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Late April 1819
Lord Hugh Aldershot, Viscount of Tremberley, wasn’t lonely. It wasn’t loneliness that drove him from his residence and into a gentlemen’s club that, before tonight, he had hardly remembered belonging to. It certainly wasn’t loneliness that led him to indulge in not one or two but four tumblers of Scotch—itself not a rarity, after all. And it definitely wasn’t loneliness that caused him to stare out the broad window of the club with an expression that might look, to a mistaken passerby, quite melancholy.
After all, he couldn’t be lonely. He had his best friends, the Rank Rakes, his set since Eton, whom he saw more days than not. He had invitations to all the best balls and soirées happening this very evening, at the height of the London season, a privilege that many would, no exaggeration, kill for. Not to mention, he could have chosen to pass time with one of the demimondaines currently renowned for their beauty. Or take a tumble with a comely lady—of any class. Yes, the latter amusements were more the respective purviews of the Marquess of Leith and the Earl of Montaigne, two of his best friends, who had very particular penchants for the type of women that they liked to bed. He himself didn’t need to pursue a new courtesan every fortnight or find a fetching chambermaid around every corner, but he certainly could have and had done. No, most of all, he couldn’t be lonely, because he could always do what he liked most for pleasure and a warm bed. Find a ravishing woman in interesting circumstances—his friends would say complicated—and embark on a two-month affair that left him, at its end, sated in a way that he could not quite capture in words.
And yet he found himself staring out the window of what he supposed was his club after all and feeling for the first time in his life, at the age of two and thirty, a bit….at sea.
He knew what the problem was, of course. He just didn’t like to admit it. He was happy for John. And he adored Catherine. The Duke and Duchess of Edington seemed to have unlocked the secret to matrimonial bliss. He teased them about their joy. He told them they should sell viewings of their connubial happiness to society mamas with wayward, titled sons who shunned marriage. The young saplings would have breakfast with John and Catherine and be convinced that they had better marry. Their felicity could make a fellow feel a bit de trop, that was all. But it wasn’t their fault. They did everything they could to not make him and Leith and Montaigne feel that way.
Still, he couldn’t deny that things were different now than they had been. And it wasn’t the same sort of change for Monty and Leith because they still had each other. They were all best mates, but he and John had always been a bit closer and Montaigne and Leith had their own special bond. But now John had a whole new life—a bigger life. It wasn’t that Trem was jealous or wanted more…attention from his best friend. It just meant that, on nights like this one, when he didn’t particularly feel like entering into a complicated liaison or going to a ball or even seeing Montaigne and Leith, he wasn’t sure what to do with himself.
Lost in these reflections, Trem did not at first pay heed to the strange sounds coming from the other end of the club sitting room. Finally, however, the noise had grown loud enough that he was forced to look in their direction. They were coming from the back corner, an area partially obscured by a row of armchairs. At first, he did not recognize the unfamiliar sounds. And then he realized what they were.
They were the sounds of a grown man. Sobbing. Fairly blubbering, actually.
Smirking, he leaned in and tuned his ears to the noise.
“…she doesn’t…love…me,” the man said, his aristocrat tones slurred by drink.
“Come now,” said another, much more sober-sounding man, who Trem recognized as the Baron of Drent, a nice fellow at least a half decade younger than himself whom he remembered from school. “Why don’t you take a rest? Just close your eyes.”
“Can’t… Must reach her… You don’t understand, Drent…” the other man continued. “She is the most…beautiful woman…I have ever seen.”
Trem stifled a laugh, wondering what dangerous woman of the demimonde had reduced this young lordling—whoever he was—to such a state of idiocy.
“I’m sure you’ll prevail eventually, mate,” said the other man, irritation lacing his voice. “She’ll come round.”
“No….” the other answered, his voice sounding quite young. “I’ve sent her…so many letters… Doesn’t respond… Doesn’t want to see me… If the duke knew, he’d kill me.”
Trem’s pulse spiked. Dear God, were they talking about a gentlewoman? A lady of the ton? What duchess had tarried with this young lackwit?
Drent laughed. “If her brother knew, he’d make her marry you.”
Holy hell, they were talking about a gentlewoman. And not a duchess, but a duke’s sister. Who was it? He leaned in to hear more. It could be only a small number of women but no likely candidate sprang to his mind. If he had known his club would always have this much fresh society intelligence—which he had to admit he had always liked more than he should—he might have begun frequenting it earlier than tonight.
He had to know the identity of the drunken, jilted man. Trem peered over the armchair that blocked his view of the men and saw that the speaker was the Earl of Hartley. He looked very deep in his cups, indeed.
“Can’t,” Hartley groaned. “Want her to want to marry me. Want her to choose me.”
Trem snorted. The Earl of Hartley had been known for some years now as one of the best catches for young debutantes, despite the rumors that still swirled, after his inheritance of the title, that he wasn’t his father’s son. He imagined several disappointed ladies would take pleasure in the young lord’s pain at present.
Despite his princely looks and good title, Trem had always found Hartley a bit juvenile. And it wasn’t that he had particularly high standards. Montaigne, after all, was one of his best friends.
