Very few things in the world could make Oliver Warren, the Marquis of Haybury, flinch. He could count these things on one hand, in fact. The yowling of small children. The squeak of rusted metal. And the mention ofthat name.
Stilling, he looked up, the stack of coins between his fingers forgotten. "What did you say?"
To his left James Appleton nodded. "I thought the Benchleys would have found a way to keep the manor, it being in the family for so long. But it's the widow opening up old Adam House. Just arrived last night, from what I heard. At any rate, it's the first time in better than three years that anyone's lived there."
Oliver placed his wager on the three of spades, keeping his eyes on the game as the dealer turned over a four, a nine, and the queen of hearts. "Hm," he said, deciding vague interest would be the expected response to this particular gossip. "Lady Cameron. She's been on the Continent, hasn't she? What's her name? Marianne?"
"Diane," Appleton corrected, finally noticing that he'd lost the wager he'd just placed on the four of spades. "Blast it all. I heard Vienna or Amsterdam or some such. I suppose with Frederick dead for more than two years now, she decided she missed London."
"That seems likely." A flash of long, raven black hair and startling green eyes crossed Oliver's mind before he shoved the image away again.Damn, damn, damn. He sent a glance at the man seated to his left. "London must be dull as dirt indeed, Appleton," he drawled, "if the most intriguing bit of gossip you can find is that a widow is settling back into her late husband's town house."
Across the table Lord Beaumont laughed. "You've hit on the Season's failing, Haybury. No good gossip. I don't think we've had a scandal since January, and that one doesn't even count because no one was in Town to enjoy it." The earl lifted his glass. "Here's hoping for some bloody entertainment soon."
Oliver drank to that. Anything that kept him from having to hear damned Diane Benchley's name on everyone's lips for the next six weeks had his vote. "Are you finished with wagering for the evening, Appleton?" he pursued. "We could fetch you an embroidery hoop, if you prefer to continue your tongue wagging."
Appleton's cheeks and throat flushed a ruddy red. "I merely thought it interesting," he protested. "The former Earl of Cameron and his wife flee London just ahead of the dunners, and now she comes back alone in a half dozen of the grandest black coaches anyone could let--and in the middle of the night."
"Perhaps she found herself a Prussian duke," the fourth of their party, Jonathan Sutcliffe, Lord Manderlin, finally put in. "She always was a pretty thing, as I recall." He patted Oliver's shoulder. "You weren't in London back then, were you? In fact, didn't you spend some time in Vienna?"
"Among other places." A sideways glance accompanied by a lifted brow convinced Manderlin to release his shoulder. "I returned in a grand black coach as well, Appleton. My own. Did you gossip about me?"
Finally, Appleton grinned again. "Did and still do. Almost constantly."
"Good. I work very diligently to keep all the wags occupied."
"That's true!" Lord Beaumont motioned, and one of the club's liveried footmen approached to refill his glass. "You're the one to blame for the quietude, then. Give us a damned scandal, Haybury."
Oliver inclined his head. "I shall do my best. Or worst, rather."
Diane Benchley, Lady Cameron, in London. And he supposed they'd run across each other at some soiree or other now. After all, Mayfair was a small place. Smaller even than Vienna. He downed the remainder of his glass of whiskey and poured himself another.
Mention of her name might have caught him unawares tonight, but if--when--he saw her face-to-face, he wouldn't be the one flinching. Not a muscle. Not any muscle. And she'd best keep her pretty mouth shut as well, or he would be forced to do something unpleasant.
"Are you wagering, Haybury?" Manderlin asked. "Or are you taking up embroidery?"
Gathering his less than pleasant thoughts back in for later, private contemplation, Oliver glanced at the rack of spent cards and put two pounds on the knave. In his experience, the knave always won.
* * *
"Diane, you have a caller."
Diane Benchley, Lady Cameron, looked up from the spread of papers on what had been her late husband's desk. "I'm not seeing anyone," she muttered, and returned to sifting through the figures and decimals and subtractions every sheet seemed to feature. "No exceptions."
"I know that, my dear," her companion returned, not moving from her position in the office doorway. "It's Lord Cameron."
