Charles Miggs was spending his money faster than he liked. He was compelled to eat dinner at home every night and he did not like that. He knew that to cut a dash, he should eat at his club frequently. But he didn’t want to run up large bills for his father to complain about and perhaps refuse to pay. He had charged some dinners and bottles of wine but he felt he should be careful.
At the same time, he got angry when he thought of how he should be treated, how he should be allowed to go on, entertaining other men to food and wine. He knew he was not cutting a figure in town: no decent mount, no gaming clubs, no finely tailored jackets from Weston’s. The lords at the gaming hells he could attend were lords who lived hand to mouth because they had lost their credit at the more fashionable establishments. The rooms were dirty and smoky and full, he was sure, of cheats. He played and drank very little, but usually ended the evening with a sour taste in his mouth and his clothes reeking of cheap smoke, from pipes and cigarillos made of scrapings from the cigar factory floor.
He’d made only one friend, or acquaintance, to be accurate. He’d found himself in a smoky tavern–The Monkey’s Paw–one night and as usual, he was sitting alone. At the table next to him were five men. He became aware that one of them, the one they called Mac, didn’t seem to pay for any drinks. But he did keep the others laughing. Charles couldn’t help overhearing him and found himself laughing, which surprised him. He didn’t think he had anything to laugh about.
Suddenly four of the men stood up, cheerfully clapped the one called Mac on his shoulder and left. Charles looked over at Mac. Mac grinned at him. “C’m on and join me. Hate to drink alone.”
Hated to pay for drinks, thought Charles.
“All right. Your friends seem like a good lot.” Charles moved over to Mac’s table.
“Och, laddie, they are that, and generous too.” He grinned at Charles.
Charles sat down n one of the seats, still warm from the last incumbent. “What’s your pleasure?”
“Ale, my friend, ale. For my health and yours.”
Charles ordered two more tankards of ale and drank. It was good. He smiled at Mac. “No doubt about it. Very healthy tasting.”
When Charles smiled, he looked the handsome young man that he was. All his scowling seemed to make him ugly, not serious.
Mac smiled back and began to gently quiz his new friend. In a short time, he found out he was Lord Ailesworth’s bastard half-brother and held no love for him.
After a few more ales, Charles began to talk more wildly.
“Shush, man. Don’t be broadcasting your news in a tavern where everyone wants to know your business.”
Charles muttered something that sounded like “gunpowder” before he blinked owlishly around the room. Yes, he must be careful. Must remember to keep his mouth shut.
He got up, a bit unsteady and looked down at Mac. “A pleasure. Maybe we could share an ale again.”
Mac smiled and got up. “Always, Miggs. This is my favorite tavern.” He walked around the table to stand beside Charles. “Let’s go.” He walked behind him in case Miggs stumbled. Not used to drinking, was he.
The two men reached the street and the fresh air, though it was full of soot, stiffened him. “I’m all right. I’ll get a cab.”
“No trouble, laddie. I’ll walk you to the cab stand.” Mac walked as though he’d had coffee to drink and it was a lovely day for a stroll.
They found a cab and Mac helped Charles into it. Charles called out, “Portman Square,” and Mac knew for sure he was Ailesworth’s brother.
“Keep well, then.”
Charles nodded and the cab left. Mac Pherson decided he liked his new friend even if he had no head for ale. He needed watching over, mumbling about Ailesworth and gunpowder in the same sentence.
Mac decided to see what excitement he could find.
Charles rattled around in the cab as it made its way home. He knew he shouldn’t talk about Ailesworth with strangers and what he wanted to do to him, but he was so lonely.
Every time he moved closer to the idea that had begun to obsess him: If only Ailesworth didn’t exist, then surely he, Charles, would take his place. After being in London for a month, he saw that he had no consequence there at all, that it was all who you were, what title you carried and how much show you could present, how many capes your driving coat had, how blooded and frisky your cattle were, how new your carriage was and if it was made by Davenport, as your boots were made by Hoby. Charles had ridden in the park at four o’clock when all the haute ton was there, or what was left of it in November, and his mount looked sad and decrepit, no gloss to its coat at all. No one recognized him. They looked right through him. He’d nodded to several men he’d seen in his club, but they stared and then barely acknowledged him. He’d seen them at White=s and stood behind them when they played faro, but since they’d never been introduced, it was as though he didn’t exist.
