Lord Derek Hale, 3rd Duke of that name and widower of three years stood and looked at his reflection in the large looking glass. His valet, Peter – who had saved his life at Waterloo – fussed over the cut of his black riding jacket and despaired that his employer would wear nothing but mourning clothes.
"A navy, M'Lord, even navy." He muttered under his breath. Hale didn't acknowledge his words, he'd heard them before.
He wasn't in mourning for his wife, like so many thought – that bitter, twisted woman who destroyed his house and family with her lies. Her death was a freedom. He mourned for his innocence, for she had taken that from him. Trickster and harlot, he should have listened to his father – his sister, his brothers – when they warned against his infatuation with the beautiful Miss Argent, diamond of the Ton.
He had married her the moment he could, cutting himself from his family and his fortune – for love.
Never again. Never would he be so foolish, such an idiot for a lie like love.
Hale walked into Blacks and glanced around the room. Although it was far too early for even him to start playing cards, a few of the younger Bucks with money to burn were sitting at the tables.
He saw Lahey, Duke at 14 years of age and quite content to burn his way through life without a care – now free of his advisors at the tender age of 21 – already at the tables, placing his bets. McCall, never far behind him of course, and some younger lad he didn't recognise, watching the table like a hawk, but never placing a bet. Judging by the cut of his coat, inferior to his friends, the stakes were out of the reach of his pocket book.
"McCall." He nodded, he must at least be seen to be civil to one person a day, it might as well be family.
"Cousin Hale." Scott beamed, hair flopping over his eyes in what he no doubt thought made him cut quite the figure. "Will you join us?"
Scott was the son of his older cousin, who had married an Earl and produced a son only weeks before the man fell of his horse and broke his idiot neck. Scott was his only living male relative and would – as he was often reminded by various elderly females – inherit should Hale die without a son. He was pleasant and open, friendly and well liked. Nothing at all like Hale, who had a reputation for being… nothing like Scott.
"No." He replied, shortly, before walking away to his usual place. He picked up his news-sheet and ignored the rest of the large room, as was his usual habit.
But… the younger lad, who watched the tables, was talking – not loud enough for Hale to hear, but with an obvious enthusiasm that Hale found… difficult to ignore. Youth, he sneered to himself. Soon enough life would cure him of his smiles.
The Baron of Stiles was, in fact, nothing more than an old title and a good name. Funds were good enough that he wasn't about to mortgage the family lands, but unless he married well, he'd have to have excellent luck on the Exchange – and his stocks weren't as healthy as he'd have liked.
Aside from that, he was only just out of Oxford – his interest in Natural Sciences gaining him some notoriety in that field, but not enough to take an expedition to Africa. Unless he planned to fund it himself. Which was out of the question.
"I am, the sorriest sight this side of London." He despaired, looking at the glass of dark gold liquid. "I should retire to the house and raise my butterflies in peace."
He sat in Blacks, a most exclusive club that he would never have gained entrance to had he not been invited by Duke Lahey and Lord McCall, and sighed again. Lahey laughed softly and waves his gloved hand over the room.
"And miss all this?" He grinned. "There are ladies all over London desperate to get their claws on a title." He added. "Girls with money and ambitious Mothers."
All three shuddered. Mothers.
"You know fine well that the title Baron isn't going to hold up much in Town, not when I have to compete with Dukes and Earls." He pointed out. "I'm a country squire and proud of it." His friends knew him well. The unspoken bond between them that had been there since their school days, they knew that should Stiles ever marry, it would be only for an heir.
"So you should be." McCall announced, in his bright, pleased tones. "And you are well liked with your tenants, few Dukes and Earls could compete with that!"
"Thank you, Scott." Stiles smiled, taking a sip from the glass. "Although I think I'll spend the season trying to get a little more Town Polish before I dive into the marriage mart. I'm only just 20 years of age – far too young to settle down!"
"Here, Here!" Lahey agreed, holding up his glass. "We shall spend a few years of drunken revelry and only then shall we succumb to the dangers of unmarried virgins."
"Agreed!" Stiles nodded, aware that one day, he would have to push his feelings aside and find a nice girl, no matter what his nature was.
Stiles knew that the gaming hells his friends loved were not for him. He played a few card games, understood that his run of astonishing good luck was not – as he was trying to be convinced of – due to his natural ability, but more to do with the men running the tables. They saw him, young and stupid, and had set to reel him in with a run of winnings and easy money. He stopped playing before his 'luck' turned sour – left with a pocket book fuller than he started and a good idea not to return.