For a heartbeat, ice ran up Diane's spine. In that swift moment, every hand she'd shaken, every breath of wind on the passage from the Continent, every thunderclap to her chest since she'd left Vienna, caught in her throat. It had all been for nothing, if …
Swearing beneath her breath, she shook herself. Frederick Benchley had died. Two years ago. She'd been by his bedside when he'd drawn his last breath. She'd stood at his graveside when the pair of workmen had shoveled dirt into the hole where they'd placed his cheap pine coffin. "For God's sake, Jenny, don't do that," she stated aloud, setting her pencil aside and rubbing at her temple with still-shaking fingers.
Alarm crossed her companion's face, and Genevieve Martine hurried deeper into the room. "Oh, good heavens. You know I meant the new earl, of course. I never thought--"
"Don't trouble yourself, Jenny. You did startle me nearly out of my skin, however. Where is Anthony Benchley?"
"In the morning room. He asked for you, and then for tea."
Diane pushed away from the desk and stood. "Well. At least we may assume that word of my arrival in London has traveled swiftly. That's something, I suppose."
"Yes, we may count one fortunate thing since our return here, then." Jenny blew out her breath. "And two dozen unfortunate things. To which column do I add Lord Cameron?"
"The unfortunate one. Come with me, if you would. I want to be rid of him as swiftly as possible."
"What do you think he wants?" Genevieve asked in the light French accent that seemed to fade or intensify according to her mood.
"Money, of course. That's what all the men of the Benchley family want. And as far as I've been able to determine, none of them are capable of keeping their hands on any of it they touch." She frowned. "And Adam House, most likely. He can't have that, either."
"Perhaps he only wishes to reminisce," Jenny suggested dubiously. "You were married to his brother, after all."
"There is very little about my life as part of that family that I care to remember," Diane retorted, lowering her voice as they reached the foot of the stairs. She'd known that eventually she would have to speak with a Benchley, but for heaven's sake, she'd been in London for less than two days.
In that time Jenny might have compiled a list of two dozen unfortunate things, but it had merely taken one disaster to set Diane's entire plan on its ear. In fact, the only happenstance she could imagine that would make things worse would be if it were Oliver Warren, the Marquis of Haybury, waiting for her in her morning room. Anthony Benchley was an annoyance. Nothing more.
That thought actually steadied her as she stepped into the room. Her former brother-in-law stood looking out the front window. His dark hair and ruddy complexion and even the way he tapped his fingers against his thigh reminded her forcibly of his older brother, and she didn't like that. Not at all. "Lord Cameron," she said aloud.
He started, then turned to look at her. "Diane," he returned, and walked forward to take both her hands in his. "Please, do call me Anthony. We were once siblings, after all."
She nodded, withdrawing her hands as swiftly as she could. "Anthony, then. Is there something you wanted?"
His brow furrowed and then smoothed again. "Ah. Don't mistake me for my brother, Diane. He did me no favors, either, by gambling away the family fortune."
That was true, she reluctantly admitted to herself. "You t--"
"But you're wearing black," he interrupted. "I apologize if I've off--"
"You haven't. It's only that I've just arrived, and the fellow with whom I'd intended to … do a bit of business met with an accident. I'm rather frazzled, I'm afraid." It wasn't entirely the truth, but it was as much as she was willing to divulge to anyone. The fact that Anthony was a Benchley only made her more cautious. She'd learned her lesson.
"Business?" he repeated. "You know, I'd heard that you arrived the other night with a dozen carriages full of your possessions. And-- Well, I'm not certain how to be delicate about this, but my solicitors keep telling me that Frederick signed Adam House over to you. I thought perhaps you might consider … especially given that you have other business and matters of finance to attend to … returning the house to the Benchley family. God knows I could use it to settle some of Frederick's remaining debts."
"Yes, you wrote me about that last year, as I recall. But I believe I've settled most of Frederick's debts," she returned, keeping the abrupt surge of anger from her voice. "You still have Benchley House and Cameron Hall, Anthony. Adam House is all I possess."
She glanced at Jenny, who sat in the corner playing her role of companion. Adam Housewas all Diane possessed. And considering the news about her investor that had greeted her upon her arrival in London, she needed to make use of it. Fortuitously enough, she knew just how to do so.
"Well, then. I'd hoped you might be more amenable, especially considering that most everyone knows why you and Frederick were forced to flee the country, but if you wish to face the censure of your fellows, there's nothing I can do to protect you."
