The Marquess’ Daring Wager – Kate Archer

THE DUKE OF Carlisle leaned back and sipped his port, appearing supremely satisfied with himself. “A dashed shame we did not place a wager on which of our sons would succeed first,” he said. “Though I would never have hoped it would be my own who’d carry the day.” The Duke of Wentworth winced as he rearranged his gouty foot. That blasted appendage had not got any better over the months and he still argued with his doctors over whether port and good dinners were the problem or the cure. As they could not come to any agreement on the matter, he’d begun to think his son was to blame for all his ills. “And,” the Duke of Carlisle went on gleefully, “for the boy to secure such an extraordinary woman! Lady Hampton, née Miss Knightsbridge, is everything I could wish for. The duchess is tickled pink, as is the dowager.” “Yes, we know,” the Duke of Gravesley said. “Unfortunately, our idiot sons nearly ruined the poor girl in the process.” “Blasted business,” the Duke of Dembly said. “I’ll never hear the end of it from my wife, or so she tells me.” “We cannot allow anything so disgraceful to occur again,” the Duke of Bainbridge said. “The taint was upon us all and I have no wish to reappear at Carlton House any time soon. You do not suppose we ought to give up our pact on account of it?” “Not until every last one of them is married,” the Duke of Glastonburg said.

There was a stamping of feet in approbation, though the Duke of Wentworth stamped very gently —even his good foot was beginning to feel a touch gouty. Chapter One LADY SYBİL HAYWORTH, the only daughter of Lord and Lady Blanding, sat with her father in the breakfast room of their house in Berkeley Square. It was a sunny and amusing room, filled with a mishmash of historical artifacts gathered from one generation to the next. Anything odd and not quite right for the public rooms of the house invariably made its way into the breakfast room. There was a marvelous mangy stuffed fox, meant to have had the honor of being killed by Henry the VIII, who currently sat on the far end of the sideboard like a beady-eyed footman. There was the teapot with a large crack running down the side that purported to be the damage when one of their Lancastrian ancestors hit another lady over the head, that lady having hinted that she could not love the bloodshed of the War of the Roses. There was even a heavy old tome written by some stalwart ancestor on how to utterly destroy one’s enemies without experiencing the inconvenient outcome of getting hung for it. Sybil had thumbed through it on occasion and it seemed that particular relation was fond of poison, as one could be well away from the scene when it did its work. Just now, Sybil’s father stared at the stuffed fox and said resignedly, “It is done then. Your poor friend Miss Knightsbridge has married the enemy.

” Sybil nodded. “As you know she has, having attended the wedding breakfast. Though, Papa, she really is quite happy about it. Cassandra has thoroughly forgiven Lord Hampton. You saw it for yourself.” “I did, though I was ever ready to hear the poor girl say she had been forced to the altar.” “Neither her father nor Lady Marksworth would ever do such a thing.” “No, they would not,” Lord Blanding admitted. “Papa, I saw them both before they set off for Italy and they seemed well pleased. Elated, in fact.

” “Elated! I cannot understand it at all,” the lord said. “I think others are different than we are,” Sybil said slowly, the idea only having come to her after viewing Cassandra’s willingness to forgive Lord Hampton his very grave transgression. “We come from a long line of warriors, while others do not.” “And so they fold like sheep,” Lord Blanding said. “I cannot approve of it. Once an enemy is sworn, they are sworn forevermore.” Sybil nodded. She had grown up thinking so. The Hayworth dinner table had always been filled with tales of recent feuds and long-ago battles. If a Hayworth entered into a dispute, that dispute went on until all parties to it were dead.

Even then, the next generation might take it up as a matter of principle. Their neighbor, Mr. Hurst, knew the truth of it—the Hayworths and the Hursts had been arguing over the placement of a fence for three generations. That the argument revolved around fourteen inches either side seemed of no account to anybody involved. “I do hope, dear daughter, that you have not been unduly influenced by this soft way of going on.” “Certainly not,” Sybil said. “Lord Lockwood, in particular, has been most persistent in his apologies for the scheme against Cassandra, and I will have none of it.” “Lockwood,” the lord said, as if he had just tasted something exceedingly unpleasant. “Of all of those gentlemen of the pact, he is the worst. His father is a devil.

