Lord Harry Traemore knew the man next to him in the private room at his club in London—Lord Wray, who’d slithered to the floor and begun snoring—might appear to most passersby to be passive, even sleeping. But Harry and his old schoolmates from Eton, their reasoning skills gently manipulated by rather copious amounts of brandy, realized this prone position of Wray’s was actually his attempt to bravely endure his fate.
After all, Wray was to be married in the morning. And everyone knew his future wife was . . .
Exactly like his mother.
“I’m sad,” Harry’s friend Charles Thorpe, Viscount Lumley, said, an empty snifter dangling from his hand. “A good friend’s freedom is being taken away.”
Lumley was rich as Croesus, with the most twinkling blue eyes Harry had ever seen and a grin that could light up Vauxhall Gardens at midnight better than any fireworks.
“It’s not right,” said Captain Stephen Arrow. His naval uniform, crisp and distinguished with its gold braid and buttons, offset the casual manner in which he sprawled in his chair. “He put up a good fight, didn’t he?”
Harry sloshed some brandy into his mouth. He couldn’t even taste its flavor anymore. His tongue . . . it felt numb. And his lips, for that matter. It wasn’t often he drank this much—contrary to the stories told about him, which he did nothing to deny.
But tonight was different. Tonight he felt the brush of the nuptial guillotine close to his own neck. He didn’t want to marry. Not for a long, long time, not until he was truly cornered by familial obligation. And as far as he knew, that would likely never happen.
Harry was simply a spare. Only if his robust older brother Roderick somehow stuck his spoon in the wall before his wife Penelope produced a son—the next heir to the House of Mallan—would Harry’s potential as a bridegroom begin to matter. Penelope had already produced four daughters—his splendid little nieces Helen, Cassandra, Juliet, and Imogen—so it couldn’t be long now before she gifted Roderick with the son the whole family craved, even prayed for.
Because it wouldn’t do, Harry knew from whispers in the servants’ hall and the perpetually disappointed expressions on his parents’ faces, for disgraced Harry—the returning war hero who was not a hero but should have been—to be merely one person away from inheriting the ducal title.
No, that wouldn’t do at all.
Which was why Harry was so averse to marriage in the first place. Why take on yet another person in his life who would only disdain him?
Wray smacked his lips and shifted on the floor.
“At least he’s out of his pain,” said Nicholas Staunton, Lord Maxwell, in that unruffled tone of his. Cool, mysterious, and rather unconventional despite his strong aristocratic lineage, Maxwell, Harry was well aware, was unlikely to voice an observation unless he were truly moved to do so. He raised a quizzing glass and observed Wray further. “I understand he’s had a hell of a year. Dozens of debutantes and their mothers chasing him without cease.”
“Poor sod,” said Harry, looking down at Wray. “He was even thrown into a carriage by two masked thugs and almost forced to elope with the Barnwell girl, but he leaped out on the London Bridge and nearly got run over by a coach-and-four instead.”
A loud popping noise—followed by another pop and a creak—sounded from the logs burning in the fireplace.
The sound even woke Wray. He opened his eyes, gazed at nothing, and said, “No. I won’t eat my porridge. Please don’t make me,” before he went back to his snoring.
“God save his tormented soul,” Arrow entreated with great solemnity.
And then the bookcase opened. The one near the fire.
Harry rubbed his eyes.
“What the hell?” said Arrow.
Harry knew, of course, that every great house had a secret door to somewhere, but he’d no idea his own club did.
A buxom female—rather matronly in dress and age, actually—stumbled out from a dark passageway, a spitting candle in her hand. The curls at her temples had gone to gray beneath the half-handkerchief pinned to her hair, and her gown, while a pleasing midnight blue, couldn’t disguise her spreading hips. She placed the candle on the mantel, turned to the men, and curtsied.
“You’re a woman,” Lumley said slowly.
Considering the fact that women weren’t allowed on the club premises, Harry could forgive Lumley’s stating the obvious.
But before she or anyone else could respond, a man emerged from the opening behind the bookcase, as well—a portly man with a merry grin and a bottle of cheap gin in his hand.
“I’m dreaming,” said Lumley, shaking his head.
“Au contraire,” the man said, and proceeded to belch. “You most certainly are not dreaming, Viscount.” He patted his stomach, lifted the bottle to his mouth, drank, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
Then he swayed.
“Oho!” he said, and chuckled when the woman grabbed his elbow.
“No dancing, Your Highness.” She giggled and took the bottle from him. “We need music for that.”
Long before she’d even set the bottle on a side table, every man in the room had stood—except for Wray, who was still fighting his battle against cruel Fate on the floor.
“Your Royal Highness!” Captain Arrow said, and saluted the swaying man. “Captain Stephen Arrow, at your service.”
By God, it was him. The Prince Regent himself. Harry almost saluted, too, but then he remembered he wasn’t a sailor, so he bowed deeply, right near Wray’s snuffling mouth.
Prinny rubbed his chin. “Yes, it is I,” he said. “My delectable companion and I were on our way to the secret bedchamber—”
There was a secret bedchamber at the club?
