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Mary Balogh

Then Comes Seduction

1

JASPER Finley, Baron Montford, was twenty-five years old. Today was his birthday, in fact. At least, he amended mentally as he loosened the knot in his neckcloth with one hand while the other dangled his half-empty glass over the arm of the chair in which he slouched, to be strictly accurate in the matter, yesterday had been his birthday. It was now twenty minutes past four in the morning, allowing for the fact that the clock in the library of his town house was four minutes slow, as it had been for as far back as he could remember.

He eyed it with a frown of concentration. Now that he came to think about it, he must have it set right one of these days. Why should a clock be forced to go through its entire existence four minutes behind the rest of the world? It was not logical. The trouble was, though, that if the clock were suddenly right, he would be forever confused and arriving four minutes early-or did he mean late?-for meals and various other appointments. That would agitate his servants and cause consternation in the kitchen.

It was probably better to leave the clock as it was.

Having settled that important issue to his own satisfaction, he turned his attention to himself. He ought to have gone to bed an hour ago-or two. Or even better, three. He ought to have come straight home after leaving Lady Hounslow’s ball-except that that would have put him in the house alone before midnight on his birthday, a damnably pathetic thing. He ought to have come after leaving White’s Club an hour or so later, then. And that was precisely what he had done, he remembered, since here he was in his own familiar library in his own familiar house. But he had been unable to go straight to bed because a group of gentlemen had somehow attached themselves to him as he left White’s and come home with him to celebrate the birthday that had already passed into history.

He wondered through the mist of alcohol clouding his brain-actually, it was more like a dense fog-if he had invited them. It was deuced forward of them to have come if he had not. He must ask them.

“I say,” he asked, speaking slowly so that he would enunciate his words clearly, “were any of you invited here?”

They were all in their cups too. They were all slouched inelegantly in chairs except for Charlie Field, who was standing with his back to the fireplace, propping up the mantel with one shoulder and swirling the contents of his glass with admirable skill since not one drop of precious liquor sloshed over the rim.

“Were any of us-?” Charlie frowned down at him, looking affronted. “The devil, Monty, you practically dragged us here.”

By the bootstraps,” Sir Isaac Kerby agreed. “We were all bent upon toddling home after we left White’s to get our beauty sleep, but you would have none of it, Monty. You insisted that the night was young, and that a fellow suffered a twenty-fifth birthday only once in his life.”

“Though turning twenty-five is nothing to get unduly maudlin about, old chap,” Viscount Motherham said. “Wait until you turn thirty. Then you will have every female relative you ever possessed down to cousins to the second and third generations and the fourth and fifth removes admonishing you to do your duty and marry and set up your nursery.”

Jasper pulled a face and clutched his temples with the thumb and middle finger of his free hand.

“Heaven forbid,” he said.

“Heaven will refuse to intervene on your behalf, Monty,” the viscount assured him. He was thirty-one years old and one year married. His wife had dutifully presented him with a son one month ago. “The female relatives will rout heaven every time. They are the very devil.”

“Ee-nuff,” Sir Isaac said, making a heroic effort to get the word past lips that looked as if they were paralyzed. “Enough of all the gloom and doom. Have another drink, Motherham, and cheer up.”

“No need to stand upon ceremony,” Jasper said, waving his arm in the direction of the sideboard with its impressive array of bottles and decanters, most of which looked seriously depleted. Good God, surely they had been full when they all arrived here two or three hours ago. “Can’t get up to pour for you, Motherham. Something has happened to m’legs. Doubt they will support m’feet.”

“What a fellow needs on his twenty-fifth birthday,” Charlie said, “is something to cheer him up. Some new venture. Some exhilll… arrrr… What the deuce is that word? Some new challenge.

“A challenge? A dare, you mean?” Jasper brightened considerably. “A wager?” he added hopefully.

“The devil!” Charlie said, lifting a hand to grip the edge of the mantel against which his shoulder already leaned. “You need to get an architect to take a look at this floor, Monty. It ought not to be swaying like this. It’s downright dangerous.”

“Sit down, Charlie,” Sir Isaac advised. “You are three sheets to the wind, old boy-maybe even four or five. Just watching you sway on your pins makes my stomach queasy.”

Am I foxed?” Charlie looked surprised. “Well, that is a relief. I thought it was the floor.” He weaved his way gingerly toward the nearest chair and sank gratefully into it. “What is it to be for Monty this time, then? A race?”

“I did Brighton and back just two weeks ago, Charlie,” Jasper reminded him, “and came in fifty-eight minutes under the agreed-upon time. It ought to be something quite different this time. Something new.”

“A drinking bout?” Motherham suggested.

“I drank Welby under the table last Saturday week,” Jasper said, “and there is no one in town who can hold his liquor like Welby-or was. Lord, I think my head must have swollen to twice its normal size. My neck does not seem quite up to the task of holding it up. Does it look twice its normal size?”

“It’s the liquor, Monty,” Charlie said. “It will feel even larger in the morning-the head, I mean. Mine too. Not to mention my stomach.”

“This is the morning,” Jasper said gloomily. “We ought to be in bed.”

“Not together, though, Monty,” Sir Isaac said. “We might cause a scandal.”

There was a bellow of raucous and risque mirth for this sorry attempt at humor-and then a collective grimace.

“Agatha Strangelove,” said Henry Blackstone, rousing himself from a semicomatose state in the depths of a leather chair in order to contribute to the conversation for the first time in at least half an hour.

“What about her, Hal?” Sir Isaac asked gently.

Agatha Strangelove was a dancer at the opera house. She had luscious blond curls and ringlets, a pouting rosebud mouth, a figure that was overgenerous in all the right places, and legs that stretched all the way up to her shoulders-or so one wag had observed when she first appeared on the stage a month or two ago, and every man who heard him had known exactly what he meant. She was also very miserly in the granting of her favors to the gentlemen who crowded the green room after each performance begging for them.

“Monty should have to bed her,” Hal said. “In no more than a week.”

There was a small, incredulous silence.

“He did that the second week she was in town,” Sir Isaac said, his voice still gentle, as though he were talking to an invalid. “Have you forgotten, Hal? It went into the betting book at White’s on a Monday night with a one-week time limit, and Monty had her on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday nights, not to mention the days in between, until he had exhausted them both.”

“Devil take it,” Hal said in some surprise, “and so he did. I must be foxed. You ought to have sent us home an hour ago, Monty.”

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