The rain drummed ceaselessly against the window, as it had for days, its incessant rhythm broken only by intermittent gusts of wind that rattled the leaded window-panes, forcing the lady watching by the bed to clutch the paisley shawl even more tightly around her shoulders. The man on the bed stirred and moaned and the lady bent over to apply a damp cloth to his sweating brow.
He was a handsome young man with dark auburn hair, finely penciled dark brows, a broad forehead, patrician nose, and generous mouth, but the puffy skin around his eyes and lines of dissipation running from nose to mouth spoke of a dissolute life that was beginning to rob him both of his looks and his youth.
He moaned again and twisted his head from side to side under the damp cloth. "Damn you, Alexander, be still," the lady muttered fiercely. "I must do this to cool the fever." She dipped the cloth in the basin of water, wrung it out, and applied it again to his forehead. "For if you die, I shall murder you," she added rather illogically. It was just like Alexander to land them in the basket, she thought angrily to herself. And it was just like him too to leave her, his long-suffering twin, to sort it all out.
With the exception of a complexion unmarred by the effects of drink, late nights, and an unhealthy predilection for every other son of debauchery. Lady Alexandra de Montmorency was the spitting image of the man in the bed. She had the same thick dark auburn hair, delicately arched brows over eyes of such deep green as to be almost emerald. It was an interesting face rather than a beautiful one, the high-bridged nose and generous mouth giving it far too much character to be acceptable in a society where pale blond beauties with retroussť noses and simpering rosebud lips were all the rage. However, no one who had seen Alexandra de Montmorency was likely ever to forget her. Like her brother, whose six-foot form lay sweating under the covers, she was tall and long-limbed, but slender, and she moved with what in a man would have been called athletic grace. Such assurance in movement and bearing could be a trifle unnerving in a woman and had been known to intimidate the shorter, less confident men she had encountered at the rare assembly she attended in Norwich. But in truth Alexandra did not care. Since her father's death, she had had her hands too full of more important things to waste her time on balls and other such frippery affairs. And truth to say, one man was already causing her enough headaches to keep her from wishing to waste her time worrying about the impressions, negative or otherwise, that she might be making on any others.
Alexander de Montmorency, Earl of Halewood, had come into his inheritance a scant four years ago, but in that short time he had managed to gamble it into nonexistence. At first his twin sister had not been aware of his ruinous propensities, but of late, she had begun to sense that the gay and reckless lad she had grown up with had somehow changed. The generous, fun-loving nature of youth had slowly disappeared, to be replaced by a wildness and a desperation. As a boy Alexander had always included his friends and family in one lark after another; now he seemed heedless of their very existence. More and more frequently he returned home drunk and angry, to apologize briefly--if he apologized at all--before going off again.
Alexandra could never say precisely when the change had come about. Certainly he had gotten in with a bad set of fellows at university, where he had begun to gamble so much that he was forever at odds with his father over money. The old earl, who had enjoyed a riotous and misspent youth of his own, had not been so upset at the gambling as he had been unable to understand how any son of his could lose so consistently at games of chance.
"It is not that he does not have a head for faro," her father used to complain to Alexandra, "it's that he does not have a head for anything--whist, piquet, loo, macao, or even hazard--not that one needs much head for that. I cannot understand it, a child of mine ... "--and he would shake his head in genuine perplexity.
Certainly their mother's death, three years before their father's, had not been the cause of Alexander's decline, but it had increased its velocity. The countess had exercised the same steadying influence over her eldest son as she had over his father. Gentle and beautiful, she had run the household so smoothly and easily that no one was aware of the organization and hard work that had gone into it. Unfailingly kind, she never criticized, but set such an example of love and charity that people could not help but follow her lead, while her sense of humor and her delight in life had kept her from seeming sanctimonious. She had been universally loved and her eldest son had adored her.
