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How can I go through with this?
The Honourable Thomas Mannering slouched beside a scarred, wooden table in the Laughing Dog's taproom. One hand supported a head that threatened to roll off his shoulders. The other upended a wine bottle, dribbling the last drops down the side of his glass. The empty bottle joined two of its mates on the floor.
His love's angelic face wavered insubstantially against the smoky gloom, her sparkling violet-blue eyes and golden ringlets refusing to vanish. What horrible pressures had her unfeeling parents brought to bear against her sweet innocence? Had they threatened her? Locked her away? Beat her? Had she even been informed before the notice appeared in the paper?
That was his worst fear--and had been for months. Frowning at his newly emptied glass, he imperiously demanded another bottle from the buxom barmaid. His eyes assessed her abundant charms before he recalled that there was no time to dally this night. Shudders wracked him at the memory.
How could he do it?
How could he not?
Had he a choice?
The room careened dizzily in the flickering light of an ill-adjusted lantern. He squinted, focusing just enough to pour more wine.
How long had it been since his world collapsed in ruins? How many months since Alicia had pledged her undying love in Lady Debenham's rose garden? His loins tightened as he recalled their passionate embrace. Floating home, he had planned in meticulous detail the words that would request permission to pay his addresses, only to descend into hell the very next morning when the Post announced her betrothalto Viscount Darnley. The notice had to have been submitted before the ball. Darnley had not even attended.
Had she known?
No! She would never have played such a deceitful trick on one she loved. Nor had she willingly accepted her fate. Her distress hurt him worse than his own pain.
The new bottle emptied as he tried to forget his last interview with the love of his life. She had received him a week later in the morning room of her father's Berkeley Square town house....
"Papa demanded this betrothal," she sobbed, tears glistening in her wide, ingenuous eyes as her pacing brought her close enough for him to touch. His fists clenched with the effort of not claiming one last blissful embrace. "I tried to change his mind, Thomas, but he was adamant. He refused to countenance a connection with a younger son of limited means."
He gasped at this intelligence. No one had ever questioned his background. How dare an upstart baron who was only the third to hold his own title? Thomas might be a younger son, but the Marchgate earldom dated to Richard Lionheart, and his ancestors had arrived with William.
But before he could protest, Alicia smiled in that radiant way that always sent his temperature soaring and his blood boiling.
"My love, we must look to the future. You know Lord Darnley is an old man and not in the best of health," she confided in a husky voice that started fires raging through his loins.
He shuddered at the image of his angel forced to submit to an aging libertine like Darnley.
"He cannot long survive. You must be patient, my dearest Thomas. As a wealthy widow I can marry where I choose. Papa will no longer control my life." Resting a delicate hand trustingly against his chest, she sighed, a single tear escaping to trickle down one alabaster cheek. Her violet eyes begged for understanding, golden ringlets trembling in agitation.
How could she endure such a plight?
Still bleary from a week-long stupor, he nearly crushed her in his arms. But embracing another man's betrothed would violate his honor. Nor could he pledge fidelity to another's wife, or to a hypothetical widow--not and maintain his self-respect. Her face twisted into a momentary expression of--annoyance? Of course not, he chided himself. She was as disturbed as he over this damnable mess, and as prone to pain.
"Do not hold this frightful coil against me, my love," she continued, her hand sliding up to his shoulder, coursing desire through his body that threatened to undermine his precarious control. "I am counting on you to see me through this trial."
She did not understand the havoc she was wreaking with those caressing fingers, he reminded himself. Her natural sensuality was part of what attracted him, as were her vulnerability, her compassion, and her exquisite taste. He wanted nothing more than to protect her from life's cruelties. But fate denied him that role.
He managed to leave, honor intact, but, oh, how he wanted her! Why would a loving parent condemn a daughter to such a mésalliance. Surely not merely for title and money! He could have found both in a younger, more personable suitor. Corley had been chasing her all season. With a fortune larger than Darnley's, an earl's title in hand and a marquess's guaranteed when his uncle died, he was by far the better catch. Corley had been Thomas's principal rival since the day he had first beheld the newest beauty at Almack's.
He had never considered marrying so soon, expecting several more years of freedom before settling down. Then he caught sight of Alicia across the room and everything changed. She was a vision of heaven in a delicate blue gown, an ethereal being framed in a cloud of mist. She met his eyes and smiled. And he was lost. Her purity and innocence pierced his soul. Circe could not have enslaved him more thoroughly.
In a futile effort to forget, he embarked on a debauch that put his previous rakehelling to shame, squandering each night on wine, women, and faro. Every afternoon he pummeled opponents at Jackson's--all of whom displayed Darnley's face to his bleary eyes--before resuming his endless rounds of brothels, gaming hells, and greenrooms, all seeming alike after uncounted bottles of brandy. He succeeded in losing track of time, losing large amounts of money, and losing his legendary fastidiousness in both dress and chère amies. But he could not lose sight of Alicia's face. The memories refused to die.
Her wedding came and went. He drank even more, fighting to banish the image of her consorting with Darnley. Autumn rolled by without notice. His closest friends fought to rescue him from the brink of disaster, but without success. For the first time in his life he cared nothing for what others thought of him. Reality was too barren to face sober.
