Lord Charleton’s butler, Brobson, barely admitted Tuck to the house. Even then, only to the foyer. “Your uncle will see you momentarily.” Then the fellow strode off as if he had just admitted a plague victim into the household.
Yes, indeed. It was as bad as all that.
As he stood there, shuffling about a bit nervously, he heard something. Coming to a standstill, he heard it more clearly.
Weeping. And then a huge sniffle. The sort that would leave a perfectly good handkerchief utterly useless.
He glanced at the front door. The one that led to the street and London beyond. Where perhaps he could start anew. Join a circus. Ship off to parts unknown. Drown himself in the Thames.
He shook his still throbbing head at any of those options. He wasn’t overly fond of travel—all the discomforts and inconveniences of being away from one’s own bed. And sadly, he was a perfectly good swimmer.
The crying had now risen in pitch and fervor, and jangled at his nerves. Bother, it would weigh on any man’s sensibilities.
Besides, it wrenched on his heart. He’d never admit this to anyone, not even if they were to forgive all his debts, but a woman’s tears were his undoing.
Against his better judgment, Tuck pushed the library door open and waded in. He immediately wished he hadn’t.
Admittedly he’d been a bit drunk the previous night, but certainly he’d have remembered this.
The puffy, red face. The ugly, provincial gown. The dark hair sticking out in a few places.
But to the lady’s credit, it appeared she was nearing the end of her torment, for certainly much more and she’d risk flooding the carpet.
Then her gaze became more focused as if she’d finally realized she was no longer alone. And her eyes took on a wild-eyed rage that prodded him to take a step back.
“You!” she gasped, stalking forward with all the fury of, well, a fury. Worse, she caught up a vase from the side table as she approached.
Alaster Rowland was many things. A fool wasn’t one of them. He took as many steps backward as he could until he bumped into the wall, having misjudged the angle of his retreat.
Worse yet, the woman hunting him was a veritable horror. A hot, wet mess of tears and scalding anger brandishing a domestic weapon of sorts.
“That vase . . . in your hand . . .” he managed.
“Don’t think I won’t throw it,” she told him.
“I’d duck and it would be a waste of a perfectly innocent vase.”
“I won’t miss,” she told him with all surety.
“I’m the best bowler in Kempton. I’m always picked first.”
Yes, just his luck. To have found himself facing an angry miss with a penchant for cricket.
Could his day get any worse?
He tried another tack. “You know that’s my uncle’s favorite vase. And I do believe quite priceless.”
He had no idea if it was or wasn’t—a favorite or of value—but it was enough of a caution that she thought the better of her actions, and luckily for him, returned it to its former place of glory.
How could this be the same chit he’d met last night? It wasn’t possible, for he held a very certain recollection of her having been quite fetching.
“You wretched, horrible man! How could you let go of me?”
So, yes, it was her. Though he hadn’t thought he’d been that drunk.
“How could you?” she raged, wagging a finger at him.
Yes, well, better a finger than the crockery being cracked over his head. At least so he thought until she hurled her next accusation at him. “You’ve ruined me!”
This took Tuck aback. Ruined her? He wanted to rush in and assure her, having taken a second glance, that he could say with all certitude that nothing of the sort had happened between them.
He’d have remembered taking this descendant of Medusa to his bed.
She managed a gulping sob that seemed to quell her tears, and then she blew into the poor, hapless square of linen, trumpeting like an ailing swan, a sound that stabbed at the last remnants of his hangover.
“Miss Tempest, isn’t it?’ he asked, hand pressed to his brow, his eyes clenched shut against the unending pounding within. As his mother liked to tell him, a hangover was merely the brandy’s way of trying to get out.
“Of course I am Miss Tempest,” she snapped. “We met last night.”
He looked again and still couldn’t make the connection to the lithesome chit he’d met.
Worse, her eyes widened as she came to a shocked realization. “You don’t remember me.” To his horror, she took a calculating glance at the vase.
“I wouldn’t say that precisely,” he offered quickly, hoping to divert her. “But certainly you were wearing a different gown—” Lord, he hoped she was wearing a different gown—for the one she had on was positively hideous.
She snorted and took another step back from him. “Whyever did you let go of me? I was dancing.”
Tout au contraire. He was neck deep in a wager that proved beyond a doubt that what she’d been doing the previous night was anything but dancing.
A wager Falshaw had delightedly filled him in on.
“And now you’ve ruined me,” she finished.
“I hardly think I’ve done all that,” he told her, doing his best to glance in any direction but hers.
Yet he found it an impossible feat. Like when one happened upon a carriage accident and everything was in a desperate tangle. How could you not look?
Nor would the miss be ignored. “You. Let. Go. Of. Me.”
Truly, could anyone blame him?
“And now . . .” she began until another bout of sniffles and gulps came choking out. “And n-n- n- ow . . .”
At this seemingly insurmountable impasse, she flopped down on the settee and began to cry anew, leaving him aimlessly adrift in the middle of the room. A litany of unintelligible complaints rose up through this new spate of tears as to all she’d lost—a proper marriage this, a respectable match that, and a lot of other things that seemed of great import to her, including some mention of a list.
“Miss Tempest, I am truly—” he said, trying to make her stop. Indeed, his head was reeling.
