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Mount Street, London 3A.M., May 25, 1825
He was drunk. Gloriously drunk. More drunk—drunker—than he'd ever been. Not that he made a habit of inebriation, but last night, or more specifically and especially this morning, was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. After eight long years, he was free.
Lucien Michael Ashford, sixth Viscount Calverton, sauntered along Mount Street, nonchalantly twirling his ebony cane, a smile of unfettered joy curving his lips.
He was twenty-nine, yet today qualified as the first of his adult life, the first day he could call said life his own. Even better, as of yesterday, he was rich. Fabulously, fantastically—legally—wealthy. There was not a great deal more he could think of to wish for. If he hadn't been afraid of falling on his face, he would have danced down the deserted street.
The moon was out, lighting the pavements, casting deep shadows. About him, London lay sleeping, but the capital, even at this hour, was never truly silent; from a distance, distorted by the stone facades all around, came the jingle of harness, the hollow clop of hooves, a disembodied call. Although even here, in the most fashionable quarter, danger sometimes lurked in the shadows, he felt no threat. His senses were still operational, and despite his state he'd taken care to walk evenly; any watching him with felonious intent would see a tall, sufficiently well built, gracefully athletic gentleman swinging a cane that might, and indeed did, conceal a swordstick, and move on to more likely prey. He'd left his club in St. James and the company of a group of friends half an hour ago, electing to walk home the better to clear his head of the effects elicited by a quantity of the very best French
brandy. His celebrations had been restrained owing to the simple fact that none of said friends—indeed no one other than his mother and his wily old banker, Robert Child—knew anything of his previous state, the dire straits to which he and his family had been brought by his sire prior to his death eight years before, the perilous situation from which he'd spent the last eight years clawing his way back, and from which yesterday he'd finally won free.
The fact they'd had no idea what he was celebrating had not prevented his friends from joining him. A long night filled with wine, song, and the simple pleasures of male companionship had ensued. A pity his oldest friend, his cousin Martin Fulbridge, now Dexter, earl of, wasn't presently in London. Then again, Martin was doubtless enjoying himself at his home in the north, wallowing in the benefits accruing to a recently married man; he had married Amanda Cynster a week ago. Grinning to himself, Luc mentally—superiorly—shook his head over his cousin's weakness, his surrender to love. Reaching his house, he turned to the shallow steps leading to the front door—his head spun for an instant, then righted. Carefully, he walked up the steps, halted before the door, then hunted in his pocket for his keys.
They slipped through his fingers twice before he grasped them and hauled them forth. The ring in his palm, he shuffled the keys, frowning as he tried to identify the one for the front door. Then he found it. Grasping it, he squinted, guiding it to keyhole… after the third try, it slid home; he turned and heard the tumblers fall.
Returning the keys to his pocket, he grasped the knob and sent the door swinging wide. He stepped over the threshold—
A dervish erupted from the black hole of the area
steps—he caught only a fleeting glimpse, had only an instant's warning before the figure barreled past him, one elbow knocking him off-balance. He staggered and fetched up against the hall wall.
That brief human contact, deadened by layers of fabric though it was, sent sensation rushing through him, and told him unequivocally who the dervish was. Amelia Cynster. Twin to his cousin's new wife, longtime friend of his family's whom he'd known since she was in nappies. An as-yet-unmarried female with a backbone of steel. Cloaked and hooded, she plunged into the dim hall, came to an abrupt halt, then whirled and faced him.
The wall behind his shoulders was the only thing keeping him upright. He stared, astounded, utterly bemused… waited for the effect of her touch to subside…
She made an angry, frustrated sound, dashed back to the door, grabbed it, and propelled it shut. The loss of the moonlight left him blinking, eyes adjusting to the dark. The door closed, she swung around; her back to the panel, she glared—he felt it.
"What the devil's the matter with you?" she hissed.
"Me?" Easing his shoulders from the wall, he managed to find his balance. "What the damn hell are you doing here?"
He couldn't even begin to imagine. Moonlight streamed in through the fanlight, passing over their heads to strike the pale tiles of the hall. In the diffused light, he could just make out her features, fine and delicate in an oval face, framed by golden curls tumbling under her hood. She straightened; chin rising, she set the hood back. "I wanted to speak with you privately."