OCTOBER 1826 …
Being a thoroughly disappointing son in every aspect of his life was a responsibility Giles Sinclair took seriously. So seriously that if a single week passed without his father’s irate censure of his inappropriate behavior, he considered himself a complete failure. After a worryingly quiet few weeks with only one minor skirmish over a reckless wager that had found the Duke of Harpenden’s increasingly deaf ears, he was determined to make tonight’s expensive party a resounding and scandalous success in time for his weekly audience with his disapproving sire on the morrow.
He sipped his apple juice, strategically disguised in a tall crystal flute so no one would realize he was stone-cold sober, while he watched the eclectic crowd and allowed himself a rare moment of satisfaction. The great and the good, the famous and the infamous, were all crammed into the fashionable Egyptian-themed ballroom of his Bloomsbury town house. Two hours in and it was all going swimmingly, with several of the more outrageous guests already three sheets to the wind. In another hour or so, the majority would be tipsy and that always made for good entertainment. By the time they all poured out onto the pavement in the small hours, it was imperative that a goodly handful had thoroughly disgraced themselves to ensure his latest and most hastily arranged Annual Reprobates Ball was more shocking than the last. Another point of petty principle and, frankly, the only rebellion he had against all the lies his sire had told the world. Lies that had ruined Giles’s life the day it started but which his conscience would never allow him to refute.
“I want every champagne glass filled to the brim, Dalton, and not with that cheap stuff you procured from your shady contacts at the docks. Use the Veuve Clicquot with abandon and make no secret of it.” Nothing inflamed the duke hotter than reckless spending on frivolous hedonism. Especially if he thought he was funding it all.
Not that he was, of course.
As a point of principle, Giles hadn’t spent a single farthing of his allowance in a decade. Instead, like Robin Hood, he covertly put it to work repairing all his father’s many misdeeds, anonymously righting wrongs while he lived off his own wits and canny business acumen. And he had done a bloody good job of it, too, enough that he could afford to fill every bathtub in Bloomsbury with the finest French champagne if he wanted and still have change to spare on another shiny new pair of Hoby boots.
Not that the old man knew any of that, either.
Such restraint, dogged determination, philanthropy, and hard work would only encourage people to reevaluate him, and that wouldn’t do at all when being underestimated came in so very handy. And it went without saying that his sordid little secret would thoroughly ruin his already atrocious reputation when his father despaired of that most of all. A two-faced irony that never failed to amuse him.
“The Veuve Clicquot?” His butler-cum-valet rolled his only eye. “Even though half the guests are already so drunk they wouldn’t know Veuve Clicquot from horse piss? It’s a dreadful waste of good champagne, if you ask me.”
“But I didn’t ask you, did I, Dalton? I never do, yet you bore me with your unwelcome opinions regardless.” Giles grabbed a passing canapé before he waved his wholly unsuitable servant away. “Bubbles for everyone and that is an order.”
“Yes, my lord.” With his customary insolence, Dalton tugged his forelock then strode off, his intricately carved peg leg clonking loudly on the solid marble floor Giles had had imported at vast expense from Italy.
Both things had sent the duke into a rage.
The marble tiles because they had cost an arm and a leg, and his butler because while Dalton wasn’t completely devoid of one arm, alongside the eye and the leg, he had lost a couple of fingers on his left hand.
Dalton had nobly mislaid all those unfortunate body parts as a young sailor at the Battle of Trafalgar but was paid handsomely to solemnly tell anyone who happened to inquire that he didn’t like to talk of his former life as a pirate, now that he was trying to be respectable.
As a bevy of liveried footmen distributed freshly filled glasses amongst his guests, Giles sensed her before she spoke, or rather sniffed her. The heady scent of fat summer roses tinged with peach and the merest smidgen of vanilla was as unique a perfume as the unconventional and vexing woman who wore it.
“You will be delighted to learn that Lady Sewell and that awful Russian count you insist on inviting to everything are in the midst of a tryst in your music room.”
She had a penchant for bold, fashionable gowns despite her desire to blend into the wall, and tonight’s was particularly lovely. The ivory silk skimmed her curves in all the right places while the saucy flashes of red at the hem and the big ribbon that highlighted her trim waist complemented her dark hair to perfection. As was her way, that hair was arranged in a sophisticated but asymmetrical style that went completely against the current fashion for symmetry but suited her regardless, for she wasn’t so much a woman who marched to the beat of her own drum but one who made it seem as if everyone else were out of step. She was, as always, stunning—not that he would ever tell her, of course. “I suppose that shocking incident is bound to feature in your newspaper tomorrow, harridan?”