” “And so Lord Lockwood shall be condemned by me forevermore,” Sybil said, somewhat resignedly. “Family over everything.” Sybil took a certain amount of pride in standing by her father, though she did think it was a shame Lord Lockwood was to be their enemy. He was precisely what she liked in a gentleman—powerfully built, square jaw, sandy hair and, most attractive of all, a very bold nature. Everybody had heard the tales of Lord Lockwood’s heroics in the war, and how it was a miracle he survived it. The gentleman was in the habit of taking the most terrible risks and somehow living through them, all the while blithely claiming he did not understand what the fuss was about. Still, he had proved himself disloyal to her friend Cassandra Knightsbridge and, further, his father, the duke, had crossed her own father at cards those many years ago. There was nothing for it, Lord Lockwood must always be her enemy. * LORD DALTON’S LİBRARY was once again the scene of a meeting of those friends who had been swept into the Dukes’ Pact, with the exception of Edwin Hampton, their recently-married, fallen brother. Bellamy came in with brandy though it was just on noon.

He shuffled to the circular table the men sat around and placed the glasses in front of the Lords Dalton, Ashworth, Lockwood, Cabot and Grayson. Richard Smythe, Marquess of Lockwood and heir to the Duke of Gravesley, flexed his powerful arms. He always felt a little caged in London, as if there was not enough space to stretch out. His feeling of constraint was not alleviated by his friends’ expressions—they all looked exceedingly grim. He supposed they might, and himself too, their funds were soon to be cut in half. Dalton said, “Hampton’s marriage is the worst thing that could have happened.” “That might be painting it a bit black,” Cabot said. “Miss Knightsbridge turned out to be a jolly good sport, in the end.” “I say nothing against the new Lady Hampton,” Dalton said. “The problem is, the old Dukes will think that if they have succeeded once, they can succeed another five times.

Hope of talking them out of it has taken a drubbing.” “I doubt there was ever much hope they’d give up their attempt to marry us off,” Richard said. “My father has sent me a weekly letter outlining their determination on the idea and suggesting various ladies I might pursue.” “We are trapped, then,” Cabot said. “Are we?” Richard said, not so willing to admit defeat. “I say we keep up the fight. After all, we survived the war, did we not?” “Nobody knows how you survived the war,” Dalton said drily. “Anybody else would have been shot up or run through a dozen times.” Richard shrugged. He could never understand why people made so much of an incursion or surprise attack or creeping behind the enemy’s lines.

It had been a war, what else were they to do— invite the French for tea? “The funds we all live on so comfortably are about to be severely reduced,” Grayson said. “My tailor will be put out with a capital P when I tell him I must only have six new coats. We had very much planned on fourteen.” Lord Dalton grunted in disgust. “Only you would worry about your coats, Grayson. You are becoming a dandy.” Lord Grayson shrugged. Richard had no idea what he was to do about losing half his funds. It was damned inconvenient. He might be a marquess, but it was an empty title as far as real money was concerned.

He’d rented an elegant house in Mayfair and was shortly to find himself unable to pay for it. The owner of the house, a baron from the north, was likely to be far more enormously put out than Grayson’s tailor. “We’d better examine our assets,” Dalton said. “If we pull together, we might find a way to survive without too much trouble. I’ve got this house, my father can’t touch it, though not much money comes with it. Ashworth, you’re the gambler, go out and win some funds for the collective bank. Cabot, win a horse race—there’s no end of idiots who will take you up on it. Grayson, put your glib tongue to work, you must have a sympathetic aunt in the countryside somewhere who’s got some extra guineas lying around.” Dalton paused as he considered Lord Lockwood. “I have no idea what you can do for us, other than drink my brandy and find yourself in ill-advised fights in low neighborhoods.

