"Thank you," Leo said after downing half his wine in an expedient gulp, "but I'll deal with my tenants in my own time, my lord."
"I'm afraid time has run out for some of them," Westcliff replied. "Many of the tenant houses on your land have run to rains. The people who now depend on you have been neglected for far too long."
"Then it's time they learn my one great consistency is neglecting the people who depend on me." Leo flicked a laughing glance at Amelia, his eyes hard. "Isn't that right, sis?"
With visible effort, Amelia forced her fingers to unclench from the fork. "I'm certain Lord Ramsay will lend his close attention to the needs of his tenants," she said carefully. "Pray don't be misled by his attempt to be amusing. In fact, he has mentioned future plans to improve the tenant leaseholds and study modern agricultural methods?
"If I study anything," Leo drawled, "it will be the bottom of a good bottle of port. The Ramsay tenants have proven their ability to thrive on benign neglect—they clearly don't need my involvement."
A few guests tensed apprehensively at Leo's insouciant speech, while others gave a few forced chuckles. Tension thickened the air.
If Leo was deliberately trying to make an enemy of Westcliff, he couldn't have chosen a better way of doing it. Westcliff had a deep concern for those less fortunate than himself, and an active dislike for self-indulgent noblemen who failed to live up to their responsibilities.
"Drat," Cam heard Lillian mutter beneath her breath, as her husband's brows lowered over cold dark eyes.
But just as Westcliff parted his lips to deliver a withering speech to the insolent young viscount, one of the female guests gave an earsplitting shriek. Two other ladies jumped up from their chairs, along with several of the gentlemen, all of them staring in white-eyed horror at the center of the table.
All conversation had stopped. Following the guests' collective gazes, Cam saw something—a lizard?—wriggling and slithering its way past sauceboats and salt cellars. Without hesitation he reached out and captured the small creature, cupping it in closed hands. The lizard squirmed furiously in the space between his closed palms.
"I've got it," he said mildly.
The vicar's wife half fainted, slumping back in her chair with a low moan.
''Don't hurt him!" Beatrix Hathaway called out anxiously. "He's a family pet!"
The assembled guests glanced from Cam's closed hands to the Hathaway girl's apologetic face.
"A pet? … What a relief," Lady Westcliff said calmly, staring down the length of the table at her husband's blank countenance. "I thought it was some new English delicacy we were serving."
A swift wash of color darkened Westcliff's face, and he looked away from her with fierce concentration. To anyone who knew him well, it was obvious he was struggling not to laugh.
"You brought Spot to supper?" Amelia asked her youngest sister in disbelief. "Bea, I told you to get rid of him yesterday!"
"I tried to," came Beatrix's contrite reply, "but after I left him in the woods, he followed me home."
"Bea," Amelia said sternly, "reptiles do not follow people home."
"Spot is no ordinary lizard. He?
"We'll discuss it outside." Amelia rose from her chair, obliging the gentlemen to hoist themselves out of their seats. She threw Westcliff an apologetic glance. "I beg your pardon, my lord. If you will excuse us…"
The earl gave a composed nod.
Another man… Christopher Frost… stared at Amelia with an intensity that raised Cam's hackles. "May I help?" Frost asked. His voice was carefully devoid of urgency, but there was no doubt in Cam's mind about how much the man wanted to go outside with her.
"No need," Cam said smoothly. "As you can see, I have everything in hand. At your service, Miss Hathaway." And, still holding the squirming reptile, he accompanied the sisters from the room.
Cam led them away from the dining hall, through a pair of French doors that opened to a conservatory. The outdoor room was sparsely furnished with cane-back chairs and a settee. White columns around the edge of the conservatory were interspersed with lush hanging plants. Clouds sulked across the humid sky, while torchlight sent a brisk dance of light across the ground.
As soon as the doors were closed, Amelia went to her sister with her hands raised. At first Cam thought she intended to shake her, but instead Amelia pulled Beatrix close, her shoulders trembling. She could barely breathe for laughing.
"Bea… you did it on purpose, didn't you?.. I couldn't believe my eyes… that blasted lizard running along the table…"
"I had to do something," the girl explained in a muffled voice. "Leo was behaving badly—I didn't understand what he was saying, but I saw Lord Westcliff 's face?
"Oh… oh…" Amelia choked with giggles. "Poor Westcliff… one moment he's defending the local population from Leo's tyranny, and then Spot comes s-slithering past the bread plates…"
"Where is Spot?" Twisting away from her sister, Beatrix approached Cam, who deposited the lizard in her outstretched palms. "Thank you, Mr. Rohan. You have very quick hands."
"So I've been told." He smiled at her. "The lizard is a lucky' animal. Some people say it promotes prophetic dreaming."
"Really?" Beatrix stared at him in fascination. "Come to think of it, I have been dreaming more often lately?