one afternoon," replied Bridgeport, pocketing his winnings.
"Are you afraid to take me on again?" taunted Hardwicke. "How can anyone who claims to be a gentleman refuse me a chance to recoup my losses?"
"Give the lad a chance," called a spectator.
"Can't honorably refuse a game," commented another.
"You don't want to play just now," observed the earl quietly. "Tomorrow will be soon enough. Changing one's luck requires time."
"Now!" demanded Hardwicke harshly. "I can feel the change. By tomorrow it may have flopped back." He signaled a waiter for another bottle of wine.
"Very well." Bridgeport dropped back into his seat with a shrug.
"Fool," whispered Carrington so only Reggie could hear.
"Of course not."
Two tense hours ensued. Bridgeport won one rubber, then two. The crowd swelled to over a hundred as word of Hardwicke's folly spread. Wagering among the onlookers was not on who would win, but on the point spread and the extent of Hardwicke's ultimate losses. The third rubber ended in Bridgeport's favor.
"That is all," the earl announced with finality. "I have an appointment that I cannot break."
Hardwicke stared at the score-sheet in shock, not believing the numbers that swirled before his bleary eyes. The amount represented half of the inheritance he had just received from his uncle.
Bridgeport stretched, noting Carrington's presence behind his chair for the first time. "Back from Newmarket already?"
"This morning. Darlington scratched his black, so there was no point staying for the race."
"I heard about that at Tattersall's. Any word why?" drawled Lord Templeton, sounding only mildly curious.
Carrington shrugged. "Officially, Titan strained a hock in workouts yesterday, but rumor suggests sabotage. One of the grooms mysteriously disappeared."
"Smart of you to leave, Richard," murmured Bridgeport under the buzz of speculation at this news. "Odds won't mean much that case."
"So I thought. Have you met my cousin Reggie? He is just down from Cambridge." Carrington effected introductions. "I hope he has learned the benefits of caution," he added with a rueful glance at Hardwicke.
Hardwicke chose that moment to come out of his shocked stupor, pulling everyone's attention back to the game. "I demand a rematch!"
"Another day," suggested Bridgeport gently. "I have to leave."
Panic appeared in Hardwicke's eyes, his wine-thickened tongue tripping over the words. "No! Now! One cut. High card wins. Double or nothing."
"You haven't got it," murmured Bridgeport into his opponent's ear. "Wait until you are sober, Peter."
"My estates," Hardwicke begged desperately. "The ones from my uncle. Without the money, they are worthless to me anyway."
Bridgeport glanced at the circle of expectant faces. If he refused, Hardwicke would consider him an enemy. Many of those watching would believe him to be dishonorable. Already the spectators were placing side bets. He sighed a little sadly. "All right. Will you do the honors, Brummell?"
The Beau opened a new pack of cards and shuffled thoroughly, each riffle raising the tension in the crowd. He squared the deck and set it in the exact center of the table. Bridgeport carelessly cut, turning over the three of diamonds.
A gasp rolled around the room. Hardwicke straightened, a smile breaking out on his face. He lifted half of the remaining deck and upended it. One hundred gentlemen inhaled in shock. The two of clubs stared mockingly into Peter Hardwicke's ashen face.
"I will see him in the morning," Bridgeport murmured to Lord Templeton, who was Hardwicke's closest friend. "We will settle up then."
"Winning again?" sneered Harold Parrish, pushing his way through the crowd.
Ignoring his cousin, Bridgeport snapped his watch open and deliberately grimaced. "I am late. Good day, gentlemen."
"Poor Hardwicke," murmured a spectator. "Bridgeport has all the luck."
"There ought to be a law against someone that wealthy winning so consistently," groused another, handing over a wad of banknotes to cover his own lapse in judgment.
"Ah, well, lucky at cards, unlucky at love," intoned Harold, pitching his voice loud enough that Bridgeport would hear, though he had nearly reached the door.
The earl stared at his cousin a moment, an odd curl twisting his lips. Without a word, he left.
"What was that all about?" asked Reggie as he followed Carrington out to the street.
"A Parthian shot between cousins over the earl's one failure. Mr. Parrish detests Bridgeport, envying him his looks, his acclaim, his wealth, and especially his title. Parrish missed it by twenty minutes."
"But they are cousins! How could that be?"
"Their fathers were twins."
Reggie stared. "I see. Mr. Parrish appears older than the earl."
"By two days." It was Parrish's dissipation that made him look nearly forty.
"Why did you call his words a Parthian shot?"
"You are too inquisitive by half, Cousin," Carrington protested. "Leave off prying into the lives of your betters."
"But how will I learn to go on if I don't ask questions?"
Carrington sighed. Never had his position as head of the family weighed so heavily. "Enough, Reggie. Bridgeport is a powerful member of society. While he does not follow the dandy set as you so obviously do, his animosity could make your life very difficult."
"But why would he want to?"
"He wouldn't if you mind your own business. But he is a very private person who hates to have his affairs bruited about. That comment alluded to the origins of his nickname. I trust you will not refer to either again."
"Only if you tell me the truth of the rumors. I heard he has been jilted several times."
"You are a pest, Reggie!" the marquess muttered, half to himself. "But I suppose you will ask someone else if I do not satisfy your curiosity, and that would be worse." He straightened. "It is Bridgeport's misfortune that four betrothals produced only one marriage and no heir, though only two of the chits actually jilted him. His third fiancée and his wife both died. It is just as well, for his mother chose all the girls, and she had abominable taste."
"Why did he not protest?"
"Because he truly does not care who he marries. But that is all I will say, for his reasons are his own affair. This topic is now closed."
"What about the tales of his raking?" Envy of that legendary prowess permeated his words.
"Enough!" Carrington glowered. "Even I do not know those details, despite being his closest friend, but I suspect half of society's matrons and all the top courtesans have encountered him. Bridgeport is the finest man I know and deserves every bit of his luck. His father was a weak-willed scholar, completely under the thumb of his harridan mother. She tried to do the same to Mark, eventually driving him away from home. He has worked hard to get where he is today, but after battling domination for so long, he despises all signs of weakness. Hence his reticence. Exposing his private self would make him vulnerable."
"But that tells me nothing," objected Taylor.
"Precisely. One more word, and then we will permanently drop the subject. If you wish to keep your money, never bet against Bridgeport; never play cards with him; and never wager on whether or whom he will wed." * * * *
Wearing a concealing cloak, Bridgeport slipped out of the back of his townhouse. One of the lessons he had mastered after a lifetime of countering his mother's manipulation was how to cover his tracks. He went first to the rooms he rented under an assumed name, downed a bite of dinner, and put in an intense four hours of work. Then he picked up Lady Wainright behind Lady Beatrice's house, where she was attending a card party, and headed for a cottage he owned in Kensington. The lady was a nitwit, but it was not her conversation that interested him. She was the most insatiable of his current liaisons. Two hours of frenzied passion expended the restless energy that had accumulated since his morning bout with Jackson, allowing him to pass the night in peace.