Charles became sure it was because he was a bastard, that everyone knew who he was, that he was Ailesworth’s bastard brother and that because of Ailesworth, they all cut him.
It galled him. He overheard them talking about his brother. Nothing but admiration for him, his style, his damn-you attitude towards those who criticized his interest in business, his cool manner in handling women, his hard head when he drank. They didn’t seem to mind that he was indifferent to gambling: he never minded quitting when he felt like it whether he was losing or winning. No one challenged him. Charles couldn’t understand someone who could gamble and didn’t. It seemed like the point non plus of being a gentleman: gambling large sums and acting indifferent about whether one won or lost.
Charles had witnessed an argument over cards that led to a duel. It was exciting and he’d gone at dawn that day to see the duel. The first duelist shot wildly over the head of his opponent, who then deloped, shooting in the air. That seemed to clear up their argument, and all the men, except Charles, went happily off to White’s to eat breakfast together.
It was true that Charles felt excluded and invisible, but men had noticed him and found out he was Ailesworth’s bastard brother. They were curious, wondering what game he was playing.
Talking to Mac had helped. He’d go back there again.
Ailesworth had asked Drum if he could find out anything of Esther’s background. The viscount was well connected and better than that, had a great-aunt who knew everyone and all their secrets. Great-aunt Matilda thought the lady might be Elizabeth Dramlee, youngest daughter of the infamous Duke of Glastonbury.
“But why the name, Esther, then?”
“I don’t know. There was something smoky about her. But the whole family was a disgrace. Maybe this one has a past as well.”
Drum shook his head. “No, great-aunt. Though poor, she’s a proper lady.”
“How many times have I told you not to call me that!” Matilda Grainger’s jowls shook with irritation.
“Yes, Aunt Matilda,” Drum said sweetly, grinning at her.
“If she’s a Dramlee, she must be a demi-mondaine.”
“Oh, no, a lady who lives quietly.”
“Then she’s not a Dramlee!” Contradicting herself didn’t seem to bother her.
Drum decided it was time to pay Esther that call he’d promised Ailesworth. It wouldn’t look good to have de Sable whisking Esther away while Ailesworth was abroad.
Esther answered the door and smiled at him. “Welcome, Lord Grainger. It’s a pleasure to see you.”
He smiled back. “My pleasure entirely.”
He came into the hall and followed Esther into her parlor. My, how small it was. How did Ailesworth fit in here? But pleasant withal. He liked the scarf she had on the sofa.
“Please be seated, Lord Grainger. Would you like some tea?”
As they drank their tea and ate their biscuits–Esther was ashamed she had nothing better–Drum talked easily of ton affairs. But when he could, he brought the conversation to Ailesworth. He was interested to see that Esther was far more interested in Ailesworth than in gossip.
Before he left, he inquired if Lord de Sable had paid a call.
Esther frowned. “Yes, he did. Do I understand correctly that Lord de Sable has no fortune?”
“Yes. The whole family just scrapes along. His grandfather wagered their fortune away.”
“Then I do not see….” She had decided to let Ailesworth know that de Sable had offered marriage to her. Not that she was thinking of marrying again. Oh, no! Once was enough. But Ailesworth should know of it.
“I do not see how he could propose a marriage to me.”
Drum wanted to laugh. Stables had something up his sleeve.
Esther went on. “I did not see how combining our poverties could help either one of us, but he said he is coming back.” E ther sighed. “I wish he wouldn’t.”
“Do you want me to….”
No, it’s best he comes and fully understands me.” She shrugged. “He spoke of something of benefit to me.” She frowned. “I don=t like that. It sounds underhanded.”
“Perhaps you have a secret fortune waiting for you. Or he thinks you pine for him. He’s a handsome chap.”
“I don’t believe I misled him. Pine for him!” She gave a delicate snort. “And where would the fortune come from? My family? Oh, no, Lord Grainger, there is no fortune.”
She turned the topic and no more was said of de Sable.
At Watier’s that night, Drum became involved in a game of faro and decided to postpone his search for another day. Colebrook came in later and stood behind him, watching the play. When Drum realized who was behind him, he cashed out of the game. He was startled to find himself five hundred pounds richer. The other players glared at him. He ignored them.
:I say, Colebrook, I thought you’d gone to the country.” The two men left the tables behind and settled in comfortable armchairs in the lounge.