But now he was caught in an even worse coil. Three days before, he had been summoned home to stand on the carpet where generations of Mannerings had meted out punishment to errant offspring. The Earl of Marchgate pinned his second son with a withering glare and rang a peal over his head the likes of which he had never endured in all his five-and-twenty years.
"Look at you!" the earl had stormed, a condemning finger pointed at his disheveled appearance. "Bloodshot eyes, sallow skin, bosky at two in the afternoon! Eight months and you still wear your heart on your sleeve. Is this the face a Mannering presents to the world? Where is your pride? Your honor? Your debauchery is no longer just the latest on-dit, nor can it be fobbed off as yet another example of a young cub sowing wild oats. You have become the laughingstock of the ton. And you are killing your mother."
Thomas raised stricken eyes to his parent. As close to sober as he had been in months, he was appalled at his own behavior, aware at last of just how low he had sunk. "Dear Lord," he whispered, "you know I would never deliberately harm her."
"This must stop," continued the earl, his tired voice suddenly laced with pain. "At the very least you must leave town. Eleanor comes out this spring. Unfair though it might be, your present behavior will seriously damage her chances." He noted the flush spreading across his son's face and sighed in relief. Perhaps the boy was still reachable. His voice gentled. "Go down to Crawley. Try to rebuild your life. How deeply are you dipped?"
"Nothing I cannot manage," Thomas muttered darkly.
"Nonsense," snapped the earl, anger again mastering his face. "I've had six duns at my door this week over your debts. I will not have a son of mine in prison. Until Robert begets an heir, you stand second to one of the oldest titles in England. Now how deeply are you dipped?"
"I don't know," he admitted with a groan, dropping heavily into a chair and covering his face with his hands. Silence stretched uncomfortably. He did not look up until a hand grasped his shoulder.
"Are you willing to make a clean start?" asked the earl quietly.
"Is Crawley mortgaged?"
He nodded again.
"Gather everything you owe," commanded the earl. "I want everything--vowels, tradesmen's bills, mortgage. I will pay the lot. But that will be all. Your allowance will continue for one year, then cease. Go to Crawley. You have a year to make it profitable."
"But Crawley is in ruins," he protested.
"Then I suggest you remain sober enough to restore it. It should be a very lucrative estate. And if you run short of money, there is always your inheritance."
"You know the conditions."
"True--you would have to marry. Quite a problem. What chit would have you after the cake you've made of yourself?"
"You cannot be serious!"
"Not entirely, 'tis true. There are always antidotes desperate enough to wed anyone," the earl acknowledged brutally. "I know Lord Huntsley would welcome a suit for his youngest daughter. And she comes with ten thousand pounds."
"But at what price?" muttered Thomas to himself, suppressing a shudder at the vision of Josephine Huntsley.
Though Marchgate voiced no ultimatum, the terms were clear. Thomas could hardly comprehend the sacrifice demanded for plastering over his recent follies--banishment, poverty, and a lifetime of Miss Huntsley.
"Think about it," urged the earl. "They are presently at home in Devon. I will expect your bills tomorrow," he added dismissively.
"Father--" He paused, then continued in a firmer voice, determined to salvage at least a modicum of self-respect. "Buy the mortgage if you like, but do not dismiss it. I find I would prefer to discharge that one myself."
He nodded firmly and left the room, his brain frantically listing all the respectable females he knew, in hopes of turning up someone better than Josephine. Anyone would be better. He could manage without a dowry as long as he had the inheritance.
But his bravura had not outlasted a round of afternoon calls. His reception finally forced an admission that not only was he a younger son of limited means, he was also considered a heartless libertine, an inveterate gamester, and a hopeless sot. Fit company for Prinny, perhaps, but matchmaking mamas barred their doors lest his very presence compromise their daughters. The polite world smiled indulgently on the sowing of wild oats, but a dedicated rakehell was acceptable only if he was a wealthy, high-ranking peer. And the highest sticklers even rejected those.
Three days later the Honourable Thomas Mannering sprawled untidily across a taproom table, his glass drooping from numbed fingers, the last portion of wine from his fourth bottle running across the uneven surface to pool under his left ear.
How could he face the fate that awaited him in Devon. Horse-faced, simperingly empty-headed, clumsily inept Miss Josephine Huntsley. Her very presence was penance, that ubiquitous girlish giggle grating on his ears until he could barely suppress screams. Everything she did turned to disaster. Within a week of her come-out, she had tripped Oaksford (leaving him sprawled on the ballroom floor), overturned a punch bowl at the Lewiston soiree, been invited to leave Almack's after insulting Lady Jersey and criticizing the refreshments, and made a spectacle of herself on Bond Street when she stepped on her hem, causing a rip that bared her nearly to the waist. The girl needed a keeper. Living with Medusa would be preferable.
But what choice did he have? He must take a wife. Immediately. Without capital, he would lose what remained of his only possession.
Alicia, how can I live without you?
A yard of tin sounded, stirring a commotion that filtered vaguely into his brain. The mail had arrived. He staggered to his feet, the last vestige of duty sending him to his fate.