Radley woke with a deluge of water on his face. He choked then reared up while sputtering and coughing. That was a mistake. Rearing up, sputtering and coughing, all of it—a huge, huge mistake. His head pounded, and his stomach heaved. It was only by sheer willpower alone that he kept his stomach contents inside his miserable body.
Someone was speaking. Actually, more than one someone. Females. But the words would not steady in his head, and God knew, he had no desire to open his eyes. He held his head in his hands and prayed that the world would stop spinning.
In the end, a male voice cut through the female gibberish, silencing the women, and he was never more grateful than at that moment. A few seconds later, and the noises resolved into words.
“We’re going to be late! And he can’t go there looking like that!” Female. Shrill. Oh yes, Mum.
“Give the lad a moment. He’s used to mustering at the sound of a whistle. He can manage a shave and a clean shirt by two.” Male voice. Slight Scottish brogue. Who the hell was that?
“He needs more than a shave. He needs a bath and a delousing.” Female voice. Softer than the first. He smiled. His sister Caroline!
Then her words penetrated, and he squinted at his sister. “I do not have lice!”
In answer, his sister folded her arms and smiled. “He stirs! My goodness, Radley, you’re not dead after all.”
He bloody well wished he were with the way his head pounded. Then the man stepped forward. He was a handsome, rugged man with scars on his hands and a simple coat made of fine cloth. And he extended a flask.
“Here. This’ll help.” Rad took it greedily, unstoppering it, and tipping it to his mouth, while his mother sputtered her objection.
“He doesn’t need more drink! Good G—”
“It’s not what you think,” the man interrupted, but he needn’t have, as Radley nearly spewed the vile concoction. He would have thrown the flask across the room, but the bastard gripped his forearm in a wretchedly strong grip. “It’s horrible, I know, but it’ll help settle your stomach. You don’t think the Scots know about a morning head? Come on. Drink all of it, or I’ll leave you to the women.”
He cracked his eyes and glared at the man. But even though the big Scot took up most of his vision, he could still see the prim features of his mother and sister to either side. Choosing the lesser of evils, he reluctantly put the flask to his mouth and choked down the stuff.
Meanwhile, the man turned to smile at the women. “See. He’s waking now. Go on, ladies. I’ll see to him from here.”
His mother spun on her heel with a sniff and stomped—bloody hell, she must weigh a ton—out of the room. His sister sighed, shook her head, and left quietly. Thank God for that, but of course, one of her disappointed sighs cut deeper than any number of elephants clomping through the rooms.
He finished the last of the flask and handed it back to the man who dragged up a chair. And when the hell did he get a chair in his room? Had his mother been shopping again?
He sighed and let his head hang. It took a moment, but he finally was able to manage a hoarse whisper. “Who the hell are you?”
“Ah, right. I’m Gregory Murray, Earl of Hartfell, and the man deeply in love with your sister. I’d have my ring on her finger by now, but your relations had to get killed. She’s the sister of a duke now, and we’ve got to do things proper. Wedding’s planned for the end of the season. Is that acceptable?”
Radley forced his head up to inspect the man now seated before him. He looked decent enough. Wealthy too, and with a title. It was a great deal more than he’d ever hoped for his sister, but he didn’t say that. Instead, he managed an awkward shrug. “Don’t know you. Don’t know if my sister likes you.” Then his surly side couldn’t resist adding one last jibe. “Don’t bloody well know what you’re doing throwing a bucket of water on me while I’m sleeping.”
“Ah, well that was your mother. Claims she’s been trying to wake you for an hour or more. Finally, sent round a desperate note to your sis. Once I understood the nature of your illness, I had my valet make this brew.” He waved the flask. “Tastes like sewage, but I swear, it’ll make a man of you in about an hour.”
“I’m already a man,” he snapped. “Have been for years.”
“Pardon the correction, mate, but you’re a bloody drunk right now, with a sore head and an ill temper.” He tucked the flask away, then—damnation—pulled out another. At Radley’s groan, he laughed. “We’re going to get you shaved and bathed. Then you’ll finish this second flask before you put on those lovely togs your mother set for you.”
“Like hell I will.”
“You will because you’ll be crave it. Trust me, I know. And then, we’ll go to your new London home. Step lively, we haven’t a lot of time. The women will have the bath ready by now.”
Radley wanted to argue, but he knew better. He didn’t have to see a clock to know that it was already late in the morning, possibly afternoon. So with a grudging nod, he pushed unsteadily to his feet.
