The barmaid sighed and sighed again, because the three handsome gentlemen, all young lords by the look of them, had requested no more than drinks from her, despite her best efforts to offer them her favors as well. Still, she hovered near their table, hoping one of them might change his mind, especially the golden-haired one with the sensual green eyes, eyes that promised untold delights if she could just get her hands on him. Derek, she'd heard him called, and her heart had fair tripped over when he'd walked through the door. She'd never seen a man so handsome--until the youngest of the trio followed him in.
It was a bleedin' shame that one had to be so young, for her experience with boys his age was dismally unsatisfying. On the other hand, this young one had a devilishly wicked sparkle in his eyes that made her wonder if he might know how to pleasure a woman despite his tender years. Actually taller than his two older companions and broader of frame, with hair of a midnight hue and eyes of the clearest cobalt blue, he was so appealing that she'd be more than willing to find out.
The third member of their group, who looked to be the oldest, wasn't nearly as handsome as his two friends, though, truth be known, he was a fine-looking specimen as well, just outdone by the two heart-stoppers. The girl sighed again, waiting, hoping, fairly drooling, but afraid she was bound to be disappointed tonight, with their interest on no more than their drinks and their own conversation.
Oblivious to the salacious thoughts coming their way --nothing new for these three--they suddenly changed the course of the amiable conversation at the table under such avid observation.
"How does he do it, Derek?" Percy complained, his words slightly slurred. He was referring to the youngest member of the threesome, Derek's cousin Jeremy. "He's drunk us glass for glass, damned if he ain't, yet he's sitting there not the teeniest bit foxed."
The two Malory cousins grinned at each other. What Percy didn't know was that a bunch of pirates had taught Jeremy everything he knew
about drink and women. But that wasn't something 3 that went beyond the family's knowledge; nor the fact that Jeremy's father, James Malory, Viscount of Ryding, had been the leader of those same pirates in the days when he was known as the Hawke. Percival Alden, or Percy, as his friends called him, would certainly never be told. Good old Percy couldn't keep a secret to save his soul.
"My uncle James warned me to have his drinks watered down, don't you know." Derek said the outright lie with a perfectly straight face. "Otherwise the young'un wouldn't be allowed out with me."
"Gad, how awful!" Percy changed his tune, commiserating now that he was assured an eighteen-year-old wasn't drinking him under the table.
Percy, at twenty-eight, was the oldest of the trio, after all. Stood to reason that he ought to be the one to hold his liquor better than either of his companions. 'Course, Derek, at twenty-five, had always been able to put him to shame when it came to serious drinking. But young Jeremy had been surpassing them both--or at
least Percy had thought so. How utterly deplorable to have a reformed rake for a father who kept such close tabs on you, even enlisting the rest of the family to help curtail your fun.
Then again, Derek never said a word when Jeremy would disappear late of an evening with a comely wench on his arm, so not all of the boy's fun was being curtailed. Come to think of it, Percy couldn't remember a single time in the past year, since Derek had taken his young cousin under his wing, that Jeremy hadn't found a willing female with whom to occupy a few very private hours, whether the three young men had ended up in a lively tavern, in an expensive house of Eros, or at one of society's many gatherings. The boy had the most devilish luck where women were concerned. Women of all ages, whores and ladies alike, found this youngest male Malory quite irresistible.
In that respect, he was taking after his father, James, and his uncle Anthony Malory. Those two Malory brothers, the younger of four, had set the town on fire in their day with the scandals their affairs had generated. Derek, the only son of the oldest Malory brother, was just as lucky with women for that matter, although much more discreet and
discerning about whom he chose to favor, so that 5 the few scandals he'd been embroiled in since he'd
come of age hadn't concerned women at all.
