Take care not to sire any bastards; they will
haunt you long after the pleasure of
wenching has waned.
-- Anonymous, The Art of Seduction Reveal'd, or A Rake's Rhetorick
They were late.
By lamplight, Alexander Black consulted the pocket watch given him by Wellington. Damn. Twenty minutes late already. He'd used his meager funds on the proprietor's best French brandy, and now the men weren't coming.
At least the private dining room had cost him nothing. He strode to the window, cocking an ear toward the stables by force of habit. But no soothing sounds of horses settling in for the night reached him above the watchman's bell and the clacking of hackney wheels on cobblestone.
A knock at the door followed by a muffled "Lord Iversley?" made him start.
Right, he was Iversley. After he had lived for years as plain Mr. Black, returning to being a lord took some getting used to. "Come in."
A lad opened the door, his nervousness inexplicable until Alec spotted the man looming behind him. "L-Lord D-Draker is here to see you." The cowering boy turned to the hulking figure, whose reputation as the Dragon Viscount had clearly preceded him. "W-Will that be all, m-my lord?"
Draker's fierce gaze swung to the servant. Even dressed in humble fustian, the shaggy-haired brute could crush stone to dust with a stare. "Begone," he growled. When the lad scampered for the stairs quicker than a skittish gelding, Draker rolled his eyes. "They think horns grow on my forehead."
"Then perhaps you shouldn't snarl at them," Alec said dryly.
The giant's dark brown eyes pinned him in place. "A wise man would keep his opinions to himself."
"A wise man would never invite you here. But I like taking risks."
"I don't." Hesitating on the threshold, the viscount examined the room warily. In keeping with a hotel popular with army officers, it boasted heavy oak chairs and a table borne on legs carved with lion heads in midroar.
Alec bit back a smile. Draker ought to feel right at home.
"So what's the reason for this meeting?" Draker demanded.
"I'll explain when my other guest arrives."
Draker snorted, but finally entered. "Did he also receive a ridiculous note inviting him to come here 'if you want to change your life'?"
"If you thought the note ridiculous, why did you come?"
"It's not every day that an earl I've never met is foolhardy enough to approach a man of my reputation."
Alec offered no explanation. Taking his seat, he gestured to another chair. "Make yourself comfortable. There's brandy if you wish to indulge."
Draker had settled himself into a chair with a glass when a tall auburn-haired gentleman sauntered in the open door. Flashing them an insolent glance, he tossed a folded sheet of foolscap onto the table with a white-gloved hand. "I assume one of you is the sender of this peculiar note?"
"Yes, I'm Iversley." Alec rose. "You must be the owner of the Blue Swan."
The man gave a dramatic bow. "Gavin Byrne at your service."
Noting how Draker stiffened, Alec gestured to the empty chairs. "Thanks for coming. Take a seat anywhere -- "
"Take mine." Jerking to his feet, Draker headed for the door. "I'm leaving."
Alec tensed as he saw all his plans disintegrate before his very eyes.
"What's the matter, sir?" Byrne drawled. "Not brave enough to do business with me?"
Draker halted to frown at Byrne. "I don't think our host is interested in business. You've probably heard of me, as I've heard of you. I'm Draker."
He didn't have to say more. Shock suffused Byrne's angular features before he turned on Alec. "What is this, Iversley -- some wager?" He crossed to the open window to glance out onto the ledge. "Where are your friends hiding to watch England's two most notorious half brothers meet for the first time?"
"There's no one here but us," Alec said evenly.
Byrne whirled from the window, eyes glittering from the shadows. "Ah. Then you're hoping for material reward, blackmail perhaps? I hate to disappoint you, but everyone in London already knows of my fine lineage."
"And mine." Draker dragged his finger down the scar barely showing above his beard. Draker's natural father hadn't been married to his mother, either. Fortunately for Draker, another man had been married to her, making him legitimate. "You've arranged this for nothing. Now if you'll excuse me -- "
"So the fearsome Draker is actually a coward," Alec snapped, "afraid to spend a few minutes alone with his two brothers."
Draker whirled on him. "Now see here, you damned -- " He broke off, eyes narrowing. "What do you mean, 'two brothers'?"
