22nd of July, 1815, 11:55 p.m.
He was out of his mind. It was the only excuse Rodney, the fifth Earl of Hamstone, could come up with. Because he wasn't nearly drunk enough to account for his temporary insanity. And even if he had had enough whiskey to explain tonight's debacle it didn't explain how he got here in the first place.
"Call him out," Kirby, Viscount Langtree slurred.
Rodney just looked at his old friend as if he had lost his mind. Or he thought that might be how he was looking at his friend and former shipmate. After all, he had drank nearly as much as his friend. Something he had never done before.
Kirby's suggestion was lunacy. He was a Hamling. From a long-distinguished line of Hamlings. They were known for their haughtiness. Their steely pride and unwavering dedication to correctness. And their boundless honor. Or so his father had told him thousands and thousands of times as a child. But they were not known for doing something as scandalous as calling someone out. Even if that someone deserved to be shot.
"I'll be your sec . . . second," James, Lord Frankton offered. At least that is what Rodney thought he was offering.
It was preposterous. Rodney Kenneth Hamlin was the new Earl of Hamstone, and had spent the majority of his life living up to the high standards of his father and all the Hamlings before him. Which just didn't include challenging a swindler to a duel.
"I've seen you with a rapier and pistol," Samuel, Lord Campton said. He was the soberest of their foursome, and another one-time shipmate. But not by much. "And I know you can best a weasel like Binsby with no trouble at all.
Rodney knew he was right. He was a little surprised his friend knew that about his abilities as Sam had never seen Rodney during a battle. Nor had Rodney ever advertised his abilities. Even though there was a deep, dark part of him that wanted to do just that.
Especially now. There was nothing he would like to do more than challenge Mr. Seth Binsby. But the truth was his father had knowingly gone into business with the man. Even knowing Binsby's reputed lack of honor.
"I can't kill him. And you know it," Rodney said.
"You don't has to keap him, old oil, just hoot em in his ow," James slurred.
"What?" Rodney asked.
"Forget him," Kirby said. "He never could hold his liquor. But what I think he is trying to say is you don't have to shoot the old boy, you just need to hurt him where he lives."
"Right," James hollered, drawing attention from the other patrons at Whites.
"Bloody hell, he's a pain in the arse when he's drunk," Samuel complained.
James slumped down in his chair and began brooding. He was the youngest of their little group. All of them had attended Eton. Just not at the same time. And all of them had joined the Navy as second or third sons. Now they were the closest thing Rodney had to a family.
And James had a reason to be melancholy and drunk, two night before, he lost nearly all of his family’s entire fortune to Binsby in a game vingt et un. Samuel had been there and was sure Binsby had cheated. But none of them could prove it. Which was why they had been trying to console James with a night on the town. And how Rodney had been dragged into the insanity on his first evening in town.
"And just how do you propose I do that?" Rodney asked.
Samuel smiled and Rodney felt his stomach drop. These were the friends who delighted in getting him into mischief. Both as boys at Eton and whenever they met up as adults.
"Do you remember that tall actress from the theatre tonight?" Samuel asked
Remember her? Hell, he nearly fell out of Kirby's box trying to get a better look at the actress playing Rosalind. At first it was because he wanted a better look at her. In a word, she was incredibly beautiful.
And because he could barely stand up himself by the time they got to the Drury Lane Theatre to watch the Shakespearean play As You Like It, as his bloody friends had been feeding him drinks for over an hour.
Consequently, by the end of the first act, he was hanging over the railing because he was too drunk to care and was sure he recognized her voice. He just couldn't remember from where. Which might have been the liquor’s fault, or his mind playing tricks on him.
"Well, she is Binsby's latest ladybird," Samuel said.
Rodney's stomach churned. He was a little disappointed as Marietta Sigona was breathtaking. While Binsby was a short, fat, bald, slimy scumbag of a man who was a blood sucking parasite.
Rodney had met the man last year when he sold out of the navy and returned home to find his father on his death bed. When he went home, he also found Binsby living off his father like he was the master of the house. Rodney just couldn't see the tall black-haired beauty with someone like that.
"I doubt that seriously," Rodney said.
"It's toooo," James singsong.
Rodney and Samuel both rolled their eyes at each other. His friend leaned closer.
"I have my doubts as well. But my sources are very reliable. And they heard that he made her an offer after tonight’s performance, and she accepted him. Which isn’t hard to believe." He shrugged his shoulders indifferently. "The man is rumored to be in the money right now. And," he shrugged again, "she is an actress after all."
In other words, she was a harlot. A high paid courtesan. At least that was what polite society thought of actresses and opera singers. Rodney had never thought much about it. But he had known a girl a long time ago who had dreamed about becoming an actress. And he couldn't imagine her as anything but honorable. Memories of that young woman suddenly shifted in his mind. And into the light of awareness came the woman he had been ogling and just who the actress had reminded him of.
