The house on this unfashionable street in a very fashion-conscious London had no name and no one of any importance would have recognized the address. It was but poorly furnished and while the dust and grime had been cleared away, things like nicks and scrapes and general decrepitude were not so easily got rid of. A great deal of work was required just to keep the house from collapsing into a pile of old gray walls and slightly less ancient roofing and the only real benefit was that all that maintenance gave Millicent Harbinger something to do with her time.
Presently, she was getting herself a sturdy breakfast in preparation for another busy day. Alice, the maid of all work, had promised to help her tackle the attic, which was the last remaining stronghold of mold and muck and mystery items left behind by generations of former tenants. Probably none of it would be worth keeping or selling. Probably none of it was even worth the effort it took to drag downstairs and chuck on the rubbish heap, but you never knew until you tried.
“Morning, Mill.” Duncan Harbinger stepped into the breakfast parlor. Millicent peered over the edge of her newspaper with narrowed eyes as her brother piled a plate high with eggs, ham, buttery rolls and—ah, the clincher—no fewer than seven kippers.
An ocean of dread arose within her. “How much, Duncan?”
“Hmm?” His tone was casual, almost absent-minded.
She refused to be put off. “How much did you lose?”
Her brother stuffed his mouth with food in an obvious effort to stall for time but the size of his appetite was a dead giveaway. If he’d won at the tables last night, he’d have immediately started buying drinks for himself and his aristocratic friends. He’d have stayed out until dawn and the following afternoon would have found him hiding beneath the bedclothes, prostrate with hangover, retching at the mere thought of food. The breakfast hour would pass him miserably by. Kippers would be entirely out of the question.
If, on the other hand, he’d lost at the gaming hells, he would have a couple drinks bought for him by sympathetic fellow players before shambling home with his metaphorical tail between his legs. Which meant he would be well rested and up in plenty of time to join his sober sister in the parlor for ham and eggs.
It had happened enough for Mill to learn the significance of breakfast foods. Her elder brother had entrenched himself in one of the world’s great losing streaks. Not that this ever stopped him from placing another wager.
“You don’t have to worry,” he began.
This was a sure sign that things were very bad indeed. Mill sat up straight in her chair and folded away the newspaper with blade-sharp creases. If only it were so easy to bring her brother into line. “I’m already worried,” she said. “How deep is the debt this time?”
Duncan shrugged, swallowed half a roll and kept his eyes on his plate. “Seven hundred.”
Mill felt the blood drain from her face. “Seven hundred pounds?”
“Of course it’s pounds. What else would gentlemen play for?”
“Your gentlemen play with their pocket change—but we’re not in their league, Duncan.” She rose and began pacing the length of the table like a very angry ship under sail. “We have at least four hundred in the accounts and if we sell some of the better furnishings, we…” She noticed her brother shaking his head and turned to fully face him. “What is it?”
“I’ve already taken care of it.”
He still wouldn’t meet her gaze, his eyes hidden beneath the pale blond fall of his hair. Mill ground her teeth so hard she thought her jaw would break. “How?” she managed to say, loading that one broad syllable with all the skepticism she could muster.
“Lord Wart has offered to marry you.”
For a moment, speech was beyond Mill’s power. Then her brother’s fork scraped against the china hard enough to send chills down her spine and shake her out of her stupor. “Lord Wart!” she sputtered. “He’s twice my age! He’s four times my weight! And he’s only half as intelligent as the footstool he rests his gouty ankles on!”
“But he’s also twenty times as rich as we are,” said Duncan.
Mill slammed her palms down on the scuffed wood of the long table. Her brother jumped and finally jerked his gaze upward to meet hers and she leaned in with her best scowl. “You will not sell me off for gambling money as though I were a thoroughbred up for auction.”
His expression was mulish. “I already have.”