he bed creaked out a merry rhythm of squeaks and scritches, like a chorus of tree frogs. The woman buried deep in the feather mattress moaned and gasped at the man’s exertions over her.
Unfortunately for Jacob Aubrey Preston, he was not the man in the bed. Instead, he was under it, tugging his trousers back up, with nothing to show for his evening except a deeper acquaintance with dust balls.
When he and Lady Bothwell had heard her husband stomping up the stairs, he’d barely had time to dive beneath the slats. Lady B. had shoved Jacob’s boots and walking stick after him a heartbeat before Lord Bothwell threw open the door to her boudoir with the announcement that he was fully tumescent and his wife must prepare herself forthwith.
Fortunately for Lord Bothwell, Jacob had prepared his wife quite well.
“Oh, Bothy,” she said in a breathy tone as the creaking continued. “You’re quite vigorous this evening.”
Jacob mouthed and rolled onto his stomach. The bottom of the mattress smacked the crown of his head as if in reproof.
“Well, I ought to be,” her husband answered. “Just relieved Lord Hampleton of two thousand shares of railway stock at the
table this night.”
“Oh, are they very valuable?”
Jacob imagined Lady Bothwell’s rouged lips curved in a calculating smile. She was probably trying to figure the shares’ worth in French millinery. The amount she had spent on her collection of bonnets would clothe a small English hamlet for a year.
“At the moment, the shares are at the peak of their value,” Lord Bothwell wheezed, clearly winded by his repetitive activity. “But I have it on good authority the principals in the company are quietly disposing of their holdings. I’ll sell them all tomorrow before the market gets wind of it and the bottom drops out. Now do be quiet, madam, and kindly allow me to concentrate.”
Jacob laid his cheek on the cool hardwood and sighed. At least he’d gleaned a valuable bit of intelligence from this ridiculous situation. He, too, held a considerable number of railway shares. Or rather, his brother Jerome did. But Jerome Preston, the Earl of Meade, took little interest in the actual running of the far-flung estate he’d inherited from their uncle.
At first, Jerome had been so tightfisted with his new wealth and position, he’d even cut off the previous earl’s family from receiving badly needed support. However, his stinginess had bled into his investment choices as well and left him teetering on the brink of insolvency before Jacob had stepped in to help. He’d put the new earl’s financial house in order and reinstated their aunt’s support. Even now, Jacob couldn’t let his brother manage the earldom’s assets or they’d both find themselves light in the pockets in no time.
Jacob wished he could find a way to thank Lord Bothwell for the tip about the rail shares, but decided it would be deucedly awkward to explain how he’d come by the information.
The bed bounced for another thirty seconds by Jacob’s pocket watch. Then Lord Bothwell emitted a sound rather like an old bullfrog struggling to stay atop a lily pad as the mattress shuddered to a halt.
Then he heard a whuffle, a grunt, and the beginnings of a stentorian snore. “Bothy” was enjoying the sleep of the just. Jacob propped his chin on his fist, wondering how long he’d be trapped beneath the bed.
Then he heard the rustle of sheets. The baroness lifted a corner of the counterpane and motioned for him to come out.
“He’ll sleep till noon now,” she whispered, knotting the sash at the waist of her wrapper. “We could use his chamber. It’s just through that door.”
Jacob swallowed hard. Granted, any man who thought simply saying “prepare yourself” constituted foreplay deserved to be cuckolded on principle. But after listening to the whole ghastly interlude with her husband, he feared he’d never be able to look at the lovely Lady Bothwell again without a chorus of frogs chirruping in his head.
“Charming as that offer is”—he whispered back as he slid out of hiding and tugged on his boots—“with regret, I must decline. I never romance a lady while her husband, however sound a sleeper he may be, is in residence.”
Jacob had yet to be accosted by an angry spouse demanding satisfaction and he didn’t relish beginning with Bothy. He felt little guilt about swiving another man’s wife. He wasn’t the one violating a vow after all, and a satisfied lady didn’t cast her eyes elsewhere. But it went against his conscience to add insult to injury by embarrassing or, God forbid, killing a fellow in a duel over a wandering wife’s dubious honor.
“Farewell, my dear.”
He gave Lady Bothwell a peck on her cheek, then made for the French doors leading to a small balcony. Jacob threw his leg over the balustrade and climbed down the trellis, which was denuded of blooms with the first frost of autumn. He looked back up when he reached the bottom and blew a kiss to the lady whose ample bosom was in serious danger of escaping her wrapper as she leaned over to waggle her fingers at him.
“Tomorrow?” she whispered hopefully.
“I’ll send word.” He loped away through Lord Bothwell’s fussy garden.
Unfortunately, the word would be “no, thank you.” While Lady Bothwell fit all his criteria for a lover—enthusiastic, slightly jaded, and most of all, married—he wondered if he ought to rethink the last qualification. While a married lover freed him from the entanglements possible with a green girl, there were difficulties inherent in bedding another man’s wife as well.
Perhaps if the lady’s husband was on an extended voyage abroad ...
Provided he sired no child, Jacob might even consider that he was doing the man a favor by keeping the home fires burning, as it were. He supposed he could keep a mistress, but it made no sense to spend the blunt necessary to support one. Not when whispered rumors of his bed skills brought a steady stream of ladies of quality sidling up to him at every soirée, ready for a dalliance.
He stepped out of the alley and onto the street. Gas lamps rose amid pools of yellow light, their bases fading into the low-lying fog along the thoroughfare. Jacob ploughed through the swirling mist, the slap of his soles on the cobbles the only thing dispelling the fanciful notion that he trudged through clouds.
Gray, odiferous clouds. Wind whipped around him. The fish-and-tar reek of the Thames was in rare form this night.
