Regency in Color – Hildie McQueen

To take Lord Emsbury’s money, or not to take Lord Emsbury’s money? That was the question Colin Lewis Francis Latham, Duke of Herstshire, contemplated as he glanced through eyes half-cast from too much drink and a fair bit of indifference, at the young earl across the card table. At some point during the game of faro they’d been playing with the three other gentlemen, whose names now escaped Colin, the conversation had turned to who would win in a bare-knuckle match between Tom Molineaux and Tom Belcher. From there, it had spiraled into boasting of each gentleman’s sporting prowess, and finally into Lord Emsbury wagering ten pounds that he could withstand the hardest blow to the face Colin had to offer. The scrawny man’s skeletal face begged to differ. Pearls of sweat glistened on Lord Emsbury’s forehead, subverting his weak performance of confidence. He discreetly dabbed at the offending moisture with the cuff of his dress coat, no doubt hoping Colin’s inebriated brain would keep him from noticing the slight act of apprehension. Colin did notice. Which was why he currently deliberated whether or not to hold the young man to his foolhardy wager. Plus, he rather enjoyed his membership to Brook’s. He could very well imagine having it revoked after boxing the future Duke of Willfolk. Then again, Colin was no longer a second son. He was the bearer of a title many generations older than Lord Emsbury’s and possessed a fortune many times larger. For that reason alone, his membership would remain secure. That settled it. Colin emptied the remainder of his fourth—or was it his fifth—glass of brandy in one gulp.

If the young man wanted to squander his inheritance on frivolous gambling, who was he to deny him the privilege? He removed his coat and draped it over the back of his chair. “This won’t be pleasant, but you look like a weeper, so I’ll give you half strength,” he said, his voice slightly slurred. His bleary gaze took in Lord Emsbury once more. “Maybe half of half strength,” he amended. Lord Emsbury stood. A cherry hue crept from beneath his cravat up over his pale face. “You wound me, sir,” he said, his head held high. “I have more strength of character than to sob after taking a measly punch, even if to the face.” The corner of Colin’s mouth curled. He hadn’t missed Lord Emsbury’s emphasis on the word measly, and for it, his respect for the young earl grew.

A man who maintained such a haughty bearing even as he quaked in his boots was either brave or a fool. Although one could argue those were two ways of describing the same character trait. Colin unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. He inclined his head to Lord Emsbury. “Apologies. Let us prove your rugged constitution so that we can return to our card game.” “Yes, let’s.” Lord Emsbury marched around the table and stopped before Colin, arms stiff at his side, back fire-iron straight. He angled his head to the right, presenting the left side of his face for its impending punishment. Men left their tables, and others poured into the gaming room, gathering around to watch the spectacle.

They pushed close until Colin barely had room to cock back his arm. “I have two that Lord Emsbury goes down,” someone in the crowd shouted. “Three for me,” another added. “Three that he loses consciousness.” A stifled collective laugh rolled through the gathered men. More bets poured in, shouted from every direction. If he weren’t so far in his cups, Colin might have felt bad for Lord Emsbury. Unfortunately, the brandy did what it was supposed to—numb his soul and shut off his humanity. Colin rolled his shoulders then lifted his fists, ready to get on with it. He squinted, attempting to turn the three blurry Lord Emsburys into a single, more solid one.

His target a little more in focus, he drew back his right arm and swung, using what his drunken brain gaged to be much-reduced force—although whether his perception mirrored reality was debatable. “How odd,” Colin mumbled to himself. Instead of pain emanating from his knuckles, there was a constricting, dull ache in his forearm. Colin looked at the pained area. A brawny hand latched onto his arm in a grip so tight its fine, black hairs stood out against the contrasting milky-white knuckles. Colin followed the line of the arm up to the face of its owner. His lips spread into a wide, lopsided grin. “Ah, Hamon, my old friend.” Richard Clarke, the Earl of Hamon, was one of Colin’s closest friends since their time at Eaton. Hamon returned the greeting with a scowl that made most delicate young ladies quiver, and most men mousy versions of their formerly lionhearted selves.

But Colin had known Hamon since the time his adolescent bladder couldn’t hold its contents through the night, thus nullifying his fear of the other man. Even the portion it would be wise for him to maintain during moments such as these. Colin used his free hand to pat Hamon on the shoulder. “I was in the middle of winning a few pounds. How rude of you to interrupt.” Hamon shook his head at Colin, disappointment hewn into each crease in his brow. He released Colin’s arm but kept his hands poised at his side, ready to intervene again if necessary. “More like saving you from your idiocy. Come along. It’s time to go.

