Authors: Cathy Maxwell
The marquis of Salisbury, who was sitting at the table, overheard him. “I say, Your Grace, who has gone too far?”
“Lady Dobbins,” Holburn answered.
The men at the table lowered their heads to snicker. They didn’t look at Andres, but he knew they thought of her as his problem.
“What is she doing?” the marquis asked. “I’ve a gold crown that says she has locked herself in the Necessary Room set aside for the ladies and refuses to come out.”
“That could still happen,” Holburn said. “But right now she is throwing the glassware on the floor in the dining room and screaming she’s not understood. Along with calling the barón every foul name known to most sailors in His Majesty’s navy.”
Andres closed his eyes as if blocking the image his words conjured in his mind. “She did the same three days ago at Mrs. Drummond’s musicale,” he said. “And I wasn’t even there.”
“Well, of course,” the marquis said, laying his last suit of cards down and winning the hand. “She’s a woman. She shouldn’t make sense.”
“She shouldn’t break things either,” Andres countered. “She flies into fits if I’m there or not there. It is madness. And half of London believes I am a scoundrel.”
“Or are trying to take your place,” an old gent at the table chimed in. “It’s the price of a too pretty face.”
“Whose? Lady Dobbins or our friend the barón?” the marquis drawled, and the others laughed.
Andres wanted to cringe. They all thought he was Carla’s cicisbeo. No one took him seriously. He had no money, no land, nothing … except for looks.
The only reason they tolerated him was his friendship with Holburn.
“She said she won’t stop until you come to her,” Holburn said. “Banfield sent me. He wants to announce his daughter’s betrothal, but everyone is preoccupied with calming Carla down.”
“Who is she marrying?” the marquis asked.
“Bossley’s son,” Holburn said.
“Ah, that’s one for me,” the young captain of the guard sitting across the table from the marquis said in triumph. “I have a wager on the book at White’s that she’d go with Sherwin. Lady Corinne and Sherwin. Thought they’d be a match. They’ve been paying particular attention to each other.”
The “book” he referred to was the Betting Book and a sacred document for placing wagers.
“Well, are you going to go calm Lady D?” the marquis asked Andres.
“Why? Do you have a wager on that as well?” Andres wondered.
“I might,” the marquis said with a cynical smile.
At that moment, the duke of Banfield came charging into the room. “Barón, you must do something. She’s like a wild woman.”
“There is nothing I can do,” Andres insisted. He would be expected to take Carla someplace more private, listen to her carry on about how he’d broken her heart and receive a list of demands of what he must do to make amends.
He hadn’t acted on the last list she’d given him, and he wouldn’t act on this one either.
“Please, you must quiet her down,” Banfield pleaded. “You must. She’s sitting in the middle of the supper room hysterically crying.”
A crying she’d stop once Andres came to her side.
He could almost hate the woman. She was manipulating enough to enjoy these scenes. Still, her behavior wasn’t Banfield’s fault. And she did serve a purpose. By now, everyone seemed to have forgotten Miss Montross.
“I shall come,” Andres said. “But I don’t know what I can do to help.”
“Thank you, Barón. Thank you, thank you,” Banfield said. “I must tell the wife. You’ll go right now? This minute?”
“I am walking toward the door,” Andres said, making good on his word.
Holburn shot him a sympathetic glance.
“I don’t know why Dobbins doesn’t have more control on his wife,” Banfield muttered.
“He’s too old to care,” the marquis called out.
“Nonsense,” the older gent at the table said. “No man is too old to care. And you each owe me a fiver. I said Lady Dobbins would have her Latin cavalier, and so she has.”
His words rankled. Andres started to stop, but Holburn had fallen into step behind him. “Don’t pay attention to them. They are jealous. They know their wives would chase you, too.”
“But it isn’t because of my face,” Andres replied under his breath to his friend. “It’s because the men sit on their derrieres in card rooms instead of being with their wives.” Still, he hated appeasing Carla. “It’s blackmail,” he told Holburn. “She blackmails me with her tantrums and her scenes. She goes too far.”
“She does,” Holburn agreed. “Do you need help?”
