Previously in The Stable Master’s Daughter, Miles candidly asked Marjorie what he had done to offend her, and how he could fix it. When she confessed her concern over their social positions, he suggested they put their positions aside for the remainder of the house party and act as equals and friends. He returned her sketchbook, and she was mortified to discover he had not only kept it for days, but had looked through its pages. Miles’ sincere apology and his praise for her talent moved her to forgive him.
Miles settled into a plush seat in the library beside his solicitor and friend, Mr. Wright. He ran a hand over the leather volume on the side table, Lyrical Love Ballads. He bit back a smile, recalling how Marjorie’s eyes had brightened when he’d returned her sketchbook. He had longed to touch the few curls which had slipped free around her face. Though she tried to cover her reaction, he knew she mistook the parcel for a gift at first. So she liked surprises, did she? He rubbed his jaw, imagining the pleasant surprises he could gift her.
Wright unlatched his satchel. “All the diamonds of London could not hold your interest, but this wisp of a woman does? Isn’t she a Fairchild?” He removed a stack of letters, as well as a ledger.
Miles hesitated. “Yes, she’s the daughter of Strathford’s stable master. She has lived with her aunt and uncle these last three years. You know better than anyone how I cannot tolerate London for more than a fortnight. Not long enough to have someone catch my interest, even if labeled a diamond.”
Wright strummed a thumb along the edges of the paper, a grin on his face. “What about Miss Fairchild has caught your interest?”
Miles stretched his hands along the chair’s armrests.
Wright chuckled. “Come now. I haven’t seen you this content in a long while. Not since you succeeded at convincing your tenant farmers to cross the Southdown ram with the local ewes.”
Miles chuckled at the odd comparison.
Wright persisted. “You never have taken the obvious choice. You were wearing a love-struck grin when you spoke with her. So tell me, as one of your few friends, what about her caught your attention?”
Miles never could avoid Wright’s perceptive insights. What surprised him was his desire to talk about Marjorie. “Have you seen the men who notice Miss Fairchild? She needs looking after. That is what first caught my attention. But then,” he crossed an ankle over his knee, “she stubbornly stood up to me, defending Reginald’s goodness. On our horseback ride, she looked so windswept, like she had just been kissed thoroughly. Or ought to be.”
Wright threw back his head and laughed.
Miles grinned, keeping to himself how his pulse thundered when he held Marjorie when dancing and again by the fountain. “She enjoys simple pleasures, like nature and drawing. She is more comforting than drinking a glass of brandy. Her grace and talent are as rare and exciting as meeting a wood sprite.”
“Ah hah,” Wright pointed, “You are far gone in love with her.” He regarded Miles a moment. “Your brother Reginald noticed her, didn’t he? I wager you set things straight.” His face sobered.
“It is appalling how often you are right,” Miles sighed, shaking his head. “Yes, that is the way of it. Miss Fairchild is too . . . wholesome for the likes of Reginald. She is genuine, without artifice, and has a fresh outlook on life. She is irresistible.” How had he not always noticed her?
A servant set a tray with tea and cakes on the table and left. Wright selected an iced cake and took a bite. “As a newly married man, I must tell you matrimony is a smidgen better than you may imagine.”
Wright was far too happily married to be trusted. A bite of lemon cake melted in Miles’ mouth.
“How do you plan on courting Miss Fairchild? This isn’t London with balls, paying calls, and driving through the park.”
He shook his head, not willing to indulge his friend any longer in discussing his interest in Marjorie. She wasn’t like other women he had known. And courting in the usual fashion, with flattery and attention given on a whim, did not seem the way to make Marjorie happy. He would ponder these pleasant thoughts later.
Miles pointed to Wright’s papers. “What have you found on Reginald’s finances?”
Wright brushed off a few crumbs, his manner turning to business. “It is worse than we believed. You won’t like it.”
Miles swallowed down his dread. “Let’s get to it, then.”
Wright licked his thumb and turned to the ledger. “Mind you, this number is an estimate. It is based on Brooks’s, Boodle’s, and Watier’s, but does not yet include the other gaming houses we are combing through. Reginald owes at least one fellow by the name of William Crockford, £50. I suspect he has borrowed or bet with others like him.” Wright bounced his knee.
“No more stalling. What is the total amount owed so far?” Miles took another bite, then dragged his palms against his breeches to brace himself.
“Upwards of £5,000.”