“As usual, I have no earthly idea what you are talking about.” Miss Diana Merriwell sipped her champagne with artful nonchalance as she gazed at the sea of twirling silk on the dance floor rather than at him. “But that is hardly a surprise.” She always delivered her insults deadpan for maximum effect, and that never failed to make her feline green eyes sparkle. “You rarely make any sense at the best of times, my dear Lord Bellingham, and I confess, I have long given up any hope of you ever doing so. If you weren’t so inextricably linked to my brother-in-law, I would have washed my hands of the chore of you last winter—but alas…” She sighed as if merely knowing him was a huge inconvenience. “You continue to linger on the periphery of my life like a bad smell.”
Giles took no offense at her words. In the last twelve months she had said far worse and so had he, because sparring was what they did.
“Then you flatly deny all of your insightful contributions to The London Tribune’s gossip column of late?”
“As if the establishment would ever trust a mere woman to write the news.”
“But you are Diana—Goddess of the Hunt and Hunter of the Truth.”
She stifled a yawn. “I simply edit some of the stories for spelling and grammar as a way to pass the time. How do you aristocrats stand the monotonous boredom of an inane life of leisure?” Another well-placed barb that made him smile. She loved to put him in his place. Nothing here impressed her.
“And there I was, quietly impressed with your journalistic aplomb, but alas…” He stared at the dance floor, too, as if he were bored stiff with it all. “Had I known you had no real press credentials whatsoever and are merely a nitpicking grammarian, I never would have invited you here tonight. And now I am peeved, for if you do not smear all of this evening’s shocking scandals over your tawdry paper tomorrow, then who will?”
“A mystery, to be sure—but I am certain you will not have to worry. When one courts scandal like you do, Giles, word inevitably gets around.” She slanted him a knowing glance. “And fast, too … so your father is bound to be spouting steam from his ears in time for your audience with him tomorrow, exactly as you intended.”
Her canny intelligence always grated. “As usual, I have no earthly idea what you are talking about, either, Diana.” The more he got to know her, the more he became convinced she read him like a book, and that really galled him. Because Giles liked to think he was always the canniest person in any room and several paces ahead of the crowd—but she was always hot on his heels. Or more often, he trailed on hers. “Hardly a surprise when you rarely make any sense at the best of times, either. You do know I only tolerate you on sufferance because my best friend married your sister, don’t you? Although it is still a mystery to me why he aligned himself with such a bunch of lowly commoners.” He pulled a face as he sipped his drink, even though his lips were twitching because he loved to put her in her place, too. She wore her common roots like a badge of honor and sometimes wielded them like a shield to ward off unwelcome attention. “We blue bloods must ensure the purity of our species, or civilization as we know it will end and chaos will ensue.”
Like him, she wasn’t the least bit offended by the insult. “Then you flatly deny going out of your way to annoy your father purely for sport?”
It wasn’t for sport. It was necessity. The only avenue available to punish the duplicitous scoundrel for all his many unconscionable sins.
“It is hardly my fault if he finds me disappointing, any more than it is my fault I was born that way.” An outright lie and he suspected she knew it, but he would rather die than let her glimpse any of the sorry truth.
While it was true the insufferable Duke of Harpenden had always considered his only son unworthy in every possible sense, Giles had used out-and-out rebellion as a defense mechanism long before he had discovered the Dirty Secret and that he really was unworthy in every possible sense. By then, it had been too late to rejoice in that enlightening fact. The dreadful die had been cast, the hand of fate had been dealt, and there really wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it apart from the one thing that would blow his entire world to smithereens. A prospect he wouldn’t have minded in the slightest if it were just himself it affected. Unfortunately, the awful, unpalatable, and toxic truth had dire consequences for a great many innocent people, and more unfortunately, he had failed to inherit his father’s unfeeling, granite heart. If he had, he would have lit the fuse himself then cheerfully pulled up a chair and enjoyed an entire plate of biscuits while he watched the illustrious name of Harpenden implode spectacularly in the full glare of the public gaze.
“I hear rumor that you are about to do something your father wholeheartedly approves of … and that finally, congratulations are in order.” Her sip of champagne was much too nonchalant this time, as if she were fishing, though for the life of him he couldn’t think what for.
“Does the name Miss Dahlia Regis ring any bells?”
“Doe-eyed Dahlia the dumpy draper’s daughter?”
“Surely you mean desirable Dahlia with the newly doubled dowry?” She stared him dead in the eye. “Or perhaps determined-to-be-a-duchess Dahlia would be a better description if the rumors I hear about the pair of you are true?”