As if she needed his protection. "Thank you for thinking of me, Anthony, but I'll manage somehow." She drew a breath. "And now if you don't mind, I have some correspondence."
"Yes, of course." He headed into the foyer, with her and Jenny on his heels and keeping him, whether he realized it or not, from venturing any farther into the house. "I look forward to seeing more of you, Diane. Feel free to call on me as you would a brother."
The moment he left the front step, she closed the door. "I have an idea, Jenny."
"I do hope it's a good one, considering that your business partner, as you call him, is being put beneath the ground this very afternoon."
"We need a venue. I think Adam House would suffice, don't you?"
"Good heavens." For a long moment Genevieve gazed at her. Then the overly thin blonde smiled. "I think it would, at that."
* * *
For three days following her late-night arrival, Lady Cameron didn't stir from Adam House. Oliver knew that because whatever he privately wished, no one seemed the least bit interested in discussing anything else. At Gentleman Jackson's he heard that she'd been glimpsed through an upstairs window of her home, her gown the black of full mourning despite the fact that it had been two years since the earl's death. Oliver refrained from scoffing in response, but only just.
During luncheon at the Society Club, Patrick Banfer informed the table that Lady Cameron had received a visit from her former brother-in-law, but that the earl had only stayed for ten minutes and then left again to go to Boodle's Club and drink an entire bottle of whiskey. And as Oliver refastened his trousers in Lady Katherine Falston's lavish green bedchamber, she relayed the news that Diane, the Countess of Cameron, had sent for a certain well-known jeweler who worked almost exclusively with the most precious of stones.
"Are you hinting at something?" Oliver asked, sitting back on the edge of the bed to pull on his Hoby boots.
A bare arm slid over his shoulder, warm breasts pressing against his back through the thin material of his shirt. "Neither of us is the marrying sort," Kat murmured, nibbling his earlobe, "but a pretty bauble or two--well, most ladies would welcome an expensive gift from an intimate friend."
Oliver shrugged out of her loose embrace and stood again. "I prefer to leave nothing behind to cost me more later." Retrieving his tan jacket from the back of a chair, he pulled it on. "Though perhaps Ishould send you a bauble. At the least it would give the wags something to chew on other than who might be calling on bloody boring Adam House and its so-called mysterious resident."
Kat sank back into the voluminous bedsheets. "Don't you dare. You know I was teasing you. I may enjoy an intimate evening in your company, but you keep your scandals away from me. If you wish to give me a gift, do it privately, and make it very, very expensive."
"I'll keep that in mind." Of course she'd made light of it; she knew as well as anyone that he didn't care for entanglements--in or out of bed. "Good evening, Kat."
Most of Lady Katherine's household knew he was there, but he nevertheless kept his boot steps quiet as he descended the main staircase and let himself out the front door. Habit, he supposed, as not all of his lovers were unmarried. Though whether their husbands were concerned or even surprised over his presence was another question entirely. And a husband's possible reaction was one that Oliver always kept in mind. Not, however, tonight. With her status and connections, Lady Katherine likely thought as little of husbands as he did.
As he reached Regent Street, he slowed Brash, his gray thoroughbred. Adam House lay just out of sight past the tall hedgerows. Oliver clenched his jaw.Damned woman. Damned, damned woman. Yes, he'd thought the Season dull, but that hardly merited the dusting off of old morality lessons--the saying "be careful what you wish for" being foremost among them.
He supposed he could stop by some morning and pay his respects--well, not his respects, precisely, but make his presence known, at least--but Diane Benchley seemed to be in no hurry to reveal herself to her curious peers. Despite his desire to be strictly annoyed by her in general, that made him a touch curious as well. And all things considered, encountering her first in public would likely be wiser for both of them. The burning question seemed to be why she was waiting.
Rolling his shoulders, Oliver clucked at Brash and sent them trotting west to his rented town house on Oxford Street. He knew he was far past sentiment, and he'd never believed in allowing the passing of time to soften the hard edges of memories. And he never--never--let anyone else see an ounce of weakness. Not his own, anyway. Exposing that of others was so lamentably easy that on occasion he couldn't restrain himself. If Lady Cameron knew what was best for her, she would take care to keep him well away from whatever she might be plotting.
Though if she truly had her own best interests at heart, she would never have returned to England in the first place.
Copyright © 2011 by Suzanne Enoch