The Absolutely Positively Worst Man in England, Scotland and Wales – Anne Stuart

IT STARTED in a card room at a gentlemen’s club on St. James Street in London on a sultry spring night. The heat was oppressive, a positive freak of nature, and while most members of this most august establishment remained starched and sweating, the two disgraced reprobates in the private room had shed neckcloths and coats while they continued their night of gaming and drinking. Mr. Bowdoin, the manager of the club, a man who terrified green young lordlings and elderly members alike, had only hesitated at the door for a moment. Their dress was an affront to the establishment, but no one could see them, and Adderley had been known to kill a man for less provocation than a complaint about his attire. In fact, he was always a disaster in a world where clothes meant everything, and it was none of Bowdoin’s business. He closed the door quietly behind him and walked on, praying God that they left by the back door, or, failing that, after everyone else had finally deserted the place. Neither of the men even noticed he’d been there. “I’m getting married, y’know,” George said. Christopher St. James Constant, third Earl of Adderley, the absolutely, positively worst man in all of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, slowly lifted his gaze from his cards to view his partner in debauchery in the wavering candlelight. Sir George Latherby, baronet, was not a prepossessing sight, even when sober, and being drunk, which he very definitely was, did not improve matters. The pouches in his soft face turned pink, the malice in his eyes shone forth, and his plump lips relaxed into an expression not unlike a dyspeptic hake. “Again? My condolences to the bride,” the worst man in England murmured.

He could drink any man under the table, but Latherby had the merit of holding out the longest, and it was still undecided who would be fleecing whom that night. “Who is the poor woman?” Latherby chuckled, unoffended. “No one you know, you ripe bastard. She ain’t seen out of good company, and you ain’t seen in it.” “So true,” Christopher, better known as Kit, said lazily. “I’m a lucky man. I rather thought you weren’t allowed in much higher gatherings than I am—how did you happen to meet this paragon of womanhood?” “What makes you think she’s a paragon?” Latherby demanded, tossing a card down with a casual air. Kit wasn’t fooled. Even when he was on the edge of passing out, Latherby was sharper in his cards than the most talented player, and he cheated almost as well as Kit did. He could respect that.

Ignoring the card, he dealt Latherby another from the bottom of the deck. “She must be magnificent to have lured you into wedlock.” “She’s plain and quiet and disgraced.” “Well, obviously she’s disgraced—otherwise, why would she accept your offer? The question is, why did you make that offer in the first place?” He’d lowered his gaze to his cards again, seemingly distracted, acutely aware of Latherby’s slightest twitch. His drinking partner slammed his glass down on the table with an excess of good will and beamed at him. “Why in the world should you ask? There’s only one possible reason.” “She’s wealthy,” Kit said lazily. “Obviously. And of low morals despite her plain and quiet appearance, no doubt, if she managed to get ruined.” Latherby made a derisive noise that sounded vaguely like breaking wind.

“Much you know. The Honorable Miss Bryony Marton is as pure as the driven snow. It’s her ramshackle father that’s the problem. With her upbringing, not to mention her patriarch, no other man would have her.” “Bryony Marton? I don’t believe I know the family, and I usually know most disgraceful people in, or out of, society.” Latherby shrugged. “Stands to reason. They’re from the Lake District and the scandal was mostly kept out of town. He was the Earl of Doncaster—old, old name. Apparently, Doncaster had a particular affection for one of his neighbors, and the man’s wife took exception to it.

” “Doncaster’s wife?” Latherby chortled. “No, the wife of the neighbor. Apparently she thought her husband should be in her bed, not with another man. She shot Doncaster when she caught them. Of course, they hushed it up at the time, and Doncaster conveniently took months to die of a septic infection, and he expired on the continent, but you know how rumors spread.” “And tell me why I should be interested in this?” “You asked,” Latherby pointed out fairly. “I assume it was mainly about her father’s estate.” Latherby shook his head, then stilled for a moment as if the gesture had managed to rattle his brain. An impossibility, Kit thought. Whatever brain he had was thoroughly pickled in alcohol—it would only slosh.

