January 28, 1823
“Never has God created a more devious creature,” Christopher Avery Courtland, Earl of Vanewright, declared as he walked the vale of Blackmoor one early morning in January with his friends, the Marquess of Sainthill and the Duke of Huntsley, as they hunted hare. Cold and hungry, the earl, who was often acknowledged by the abbreviated version of his title, wished they had taken their horses on the trail hunt.
Squinting at the pack of baying harriers on the horizon, the duke spared a glance at Vane. “What are you muttering on about?”
Huntsley, or simply Hunter to his friends, was aptly named. He excelled at sports whether they involved pursuing game on the frost-crusted low-lying meadow or more challenging quarry, the ladies of the ton. Perhaps it was because his days as a free man were numbered. Though he rarely spoke of it unless he was deeply in his cups, his wily grandmother had betrothed her twelve-year-old grandson to a young girl barely out of her swaddling clothes to increase the family’s landholdings.
Now that his own mother, the Marchioness of Netherley, had decided it was time for her surviving son to marry, Vane had nothing but sympathy for his friend.
Simon Wyndham Jefferes, Marquess of Sainthill, or Saint, on the other hand, did not possess the temperament or patience that his nickname implied. Having severed his ties to his family in his youth, the twenty-nine-year-old marquess lived only for himself. It was an enviable position, to be certain, when Vane could not seem to prevent his own family from meddling in his life.
“Likely his new mistress,” Saint said, the butt of his double-barreled gun nestled in the crook of his arm.
“No, have you not been paying attention for the past hour? I am speaking of my mother,” Vane said, scowling at Saint. “She is determined to ruin my stay in London this season. I feel it like a damp chill in my bones.”
Hunter looked askance at Saint. “Care to wager on it?”
Saint’s gaze sharpened with interest. “Will a hundred pounds suffice?”
“Two hundred,” Hunter countered.
Irritated—it was on the tip of his tongue to increase the wager to five hundred pounds—Vane kicked Saint in the calf, causing him to stumble. Hunter, regrettably, was too far away to punch. “Have some respect, gents! This is my cursed future both of you are discussing with such disrespect. Not that either one of you seems to care. If my mother gets her way, I shall be wed by summer.”
Hunter dismissed Vane’s accusation with a casual wave of his hand. “Your charming seventy-two-year-old mother has been determined to see you leg-shackled for the past two years. Nothing has come of it.”
“You have deftly avoided all her elegant snares,” Saint pointed out. “You will best your dear mother again.” To Hunter, he added, “And I am willing to wager three hundred pounds on our dear friend’s victory.”
Hunter’s brows came together as he mulled over Saint’s terms. “A reckless wager, to be certain. However, I’ll accept.” He sent Vane an apologetic look. “No disrespect to you, of course.”
“Of course.” Vane took no offense at the wager. The Lords of Vice—as he and his six friends had been dubbed by the ton—thrived on outrageous bets and impossible odds.
Hunter must have been feeling slightly guilty for not siding with his friend. His gait slowed as he added, “Cynical as I may be of Lady Netherley’s triumph, it would be rude not to offer the dear woman my support.”
Vane gave the two men a morose glance. “Both of you are underestimating my mother. Two failed seasons in London have made her desperate. As far as she is concerned, I am as unmarriageable as a toothless spinster without a penny to her name.”
Hunter and Saint chuckled at Vane’s absurd comparison.
“Never yield to a woman, my friend,” Hunter advised. “It’s an indisputable fact that they are ruthless if they believe they have the upper hand.”
Copyright © 2012 by Alexandra Hawkins