Read A Pair of Rogues Online

Authors: Patricia Wynn

Tags: #Regency Romance

A Pair of Rogues

 

A PAIR OF ROGUES

 

Patricia Wynn

 

Chapter One

 

Her Grace, the Duchess of Broughton, gazed adoringly down at her baby in his cradle. His little cheeks had taken on the soft, rosy color of a peach, and the fuzz upon his head had the silky texture of down. Cushioned, as he was, in a profusion of lace-edged pillows and snowy linens, and weighing only slightly more than ten pounds, he seemed rather small to be a marquess; but every time his mother peered down at him, she felt the deep maternal pang of love.

Her husband, the duke, came up behind her and put his arms about her waist.

“Isn’t he perfect?” Louisa whispered, her cheek pressed closely to his.

“Perfect,” Robert agreed. His voice grew husky. “I can hardly wait to make another just like him.”

As his hands began to rove, Louisa turned and threw her arms about his neck. “Oh, Robert!”

Moments later, she emerged, shaking from their embrace.

“We’ve been so blissful.” The heavy sigh accompanying this statement alerted her husband to the probability that something of a devious nature was in her mind. “Isn’t it a shame that everyone cannot be as happy as we?”

Robert, who by now knew his clever wife very well, asked warily, “Whom precisely did you have in mind?”

Louisa sighed wistfully again, and he suppressed an indulgent laugh.

“I was thinking of Ned,” she said. “Ned and Christina.”

The sound of the first name so startled him, Robert gave an incredulous jerk. “Ned? As in Windermere? You cannot be serious.”

“Of course I am serious, my love.”

Robert groaned. “Now, Louisa, you cannot possibly be thinking of finding Ned a wife?

“And why not?”

“Why not?” Robert began to lift his hands, then dropped them helplessly at his sides. He spluttered, “Because Ned’s a scoundrel, that’s why!”

Louisa stared at him with hurt filling her eyes. “You shouldn’t say that. Not when Ned is your very best friend.”

“My very best—?” Robert gaped. “I’ve never called him anything of the sort.”

“But you asked him to stand godfather to our precious Robert Edward!”

“Louisa . . . .” Exasperation wrinkled Robert’s brow. “That was your idea, not mine.”

“Oh . . . well . . .” Louisa waved that inconvenient fact away. “Well, perhaps it was. But you agreed! And just look at the good that has resulted. Ned has called to see his godson every day since you asked, and I’m certain he is drinking less.”

This was true, and Robert was willing to concede the point. Though fond of Ned, in a rather theoretical way, Robert had resisted Louisa’s suggestion that the Earl of Windermere be asked to act as patron to their baby. He had no desire to run the risk of having his son influenced by one of the most notorious rakes in all of Britain.

Secretly, too, Robert had dreaded the prospect of broaching such a tender subject with one whose devilish humor discouraged any sort of serious discourse. But Ned’s reaction to Robert’s proposal had surprised him.

When asked to stand as sponsor to his lordship, the Marquess of Drayton, Ned had been so taken off guard that for once the sardonic grin had been completely wiped from his lips. A curious glow had flickered in his eyes, momentarily replacing the satirical glint that always seemed to linger there. He had accepted the honor gravely, then with an immediate reversion to his normal manner had proposed toast upon toast to the young marquess until Robert had perforce called a halt.

“But, Louisa”—Robert resumed his argument—”even if Ned has his better moments, I still cannot conceive of a girl who would be suitable for a man of his reputation.”

“I was thinking of Christina.”

“Christina who?”

Louisa stared at him as if he had suddenly lost his mind. “Why, your sister, of course! Have you forgotten her altogether?”

“My sister!” Now Robert was truly aghast. “You mean to say that I should marry my own flesh and blood to a man of Ned’s repute?”

“Yes. Don’t you think they would suit?”

“Suit!” Clapping one hand to his forehead, Robert paused in horrified contemplation. “They would suit a great deal too well, if you only knew. Mixing Christina with Ned would be like throwing lard upon a fire.”

