December 5, 1820
“This is the outside of enough.” Baron Benton Gray tossed The London List on the floor beneath his breakfast table, where the new footman quickly scurried to pick it up.
“Burn it! No, wait. What is the business address of the infernal thing?” He should have paid attention to that two years ago, when the first of the scurrilous stories about him appeared in print. Ben had assumed the attention would eventually fade away.
He’d assumed wrong.
Callum the footman blanched and smoothed the newssheet between his spotless white gloves. “I dinna know, my lord. I canna read, my lord.”
“Enough of the my lording, if you please. Tell Severson you want some reading lessons after your duties. All men should be allowed to read. Except I devoutly hope they turn the pages of something far more edifying than this rag. Give it over.”
“Aye, my l—” Callum blushed and thrust the wrinkled paper into Lord Gray’s large hand. His gloves were now streaked with gray from the cheap ink that was spilling into Ben’s life every Tuesday and ruining it.
“I need nothing else, leave me be. Colin, is it?”
“Callum, my l—Lord Gray.”
“Come down recently from Castle Gray, have you?”
“How is the old place?”
This gave the young footman pause. “Old, Lord Gray.”
Ben didn’t doubt it. His ancestral home in the wilds of Scotland had begun as a humble fortified tower on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea. Centuries of wind and neglect had driven his mother back into the bosom of London society as soon as his bellicose father had the courtesy to meet an early end. Consequently Ben had not been raised to tramp the hills in a kilt and kick sheep out of the way. No, Baron Benton Gray was a modern, cultured man, prosperous with his investment in Sir Simon Keith’s railroad scheme and suitably celebratory. How dare The London List make him sound like he was the veriest devil? Veronique had had no objection to—well, Ben reflected, she never objected to anything. She was paid well not to.
Perhaps it was time to give her her conge. Let the talk die down. She’d been his mistress for seven months and that thing she did with her hips was beginning to feel old hat.
Ben scowled. How did his morning decline from smug satisfaction over his bacon to this depressing state? He was not going to give up Veronique!
Unless someone better came along.
Not a wife. Ben had avoided the slavering mamas—except for his own—for over a decade. He’d been successful, for the most part. One did not reach the advanced age of thirty entirely unscathed, however. There had been that misunderstanding with the Crittendon chit a few years back, and he didn’t allow himself to ever think of Evie.
She must be over thirty now herself. Probably running and ruining some poor man’s life so that he longed for an early death. Ben hadn’t heard a thing about her for ages. He’d stopped looking for her dark head in a London crowd once he’d found out she’d gone back to Scotland. Evangeline Ramsey was one reason he enjoyed living in London so much as a confirmed bachelor and as many mistresses as he could handle.
Enough of the sentimental journey down memory lane. Ben poured himself another cup of coffee and opened up the distasteful newspaper. He skimmed the advertisements, chuckling only briefly when he came upon “A young woman from a respectable family, honest, hard-working, country bred, would like to correspond with a city gentleman for amusement and possibly more. Physical attributes are unimportant, though it would be helpful if said gentleman is under forty and in possession of most of his teeth and a modest fortune.”
Ben swiped his tongue over his even, fully-intact teeth, dislodging a morsel of toast. He supposed he was a prime candidate, not that he was going to mix himself up with some uncivilized wench who probably had a hairy mole on the end of her chin. He pitied the poor people who were desperate enough to use The London List to try to solve their problems.
Blast! Where were their offices located? He began squinting at the front page again of the slender publication, avoiding the prominent article mentioning his recent activities in such lurid detail. He might have all his teeth, but he wondered if he was becoming eligible for reading glasses.
There was nothing the matter with his nose however. His mother was on her way into the dining room, her lily-of-the-valley perfume announcing her arrival quite a bit before she stepped through the door. He hastily shoved the paper underneath his bottom and plastered a smile on his face.
“Benton, darling, good morning!”
Ben angled a smooth-shaven cheek for his mother to kiss. Lady Emily Gray was a well-preserved forty-seven, her nut-brown hair only beginning to silver. She had practically been a child when she married and was brutalized by his father. The fact that Ben was the image of the man—large, tawny-haired, green-eyed—did not seem to stop her from holding her only child in deep affection. Sometimes too deep. She was most anxious to become a grandmother, and never ceased to remind Ben of his duty to his title, such as it was.
Lady Gray’s slate blue eyes swept the table. “Where is it?”
“Where is what, Mama?”
“The London List. It’s Tuesday. For that matter, where is Callum? Though I suppose I’m still capable of fetching my own breakfast.”
“Let me get it for you, Mama.”
Ben recognized his error immediately. If he rose to get her a plate from the sideboard, she would see the newspaper he had taken such pains to hide. For the life of him, he could not see its appeal. But everyone from the loftiest viscount to his valet seemed addicted to the thing. Tuesdays could not come soon enough. There was much speculation in the clubs as to the identities of the blind items, and servants were always seeking greener pastures in the employment columns. Ghastly young poets could pay to have their ghastly poems published, too. Something for everyone, whatever their station in life.
There were plenty of people to write for and write about. Ben was extremely tired of finding himself on the front page week after week. It was almost as if the List’s publisher had a particular grudge against him.
He was saved from discovery as his mother waved him away and attacked the sideboard herself. She was pleasantly plump, convinced that she kept wrinkles at bay with a few extra pounds. Ben watched her pile her plate high with eggs, mushrooms, bacon and toast, then returned to his own food, which was sadly cold after his paper-pitching fit. But if he got up for a fresh helping, he’d be right back in his pickle. Sorry now that he’d dismissed Callum, he took a sip of lukewarm coffee.