Having thought it over, Percy summoned the barmaid to him and whispered in her ear. The two cousins, watching him, knew exactly what he was doing: ordering the next round--and arranging, supposedly on the sly, to have the water left out of Jeremy's drink. It was all the cousins could do not to burst out laughing. But Derek, noting the girl's frown and that she was about to tell the young lord that none of the previous drinks she'd served had contained any water, had to quickly catch her eye to give her a nod and a wink so she'd know they were just having some sport and go along with it. She did, smart girl, grinning as she left.
Derek would have to see that the pretty miss was compensated, though not as she might like. She'd turned all of her ample charms on him when they'd first come in, but having another assignation already arranged for the wee hours, he hadn't encouraged her.
This was a tavern they often frequented, but this girl was new. He'd try her eventually--they all would if she kept the job long enough--but not
tonight, since they'd all scored right handily at the Shepfords' annual Season-opening ball earlier in the evening.
It was a ball he and Jeremy had been ordered to attend, since it was where their youngest cousin, Amy, had made her official debut into society. She'd been allowed to attend a few other affairs since she'd turned sixteen, but no balls, and certainly not decked out as she'd been tonight. Gad, but the little minx had quite stunned them in all her finery, at least the men in the family, and the whole Malory clan had been in attendance. When the devil had sweet, impish Amy turned into such a ravishing, sensual beauty?
It was a good question to put forward, just to get Percy's mind off his collusion with the barmaid.
Knowing Percy as he did, and Derek knew him well, since they'd been chumming together for years now, the dear fellow was more than likely to blurt out what he'd done, because Percy quite simply couldn't keep a secret, even one of his own.
So to distract Percy, Derek raised the matter to Jeremy. "You've been Amy's choice as escort lately, whenever her brothers aren't available. Why is it you never gave us warning that the minx had blossomed overnight?" 7
Jeremy just shrugged. "Who says it was overnight? Those clothes Aunt Charlotte insisted Amy wear hid what was there, but it's been there for some time now. It just takes a discerning eye--was Derek nearly choked to contain his laughter. "Good God, man, she's your cousin! You're not supposed to notice such things in a cousin."
"You're not?" Jeremy was genuinely surprised. "Well, hell's bells, where's it written--?was
"Likely in your father's book," Derek replied with a pointed look.
Jeremysighed now. "I suppose. He made a bloody fuss about it whenever I admired Regan a bit longer than he thought necessary."
Regan was also their cousin, and the one niece whom the older Malory brothers had had a hand in raising, though only Jeremy and his father called her Regan. It didn't bother Derek in the least to hear her called that, not as it did his own father and two other uncles. The rest of the family called her Reggie, though her actual name was Regina, and the dear girl had married Derek's closest friend, Nicholas Eden, several years ago.
"But I didn't say I was interested in Amy," Jeremy clarified as he continued, "just that I'd noticed she'd filled out nicely in all the right places."
"Noticed her, too," Percy put in unexpectedly. "Been biding my time, waiting for her come-out. Thinking of courting her myself."
Both cousins sat forward in protective alarm upon hearing that, and in that they were so very like their fathers, it was uncanny. It was Derek who exclaimed, "Now why would you want to do a bloody stupid thing like that? With Amy comes my uncles' close scrutiny. Never doubt it. D'you really want Anthony and James Malory breathing down your neck, not to mention my father?"
Percy turned a little bit pale. "Good God, no! Hadn't thought of that, indeed I hadn't."
"So think about it."
"But--but I thought it was only Nick's wife, Reggie, whom they took such a personal interest in. They didn't bother with Amy's older sisters, Clare and Diana."
"Clare didn't attract rakehells 9 like you, Percy, so it was safe not to worry about her. And Uncle Edward approved of Diana's first choice, which was why she was married so soon after her own come-out. Unlike Reggie, they both had a father to see to their welfare, so the uncles didn't feel they had to get involved."
Percy perked up upon hearing that. "Well, then, I'll just get Lord Edward's approval, and that'll be the end of it, won't it?"
"Don't count on it. Unlike Clare and Diana, Amy looks too much like Reggie for Tony and James not to keep a close eye on her, just as they did with Reggie before she married Nick. Habit, you know." Derek suddenly grinned, giving Jeremy a look. "Gad, did you see their faces tonight? Bowled 'em both over, she did. Don't think I've ever seen your father rendered speechless."