“I found another letter when I returned home. Mother is better so I was able to postpone my trip until the end of the week. I see you were lucky again, Drum. How do you do it?”
Drum shrugged. “You know, lucky in cards, unlucky in love, or some such.”
“Is Ailesworth in town?”
“I just wondered if he’d furthered his acquaintance with Mrs. Beryll.”
“He has. Why do you ask?”
“She interests me, you know.” He caught Drum staring at him. “No, no, not that way. Besides, I’d never try to compete with Ailesworth in that arena. I thought she was familiar when I met her at Dunphys, but I’ve been unable to place her.”
“I didn’t know that. Maybe you can help. Is it possible that she is,” and here Drum leaned close to Colebrook, “Elizabeth Dramlee, daughter of the infamous….”
“Of course! That’s who she is! I visited Dramlee Park once when I was about twenty. Elizabeth was a child; I saw very little of her. Her sisters were more of my age.” He shuddered.”AThey were devious creatures. They looked like angels and acted like whores.”
Drum stared. The two men found a private corner and sat.
“Yes. Their parents had corrupted them. My father didn’t realize at the time how evil that family had become. I was but a young man and was totally confused by the whole family, particularly Julia and Henrietta.
“As my father came to realize how debauched his old friend had become–they’d been school mates– he became cold. We left before our planned week was up. There was a fierce argument in the Duke’s estate room before we left abruptly. That was so unusual for my father; he was such a mild man. But he had a very strict sense of proprieties and the atmosphere at Dramlee Park was far from being proper
“Bur Elizabeth was different. She looked nothing like her mother, or her father except for her distinctive eyes, and certainly nothing like her sisters. She spent all her time in the nursery. The rest of the family usually forgot her. I met her out riding one day.
“She had a groom with her, of course, but she rode like a born horsewoman. Very shy and sweet. Blushed all the time. How could I have forgotten her?”
Drum listened to his friend’s unusual eloquence and pictured the beautiful house with its ugly inhabitants.
“Apparently your father didn’t forget Elizabeth. He went back later and removed her from her father a short time before the Duke’s death, I gather.
“The question is, how did she become Mrs. Beryll.”
“Why do you want to know?” Colebrook asked.
“She is the Countess D’Aelen’s niece and the Countess is looking for her. Ailesworth knows where she lives.”
The two men reflected in silence.
Colebrook continued. “You know, as a child, she was quite striking. I realize it now but then I was so inflated with my own importance and what seemed like my irresistible charm in overcoming the defenses of the two older sisters,” here Colebrook winced, “not that our love-making went that far, but they were willing, oh my.” He shook his head and continued, “They were willing, as I was saying,– that I remember showing off to Elizabeth. I hardly looked at her, I was so full of myself.
“You may be sure my father gave me a dressing down after we left. I was very careful after that.” Colebrook shook his head again. Maybe they had done him a service, he thought. He hadn’t started wenching until he was a bit older. Maybe he’d saved himself a case of the pox, since he’d been careful once he’d started frequenting brothels in the days before he could afford a mistress.
“I believe she recognized me at Dunphy’s and was on guard. And, of course, she remembered my father if not me. Actually, I’m surprised my father would do something so daring, as to remove Elizabeth. He was so frail.”
“I wonder who Beryll was,” Drum mused.
“Oh, I can tell you that.” The two men settled into their chairs and ordered wine.
While de Sable was courting Esther, he hadn’t forgotten the mutton merchant’s daughter. The day after he had tea with Esther, he went to the Castle’s home in Brunswick Square. It was a new, shiny house and the grounds–rather narrow for such a big house–were sparsely planted. Mrs. Castle knew nothing of plants or landscape design and so ignored the outdoors. She felt inadequate to hire a gardener and so her daughter, Almeira, took it over. She consulted her father on how to find gardeners.
He was pleased with her. She was showing some common sense. All the folderol she and her mother had gone through to get her to some foolish dances so she could meet a titled gentleman hadn’t changed her. She was a good girl, with a good hard head on her shoulders and that hadn’t changed.
The inside of the house was chock-a-block with furniture. De Sable, a naturally graceful man, had to take care to avoid knocking over little tables in his way into the drawing room. He made it to a sofa near the fireplace. He looked back over the journey he’d taken and felt like a light house in a sea of tables.
He was congratulating himself over the literary comparison of himself to a lighthouse when the butler opened the drawing room doors and intoned, “Mrs. Castle, Miss Castle.”
