Authors: L. L. Muir
Tags: #Romance, #Historical
“The Duke of Redmond is listed in the books as well. He arrived only a moment ago, Your Grace. He is expected to make a bid, though he gave no hints as to what it might be. He’ll make those footmen run ragged, he will.”
“Just between the two of us, Gibson, I won’t be making a bid. Go ahead and bet what you like on it.”
The man’s brows lifted faintly.
“Very good, Your Grace. Very good, indeed. I wouldn’t have expected you to dabble in such a thing, sir, but when they said what you did at the park, sir—”
“That’s alright, Gibson. I’m glad you were disappointed in me.”
“It pained me to be, sir.”
Leland laughed silently. If anyone had overheard them, Gibson would have been fired for his presumption, then he’d be forced to find the man a position in one of his own households.
Once upstairs, the crowd of black tailcoats parted to allow him a view of “the books,” where bets were being placed on every wager-worthy activity in Londontown. He bent over them, flicked a page or two back, then forward again. Noting clearly the way the crowd hushed, he opted to put these poor betting fools out of their misery.
“Gentlemen, I won’t be making a bid in Ledford’s auction tonight.”
Civilized but deafening conversation erupted and he stepped away from the books so that the tallying could commence.
“I’ll wager you’ll change your mind, Stromburg.” Redmond’s voice cut through the others with no effort at all and losses were forgotten on the heels of a new bet.
“Don’t wager too much, Redmond. I wouldn’t want your tailor to suffer.”
And with the new bet entered, parchment began to fly about the room in a much less organized manner than something Leland had witnessed below stairs. Footmen could teach this mob a thing or two.
Smoke and liquor poured through the elegantly appointed rooms with the steady stream of servants and trays, snaking in the path of least resistance. Redmond reigned supreme in the circle of the most notorious of rakes, none of whom were nearly as contemptible as himself, but a few looked upon such a title with hunger. None of them, however, would have been able to match whatever the duke wagered.
Leland sat across the room in relative silence. Once he was lured away for a game of cards, but he found he had no concentration for it, and ended up back in his chair before the seat could cool.
When the clock struck half past eleven, Gibson escorted in a common-looking man. It was the doorman’s nervous look that had Leland sitting up and taking note.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” the man said, easing himself through Redmond’s crowd to the red ledger, the one recording all the bids for Ledford’s auction.
Leland hadn’t bothered to even look at the book. Whatever amount was listed would only be added upon by Redmond. At midnight, the book would be closed. The ledger would be taken to Baron Ledford whose lack of membership kept him from being welcomed in person, but his tasteless auction had not been turned away, sponsored by one of the men who today called Redmond “friend”. Surely there were only a few of Redmond’s cronies making bids for Miss MacIntyre, no doubt to make the auction more interesting to their pack leader.
Redmond shot Gibson a glare.
“What’s this? Non-members are not allowed, Gibson.”
“Begging your pardon, Your Grace, but this man’s making a bid on his master’s instructions. He’s to stay until midnight. And the rules of the auction stated that anyone may bid, member or not. Would you rather I took the book to the kitchens, Your Grace?”
. Although his tone was subservient, his query proved worthy of a fine chess player. There was no way Redmond would enter the kitchens to make his bet and so the common man would stay.
Redmond responded by turning his back to them both.
The stranger wore no identifiable livery. In fact, he looked the part of a gentleman farmer trussed up in his Sunday best. Seemingly for just this occasion, his dark boots were polished and shined, at least on the smooth, less worn portions. Leland watched them closely as the man made his way to the ledger, expecting a clod of dirt, or perhaps a field mouse, to escape and defile the rug. The latter would prove most entertaining, but poor Gibson would be personally offended.
The stranger took up the quill and carefully penned his proxy bid. Even though Redmond struggled not to pay heed, it took less than a minute for the duke’s curiosity to win out. He marched to the book and all but inserted his nose.
“What’s this? Apparently a Lord X has entered a bid.” Redmond straightened. “You, there! What is your master’s name?” He pointed a finger at the man who at least had wits enough not to sit down.
Unabashedly he grinned while bowing to the duke’s demand. “Lord Anonymous, Your Grace.”
Laughter and betting precluded any and all civilized conversation for the moment and drown out the remainder of the duke’s protests. Leland took the opportunity to sidle over to the regular betting books to make a wager of his own.
The Duke of Stromburg wagers 10 pounds that the Duke of Redmond will not win Ledford’s auction.
As soon as he stepped away, Redmond sent a man to read the wager aloud. The lecher grinned, then stepped to the red ledger and took up the pen. When he finished, he threw Lord Anonymous’s man a scathing look and found a seat.
As the minutes ticked away, promising midnight would indeed come, if on patient feet, Redmond smoked and brooded while his friends sobered in direct proportion to their brandy consumption. No doubt they worried their entertainment was in jeopardy if their golden boy lost the day’s main event.
Lord Anonymous’s man bounced a bit on his toes and scratched his head enough to make others take a step back from him. More than once, he caught himself whistling and stopped—the tune of a church hymn no less! He looked at the clock and every eye followed. Twenty minutes of.
And what a twenty minutes they were. As if on stage before a grand audience, the man, seemingly unaware of the crowd he manipulated, tortured the occupants of Whites until Leland feared the man may not live until midnight.
He looked to the clock, took out his watch fob, and adjusted the time.
At one point, when it became clear the man’s timepiece was pitifully inept, Leland nearly handed over his own. The way others in the room were toying with their fobs, he was not the only one to have such an inclination.