"Despite my apparent legitimacy, I'm a by-blow like the two of you. More importantly, we share the same father." With an unsteady hand, Alec lifted his glass in the air. "Congratulations, gentlemen. You've just gained a half brother. And the Prince of Wales has gained another bastard son."
As he downed the liquor, a silence settled on the room as thick and deep as a London fog. For a moment the other two men only stared at him.
Then Draker stalked up to the table, scowling as fiercely as the carved lions supporting it. "Is this some sick joke, Iversley? No scandal of that sort has ever been whispered about your family."
"Perhaps no one knew," Byrne put in. "But I'm inclined to believe him."
Draker glared at Byrne. "Why?"
"Because what newly minted earl would lie about a thing like that?"
Alec released a breath. "Sit down, gentlemen, have some brandy, and hear me out. I swear you won't regret it."
Byrne shrugged. "Very well. I could use a stiff drink." He splashed a generous portion of brandy into a glass, dropped into a chair, and drank deeply. After a second's hesitation, Draker followed his lead.
So far, so good. Alec took his own seat and poured himself more brandy. The three of them drank in silence, looking each other over, searching for resemblances with furtive glances.
Hard to believe these were his brothers. Thick-chested and muscular, Draker had inherited the stocky build of the Hanovers, but without their sire's abundant flesh. Or concern for fashion. Draker's untrimmed chestnut hair, heavy beard, and suit of dull fustian bespoke a man who eschewed society and all its rules.
Then there was Byrne, who must have come straight from his highly successful gentlemen's club. His white marcella waistcoat and black Florentine silk breeches were finer than anything Alec could afford, yet except for the ruby pin winking in his cravat, Byrne's rig was surprisingly sober.
Especially considering the exalted circles Byrne moved in. His wry wit and clever hand at cards made him as popular with the Duke of Devonshire as with the lowliest waiter at White's, despite his illegitimacy.
"Your revelation does explain the odd gossip about you." Byrne ran his finger along the rim of his glass. "They say your father sent you on the Grand Tour, where you stayed for ten years pursuing pleasure, even after your mother died."
Alec fought down a surge of anger. Of course his "father" had spread lies about him. The old goat would hardly tell anyone the truth.
"Odd thing, though," Byrne went on. "Nobody ever spoke of seeing you at entertainments abroad. And I met your...er...father once, who didn't seem the sort to tolerate his heir's defection for long. Not to mention the pesky matter of a war going on."
Alec drank deeply from his glass. He hated laying his life open before these half brothers he barely knew, but he had no choice. "There was no war when I left England. It was during the short-lived Peace of Amiens."
"Where exactly did you go?" Draker asked gruffly.
"To Portugal. The old earl sent me to live with his sister." Whose Portuguese husband believed in stiff punishments for wayward English boys. "I stayed only a few years. But I couldn't come home -- my father had forbidden me to set foot on the family estate or speak to my mother." Bile rose in his throat. "He didn't even write me of her death until weeks after she was buried."
"He did all that because you were Prinny's by-blow?"
"Yes, though I didn't know it at the time." Alec swallowed some brandy. "Shortly after the old earl's death and my return to England, I found a letter Mother had hidden for me that revealed the truth." And transformed everything he'd thought about himself and his parents. "Apparently, when she conceived me my 'father' hadn't shared her bed in months. But he claimed me rather than let it be known Prinny had cuckolded him. He even tolerated my occasional presence at home until a prank at Harrow got me sent down. That's when he banished me from Edenmore for good."
"Bloody hell, what sort of prank was that?" Byrne asked.
Alec swirled his brandy, watching the play of lamplight on liquid. "I tried to obtain an expensive meal for me and my chuckleheaded friends by...er...impersonating a famous person. But despite my faint resemblance to the man and my padded clothes, I was a bit too young and thin to be convincing."
"You don't mean you pretended to be -- " Byrne began.
"Oh, yes." Alec lifted a rueful gaze to them. "Unwittingly I picked the one fellow I should not have impersonated. The earl was not amused."
Both men blinked, then burst into laughter. After a second, Alec joined them. How odd to laugh over what had been the worst disaster of his young life.
"God, the irony..." Draker choked out. "Your father...I can only imagine -- "
Their laughter erupted again, dissolving the earlier tension. By the time their laughs died, the warmth settling between them was almost...brotherly.
