Father spun tipsily and turned his squinting gaze on Harry. “What’s that behind you?”
“Not a what. A who. And never mind that right now. Just get in the carriage and—”
“Is thatQuinseley’sby-blow? It is, isn’t it! I may be drunk, but I’m not stupid. She’s got that same unfortunate patch of white at her temple.”
“I’m sorry about this,” Harry murmured to Bianca, then took a step aside in order to make proper introductions. “Father, this is Miss Bianca White. Miss White, this is my—”
“Yes, yes,” Father slurred, “That’s what I said, didn’t I? I can see who it is. What I want to know is what the devil you think you’re doing with her. And don’t say you weren’t kissing her, because I could see that you were. I gave you explicit instructions—”
Harry gritted his teeth as his father waxed on drunkenly about refilling coffers and the monetary value of heiresses and sons who should be fulfilling their destiny, not wasting time with meaningless flirtations.
If anyone else had caught them in a scandalous embrace—or, perhaps, ifBiancawere anyone else—their kiss would be considered a “compromise”. As a gentleman, Harry would be forced to marry Bianca to preserve her honor.
But because his father could not see beyond their empty bank account, and because Bianca was born on the wrong side of the blanket, there would be no worse consequences than an inebriated tongue-lashing from a man who had given up on standing upright and had now seated himself in the open doorway of the hackney carriage, right where countless muddy boots had passed.
“I’m sorry,” Harry said again to Bianca. “Go back the way we came and find your friends. With luck, everyone’s attention will still be on the sky, and no one will think to wonder where you might have wandered off to all alone.”
Bianca cast a dubious look at Harry’s father, then nodded and hurried off into the shadows.
“And furthermore—” slurred the marquess, shaking his almost-empty bottle of port for emphasis.
“Get in the carriage at once,” Harry commanded, using the stern-headmaster voice he’d learned at a young age was the only tone his intoxicated father would respond to.
Father glowered at him without pausing his own rant for more than a hiccup, but stood obediently and managed to climb back into the hackney.
“Stay here inside the carriage,” Harry ordered. “I’ll go and fetch Tina.”
“Is the ball over?” Father said in surprise.
“Yes.” It was now. For Harry and Tina both. But it was better for the festivities to be cut short rather than for their lives to be ruined by the marquess thundering into their midst, drinking straight from the bottle.
“Never mind Christina.” Father took another swig of his port. “Go after Lady Regina. You’ve got big money on the line, son. Reel it in.”
“I’ll try my best,” Harry said, “if you promise to stay here until I return.”
The marquess looked about in surprise, as if hadn’t noticed he was in a hackney until just this moment. “Whose carriage is this? Yours?”
Grimly, Harry turned to the hackney driver. “Don’t let him out of your sight.”
“But why doIhave to go home early?” grumbled Tina, shocking Harry as he helped her into the hackney carriage. His shy sister never wanted to remain at a crowded society event a minute longer than absolutely necessary.
Part of him was tempted to answer,Because we don’t have enough blunt for two hackneys, but Harry held his tongue. The horrid state of the family’s finances were neither Tina’s fault, nor her responsibility to fix. Harry tried to shield her as much as possible from the true depths of their father’s excesses.
“Caught your brother seducing that orphan with the white hair,” slurred the marquess.
“Bianca?” Tina swung her gaze toward Harry as he climbed into the rear-facing seat and tapped on the panel to set the driver in motion. “You’ve never beencaughtbefore. Isn’t that grounds for compromise? Are there wedding bells in your future?”
“There had better be,” said Father. “With that Lady Regina.”
Tina frowned. “Youdidn’tcompromise Bianca?”
Father waved his bottle. “Nobody saw.”
“I told him to drop the baggage and go after the purse.”