Unlacing Lady Thea

Just how much trouble can she get him into? A lot.

Rhys Denham, Earl of Palgrave is determined on undertaking the Grand Tour now that Napoleon is safely exiled to Elba – and he is equally determined on putting off making a decision about a wife. Lady Thea Curtiss is determined too – determined not to marry the man her father chooses, determined not to be stuck on the shelf and absolutely determined on travelling to her godmother in Venice. What could be more logical than that Rhys takes her with him? The next morning, sober, it is too late to regret saying ‘Yes’ – but how much trouble can the scrubby chit he recalls from his childhood actually be? The answer, Rhys soon discovers, is ‘a lot.’

Excerpt

‘There is a person to see you, my lord.’

‘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, tugged off his already loosened neckcloth and left 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 unfocussed 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.