“Did The London List not come with your post this morning? I knew we should have ordered more subscriptions.”
Ben clinked his cup into its saucer. “More? Just how many do we get?”
“Well, Cook insists on her own copy. Severson as well. The maids share theirs, except for my dresser Barnes, who is far too top-lofty to share with anyone. I doubt she’d share with me. I believe a copy goes out to the stables. One for the footmen—”
“Callum does not read,” Ben interrupted.
“Oh? I’ll make sure Severson is apprised of that, although I’m sure he knows. He knows everything. He mentioned as I came downstairs that you managed to make the front page again.”
Damn. So much for keeping his household, especially his mother, in the dark. If he’d counted correctly, he was paying for seven bloody subscriptions to announce his every peccadillo to the world.
“It’s all a pack of lies!”
His mother raised a sculpted brow and took a forkful of egg. Once she swallowed, she said, “You are a grown man. How you choose to spend your time is, I suppose, your business. But you will never get a decent woman to marry you unless you curtail your notoriety. As it is, you’re verging into desperate widow territory.”
“Mama, I don’t want a decent woman or a desperate widow. I have no interest in marriage, as well you know.”
“Just because your father was a brute does not mean you will follow in his footsteps,” his mother said, her tone remarkably mild.
Ben’s father had died when he was a child, but not soon enough. He could remember every blow he and his mother suffered under Laird Gray, and the pervasive feeling of hopelessness and helplessness had never quite gone away. His father’s temper had been legendary, which was one reason Ben worked so hard to control his. To cultivate an attitude of laissez-faire. To permit the unpermittable without much fuss or bother. He was the epitome of utter affability. Nothing would ruffle his feathers.
Except for the damned London List.
“Perhaps I’ve not yet met the right woman,” Ben parried, his tone equally light. “Maybe I’m not holding out for a desperate widow but a buck-toothed virgin with spots.”
“There are plenty of those this year.” His mother laid her fork down. “Let us be serious for a moment. I made a mistake in my marriage—or rather my parents made it for me. There were whispers about your father, but they ignored them. The Gray fortune was temptation incarnate.”
“It still is.”
“I’m not questioning your stewardship, Benton. Everything you touch turns to gold. Which is why if you put your mind to it, I know you could be an adequate husband. And father.”
The portion of his breakfast he had eaten turned to a hard lump in his stomach. “I will count that as a compliment, Mama. High praise indeed.”
“It is meant to be. I have faith in you.”
His poor mama. He supposed all mothers were easily gulled. Even his paternal grandmother had probably loved his father.
Ben changed the subject. “What are your plans for today?”
“Well, I’ll have to cadge a copy of The London List from one of the servants. One can’t start one’s Tuesday morning without it.”
With a sigh, Ben shifted in his chair and drew out the crumpled copy.
“Benton Alexander Dunbarton Gray! You devil!”
“I wanted to protect your delicate sensibilities, Mama. The article about me is pure rubbish.” Mostly.
“My delicate sensibilities have gone the way of your good judgment. Hand it over.”
His mother slipped her reading glasses out of a pocket sewn specially for them. For the next five minutes Ben was subjected to his mother’s pursed lips and head-shaking. It seemed she needed to read the story about him four times, if following the pattern of her finger was any indication. But she was mercifully silent. Ben was relieved when she turned the page to the paid advertisements.
“If you don’t plan to give me a scold, may I be excused from the table?”
His mother looked up, her eyes wavery under the thick lenses. “I’ll scold you later. I wonder who is in need of “a strapping young valet whose hands and teeth can make quick work of neckcloths and falls?”
“Oh, do be quiet, Benton. It’s not as if I can shock you.”
A pity she had such a low opinion of him, but she was right. Mostly.
Ben left his mother to her gossip and speculation. Braving the kitchen and Cook’s opprobrium, he snagged an extra scone and her copy of the newssheet. Over his crumbs he found the offices of the paper buried between advertisements for the improvement of manly vigor and custom reupholstery.
R. Ramsey, Publisher. An odd coincidence that the bane of his existence shared the surname of his lost and unlamented love.
He had nothing better to do today but defend his honor and demand satisfaction or retraction. He was not going to sit in his club and endure the jibes of his so-called friends as they reminded him that he was the number one topic of conversation in the ton. Bad enough Severson gave him a gimlet eye as he assisted Ben with his coat against the raw December wind.
It would do him good to walk the distance to the newspaper’s office. Work up his umbrage and indignation. His calves would get exercise too. Ben wouldn’t let a few nights of dissipation wreck his carefully-crafted body. It was damned hard to stay fit in Town, but Ben did by fencing regularly at a private salle d’armes. Using his fists was far too reminiscent of his father’s proclivities, so he left Gentleman Jackson’s to others.
In a matter of half an hour, he had traversed quite a bit of fashionable London and stood before the impeccably scrubbed front window of The London List. He could see clear to the back of the rear brick office wall and the hulking black printing press which would be idle for the rest of the week. A young gentleman, his black hair cropped brutally short, shirtsleeves rolled up and jacket discarded, appeared to be tinkering with the source of Ben’s choler. If the infernal machine was broken, that would save him the trouble of smashing it himself.
No. Ben had other methods of persuasion. He would make the fellow, or his employer if he had one, an offer no sensible person could refuse.
Ben startled at the tinkle of bells over the door as he entered. The printer turned abruptly to him, his welcoming smile quickly draining away, looking ready to faint onto the wide pine floorboards.
By God and the saints and all that was holy. The young gentleman was no gentleman. Ben felt light-headed himself as he stared into Evangeline Ramsey’s parchment-pale face.