He couldn’t help but laugh at the preposterousness of her suggestion. “Surely you do not think I am romantically linked to Miss Regis? For she is far too proper for my dissolute tastes.” And far too vapid. Daft Dahlia was her nickname in the gentleman’s clubs because she could not converse without prompts from her pushy father, but he was too much of a gentleman to repeat that moniker outside of one.
“Not linked, Giles. Engaged.”
“You need more reliable sources, Diana.”
Two flummoxed dark eyebrows kissed in consternation. “You are not engaged?”
“It is not the sort of horror a man forgets. And if I were about to sacrifice my liberty to the fetid prison of the parson’s trap, which I absolutely never will, I would not choose a future duchess incapable of even spelling the word duchess without assistance. Poor Dahlia is as dim as a pauper’s candle, bless her, and where is the challenge in that?”
In truth, Giles had always felt sorry for the girl. Her shameless social-climbing father had touted her about season after season, wafting her ever-increasing dowry under every titled gentleman’s nose as bait so unsubtly, he made the poor thing a laughingstock when nobody ever took it. Apparently, even fortune hunters had standards, which the stuttering, sweet-tempered Miss Regis had always failed to meet.
Diana touched his arm. An unusual and sympathetic gesture from a woman who worked hard to mask every emotion except disdain, and a touch he typically felt everywhere because she had always had such an inexplicable and profound effect on him.
“Her father and yours have dined together twice this last week alone.” She leaned in to whisper in case anyone overheard. “Once at the Regis house on Bruton Place and once at White’s. I also have a reliable source in the legal trade who is convinced the settlements have already been drawn up and signed.”
“Signed?” He didn’t doubt the validity of the information. Since The London Tribune had employed Diana, amongst others, the incendiary quality of their stories had improved. With her spearheading the gossip column and the mysterious Sentinel dominating the news, the paper was a force to be reckoned with to such an extent many ne’er-do-wells, as well as all the other rival newspapers, now feared them. Only last month, one fortune-hunting rake had been forced to flee town on the back of one of The Tribune’s exposés.
Diana nodded. “I have another lady who claims Mrs. Regis was heard bragging of her daughter’s imminent elevation to the highest echelons of society only yesterday at a tea party.”
He huffed out a withering sigh as the ridiculous rumor suddenly made perfect sense. “The duke has been trying to marry me off for years. Every month he puts forward another candidate for my consideration.” It was his solemn duty apparently, to furnish the Harpenden line with more heirs to continue it in perpetuity, unrepentant that in doing so Giles would be perpetuating his sire’s lie. Every well-bred young debutante had been paraded in front of him for a decade. Clearly he was now scraping the barrel if poor Miss Dahlia Regis was the next contender, as she was neither. “They are always presented to me as a fait accompli.” Along with the bellowed demand that he do his duty.
The Sinclairs had been obsessed with duty from time immemorial, and choosing not to do it was a cardinal sin, no matter how noble the reasons or how tenuous the legality. Dukes begat heirs who begat heirs without question, and the duke expected Giles to ignore the Dirty Secret and do the same without complaint. Although his sire had never had the nerve to have actual settlements drawn up before.
“Madame Devy is making Miss Regis’s trousseau.” There was something odd swirling in Diana’s lovely eyes. Concern perhaps. Regret? Pity? “She has been instructed to embroider every garment with these initials.” She rummaged in her tiny, beaded, delightfully frivolous evening bag before she passed him a small square of cloth. On it were the intertwined letters D, G, and S. The D he presumed was the bride’s Christian name; the S had to be for Sinclair. Giles couldn’t think of another fraudulent future duke with a surname of that letter, and the G sealed his fate. “The bride told Madame Devy in a quiet aside that although her parents had said she was always destined for the nobility, she still could not quite believe she was destined to be a duchess. She claimed to be giddy from the excitement of it all.”
Giles stared at the embroidered letters, feeling wretched. “Who told you that?”
“Madame Devy herself … she owes me a favor … I am sorry, Giles, but my sources are reliable. I wouldn’t have brought it to you otherwise.” There was definitely pity in those vexing green eyes now—although probably more for the bride than him.
That his father’s callous determination to see Giles wed was enough to give that unfortunate, sweet woman such cruel false hope. But how blasted typical of him to leave his disappointing son to be the one to dash it.
“I am not marrying Dahlia Regis!” Or anyone ever, for that matter. Thanks to the Dirty Secret, he couldn’t—wouldn’t—inflict that cruel punishment on anyone.
“My contact at The Times says the announcement goes out in two days.” She squeezed his arm again, making every nerve ending stand to attention. “I thought you should know.”
And with that she disappeared back off into the crowd; part of it but separate, as was her way.
Copyright © 2022 by Susan Merritt