He passed by his brother’s posh town house, a redbrick Georgian with white trim and wide granite steps leading to an entrance designed to impress. The earl always insisted Jacob was welcome to share the well-situated Grosvenor Square home, but he preferred to keep his own place.
It was all well and good for him to be privy to Lord Meade’s business. However, he didn’t need his brother’s long nose in his. Most of Jacob’s activities wouldn’t bear close scrutiny.
The direct route to his town house near Leicester Square led him down an alley with no gas lamps at all. A gang of ruffians made to approach him, but he didn’t slow his stride. Jacob carried a rapier hidden in his ornate cherry walking stick and knew how to use it. Last week he’d fended off a would-be thief and pinked him proper in the upper arm. He stepped into a shaft of moonlight pouring into the narrow way, grasping the platinum hilt, in case he needed to defend himself.
The gang stopped in mid-step as recognition widened their eyes. As Jacob pushed past them, they gave him a respectfully wide berth. Evidently, rumors of his bed skills weren’t the only bits of intelligence circulating about Jacob Preston.
From the end of the block of unassuming town houses, he was mildly surprised to see an elegant equipage stopped before his red door. A crest with a boar and crossed swords was emblazoned on the side. He didn’t immediately recognize the heraldic symbol.
In veritate triumpho
was etched above the device.
“I triumph in truth,” Jacob translated.
Who in the world ...
Then he clapped a hand to his forehead as the memory flooded back. He’d received a note from the dowager Countess of Cambourne a couple weeks ago announcing her intention to call on him for help on a matter of business while she was in London.
Probably another lonely lady hoping to entice him to her bed. Dowagers invariably had liver spots or warts or both, and Jacob didn’t handle business for anyone but his brother, though he’d been known to dabble in a discreet investigation from time to time. Since Jacob made it a point not to respond to social notes that didn’t interest him, the time Lady Cambourne specified for her visit had never settled in his mind. A quick glance up showed a light burning in his first floor parlor.
He pushed open his front door, swallowing back a curse. Who knew how long it would take to rid himself of the late caller? If he wasn’t going to find a pleasing woman’s bed, the least the Fates could do was allow him to find his own at a reasonable hour.
“Good evening, sir.”
He scowled at the man who served as his butler, valet, and general factotum. Fenwick at least had the grace to look chagrined as he collected Jacob’s coat, gloves, and hat.
Jacob’s privacy was his most prized possession. When he hired Fenwick a few years earlier, he’d specifically instructed him that part of his duties included keeping unexpected and unwanted guests at bay.
“I see we have a visitor,” Jacob said, glancing up the polished mahogany banister with a frown. Light from the parlor reflected off a long mirror hanging in the first floor landing and spilled down the stairs in jagged shards.
“Oh, yes, indeed we do.” Fenwick attempted a cheerful smile to cover the dereliction of his duty. “The lady said as you were expecting her.”
“Did I tell you I was expecting her?”
“Then why is she still here?”
“Well, Lady Cambourne insisted upon waiting.” Fenwick’s pale eyebrows nearly met over his watery blue eyes. “The countess is a ... most persuasive person, sir.”
“Sir, I took the liberty of looking the lady up in DeBrett’s for you. Here are the particulars.” Fenwick produced a much folded square of paper from his vest pocket, covered with his small, spidery handwriting.
“You have almost redeemed yourself,” Jacob said, glancing at the information from the registry of the peerage.
Julianne Tyndale (nee True) Dowager Countess of Cambourne, wife of Algernon Tyndale, 8th Earl of Cambourne. No issue from the marriage. Widowed two years ago when the earl reportedly did away with himself.
Jacob’s brows arched in surprise. Unless a member of the aristocracy was despondent over gambling debts or losses in the market, it was rare for one of them to “shuffle off this mortal coil” ahead of schedule. He wondered which reversal of fortunes had sent the earl over the edge. Jacob resumed reading, glad he’d had the foresight to hire a literate fellow like Fenwick as his right-hand man, even if he occasionally let the rules of the house slide.
Lady Cambourne was formerly known as Julianne True of the Drury Lane Theatrical Company.
“I stand corrected, Fenwick. You have totally redeemed yourself. You obviously have more sources of information than I suspected. This last bit in particular could not have come from DeBrett’s.”
Fenwick grinned. “No, sir. I recognized her. Saw her play Lady Macbeth some six or seven years ago.”
“So I’m assuming this is one dowager who doesn’t possess three chins.”
Fenwick shook his head and gave a nervous chuckle. “Couldn’t blame Macbeth a bit. Every man in the theatre would have killed for her, sir.”
Jacob smiled as he tucked the paper into his pocket. An attractive young widow waited in his parlor. Perhaps the evening wasn’t a total loss after all.
But on second thought, money wasn’t the only thing that could drive a man to an early grave. If what Fenwick said was true about the actress turned countess, perhaps the lady’s husband
killed for her sake.
A black widow bore close watching.
Julianne checked her pendant watch for the umpteenth time, irritation sizzling in her belly. She smoothed the collar on her lilac bodice, flicking a speck of London’s ubiquitous soot from the gray piping. The smart traveling ensemble bespoke her status as a wealthy widow in the final stage of mourning. The pale shade flattered her delicate coloring far more than the black she’d endured for the first two years after Algernon’s death. Of course, even with the right hue against her skin, when frustration flamed her cheeks, the effect of a cool, collected lady of quality would be hopelessly lost.
And if Julianne knew one thing, it was the value of a first impression.
She looked up when she heard masculine footfalls on the stairs. Mr. Preston’s servants crept about the immaculate townhome silent as wraiths. The heavy tread could only mean the man himself had finally deigned to arrive.