Harry and Lumley exchanged looks of shock. Maxwell ran his narrowed gaze over the bookshelf. Arrow remained standing at attention.
“Captain Arrow,” Prinny said with a huff of laughter. “At ease. Please. I can’t think when you look as though you’re about to call out orders to fire a hundred cannon at the Spanish fleet.”
Arrow’s shoulders relaxed.
And there followed a general lessening of tension in every man, Harry noted. Maxwell took a puff from his cheroot. Lumley grinned, and Harry uncurled his fingers, which he’d balled into fists at his sides.
Yes, Prinny was in his cups, but he was also in a good mood.
“As I was saying,” His Royal Highness went on, “Liza and I were passing through, and we couldn’t help overhearing your conversation, gentlemen.” He opened his snuffbox with a grand flourish, pretended to inhale some—everyone knew he really despised the stuff—and returned it to his pocket. “And I’m shocked—nay, dismayed,” he went on, “at the state of affairs in this room. Can’t be good for the Empire when its best and brightest are gloomy.”
He leveled an eye at Harry. “Yes, I include even you in that description, young man. Despite everything I’ve heard about your bedding the captain’s wife while your unit suffered an ambush, of all things”—Liza gasped—”you can’t be a complete disgrace if the Duke of Mallan is your father.”
Harry’s chest knotted. “Thank you, Your Highness,” he gritted out.
But inside, his heart grew harder. And smaller.
Prinny looked around assessingly. “We must correct this situation. What you need is hope—hope that you may avoid legshackles. And not just a vague hope.” His expression brightened and he raised his right index finger. “You’ll need a surety!”
“Yes!” Liza clapped her hands.
“We need to make it impossible,” Prinny said, “for any matchmaking mamas, silly debutantes, and conniving bettors to rob your bachelor days of their necessary frivolity. Who’s got a quill and paper?”
No one did. Harry wondered what the Prince was about.
A coach-and-four rattled by the window, and through the door, there were the regular sounds of club life: voices rising and falling, the scrape of forks and knives against plates, the clink of bottle against glass.
Life was going on as usual, Harry thought, except for here in this room. He wished he could talk to the other bachelors, but no one dared look at anyone but Prinny.
Prinny nodded his head at Arrow. “Captain, please see to it that paper and quill and writing desk are brought immediately. I have a decree to prepare and sign. Here. And now.”
Captain Arrow saluted. “Of course, Your Highness.”
Not thirty seconds later, he was back with Prinny’s requested materials, which he handed off to Liza with a swooping bow.
Liza blushed, Harry wasn’t surprised to see. Women always fell apart around Arrow.
“Take this down,” Prinny said to Liza, who settled into a chair, the quill poised above the blank paper, prepared to write.
“Please begin, Your Highness,” she said.
Prinny adjusted his cravat. “By order of the Prince Regent,” he said, “let it be known that the annual Impossible Bachelors wager shall commence the first week of August in the year 1816 and every August thereafter. The participants shall be conscripted by the Prince Regent and his advisors, who shall have sole control over the circumstances of the bet.”
Harry’s neck muscles tensed, and the sound of Liza’s quill scratching across the paper only made it worse. He craved nothing more than to get up and leave.
But, of course, he couldn’t.
After a bit more scribbling, Liza looked up, her quill at the ready.
“The winner of the wager,” Prinny continued, “shall be granted an entire year of freedom from the trials, tribulations, and, ahem, joys of marriage. As well as from the dreary events leading up to the eventual acquisition of a wife.”
His grin was decidedly saucy. “He shall not be chased after by matchmaking mamas at social events.” A twinkle gleamed in his eyes. “He shall not be forced to attend tedious balls at Almack’s”—he paused and grinned—“although if he cares to attend to observe and flirt with the newest crop of debutantes, he shall not be denied entrance by the patronesses.”
Liza’s mouth curved up in a smile, and she continued to write furiously.
“And he most certainly shall not,” Prinny said, his eyes stormy, “be trapped into marriage by a young lady’s relatives—or by bettors seeking to make their fortunes.”
Almost as one, the gentlemen in the room looked down at Wray, snoring on the rug.
“Pity this comes too late for him,” Prinny murmured.
Liza made a small tsking noise and inclined her head in sympathy.
But then Prinny gripped his lapels, threw back his shoulders, and resumed his speech. “Those who cross the Prince Regent in his wish to see at least one of his bachelor subjects free from shameless pursuit for the period of one year”—he paused and narrowed his eyes—“shall forever be given the cut direct by His Royal Highness and his loyal subjects.”
Harry met Maxwell’s eyes, which reflected back his own gut feeling. Prinny meant business, obviously. And since he meant business, they must follow suit.
The Prince Regent released a long-suffering sigh. “The price of pursuing seemingly impossible freedom and privilege is always high, is it not?” He arched a brow. “Therefore, the losing bachelors shall be required to draw straws.”