Miles choked and began to cough, the cake turning to chalk in his mouth. He took a swig of tea, wishing for something stronger to settle his stomach. “His entire living for a year.” Reginald’s whole income was wasted, tied up, and thrown away, all because of gambling. Miles stood and strode to the window. Unfocused anger chased away the nausea. What a senseless mess.
“I am still waiting to hear back from a source.” Wright’s knee jerked in quick beats, which meant there was more bad news.
“What else is the matter?”
“Now, now. This is not yet solid information, so be patient as we gather facts. Somehow,” Wright began, his eyes wandering over the room, “your name got on the ledgers at Watier’s.”
Miles flinched. His face burned hot, while chills raced through his body. “Impossible. I have never set foot in Watier’s.”
“I know.” Wright held up a hand in protest.
He clenched his fists. “They’re running a scam. How can you account for it?”
“Do you have any enemies? Who would want to use your funds and your name?” Wright asked.
Miles stiffened. “I don’t have enemies.”
Wright set the papers on the table and leaned his elbows on his knees. “You may keep everyone a safe distance from you, but this is about who could access your name and credit. Come now. Think.”
Only one name came to mind. Reginald. Miles narrowed his eyes. Could Reginald stoop so low?
Wright exhaled, long and loud. “I thought of your brother as well, though I cannot believe it of him. No one else comes to mind. So far, we have no leads.”
Miles pinched the bridge of his nose. The possibility of his brother betraying him turned his stomach. “I’ll find Reginald and ask,” he said without inflection.
“Truly, I’m sorry,” Wright said.
Miles shook his head, berating himself. He thought he could reform Reginald? Keep him from gambling and drinking, and steer him towards better company? He released a pent up breath. Reginald had seemed improved at Somerstone, at least for a short time. Until Webb showed up. Miles had hoped for more signs of his brother’s progress and did not like the stark realization of just how serious his brother’s hard living had become.
Miles pressed a hand over his eyes. He would confront Reginald. And then hold to his original promise: if Reginald did not change his ways, he would be held accountable to his creditors. No one would bail him out.
He drew himself up and faced Wright. “Document every debt Reginald has accrued up to this point, as well as his options for payment. His options, without my father’s money or mine. Also, find out what you can on Webb. My gut tells me he has a hold over Reginald. I don’t understand it.”
Reginald’s backsliding would likely upset their father. Their parents hoped Miles could influence Reginald. He hated to fail. He stood and shook hands with Wright. “Thank you for your assistance.”
He had planned on confronting Reginald about the size of his debts. It was inevitable. But Miles seethed over having his own name dragged into the muck. He clenched his jaw, ready to tear Reginald limb from limb.
After dinner, Miles clasped Reginald stiffly on his neck, steering him away before he entered the drawing room for the poetry reading. “We have something to discuss. It cannot wait.” He gestured towards an empty room.
Reginald shrugged out of his grasp. He raised his eyebrows as he glanced around the dark and musty room. “Let’s keep this brief. Miss Easton’s recitation is rumored to be scandalous.”
Miles closed the door and blocked it, folding his arms across his chest and widening his stance. Anger blinded him, as foul and dangerous as the London Rookeries in summer.
“You look wretched, Miles.” Reginald dipped his chin and his hair fell into his eyes. “No smiles, except for Miss Fairchild?”
Miles nodded his head slowly. “Wretched over a balance at Watier’s.”
“Oh? We are talking about my affairs, is that it? You are taking over them as well as your own? Then out with it. What’s the balance?” Reginald asked in a hard voice as he crossed his arms, matching Miles’ posture.
“Your debts are nearing £5000.” Miles narrowed his eyes, weighing his brother’s reaction. Reginald’s smile froze and he swallowed. Miles continued slowly, “What I need to discuss with you is how I owe Watier’s £2,000.”
Silence. Then Reginald laughed. “If you would like to cover my outstanding gambling debts, then by all means, I accept.”
“My name is listed for this particular debt.” He ground his teeth together.
Reginald made a face. “What do you mean? You have probably never set foot in Watier’s. You never pay your social dues.”
Miles took a step closer. “Exactly. How do you suppose that happened? My name and credit mucked with debt?” Anger made his blood boil.
Reginald looked at him quizzically. “I have no idea. The man would have to be devilishly convincing.”
Reginald reared back and sputtered, “Me? It wasn’t me.”
Miles stared flatly, unconvinced.
Reginald’s face screwed up. “No. When have I ever lied to you?”
