A Perfect Gentleman
There was someone in his room.
Graeme’s eyes flew open, and he found himself staring at a massive square head on a level with his eyes. The dog regarded him unblinkingly, its graying forehead creased as if in deep concern. Graeme, muscles instinctively tensed, relaxed, letting out a sigh.
“Good Lord. James . . .” Graeme turned his gaze toward the man in the doorway, shoulder carelessly braced against the frame. “A fellow could have a heart attack, waking up with that beast staring at one. And what the devil are you doing in my room at the crack of dawn?”
“Hardly the crack of dawn, cousin.” The lean, dark man snorted and strolled farther into the bedroom, his gray eyes reflecting an icy amusement. “We’ve already eaten breakfast and driven over from Grace Hill. Even my mother is up and about, and you know Tessa is never seen before noon.”
Graeme sat up, wincing, and raised a hand to his head. “I had trouble going to sleep last night.”
“Too much brandy, eh?” James crossed to the window and thrust aside the draperies, letting in a shaft of light that stabbed straight into Graeme’s eyes.
Graeme turned his head away, but with a sigh swung his legs out of bed and stood up. “I thought you were in London.”
“We returned yesterday.” James picked up the dressing gown lying on the back of the chair and tossed it to Graeme.
“That doesn’t explain what you’re doing in my house.” He pulled on the robe, adding darkly, “Or why Fletcher let you come up to roust me out of bed.”
“Oh, he tried to stop me.” James tugged at the tasseled cord to summon Graeme’s valet. “Surely you don’t think I listened.”
“Of course not.” Graeme rubbed his hands over his face, trying to pull his scattered thoughts together. “You say Aunt Tessa is here, too?”
“But why?” Was it possible he had so overslept? He had consumed a good deal of brandy last night. He had been somewhat at loose ends—well, he might as well admit it, he had been crushingly bored. But surely he could hold his liquor better than that. Graeme glanced toward the clock. “It’s barely ten. I’ve never known Aunt Tessa to venture out before noon.”
“Ah, but we have been charged by the dowager countess to deliver a message to you. Mother would never miss that opportunity, even if she had to rise at your proverbial crack of dawn. Gossip, after all, is her métier.”
“Gossip? What are you talking about?”
“Get dressed and come downstairs, and I’ll tell you in detail.” James strolled to the door, slapping his hand against his thigh to summon the gigantic mastiff, which had grown bored with the talk and was now stretched out on the floor, taking up what looked to be a third of the
room. “Your mother is, of course, insisting on laying out a second breakfast for us all.”
“James . . .” Graeme said through clenched teeth, letting his words drop one by one like stones. “What in the bloody hell is going on?”
“Lady Montclair is in London.”
“My grandmother?” Graeme frowned in confusion. “But—well, of course she’s in London; you just said she’d given you—”
“I’m not talking about the dowager countess. I meant the other Lady Montclair.”
“My mother? But she’s—”
“I meant,” James said with heavy emphasis, “the third Lady Montclair. Your wife.”
With that parting shot, Graeme’s cousin turned and walked out, the mastiff padding at his heels.
Graeme stared after him, frozen. His wife! He sat down hard on the ottoman in front of the chair. The pounding in his head increased its beat. His wife.
He tried to summon up an image of the woman he had married ten years ago. Tall, thin, and drab, her black hair a stark contrast to pale skin. Quiet and always dressed in white, she had faded into the background. He had paid little attention to her looks, other than to see she was nothing like Laura. She had large eyes. He could not recall their color, but he remembered them fixed on him, watching, measuring. He’d had no idea what was in her head; in truth, he hadn’t cared to know. She had, he thought now, sat like a spider in her web, waiting while her father pulled him in.
Resentment and anger, long buried, stirred in him. They had wanted a title, Abigail Price and her father, and they’d
had the money to pay for it. And if their fortune was not enough to secure it, they had other means.
Graeme had known he had to marry wealth to save the estate. He’d been prepared to do his duty, even if it meant giving up Laura, the woman he loved. What he hadn’t expected was that they would blackmail him into it. But Thurston Price was not the sort to leave anything to chance.
Grimly, Graeme rose and began to dress, not bothering to wait for his valet. What had possessed the woman to come back? His life had been . . . well, maybe not happy, but comfortable with her far away in New York. It was not the cozy future he had once envisioned with the woman he loved—raising their children, growing old together—but at least he was spared the daily presence of the wife he’d never wanted. There had been a bit of a scandal, of course, what with his bride fleeing on their wedding night. And one couldn’t explain to everyone that he was happy to see her gone. But the family had weathered that. He had kept the estate intact. He had concealed the stain on the family name. And he had his solitude, his undisturbed peace.