That’s when he saw it: the purse. Not his regular purse, but a fancy one that had been filled with coins. It was the purse that he’d tried to give Wendy, but she’d thrown at his face. He frowned, trying to remember the details of the evening. He remembered brandy. The best, damned brandy he’d ever had in his life. Then he remembered rushing to see Wendy, and…
He groaned. It all came back in a rush. He remembered accosting her in her workshop. He’d pulled out the purse, just like any Jack paying for a back alley tumble.
He didn’t really remember the words they’d exchanged, but he didn’t need to. He could well guess. And then, he’d taken his purse and his dignity—if a drunk could have any dignity—and walked straight to the nearest pub. All that coin that should have gone to her was spent on drink.
Had he really drank a hundred twenty-one quid last night? Apparently so, because the purse was empty, and his head pounded. He collapsed onto the bed with a groan.
“The bucket’s right there,” said the Scot. “Don’t be getting my togs dirty. Neither of us would hear the end of that.”
Radley shook his head. He wasn’t going to be sick, though he felt ill enough. “I’m a bloody idiot when I drink,” he said.
“Well, that sounds like a tale,” drawled the Scot. “But we haven’t the time. If we take much longer, the women will be back at you.”
He bit back a groan, knowing it was true. “Fine,” he ground out, as he forced himself onto unsteady legs. “Let’s get me ready to present to my massive staff. Though I don’t know why we bother. They’ve already seen me unshaven and in holey stockings.”
Radley peered at the man. “The old duke has—” He swallowed and straightened. “I have an excellent wine cellar.”
The Scot laughed. “You can tell me all about it after you shave.”
With a nod, Radley cleaned himself up. It was slow going at first, but he managed it. He also asked for the second flask because he did, indeed, crave it by the time he’d finished his bath. The Scot showed himself to be a decent fellow. He didn’t crow over the request, but handed it over with nary a word. He kept Radley’s mother and sister on the other side of the screen, since his bath was in the main room, and he even disposed of the dirty water without a word of complaint.
Such restraint wasn’t in Radley’s nature as he dressed. He looked about the rooms as he moved and saw over a dozen new purchases. So when he was fully clothed in new clothes, courtesy of his mother, he was able to confront her face to face.
“What are all these new things?” he demanded as he pointed to the new tea set, the shiny copper kettle, her new gown, and feathery hair pins.
His mum drew herself to her full stature, which was nearly as tall he was. “I’m the mother of a duke now. You can’t begrudge me a few new items.”
“But where are you getting the coin?”
“Coin? Heaven’s Radley, you’re a duke now. We can buy on credit.”
He gaped, already seeing where this was going. “How much,” he rasped. “How much did you buy on credit?”
She shrugged. “As if I know! Radley, we can finally have everything we’ve always wanted!”
Radley swallowed, his head pounding. Certainly, he was wealthy, but he knew his mother. If left to her own devices, she could beggar the crown. He had to find a way to moderate her spending now. So he straightened and spoke in a commanding tone.
“No, mum, we can’t. You can’t. There are expenses and an entire village starving for food. I’ve spent the money we have already. It’s gone up north to the people there. Plus there’s an army of servants at the house who need pay.” The bankers, in fact, had warned him repeatedly yesterday. Not just once when they joined the solicitors, but again that evening, when he demanded the coin for Wendy. There wasn’t ready blunt. Not for him or his mum. And there wouldn’t be a lot for months to come. He had “assets” they said, not “cash.”
“But that’s the beauty of credit,” his mother said. “You don’t have to have the coin now.
“But you have to pay eventually, mum.”
“And eventually, you’ll have the money.”
He shook his head. The woman wasn’t listening, and he didn’t know what to do about that. And worse, he didn’t have the heart to restrict her. When they were growing up, he’d seen her take the food off her own plate to give him. He’d watched her darn socks and cut up her own dresses to patch a hole in his pants. And now, finally, they had money for food and clothing. They had a house full of nice things in London and servants to meet their every need. How could he begrudge her these purchases?
“No more, mum. Not a single thing more.”
She flashed him a happy smile—one that had been so rare when he was a child—and then bustled them to the door. “Come along. The carriage is already here.”
He frowned. “Carriage? What carriage?”
His mother huffed. “Well, we can’t arrive at our new home on foot, now can we?”
Radley winced, knowing that yesterday he had indeed arrived there on foot. “But—”
“I sent a note telling them to send the carriage at one-thirty. It’s a quarter to two now, so I’m sure—”
“I’m sure the horses have been cooling their heels for fifteen minutes, while the entire neighborhood sits outside to watch.”