"Not all actresses are harlots Samuel," Rodney insisted.
Samuel and Kirby both laughed at him while James began chanting, in his annoying singsong voice, "Harlot, demimonde, courtesan, fa - la - la - law. They're all the same."
"Shut up James," Rodney hissed.
He didn't know why he was getting so angry. Most people saw these women in the same light. They praised and worshiped them for their talents and abilities on stage. But condemned them as little more than the whores and prostitutes that worked the streets around the theatres. It wasn't fair. But there was little he could do about it.
Thankfully James fell silent and slumped back in his seat. Rodney turned back to Samuel. He didn't want to compare the actress with the young girl he had known.
"Just what makes you think I can take this woman away from Binsby, assuming she is his new ladybird?"
"You're better looking," Samuel said.
"Hear, hear," Kirby chortled.
"And poorer," Rodney retorted.
"And whose fault is that?" Sam challenged.
Rodney felt his chest tighten. The truth was painful to admit. "Not Binsby's. At least, not solely."
Sam's eyebrows shot up and Rodney felt his irritation return. "My father had made a number of bad investments over the last two years of his life. Binsby just took advantage of that but he didn't bankrupt the earldom. My father nearly did that all on his own."
The earldom wasn't bankrupt. Not completely anyway. And over the last year by working hand-in-hand with the tenant farmers, and good returns on an investment in a Welsh mine, Rodney had managed to bring it back from the brink of bankruptcy. It was a long way from being completely solvent but at least it was no longer in danger of going under.
"Consequently, I don't have money to throw away on a mistress. Especially the kind of blunt it would take to entice one away from a wealthy benefactor."
"No, no," Sam said. "You don't need to take her away from the man. You just need to make him believe you are trying to. Rumor has it he's extremely jealous, and he hates anyone touching what he sees as his."
"Ironic," Rodney huffed, "for a cheat and swindler."
"No doubt," Sam agreed. "But the point is, you don't need to actually take her away from him. Just pay her a marked amount of attention in a public place and then make sure he hears about it."
Rodney thought about it as his whiskey dulled brain tried to sort out what was wrong with the plan. Finally, the flaws swam to the surface. "But won't that hurt her more than him? If he is her new protector?" Which he didn't believe for a minute.
"You'll be doing her a favor. You said it yourself, she can do much better than Binsby," Sam said.
He hadn't said anything like that. But it was true. The Italian actress could do much better than Seth Binsby for a lover and protector. She could do much better than a money strapped Earl as well. But he would like a chance to see the woman up close. And especially have a chance to talk to her. She had reminded him of little Mary from the village of Hamstoneshire.
Mary was two years younger than him and had been a pain in his arse. The most mischievous and obstinate girl he had ever known. She had been worse than his younger brother and friends combined for getting him into trouble. And by the time he left Eton he had been half in love with her.
Mary Contrary, no, her last name had been Cumpston, had been the most undisciplined girl he had ever met. If he told her the sky was blue, she would argue that it was in fact green, or red, or purple, just to be antagonistic. She hated being forced to be circumspect and reticent, two of the things her vicar father had insisted on. Which just wasn't in her nature.
The summer after he had left Oxford, he had spent a good amount of time in her company. He had told her about his dreams to own his on estate and farm. She had told him of hers to be an opera singer. A week later she had eloped with a man from the next village over and he had joined the Navy a week later.
Rodney had thought about her over the years, usually when someone was attempting to embroil him in one mess or another. Paradoxically, he resented his friends when they tried to involve him in their schemes. He had never resented her when she had done the same thing. Rodney had been on the cusp of offering for her when she ran off and married the other man.
He had been hurt at first. It was one of the reasons he had enlisted in the Navy. That and it was what was expected of him. Over time he had gotten over his infatuation with her and just hoped and prayed that little Mary Contrary was happy with the life she had chosen. And he wondered if he might not have been happier and more content with his life if he had not procrastinated and offered for her as he had wanted.
His father had considered Mary unacceptable as a spouse for him, the second son of an Earl with a long and distinguished history. One that went all the way back to William the Conqueror. He was expected to marry someone with impeccable lineage and unimpeachable decorum and honor. Not the village hoyden. Vicar's daughter or not. So, Rodney had procrastinated and then done what he had always done, the expected and proper thing.
"Alright," Rodney said. "I'll agree to meet her." He held up his hand. "But nothing more. I have no intentions whatsoever of trying to seduce her away from her current protector. I doubt I could even if I wanted to."
"Why ever not?" Kirby said and then chuckled. “You're tall. You're not ugly. At least not that I can tell. You have all your teeth. And you're an Earl for the love of God."
"And damn near as poor as a church mouse," Rodney replied.
"Oh, for the love of God, Rodney, stop being such a stick in the mud," James said in a moment of drunken lucidity. "Let your hair down for once in your bloody life and live a little. Be wild for just one bloody night. What the hell could it hurt?"