Piers Downing, the Earl of Whitney, entered White’s and pushed his spectacles up his nose. For the first time since he joined five years ago, he actually belonged here. It was nice. He’d hated being on the outside and looking in. And now he wasn’t. Now, for the first time, he finally belonged in this establishment.
This afternoon when he walked into the gaming room, three familiar gentlemen were playing a card game at a table.
“Oh good, you’re here,” Lord Edon called out as he waved him over. “We were hoping you’d show up today. We saved a seat for you.”
Lord Edon pointed to the empty chair across from him. Mr. Christopher Robinson and Lord Erandon, who were sitting on both sides of Lord Edon, welcomed him to the table.
“I’ll be there in a moment,” Piers said. “I need to get a drink first.”
“There’s no need for that,” Mr. Robinson replied. “We poured you one already. We figured you’d be here today. It’s Monday. You usually come in on Mondays.”
Piers hadn’t realized they noticed that he came here on this particular day. The reason he did it was to catch up on the events that had happened during the weekend. He’d thought it might help him fit in if he could discuss who was doing what, but so far, it hadn’t worked in his favor. The other gentlemen had still thought he was boring. The betrothal, however, had changed all of that.
He sat in the chair, and Lord Erandon placed the glass of brandy in front of him. “Drink up. I plan to win all of your money,” Lord Erandon teased.
“Did your wife use up all of your money already?” Mr. Robinson asked, eyebrows raised in amusement as he shuffled the deck of cards.
“No,” Lord Erandon said. “My wife is a sensible lady. She knows better than to spend more than she’s allowed. I just like to earn a little money while we’re playing cards so I can tuck it away. I’m not an investing expert like my brother-in-law is.”
“Your brother-in-law is good at investments because it’s all he thinks about,” Mr. Robinson said with a roll of his eyes. “If you ask me, he and his friends are boring.”
“Boring or not, they’re good at what they do,” Lord Erandon replied.
Piers took a sip of his brandy then asked Lord Erandon, “Don’t you take your ship out during the winter months and make money with what you bring back to London?”
“I do,” Lord Erandon replied. “I make a pretty good living at it.” He glanced at him. “Are you thinking of joining me and my lovely wife and our son on a voyage?”
“And give up his own bride?” Mr. Robinson interrupted with a chuckle. “I think not! He has to put that book on how to pleasure a lady to good use.” He winked at Piers.
Lord Edon passed out the cards. “Of course, he could be trying out the book’s advice with a mistress while he’s waiting for the father of the bride to set the wedding date.”
Piers tried not to give away his embarrassment as he brushed back his blond bangs from his forehead. Despite what Lord Edon thought, he hadn’t tried anything in it. Nor was he ever going to.
Lord Erandon picked up his cards and sorted through them. “There’s nothing wrong with waiting for one’s wedding night. By the way, I was joking about the money,” he told Piers. “We’re not playing for money today. Today, we’re playing for candy.” He took the marzipan candy that was in the center of the table and set it next to Piers. He pointed to Lord Edon. “His wife found out he gambled some money, and it didn’t go well.”
Lord Edon shook his head. “It wasn’t my wife who had a problem with it. It was my father-in-law. He’s unreasonable.”
“There’s nothing wrong with betting candy,” Mr. Robinson said. “Your father-in-law can’t get upset about that.” Then he looked at Piers. “No one’s allowed to eat any of it until we’re done with the games.”
“I happen to love this candy, so I’m playing to win,” Lord Erandon added in a friendly warning.
The gentlemen laughed, and Piers gathered the cards in front of him. It was nice to be a part of a group. Before he made up a betrothal, these gentlemen hadn’t noticed him. Now, they had not only noticed him, but they had asked him to play cards with them. And it was all because he was going to get married. Married gentlemen had perks bachelors didn’t.
There was only one small problem. There was no lady to marry.
That was a minor stipulation, though. Some engagements went on for months, and some could even last for a year or two. At the time, he figured he could make up a lady, and once the gentlemen got to know him, they would find him interesting. Then he could say her father decided not to go through with the arranged marriage after all, and he would still be friends with them because they would like him.
All he needed to do was pull off the ruse for another month or two. Then everything could go back to normal.
“Does anyone want any new cards?” Lord Edon asked.
Piers set aside three cards, put a candy in the center of the table, and called out that he needed new ones when it was his turn.
As Lord Edon passed out the new cards, he asked Piers, “Are you going to tell us the identity of your bride today?”
Forcing a nonchalant chuckle, Piers said, “You know I can’t do that. I promised her father I wouldn’t say who she is until it gets close to the wedding day.”
Lord Edon leaned forward in interest. “When will that be?”
Piers debated whether or not to answer. If he didn’t give them something, they might begin to question whether or not he was telling them the truth. If they started doing that, then things would fall apart pretty fast. If, however, he gave them a wedding date, then it might delay things for a while longer.
“Before Christmas,” Piers said. He hoped that was enough time to become their friend on his own merits.
“But that’s four months away,” Lord Edon replied. “Are you saying you can’t do it sooner?”
“My curiosity is getting the best of me,” Mr. Robinson added with a nod. “You can’t be more specific? What about the banns? When will they be started?”
The banns. He’d forgotten all about that. “I’m not sure what her father wants to do. We might do a special license.”
Lord Edon chuckled. “You’re going to make us wait until the last possible moment before revealing who she is, aren’t you?”
After a moment, Piers settled on the perfect response. “What fun would it be if I told you everything right now?”
