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Devil in Disguise: Chapter 28

“What the devil are you doing here?” Sebastian asked as Marcus, Lord Westcliff, entered the morning room. He set his newspaper on the breakfast table and sent his old friend a puzzled, irritable glance. “You couldn’t wait to be announced?”

There was hardly any man more feared or respected than Marcus Marsden, Lord Westcliff, who’d inherited one of the oldest peerage titles in England. His earldom was so ancient and venerated, in fact, that Westcliff outranked Sebastian, even though Sebastian was a duke.

Their friendship went all the way back to their days at boarding school, and although it had acquired its dents and scars, it still thrived. No one, not even the two of them, could explain why, when they were so different in character. Westcliff was honorable and reliable, a problem-solver with a strong moral compass. Whereas Sebastian, a former rake, had always lived by a far more flexible code.

Over the years, their families had spent so many holidays and summers together that their children thought of each other as cousins. As a result, there had been no romantic involvements between any of the Marsden or Challon offspring, who all claimed to find the idea somewhat incestuous.

Now it seemed a marital alliance between the Marsdens and Challons might be forged after all. But Westcliff was probably going to be rather less than enthused about the prospect of a union between his cherished daughter and Sebastian’s illegitimate son.

Westcliff came to the table with a scowl. Although the passing years had threaded the once-black hair with steel and deepened the lines bracketing his nose and mouth, the earl was still vigorous and robust. He was not a tall man, only an inch or two above average height, but the bull-like strength of his shoulders and legs, combined with a naturally tenacious disposition, made him an opponent no sane man would take on. Having once been soundly thrashed by Westcliff—deservedly so—Sebastian had no desire ever to repeat the experience.

“Where’s my daughter?” Westcliff asked.

“She’s here.”

“Unharmed? Not ill?”

“She’s perfectly fine,” Sebastian said. “What’s put you in such a damn tither?”

“Yesterday morning I received a telegram from Merritt, stating she would arrive at Stony Cross on the evening train. She wasn’t on the train, nor did she send any word.” Westcliff went to the sideboard, laden with hot dishes protected by silver covers, crystal bowls of cut fruit, and a platter of bread and pastries. He picked up a china cup from a neat stack and proceeded to fill it with coffee from a silver urn. “Why did she change her plans?”

Sebastian pondered various ways to answer that. “She . . . decided to retire to bed early.” And as far as he knew, she’d stayed there with Keir for the entire afternoon and all through the night. Sebastian had decided not to object, understanding there were some issues best solved with time, privacy, and a bedroom. He could only hope Keir had awakened at a decent hour and gone back to his own room.

“Have you seen Merritt this morning?” Westcliff asked.

Sebastian shook his head. “She may still be abed.”

“Not for long. Lillian has gone in search of her. She went to ask one of the servants which room she’s in.”

Alarm whistles shrilled in Sebastian’s brain. “Lillian’s here? Running loose through the house? Good God, Westcliff, don’t you think this is a bit of an overreaction to a missed train?”

“If that were the only issue, I would agree. However, Lillian and I are both concerned about a rumor that reached us two days ago.” After stirring cream and sugar into his coffee, Westcliff turned with the cup in hand and leaned back against the sideboard. “I was comfortable allowing Merritt some leeway when she wrote she’d be staying here to help care for Mr. MacRae. Although the situation was unorthodox, I trusted her judgment. Of all my children, Merritt is the most level-headed and—Kingston, why are you staring at the ceiling?”

“I’m wondering which part of the house Lillian’s in,” Sebastian said distractedly. Were those her footsteps overhead? No, it was quiet now. Where was she? What was she doing? God, this was unnerving. “What was the rumor?”

“That this MacRae is something more than a business client. There was a suggestion of personal involvement, even an engagement, which is absolute rot. No child of mine would descend to the idiocy of agreeing to marry a virtual stranger.”

“People have reasons—” Sebastian began defensively, but broke off as another question occurred to him. “How the devil could a rumor travel from Sussex to Hampshire that fast?”

Westcliff looked sardonic. “We live in the modern age, Kingston. With railways and efficient mail service, a rumor can cover the whole of England in the blink of an eye. One of your servants may have mentioned something to a deliveryman, who told a shopkeeper, and so forth. More to the point: Is it true?

