The Truth About Cads and Dukes(8)

By: Elisa Braden



Snorting sloppily, Colin replied, “No. Not well at all. But you knew that.”

Lazy, elegant fingers gripped a glass of whisky and tossed a shot down Chatham’s throat. Colin wondered if Chatham was drunk, too. He could never quite tell for certain. Benedict Chatham, Viscount Chatham, was a deuced controlled man, even deep in his cups. One never knew if he was furious or thrilled beyond measure. His demeanor remained the same, whatever the circumstances: World-weary cynicism and biting wit accompanied by frightful intelligence and a curious magnetism that women found irresistible, despite being bone-thin and linen-white. Colin had been his friend for over three years, and still, he often seemed a virtual stranger, albeit an amusing one.

Wiping a hand over his face, Colin attempted to sit upright. “None of thish would be neces—necessh—there would be no wager at all if my brother were not such a moralizing prig.”

“Careful there,” Chatham replied, his posture negligent, one slim leg slung over the other, a hand propped on his knee. A single finger of that hand lifted to indicate the bottle of brandy some club employee had conveniently left on the table. Colin’s elbow had nearly knocked it to the floor. “It would be a shame to damage the valuables.”

“You are brilliant, do you know that, Chatham?”

“You’re only saying that because you’re drunk.”

Colin shook his head emphatically. “No! No, no, no. Brandy is dreadfully expensv—exshpen—costly. That’s why I swore it off. Stopped it like that.” He snapped his fingers, but they seemed to miss each other, because the sound wasn’t right. “Can’t afford the stuff. Can’t even afford decent boots. Bloody Harrison cut off my funds.”

“Yes, your brother is not one to suffer fools forever, it is true.”

“Tha’s right! It is his fault I am in this predic—predicam—mess. Now the wager grows more bloody impossible with every new chap who adds his name to the book.” Colin waved to the sideboard, where the betting book lay open, waiting for the next gentleman to up the ante. Thankfully, this particular book was being kept here, at the exclusive gambling hell known as Reaver’s, in a private room accessible only to those Chatham allowed inside. As the future Marquess of Rutherford, Chatham could afford to arrange such conveniences—fortunately for Colin. And Lady Jane Huxley, he supposed.

Graceful as a cat stretching after a nap, Chatham stood and retrieved the book, glancing down at the growing list of notations. “I fail to see your complaint. The more who join the wager, the greater your reward.”

“Never meant to ruin anyone.”

Chatham turned his vivid turquoise gaze on Colin. That particular look—a cold, measuring sort from eyes that were hooded beneath low, dark brows—always gave him the shivers. It was like being examined by a wolf who was not especially hungry at the moment, but wanted to reserve the right to assess his options. “Then perhaps you should not have wagered in the first place.” Chatham’s voice was soft, expressionless.

Colin snorted and glanced down at the marble tabletop. “You sound like the duke.”

“Does he know about the wager?”

He laughed mirthlessly and shook his head. “If he did, he’d cut off far more than my funds.”

In truth, he wouldn’t blame Harrison for delivering violence upon his person. The more time Colin spent with Jane, the worse he felt about what he had to do. Take that very evening, for example. Before arriving at Reaver’s and getting thoroughly sotted, he had attended a ton event at Lady Reedham’s town house—a musicale, or some such. Given the nature of ton events, it was sometimes difficult to discern the difference. In any case, there had been a great deal of dreadful music, and although his brain was pleasantly foggy at the moment, he thought he recalled a gangly young woman at the pianoforte, banging away as though sorely vexed with the composer.

But that was not the important part. The critical bit came a few minutes later, when he spotted Lady Jane Huxley seated in the third row of chairs, her head bowed as if in prayer. It took some time to spot her—she was quite short in stature, and two additional rows of gawkily tall women sat between him and her. He’d been determined, however, and at the next opportunity, when the girl at the pianoforte took a blessed break, and the ladies next to Jane bolted for the refreshment table, Colin slipped in and took a seat beside his quarry.

Glancing down at her lap, he quickly realized that she hadn’t been praying at all. “Good book, Lady Jane?”

She jerked and fumbled with the thing, snapping it closed and adjusting her spectacles. Then she cleared her throat and turned to stare at him with wide, mahogany-brown eyes. “Lord Lacey,” she said with admirable steadiness. “How unexpected to see you again. I did not realize you were a lover of Mozart.”

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