“No, the farther you are from this, the better. I disgust myself when I have to toady to her.”
“Do you want the duchess and I to wait for you?” Holburn asked.
Andres shook his head. There was no telling how long Carla could take.
Banfield had already chased off on another one of his duties as host.
“Very well, then. Good luck,” Holburn replied and went in search of his duchess.
Walking across the ballroom toward the supper room, Andres could feel people stare. As he passed a group of women, one almost fell in front of him.
He caught her in his arms. She was a young matron, comely and bosomy.
“I am so sorry,” she said. “I must have tripped on the hem of my skirt.”
But as he released his hold, she pressed a note in his palm, her eyes dancing with her intentions. Her female companions burst into conspiratorial giggles.
Andres stifled a sigh and kept moving.
But he wasn’t moving alone.
Two men had started to shadow him. They were big men in new evening clothes. One of them had a nose that had been broken so many times it was almost flat.
They didn’t fit with this crowd, but no one seemed to notice. Not after all the punch and champagne that had been served.
Andres had to cross the front hall to reach the supper room. He quickened his step, testing the “gentlemen.”
They kept right up with him. Two huge bruisers.
Well, if they wanted a fight, Andres would send them to Carla.
As he anticipated, they made their move out in the hall. “Barón de Vasconia?”
“I am,” Andres said. Two footmen were stationed here. He wasn’t in danger—
There was the click of a pistol being cocked.
Andres glanced down and noticed that the smaller of the men had his hand in his jacket, a place that could easily hide a gun.
“Will you come with us, Barón?” the large bruiser said.
“Do I have a choice?” Andres asked.
“Where are we going?”
“To the front drive,” the bruiser said. “Lord Dobbins is waiting in one of the coaches to talk to you, my lord.”
“And if I choose not to go?” Andres asked.
“His lordship has given us permission to blow a hole in you.”
“Won’t that create a scene?” Andres asked, intrigued.
“His lordship says considering the way his wife has been acting, he don’t think anyone will be surprised by a little blood. Especially if it is yours.”
From down the supper room came a loud crash followed by the sound of hysterical crying and the twittering and laughter of gossips.
Andres took his hat from the footman holding it and said, “Please, lead the way.”
Andres knew Carla had married a man much older than herself. He’d pictured her husband as a small, wizened figure without the will or ability to put a check on his wife’s escapades.
The reality he discovered inside the heavy, ornate town coach was far different.
Lord Dobbins was of middle years. He had a paunch on him but appeared of robust health. His steel gray hair was clipped close to his head, and his eyes were clear and sharp. He wasn’t tall, and the fur collar he wore around the collar of his coat reminded Andres of a lion’s mane.
“Come in,” he invited Andres, his tone civil. Cordial. And putting Andres on guard.
His lordship indicated the velvet tufted bench seat opposite his in the coach.
“You will not mind if we take a ride.”
Seeing as he had no choice, Andres smiled. “Of course not.” He removed his hat and climbed in the coach.
Lord Dobbins nodded to his henchmen to close the door and they were off.
They rode in silence a moment. Andres sat, rubbing the brim of his hat with his thumb, waiting.
He didn’t have to wait long.
“You’ve made quite a conquest of my wife.”
Andres didn’t respond. Response led to being called out. If he told the man his wife had been the aggressor, he’d be named a liar and called out. If he told the truth—that he’d slept with Carla once when he’d been too drunk and full of self-pity to realize what he’d been doing—he’d be called out. If he—
Enough. Andres was tired of it all. He’d hoped to make something of his life in England, and yet here he was, back in the same traps as before.
“Over the last four months, I’ve fought three duels with men whose wives chased me,” he informed Lord Dobbins.
“I didn’t search their wives out and I didn’t sleep with any of them. I’m not saying I am an angel, but I’m not a rutting pig either.”
“I am also aware of that,” Lord Dobbins agreed.
“You are?” Andres sat back against the seat.
“I am. I also know that you did sleep with my wife. Rogered her nicely. At least, that is what she’s told me,” Lord Dobbins said. “And the rest of the world.”