“You just said it was rot,” Sebastian replied cagily, glancing at the ceiling again. His nerves crawled with unease in the knowledge that Lillian was prowling overhead. “I wouldn’t dream of disagreeing with you.”

“You used to be a better liar than this,” Westcliff commented, now starting to look concerned. “Who is this man, and what has he been doing to my daughter? Is he still here?”

Mercifully, they were interrupted by Evie’s voice. “Good morning, my lord.”

Westcliff’s expression softened as Evie came into the room, looking fresh and beautiful in a daffodil-yellow dress.

“What a l-lovely surprise to find you here,” Evie exclaimed, beaming. She rose on her toes to press her cheek against his.

“Forgive the intrusion, my dear,” Westcliff said, his dark eyes smiling down at her.

“It’s nothing of the sort, you’re family.”

“I didn’t expect to find you here,” Westcliff commented. “Have you returned early from Paris, or does my memory fail me?”

Evie laughed. “Your memory never fails, my lord. I am indeed back early.”

“How are Sir George and Lady Sylvia?” Westcliff asked.

“Settling in nicely.” Evie would have said more, but Sebastian touched her elbow lightly. She turned to him with a questioning glance.

“Lillian’s here, darling,” he told her. “Running through the house unsupervised.” Meaningfully he added, “She’s looking for Merritt.”

He saw from the slight widening of Evie’s eyes that she understood. “I’ll go find her,” she suggested brightly. “We’ll all breakfast together.”

Lillian’s voice came from the doorway. “Capital idea! I’m famished.”

She cut a dashing figure in a scarlet traveling dress and black cloak, with a plumed red hat set at a jaunty tilt on her head. Even after having given birth to six children, Lillian was still slender and coltish, with the same high spirits and confident stride she’d had as a young woman.

Evie and Lillian hurried to each other and embraced warmly. The two of them, along with Lillian’s sister Daisy Swift, and the vivacious Annabelle Hunt, had begun a lifelong friendship more than three decades ago. They had all been downtrodden wallflowers, consigned to sitting in a row at the side of a ballroom while everyone else danced. But instead of competing for male attention, they had made a compact to help each other. And throughout the years, they had championed and saved each other, time and again.

“Did you find Merritt?” Westcliff asked as Lillian came to the breakfast table with Evie.

Lillian replied with brisk cheerfulness, even as telltale banners of bright pink ran across her cheekbones. “Yes, she was in bed. Sleeping. Very soundly. Alone, of course. She’ll come down soon.”

Holy hell, Sebastian thought grimly. He was positive she’d seen Keir with Merritt. No doubt in some spectacularly compromising position.

However, as a devoted and loyal mother, Lillian would keep her mouth shut. She might criticize one of her children in private, but never in public. She would go to any lengths to protect them.

“I was just asking Kingston,” Westcliff told Lillian, “about Merritt’s business client, Mr. MacRae.”

“Is he still here?” Lillian asked, a little too innocently.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Sebastian replied smoothly. He seated Evie at the table, while Westcliff did the same for his own wife.

As Lillian settled into her chair, she darted a look at Sebastian that said: You do not have long to live. He pretended not to notice.

Westcliff sat next to Lillian and rested a hand on the table, drumming his fingers lightly. “Why did Merritt bring MacRae here to recuperate from his injuries?” he asked Sebastian. “I would have expected her to take him to Stony Cross Park.”

“It was at my request.”

“Oh?” Westcliff studied him closely. “What connection do you have to him?”

Sebastian smiled slightly, reflecting that of all the things he’d ever broken, lost, or left by the wayside, he was grateful to have kept this man’s friendship. Something about Westcliff’s steady, logical presence made any problem seem manageable.

“Marcus,” he said quietly. They never usually went by first names, but for some reason it slipped out. “This has to do with that matter I told you about last year. The one involving Lady Ormonde.”

Westcliff reacted with a quick double blink. “This is him?”

Lillian shook her head in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“I’ll explain,” Sebastian said. As he tried to think of how to start, Evie’s slim hand crept to his, their fingers weaving together. He looked down at their joined hands and stroked his thumb across a golden freckle on her wrist. “First,” he said, “let me remind everyone that in my youth, I was by no means the angel I am now.”

Lillian’s mouth twisted. “Believe me, Kingston . . . no one’s forgotten.”


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