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London, Fall 1818
“His Lordship requests your presence in his study.”
A summons at this ungodly hour? Holy hell. Lord Samuel Travis moaned and pretended he still slept.
A brief pause. “At once.”
Sam cracked open burning eyes and scowled at his valet. “Go away, Ralph.” He threw an arm across his face to ward off the menacing rays of sunlight that streamed between the curtains. Damn it, he’d passed out in the library.
Ralph cleared his throat. “What shall I tell the marquess?”
Sam grunted. “Tell my brother he can go hang himself.”
“Forgive me, my lord, but he was terribly insistent. If you don’t go to him at once, I fear he’ll be most displeased.”
“Then he can hurl a vase against the wall and curse my name. I’ll hear his tirade from right here.” Sam patted the leather armchair that had served as his bed. Surprisingly comfortable, but then his slumber had been enhanced by copious amounts of brandy. His stomach churned at the thought. “Leave. If I haven’t emerged in three hours, return to check if I’m dead. No—on second thought, just send the undertaker.”
The valet’s boots remained rooted to the floor, and he swallowed nervously. “The marquess said that if you fail to report to his study he shall … terminate my service.”
Jesus. Sam might have admired his brother’s uncharacteristic ruthlessness if it didn’t feel like a hundred chickens were on the inside of his head trying to peck their way out. Still, his valet didn’t deserve to be a pawn in Nigel’s futile campaign.
Sam was never going to be respectable enough or gentleman enough or worthy enough. Not in his brother’s eyes—and not in his own.
Nigel had assumed that spending six months on the Continent would cure Sam of his rakish tendencies—that if he rubbed elbows with society’s upper crust, some of their polish would inevitably wear off on him. It hadn’t. Because Sam had returned to London exactly one week ago and had already succeeded in disappointing his brother—in a spectacular fashion.
Groaning, he propped his elbows on his knees and waited for the room to right itself. “We can’t allow him to sack you, Ralph. Who else could make me look halfway respectable and keep my sordid secrets?”
The valet exhaled in relief. “Thank you, my lord.”
Sam pressed a hand to his throbbing forehead. “Just give me a minute.”
But Ralph was already circling his chair, assessing the damage from all angles. “Your jacket’s wrinkled and there’s a small tear near the shoulder.” He froze and pressed a hand to his chest. “You didn’t remove your boots?”
“Easy, man. It’s not a cardinal sin.” Which wasn’t to say he hadn’t committed others in the course of the evening.
“Your boots are on,” the valet repeated dryly, “and yet, your neckcloth’s gone missing. Have you any notion where—” Clucking his tongue, Ralph plucked it from the top of an unlit lamp. “Never mind.”
He snapped the cloth in midair, then held it at arm’s length, turning his head as though he dangled a diseased rat. “It reeks of gaming hell. But there’s no time to fetch a new one, so we’ll have to make do with—”
“No neckcloth.” Sam pushed it aside. “My brother will be too preoccupied with skewering me to notice.”
“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him so irate, my lord.” Ralph gulped and extended a hand. “May I help you up?”
“I can manage,” Sam said with significantly more cockiness than he felt. He gripped the arms of the chair and pushed himself to his feet—
Just as his brother stormed into the room.
The valet cowered behind Sam for two seconds, then decided better of it and fled.
Over six feet of coiled muscle and barely contained rage, Nigel stalked across the library and stood toe to toe with Sam. Looking at his brother’s face was like looking into a mirror—except for the eyes. Nigel’s were the same icy blue as his, but they perpetually signaled disappointment and disgust. Usually with good reason.
Nigel shoved a rolled-up newspaper at Sam’s chest, slamming him back into the armchair. “You’ve been consorting with that actress again,” he spat. “It’s all over the gossip pages.”
Sam tossed the paper to the floor, dragged a hand down his face, and shrugged. “She ended the affair before I went away. If the rags are still dwelling on it, they must be suffering from a serious shortage of scandal.”
“Oh, there’s no shortage.” Nigel’s face was mottled red. “They’ll be able to write a whole column based solely on your escapades from last night.”
Shit. Sam vaguely remembered losing a vast sum at the hazard tables. Followed by a shoving match with an earl who’d mocked him. And at the very end of the night … bloody hell.
“Lord Harborough just paid me a visit,” Nigel said through his teeth.
Sam pinched the bridge of his nose and prayed his murky recollection of the encounter with their neighbor was a bad dream. “A friendly call?” he asked hopefully.
Nigel pressed his lips into a thin line and paced as though the sight of his hungover brother was more than he could bear. “You waltzed into his house in the wee hours of the morning and … and … crawled into bed with his spinster aunt.”
Damn. That was beyond the pale—even for Sam. He made a valiant attempt to explain. “Our houses look remarkably similar in the dark. Harborough’s butler should really lock the door.”
Seething, Nigel stared down his nose at Sam, pinning him to the chair. “You didn’t enter through the door. You shattered the window of their parlor and crawled into the house like a thief. His poor aunt nearly suffered an apoplexy when she woke and found your head on the pillow next to hers.”