He looked first at Lumley, then Arrow, then Maxwell, then at Harry. “The recipient of the shortest straw,” he said grimly, “shall propose marriage within two months to a woman of his club board’s choosing.”
He leaned back on his heels and crossed his arms over his expansive belly. “That is all.”
Liza laid her quill down and blew on the paper holding Prinny’s latest decree.
A cold stone boulder rested in the pit of Harry’s stomach. He most certainly didn’t want to marry. But he’d prefer to avoid the altar his way—as Prinny’s way involved a hefty measure of diabolical risk.
Prinny sauntered to the desk and signed the decree, hiccupping as he handed the quill to Liza. “I’m amazed at my own genius,” he said with a chuckle.
“I’m not, Your Highness.” Liza cast him an adoring glance.
Prinny curled his chubby hand around hers. “The first year’s wager shall be in your honor, my dear. I shall call it the Most Delectable Companion contest. The ladies shall be rigorously tested according to my exacting if unscrupulous standards—and the lucky bachelor who brings the finest mistress shall win a cherished year of freedom.” He looked up. “Are you ready, gentlemen?”
Harry swallowed hard. Follow Prinny’s orders, and any one of them might very well be legshackled by Christmas if they lost the wager!
“Your Highness,” Arrow said in his authoritative naval captain’s voice. “According to my ship’s sailing schedule, I shall be rounding Cape Horn at that time.”
“No, you shall not,” Prinny insisted. “I shall see to it that you’re reassigned, Captain Arrow.”
Harry caught the slightest hesitation before Arrow spoke. “Very good, sir,” he said.
But Harry could see the red creeping up his friend’s well-tanned neck. He wasn’t happy about this wager, either.
Dear God was written all over Maxwell’s usually implacable face.
Lumley exclaimed something like “Wha’?” before remembering to shut his mouth.
“I shall send each of you details of the circumstances of the bet imminently,” Prinny said sternly. “You’ll follow it to the letter.” He snorted. “I’m quite sure I’ll be entertained.”
Harry’s spirits sank even lower. Prinny and his compulsive need to be entertained! Couldn’t he simply reinstitute the tradition of the court jester?
Prinny’s gaze narrowed. “Harry, you’re to host. Maxwell, record. Arrow and Lumley, you shall form the arbitration committee. Keep me informed as the wager progresses, gentlemen. And that’s an order.”
“As you wish, Your Highness.” Harry forced himself to sound amenable, although he’d no desire to be under the strict watch of His Royal Highness in a caper over which he had no control. He’d already undergone five years of imposed military service, courtesy of his father, and then he’d stayed in long enough to do his damnedest to help Wellington win at Waterloo.
He’d been home only a year, hardly long enough to enjoy his freedom.
Liza stood and handed the decree to Prinny, who immediately passed it off to Harry. “See that it’s hung to the right of the fireplace in the front room of the club.” He chuckled and took the candle from the mantel. “Congratulations. You’re all the Prince Regent’s Impossible Bachelors now. Except Wray, of course.”
He nudged Wray with his foot. Wray flung out an arm and snorted.
“I believe I shall name one more Impossible Bachelor,” Prinny said. “To fill the vacant spot Wray would have occupied had he not been vanquished by feminine forces already.” His brow creased in thought. “Possibly that rat Sir Richard Bell. He’s seduced so many virgins that it’s time he sweated a bit, eh?”
And before anyone could respond, he swooped into the hidden passageway, pulling Liza by the hand.
The bookcase shut upon them both.
There was total silence in the room until the creeping footsteps of Prinny and his lady were no longer audible.
“Dammit all to hell,” Lord Maxwell said, his voice dangerously low.
Arrow ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t want to be reassigned! And I most certainly don’t want to be called an Impossible Bachelor. It doesn’t have nearly the ring to it admiral has.”
Lumley threw himself into a chair. “I’ve nothing to do except oversee my estates. And perhaps acquire a few more. So I think I shall quite enjoy this wager. Especially if Sir Richard shows up. I’d like to pound his face for ruining the Glasbury girl last year. She’s a nun now, did you know that?”
“Yes, I knew that,” Harry spluttered, “and I agree with you about Bell. But really, Lumley. Enjoy the wager? What are you thinking? One of us will wind up married at the end of it!”
“I forgot about that part.” Lumley sighed. “I don’t even have a mistress at the moment, much less a delectable one. Which means, right now, I’m favored to get legshackled!”
“You and I both,” said Arrow. “We must get cracking. Maxwell’s Athena is sublime, and Harry’s girl is—who is she now, Harry? The blonde, or have you moved on to that redhead you met at the Cyprian Ball?”
“That’s beside the point at the moment.” Harry had difficulty keeping up with all the women in his life. He’d rather not think of them unless he had to, which was usually right before he saw them—when he’d open a drawer near his bed table and pull out a little bauble from a collection of baubles his jeweler had put together for him to save him the tedium of selecting little gifts himself. “We’re Prinny’s puppets. He’s shrewd when he wants to be, but the only thing that interests his addled brain these days is mindless entertainment.”