He'd taken his funds and purchased a new coat – deciding against the tailor that his friends suggested. He knew they meant well, but men with unlimited funds were not easily aware how the lack of money could affect their poorer friends. He found a decent man who made sharp, almost minimal styles, and had a coat ordered in a deep red. He decided against the louder shades – Lahey may very well wear mustard and green, but the man was a Duke and blind to criticisms on the colours of his waistcoats.
He'd also managed to avoid the whore pits and those… establishments that were run with gentlemen of his persuasion in mind, the ones with the painted boys and discreet payments.
"I don't understand why you insist on staying in those lodgings when you are more than welcome here." Lahey said, as they played billiards. He was leaning on his cue and looking around. "I've 20 rooms and more to spare."
"I enjoy my freedom."
"As do I." His friend shrugged. "But the expense must be higher this time of year. I'll have my man bring your things." He announced, ringing a bell. "Think of it as a repayment for aiding me all those times at School."
"I appreciate the offer bu-"
Lahey waved his hand dismissively. "It is done."
Hale saw the boy again, twice. The first was at a large meeting for shareholders in the new development in steam engines. Hale was thinking of investing, but not until some real results came forward. It looked like the young Baron (Stiles, a decent sized holding somewhere on the east coast) had invested deeply. The recent set back had made him pale dangerously. Idiot boy to put his money on something as unsure as railways. Hale was still not convinced that they would replace the horse like so many claimed.
The younger man had seen him also, nodded politely but did not approach him. He was wearing a red coat that looked almost military in its cut. Hale liked it – the current trend of adding as many fobs, capes and buttons as possible, in the most garish colours, made his eyes hurt. It seemed that the lad – despite terrible choices in investments – was half decent at picking a tailor.
The second time he saw him was at a lecture on the benefits of natural pollinators. Hale had a small, but dedicated atrium for exotic plants, and was always interested in the latest sciences to improve his collection. It was a popular hobby for men of a certain social standing. He saw a few familiar faces in the crowd. No ladies, of course. This was a scientific gathering.
Baron Stiles gave an interesting lecture on the value of Bee keeping and (oddly) seemed to have a passion for butterflies.
"Bee keeping, of course, has the added value of producing honey – and butterflies simply look pleasant. However, young ladies are much more inclined to see ones… ahem, gardens… if they are populated with pretty things rather than Bees." The laughter and general knee slapping around the room at that comment was uproarious, and young Stiles had a great many invites to social gatherings by the time he was finished.
"Your Grace." He nodded, when he reached Hale. Greeting him with the polite smile of a man who had a great many other hands to shake before he was done. "I'm afraid we have not yet been introduced."
"You are a friend of my cousin, McCall." He replied. "Carry on."
He had wanted to say more – ask more questions about the lecture, perhaps enquire about papers, facts – evidence on his experiments, but his manners were abrupt and course. He was never any expert at social graces and his disastrous marriage had made him more guarded.
"I shaln't waste your time." Stiles nodded, sharply – and Hale knew he had been too short. He didn't know how to fix it though, so nodded briskly and turned – leaving the hall before he had really planned.
Stiles sat at the desk in the large rooms Lahey had put him in and wrote furiously. His latest paper had garnered some interest in Town, and he was invited to a small private event at Duke Hastings home, to talk about his investigations. It was a great honour, and he hoped it would lead to some funding for his breeding programme. He had very good success with his butterflies at home.
His mind never really settled on one thing for long, as always it danced and evaded him unless he was focused completely – and right now he was thinking about Lord Hale. He wasn't sure why though, the man was distant and on the only occasion where they had actually spoken, was abrupt and rude. Stiles was normally more than willing to see the good in people, but he just didn't know enough about Hale. McCall, for all he talked about everything with an openness and ease, seemed to know as little about his own cousin as Stiles did.
"He was married." Scott said, nodding. "She died a few years ago, it was quite a shock." He paused. "Hale married in spite of his father, you know, was cut off completely, or so everyone thought. Mother never really talks about it, but Hale must have loved her very much. He's still in mourning, after all. Three years!"
Stiles nodded, and had forced himself not to ask any more questions. He didn't even know why he was so interested. The man obviously had no time for anyone other than himself.
Lahey was invited to every social gathering in London, his fireplace littered with white cards with delicate gold edging and neat script inviting him to this party, or that ball – dinner, a recital, garden parties and outings. His sister, Miss Erica Lahey, was pretty and popular and at the age of 17, on the market to find herself a husband. Which she planned to do before the year was out.