His mother didn’t answer, as she was busy adjusting her hat above the feathered hairpins. But he saw her smug smile and knew the truth. After years of derision at her superior airs, her mother had finally gotten her wish. She was the mother of a duke now, and this was her way of rubbing everyone’s nose in it.
“You’ve been lording it over the whole neighborhood for weeks now, haven’t you?”
“Come along, Radley, Caroline. It’s time to move to our new home.”
Radley grimaced but didn’t argue. His mother had earned the right to crow. So he bent to pick up a huge trunk, when his mother abruptly hissed.
“Put that down, Radley!”
He dropped it, startled.
“You’re a duke, for God’s sake. You don’t carry and haul trunks. You have footmen for that.”
He blinked. He’d been carrying and hauling for his mother ever since he could walk. But one glance at his sister’s slow nod had him rethinking. He was a duke, after all. Why not let a servant carry the thing? It was bloody heavy.
So he straightened and nodded. “Very well,” he said. “Let’s go.”
The women filed out, his mother leading the way. He didn’t have to see her face to know that she wore an air of superiority in her expression. Caroline went next, while the Scot hung back, waiting.
“You ready for this?” he asked.
Radley didn’t answer at first. Instead, he took a moment to look behind him. Not just at the rooms, but at his entire life up to this point. Was it all gone then? Would he never return to the life he’d known and loved? He knew the answer already, but it was hard to believe—harder still to want it.
“Can a man be ready for this?” he asked.
“Then I suppose it doesn’t matter.”
The Scot grimaced. “You’ll find your way. There are many who will help you.”
Radley nodded. Of course, there were. After all, there had been a whole pub’s worth of men willing to help him celebrate his new status. There were solicitors anxious to marry him to his cousin and bankers fired up about not spending his money. He had yet to travel to the ducal seat to meet the people getting the bulk of his cash in foodstuffs and medicines. And that didn’t mention the people of the ton who would likely trip over themselves to help him in other ways he couldn’t yet imagine. Marry their daughters, invest in their schemes, and give voice to their politics.
“I was going to be captain of my own ship.”
“And now, you’re a duke. Some would say you traded up.”
He sighed. “I’m not one of them.”
“No,” said the Scot with a strange expression. “No, you’re not. I quite like that about you.” Then he shrugged. “Well, come on. No use delaying the inevitable.”
“Right.” So he straightened his shoulders and headed out. Then the oddest thought hit him as he left the room. He needed a woman on his arm. And not just any woman, but Wendy, with her calm practicality and steady voice. He needed his Wind. Without her, he feared he would founder.
He touched the Scot’s arm. “How long do you think this will take?”
The man pursed his lips. “A couple of hours to view the whole house and meet the staff. Then there’s settling in. I’ve insisted your sister move in with you, you know. She needs to live the life as sister to a duke before she agrees to be with me.”
Radley blinked. “That’s right decent of you.”
The man didn’t respond beyond a tight shrug. “The staff will want to feed you. A meal fit for a king, most likely. Then, there are your requirements—selecting a valet while the ladies pick their maids. And—”
“When will I be able to leave, do you think?”
“You’re the master. You can leave when you like. But it wouldn’t be good form to depart at all. Not today. The staff would take it as an insult.”
He cursed under his breath. He couldn’t wait that long to talk to Wendy. He had to see her today. “How late, do you think? When can I escape?”
The man grinned. “It won’t be so bad—”
The smile faded. “After dinner. Eleven, probably.”
Too late. Much too late to see Wendy. She’d likely be asleep, and he couldn’t go banging on her door, demanding to see her. Not after the mess he’d made last night.
Damn it, he had to find a way to see her. Today. Then he had an idea.
“You said a dinner fit for a king?” Or perhaps, a queen. “Do you think I could invite someone to join us?”
“Just one? Certainly.”
Excellent. He was going to get his Wind back. And he was going to do it in style.
© Jade Lee, 2014
What the Groom Wants by Jade Lee
An honest love...
Radley Lyncott has been in love with Wendy Drew as long as he can remember. When he went to sea, she was too young to court. Now that he’s returned to take up his Welsh title, he is appalled to find that debt has ruined the Drew family, and—even worse—Wendy is being courted by another man.
Or a dangerous attraction?
Family comes first for seamstress Wendy Drew, who is forced to settle her brother’s debt by working nights at a notorious gambling den. But her double-life hasn’t gone unnoticed—she has captivated none other than Demon Damon, a nefarious rake who understands Wendy’s darkest desires and is hell bent on luring her into his arms.