What could Abigail Price want from him now? He had given her the name she and her father had so desperately coveted. She had the life she wanted in the far-off city where she belonged.
It had been something of a shock ten years ago when he returned to her hotel suite the day after their wedding, armed with an apology for his blunt, even rude, assessment of their marriage the night before, as well as a proposal for living politely apart, only to be informed that his wife had checked out that morning. His astonishment was quickly replaced by relief that, just as he’d thought, Abigail had
been interested only in acquiring a title. Having obtained that, she has raced back to her own country.
She had remained there for ten years, apparently as content as he to live without the burden of a spouse. He had heard, now and then, rumors of how she reigned in splendor in New York society, her parties the most elegant, her invitations the most sought-after, but, in truth, he had little interest in what she did . . . as long as she did it an ocean away from him.
When he strode into the dining room downstairs a few minutes later, he found the others waiting for him, James standing at the window a few feet apart from the two middle-aged women seated side by side at the table. The sweet-faced woman in black, her brown hair liberally sprinkled with white, was his mother, and she looked up at him with her usual smile. She was a softened, slightly faded, and pleasingly plump version of the woman beside her, whose thick dark hair, startlingly silver eyes, and lush curves still brought men clustering around her.
“Mother.” He went around the table and bent to kiss his mother’s cheek. “Aunt Tessa. How kind of you to visit.” Graeme smiled. One could not help but smile at his aunt.
Aunt Tessa, of course, rose as he turned to her and flung her arms around him. “Graeme! My favorite nephew.” She stepped back, hands on his arms, and tilted her head, studying him. “Handsome as ever, I see.”
“Your only nephew,” he reminded her. “And you are as radiant as ever.”
“Flatterer.” Tessa smiled in her impish way. “Just what I like in a man.”
“Mother, must you flirt with every man you see?” James joined them.
“Don’t be such a stodgy old man.” Tessa turned the same fetching grin on her son. “One has to practice one’s art when one can, you know.”
“Mm. So I’ve noticed.” James sat down beside her, nodding toward Graeme. “Better get yourself a cup of tea, coz. You’ll need it. A dollop of whiskey might help.”
Graeme sat down, accepting the cup of tea the butler poured. He took a sip and gave a nod to Fletcher, who discreetly melted away, closing the door behind him. “Very well. I am braced for the worst. What is going on, and why did Grandmother send you?”
“I told you. Your absent and very unlamented wife has returned to London.”
“Really, James,” Tessa protested. “You haven’t the faintest idea how to tell a story properly.” She turned to her nephew, eyes sparkling. “She appeared last Tuesday at Lady Rochester’s soiree. No one had the least idea who she was. She was wearing this marvelous satin gown of midnight blue, with the most wonderful lace draped—”
“I don’t think Graeme is concerned with the style ball gown she wore,” James interrupted drily.
“Mirabelle and I are.” Tessa addressed her sister, “It was just divine, Mira; you should have seen the satin roses over the bustle. It was made by Worth or I know nothing of fashion.”
“No one would dispute your eye for clothes, Aunt Tessa,” Graeme said with more amiability than Tessa’s son. “But why is Abigail here?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.” Tessa gave a careless shrug. “Neither has anyone else. But of course, everyone is guessing like mad. Lady Crowley is certain she’s come to
confront you—but you know Lady Crowley, she is always so dramatic.”
Graeme shot a laughing glance at his cousin at the prospect of Aunt Tessa’s deeming anyone dramatic. “But what would she confront me about?”
“That is why everyone is so interested, darling boy.”
“Surely she could not be angry with Graeme.” Mirabelle frowned. “It was she who left him, after all.” She sighed. “And she seemed such an unexceptionable girl. I rather liked her.”
“You like everyone, Mirabelle.” Tessa took up her tale again. “The most popular theory is that she has come to act as a matchmaker.”
“Matchmaker! What are you talking about?” A sizzle of alarm ran up Graeme’s spine.
“For wealthy American girls, dear. They say she will use her British connections to find noblemen in desperate need of an infusion of cash and match them up with American heiresses. After all, she did it for herself.”
“What connections?” Graeme asked. “She has no British connections.”
“There’s you,” James pointed out.