"You must escort me to Almacks tonight." She announced at breakfast, gracefully cutting her food into little squares. "For I wasn't out at all since Tuesday and it has become painfully evident that my brother cares more for his cards and lightskirts than he does his own sister!"
"Erica!" Lahey snapped. "You are not supposed to even know of such things, never mind talk about them at the breakfast table."
"Please, I am more than fully aware of what you do at your little clubs." She shrugged prettily, "I am quite disappointed in you though, Baron. I thought you would be able to talk some sense into my brother."
"I am refusing to be drawn into what appears to be a long standing argument." Stiles grinned. "But please, carry on."
Erica laughed, batting her eyelashes in a way that Stiles assumed was supposed to be flirtatious. She'd been practicing her flirting on him since she was old enough to talk, he was quite immune.
"Please desist from making a fool of yourself at the table." Isaac murmured. "I shall take you to Almacks. The sooner you get married off the better."
"Shall my Baron lend me his arm?"
"Of course, Erica." Stiles nodded, using her given name only when they were sitting as a family. "But please don't expect me to dance."
He had, at his friends insistence, bought new clothes simply for an occasion like this. His cream britches and simply cut navy coat might scream his uncomfort with the brash styles of London, but at least they gave no hint to his lack of funds. He looked well dressed, neat and styled – and Miss Lahey announced that she thought him so very dashing when she'd descended the stairs in her pale green dress of silks, blond curls piled high on her head and emeralds at her ears.
Although he often lamented on his sister and her clothing allowance, Lahey was a most indulgent brother and often showered his sister in lavish gifts. "I can afford it." He'd said, picking out the earrings and matching clasp. "And she doesn't trouble me much, for all she is a terror sometimes. She could be much worse." He added. "Some of the ladies I know… I'd shudder if they were my sister." He paused, telling the attendant to send the items to his home, along with the bill. "Although, as they are not my sister I do adore taking advantage of their behaviour."
Duke Lahey had been a good friend to Stiles, even after he found out that his childhood compatriot was... uninterested in perusing the local girls. He'd been most supportive at school as well, quietly introducing Stiles to other boys like him, when he could have simply ignored him – shunned him. Stiles would never be able to repay that.
Almacks was not only the most exclusive club in London, it was the only one run by ladies. These paragons of virtue were the social elite, duchesses and royals, they ran the dancehall with iron fists. Young ladies were said to throw themselves into hysterics if they were denied a ticket – denied the chance to set foot in the one room in all of London that could be truthfully called: The Marriage Mart. A waltz was as good as an official announcement. This was where the wars of single ladies were fought.
"Highly unfair of you to arrive with no thought to dancing." Erica smiled calmly at him, hand resting lightly on his arm. Her entire body language was different, soft and pliant.
"I would spend the whole night having to deal with your heartbroken suitors." He smiled back. "And how would I live with myself?"
Her laugh was like a soft bell, drifting over the room. A few heads turned, and saw the very rich Miss Lahey smile at the very clever Baron Stiles – a return smile on his lips. A little thing, really, when all was said and done.
Hale never attended Almacks. Pointless for him, as he wasn't looking for a wife. He was still getting over the mess that the last one had caused – so he didn't hear the rumours for days. When he did hear them he was… conflicted.
Lady Erica Lahey was not only one of the richest women in London, she was also one of the most beautiful. Her chances of landing an Earl or even a Duke was almost guaranteed. She had money, breeding, a good name and a doting brother. Baron Stiles, for all he was sharp and clever, was not rich – his name was old and well respected, but nothing grand – and he was not cut from the same cloth as Miss Lahey. They were worlds apart, had he not been friends with her brother she would likely have never looked at him twice.
"I say though, bad form." Whittemore announced over the table, cards in his hand. "To be staying in the same house as her." His implications were obvious from his tone.
"Lahey dotes on his sister." Lord Deaton replied. "I do not think anything untoward has happened. He would call Stiles out, friend or not."
"Nothing riles me more than fortune hunters." Whittimore carried on, as though no one had spoken. "He's managed to get his feet under the table."
Hale remained silent. He hadn't read Baron Stiles to be a fortune hunter – but he'd been wrong before, hadn't he? The bitter taste of disappointment and his own idiocy in his mouth, he played his hand and left Whittimore out of pocket.
The idea that Baron Stiles was after Miss Laheys fortune burned in his mind like a brand. She was young and foolish, and her brother may be too close to see the danger of having such a man stay in his house. Hale glared across the room – seeing Stiles talk animatedly with McCall and Lahey.