Alexandra sighed. Perhaps if she had been more like her mother her twin would have remained the passionate, but essentially good-hearted youth he had been. But it was no use repining. Certainly she had always longed to be as good and beautiful as the Countess of Halewood, but somehow Alexandra had fallen into scrapes as often as her brother had. As a child she had been as adventurous as he, and with her twin to support and encourage her in every whim, she had gone from one escapade to another. Then too, she did not possess her mother's gentle nature, being more like her father: loving and kind, but passionate and unwilling to live a life that tamely accepted everything without questioning or understanding it fully.
And without a doubt she had done her share of questioning her twin's behavior after her father died. Alexandra had not hesitated, as he gallivanted off to this race meeting and that mill, to point out that fences needed mending or the tenants' cottages wanted repairing. She had not meant to nag, but her brother had seemed to live as though the entire estate existed for nothing more than to finance his mania for betting on anything and everything. Alexander would often exclaim testily, "Oh come off it, Alex. I am the Earl of Halewood, not you. Nor are you my mother." She had been aware she was making a bad job of it, but she had not known how else to go about it other than to pester him when there was no money for the servants' wages or household expenses.
For a while things had improved when Alexander, whose temper had been deteriorating rapidly, seemed to take a turn for the better. He had set about at last to pay the servants and attend to the immediate necessities. She'd soon found out, however, the real reason for his renewed optimism. One night he came to her bedchamber; it was so rare that he consulted anyone about anything, so rare that he was even home before midnight that she had been quite astonished. When she happened to look up and see him lingering awkwardly in the doorway, the book she had been reading had slid to the floor with a bang.
"Alex," he began carefully, tentatively, "may I come in?"
"Why of course."
He sat down heavily on a chair in front of the fire and stared into the flames for a moment before glancing up with a half-guilty, half-pleading smile. "I have been rather, er, ah ... rather unfortunate," he began, looking so much like the old Alexander who had just gotten into some scrape or other that she could not help but smile in return. She had missed him, the fun-loving Alexander of her childhood. "You never wear Mother's diamonds, do you?"
"Why no," she replied, mystified as to what he thought she'd do with them, when he knew she hardly ever went to assemblies, and certainly wasn't about to have a Season at her age.
"Good. May I borrow them?"
"Borrow them?" she had asked stupidly, not even trying to imagine what her brother would do with the elaborate necklace, matching bracelets, and earrings.
"Well, you see, as I say, I have been rather unfortunate lately and I, er, need to raise a little wind so I thought perhaps I could take them to Goldfarb in Norwich and he could give me something to help me out of my, er, difficulties."
"You must have been very unfortunate indeed," she had responded dryly.
Alexander flushed. His twin sister always made him feel inadequate. She sat there looking at him coolly as though he had been the fool, but he had not. Nimrod could not have failed to win. Alexander knew the horse's owner and had talked to the lads who exercised it. That horse had been the sure thing that was going to win him back his gaming debts. How was he to guess it would wind up close enough to another horse in the race so as to be kicked up in such a freakish way that it came in last? It was not Alexander's fault, merely the last in a run of unbelievably bad luck that had plagued him lately. Alexandra had no right to look at him so scornfully. He might not have as much in the cock-loft as his clever twin did, but he was not half-witted.
"Just how unfortunate were you?" his sister probed.
"Oh, nothing serious," he assured her airily. "It's only a question of a few thousand pounds."
"How many thousand?" Alexandra was not going to make this easy for him.
"Well, about ten," he admitted unhappily.
"Ten! You lost ten thousand pounds in a card game!" Even Alexandra's iron self-control deserted her at the mention of a sum that could have kept the household running for several years.
Her brother hunched his shoulder defensively. "There's no need to shout, Alex. Plenty of fellows drop that and more in an evening. I am not so stupid as all that. This was on a horse--a sure thing. I know the owner and the trainer..."
"And you thought that with one large bet and an enormous amount of luck you would be able to win back enough to pay off your other debts. I see." And she did see now. That was why he had been more attentive to them all lately, not because he had stopped gambling, but because he had felt sure of winning.
