“Never seen a man hold liquor like he can,” Beulah MacNeal, legendary proprietress of the Chancery, said with a dark chuckle.
Reynard Boulton, heir to the Viscount Tannehill, stood on the mezzanine overlooking the gaming floor of Mrs. MacNeal’s infamous gambling establishment in southwest London. The air was a haze of spirits and smoke, and crackled with the noise of a risky but lucrative pleasure trade. Below, a familiar barrel-chested figure in evening clothes was propped against a gaming table with only a couple of chips in front of him.
“He’s a regular marvel of nature,” Reynard said, wincing at the way Redmond Strait reached for a glass of whiskey on a passing tray and missed, dropping his arm heavily. “Stewed to the gills. Again.” He frowned and turned to the massive but elegantly clothed woman seated on a grand settee behind him. “How much has he lost?”
“A bundle,” Beulah said, opening her fan and appraising the action on the floor below. “Near two thousand.”
Reynard gave a soft whistle from between his teeth.
“Third time this week.” She accepted a glass of champagne from a tray presented by a uniformed servant, and sipped daintily. It was odd, Reynard thought, how a woman of such monumental proportions could seem so dainty at times. “He’s lost similar amounts each time.”
“Damn. And you sent for me because?” Reynard narrowed his eyes.
“He’s a friend.”
“Don’t be difficult, Fox. I know you know him and his family. I know you’d not want to see him come to harm. He needs to go home.”
“And you called me to be his cabbie.” A barb lurked in that statement, but Beulah smiled, too familiar with the vagaries of his moods to be offended. Reynard frowned, not pleased at being read so accurately.
“Take him home,” Beulah said flatly, studying her now empty glass. “And see he doesn’t return for a while.” Her broad but still lovely face was as determined as he’d ever seen it. “I’ve been hearing rumors.”
Every nerve in Reynard’s body came alert. News. Gossip. Rumors
. Information was Reynard Boulton’s stock and trade. Surely he hadn’t missed a juicy bit. The possibility was downright unsettling.
“What kind of rumors?”
“About his losses.” Beulah’s all-seeing gaze bored into him. “And the family in trouble because of it. Despite what some may think of me, it is not my desire to see men wreck their fortunes and families at my tables.”
Reynard turned to stare at jug-bit Redmond Strait. The hard-drinking old prospector from the American West was fast becoming either a colorful legend or a cautionary tale in London’s jealously guarded upper crust. Either could spell disaster for Red’s family of abominably perfect and pulchritudinous females—who were most likely ignorant of the threat his nightly entertainments posed to—
Good God. He blanched, caught in a squeeze between a long-ignored conscience and mortal dread. He had made a promise.
Curse Ashton Graham’s hide. When heading for New York with his pregnant wife, Daisy, he had wrangled a promise from Reynard to look after her family in his absence. Her sisters were babes in the woods, he said. Too pretty for their own good, he said. London was full of snakes, rakes, and scandalmongers, he said. And if anyone could look after them and see that nothing wicked assailed them, it was the Fox himself... who was on a first-name basis with wicked
and had the resources and cunning to intercept and deflect any harm that threatened Daisy’s family.
He closed his eyes for a moment, fighting back the memory of Ashton’s genuine worry and the liquor they’d consumed the night before Ash and Daisy left for America. He’d been near comatose by the time his old school friend pried that unthinkable vow from him.
What would it hurt? he had told himself when he sobered up. They were so fresh and innocent and their mother and uncle were so doting and protective, what could go wrong?
He glanced down at the gaming floor and frowned at the way Red stumbled and then laughed uproariously at his own misstep—drawing his fellow gamblers into the hilarity. That
was what could go wrong.
A frisson of shame went through him at the way he’d abandoned his word on such a self-centered premise. Since that night, he’d done his best to avoid the Bumgarten women and their hard-drinking uncle.
Below, Red managed to capture a passing glass of whiskey and down it. “Whoa, howdy, boys! That there’s some fiiine Irish whiskey!” It seemed like the entire patronage joined his raucous laughter.
Reynard grimaced and then nodded to Beulah MacNeal.