” The gathered men grumbled amongst themselves, not appreciating the thwarting of their entertainment. They dispersed, many complaining about all the ways they could have spent the assured winnings they would have received from Lord Emsbury’s defeat. Lord Emsbury’s shoulders slackened, his entire body nearly convulsing as he sighed in relief. He quickly scurried back to his seat, collected his chips, and relocated to another card table. “Go?” Colin pulled a peevish face, sloppily shaking his head. “Nonsense. I still have several more hours of gambling left before retiring for the evening. It is still evening, is it not?” Colin stepped around Hamon, heading back to his table. The large quantities of alcohol he’d consumed made his movements slow, giving his friend the advantage. Hamon quickly blocked his escape.

He retrieved Colin’s discarded coat, hat, and gloves and held them out to him. “Your grandmother awaits you at Torridune House. After returning from Lady Alborn’s ball and finding you not at home, she sent a footman to my townhouse asking me to retrieve you. Needless to say, we both knew there were only two places you would be at this hour.” Colin stepped back, pinching the bridge of his nose to ward off the impending headache that, as of late, always followed the mention of his grandmother. “If Lady Herstshire is at home, I have many, many, many more hours of gambling left. And why do you still not possess the ability to tell her no?” He shot Hamon a bleary-eyed, withering glare. “We’ve been friends for far too long for you not to have learned how to do so from me. It must be nearly midnight by now. Your excuse was built into the inappropriate hour for calling on a person to ask for favors.

” Hamon lifted a nonchalant shoulder. “Because unlike her ungrateful grandson—that would be you—I know the value of a caring maternal figure, seeing as how I grew up without one. Thus I respect her and have no qualms assisting her plots to mold you into something resembling an upstanding gentleman, when and where I can.” Colin made a noise somewhere between a grunt and a snort. Some friend he had. Hamon had abandoned him in favor of becoming his grandmother’s champion. The treacherous lout. He should have never invited him home over the school holidays. “Look at you. Using guilt to try and sway me.

You grow more like her by the minute. I forbid you from visiting my grandmother for at least a fortnight. Maybe two.” “And I chose to ignore you. Now let’s go.” Hamon thrust Colin’s garments out with more force, his stony expression leaving no room for further arguments. Colin snatched the offered items and clumsily put them on. “I am coming with you only because you’ve ruined my mood. Now I must seek the company of a more agreeable, and preferably more buxom, companion to revive my spirits.” Hamon didn’t reply.

He stepped to the side and swept an arm out, prompting Colin to precede him. Colin eyed his friend suspiciously as he passed. If his grandmother awaited him, there was no way Hamon would allow him to do anything other than go straight to her. His silence generally preceded a diabolical maneuver that forced Colin to do as he bade. It was no surprise to Colin that his carriage awaited him right behind Hamon’s when they stepped out of Brooks. No doubt, his driver had been given strict instructions to bring Colin straight home. Fortunately, Colin didn’t economize when it came to paying his staff, which had the marvelous effect of making them very loyal and swift to carry out his requests. Including swallowing their timidity and ignoring the threats against their lives that Hamon had a habit of issuing to deter disobedience. Stepping up to the coach, Colin paused in front of the door held open by a footman and looked at Albert, his devoted and trustworthy driver. Albert inclined his head, a conspiratorial glint in his eyes.

A devilish grin pulled at the corner of Colin’s mouth—he’d meet no opposition to overruling Hamon’s instructions. He’d be burying his face in the exquisite Miss Catherine Griffith’s Cupid’s kettle drums soon enough. Colin turned to Hamon, working to keep the glee of winning this clash of wills from his expression. “I believe this is where we part ways old friend. Enjoy the remainder of your evening.” A hint of gloating entered his voice. “I know I shall.” Hamon crossed his arms over his chest, his expression neutral. “You’ll go straight home then?” “Not a chance,” Colin scoffed. Hamon’s lips curled into a humorless smile, his visage turning fiendish.

“I hoped you’d say that. This is for your own good.” Before Colin could work past his inebriated confusion to form a coherent response, Hamon cocked back his fist and punched him in the face. Clearly, he’d learned a thing or two from his lessons at Gentleman Jackson’s boxing academy. Colin crumpled to the ground. Hamon’s command to Albert to take him home followed him into the darkness. C C H A P T E R T W O olin slowly emerged from his slumber, immediately wishing to plunge back into the nothingness of sleep. Throbbing spasms rippled from the back of his head, along his scalp, until they exploded behind his eyes. He squeezed them shut. The tight skin around his left eye pulsed with sharp, stabbing pain.

He touched the no doubt bruised, swollen area, and hissed. “Oh, good. You’re awake,” a familiar imperious feminine voice said. Colin groaned, fighting off a new pain located auspiciously close to his arse. “Hello, Grandmother. Did you watch me while I slept?” “More like watched over you to make sure you didn’t leave this world while you slept. The way you poison your body with alcohol I wasn’t sure how you’d fair. I’ve been here a short while. If you didn’t wake soon, I planned to rouse you. By force if necessary.