"Please, Alex." He was begging now, smiling in the endearing way he had as a child when people had been unable to deny him anything.
Alexandra steeled herself against the beseeching look in his eyes. If it were only her welfare that were involved she would not have been so hard on him. He couldn't help it, after all. Gambling was in their blood; he just happened to lack the cleverness and the discipline that had won their father a fortune and allowed him to retire to the country and raise a family. However, Alexandra had the others to think about. She hesitated.
"Please, Alex, it's the last thing I'll ever ask. I've already borrowed so much against the estate that those plaguey bankers will not lend me another penny, cheeseparing lot that they are."
"What? You've mortgaged Halewood? Alexander, how could you? Do you think of no one but yourself?"
"Now, Alex, calm yourself. Everyone does it. The estate will make it back in no time. Halewood has some of the best farmland in--"
"Alexander"--his sister's voice was dangerously quiet--"you will sell this necklace and the rest of Mother's jewelry, pay back the creditors, and you will never risk our livelihood again. Do you hear me?"
This was more than Alexander had hoped. He grasped his twin's hand. "You're a Trojan, Alex! Knew you would stand by me. I shan't ever do it again. I promise."
And she had believed him, fool that she was, Alexandra thought bitterly to herself as she applied another cool compress to his burning forehead. She should have locked him out, refused to feed him, anything to keep them all from the fix they were in now--and there was no doubt about it, they were in dire straits.
Before he had lapsed into unconsciousness, her twin had blurted it all out to her. Things could not have been worse. She should have guessed that disaster had struck when Alexander did not put in an appearance for breakfast two mornings in a row. The Earl of Halewood, no matter how far gone he had been the previous night, no matter at what hour of the morning he tumbled into bed, was never one to miss his rasher of eggs and a hearty slice of beef. But he had not shown himself, nor was his horse in the stables. However, the weather was so bad--an unusually violent storm had swept across the marshes, flattening everything in its path--that they all conjectured he had been forced to put up at whatever house he had gone to gamble away more of his birthright.
It was not until young Andrew, hoping for enough of a change in the weather to ride his pony, had looked out the window at midmorning on the second day and seen his older brother, his head fallen forward on his horse's neck, riding slowly up the long gravel drive, that they realized something was amiss.
"It's Alexander!" Andrew had shouted to no one in particular. "And he looks ever so odd." The boy had gone flying down the steps, closely pursued by his adoring shadow, the seven-year-old Abigail. His shout had reached the morning room, where Alexandra and Althea had repaired to go over the accounts, it being the most comfortable room in the house and possessing one of the few chimneys that did not smoke. They had followed at a more sedate pace along with Mrs. Throckmorton, the housekeeper. Ned Coachman, hearing the restless stamping of the horses in the stables, had appeared around the corner of the house just in time to help his sodden master off his horse.
Alexander's clothes were soaked through and his hair plastered to his head. "Lost my way," he managed to mutter through chattering teeth as Ned supported him up the flagstone steps. He was already coughing by the time Alexandra and Mrs. Throckmorton had gotten him to bed. His breathing was so labored, his face so flushed, that his twin had sent for the doctor immediately.
Trevor Padgett had shaken his head after he had examined his patient. Too much drink, too many long nights at the card table with very little attention paid to exercise or anything else, had made a physical wreck of what had once been a fine young man. He shook his head as he felt for the patient's pulse. "How long were you out like this?" he demanded, exasperation masking the concern in his voice.
"I don't know. Hours, I suppose." The earl gasped. "Blasted difficult to see. Lost my way, you know. Wandered around for an age trying to find it."
"Well, when did you start for home?" asked the doctor, patiently rephrasing the question.
The sick man broke into a fit of coughing and his sister handed him some water. He drank greedily before replying. "I have no id ... yes, the clock had just struck midnight and I decided I had better go, been gone one day already, you know."
"Midnight! Whatever possessed you? And in such weather!" The doctor shook his head in stunned disbelief.