” Richard bristled at the idea, though he’d been in his share of brawls. Men would give him a look he took offense to and he would punch them in the face as an acknowledgment. “I have no idea when my particular skills may be needed,” he said. “But they will be ready. Anyway, shall you all attend Lady Hathaway’s ball this evening? I’ve determined I will go.” “I must go,” Cabot said, “she is a cousin. Though, I do not see why you must go, Lockwood, unless you are still chasing Lady Sybil round the town with your pathetic apologies.” “There is nothing pathetic about anything I do,” Richard said. “If you repeat the sentiment, I will be forced to pound you through Dalton’s floor.” “You give the lady too much quarter,” Dalton said, ignoring his friend’s propensity for using fists.

“One apology was more than enough, why do you go on with it?” Richard could not particularly say why he went on with it. Sometimes, it was better to avoid examining a thing too closely. He’d always been in the habit of following his instincts without questioning them overmuch. They had served him well in the war so he did not see why he should throw them over now. His instincts told him he would not rest easy until Lady Sybil had well and truly forgiven him for his role in Miss Knightsbridge’s troubles. So there it was. The lady must only be convinced. * LADY HATHAWAY’S BALL always occurred near the end of the season. Most hostesses may have found the idea perilous—there might be no end of people who felt that they’d attended quite enough balls for one year. And yet, Lady Hathaway held no such qualms.

The lady and her lord were so well-liked, their house in Grosvenor Square so genial, her cook so skilled, and her parties so original, that there was never any danger of a small turnout. Sybil had not been to the lady’s balls in years past, she had not yet been out, but she remembered the tales told in various letters from her parents, and sometimes the spoils. Last year, the theme had been a tropical paradise and each guest had been gifted a small pineapple as they departed—her father had sent it by fast horse to her in Cornwall. “I’m told this year is to be the wonders of Russia,” Lady Blanding said, seated across from her daughter as they rattled along in the carriage. “I cannot think what the Russians eat, but I suspect we are to discover it at Lady Hathaway’s table,” Lord Blanding said from across the coach. “I only hope it is not too exotic for my taste.” “Oh, my dear, last year’s pineapple was too exotic for your tastes,” Lady Blanding said, laughing. “I am a Cornwall man,” Lord Blanding said, “I don’t go in for wild spices, unknown creatures, or foreign fruits.” “You are my dear Cornwall man,” Lady Blanding said affectionately, “despite your lack of adventure at table. By the by, Sybil, you look exceedingly well this evening.

” Sybil glanced down at her gown, an elegant white silk trimmed with satin knotting made to look as early bluebells, the first harbingers of spring. “I do not mean your dress,” Lady Blanding said, “though that is lovely enough. I mean your person. Your cheeks have a particularly pretty glow.” At the compliment, Sybil felt her cheeks glow perhaps more than they had been already. She was ashamed to know why those cheeks glowed as they made their way to Lady Hathaway’s ball. She was all but certain Lord Lockwood would attend. She admitted to herself that she’d grown used to his habit of seeking her out and begging her apology for the difficulties he’d caused her friend, Cassandra Knightsbridge. She would allow him to claim a dance if her parents had retired to the card room in good time, but she had resisted forgiving his crime. At their last meeting, she’d almost surrendered.

After all, Cassandra had forgiven him so could she not do so as well? However, she’d since given her father her word. Lord Lockwood must be their enemy forever. There was no more to be said about it. “May I presume,” Lady Blanding said, “that some gentleman causes your blooming cheeks? Lord Burke, perhaps?” “Lord Burke,” Lord Blanding said. “Now there’s a fine fellow. I would not mind at all if you were to favor him.” “Indeed, I do not favor that gentleman in any particular manner,” Sybil said hurriedly. Lord Burke was a darling of a man, and very amusing, but he felt as a brother to her. “What a shame,” Lady Blanding said. “He is to be a duke, and not one involved in that ridiculous pact.