“Fine,” he said roughly. “I’ll pry him loose from your table and carry him home.” And he descended the steps to save silver magnate Redmond Strait from his own worst impulses.
* * *
Frances “Frankie” Bumgarten lay awake in her feather-plumped bed, staring up at the delicate canopy overhead. Light from the wheezing coals in the hearth moved sinuously across the silk-lined brocade, and the stylish townhouse was so quiet she could hear the chimes of the clock in the distant entry hall. Minutes that seemed like hours dragged by. For the third time that week, she had awakened in the middle of the night and found it impossible to go back to sleep. The reason was all too clear.
Elizabeth Strait Bumgarten, Frankie’s mother, had given her an ultimatum: cooperate and make herself amenable to noble suitors or find herself packed off back to America.
Elizabeth was determined to see her daughters married and settled in matches that provided both status and comfort. As heiresses to a fortune derived from Nevada’s silver mines, they deserved nothing less. Their older sister Daisy had married the penniless second son of a duke—a love match, of all things—making Elizabeth all the more determined to see her three remaining daughters married according to her expectations.
The fact that none of them were interested in marrying the boring, self-absorbed, duty-ridden sons of noble houses seemed to escape her.
Frankie turned over and pounded her pillows into a more comfortable shape, wishing that her mother would prove half as malleable.
Minutes later, overheated, she threw the covers off.
The featherbed was too soft, the mattress below it, too hard . . .
She would have to find a way to endure and escape unattached through dinners, parties, and balls until the end of the season. She was not about to be railroaded into some half-baked arrangement with one of the matrimonial rejects that haunted tearooms and debutante balls.
Truth be told, she couldn’t see any advantage in marriage, for herself or any other woman. It was a lot of fuss and bother, with vows to cleave to, honor,
. The man would get her marriage settlement, a housekeeper, bed warmer, and ultimately an heir and a baby tender. While she would get a belly full of duty, then of baby, then of even more duty.
The fact that she knew about the bed-warming, baby-getting part should probably disqualify her as suitable wife material, anyway. Her elder sister Daisy had been quite explicit with her on what to expect regarding marital nightlife, and, it all sounded more than a little off-putting. She hadn’t seen or met a single man she would consider sharing bed and board with, much less her most intimate body parts.
That thought propelled her from her bed and set her pacing. It really was too warm in her room. She fanned her nightgown and a moment later headed for the door. There was only one cure for this kind of restlessness.
The great brick kitchen on the sub-street level was cool and mostly dark. She paused to let her eyes adjust rather than turn up the low-burning gas lamp. Cook was not overly fond of Frankie’s nighttime journeys into her domain; no sense advertising her presence. She held a hand over the stove and smiled at the lingering warmth. It was just enough. She knew exactly where the little copper café-au-lait pot was shelved and where Cook kept milk in the icebox.
She had the milk warming and was reaching for a crockery cup from the shelf when a thump and a rattle came from the steps and short hall that led up to the alley door.
She froze and craned her neck trying to make out the alcove in that hallway. Young Bob the footman always dozed there until everyone—meaning Uncle Red—was in for the night. But the seat was empty. Then came what might have been a muffled groan and the sound of a lock being scraped. Picked? She staggered back against the sideboard. Someone was trying to force the alley door?
She looked around for something, anything with which to defend her home. Spotting an old wooden bread paddle hanging above the fireplace—the one Cook used to threaten any footman sneaking a taste from a serving bowl—she grabbed it and judged it hefty enough to make a dent in a robber’s motivation.
The alley door swung open with a muffled bang, and it sounded like someone grunted and then muttered in annoyance. She positioned herself at the side of the steps leading down into the kitchen, paddle raised. The minute the two figures lurched into view, she swung the paddle at the nearest one and a top hat went flying.
It was a glancing blow. She could have done better. But it sent the closest wretch stumbling and the other fellow sinking to his knees, then to the floor. Wait—a top hat?
The head gear rolled across the floor, and a deep voice growled, “Damn it!” She lurched back with a hand clamped to her mouth—she’d only managed to make the one she’d struck mad as a wet hornet. He clapped a hand to the side of his forehead, straightened, and turned on her.