“Her father was destitute, the estate left to a distant relative with a religious bent. The heir had the manor house in the Lake District burned down. But the girl had an aunt, Doncaster’s wife’s sister, who married a Croesus. She left everything to the girl once she’s married, but the chit’s not accepted into the best company with such a cloud on her name.” “I imagine not. Society has absolutely no sense of humor. How did you happen to get your greedy hands on her?” “Ranelagh!” Latherby said triumphantly. “Nothing like a pleasure garden for being indiscreet. She was there with her cousins, I was wearing my puce with the silver lacing, and I dazzled her.” Kit surveyed his companion’s slovenly form and had his doubts.

“So you decided to pursue her once you learned that she was a wealthy orphan?” Latherby tried to roll his eyes, meeting with minimal success due to the number of bottles he’d downed that night. “Of course not. I compromised her. Easiest thing in the world. Got her lost in the woods and Bob’s your uncle. She lives with her cousins, but the family had been trying to get rid of her—they’ve got two daughters who have made their debut, and the presence of Miss Marton was making life extremely difficult. People could scarcely send invitations to the girls and exclude Miss Marton, but no one wants her around. Rather like the skeleton at the feast, don’t you know? This works out well for everyone, and I only had to promise to give her second cousin James a quarter of her exceedingly plump income.” Kit raised an eyebrow. “That sounds uncharacteristically generous of you, George.

” “I didn’t say I was going to, I merely said I agreed to. Once we’re married, there’s not much they can do about it without making their own precarious position worse. No, I intend to have every last penny and enjoy it immensely. It should keep me in style for at least two years, perhaps a little more.” “And after that?” It was no more than idle curiosity—Latherby had no more scruples than he did. His friend shrugged, disposing of another seemingly random care. “Then I’ll get rid of her in one way or another. Perhaps take her on a trip to the continent and lose her in the Alps or something. Needs find means.” Kit thought of the plain, quiet Miss Marton with not the slightest sympathy.

Knowing Latherby, she’d be better off dead. “And what if this blissful union produces children?” The look of dismay on Latherby’s face was comical. “Lord, I hadn’t thought of that. Hadn’t thought of bedding her, in truth. She’s ugly as sin with hideous red hair and spots all over her face, and she’d be stiff as a board and cry all the time.” He thought for a moment. “I suppose an heir wouldn’t be a terrible idea. M’great aunt could raise the brat.” “Ah, the joys of fatherhood,” Kit said. “Better go see the sawbones then,” Latherby mused.

“I’ve got the pox again and the mercury treatment didn’t work last time. Wouldn’t want the brat born diseased. I’d have to drown him.” “It might be a girl.” “Definitely drown her,” Latherby said carelessly. “You’ll stand up with me, of course.” It wasn’t a question. Kit lifted his lazy lids. “At the birth, the drowning, or the wedding?” “The wedding, you idiot. Maybe the other two if I need you.

” Kit looked at his companion, the second worst man in England, and smiled his singularly beautiful smile, the one that always took people off guard. “It would be my honor,” he said, placing his final card on the table, the one that had been hidden behind the fall of lace at his wrists. “And I believe you’re already spending your bride purse.” Latherby blinked. “Cheater,” he said amiably enough. “I don’t suppose you’d wait till after I tie the knot to make good on my debts?” He stared at Kit blearily. “No, I suppose not.” “I find it’s always best to settle one’s debts of honor immediately. That way there can be no misunderstandings about intentions.” Latherby didn’t make the mistake of underestimating his opponent’s good will.

“Of course,” he said, hurriedly. “We are marrying quite quickly. They’ve already read the banns the first time. I expect a quiet ceremony in a couple of weeks.” “And you really think I’d be willing to wait that long?” Kit’s voice was silken, and Latherby began to sweat. “That’s hardly been our arrangement.” “Wouldn’t think of it, old man!” he said hastily. “I…er…just hadn’t paid attention to the wager. I’m a little short this month. Had to come up with something impressive for my fiancée’s ring.