Every few minutes the man looked over at the red ledger and stared at it as if he could read it from five paces away. Once, he even wandered nonchalantly about the room, around a large table and back toward the book, with every eye watching him. When he finally neared the book, Leland thought Redmond might bark like a guard dog, but he remained seated, the flexing of his jaw not the only sign of his emotion. Every now and then, something especially malevolent flashed behind his eyes. A pity the Prince never seemed to witness it, or he might be more inclined to allow Leland’s complaints to be heard.
Lord Anonymous’s man looked, presumably, at whatever bid Redmond had entered and harrumphed before wandering back to the section of wall that he’d guarded for close to twenty minutes.
Seven minutes of.
Leland couldn’t take it. He leapt to his feet and strode to the ledger. No one else would have the audacity to look at the names and amounts recorded there. No one stopped him because so many believed he might be making a wager himself.
Each and every man in Redmond’s group had written an amount or a humorous offer next to his name. They would not have dared offer “my best riding horse” to a member of the
without being expected to be called out for it.
Redmond had scribbled his name as he always did and written 50 pounds next to it. An insult. A walk around the fountain with the woman had been worth more.
Next to the X, directly below Redmond’s scrawl, was written 500 pounds.
Beneath that Redmond had written 510.
“No gawking at the bids, Wescott. Either bid or move away.”
Since the large gathering had hushed in order to hear the exchange, numerous voices were heard from the entry and all eyes turned as Gibson escorted four footmen into the room. He bowed and pardoned a path to the ledger. Leland moved just a bit to the side to give the men access.
The first of the footmen stepped forward and took quick stock of the bids and added his own. Leland leaned forward.
600 to a Lord M…something
. Probably Montgomery. The old lecher was slowing in his doddering and could no longer catch his maids even if he could see them clearly enough.
Thankfully, the next footman wrote a higher bid, 650 from an equally lecherous, but much younger Lord Stephenson. If he didn’t know the woman was safe from these men, Leland would definitely be bidding now to keep her from being exposed to Stephenson’s twisted ways. He’d kill her spirit within ten minutes and leave nothing but a shell for some low piece of nobility to scoop up and put in his pocket.
The next man stepped forward with quaking hands, splattering ink all over the page before pausing beneath the last number. Apparently the lad had not been given leave to bid that high and he set the pen down—eventually—and stepped away. He stayed on, however, to report the winner if he could, no doubt, and tried to disappear into the dark corner.
“May I?” Lord Montgomery’s footman asked of no one but stepped forward and entered a new bid of 700.
Lord Stephenson’s man bid again, 750.
The duke growled himself to his feet and pushed them all out of the way.
“Ready to bid yet, Wescott? Perhaps the two of us could join sums and take her on together.”
That was it. That was the jibe Redmond had been saving all night to get him to bid and thus win at least the smaller wager. Redmond would be out 100 pounds if Leland didn’t bid. When he’d thumbed through the books, there’d been no lack of takers.
Leland wouldn’t bite, though, however tempting it was. After meeting Miss MacIntyre, there was no way he could allow her to be fed to such wolves. But she wouldn’t be, he reminded himself. She would be safely away, and come morning, Redmond would be 100 pounds poorer and remain among the most lecherous of London as he had before. Nothing would have changed. 100 pounds exchanged from one pocket to the next. Something that happened daily, if not hourly, there at White’s. Money never saw its way to the hands that truly needed it.
In a week’s time, he’d be headed North to work once again among those hands that truly would appreciate every pence of such a sum. The residents of Stromburg would have a harsh winter if he did not get enough food and supplies shipped to them to replace the stores Redmond’s ruffians had stolen. Every day he lamented that it was Redmond’s lands that bordered his own near the Scottish border, that it was Redmond to whom the prince tied him hand and foot and bid them play nice. The prince would hear none of his accusations and until someone put the duke in his grave, Leland would have no rest and his tenants would have no justice.
That was the reason for Redmond’s earlier taunt, that Leland hadn’t the means to bid for Miss MacIntyre. All his available funds were consumed in refurbishing stores that may well end up in Redmond’s pockets if he didn’t plant himself in the north and stay there. With Redmond in Town, and he on the borders, he remained the highest authority there and could gain some justice if he moved quickly. Redmond was never far behind him, however, and undid all possible progress as soon as he arrived. None of which would ever reach the prince’s ears.
He felt like he’d been cursed with a mean spirited sibling and a parent who refused to listen to their quarrels. One day, he hoped the prince would be interested enough. One day he would hand the prince proof he could not ignore.
After all the energy he’d expended today, Leland felt suddenly deflated with the small victory he would win over Redmond. A wager at Whites. He was no better than the rest.
“Thirty seconds, gentlemen,” said Werner, the keeper of the books, as the man made his way closer to the ledger.
“She’s hardly worth such a sum,” Redmond sneered as he set the pen down. He’d wagered 800 pounds.
Lord Montgomery’s man took up the pen and wrote 810. Lord Stephenson’s man wrote 820. Redmond screeched and took the pen from him and scribbled 821 and added his initials.
“Ten seconds, gentlemen.”
Finally, and calmly, Lord Anonymous’ man stepped to the book and held out his hand for the pen. When the duke pulled it back, the gasp from the onlookers made him reconsider and he handed it over.
A hasty X was followed by a one and three zeros just before the book slammed shut on the still-wet ink. The man doing the slamming was a tall nervous rat of a man in spectacles. His pitiful moustache hairs grew horizontally, giving him a decidedly rodent quality. It was a quandary why such a man wouldn’t choose to shave twice daily.
The rat ceremoniously picked up the ledger as if his life savings might be contained therein.
“Wait a moment,” said Redmond. “I would like this delivered with the book.” He tucked a hastily written note inside the cover.
“A note that reads, ‘a hundred pounds more than the last bid, plus my best riding horse?’” Leland couldn’t help but guess. “That’s hardly fair I think.”