"Now that you mention it, there is a resemblance," Byrne managed as he brought his amusement under control. "You've got Prinny's eyes."
"But why are you telling us all this?" Draker asked. "Don't you care who knows?"
"Believe me, I've no desire to spawn more gossip about me and my family. But the truth is, I need your help."
Just that quickly, the tenuous connection between them was broken.
Byrne eyed him with cool cynicism. "Money. You think to turn to your wealthy 'brothers' for funds, is that it?"
Alec tensed. "I do need money, but I don't want any from either of you." At Draker's snort, he rose to face them. "When I discovered my connection to Prinny, I searched for information about his other by-blows. I learned that we're the only ones who haven't profited from the connection." He nodded to Draker. "You've been an outcast from society ever since you forcibly evicted the prince and your mother from your estate at Castlemaine."
Alec turned to Byrne. "And Prinny has callously refused to acknowledge your connection to him. You dine with dukes at your club, but though they call you Bonnie Byrne to your face, they call you Byblow Byrne, the Irish whore's son, behind your back."
"Only if they want their tongues cut out," Byrne snapped.
Alec shrugged off the threat. "And -- as you've guessed -- I'm penniless. The earl spent my mother's entire fortune."
In his last days, the old goat had invested in risky ventures that decimated what family monies hadn't been stolen by his corrupt steward. Thanks to that and the earl's obsessive -- and expensive -- pursuit of quack cures for some supposed illness, Alec had inherited an estate in shambles, but no blunt to save it.
"Each of us lacks something. I have no money." Alec glanced at Byrne. "You have no legitimate name." He nodded to Draker. "You have no acceptance in society."
"What does Draker care about society?" Byrne said. "He seems content enough moldering out there at Castlemaine."
"Ah, but I suspect he sometimes finds his outcast status inconvenient." Although Draker scowled, Alec noticed he didn't deny it. "Aren't you guardian to the daughter your mother bore the viscount? And isn't she approaching the age to marry? You may not care about your own situation, but I'll wager you care about hers."
"All right," Draker grumbled, "so my sister has been plaguing me with this maggoty idea about having a season. I've told her it won't work. Who would sponsor her? Besides, after the lies my mother spread about me, Louisa will be treated like a leper for my sins."
"But if you don't give her a season," Alec pointed out, "how long before she runs off with the first footman or local idiot who shows her any affection?"
"Is there a point to this?" Draker asked tersely.
Alec cast Byrne a studied glance. "If all she needs is a sponsor and invitations, I'm sure Byrne knows several lords whose...er...indebtedness to him would persuade them and their wives to do as we ask."
"We?" Byrne queried.
"Yes, we. Thanks to our sire, we've been denied the advantages of most normal families -- friendship, loyalty, unconditional aid. But that needn't stop us from success." Heartened by how intently they listened, he continued. "Each of us possesses something the others need, so I propose that we form an alliance. It would act as a family -- we are half brothers, after all. Together, we could change our fortunes. We could help each other attain everything we desire."
Byrne lifted an eyebrow. "Which brings us back to what you desire. But if you think I'll lend you money because of our mutual connection to Prinny -- "
"I don't want any loans," Alec retorted. "The earl left me sunk in debt up to my chin as it is."
"Yet you must want something from us. And since we're clearly not Prinny's favorites, you can't be hoping we'll get you money from him."
"Absolutely not," Alec said firmly. "I doubt he knows I'm his son, and I'd rather keep it that way. Besides, he doesn't have enough money for what I need."
Draker's eyes narrowed. "How much are you talking about?"
"To restore Edenmore to a working estate and the house to a livable condition -- " He dragged in a heavy breath. "Roughly seventy-five thousand pounds. Perhaps more."
At Draker's low whistle, Byrne said, "You're damned right -- nobody would loan you such a sum. I doubt you could even make it at the tables."
"If borrowing money will sink me further, gambling would bury me." Alec set his glass down. "No, I've thought about this, and I can find only one solution to my need for funds -- marriage to an heiress."
"You're not getting Louisa, if that's what you're thinking," Draker growled.