It was damned expensive for paste. And I’m not going to get a penny more until we tie the knot.” “Then I expect a trip to Scotland is in order. I’d rather hate to skewer you, old friend. Very few men have the stamina for excess that you do. And who else comes even close to matching my acts of villainy?” Latherby looked pathetically pleased at the encomium. “We’ll head to Gretna tomorrow, I promise. I’ll call on you the moment I get back, with your money and a suitable recompense for your wait. Say, an additional ten percent.” “I believe you will owe me double.

And you won’t be calling on me—I have every intention of accompanying you. Town has grown so boring. I plan to enjoy your honeymoon as much as you will.” For once, he’d managed to silence Latherby. He opened and closed his fish-like mouth once, twice, then nodded. Kit smiled faintly. His restless ennui had changed on the turn of a card. Kidnapping a proper bride was just the thing to keep him amused for a day or so, and thoroughly in keeping with his dastardly reputation, a thing of which he was inordinately proud. When he tired of the adventure, he’d abandon Latherby and go in search of further sensation. For now, at least, he had something entertaining to accomplish.

Of course Latherby would accede to his wishes—he always did. This would provide only a small relief from the crushing boredom that was his life, but he accepted it well enough. If things began to lag, he could always torture Latherby a bit, to spice things up. Weeping virgins were not his favorite thing, but he knew how to deal with that as well. With a weary sigh, he rose, tipping over his empty wine bottle. “I’ll be ready by nine in the morning.” “Good God, Kit, it’s half past two already. There’s no way I can get in to see my fiancée and lure her away in less than eight hours. Be reasonable.” “Nine,” he repeated.

“Be ready.” THE HONOURABLE MİSS Bryony Marton sat curled up on the window seat in the nursery, staring out over the rooftops of Mayfair in the early morning haze and plotting her escape. She’d managed to open one of the windows on the previous warm day—her cousin Maryanne kept all the ones on the lower floors tightly closed, considering fresh air to be hazardous to one’s health. Given the stink of London streets, Maryanne might have the right of it, but it was preferable to suffocating to death in this persistent heat. Then again, this house felt like an airless mausoleum even in the dead of winter— there was no warm breeze or icy blast that could blow life into it. And two years was more than long enough. Bryony was leaving, as soon as she could come up with a reliable plan. It was her own foolish fault that she’d agreed to marry Sir George Latherby. When she and Cecilia had run across the cheerful, clearly harmless dandy in the pleasure gardens of Ranelagh two weeks ago, she hadn’t worried for a moment when her cousin disappeared with a good-looking soldier. Cecilia was always skating on the edge of disaster, and Bryony was used to rescuing her, covering for her, keeping her on a relatively safe path.

Sir George’s offer to keep her company seemed harmless enough, and when Cecilia’s absence grew to a worrisome length, he’d done the gentlemanly thing and offered to accompany her in search of her errant cousin. She was lacking in self-preservation, perhaps, but she was far from stupid. Another woman might believe the excuse that he’d gotten lost, he was dreadfully sorry, he couldn’t understand how it could have happened, he’d do the right thing, of course, and offer for her. She’d simply looked at him, her expression blank as Maryanne had screeched and Cousin James had bellowed and let them arrange her future with surprising accord. She would marry the man with whom she’d spent too many hours in the thick woods at Ranelagh, and she would be off her cousin’s hands. Her untouchable fortune would be the property of the absurdly dressed, decidedly dissolute gentleman who’d compromised her. One could hardly say ruined, since the sour old gossips had already seen to that, and in truth, Bryony failed to see how her standing could descend any lower. No one but Cecilia wanted to be in her company anyway—if she’d been compromised, it would make little difference—but no one was interested in hearing her opinion, everyone shouting over her excitedly, and she’d given in. She’d actually considered going through with it—with a husband, she’d have a home of her own, babies, and, given Sir George’s disgraceful reputation, she probably wouldn’t have to deal with him very much at all. But as the banns were read and the time grew nearer, she knew marriage was no escape for her, but simply another prison, and now she had two people to escape from, her fiancée and her cousin.

