Home > Odd Earl Out (Games Earls Play #2)

Odd Earl Out (Games Earls Play #2)
Author: Anna Bradley







Steeple Cross, Oxfordshire, August 8, 1812



Lord Barnaby was wearing a gold silk waistcoat embroidered with a dizzying array of green and blue… butterflies? Or were they flowers? Feathers, perhaps?

Miles Winthrop, the Earl of Cross and Lord Barnaby’s much older and wiser cousin, squinted at the offensive garment. A gentleman’s waistcoat was no place for flora and fauna, but butterflies would be better than…

“Dear God, Barnaby, are those peacocks embroidered on your waistcoat?”

“Peacocks!” Lord Barnaby shouted to be heard above the wind. “Don’t be absurd, Cross. Do you think I’d wear a waistcoat covered with peacocks?”

If ever there were a question best left unanswered, it was that one.

Shiny, befeathered birds would be a grave assault on both his sartorial and ocular sensibilities, but he knew his cousin too well to be entirely easy on the subject of waistcoats, and they did look very much like—

“They’re not peacocks, Cross.” Barnaby wagged his head like a dog, spraying a shower of water in every direction. “Why, anyone can see they’re hummingbirds.”

“Hummingbirds.” Barnaby had worn a gold silk waistcoat embroidered with hummingbirds on a cold, wet ride through the mud and muck of the Oxfordshire countryside?

“Yes, hummingbirds. Peacocks, indeed. Really, Cross, do you suppose I wish to look like a fool?”

Alas, Barnaby hadn’t sidestepped that quagmire as thoroughly as he seemed to think. “Of course, you’re right, cousin. Every gentleman of taste must agree, hummingbirds are the pinnacle of restraint.”

Fortunately, the waistcoat wasn’t likely to survive the fury raining down on their heads. Dark clouds had been scudding across the sky when they’d left Steeple Cross earlier this afternoon, but the wind was now howling in earnest, and in the last hour the cold drizzle had become a relentless, driving rain that battered his skin with a thousand sharp pin pricks.

“You’re drier than cinders, Cross.” Barnaby let out one of the easy laughs that made him such a favorite among his friends. “I can’t imagine why everyone in London complains of your dourness. I find you quite amusing, really.”

“You’re one of few, I assure you.” Most of London found him grim enough. Of course, that hadn’t stopped any of them from accepting an invitation to his hunting party, had it? Aristocrats were nothing if not opportunistic.

“What happened to the scarlet waistcoat with the gold-embroidered suns I sent you last month?” Barnaby asked. “I haven’t seen you wear it once. You’re an unrelenting parade of dark blue, brown, and black wool. A touch of color would do you a world of good.”

“Blue, brown, and black are colors, Barnaby.” Miles flicked a spot of mud from the sleeve of his navy riding coat.

“Not nice ones. What’s wrong with the scarlet waistcoat? Indeed, Cross, the suns are exquisitely done. You won’t find better suns in all of Bond Street.”

“I believe Vincent took it off somewhere.” His valet, Vincent, was a slavish devotee of the Beau Brummel school of fashion. He’d taken one look at the sun-bedecked scarlet monstrosity, shuddered visibly, and consigned it to the deepest depths of the wardrobe.

Miles hadn’t seen it since, which was just as well.

“There’s nothing wrong with a bit of whimsy now and then.” Barnaby eyed Miles’s dark gray waistcoat with the plain silver buttons, his nose wrinkling. “Really, Cross. I don’t know why you always insist on dressing as if you’re in mourning.”

It was a great pity he wasn’t in mourning, as it would have given him the perfect excuse to cancel this house party, but there weren’t any Winthrops left to die. He and Barnaby were the only two left.

In any case, it was too late. Half the ton had already arrived, and the other half was scurrying across Oxfordshire toward Steeple Cross even now, the gentlemen salivating at the promise of lively sport, lavish dinners, and excellent port, and the ladies plotting the usual romantic intrigues that were the bane of every house party.

It was a damnable way to spend a fortnight. He despised romantic intrigues with the same virulent loathing Vincent reserved for vulgar waistcoats, but a man must endure all manner of unpleasant things, particularly when he was an earl in need of an heir.

“Brightly-embroidered waistcoats are all the rage in London this season, Cross. Every gentleman of fashion is wearing them.”

“Every dandy, you mean.” Was Barnaby a Bond Street Beaux now? Good Lord, he hoped not, but the hummingbirds weren’t reassuring.

“Not just the dandies.”

“You forget I spent time in London this season, cousin.” More time than he’d ever cared to, every second of which he heartily regretted. “I didn’t see a single gentleman of any sense wearing a waistcoat embroidered with peacocks.”

Plenty of fools, though. There was no shortage of those in London.

“Hummingbirds, Cross, hummingbirds, and I saw Lord Arthur wearing an embroidered silk waistcoat at Lord Babbage’s rout just a few weeks ago.”

“I do hope you’re not holding Lord Arthur up as a paragon of good sense. The man is as penetrating as a blade of grass.”

“If that, but he’s good fun. Did you invite him to Steeple Cross?”

“No, but there will be enough people milling about to keep you entertained.” Fortunately, Steeple Cross was more of a country estate than a gentleman’s hunting box, and could accommodate a large party.

Or was that unfortunate? He could no longer tell.

“What people?” Barnaby made a face. “Not those dullards from the Royal Society, I hope.”

“Everyone.” It wasn’t as much of an exaggeration as he wished, God help him. “Your old companions from Oxford. Lord and Lady Kimble and their three daughters, Lord Ambrose and his daughter, Lady Cecil and her nieces, and a few dozen others from that set.”

“Why so many daughters and nieces? We’ll be overrun with ladies!”

That was rather the point, but Barnaby would discover what was in store for him soon enough without Miles hurrying him along. “Lady Fosberry will be here, and Lady Drummond. You remember Lady Drummond and her daughter, Lady Cora?”

Barnaby and Lady Cora had grown up in the same neighborhood in Hereford. They were close in age, and had been friendly as children.

“Vaguely, yes.” Barnaby shrugged with an indifference that would not have endeared him to the young lady in question. “How does she do?”

“Very well, from what I understand.”

“You didn’t see her in London?”

“No, just Lady Drummond, but she tells me Lady Cora has grown into a lovely, elegant young lady.” Hopefully Lady Drummond hadn’t exaggerated her daughter’s appeal, as he had no patience for giggling schoolgirls.

Barnaby snorted. “Her mother says so? Everyone knows you can’t believe what the mother says, Cross. I remember Lady Cora as a scrawny chit with yellow hair.”

A scrawny chit with yellow hair? Good Lord. That sounded like the sort of unkind, ruthlessly accurate comment Miles’s father might have made. Barnaby was the heart of amiability, but the Cross blood did rear its ugly head now and again. “I hope to God you have the sense not to repeat such a comment in Lady Cora’s hearing.”

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