” “Do not get me talking of those scoundrels of the pact!” Lord Blanding said. “Ah look,” Lady Blanding said hurriedly, no doubt regretting she’d broached a subject so likely to aggravate and now looking to distract, “Lady Hathaway’s doors have an onion dome perched atop.” Sybil peeked out the window. Indeed, the house’s entrance was now capped by an enormous green and gold striped dome. The footmen, some standing at the ready for the next carriage, some busy helping guests down, were dressed in marvelous red coats with gold epaulettes and brass buttons, blazing white breeches, and polished black boots. The line of carriages moved quickly, as if Lady Hathaway’s footmen were a regiment of the Russian army itself. Lord Blanding led them to the entrance and Sybil found the great hall transformed from what it must usually be. Plush red carpet covered the floor and streams of gold silk embroidered with red thread hung from the walls. It felt exotic, and a picture of excess, no doubt meant to depict the splendor of one of Tsar Alexander’s palaces. The servant who took their coats in the cloak room was no less exotic.

He was dressed as a Russian peasant in a shirt long enough to be used for sleeping and sporting intricate embroidery at the collar. Sybil was surprised to find her dance card – printed in both Russian and English – included a Polonaise. She did not have the first idea of the steps of that dance and wondered who would. The ballroom was a beautiful expanse with a polished marble floor in a black and white diamond pattern. The musicians were very amusingly dressed as Cossacks—they might have been ready to set off for war, had violins and flutes proved effective weapons. Sybil searched the room for somebody she knew and quickly spotted a friend. “Mama, there is Miss Darlington,” she said. “I should like to go over to her.” Lord Blanding said, “If you are certain you are all right, your mother and I will go in search of cards. I have high hopes that some new, Russian card game will be afoot.

I may not prefer adventure at table, but I am always ready for a new hand of cards.” Sybil nodded and watched her parents make their way to the card rooms. She crossed the ballroom to Penny Darlington. “Miss Darlington,” she said. “Oh, do call me Penny,” Miss Darlington said, “I feel we have encountered each other so often that Miss Darlington sounds rather stiff.” Sybil was very much gladdened by the invitation. She’d felt rather friendless since Cassandra had married and it would be welcome to know another lady by her Christian name. “Then you must call me Sybil,” she said. “I hear Miss Knightsbridge, I mean, Lady Hampton, gets on well,” Penny said, “though I suspect you pine for her presence. You two were ever as thick as thieves.

” “Indeed, we were,” Sybil said. “My mother and father are great friends with Lady Marksworth and her house in town is next door to ours.” “I know you defended her wonderfully while she went through that horrible circumstance. I quite admired it.” “What else can one do?” Sybil asked. “When a dear friend comes under attack, one must unsheathe one’s weapons.” “Lady Sybil, Miss Darlington.” Sybil slowly turned, knowing that voice as well as her own. Lord Lockwood. He was as handsome as ever.

The lord was not as tall as some others but towered over her nonetheless and Sybil could not help but notice that the width of the sleeves of his coat hinted at powerfully built arms. In truth, it was not the first time she had surreptitiously glanced at his arms. “May I?” he said, holding his hand out for her card. Sybil was torn. Until now, she had felt justified dancing with the lord, as long as she did not accept his apology. She’d since given her word to her father. He gently tugged it. Sybil held fast to it. “I regret to inform you, my lord,” she said in a resolute tone, “that I can no longer allow you to claim a dance. My father does not sanction it.

” Lord Lockwood’s face paled ever so slightly. “I see,” he said quietly. He turned and said, “Miss Darlington? May I hope your own father has not ranged himself against me?” “Not that I have been told,” Penny said, in an obvious attempt to lighten the tone of the conversation. She handed her card to the lord, who quickly filled in his name, bowed and retreated. “Should I inquire into the circumstances of that interesting exchange?” Penny asked. “You had better not,” Sybil said, “as I am not certain I could explain it. I will just say that it has to do with Hayworth family loyalty.” “Goodness,” Penny said, glancing at her card, “he’s put himself down for the Polonaise. I haven’t the first idea of the steps and suspect Lord Lockwood does not either.” Sybil felt a pang over it.

It was just like Lord Lockwood to fail to shy away from something, simply because he had no idea how he would accomplish it. Other gentlemen might wish to avoid the unknown, but Lord Lockwood would throw himself in headlong. It was just what a Cornwall man might do, if a Cornwall man could ever be convinced to dance the Polonaise. For the first time in her life, Sybil felt it a very great burden to uphold the family honor.

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