Damn it. She savored the curse, then said it out loud. “Damn it,” was quiet and firm in the nursery, but immensely satisfying. “What are you damning, coz?” came Cecilia’s cheerful voice. “Not me, I hope.” Bryony jumped, startled. “What are you doing up so early?” Cecilia climbed onto the window seat beside her and took the cup of tea out of her hand. She made a face at it. “Why in the world can’t you put more sugar in your tea?” she demanded, nonetheless draining it. “This tastes awful.

” Bryony took the empty cup away. “Because I’m sweet enough as I am?” she suggested. “Besides, this was ostensibly for me.” Cecilia dismissed that. “Everyone knows I’m always drinking your tea. They should make adjustments.” “I don’t like a lot of sugar.” “But you wouldn’t mind having just the teensiest bit more, for my sake?” Cecilia said winningly. “Where’s the pot?” “Over on the table, but it’s empty. I’ve been up since dawn.

” Cecilia pouted. “‘Oh, churl, drunk all and left no friendly drop to help me after?’” she declaimed, having once performed the death scene from Romeo and Juliet to the boisterous acclaim of her friends and family, and Bryony laughed. “I dare you to plunge a dagger into your heart,” she said. “Eww, no! I wouldn’t have the nerve. If I were Juliet, I’d throw myself off a cliff or something. Much tidier.” “If I were Juliet, I’d step over Romeo’s body and get myself out of Verona, posthaste. Anyone who hatches such a hare-brained scheme deserves what they get,” Bryony said, ever practical. “But it was Friar Laurence who came up with the idea, and he’s still around at the end, looking guilty as sin.” Bryony hid her surprise.

Cecilia was not known for her acute literary criticism, but she’d remembered that much. At some point, she’d have to remind herself not to underestimate her flighty cousin. “So he is. Which just goes to show you should think twice before you trust a man, even a priest.” Cecilia giggled. “Don’t let Mama hear you say that. She says women are intellectually inferior creatures who exist to soothe men with their womanly attractions.” Bryony glanced down at her plump body. “Not all of us,” she said wryly. “And your mother is an idiot.

” The words were out before she could stop them, and she slapped a hand over her mouth. “Pay no attention to me, cousin. I’m out of sorts today. Cousin Maryanne is a lovely woman…” “My mother is an idiot,” Cecilia said cheerfully. “And you’re never out of sorts. It’s your father’s influence, isn’t it? My mother says he was a terrible man, dragging you all around the world, to the most inappropriate places, living a scandalous life. It’s no wonder you’re…” Belatedly, Cecilia’s tact reasserted itself. “That is, you’re a bit…” “Odd?” Bryony supplied good-naturedly. Defending her free-thinking father was a lost cause. She simply had to mourn him in silence.

“Doubtless. What are you doing up so early, anyway? You usually sleep hours later. Or didn’t you go to bed last night?” “I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I thought I may as well get up.” Her nervous fingers pleated the skirt of the simple day dress she was wearing. “I was worried about you.” Bryony blinked. “You were? Why ever for?” “It’s my fault you have to marry Latherby,” she said unhappily. “If I hadn’t gone off with the lieutenant, then you wouldn’t have been compromised, when I was the one who misbehaved. If anyone is forced into a bad marriage, it should be me.” “Who says I’m being forced?” Bryony said carefully.

While she loved Cecilia, she had no delusions about her cousin’s ability to keep a secret. If she knew Bryony was planning to leave, she’d either let something drop accidentally or beg to be taken along. “And why should the marriage be bad? Yes, it’s hardly a love match, but that’s much better. He’s not interested in me, and I don’t care for him. He’s a social creature, I like the country. I doubt we’ll be forced to spend much time together.” Cecilia did not look convinced. “If you went out in society more often, you’d know about Latherby’s reputation. He’s not accepted most places.” “Neither am I.

” “There are unsavory rumors about the man.…” “There are unsavory rumors about my father, all of them true, and I adored him. Society loves to gossip, cousin, and most of it is lies. I’m not worried.” Because she wasn’t going through with it, but she could hardly tell Cecilia, who was eying her out of troubled, china-blue eyes. “He’s friends with the worst man in all of England.” That surprised a laugh out of Bryony. “Someone actually has that title? What an achievement!”

.

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