“What a horrid way to talk about your sister! Lard, indeed!”

“Now, Louisa, you know perfectly well I am not referring to Christina’s figure. It couldn’t be more elegant.” Robert grimaced, as if his words had raised a dreadful thought. “If I know Ned, he will find it all too alluring.”

“There, then.” Louisa gave her husband a smug little smile. “What could be more perfect? Christina will be arriving tomorrow for the christening. We need only bring them together and see how they get on.”

“No.” Robert spoke with all the authority a duke could muster. “I simply shall not allow it, Louisa. Christina is enough of a handful as it is. Why do you think my mother sent her to that ladies’ seminary for all those years?”

He paused before adding, as if the words had been wrung from his mouth, “There have been reports from the school. I did not tell you because I did not wish to shock you . . .but there was something about Christina and the dancing master and a dare. . . .” Robert took a harried breath. “Suffice it to say that she does not need a husband—or even an admirer—who remotely resembles Ned. What she needs is a good, stodgy fellow, someone dependable who will keep her in line.”

“How dreadfully dull! But that is an excellent tack to take, my love. If you set yourself against them, Christina and Ned are sure to be safely wed by August.”

“Louisa . . . .”

As if sensing his father’s mounting frustration, Lord Robert Edward awoke to emit a ragged squall.

His Grace refused to stay and be baited further. In a huff, he left the nursery, determined to consider the subject closed.

That evening, before dinner, he was taken by surprise when Louisa raised it again, this time in front of Ned.

The future godfather had come to dine and to make his daily visit of inspection. The baby and his cradle had been carried down from the nursery, so that his parents and their guest could have the pleasure of the little marquess’s company before their evening meal. Ned, who was clothed in a snug-fitting coat that matched the black of his hair, had just bent over his tiny lordship’s bed to scoop him up in one strong hand.

“There now, Little Ned,” the earl said, settling the bundle on his forearm. His dark brows rose as he studied the sleeping baby. “Let me tell you about the adventures Uncle Ned has in store for you.”

“The boy is to be called Robert,” said Robert. “
Not
Little Ned.”

“Whatever you say, Bobby boy, but I thought it the godfather’s duty to name the child. And should I get nervous in church—which I might, considering how many years it’s been since I’ve set foot in one—I might forget the name Robert entirely.”

Robert grinned. “You wouldn’t dare. And it’s no use, Ned. You can’t bait me the way you used to.”

“No?” Ned sighed and shook his head. “Another of life’s little pleasures gone. I suppose it is Louisa’s fault. What I must have been thinking when I encouraged you to pursue her—although I never had marriage in mind, you know. Something more in the line of a lurid affair. Though considering her virginal status, I suppose . . . .”

Robert was on the verge of making an angry retort, when Louisa swept into the drawing room.

“Quarreling again?” She searched her husband’s face and directed him a reproachful look. “You mustn’t let Ned tease you, Robert.” She strolled to Ned’s side and reached for her son. “Isn’t he a dearest? Come here, little one.”

Robert’s temper waned as he watched his friend carefully hand her the swaddled bundle. Against the flame of Louisa’s red hair, Ned’s darker locks gleamed like the devil’s own coal, but for a brief instant, the hard planes of his face had softened in greeting.

Not that a respite so short could erase the signs of dissipation from his face. Ned’s frequent excesses, the dismal hours he persisted in keeping, and his penchant for riding neck-or-nothing to hounds for long weeks at a time had left their marks. Looking at him now, one might easily mistake him for a hard-living sailor, if it were not for the aristocratic lines of his nose and jaw. At one time, Robert recalled, Ned had been accounted a vastly handsome man, but his skin had grown too dark and rough to grace a drawing room and his reputation was much too soiled.

But Ned was responding to Louisa’s question, and his impertinent words drove all other thoughts from Robert’s mind.

“My godchild is a rare work of art—perfection itself.” To Robert, he added
sotto voce,
“Good work, your Grace. I’m glad you finally took my advice. Didn’t know you had it in you.”

