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Authors: Mary Jo Putney

Tags: #Regency Romance

The Diabolical Baron

 

THE DIABOLICAL BARON

 

Mary Jo Putney

 

Chapter 1

 

“Lord Radford,” announced the butler in a voice
whose chilly perfection exactly matched the ele
gant salon his lordship was entering.

Jason
Kincaid, Baron Radford, could have also
been characterized by the term “chilly perfection.”
Certainly his appearance came as near as humanly
possible to that state. His tall, broad-shouldered frame
was admirably suited by flawless tailoring. Everything
about him, from his mirror-bright top boots to his art
fully styled black hair, proclaimed the man of fashion.

A closer study would have also revealed an athlete’s
muscles beneath the coat of blue superfine. The chilliness
lay in his dark cynical eyes. A naturally passionate dis
position had been warped by too many people who
sought his fortune and influence. There had been few
indeed who had more interest in “Jason” than in “Lord Radford.”

On this occasion, a certain uneasiness lay behind his
impassive face. Honoria, the dowager Lady
Edgeware, had been intimidating people since the
reign of George II, so discomfort was not surprising. Jason
suspected he knew the cause
of his aunt’s imperious summons. Her temper
would not have improved during the three days he
had kept her waiting for his appearance.

Disdaining preliminaries, Lady Edgeware fixed her
target with snapping black eyes and attacked with a
directness Napoleon might have envied. “It was your
birthday last week, Radford.”

“Indeed, Aunt Honoria. Since it is April, I am not en
tirely surprised by the news. All of my birthdays have
fallen in April, I believe.”

“I’ll have none of your insolence! By my calcula
tions, you now have thirty-five years in your dish.
What are your plans for securing the succession?”

Lord Radford permitted himself a wry inward
smile. The Honorable Honoria Kincaid’s marriage to
Lord Edgeware fifty-some years ago had not made her
forgo allegiance to the Kincaids.

On the contrary, her
persecuted relations unanimously agreed that she de
lighted in bullying two families. Considering the im
portance she placed on the Radford title, it was
surprising she had held off so long before choosing to
dress him down.

It would have surprised him more to know he was
the only member of her two families that she felt any
hesitation about interfering with. Other relatives
would have understood: Lord Radford and Lady
Edgeware were generally acknowledged to be the spit and image of each other, from their unyielding dispo
sitions to the darkly sardonic eyes and tight lines
around the mouths that marred the classical regularity
of their faces.

“The family is a long way from running out of Kincaids, Aunt. Surely Cousin Oliver has two or three po
tential heirs amongst his brood?”

“Bah, they stink of the shop!” Lady Edgeware spat
out, dismissing the whole branch for her nephew
Oliver’s crime of marrying a young lady whose grandfather had made his fortune in trade. It was of no con
sequence that Oliver and his growing family showed
every sign of being happier than any of her more
toplofty relatives.

“Of course you weren’t the elder son, but your brother Robert has been dead more than five years
now. You are perfectly aware of your obligation to
your name, but I have yet to hear you’ve paid the least
attention to any eligible female. Keep as many married
mistresses as you like, but it’s high time you found
yourself a wife and got an heir on her.”

“Such plain speaking, Aunt Honoria! Almost I re
gret to tell you I have been thinking along similar lines
myself,” Jason drawled.

“Indeed? Who’s the gel?” Honoria demanded.

“I’ve no one in mind,” he said indifferently, “but I
don’t think a suitable wife should be hard to find. T
he title is one of the oldest in England. More
important, the Radford estates are known to be exten
sive and prospering.”

“I can’t quarrel with how much you’ve in
creased the property yields,” the dowager said
grudgingly.

If so, it was the first time he’d heard of something she
couldn’t quarrel with.

“But I’ll never understand,” she continued irascibly,
“why you felt it necessary to waste such money on
schools for the tenants’ children and on rebuilding cot
tages.”

“Would you believe I did it from Christian charity?” he inquired.

Taking her ladyship’s snort for an answer,
he continued, “The money I ‘wasted’ is actually the
cause of the improved yields you so admire. Tenants who don’t suffer rheumatism from damp houses and
who have a modicum of education prove to be vastly
more productive farmers. My father seldom invested a
groat in Wildehaven, and the smaller properties were
in even worse case. My dear brother could never even
remember his bailiff’s name. Land will not prosper
without proper care, and only a fool will kill his
golden goose.”

Lady Edgeware gave a bark of cynical laughter.
“There are plenty of such around. I hear that you are
interested in acquiring some lands from one of your
foolish neighbors.”

“Your sources of information never cease to amaze
me. My distinguished neighbor the Earl of Wargrave managed to alienate every friend and relative he ever had before he died last year. The lawyers are trying to determine the heir. If there is no one left in the direct line, Wargrave’s nephew, that wastrel Reggie Davenport, will inherit.
He may be happy to
sell the unentailed property to finance his extrava
gances. The lands would make a nice addition to
Wildehaven.”