Sam cringed. “I thought I was in my bedchamber.” He vaguely remembered being dragged out of the house by a pair of footmen and deposited on his own doorstep. “Once I’m presentable, I’ll go next door and offer my apologies.”
“The last thing they want is a visit from you.” Nigel clenched his fists. “Besides, I have another sort of penance in mind.”
A chill slithered down Sam’s spine. His brother had the devil’s own temper, but he usually vented his anger with shouted insults, thrown objects, and slammed doors. Nigel’s simmering rage was far more alarming.
“What sort of penance?”
“Come with me.” His brother’s stony expression revealed nothing, but Sam knew better than to poke the bear.
“Fine. Allow me to change, and I’ll meet you in your study within the hour.”
“I’m through with waiting.” Nigel snapped his fingers, and three burly men appeared in the doorway.
Sam jumped out of his chair and braced for a fight. “Who the hell are they?”
The trio stalked across the room and stood behind Nigel, glowering like they’d leap at the chance to throw a few punches. “Hired help. I found them working near the docks.”
“Jesus, Nigel. Paying someone to do your dirty work?”
“On the contrary. I’m cleaning house. It’s time for you to move out.”
Sam blinked. He’d lived in their London townhouse his whole life. Its stately design and elegant furnishings served as the backdrop for every fond memory he had of their father, who’d died barely a year ago. He’d hated it when his sons fought, but he’d always sided with Sam. Always encouraged Nigel to forgive his younger, mischievous brother. But even Father would have had a difficult time defending him this morning.
“Look, I realize my behavior last night was abominable. It won’t happen again.”
Nigel snorted. “I’ve heard that verse before, Samuel. It’s invariably followed by the refrain of excessive drinking, gambling, and whoring. This time, I’m teaching you a lesson. I want you out.”
One of the dock workers cracked his knuckles.
“You’re exiling me to the country house?” Sam asked, as though it were a life sentence in Newgate Prison. The truth was, if he laid low for a few months, he should be able to return to London before Christmastide.
“Not the country house,” Nigel intoned.
The burly men behind him shifted their feet ominously. The hairs on the back of Sam’s neck stood on end. He had to tread lightly here. “I suppose I could let an apartment at the Albany, but I’ll need an allowance—”
Nigel barked a laugh. “No. I’m cutting you off. Although, if you’re desperate for funds, you could always sell Father’s pocket watch. It would fetch a pretty price.”
Sam instinctively reached for the gold watch in his pocket, taking comfort from its familiar warmth and weight. “I would sooner die than sell it.”
“Suit yourself,” Nigel said with a shrug.
Good God. Sam closed his eyes and swallowed before searching his brother’s face, hoping to find a shred of compassion. He hated to beg, but as a younger son with no fortune of his own, he had little choice. “Where would you have me go? Surely you don’t mean to throw me out into the street?”
“It would serve you right if I did, but no—I’m presenting you with an alternative.”
Sam bit back a curse. “I’m listening.”
“While reviewing our father’s papers I recently discovered that the estate includes a property in London. It’s a small, fairly dilapidated house on Hart Street.”
“Sounds charming,” Sam quipped. “So, my penance is to move into a vacant tumble-down flat with no servants and no money?”
Nigel crooked his finger at the burly men, and in an instant, two flanked Sam, seizing his biceps in viselike grips. He squirmed but froze when the third man grabbed his collar from behind.
“You have the right of it,” Nigel replied, “except for one thing. The house is not vacant. Our soft-hearted father allowed a distant relative to inhabit the property.”
“A relative?” Sam managed, in spite of the fact that his collar nearly strangled him. “Who?”
“She died many years ago, but her widower has continued to rely on our generosity. I want him gone.” Nigel stared out the library window, his gaze calculating and cold.
“Where will he go?”
Ignoring the question, Nigel said, “Consider it a test—and not a very difficult one at that. You’ll do something useful for once. Take possession of the property and send me an accounting of its condition. I have a potential buyer for the house, and the sale would go a long way toward paying off your debts.”
“You could have simply asked for my help,” Sam said. “Without resorting to force.”
“Without force, you’d still be in that chair, sleeping off the effects of last night’s debauchery.”
True enough. “I’ll ask Ralph to pack a few things for me and we’ll leave immediately.”
“You’ll leave now. Alone. Don’t ask for so much as a shilling until the house is vacated.”
Sam started to protest, but his brother turned away as the trio of dock workers dragged him out of the room like yesterday’s rotten garbage.
He told himself that the task would be accomplished by day’s end. The man who occupied the house would cooperate, Nigel’s temper would subside, and Sam could return to his devil-may-care ways.
But as the workers shoved him into the coach with nothing but the clothes on his back, his gut told him something wholly different.
His damned goose was cooked.
Copyright © 2018 by Anna Bennett
Excerpt from My Brown-Eyed Earl Copyright © 2016 by Anna Bennett