Mrs. Castle made her way to de Sable with a pleasant smile on her face. Almeira followed. She didn’t look as happy.
“Lord de Sable, such a pleasure,” and Mrs. Castle curtseyed. Almeira also curtseyed and finally smiled up at de Sable.
He felt better. It was nice to come here and be smiled at and treated so well.
They all settled into a cozy circle of chairs and de Sable began by asking after everyone’s health. Then Mrs. Castle asked after his family.
“Oh, all well, I assume. Don=t see much of them, you know.”
Mrs. Castle couldn’t understand that. Not know how your family was? She was one of eight brothers and sisters and she was pleased that she had given Mr. Castle three sons and three daughters.
De Sable must have seen something of her dismay as he added, “We=re not a close family, Mrs. Castle. Don’t live in each other’s pockets, y’know.”
“I see.” She didn’t. “May I ask if all the families of the, what do you call it?”
“The ton, Mama.”
“Yes, the tone are like that?”
“Oh, no. some are, some aren’t. Now take the Ballisters. Very high in the instep and all as close as thieves.” De Sable frowned as though this was an unpleasant idea.
Mrs. Castle sighed. Dear me. A lone wolf. But then there would be no disapproving parents if Lord de Sable decided to marry Almeira. She looked at her.
Almeira regarded Lord de Sable as a hungry lion would a lamb. Mrs. Castle sighed again, this time to herself. Almeira was so like her papa, single-minded to a fault. It accounted for his success in business. And Almeira? She would achieve her aim one way or another. She wanted a title and she would get one. Would it be this lord?
A tea tray arrived including two tiered cake stands liberally filled with sandwiches and cakes and scones. Mrs. Castle liked to put on a good spread, and she also had noticed that Lord de Sable was always hungry. She was pleased to feed him. Anything to anchor him to Almeira.
Almeira asked him questions about the events he had been attending and he was delighted to tell her. He happily rattled on for awhile and then remembered to ask if they had any events to attend.
“We have an invitation to Mrs. Barkwhistle’s soiree tonight. Will you be there, my lord?” Almeira asked.
“I hadn’t planned on attending but now I shall.” He smiled at her and she glowed.
Not a bad looking chit at all: black, silky hair, large brown eyes and milky skin. Her smile was sweet. It was just that he caught her looking at him sometimes as though she were older than eighteen. Suppose it came from being in a family where they talked money all the time. He shuddered slightly but kept smiling. It wouldn’t do to frighten her away.
Almeira knew that she sometimes looked too serious. Men liked girls to look as only thoughts of hats and dresses and balls and beaus crossed their minds. Whereas she often thought of accounting ledgers and budgets and investments. It was a well-kept secret in the household that she took care of not only the household ledgers but also the ledgers for some businesses that Mr. Castle preferred to keep away form the eyes of his business accountant. The businesses weren’t illegal but they were very risky and his son, Thaddeus, who was his accountant, was much more conservative than his father. He had objected in a lengthy and a prosy manner to the first risk his father had talked of.
Mr. Castle had decided to go ahead with the venture but to keep the records at home. He’d asked Almeira to keep the ledger and feared, at first, she’d have the same response as Thaddeus. Instead her eyes had lit up and she encouraged her father to invest even more. In her enthusiastic face he saw his father, who’d been a rough and ready street trader. His father had made the family fortune but Mr. Castle seldom cared any more to think about the ways he’d used to make money. Intimidations, threats, and even a kidnapping to force someone to pay his debt. It didn’t bear thinking about.
Almeira was right. That first risky venture returned his money ten-fold. After that, he consulted her and thereby avoided a few disasters.
If only she’d been a man.
Lord de Sable took his leave after receiving the promise of a dance at the Barkwhistle’s soiree. He was pleased–she had looked up at him adoringly. Best to keep her sweet.
Tomorrow he’d find George and demand to be the one to tell Esther of her fortune.
“Almeira, dear, why did you look so black when you saw Lord de Sable?”
“Did I? I didn’t mean to. It”s just that it’s a week since he’s visited and I’m sure that can’t be good.”
“He’s not enamored, but you don’t want that, do you?”
“No, but a little more interest would please me. It’s been two months since he started calling. Why doesn’t he talk to Papa?”
“I don’t know, dear, I don’t know.”