Alec rolled his eyes. "For God's sake, I don't want a chit fresh out of the schoolroom. I'd prefer a mature woman who understands the rules of English society: Do as you please as long as you're discreet. Raise hell in private as long as you behave well in public. Pretend that marriage is about love, when we all know it's about money and position."
"Sounds rather cynical," Draker said.
"You of all people know it's accurate. Why else do you escape society at your estate in Hertfordshire?" When Draker scowled, Alec added, "Not that I blame you. I tried escaping by staying abroad instead of returning here to demand my due when I came of age. That's why I've nearly lost everything."
He smiled grimly. "I learned my lesson. You play by their rules -- at least in public -- to get what you want. And I want to restore Edenmore. If that means hunting a fortune like the other penniless lords, then, by God, I'll hunt a fortune."
Draker shook his head. "Any heiress with that kind of money is armed to the teeth against fortune hunters. And if she isn't, her father will be."
"The man's an earl," Byrne told Draker. "Plenty of merchants would gladly pay to have their daughters made into countesses."
"For such a large sum?" Alec went to stoke up the fire. "What fool would hand over his precious daughter and seventy-five thousand pounds to a fortune-hunting lord with a reputation for abandoning his family in the pursuit of pleasure? I can't tell the truth about my time abroad without explaining the real reason for my estrangement from my father, which I don't want to do."
He stared into the flames. "But the rumors alone won't damage my chances, as long as I hide my penury while I'm courting. I plan to take my heiress in hand before she learns of my finances." He wouldn't make the old earl's mistake -- letting his intended wife know he was marrying her for money. That only led to trouble.
Dusting his hands off on his trousers, he faced them again. "That's why I need your help. I have to secure my heiress before the truth about my situation reaches London. Trouble is, I don't know any. I was too young to be in society when I left, and I don't have the weeks it will take me to learn who's who."
He narrowed his gaze on Byrne. "You move in those circles and deal with financial matters every day. You could give me the information I need."
When Byrne looked stony, Draker cleared his throat. "Since I've been out of society half my life, I can't imagine what good I could do you."
Tearing his gaze from Byrne's, Alec said baldly, "You could loan me a carriage. Most things I can get on credit, but not something that large."
"You don't even own a carriage?" Byrne said in disbelief.
Alec stiffened. By God, he hated this begging. "My father sold both our carriages, along with the London town house, which is why I live here at the Stephens Hotel. I can keep my lodgings secret, but if I always show up in a hack, someone will get suspicious." He stared at Draker. "And I figured since you -- "
"Don't go into society," Draker finished, "I could spare you a carriage."
Alec nodded tightly. "I promise to keep it in good working order."
Draker appeared more amused than insulted. "If you will also promise not to harness a lot of ill-matched nags to it -- "
"You'll help me?" Alec broke in. "You'll join this alliance I propose?"
"I suppose it can't hurt. Especially if my pesky sister gets a decent husband out of it." Draker arched a shaggy brown brow. "And not a fortune hunter."
Alec smiled ruefully. "I hope my heiress's relations are not so particular."
"I know of one who might suit your needs," Byrne put in. When Alec turned to stare at him, he added with a shrug, "Gamblers do talk."
Alec's blood thundered in his ears. "So you'll join this alliance, too?"
"The Royal Brotherhood." A muscle ticked in Byrne's jaw. "It's all well and good for you and Draker -- in the eyes of the law, you're legitimate. But you can't make me legitimate, or gain me the respect Prinny denied me and my mother."
"Surely we can help you obtain something you want. I promise you'll gain as much as we do from this enterprise."
"I intend to," Byrne said tersely. "Besides, it might be amusing to watch you succeed under our good father's very nose."
For the first time in many weeks, hope swelled in Alec's chest. "Then it's agreed? We'll join hands as brothers to achieve all that we desire?"
"Agreed," Draker murmured.
"Agreed." Byrne poured more brandy for them all. "This calls for a toast." He rose and lifted his glass. "To the Royal Brotherhood of Bastards, and their future prosperity."
The other two stood and lifted their glasses to echo the toast.
They drank, and then Alec lifted his glass again with a grim smile. "And to Prinny, our royal sire. May he rot in hell."
Copyright © 2004 by Deborah Gonzales