The British Museum – April 1816
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Andrew Yeats, Viscount Brookfield, didn’t have to look long or hard to find his quarry. As soon as he stepped over the threshold into the museum’s reading room, he spotted his friend sitting close to the door, his nose in a book, apparently oblivious to anyone and everything around him.
Drew bit back a smile as he said, “So this is where Scotsmen go and hide to avoid paying their debts.”
Ian MacLaren, the Earl of Ericht, bolted upright in his wooden chair and turned his surprised gaze to Drew, just a few feet away. “I sent over a bank draft yesterday. Ye didn’t receive it?”
Drew flashed his friend a wide grin. “I just thought you might like to start paying me in advance. Might make it easier on you in the end.”
“Ye can go to hell,” Ian replied without heat. Then he shook his head. “Yer uncle was the unluckiest fellow I ever known. Are ye sure ye’re related?”
Drew’s stomach twisted at the mention of his late uncle. Unfortunately, he was related to the man, more closely than anyone knew, however. Thank God for that last bit. Being George Yeats’ nephew was bad enough. If anyone knew Drew was the villain’s bastard, his life wouldn’t be worth living.
Forcing down the bile that rose up in his throat whenever his uncle was mentioned, Drew shrugged. “Must get all my luck from my mother’s family.” Though that was far from the truth too. His mother had never experienced a lucky day in her life, as far as he was aware. Luck, apparently, was not something one could inherit. “I wanted to see if you were heading down to Albourne’s tomorrow. I’ve got an extra seat in my coach.”
Ian shook his head. “I promised Elspeth I’d escort her to Lady Staveley’s ball tomorrow.”
Drew couldn’t help but chuckle. If there was one place he couldn’t picture the burly Scot it was attending a marriage mart ball. In fact, his friend had avoided such events as though they were the plague. “Lose a bet with your sister?” he guessed.
“Finally gave in to her wailing and constant pleading.” Ian snorted. “And she’s easier to please than Catriona. God save me when that little imp is old enough to attend these damned affairs.”
“Well, perhaps your luck will change, and you’ll meet the lady of your dreams tomorrow night then,” Drew teased.
“So she can spend the half of my fortune I havena already lost to ye?” Ian folded his arms across his chest. “Nay, I’d sooner stick my own spoon in the wall.”
Before Drew could reply to that, a waspish voice echoed in the corridor behind him. “You are the most willful girl in existence,” a woman complained. “For the last time, stand up straight!”
He and Ian exchanged a surprised look before Drew glanced over his shoulder to find a tall, plump, and scowling woman yanking the arm of a much more petite lady.
“I am standing up straight,” the smaller lady bit out, her brown curls bobbing up and down as the chit thrust her chin upward, petulantly standing her ground against her tormentor. She did have spirit, Drew would give her that. The girl was also quite lovely with warm hazel eyes and a heart-shaped face. She hardly looked like the most willful girl in existence. She looked more like a lively pixie or charming sprite.
“You’re so short one can hardly tell,” the imposing harridan returned.
“I suppose all I can do is pray for height then,” the pretty brunette replied cheekily, “as there’s not much else I can do about the situation.”
The plump woman’s face turned a bit red as she sucked in half the museum’s air and narrowed her eyes to little slits. “If you think you’ll find a husband with that smart tongue of yours, you’d better think again, missie.” Then she yanked the girl forward. “We’re already late. Stop dawdling.”
And then the two of them disappeared down the corridor.
“And that, my friend, is the other reason to avoid marriage,” Ian said, coming to stand beside Drew.
“The girl was lovely,” Drew replied, still staring in the direction the two ladies had departed.
“Aye, but the other one…” Ian whistled. “Ye never know when ye’ll wake up next to the other one, and then ye’re trapped the rest of yer days.”
Drew turned his attention back to his friend. There was no reason to resist one’s fate so determinedly. Fate was, after all, fate. “You know your mother will require an heir at some point, don’t you?”
Ian cringed. “Why did ye have to ruin a perfectly fine day?”
“A perfectly fine day?”
The Scot huffed. “Why do ye think I come here to read?”
“Like all frugal Scotsmen, you don’t want to spend money on a library of your own?”
His friend scowled in response. “I have a nicely stocked library at home, I’ll have ye know. But I’ve also got a mother and two sisters making my verra existence a miserable one. And now ye’ve reminded me I’m going to have to marry one of those creatures someday. Ye’re a black-hearted blackguard, Andrew Yeats.”
Drew chuckled. He couldn’t help it. “I didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know, Ian MacLaren.”
“Nay, but ye reminded me of it, and that’s just as bad.”
“Well, you can always delay your fate if you want to abandon Lady Elspeth and head to Sussex with me tomorrow night instead.”
Ian scoffed. “Ye don’t know the first thing about female relations, Drew. I’ve promised those women I’ll take them, and if I don’t do so, they’ll make my life even more miserable than it is now. I’ll have to abandon my own home. I’ll have to find a new place to live. It’s not worth the trouble.”
“You wouldn’t be prone to Scottish exaggerations, now would you?” Drew grinned.
“Ach!” Ian shook his head. “Look at ye, just standing here. Not a care in the world. I ought to make ye come with me to the damned ball.”
“I have been to a ball before, Ian. Lackluster affair. Nothing to get worked up about.”
“Ye went to a soiree, before the season began. It’s hardly the same thing. Simpering young misses line the walls, batting their eyelashes at ye, vying for yer attention. Meanwhile their devious mamas are hatching plans and plotting yer downfall. Some of the more scheming debutants are doing a bit of plotting too, I’d wager.”