In all the times Andres had confronted offended husbands, he’d never met one so calm. And he started to suspect that all wasn’t what it seemed, that he might have found himself in something he’d rather not be involved with.
Lord Dobbins watched him with a look of benign amusement. “Do you understand?”
“I don’t know if I wish to,” Andres replied, and Lord Dobbins laughed.
“Well said. Too many people ask questions they shouldn’t,” his lordship replied. “However,” he continued, his tone changing to one of mild concern,
“you have created a problem for me. You see, I like my arrangement with my wife. We live separate lives, but she is mine. She’s dallied with many men.
However, she has some nonsense in her head that she might leave me … for you.”
“I have not asked her to do any such thing.”
“Of course you haven’t. Carla is becoming a trial to you. She’s becoming a trial to me as well. Her ability to be discreet appears to have been misplaced in matters involving you. These tantrums and hysterics are embarrassing.
People are asking questions quite openly, and I am not comfortable with the situation.”
“I have not encouraged your wife in these behaviors,” Andres said, uncertain what the man wanted. He felt some comfort in knowing the bruisers sent to fetch him were not with them in the coach—or he didn’t think they were.
They could be with the driver for all he knew.
He wished he’d had his walking stick, the one that hid a sword. He might need it.
“Relax,” Lord Dobbins said. “I didn’t search you out to hurt you.”
Andres doubted his words. “Then what do you want?”
“I want you to leave London.”
“I would rather be called out,” Andres said without hesitation.
“Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen, Barón,” Lord Dobbins said. “I understand how you feel. Truly I do. And I’m not surprised. Before this meeting between us, I endeavored to learn everything I could about you. It was quite a task. You have an elusive past.”
“I’ve lived an adventurous life.”
“Yes, and you’ve made the most with what you’ve had. For example,” Lord Dobbins began, motioning with one dark gloved hand. He wore a huge golden ring on his index finger, right over the glove—just as Carla wore hers.
The metal gleamed in the coach light. “You aren’t truly a baron.” He smiled as he said this.
“My father was the barón de Vasconia.” Andres stuck with the truth.
“He was,” Lord Dobbins agreed. “But your sister kindly pointed out to my man that you are the illegitimate son, the one who couldn’t, or shouldn’t, inherit.”
“That was my sister’s impression. She was jealous our father treated me well.
I received the education of a nobleman’s son,” Andres said, a hardness forming in his chest.
“But you filled the role of a groom in his stables.”
“Fathers give their sons many tasks.”
“But it must have been hard watching your brother receive so much.”
Andres had not been close to his half brother. Emilio had considered him inferior and had been more ruthless in his opinions than Delia. “Is that not the way of brothers?” He kept his tone light.
“He died, didn’t he? How did it go?”
“He fought at Trafalgar, on the other side,” Andres said, knowing he was being toyed with—and almost hating the man for it.
“Yes, that was it,” Lord Dobbins said, as if suddenly remembering what he’d known all along. “Some would think him an enemy and perhaps consider you with suspicion if this was known. What is the saying, the chestnut never falls far from the tree?”
Andres shrugged. “I have enough trouble with English to have to remember your sayings.”
“That is not true, Barón. Your English is very good. Or should I call you Ramigio? Most of Europe, Greece, and Turkey know you by that name.
Barón is a title you saved for London. What? Did you think we were too removed from Spain for your subterfuge not to be discovered here?”
“I’ve always claimed the title. Otherwise how would you have traced me?
And how is my sister? Or should I be clear and say half sister?”
“My man said the Contessa Delia Digassi has a gaggle of children and a husband who is a disappointment.”
“There is a God,” Andres answered. Delia had been so proud of her Italian nobleman, so anxious to leave the family compound.
“After your brother’s death, your father elevated you. But you weren’t enough. An illegitimate son never is. There is always a taint of something unsavory about him. A reminder that man is weak.”
Andres forced himself to meet Dobbins’s gaze. It was hard.
“But then, your father was weak. He died by his own hand.”
“It is a cure for disappointment.” Tight, he had to hold himself tight.
“He saw nothing worthy to live for after they took his properties.”
“And his horses.”