“I know what you truly are.” Sniff.
He thought of advising her to get in line. The rest of London thought of him thusly.
Nor was she done. “We are both ruined.” Sniff. “My sister and I.” Snuffle. Snuffle. “We’ll be sent home for certain.” Sniff. “Tomorrow, if not today.”
He hadn’t truly been listening, what with all the sniffling, but a few words stuck in his ears.
Namely, “sent home.”
Sent home? Tuck whirled around to face her. No, no, no, this would never do. Sheer, gut-wrenching panic ripped through him.
“A fortnight, sir,” Falshaw had said. “You’ve two weeks to prove that your uncle’s charges are indeed ladies. ‘Diamonds of the first order,’ is how Mr. Hathaway and Lord Rimswell phrased it when they carried you in.”
Yet if the Tempest sisters left London . . . however would he win this wager? A wager he couldn’t afford to lose.
“Home?” he blustered, raking a hand through his hair and pacing in front of her. “I hardly see why. Besides, uncle wouldn’t be so cruel as to send you away so soon—”
“He won’t have a choice,” she declared, waving what was once a proud white bit of linen that now sagged in surrender. “Did you look at the salver when you came in?”
“Well, no—” Since it wasn’t something he usually gave much regard. His always contained notices from creditors and the greengrocer. Barely veiled threats from unhappy husbands. Vowels that needed to be paid.
No, salvers had never been his friend. And now it seemed they weren’t hers either.
“It is empty,” she told him, with another shuddering sigh of loss. “Empty!”
In his residence, that would be something of a miracle.
“Mr. Rowland, if ever there was clear evidence that my sister and I are ruined it is that empty salver out there. No one wants us.”
Somehow, Ilford’s words from the night before came haunting forward. Those chits won’t be able to set one foot outside your uncle’s door by tomorrow morning.
Now it was Tuck’s turn to sag down onto the settee beside her, for suddenly he couldn’t breathe.
If he didn’t win this wager, he’d be forced to . . .
He didn’t want to think of what he would be forced to do.
This time Charleton would cut him off. Blame him for this entire mess, just as Miss Tempest was now.
As they rightly ought, but no matter that, he had to find a way to make this right.
For his sake. He stole a glance over at the lady beside him and listened as she went on about all the things that she’d never have now—a decent match, a good home—and knew that this wager was a far more dangerous bramble than he’d first realized.
What the devil did he know about making a lady into a Diamond? Or finding decent prospects? Or even good Society?
All things he’d avoided his entire adult life.
Now all these idols of decorum, these altars of propriety, everything she desired, was suddenly everything he must deliver unto her.
He drew a steadying breath, and, like the good gambler he was (most days), he rallied his wits, his steely nerve.
“All is not lost, Miss Tempest. Never is,” he began, Uncle Hero’s words coming out of nowhere. Oh, it was a desperate day indeed when he found himself quoting the Honorable Hero Worth.
Who was a contradiction in every way, starting with his name.
“I don’t see how—” she began, then dissolved into another spate of desperate tears. When her handkerchief wouldn’t do, she caught hold of his sleeve and dabbed her eyes on it, so distraught she didn’t appear to even realize what she was doing. To his best coat.
In his own state of desperation—after all, this was his only decent coat—Tuck quickly intercepted, pulling his arm away and sounding like the veritable expert on the subject. “My dear Miss Tempest, London society is terribly fickle—one day you are on the out, and the next an Original, a Diamond to be desired by one and all.”
“A Diamond?” she managed, gulping at the word, a tiny flicker in her eyes, or was it just the last bit of tears still welled up there, threatening to spill over? In either case, that little spark in her eyes—as tiny and easily extinguishable as it might be—also appeared capable of illuminating even the dark reaches of his heart—the one usually blotted out by a brandy bottle.
For suddenly, that small sparkle, dare he call it “hope,” brought with it more memories from the night before.
Good heavens, she could be rather fetching—when one ignored the red nose and blotchy complexion.
Or the mess on his sleeve.
Her eyes, though, puffy and red-rimmed, held something else.
“Miss Tempest, you must have faith,” he told her, getting to his feet. “You must trust me—”
“Trust you?” Her astonishment all but filled the room.
Well, she might have a point in that regard . . . But this was a new beginning for both of them.
“Yes, you must trust me. Because I can put this all to rights. I can.” He tried to sound far more confident than he felt.
After all, he only had two bloody weeks to pull off this miracle.
“I don’t see how—”
“Believe me, you will,” he promised, catching hold of her hand. “Let me be your guide. You came to London to be matched, did you not?”
“Well, yes—” she managed.
“And it would be a shame to have to leave when you’ve just arrived—”
She gave a shuddering sigh. “I haven’t even received all the dresses I ordered.”
“No!” He shook his head. “And how pretty you will look wearing them.”
“There is no point to any of it, for I cannot dance,” she told him.
“Is that all?” Tuck waved his hand at this. “ ’Tis nothing a good London dancing master can’t fix in an afternoon.”
The lady shook her head and glanced away, but not before he saw the skepticism in her expression.
“Come now, Miss Tempest,” he said softly, coaxing her to look up at him. “Will you allow me the privilege of helping you find your perfect match?”