When Stiles left the table shortly after, heading for the restroom, he made his mind to follow.
"Lord Hale." Stiles nodded as he noticed Derek walking a few steps behind him. "Pleasure, as always." His tone was dry and even, speaking for politeness only.
He wasn't expecting it when Derek grabbed his arm and pulled him roughly into the small room where the outside cloaks were kept.
"What in god's name!" He struggled, managing to get a well-aimed punch before Hale managed to overpower him. He had the young man pressed against the wall, hands fisted in his coat.
"You are going to leave Miss Lahey alone." He growled, temper flaring to life. Memories running through his mind of how Kate had played him just like a fool – just like Stiles was doing to that poor innocent girl.
"Unhand me immediately!" Stiles hissed. "Before-"
"Before what?" Derek laughed. "You are nothing but a fortune hunter using your relationship with that poor girls brother to further your own sick schemes."
"I have no idea what you are talking about!"
Derek laughed, bitterly. "Why do people like you always deny? Half of London knows what you are."
"Half of London doesn't know me at all." The young baron shot back. "I am not a fortune hunter. I have funds enough, and investments too." He snapped. "And I resent the implications you are casting at me."
"Investments in railways?" Derek sneered. "Oh yes, how much have you lost so far?" When the boy didn't say anything, Derek knew he had been correct. "Do you think marrying that girl will reverse your fortune?"
"Marry who?" Stiles asked, "I have no idea what you have heard, Sir, but I am not engaged and have no mind to be so."
"Miss Lahey!" Derek sneered. "Do you deny it?"
"I have known Erica since she was 6 years old." Stiles snapped at him, gold eyes glinting in the darkness. "She is like a sister to me."
"All the better for you to snake your way into her life!"
"Sir, you are very much mistaken." Stiles repeated, but Derek's mind was playing over and over the fights he had gone through with his father, with Kate – that stunning blond who ripped out his heart and left him with nothing.
"You will leave town tonight."
"Are you… are you in love with her?" Stiles asked, suddenly. "Are you? Is this why you throw these insults at me?"
"I don't have any feelings for the girl."
"If you touch a single hair on her head I will kill you." Stiles levelled at him. "I will kill you before Isaac even becomes aware of it. You will not-"
"Do you think me a fool?" Derek sneered.
"Yes." Stiles shot back, tone flat. "I think you the worst kind of idiot to think that you will ever get near that girl."
"I have no interest in her." Derek laughed. "I have a keen interest in fortune hunters-"
"She's madly in love with Whittimore!" The baron spat out. "I'm not after her at all. If I needed money I'd apply to Isaac!"
There was something in his voice that sounded too raw, too close to sounding true – the way he said… "Isaac?"
"The Duke." Stiles glared. "He's my friend. I would never, ever treat his sister like that, a sham of a marriage."
"You think I believe you?"
"She would never agree, Jesus!" Stiles laughed at him, "She knows my… tastes… and would never agree."
"You managed to get me alone in a darkened room – I thought you might be aware that… umm…" He faltered. "But obviously not." He finished lamely. "Because that is the tale of my life."
"I have no idea what you are talking of."
"Yes, I've become aware." The young Baron nodded. "So if you could please not push quite so hard against me?"
Hale pulled back, not even realising just how he was leaning into the younger man – pushing him harder into the wall. Only when he moved did he become aware that certain parts of the boy were pushing back.
"I'm not going to marry Erica. Nor have I ever applied to Isaac for funds. I may not be as rich as you, Sir, but I am quite well enough in pocket to live as a gentleman of my station should."
He was aroused, the boy – obvious in his body. Hale had never in his life been so conflicted. He had known, of course, that such men were… around, but he had never been in such a situation with one before. He felt uncomfortable and ashamed that he had been so wrong about a person.
"I apologise." He said, pulling further way. "I am not at all indulgent with hunters."
"So I have become aware." The boy said, fixing his coat and trying to hide his arousal. Difficult with such tight fashions. "I am neither engaged to Erica nor seeking to make my fortune in such an underhanded way."
Derek only managed a nod, before he opened the door and stalked down the hallway. He left immediately.
So I was going to take a break from writing but it looks like my mind had other ideas and here it is.
It wont be long, maybe a couple chapters! Hope you like it! :D
Regency is kind of my thing, I love it soooooo much, although Regency Sterek might be taking it a bit far, tell me what you think!