Unlacing Lady Thea

By: Louise Allen

Chapter One

London—June 3, 1814

The skeleton clock on the overmantel struck four. No point in going to bed. Besides, he was thoroughly foxed, although not drunk enough to keep him from lying awake, wondering what had possessed him to make this insane plan. And worse, to follow through with organisation so ruthlessly efficient that to cancel now would throw his entire staff, financial team, estate management and social life into disorder—and make it seem he did not know his own mind.

‘Which I do not,’ Rhys Denham informed the ragged-eared ginger tom that sat on the hearthrug eyeing him with the disdain that only a feline or a dowager duchess could muster. ‘Know my own mind, that is. Always do, just not this time.’

The appearance of the kitchen mouser on the principal floor, let alone in the study of the third Earl of Palgrave, was unheard of. The household must be stirring already, too distracted by their master’s imminent departure for the Continent to notice an open door at the head of the servants’ stair.

‘It seemed a good plan at the time,’ Rhys mused. The brandy at the bottom of the glass glowed in the candlelight, and he splashed in more and tossed the lot back. ‘I’m drunk. Haven’t been this drunk in years.’ Not since he had woken up one afternoon and realised that drink was never going to blot out the disaster of his wedding day, restore his faith in friendship or his delusions about romantic love.

The cat switched its attention to the plate with the remains of the cold beef, cheese and bread that had been left out with the decanters. ‘And you can stop licking your whiskers.’ Rhys reached for the food. ‘I need this more than you do. I have to be more or less sober in three hours.’ That seemed improbable, even to his fogged brain.

‘You have to admit, I deserve a holiday. The estate is in order, my finances could hardly be better, I am bored to the back teeth with town and Bonaparte has been out of harm’s way on Elba for a month,’ he informed the cat around a mouthful of beef. ‘You think I am a trifle old for the Grand Tour? I disagree. At twenty-eight I will appreciate things more.’ The cat sneered, lifted one hind leg and began to groom itself intimately.

‘Stop that. A gentleman does not wash his balls in the study.’ He tossed it a scrap of fat and the cat pounced. ‘But a year? What was I thinking of?’ Escape.

Of course, he could come back at any time and his staff would adjust to his demands with their usual smooth efficiency. After all, if there was some kind of crisis, he would return immediately. But to cancel on a whim was not responsible behaviour. It put people out, it let them down, and Rhys Denham despised people who let others down.

‘No, I am going to go through with this,’ he declared. ‘It will do me good to have a complete change of scene, and then I’ll be in the mood to find a pretty, modest, well-bred girl with a stay-at-home temperament and good child-bearing hips. I will be married by the time I am thirty.’ And bored out of my skull. A vision of the succession of prime bits of muslin who had worked their magic in preventing just such boredom flitted across his memory. They had never expected dutiful monogamy. A wife would. Rhys sighed.

The friends who had deposited him on his doorstep an hour ago after a convivial farewell night at the club were all married, or about to be. Some even had children. And, to a man, they seemed cheered by the thought of someone else falling into parson’s mousetrap. As Fred Herrick had put it, ‘About time a rake like you stops nibbling the cheese, takes a proper bite at it and springs the trap, Denham.’

‘And why is that such a damnably depressing thought?’

‘I could not say, my lord.’ Griffin stood in the doorway, his face set in the expressionless mask that signified deep disapproval.

What the devil had his butler got to be disapproving about? Rhys levered himself upright in his chair. A man was entitled to be in his cups in his own house, damn it. ‘I was speaking to the cat, Griffin.’

‘If you say so, my lord.’

Rhys glanced down at the rug. The ginger beast had vanished, leaving behind it only a faint grease stain on the silk pile.

‘There is a person to see you, my lord.’ From his tone it was clear this was the cause of the stone face, rather than his master’s maudlin conversations with an invisible cat.

‘What kind of person?’

‘A young person, my lord.’

‘A boy? I am not up to guessing games just at the moment, Griffin.’

‘As you say, my lord. It appears to be a youth. Beyond that I am not prepared to commit myself.’

Appears? Does Griffin mean what I think he means? ‘Well, where is it.... Him?’ Her? ‘Below stairs?’

‘In the small reception room. It came to the front door, refused to go down to the tradesman’s entrance and said it was certain your lordship would wish to see it.’