“It was typical of that old screw Wargrave that he
would lose track of his own youngest son,” Lady
Edgeware said maliciously.

“Shocking language, Aunt. In fairness to Wargrave,
it was logical to assume that one of the two older
brothers would inherit. If I recall correctly, the
youngest son left the country a good few years ago
amidst some kind of scandal.”

“He ran off with Rankin’s young sister. She was be
trothed to some rich old lecher, and young Julius
thought to rescue her. I never heard anything after
that, but I suppose they ended up pinching pennies
somewhere on the Continent. No doubt she eventually
regretted her romantic escape. Love is poor compensation for poverty. If Julius is alive, he’s the sixth Earl of Wargrave now. Or perhaps his son, if he had one and
the lawyers can find him,” Lady Edgeware said
thoughtfully.

“If there is even a ‘him’ to find,” Radford said dryly.

“To return to our original discussion, may I assume
that I will see you betrothed before this Season is
over?” his aunt asked.

“You may.” 

“Very well, you know what is due to your name. Let
me know when you’ve chosen her so that I may hold a
dinner to introduce the gel to her new family.”

“You shall be one of the very first to know, Aunt. It
only remains for me to make my choice, then inform
the lucky lady.”

* * * *

The atmosphere that evening was rather different when the question of Lord Radford’s marriage rose
again. He and his boon companion, the Honorable
George Fitzwilliam, had been lingering over their port
for quite some time. While they weren’t precisely
bosky, they were certainly past the point where discretion and judgment operate normally. In fact, they were
ripe for becoming outrageous.

“Fine color this wine has, George,” said Radford as
he held the glass up to the candlelight. “I’m glad I laid
in several cases’ worth. By the way, I believe I’ll be get
ting married.”

His friend blinked. “Perhaps we’ve had enough to drink. It
sounded distinctly like you said you were going to
marry. When one starts hearing voices, it’s time to lay off the wine. Otherwise, I’ll have a headache that would flatten a plow horse in the morning,” he said
with owl-like solemnity.

The friends did not much resemble each other. Lord
Radford associated with the sporting Corinthian set
and affected an elegantly simple mode of dress which perfectly suited his athletic form.

Shorter, fair-haired,
and slighter in build, the Honorable George
Fitzwilliam looked much younger than Radford,
though in fact only three years separated them. While
he was described by some as a “fashionable fribble,” it
was an unjust accusation that would have wounded
his sensibilities. Certainly he enjoyed following, and
occasionally creating, the very latest fashions, and he
wasn’t above wearing quite daring waistcoats.

How
ever, he avoided extravagances such as over-padded
shoulders, lilac pantaloons, and neckcloths so high as
to prevent the wearer from turning his head. Since he was charm
ing and correct in his manners, hostesses always welcomed him for his willingness to dance with even the
most regrettable female guest with never a loss of
good nature.

“You heard me correctly, George. As my Aunt Hono
ria has kindly pointed out, it is time I married. So I
shall do the deed.”

“How splendid! What lovely lady has consented to be your bride?”

“None yet. That’s why I wanted to talk to you.
You’re much more
au courant
with the fashionable
world than I. What is the selection this Season?”

George gasped. “Do you just mean to choose one, like a horse at Tat
tersall’s?”

“George, you do me an injustice! I spend considerably more thought on selecting my horses.”

“But. . . but what about love?” The Honorable
George was something of an authority on the subject
since he succumbed to the emotion at least half a
dozen times a year. While his tender feelings
had yet to show much longevity, they were undoubt
edly sincere while they lasted. His own marriage would certainly follow the discovery of a lady
for whom he could maintain a tendre for a twelve
month.

“Bah, love is an illusion of the young and feckless, an illusion maintained by lady novelists for their own
enrichment. How many couples of our order have you
known to stay ‘in love’ for any length of time?”

“Well...there are the Grovelands. No, he’s taken
to keeping opera dancers again. Lord and Lady
Wilberton...no, I heard they had a flaming row at a
ball last month and haven’t spoken since. And…
well, my own parents are dashed fond of each other.
You see?”

“On the contrary, you confirm my point. Wasn’t
theirs was an arranged marriage? A system that has
gone out of style, but which had much to commend it. A rational analysis of family background, fortune, and
station in life is surely the best foundation for a suc
cessful union.”

“I very much doubt it,” George said boldly. “And
even if you don’t believe in love, young ladies do.”

Jason’s mouth crooked cynically. “I’m sure
any young lady will find it easy to fall in love with my
title and fortune even if my person fails to please. I
have been defending myself from matchmaking
mamas and ambitious debutantes for years. Now that
I am ready to set up my nursery, I will
have my pick of the available fillies.”

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