There comes a reckoning in every rogue's life when he will be called upon to give up his vices, repent of his wild ways, and become a respectable man. It is a known truth that scoundrels do not long survive the passing of their youthful looks and charms, to say nothing of their fortunes. David Reece knew this, had accepted it, and even told himself he was prepared to embrace it. He was lucky enough to have survived this long, and had decided it was best to stop thumbing his nose at Dame Fortune.
He just hadn't realized her vengeance would be quite so harsh.
"I've made all the arrangements with Adams," Marcus said. "He'll be ready to assist you in every matter, as will Mr. Crabbet, my banker, and Mr. Rathbone, my solicitor."
"Excellent," David said, adding under his breath, "thank heaven." For the last hour he'd been listening to all he must attend to while his brother was abroad, and this was the first mention of any help. Surely Marcus knew he wasn't ready to handle everything on his own. Surely Marcus wasn't ready to allow him to handle everything on his own. David had been counting on that fact when he had agreed to see to Exeter business.
Marcus shot him a glance. "Yes, excellent. However…" He paused, straightening the many documents on his desk. "Adams is a fair secretary," he said in a dry voice, which David immediately interpreted to mean Adams was a borderline fool. "He is young and inexperienced." Another pause. "You mustn't rely on him too much, as he is capable of following directions, but not giving them."
Just bloody brilliant. David had been hoping Marcus's secretary would know how everything ran, and do most of the running. "What about Father's man?" he asked, remembering the highly efficient man who had worked for their father. "What was his name? Er… Holt?"
Marcus sighed. "Mr. Cole has been forced by his health to retire. If you can restore him and get him back to work, you would have my undying gratitude."
David slumped a little. Blast. Just his luck, that the capable man who knew Exeter business up, down, and sideways would have recently retired. "But he's passed on his, er, knowledge, to this Adams fellow, hasn't he?"
Marcus's dour look quashed that hope. "One would hope, but sadly, it seems not." He got to his feet. "That is why I need you, David. There is no one else I trust." David nodded, partly in acknowledgement, partly to conceal his continuing surprise that it did seem to be true. Not since they were young boys could he remember his brother expressing trust in him, and even then not on such an important matter. And after the events of the past spring, it was a bloody miracle his brother still spoke to him, let alone asked David to look after all his business affairs for three months. Yet more pressure that he must not make a mess of things now.
Resolutely he got to his own feet, watching his brother pack an alarming number of documents and books into a large leather case, which he then strapped closed and set upright on the edge of the desk nearest David. "These are the most current," he said, deepening David's gloom. "The rest will be in London, in my study. I suggest you work there, for convenience's sake."
David mustered a smile. There were more? How many more? "Right. I do like convenience."
Marcus smiled back briefly, then came around the desk. "It is a great relief that you're to manage for me," he said, clapping David's shoulder. "Otherwise I doubt I could be away for so long." Barely a month ago, Marcus had married, and was now taking his bride on an extended wedding trip. For three months they would be traveling the continent, enjoying the finest entertainments money could buy, wallowing in love and happiness, while David would be, apparently, buried beneath a mountain of ledgers with only an incompetent secretary to advise him.
But that was fair. David pushed aside the urge to recant his offer of help and nodded, laying one hand on the leather case. He owed this to Marcus, this and much, much more. Sitting at a desk and reading papers was far better than what he deserved, so he would do his best. Nearly getting someone killed was a large debt to repay.
There was a soft noise at the door, just before it slowly creaked open.
"Look," said the little girl who entered. She was lugging a large basket that appeared far too heavy for her. "Look at my kitties!" She waddled across the room and set her basket down at Marcus's feet, then pulled off the cover to reveal three small kittens of decidedly mongrel heritage.
David watched as his brother smiled and placed one hand gently on the little girl's curly blond head. "How charming. Where is their mama, Molly?"
"In the stable," said his stepdaughter blithely, scooping up one tiny kitten. "This one is my favorite. I named her Moon. She likes to ride in my basket." The kitten was squirming against Molly's hold as she spoke. "Stop it, Moon!" Molly ordered, pressing the wriggling animal to her chest. "Stop!"
David couldn't hold back a chuckle as the two other kittens took advantage of her distraction to leap from the basket and scamper across the floor, one to play with the fringe on the rug and another to chase dust motes in the sunlight streaming through the windows. "They're getting away," he remarked.
Molly swung around to glare at him with suspicious brown eyes. David cocked his head and grinned at her. "Shall we collect the kittens?"
Molly turned, caught sight of her kittens scampering away, and squealed. "No, no, come back!" She ran after them, catching the gray kitten who was too busy playing with the fringe to run. "You come back here, Butter!" Butter, a yellowish kitten, had left the dust motes and was climbing the drapes. "Butter!" Her arms full of wiggling, meowing kittens, Molly turned to Marcus in appeal. "Catch them for me, Papa, please?"
David's eyebrow quirked upward as he watched his somber, serious brother retrieve the kitten from his fine velvet draperies, unsnagging its tiny claws with great patience, then replace all the kittens in the basket and securely tie the cover down, all under the approving gaze of his stepdaughter. Molly clapped her hands. "Good, now they can go for a ride again!"
The door opened again. "Is Molly—oh, Molly." There were equal parts laughter and fatigue in the woman's voice. "We agreed the kittens would stay in the stable with their mama cat, Molly," she said. "Why are they in here?"