Rhys blinked at the decanter. How much had he drunk since he got back from White’s? A lot, yes, but surely not enough to have imagined that faint hint of desperation in Griffin’s voice. The man was capable of dealing with anything without turning a hair, whether it was pilfering footmen or furious discarded mistresses throwing the china.

A faint trickle of unease ran down his spine. Mistresses. Had Georgina failed to take her congé as calmly as she had appeared to do yesterday? Surely she was satisfied with a very nice diamond necklace and the lease on her little house for a further year? Rhys got to his feet and tugged off his already loosened neckcloth, leaving his coat where it was on the sofa. Ridiculous. He might seek pleasure without emotional entanglement, but he was no Lord Byron with hysterical females dressed as boys dogging his footsteps. He was careful to stick to professionals and fast married women who knew what they were about, not single ladies and certainly not unstable cross-dressing ones.

‘Very well, let us see this mysterious youth.’ His feet seemed to be obeying him, which was gratifying, considering the way the furniture swayed as Griffin preceded him down the hallway. Tomorrow—no, this morning—promised a hangover of monumental proportions.

Griffin opened the door to the room reserved for visitors who did not meet his exacting standards for admission to the Chinese Drawing Room. The figure seated on a hard chair against the far wall came to its feet. Short, bundled into an ill-fitting dark suit of clothes that said ‘junior clerk’ to Rhys’s unfocused eye, it had a pair of portmanteaux at its feet and a battered beaver hat on the chair by its side.

Rhys blinked. He wasn’t that drunk. ‘Griffin, if that is male, then you and I are eunuchs in the Great Chan’s court.’

The girl in the youth’s clothes gave an exasperated sigh, set her fists on the curving hips that betrayed her sex and said, ‘Rhys Denham, you are drunk—just when I was counting on you to be reliable.’

Thea? Lady Althea Curtiss, daughter of the Earl of Wellingstone by his scandalous first wife, the plain little brat who had dogged his heels throughout his boyhood, the loyal friend he had scarcely seen since the day his world fell apart. Here, in the early hours of the morning in his bachelor household, dressed as a boy. A walking scandal waiting to explode like a smouldering shell. He could almost hear the fuse fizzing.

* * *

Rhys was bigger than she had remembered. More solid. More...male as he loomed in the doorway in his shirtsleeves, his chin darkened by his morning beard, the black hair that came from his Welsh mother in his eyes, that blue gaze blurred by drink and lack of sleep. A dangerous stranger. And then she blinked and remembered that it was six years since she had seen him close to. Of course he had changed.

‘Thea?’ He stalked across the room and took her by the shoulders, his focus sharp now, despite the smell of brandy on his breath. ‘What the blazes are you doing here? And dressed like that.’ He reached round and pulled the plait of mouse-brown hair out of the back of her coat. ‘Who were you attempting to fool, you little idiot? Have you run away from home?’

Rhys was thin lipped with anger. Thea stepped back out of his grip, which made it easier to breathe, although it did nothing for her knocking knees. ‘I am dressed like this because on a stagecoach in the dark it is enough to deceive lecherous men. I am perfectly aware that I do not pass muster as a youth in good light. And I have left home, I am not running away.’

Rhys’s lips moved. He was silently counting up to ten in Welsh, she could tell. When he had been a boy he would say it out loud and she had learned the numbers. Un, dau, tri... ‘Griffin. More brandy. Tea and something to eat for Lady Althea. Who is not, of course, here.’

Thea allowed herself to be shepherded into the study. Rhys dumped her bags on the hearthrug and pushed an ugly ginger cat off one of the chairs that flanked the fire. ‘Sit. The cat hairs can’t make that suit any worse than it is.’ The cat swore at both of them, battered ears flat to its skull.

When she clicked her fingers, it curled its tail into a question mark and stalked off. Hopefully this was not an omen for how her reception was going to be. ‘Is it your pet?’

Rhys narrowed his eyes at her. ‘It is the kitchen cat and appears to think it owns the place.’ He dropped into the opposite chair and ran his hands through his hair. ‘Tell me this is not about a man. Please. I am leaving for Dover at seven o’clock and I would prefer not to postpone it in order to fight a duel with some scoundrel you fancy yourself in love with.’

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