“Jesus, woman, what are you trying to do? Kill someone?”
In a heartbeat, she recognized that patrician voice, that chiseled face, that . . . oh, no
Clutching the bread paddle to her chest, she scrambled back, trying to make sense of the fact that Reynard Boulton, heir to the wealthy and reclusive Viscount Tannehill, was in her house in the middle of the night . . . with . . .
“Uncle Red!” She recognized the heap on the floor as he pushed up on one arm and shook his head weakly. She ran to him, knelt, and searched for signs of injury. “What’s happened? Are you all right?”
The smell hit her the same moment Reynard Boulton’s voice did.
“He’s bloody fine. Just stewed to the gills.”
Red reeked of whiskey. It wasn’t exactly an unusual occurrence, but the fact that he was collapsed on the kitchen floor looking pie-eyed and incapacitated was alarming. His head hit the floor and his eyes closed.
“It’s me that’s in mortal danger,” Boulton bit out. “What the devil possessed you to attack someone entering your kitchen with—”
“I thought you were a house-breaker,” she replied irritably. He was testing the side of his forehead and glowering down at her. From that angle, he looked tall and intimidating. Light hair, gray eyes, and chiseled features. She didn’t remember him being so . . . tall or so . . . handsome. She did, however, remember his condescending manner toward her and her sisters at Daisy’s wedding three years ago. Insufferable nob
. She rose, chin up. “Young Bob always locks the door and goes to bed when Uncle Red comes home, so I thought he was home already.”
“Well, he wasn’t.” Boulton looked around the floor for something.
“What are you doing bringing my uncle home?”
“He was incapable of making it to his own door, so a mutual friend asked me to see him home.” He drew his gloved hand from his injury, and inspected it, seeming relieved that no blood had been drawn. However, he was growing a nice little goose-egg above his eye. With any luck, he might even develop a shiner. She could only hope.
“Come on, Uncle Red.” She stooped beside him, taking hold of his arm and straining to pull him upright. “You can’t lie here. Let’s get you up to bed.”
Red was in no condition to contribute to his own relocation, and after several tugs and changes of grip, she gave an exasperated groan and looked up at Reynard Boulton. He was watching her efforts through narrowed eyes.
Having to ask for his help was nothing short of humiliating.
“If you would be so good as to assist me in getting him to his bed,” she said tartly. “My mother will faint dead away if she finds him on the floor of the kitchen in the morning.”
It took a moment, but he jerked a nod, muttering something about good deeds going unpunished.
Red was pure dead weight as they pulled him upright, positioned themselves under his arms, and supported him around the waist. Frankie was aware of Boulton’s arm against hers around Red, and of the fact that he was bearing the better part of Red’s weight. Still, getting her uncle through the center hall and up the stairs took monumental effort.
She directed them along the upper hall to Red’s room and managed to open the door. At the side of his bed, they let him go and allowed him to fall, facedown onto the pristine linen. Huffing annoyance, she heaved both of his feet up onto the bedcovers and started to unlace his shoes.
To her surprise, Boulton reached for the other shoe and a moment later set it carefully on the bench at the foot of the bed. Then he transferred his attentions to Red’s suit coat, tie, and collar. Soon, she was able to pull the coverlet from beneath her uncle and lay it over him.
It was chilly in the room. There was no fire and the staff hadn’t thought to draw the heavy drapes closed for the night. Moonlight coming through the window allowed her to see Boulton plainly as he stood nearby, his light eyes wandering over her. She suppressed a shiver.
“What were you doing in the kitchen in the dead of night anyway, Miss”—he was distracted momentarily—“which Bumgarten are you?”
“Frances. Frankie to my friends and family. You can call me Miss Bumgarten
,” she answered, feeling an annoying tightness in her throat. Increasingly self-conscious in her nightgown, probably because she was naked beneath it, she wrapped her arms around her waist. “I couldn’t sleep, so I went downstairs to make some warm milk.”