“I’m not going to help her find her victims,” Graeme said in an affronted voice.
“You know that, but does she?” James retorted. “Personally, I think you should help her if it means she’ll leave the city.”
“Of course, there are those who believe she simply wants to flaunt her, um, friend in your face.”
“Friend?” Graeme’s voice iced over. “What friend?”
“There’s an American who dances attendance on her,” James said. “Apparently he’s a business associate of her father’s.”
“Business associate?” Graeme’s lip curled. “Fellow
crook is more like it. Is her father here, as well?”
“No,” James told him. “Thurston’s still in America, no doubt perpetrating stock swindles on other unsuspecting souls.”
“At least there’s some relief in that.”
“I don’t know how that dreadful man can do such things,” Mirabelle said, her eyes suddenly glinting with tears. “Poor Reginald. He had no idea . . .”
“No, of course not, Mother.”
“It’s my opinion Thurston Price should have gone to gaol, enticing innocent people to invest in something just so he could make an enormous profit, then leaving them to crash.” Mirabelle pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed at her eyes.
Her sister reached over and patted her hand. “Reggie always was inclined to great optimism.”
“Yes, he was, wasn’t he?” Mirabelle gave her a tremulous smile. “It was one of the many things everyone loved about him.”
Everyone had loved his father altogether too much, Graeme thought, but he said only, “Unfortunately, what Mr. Price did was not illegal.”
“Hmph. Only wicked.” Mirabelle sniffed.
“Yes, wicked indeed. But that is long past. It has nothing to do with why Miss Pri— I mean, Lady Montclair, is here. Is she having—” He glanced at the women. “I beg your pardon, Mother, Aunt Tessa. This is not a fit topic for ladies.”
“Good heavens, Graeme, don’t stop just when you’re getting to the interesting part,” Tessa exclaimed. “One can be too polite, you know.”
Graeme looked at James, whose eyes were brimming
with laughter. “Oh, very well. Is she having an affair with this American chap?”
“I have no idea.” James shrugged. “The thought doesn’t seem to disturb you.”
“I don’t care what she does. If she thinks to hurt me with an affair, she’s fair and far off.”
“But, Graeme, dear,” his mother said in a soft voice. “What about the heir? What if she . . . you know . . . bore another man’s son? What would you do?”
“It would be a dreadful scandal,” Tessa agreed, her voice threaded with excitement. “Even if she doesn’t have a child, it makes for titillating gossip. Merely by appearing in London again, it has stirred up all the old gossip. Everyone is rehashing the wedding—”
“Oh! That ostentatious display!” Mirabelle shook her head.
“Perhaps more importantly,” James added, “there was the matter of the new bride taking to her heels the following morning.”
“Yes, really, Graeme, couldn’t you have held on to her for longer than a night?” Tessa asked.
His mother whirled on her sister. “Tessa! It wasn’t Graeme’s fault! He could hardly have kept her prisoner. I am sure leaving is what she had in mind all along.”
“Well.” Tessa turned up her hands in an eloquently questioning manner. “There were all those rumors . . .”
“Could we please not discuss the details of my wedding night?” Graeme ran his hand back through his hair. “You said Grandmother sent you with a message for me. What is it?”
“She wants you to come back to London and deal with your wife,” James said tersely. “It’s Lady Eugenia’s opinion
you should bring her to the estate, where she can’t create any more talk.”
“Bring her here? To Lydcombe Hall?” Graeme straightened. “You can’t be serious. She wants me to live with Abigail?”
“Men have been known to live with their wives,” James offered mildly.
“I won’t. I refuse to have her here, to subject my mother to—”
“Oh, no, dear, I won’t mind.” Mirabelle leaned across the table and patted his hand. “Truly. I am sure she cannot be that disagreeable. It’s a large house. No doubt we could all rub along well enough for a while, at least until the scandal dies down. Maybe she regrets running off like that years ago. It could have been a momentary impulse, just a fit of nerves, you know, and now she would like another chance.”
“Speaking of great optimism,” Graeme said in an exasperated voice. He sighed and squeezed his mother’s hand gently. “No. I don’t think the Prices are given to fits of nerves. I don’t know what she wants, but I feel sure it is nothing good. And Grandmother is right, as always. I shall have to go to London to settle the matter.”
“Will you bring her back here?” Mirabelle asked. “What room, I wonder, should I make up for her?”
“Don’t bother, Mother. I don’t intend to bring Abigail home. I am going to make sure she leaves.”