” “I don’t doubt it.” He opened his eyes, rotated his head on the pillow, and took in the petite woman perched in a chair next to his bed. She glowered at him. Her frigid eyes, as clear as a cloudless blue sky, assessed him in the critical way of a disappointed parental figure. Even at the age of one and sixty, it was clear to see why his grandfather had snatched her off the marriage mart only two weeks into her first season and made her Lady Herstshire. Her delicate, classically beautiful features made her the envy of most women and the desire of most men. Features she’d passed on to Colin’s mother, who had passed them on to him. Ones he took advantage of at every opportunity. He had no qualms admitting to anyone who asked that his reputation as one of the biggest rakes in London was well deserved. Lady Herstshire stood, placed her sewing in her vacated chair, and came to sit on the edge of his bed.

She flicked the bridge of his nose, right between the eyes, sending a new explosion of pain shooting through his skull. She positioned her hand to do it again, but Colin quickly blocked his face from her assault. “Ow! Would you stop that?” “If you wish to act like a child, I will punish you like one.” “Hamon punished me well enough last night. I can assure you of that.” “That is true enough.” She gently ran a finger around the wounded area of his face, her expression softening. “You’ve been asleep for so long, I almost feared he’d hit you too hard.” Then as if it had only been a fleeting figment of his imagination, the tenderness vanished. She straightened and folded her hands primly in her lap, her glower back in place.

“Though it is a shame that you needed to be struck in the first place to get you home.” The dip in her inflection and the thin layer of censure underlying her words were so well done that if he were a different man, he’d feel shame—quite possibly even some remorse—for his behavior. As it were, he was not that sort of man, and the monsters haunting his every waking moment made it hard for him to want to be. “You may no longer speak of Hamon,” Colin brooded. “His roles as my best friend and your pseudo-grandson are terminated henceforth. The insidious bas—fiend is no longer welcome in my presence.” Lady Herstshire shook her head, casting her eyes up to the heavens. “Give me strength.” She met his gaze again, her eyes a wall of steely determination. “My daughter, your mother, suffered in agony to bring you into this world.

For what? So you could squander your life on drinking, chasing skirts, and evading your responsibilities?” Colin laced his fingers over his stomach, an unbothered smirk forming on his lips, making him look every bit the smug, uncaring cad. “You know, the more you use that particular tactic to invoke guilt in me, the less effective it becomes. Besides, I have it on good account that my coming into the world was a rather smooth affair.” A streak of pink blossomed over Lady Herstshire’s cheeks. “Oh, hush now. It’s not proper to discuss such things with your grandmother.” “As you wish,” he said, raising a shoulder dispassionately. “Although, I can’t let this moment pass without reminding you that we wouldn’t be discussing it if you’d give up your campaign to sway me with guilt. It will never work.” “Then tell me how I can get through to you.

” She fumed, an undercurrent of frustration and distress in her voice. Her hands balled into fists, then relaxed. She released a long, weary exhale, her posture hunching and her forehead wrinkling, making her appear as unsure and out of control as Colin felt. He wanted to reach out and place a hand over hers in comfort but couldn’t bring himself to do it. He hated being the source of so much vexation in her life. Although she was tough on him, he never doubted she did everything out of love. But exercising his self-control, and presenting himself as a moderately decent gentleman, was becoming a more grueling feat of strength each day. She placed her hand over his, her gaze boring into his, pleading for understanding. “I worry about you as any grandmother would. Within the span of a year, you’ve come back from war, lost your father and brother, and inherited a title and the burden of responsibilities you were never meant to shoulder.

That is a lot for any man to deal with.” “Yes, it is,” he whispered. “And I’ve barely seen you shed a tear, let alone properly grieve. All you do is drink, gamble, and keep company with women of questionable moral character. I’m afraid that one of these days, your pain will drag you into darkness you can’t escape from.” Colin said nothing. He slumped farther into the pillows. Her words struck a secret chord in his heart that he tried his best to avoid. She was right about the darkness, although it had possibly already ensnared him in a mental prison he’d never escape from. Either way, the truth in her words was something he did not wish to face.

He slipped his hand from beneath hers and donned his best imitation of an unencumbered smile. “I promise I will try and do better.” This act must not have been as effective as he’d hoped. She silently searched his face, probably hoping to find something that would make her believe his vow. After a moment, she nodded, short and without much conviction. “Yes, well, your first step toward that end can be making sure you are dressed and in attendance at Lady Devonford’s ball this evening. You’ve slept through the night and most of today, so you should be more than recovered from your night of debauchery. If not, I will have Cook whip up one of her concoctions to help you mend faster.” Colin pulled a disgusted face. “I will never be so foxed as to need one of those ever again.

Drinking that vile brew once was more than enough, I assure you.” “If that is your choice, so be it. Either way, you are to be there this evening.” Her warm palm cupped the side of his face. “It is time to put away your juvenile antics and act like the respected member of society that you’re supposed to be. You are no longer a second son. You are the Duke of Herstshire, and with that comes specific obligations.” “You are right. I will be there. I swear it.

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