She looked up, met his gaze, and nearly dropped to her knees. His gray eyes had warmed to silver, his lips were parted as if he were about to speak, and his features glowed with an arousing kind of heat. Speculation weighted that silver gaze as it roamed her and lingered boldly on the skin bared by the drawstring neck of her nightgown. She felt it like a physical touch. What the devil was happening to her? She felt prickles all over, like she had been plunged into hot water.
“He’s not usually like this,” she said, pulling from his gaze to glance at her wayward uncle.
“I’m afraid he is. More than you know,” Boulton said coolly. “He’s what you Americans call ‘a drinkin’ man.’”
“Well, he’s not usually this—what you Brits call—‘into his cups.’”
He made a rumbling sound deep in his chest that might have been a laugh.
Her fingertips tingled.
“I suppose I should thank you for bringing him home.” She raised her chin and started around him toward the door, but he stepped into her path, facing her, now even closer.
“Yes,” he said, his voice oddly lower, softer. “You should.”
Then he stood watching her, seeming expectant.
Every nerve in her body vibrated with a delicious sort of tension.
“Very well. Thank you, Mr. Boulton,” she said through half-clenched jaws, irritated by her reaction to his presence as much as his ungracious attitude. The sooner he was out of the house, the better. “Let me show you out.”
She stalked down the hallway and down the stairs, refusing to look behind her to see if he was following. The minute she reached the kitchen she picked up the bread paddle from the floor and pressed the handle to her as she began to look for his hat. A moment later, he arrived in the doorway and watched as she retrieved his headgear and held it out to him.
“I’m afraid it’s damaged,” she said as he took in the dented side and broken brim. “I’ll see that it is replaced. If you will give me the name of your hatmaker . . .”
“No need,” he said tersely, holding it up and appraising the dangling piece of brim with an irritable squint.
His mouth twitched as if he were suppressing a stronger reaction.
“Fine. Scott’s.” He grimaced and grabbed his forehead as if pain had just speared through it again. “In Bond Street.”
She felt an alarming urge to soothe that forehead and touch the light hair that fell in a soft wave over it, but managed to keep her arms tucked.
“I suppose I should apologize for your head,” she said.
“Yes. You should.” He clipped energy from each word as if saving it to deal with the pain.
“I could mix you a headache powder,” she said, astonished that those words came out of her mouth. She was trying to kick him out the door, wasn’t she? “Cook keeps a supply of medicinals here.”
“I believe you’ve done quite enough.” He donned the damaged hat with a wince and headed for the alley door. At the step, he paused.
“A word of advice.” He slashed a look at her from beneath that droopy, broken brim. The sad-looking hat didn’t dampen his allure or dent his dignity. “Next time you decide to go rambling about the house in the middle of the night, be so good as to put on a few clothes.”
She stood for a moment staring at the alley door after it slammed, feeling scalded by his dismissal.
Put on a few clothes.
She took a swing with the bread paddle, imagining a satisfying “crack” it would make as it connected with the other side of his swollen head. Who did he think he was, making comments on her person, like he’d never seen a woman in her night—She froze.
He’d seen her in her nightgown. A trickle of illicit excitement slid through her, followed hard by a wash of embarrassment.
Sweet Lord, what had she done?
He was the Fox—collector of secrets, spreader of gossip, master of whispers—and she and Red had just handed him a whole bushelful of humiliating tidbits.
He wouldn’t dare, would he? Ruin her reputation over something as harmless as being caught making warm milk in the dead of night . . . in her own kitchen . . . in her nightgown?
She returned the paddle to its place above the great hearth, forgot all about the milk warming on the stove, and fled up the stairs to her bed.
The sheets now felt cool against her flushed skin as she climbed between them and clamped her hands over her eyes. Uncle Red’s favorite description of a certain kind of unscrupulous Englishman came to her: low-down, kipper-suckin’ sidewinder
. Reynard Boulton was that, all right.
But she had the unsettling feeling that there was more to the viscount-in-waiting.
She relived the entire episode, trying not to dwell on the memory of his every feature, every expression, every word. It was nearing dawn when she finally succumbed to sleep, but even then, she was plagued by dreams of arrogant gray eyes that shone silver in the moonlight.