Jeremy chuckled. "I have, but you're right. Guess I should have warned him."
"And me," Derek reiterated.
Jeremy quirked a brow in a perfect simulation of one of his father's affectations and said baldly, "Didn't think you were that dense not
to notice Amy's grown up. M'father's got the excuse of a new wife who keeps him utterly distracted, but what's your excuse?"
"I rarely see the chit," Derek said in his defense. "You're the one she calls on to squire her about whenever you're down from school, not I."
With what looked like a serious argument coming on, Percy thought to volunteer a suggestion. "Be happy to take over that chore if the need arises."
"Be quiet, Percy," both cousins said automatically.
But Derek was the first to recall that they'd been trying to dissuade Percy from his unexpected interest in young Amy, so he quickly got back to the subject that would hopefully head Percy off, asking Jeremy,
"But Uncle James was surprised, wasn't he, at the change in Amy?"
Jeremy got the point. "Oh, aye. Heard Father sigh before he told Tony, `Here we go again.`"
"What'd Uncle Tony say to that?"
Jeremy chuckled, recalling the scene he'd
witnessed. "What you might expect. 11 Ì'll leave it to you, old man, since you've got nothing better to do now that you can only sleep in your bed at night.`"
Percy found that amusing and laughed. Derek, on the other hand, actually blushed. They'd both caught the meaning, since James Malory's young wife, Georgina, happened to be very, very pregnant at the moment, and was in fact expected to deliver her burden within the week. Jeremy had already confided to Derek that George's doctor had warned her husband to keep his hands to himself for the time being.
Derek had blushed then, too, but the plain fact was that the first time he'd met his uncle's new wife had been outside a tavern near the docks, when she'd run right into his arms, and he'd had every intention of seeing she ended up in his bed that night--until Jeremy informed him that it was his new aunt he was trying to seduce.
The present subject, however, had Percy sitting up in surprise, since it only just occurred to him to ask,
"I say, would that be why your father's got his name back in the betting book over at White's?"
As he'd asked the question of Jeremy, the lad
replied, "Ain't heard that he's placed any wagers."
"Not him," Percy clarified. "They're betting on him, that he'll start, or be directly responsible for, no less than three fights by the end of the week."
At that Jeremy started laughing his head off. Derek remarked in annoyance, "It ain't that funny, Jeremy.
When Uncle James gets in a fight, the poor victim doesn't usually walk away. My friend Nick found that out firsthand, and nearly missed his wedding to our Reggie because your father laid him up in bed for a week."
Jeremy sobered, because good old Nick had landed his father in jail for that thrashing, and it was a time when tempers were high that he'd as soon forget.
Percy, unaware that he'd stirred up some unpleasant memories for the cousins, wanted to know, "But that is why your father's in such a rotten mood, ain't it, because he and Georgie can't--you know?"
"Actually," Jeremy replied, "that ain't got a thing to do with it, Percy. M'father knew he'd have to abstain for a while. Didn't his brother Tony just go through the same thing not two months ago? No, what's got him lacerating 13 everyone within spitting distance is the letter George got from her brothers last week. Seems they're all coming back for the birthing, and could show up any day now."
"Good God!" Derek and Percy exclaimed at once.
Derek added, "No wonder he bit my head off yesterday for no good reason."
Percy said, "I've never seen a man dislike his in-laws as much as James Malory does that particular bunch from America he's got."
And Derek added again, "He even likes them less than he does old Nick, and he's never liked Nick."
"Exactly," Jeremy said. "It's all George can do to keep them from each other's throats when they're in the same room together."
They were all exaggerating--a trifle. The truth was, James had made semi-peace with his brothers-in-law before they sailed back to America, but he hadn't liked doing it, had only done it for Georgina's sake--and only because he'd thought he'd be seeing the last of them.