In short, Trem wasn’t surprised that he would be whinging about a woman, given that he had a rather whinging personality.
It was surprising, however, that that woman would be a lady.
Trem leaned in so as not to miss anything else.
What woman of the ton had Hartley compromised?
“Best woman I’ve ever had… So sweet…” Hartley continued to slur, seeming only half aware of Drent. “Best face…best arse…”
Trem stifled another laugh at this bathetic description.
“Hart,” Drent said, no longer trying to hide his irritation. “Sleep it off.”
“You have to find her,” Hartley said, now sounding more agitated than foggy. “Take this note to her. Make her see me. Grosvenor Square. Breminster House.”
Trem’s blood ran cold. The smile snapped off his face. Because only one duke’s sister lived at Breminster House. And he knew her very well.
She was the younger sister of his best friend.
It couldn’t be.
No, it must be someone else.
“Henrietta…Henrietta…” Hartley began moaning, as if he were trying to speak to the lady in question himself, as if she were there in the room with them.
Henrietta Breminster, his best friend’s younger sister, practically his younger sister, had thrown the ton into a frenzy from the moment she had debuted. He remembered her when she was an innocent country girl who had never seen London. But it felt like an age since she had been that girl, much longer than three or four years.
Because in that time, she had become the jewel of London society. He could hardly believe it at times, how she had changed. At almost two-and-twenty, she was one of the most beautiful and sought-after young women between Park Lane and Regent Street.
Her ascent made sense, of course. He knew that. Really, he shouldn’t have been surprised. She was the sister of a duke and she had a notoriously enormous dowry. And John and Catherine had themselves gone from potential pariahs for their union to the center of the ton after their marriage. They hadn’t sought it out, but high society had gone wild for their story. After their wedding, their popularity had soared. Now, there was no family more fashionable than the Breminsters. Their prominence was only enhanced by their own indifference to it.
Well, Henrietta wasn’t quite indifferent to it.
He knew she cared. At least a bit.
What girl of her age and station wouldn’t?
In the past, Trem had always laughed when he saw little Henrietta making high society bend to her will.
He knew from John that quite a few gentlemen had already asked for her hand.
But she hadn’t wanted any of them.
It had pleased him, that knowledge, unaccountably. It was true that, if she married, it would be another change. She certainly wouldn’t be little Henrietta anymore if she became some aristocrat’s new wife.
Of course, she was still changed, whether she was single or married. He had seen her last week at the Countess of Whitmore’s ball and even he, who knew her so well, had been taken aback by her mature beauty. Her light brown hair, which seemed to shift a shade each time he saw her, flittering lighter and darker, playing tricks with her pale skin, had been done up in an elaborate coiffure. Her slim, elegant figure had attracted every eye. Her delicate features, doll-like in their prettiness, created an intoxicating contrast to her knowing, fun-seeking gaze.
Not that she had any sort of effect on him personally.
Any man would notice such obvious charms.
“Go to sleep, mate,” Drent said again, and his voice broke Trem’s reverie and brought him back to the present moment.
“Henrietta…” Hartley responded, his voice sounding fainter but no less like a whine.
In this situation, only one action lay available to him.
Whatever the Earl of Hartley thought had happened between him and Henrietta Breminster, it needed to be resolved now. He couldn’t leave when this fool was blubbering madness in the premier gentlemen’s club in England and risking the reputation of his best friend’s younger sister with every word he spoke. Who else might overhear these falsehoods?
“I advise you to stopper your mouth at once, Hartley.”
Trem had crossed the room to the two men.
Only one set of eyes met his own, however. The Earl of Hartley had passed out cold and now snored softly in his armchair. His face appeared a pasty, alcohol-blanched mask. Grabbing him by the throat, which had seemed so tempting a few seconds ago, was now pointless. Still, he itched with the desire to throttle the man. How dare he claim to have touched Henrietta? He shouldn’t even be allowed to think of her.
Drent gaped up at him. Trem knew he and his friends cut quite a figure among the young lords of London. Still, it didn’t make his mood less brutal.
“How can you let him carry on in this way?” he snapped at Drent. “Anyone might hear him.”
“I…am sorry, Trem, really,” the younger man said, his complexion turning pallid with fear. “When I arrived here, he was in this state.”
“It’s Tremberley to you.” He knew his quarrel wasn’t with Drent yet he needed to vent his anger somehow.
“I told him to have a care,” Drent spluttered. “But I can’t help it. He’s mad with love for her.”
“All the more reason why he should not impugn her honor with these falsehoods.”
“They’re not falsehoods. If Edington knew, he’d give his sister a choice between marriage to Hartley or the convent.”
Tremberley sized up Drent. He had known Drent a long while and had never taken him for a liar. Still he couldn’t believe that Henrietta would do something so foolish as to lose her virtue to a bit of aristocratic tinsel like Hartley. Unless she loved him. Which, to hear Hartley tell it, didn’t seem at all the case.
He knew what he had to do.
Trem kicked Hartley on the shin, hard, but he merely grunted in his sleep.
Good, he thought.
It was better this way.
“Grab his other arm, Drent,” he said, hoisting Hartley up on one side. “We’re going to Breminster House. Now.”
End of Excerpt