"I was only at Cranbourne's," Alexander said in defense of himself. "How was I to know I would lose my way? Blasted horse ought to know it well enough by now."
The doctor had looked grave as he motioned Alexandra to follow him. Closing the door gently behind them, he led her down the hall out of all possible earshot. "I should keep a close eye on him. He was exposed to the elements for what was apparently some time. That and the unhealthy life he has led are likely to bring about a dangerous inflammation of the lungs. Keep him warm, but try to keep the fever down. I shall visit as often as I can." He paused and then smiled kindly. "I do not wish to add to your worries, but I would be remiss in my duties if I were not to warn you that there is cause for concern."
Doctor Padgett had left her reluctantly, wishing he had been able to give a better verdict, for he liked and admired Alexandra and hated to add to the burdens she already bore. That useless brother of hers would continue to cause her anxiety and heartache and there was very little he could do about it.
Trevor Padgett had known Lady Alexandra de Montmorency for years, from the day she had broken her arm attempting to rescue her twin from a scrape he had gotten them into. She'd only been five at the time, but the doctor had known then how it would be with Alexandra, possessed of the intelligence and self-control so noticeably lacking in her brother, eternally saving him from his own recklessness and stupidity.
Back in Alexander's room, Alexandra was thinking much the same thing as her twin, starting up from his restless sleep, grasped her hand in his. He was burning up with fever and the eyes staring up at her were glassy but alert. "Must warn you, Alex, Cranbourne will be calling. Wants you to be his wife."
"What?" His sister was too stunned for the moment to say anything else. She barely knew of Sir Ralph, nor would she ever have acknowledged the slightest acquaintance with a man reputedly blackballed from all the clubs in London and certainly not welcome in any respectable household in Norfolk.
"Come now, Alex," the sick man gasped, "he's not old or decrepit, has a handsome property, and possesses a comfortable fortune...."
"Won in some nefarious way," his sister snapped. "Really, Alexander, you are all about in the head. I would not have anything to do with Sir Ralph Cranbourne if he were the last man on earth."
"Have to." Her twin was overcome with a fit of coughing. "It is either that or I pay him a hundred thousand pounds and I haven't got a hundred thousand pounds. I tell you, I am ruined if you don't."
"You are ruined!" Alexandra leapt from the chair to pace furiously around the room, her patience finally at an end. "You are ruined. What about us? At least you have enjoyed yourself while you have played mice feet with the future of this family."
"Come now, Alex. You are not getting any younger. No one has asked for your hand, nor are they likely to the way things are going. You're too strong-minded. A man doesn't like a woman to rule him. I know that well enough." Sick as he was, Alexander could not keep himself from getting in a dig at his capable sister, who had always managed to make him feel just the tiniest bit inferior. She rarely said anything, but often he looked into those clear green eyes, so like his own, and felt himself lacking. And then there was the staff, as well as his own brothers and sisters, who always consulted his sister, never him. Alexander de Montmorency might be the Earl of Halewood to the rest of the world, but at home it was Lady Alexandra who commanded the respect. "You'll wind up on the shelf," he warned, coughing more violently than ever.
"Which is a great deal safer, more pleasant, and more respectable than being the wife of Sir Ralph Cranbourne," his sister retorted. "Now go to sleep, Alexander, and let me think."
And she had thought. Alexandra had been racking her brains all night as she sat by the invalid's bedside, but to no avail. She had no one to turn to, nothing she could sell quickly that would raise that sort of sum. When Mrs. Throckmorton herself had brought her her breakfast that morning, she was no closer to any solution than she had been the previous evening.
The wind continued to howl furiously and Alexandra tried to keep her spirits from plummeting into complete despair. She had to think of something, not only for herself, but for all the others too--the staff, the rest of the family, all the tenants who depended on Halewood for a livelihood. At last she was forced to the conclusion that the only way to come up with the money her brother owed was to go about recovering it the same way he had lost it. She would have to gamble.