“He just comes for a lunch. You’d think he hadn’t eaten in a week!”
“But that’s good. Surely hunger will drive him to propose!”
“Oh, Mother,” and she hugged her mother fiercely before going back to her books.
Ailesworth concluded his business in France with dispatch. De Guise was pleased to have an English lord to feel superior to. It irritated Ailesworth but as he wanted only to be gone, he put up with it.
Arriving in London on a Tuesday of cold, blustery weather, he settled affairs in his office and then made his way to Cargill Street. He was still feeling on edge when he walked into Esther’s parlor to find her alone.
She rose to greet him. “Ailesworth,” she sighed. She hadn’t meant to sound like a dying dove, but she was so pleased to see him.
He walked to her and drew her into his arms. “Esther.” She felt wonderful, all soft and warm curves. He kissed her ear and, before she could pull away, he kissed her mouth. She tasted of love. He only meant to give her a brief kiss but she was marvelous–soft, plump lips. He ran his tongue over the seam of her lips and she gasped. His tongue went in.
Sweet heaven! It was home.
He tightened his grip as he felt her weaken and sway towards him. His mouth left hers and he kissed her cheek, her eyes, her forehead. “Sweet Esther. You’re mine, Esther.”
She began to struggle and he slowly released her–beautiful lips red and swollen, skin flushed and her eyes brilliant.
“No, Ailesworth, I’m not yours! I suppose Lord Grainger told you of Lord de Sable’s visit. I’m not his and I’m not yours either.”
He kept his hands on her arms. “De Sable was here? What did he want?”
“Well, he did you one better, my lord. He offered marriage!”
Ailesworth’s fingers tightened. “And what did you say, sweet Esther?”
“No, I said no. Let me go, Lord Ailesworth, you’re hurting me.”
He relaxed his hands and gently rubbed her arms. Why did everything this man do to her feel good? Especially his kisses.
Ailesworth felt a little better. She’d refused Stables and she kissed like an innocent. He would swear he was the first to have his tongue in her honeyed cavern of a mouth.
He finally dropped his hands an she sat down. Just in time. Jessie came barreling in with the tea tray.
He sat across from her and willed the bulge in his breeches to go down. She served tea with trembling hands.
“I’m curious, Esther. What did Stables say?”
“He said, ‘Will you marry me?'”
Ailesworth smiled. “And that=s all?”
Esther sighed. “No, he hinted at something to my advantage. And said he would return.”
“I’ll take care of that.”
“No, you won’t!” Esther jumped to her feet. “You are not my protector. I will handle my affairs.” She blushed as she heard herself. “I mean, my business.”
Ailesworth thought it was a good opportunity to embrace her again.
She pushed at him. “My lord! Why do you keep hauling me….”
He gave her a quick kiss and released her.
“There. I’m through with hauling. But carting, that”s different.”
She was confused and looked adorable. He dropped his voice to a husky whisper and said, “Carting you away with me, my darling.”
Esther had her mouth open to lambaste him again when the door opened and Alma walked in. She stopped and looked at them.
“Mrs. Nelson, join us. We’re about to have our tea.” Ailesworth smiled at Alma.
Alma curtseyed and sat down. Esther served tea. .
Charles enjoyed his meetings with Mac Pherson. He had found a new friend who was kind to him and made him laugh. Mac Pherson kept Charles from drinking too much and talking of his brother and plots and gun powder. Mac usually had people around him so that was easy to do. Charles was no longer lonely. But his plan, his idee fixe, to rid himself of his brother, was never far from his mind. He needed Mac for the plan and Mac never let him talk of it. Returning home after Mac had made him quit drinking, Charles settled himself in the library with the brandy bottle. He needed help to set his plan in motion and Mac was the helper.
Belton, the Earl’s butler, noted Charles’ behavior. It irritated him no end that Charles was drinking the Earl’s best brandy, treating it like blue ruin. And it acted on him as gin did–making him sloppy drunk and maudlin. He muttered and ranted like a street corner preacher. Belton decided he’d have to keep a strict watch over Miggs. He needed to know what the foolish young man was up to. So he began to observe, as a cat watches a mouse.
One morning, after several cups of black coffee and some dry toast, Charles couldn’t wait any longer to begin his plan to bring down his brother. He decided to go see Mac in the daytime when they were both sober.
He arrived at Mac Pherson’s lodgings at noon.