Miles’ heart was as soft as a stone. “You haven’t lied to me until now. But you lie all the time. At cards. During your studies at Cambridge. With women. To our parents. To yourself.”
“I have never lied to you.” Reginald’s face turned red and he clenched his fists. “You’ve seen me at my worst and you’ve always stood by me.” A vein in Reginald’s forehead bulged and pulsed in time with the clock on the mantle.
“You’ve never betrayed me like this.”
Reginald shifted, eyeing the door and not meeting Miles’ gaze. “There must be a mistake. Check your facts. Watier’s got it wrong. Or your banker is misinformed. I did not use your name.”
Doubt almost swayed him, but he would not let his brother off so easily. “Even when your credit ran out?”
“Away with this nonsense.” Reginald rubbed his face, then jabbed a finger in his direction. “You never make a mistake, do you? Well, you never gain anything worthwhile either. You care too much for your precious good name.”
Miles’ heart turned cold with disappointment. “And you not enough.” He had hoped Reginald had some feasible explanation, or at least would admit to his guilt. He would have respected that.
“My solicitor, Mr. Wright, will contact you. Here is what you can expect: a full accounting of your debts, the majority of your funds to be unavailable for the foreseeable future, and a contract with repayment terms. If you fail to meet your obligations, a third party will be appointed to manage your finances.” Miles stood steady. “Father has tasked me with this burden, and I am confident he will agree to these measures to protect our family’s fortune.” He paused, needing to drive the point deeper. “If you cannot fix this, then you may find yourself cut out of the family’s inheritance. I will not allow you to squander our family’s wealth.”
Miles opened the door and left the room, shaken. He hoped when Reginald calmed down, he would attempt to make things right. After the miserable meeting with his brother, at least he had nothing more than a poetry reading to endure tonight. The thought of spending time with Marjorie was a balm to his troubled spirit.
Marjorie clapped after the rendition of a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She placed a hand on the book of poetry beside her on the settee. Aunt Harriet sat on her left. On her right she had saved a seat for Lord Beauchamp, but he had not come.
So many people in this drawing room had endeared themselves to her heart. When the house party ended, she would keep in contact with several of those present.
Miss Anne snuck a glance behind her and exhaled audibly, likely in response to Mr. Tauney Easton’s attentive gaze. He smiled and Miss Anne’s curls bounced as she faced forward again. Marjorie shook her head. What kept those two apart? They obviously yearned to be together.
The next performer, Lord Bloomsbury, began a soulful reading about death and nightingales. Those nearest retrieved handkerchiefs and averted their faces.
Aunt Harriet leaned close. “Lord Bloomsbury likely imagines everyone with a handkerchief is moved by emotion. But when that man speaks, he spits.” Marjorie winced in compassion for those nearest Lord Bloomsbury.
Where was Lord Beauchamp? She kept glancing at the door, just a few yards from where they sat near the front. What would he think of the poem she had found? She would not read for everyone, but she could share the piece with him. Since he was her friend, she would venture that far.
Lord Beauchamp at last entered the room and her heart lifted. He stayed by the door because of the performance underway, but his gaze roamed until their eyes met. He merely dipped his head in response to her smile, then he turned towards the recitation, his expression darkening like a raincloud. She studied his profile, confused. Disappointment slowly seeped into her bones. She felt foolish for imagining he would be happy to see her.
Reginald slipped into the room next, his face uncharacteristically drawn. They each stood along the wall, arms folded. Lord Beauchamp’s gaze remained fixed and unfocused as Lord Bloomsbury finished the depressing poem. Perhaps something unrelated to her bothered Lord Beauchamp.
Marjorie leaned close to Aunt Harriet, “Do you think the Beauchamps had a row?”
Aunt Harriet studied the men, a lift to her brow. “It would appear so.”
The Countess tapped her fan, her beady eyes taking in the men. “Hmm. Competing again, I’d dare say. It is high time Lord Beauchamp bested his younger brother. The price is too dear this time.” Lord Bloomsbury took a bow and tepid applause followed.
Miss Winters leaned forward. “I’ve known them for ages. Miles and Regi have always enjoyed a friendly competition.”
Reginald snapped up the book beside Marjorie and she jumped, caught off guard. He shook his head and smiled at Miss Winters lazily. “Competition? There’s no competition.” He settled in beside Marjorie, a little too close. Lord Beauchamp stood a pace away, his face unreadable.
The next performance began before she could form any words. She could not focus, not with Reginald pressed beside her—and Lord Beauchamp staring a hole in her head from his seat across the room.