“Plotting your downfall?” Drew laughed again. “I think you are exaggerating, my friend.”
“Do ye?” Ian’s brow lifted in question. “Why don’t ye come, then? See for yerself.”
A ball was the last place Drew wanted to be. He wasn’t afraid of devious mamas or scheming debutants, it just wasn’t something he particularly enjoyed. The dreary punch, the stale refreshments, hordes of nice girls. Much too tame for his tastes. “I’ve got Albourne’s tomorrow night, remember?”
“So ye take one night away from the gaming tables? Albourne’ll be glad he willna owe ye any more blunt, and ye can see what these affairs are really like.”
“Why would I possibly want to do that?”
“To keep me company and make up for ruining my day today. Besides—” his friend grinned wickedly “—you’ll need your own heir someday.”
“Touché.” Drew acknowledged his friend’s point with a nod of his head. He would at some point need to find a bride of his own, not that he was in any hurry to do so. After all, Drew had many, many years before he needed to worry about such a thing. But now Ian had made such a fuss about the entire affair, Drew was slightly anxious to prove his friend wrong. “Fine. I’ll go with you. Perhaps we can make it an entertaining evening, one way or another.”
“If ye think I’m going to wager with ye about something, ye’re looking at the wrong man. I know when I’m outmatched.”
* * *
Miss Lucinda Potts bit her tongue as she studied Townley’s Discobolus, wishing she could enjoy the impressive marble without her sister-in-law’s voice echoing off the museum walls. Blast if Lucy’s tongue wasn’t sore from all the biting of it she’d had to do in recent months. In fact, it was a wonder she could still taste her food these days. Still, a sore tongue was better than the alternative—the alternative being her neck stretched on the gallows, which is exactly what would happen to her if she strangled the life out of her new sister-in-law, no matter how much momentary pleasure that might bring.
“Are you deaf?” her sister-in-law, Baroness Elmstead barked. “Come here, now, Lucy!”
Come here now? Lady Elmstead spoke as though Lucy was a stubborn sheepdog who refused to budge. She bit back that particular retort, however, and navigated her way around the marble to stand at her sister-in-law’s side. “Yes, my lady?”
“And don’t take that tone with me.”
Lucy ground her teeth together. She was on her very best behavior as it was. What more could the woman possibly want from her? “I didn’t realize I had a tone,” she said in the sweetest voice she could muster, though it probably came out more like a strangled growl.
Lady Elmstead’s icy, blue eyes narrowed. “Don’t move from this spot. I need to have a word with Mrs. Fitzhugh.”
Poor Mrs. Fitzhugh, in that case. But at least the woman would grant Lucy a much needed reprieve, momentary as it would be. She feigned a demure smile for her sister-in-law and nodded. “I’ll stay right here.”
With a huff, Lady Elmstead turned on her heel and started for the doorway. Before Lucy could even breathe a sigh of relief, a baritone voice from behind her said, “If I were you, I’d tell her to go hang.”
Lucy turned slightly to find a broad-shouldered gentleman standing just a few feet away. A rakish grin lit his lips as he pushed his dark blond hair from his brow. “Unfortunately, she’s my brother’s wife, and he’s my guardian. Telling her to go hang would only make my life more miserable,” she said, turning fully to face the interloper.
“What an awful predicament.” His smile widened. “In that case, I might jump a frigate headed for India if I were you.”
Lucy couldn’t help the giggle that escaped her, even if the man’s comment was wholly inappropriate. Running away had certainly crossed her mind more than once over the last few months, though she hadn’t seriously considered the option. “I don’t think India is in my future, sir. The mere idea of cobras will give me nightmares tonight.”
“My apologies.” He chuckled slightly. “Still, you might want reconsider. The elephants are so nice, after all.”
Elephants? “Have you actually seen one in person?” she asked, stepping closer to the handsome gentleman.
“Several.” He nodded, and his light blue eyes danced with mirth. Then he once again pushed an errant bit of hair from his brow. “I recently spent a year in Bombay.”
“A year in Bombay?” To look at him, the man seemed the epitome of a staid English gentleman in his dark blue coat and buff trousers, not an adventure seeker who traveled to India to spot elephants. “Were you running away from a vicious sister-in-law?”
He laughed again. “Just escaping ordinary life here.”
She must have judged him wrongly then. If he’d simply left to escape ordinary life here, he must be the adventurous sort, after all. There was something wildly fascinating about someone who could just pick up and leave home for one adventure or another. “What was it like? India, I mean.”
“Hot. It even smells warmer, if that makes sense. And lots and lots of color.” He flashed her another smile. “I know a snake charmer there. You could look the fellow up if you’re truly that concerned about the cobras.”
As though she could actually jump a frigate, as he suggested, and head for India. Still, Lucy couldn’t help but nod. “Oh, indeed. If you have his direction that would be most helpful.”
“Lucy!” Lady Elmstead bellowed from the doorway. “What are you doing?”
Lucy smiled at the gentleman. “It was very nice to meet you, sir. I shall consider your suggestion,” she said before turning on her heel and slinking toward her doom…or rather her sister-in-law.
Though they hadn’t actually met, had they? She might never see her adventure seeker again, but he’d planted thoughts of warmer climes, snake charmers, and elephants in Lucy’s mind. And that would make her afternoon alongside her sister-in-law possibly more bearable if nothing else.