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Lady in Red
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My grandfather was an unpleasant old man. After he died, I frequently heard my grandmother say she missed him like a wooden leg. Though she'd grown used to his bark over the years, she didn't miss a single splinter and limped along just fine without him.
Mrs. Welterby to the Countess of Firth,
while waiting for the Prince to make an appearance
in the drawing room of Carlton House
Devon St. John paced before the fireplace, his hands clasped behind his back, his brow furrowed. His abrupt footfalls, silenced by the thick rug that stretched the length of the huge chamber, were overshadowed by the crackle of burning logs.
Suddenly, he halted before a large wing-back chair turned toward the warming flames. "I know. You can tell him."
"Me?" His brother, Brandon, shook his head, the firelight casting blue shadows through his black hair. "The last time I delivered bad news to Marcus, he sent me to oversee the holdings in northern Scotland for a month. I nearly froze to death."
Chase glanced up from where he slouched on the settee opposite. "I was once sent to the wilds of Yorkshire in the middle of the season for an equally inane reason. And that was back during the time when our brother was tolerable."
"Which has not been of late," Brandon said.
Chase nodded morosely. "Lately, he has been nothing but a seething mass of ill temper. God knows where he'd order us now if he had a true reason to be upset."
Devon sighed heavily. "I must apologize to all of you; this is my fault."
The last and quietest member of the gathering finally stirred to life. Devon's half brother, Anthony Elliot, the Earl of Greyley, stretched his legs toward the fire from the depths of a huge red velvet chair. He surveyed Devon with a sleepy air. "Nonsense. The ring was lost by accident and nothing more."
"I should have made more of an effort to find it. But somehow, I thought it would be humorous to send Marcus chasing about for the blasted thing."
"It was amusing," Brandon said, "until Marcus could not find it. You sent Marcus the guest list for the ball where the ring disappeared, and we were all certain that ring would be in the hands of one of those guests."
Chase nodded. "Indeed, had the guests not brought guests of their own -- that is where we caught cold. And now Marcus's humor wears more thin as the days pass and the ring is not found. He's like a great bear denied his food."
Anthony shrugged. "So let him growl. He is but a man."
"You know what Marcus is," Devon said. "Our brother is a gale wind in a world of gentle breezes."
Brandon sighed and slouched back in his chair. "He defi- nitely has some very odd notions about marriage. I'm in poor case with him this very moment because Verena's father got into some trouble with the Italian authorities and I had to pay the scoundrel's way out of it. Marcus disapproved mightily."
Chase's brows lowered. "What else could you do? It's Verena's father."
"Marcus does not seem to understand that when you marry a woman, to some extent, you also marry her family."
"There's a lot about marriage Marcus doesn't understand," Anthony murmured, reclaiming his glass of port and taking another sip. "He seems to understand the concept of having a mistress far better."
"That he does. But a wife is a different matter altogether." Chase rose from the settee and stretched his arms over his head before crossing to the desk to pour himself a drink from a crystal decanter. "Lately he's been snappish. In fact, Harriet wanted to invite him to our new house for the holidays -- "
"Excellent!" Brandon said, brightening immediately. "Bloody excellent!"
Everyone looked his way.
"Oh uhm, sorry." Brandon smiled uneasily. "Verena had the same idea, though I had no wish to have Marcus growling his way through our holidays. She and I finally agreed that we would invite him only if none of you did. But since Chase and Harriet are going to invite him -- "
"You didn't give me time to finish my sentence," Chase said. "Harriet wanted to invite him, but then reconsidered. There's precious little to entertain Marcus out in the country, and since Harriet's not feeling well ... " Chase grinned a little as he lifted his glass in a seeming toast. "Yet another reason I'm glad my lovely wife is increasing."
Brandon grimaced. "I wish Verena was increasing as well, especially if it would keep Marcus away from us during the holidays. He's become a grump. Only yesterday he said that Christmas was a waste of time and energy and he hated all the fuss."
Devon sighed. "He's impossible. He hasn't spoken a civil word to me since I lost the ring, and that was months ago. I must admit, I thought the blasted thing would be easier to re-cover than this." He rubbed his chin, a frown in his blue eyes. "It's almost as if the ring doesn't wish to be found."
Silence met this. Finally, Chase cleared his throat. "We have never really talked about it, but ... are we all agreed about the ring?" He eyed his brothers carefully. "The legend is true?"
Anthony noted that his other brothers appeared uneasy
with that bold question. The silence grew thick and then
thicker. He supposed he couldn't fault them; after all, the
ring had contributed in some way to each of their marriages.
"I don't know about anyone else, but I believe it."
Excerpted from Lady in Red by Karen Hawkins. Copyright © 2005 by Karen Hawkins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.