As he hoped, the gentlemen at the table laughed in appreciation at his joke. Then they turned their attention back to the cards in their hands, and Piers breathed a sigh of relief. That was all they were going to ask about the lady today. He’d gotten past it without making them suspect he was lying. All he had to do was keep up the pretense for another month, and then it would all be over.
Relaxing, Piers put another piece of candy in the center of the table and focused on the game.
Lady Stacey, the daughter of the Duke of Cathorn, shifted in her chair. She glanced at the other ladies in the room, and only Lady Gareth and Miss Duff looked as uncomfortable as she felt. Miss Wilmington and Miss Webb were closest to Lady Eloise, and because of that, they seemed highly sympathetic to Lady Eloise’s plight.
At the moment, they were all gathered around Lady Eloise in her drawing room. Lady Eloise had called everyone together to bemoan her fate.
“Of all the gentlemen I have to marry, why does it have to be Mr. Bachman?” Lady Eloise pressed her handkerchief to her nose as tears ran down her cheeks.
This was the first time Stacey believed Lady Eloise was being sincere. She wondered if Lady Eloise knew about the damaging article in the Tittletattle. She had yet to mention it. She didn’t know if Lady Eloise even read the scandal sheets, but the article had been very unflattering to her.
Lady Stacey thought it might be the very thing that would finally convince her father to let her leave Ladies of Grace, but he had been adamant that she stay in it. And since she had to stay in the group, she had to sit quietly and listen to Lady Eloise. Lady Eloise was the leader of the group. There was no option but to listen to her.
All Stacey ever did was listen to her. Whether Lady Eloise was gossiping about others or explaining why she was superior to everyone else, Stacey had to smile and nod in agreement. Because if she didn’t, she would upset Lady Eloise, and if she upset Lady Eloise, then she would be thrown out of the group. If she was thrown out of the group, her father would be livid.
“Marriage with that fool Mr. Bachman doesn’t have to get in the way of your social standing,” Miss Wilmington told Lady Eloise. “People will know your father made the agreement with Lord Youngtown. They’ll know this wasn’t your doing.”
Lord Youngtown was Mr. Bachman’s older brother, and though Stacey didn’t know much about him, she knew that he didn’t like Mr. Bachman’s reckless lifestyle. The marriage to Lady Eloise, she was sure, was meant to be a punishment.
Lady Eloise lowered her handkerchief, and her expression went dark. “Lady Youngtown had something to do with this. I just know it. She was ungrateful for the opportunity we gave her. Nobody knew who she was. She could have become one of the most envied ladies in London. How did she return the favor we gave her? With insolence. Well, she’ll be sorry. When I’m done with her, she won’t show her face in London ever again.”
Lady Gareth glanced at Stacey, and Stacey caught the way she winced. To be the object of Lady Eloise’s wrath was awful, but Stacey had the feeling that Lady Youngtown was going to manage just fine. For one, Stacey had seen Lord Youngtown walking with Lady Youngtown at Hyde Park, and he was not only proud of her, but it was obvious he was in love with her. A lady who was loved so devotedly wouldn’t be concerned with anything Lady Eloise did. Stacey knew she wouldn’t be if it was her.
Besides, the Tittletattle had been critical of Lady Eloise. It had been favorable toward Lady Youngtown. Lady Eloise had shown no mercy to poor Lady Aston when she came to the Ladies of Grace social engagement late because her child was sick. All Lady Youngtown had done was what Stacey had wanted to do but was too scared to. Lady Youngtown had defended Lady Aston. Anyone could see that Lady Youngtown had been right.
Lady Youngtown’s reputation was secure. She had nothing to worry about. Despite what Lady Eloise thought, she was not the most important voice in London.
“You mustn’t concern yourself with Lady Youngtown,” Miss Wilmington told Lady Eloise. “She’s of no importance. As you pointed out, no one even knows who she is.”
Lady Eloise’s expression relaxed. “You’re right. She isn’t important. No one knows her. If you mention her, no one will know who you’re talking about.”
“That’s right,” Miss Webb replied. “So there’s no use in wasting your time thinking about her.”
“Besides,” Miss Wilmington began, “we only wanted her in the group because of Loretta. It would have been nice to see Loretta squirm, knowing she was in this group. But when I think about it, Loretta’s not worth it. She betrayed the group. We shouldn’t give her another thought. Loretta can be in that pitiful Enduring Friendships group. They will accept anybody.” She snickered. “Even Lady Steinbeck is in it.”
Lady Eloise laughed. “Yes, you’re right. When you accept someone as pathetic as Lady Steinbeck, your group is doomed to fail.”
Again, Stacey shifted in the chair. Whenever they mentioned Iris Beaufort, who was formally known as Lady Steinbeck, she had to fight back the sting of conscience that told her she shouldn’t sit idly by while they insulted her friend. Stacey swallowed. If only she had someone like Lord Youngtown in her life. Then she could tell Lady Eloise what she thought of her without fear of retaliation.
“Do you feel better?” Miss Wilmington asked Lady Eloise.
Lady Eloise nodded. “A little. As long as we have this group, I can still hold my head high in London. I’m not going to let Mr. Bachman ruin things for me.”
“That’s the spirit!” Miss Wilmington replied. “Why don’t we go for a walk and pick out the people who are inferior to us? That will take all of your tears away.”
Stacey stopped herself from rolling her eyes before anyone saw her.
The other ladies stood up. Stacey glanced at Lady Gareth, who didn’t seem any more excited by this prospect than Stacey did. At least there was one ally she had in the group, though Lady Gareth was just as trapped as she was. Stacey had her father to deal with, and Lady Gareth’s husband desperately needed the business prospects the group afforded him because of Lady Eloise’s father. With a sigh, Stacey picked up her parasol and followed the others out of the room.