“Ned—” Exasperation raised a flush on Robert’s face. “I would remind you that my wife is present.”

Ned widened his eyes, the very picture of innocence. “But, Bobby boy, surely Louisa knows how the baby was conceived?”

“That’s enough . . .” Robert warned, his blood warming.

“You mustn’t let Ned tease you, Robert.” Louisa smiled calmly at them both, as she swayed side to side embracing their infant. “He is simply trying to conceal the fact that he envies you.”

A patch of crimson appeared on each of Ned’s cheeks.
“Touché,
Louisa.” He paused, before a rare note of sincerity crept into his voice. “She is right, you know, Robert. I confess. If all God’s mites were like this one, I should not mind having one myself.”

Then the cynical gleam reappeared in his eyes. “But then, who knows? Perhaps I have a number already.”

At Louisa’s cry of admonishment, he added unrepentantly, “I was just about to tell Robert Edward about the delights I have in store for him when he gets older—say, in about thirteen years.”

“Were you?” Louisa said, with a show of unconcern. “In that case, I shall tell you about the plans I have for you.”

“What plans?”

“Louisa . . . “ Robert had glimpsed the purposeful spark in her eye. He knew his beloved wife. She took on projects. Many kinds of projects. And it seemed she had decided to make the Earl of Windermere her next.

“Robert and I—”

“Absolve me please, Ned,” Robert interjected. “I had nothing at all to do with this.”

“Robert and I have been thinking, it is long past time you were married, Ned. You would make a wonderful father.”

Ned stared. “You are jesting. Surely.”

“No, I am not.”

“But, my dear girl. Who would have me? Who would
I
have if it comes to that?”

“There must be someone, Ned.”

“Not necessarily.” He paused and then smiled knowingly. “I get it. You are worried about my succession, but you needn’t concern yourself, you know. I have a cousin somewhere or other. Undoubtedly, he will make a much better earl than I.”

“I am not worried about your succession.” Louisa pronounced her words very clearly. “Although I daresay you could do much better by your estate. And if you took the trouble to build it up, you would have some wonderful funds to spare for my societies. But—I can see by your sour expression that that particular notion does not appeal to you.”

“It does not,” Ned agreed. “I will have you know that I did not come here to be abused or mistreated.
Or
solicited for more subscriptions. I came to see my godson, to ensure that he was being properly raised. But if this is what poor Little Ned has to look forward to—” He shook his head in mock despair.

“I told you, Louisa”—Robert chuckled at her ruffled sigh—”you’ve lit upon the wrong man. Better to drop the notion.”

“Well . . . we shall see.” Louisa raised her nose in the air. “But if the perfect girl were to happen to come along . . .”

“No!” Robert knew exactly what she had been about to say, and
whom
she had been about to mention. He did not want even the seed of Louisa’s notion to be planted in Ned’s fertile brain. But he could see out the corner of his eye that his vehemence had been a serious tactical mistake.

“But wait—my dear Robert . . .” Ned had not failed to sense his agitation and was quick to take advantage of the chance to annoy him. “Why do I get the distinct impression there is something you are trying to conceal?”

“It is nothing.” In spite of his efforts to appear unconcerned, Robert knew his words sounded curt.

“No . . . “ With a sigh, Louisa put on a wistful expression. “It is certainly nothing now. I had come up with the lady I thought would be the perfect match for you, but Robert says he is entirely opposed.”

“Is he now?” Ned’s brows rose. The glint in his eyes was more pronounced. “And who might this paragon be?”

“I am afraid that Robert has forbidden me to mention her name,” Louisa said.

“Now—wait—” Robert felt himself to be at a loss. He knew what his wife was up to—she was trying to make Ned curious. Nothing like forbidden fruit to entice a rake. “There is no secret about it,” Robert said, purposely nonchalant. “It was quite simply a silly idea, and so I told her. Ned will agree.”

“Shall I?” Ned asked slyly. “Then why are you so flustered, Bobby boy?”

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