The little girl's chin sank. "I wanted to show my new papa," she said, beginning to pout. Her mother's lips parted in surprise, and she looked at Marcus. He merely shrugged, but the set of his mouth made David think he was enjoying being called Papa.
"You must still mind Betty," said her mother in a softer tone. "Now take the kittens back to the stable, please."
"Yes, Mama." Dragging the basket after her, Molly trudged toward the door, head down. Her mother caught her up in a hug until the little girl shrieked with glee. "Put me down, Mama," she cried, still giggling. "My kitties!"
Laughing, her mother put her down. "Go, then." Molly toddled out the door, her high sweet voice rising as she was intercepted by her nursemaid, and then the door latched behind her.
David looked at his brother. "Papa?"
Marcus gazed back. "She asked if she might call me that," he said. "I had no objection." Then he ruined his appearance of calm by darting a questioning glance at his wife. They exchanged a look, and apparently an entire conversation passed between them as well. Marcus's face relaxed again, and he gave a small smile. That look gave David an odd feeling. Marcus had never been one to care what others thought. And David couldn't recall the last time he'd seen Marcus smile so often.
"I suppose next she'll come up with a name to call you, David," said Hannah with a laugh as she came across the room to join them.
He groaned. "She already has. Liar, liar, she called me a month ago, and barely anything since."
Again his brother and sister-in-law shared a glance. David wished they would stop that. It felt as though they were talking about him without his having any idea what was said.
"She's a child," said Hannah at the same moment Marcus murmured, "Observant child." Hannah shot her husband a warning look. "She'll forget," she said kindly. "Would you care for tea, David? You've been locked in here an age."
Tea was too weak. In fact, whiskey sounded too weak. David was tempted to drive straight to the nearest pub and stay there for a month. "Thank you, no," he said, patting the leather case on the desk and trying to hide his rising apprehension behind a front of confidence and cheer. "I've quite a bit of studying to do, so I shall make for London."
"Before luncheon?" she exclaimed. David paused, thinking of the excellent chef at Ainsley Park, but shook his head. The longer he stayed, the greater the odds that he would lose his nerve and back out. He would not back out. He would do this.
"I should make an early start, I think," he said. "I don't wish to make a fool of myself."
"Of course you shan't," said Hannah staunchly. "Mr. Adams will be there to assist you."
"Before I forget," Marcus said, going back around his desk and opening a drawer. "I've had something made for you, David. It will make things easier." He handed David a small jeweler's box, which turned out to contain a copy of the signet ring Marcus wore on his own hand.
David slid it on his finger, flexing his hand and taken aback by the weight of it. With this ring, he might as well be the duke of Exeter, he thought, vaguely alarmed at the thought. David had never envied his brother the title. It had suited him much better to be the younger son, never expected to do much beyond cut a dashing figure. He was a rogue by nature, he always told himself, and while it was very convenient to have Marcus step in and right his ship from time to time, David was quite content to sail where the wind took him.
But now he wore a copy of the Exeter signet on his hand, and the responsibility for the Exeter affairs rested heavily on his shoulders. He summoned another careless smile, saying a quick prayer that his sister-in-law would return from her wedding trip expecting the first of three or four sons, to obliterate any possibility of inheriting the title himself.
"I'll be on my way, then," he said with a hearty—and completely false—grin. "A very safe and happy trip to you, Marcus, Hannah."
Marcus shook his hand, and Hannah kissed his cheek. Still grinning determinedly, David lifted the leather case, and made his escape before anyone noticed he was sweating, and before he opened his mouth and wormed his way out of this. Responsible, sober, and dependable, he repeated to himself.
Hannah watched her tall brother-in-law stride from the room, his shoulders back, his spine ramrod-straight. He looked like a man marching to his doom. "He'll be all right," she said.
Her husband sighed. "No doubt. The question is, will my affairs?"
She turned and gave him a reproachful look. "Now, you promised…"
He smiled, his expression softening dramatically. "Yes, yes. I will have made him a useless man if I do not trust him and give him a chance to redeem himself. He will never become competent if I do everything for him. I was quite awake during that lecture, I assure you."
She quirked her brow. "I never said you must put him in charge of everything. A single estate, perhaps."
Now there was a positively roguish twinkle in his eye. He glanced at the door, securely closed behind his brother, then pulled her into his arms. "Sadly…" He kissed her nose. "Events have conspired against me." He kissed her right eyelid, as Hannah let her head fall back and slid her hands up his arms and around his neck. "I cannot leave Adams in charge for so long. He would bankrupt me within a fortnight." He kissed her left eyelid as she laughed. "Someone must watch him, and someone must watch David, so I give them each other." He kissed her forehead. "Perhaps between the two of them, there will be enough of Exeter for us to return home to. Because I intend to see that you enjoy every moment of your wedding trip." He kissed her mouth, long and deep.
Hannah smiled mistily. "Mmm, do you?"
His lips brushed her temple, stopping to nip her earlobe. "It is my mission in life."
"David will do well," she said again, as he came to that sensitive spot behind her ear.
"Well enough, I hope," Marcus muttered.
"And you—oh!" She shivered as his lips continued their assault. "You're already doing well."
"And we've not even left the house yet," he replied.
And that was the end of the conversation.