The Earl of BenRuin had never hated anything like he hated the spoilt, pretty Duke of Darlington, who sat inspecting his fingernails in the bow window like a bitch waiting to be petted.
The duke’s coat was cut so tight that he surely couldn’t even bring his cup of coffee to his mouth. He was an ornament with a useless storm cloud of black hair and buffed fingernails. His features should have been too fine to suit a man, his pouting lips too full—but instead they made him the most celebrated son of a bitch in the ton.
Of course. He was the epitome of everything they revered. Beautiful as Paris, intelligent enough to use a knife and fork, dumb enough to lose a fortune at the tables every night. He had claimed his title a month previous and embodied the aristocracy’s vacuous excesses by not yet taking his seat in Parliament.
He was everything BenRuin was not, and he had taken the one thing BenRuin could never surrender up to him. No matter the cost.
BenRuin calmly crossed the downstairs sitting room of White’s Gentlemen’s Club, and his blood demanded that he shove his fist inside the bastard’s chest and squeeze his heart until it stopped beating.
He came to a halt before the table at the bow window and didn’t trust himself to open his mouth. He waited. And wanted. And made himself be still.
“What ho, old boy!”
The duke’s voice was friendly, and BenRuin wanted to crush the throat that had made it. He looked into the duke’s guileless blue eyes—eyes that had been immortalised by none other than Byron. Which was fitting. The young poet had driven a woman to stab herself with a pair of scissors and he worshipped the Duke of Darlington, who had dared to touch BenRuin’s wife.
The name pounded through his head. He was normally so careful with his temper. So careful with his body and the destruction he could unleash with it. The duke’s innocent stare made BenRuin want to do mad, irretrievable things to him. He would drink his damn blood.
Darlington dusted some invisible lint off his cuff. “Coffee?” he asked, gesturing to the fine china sitting on the table before him, a harmless and confused smile fixed to his famous mouth.
Could anyone be so fucking dense? Could he not understand the rage, the very fine line in the huge man standing before him?
“I’m going to kill you,” BenRuin said, letting each word go with careful precision, to make sure they were absolutely clear about where they stood.
The duke’s brow screwed up. You could almost hear him thinking it through, and BenRuin had to restrain himself all over again because there was no pleasure in attacking a man so confused.
“Crispin?” The duke turned to the eager young peacock sitting on an ottoman at his feet. “Was I supposed to meet this man in a duel today?”
“I d-don’t think so, Your Grace. No one’s come to see me about being your second. Unless—” The boy flushed angrily and turned to the fop sitting across the table from the duke. “Hopwell, you rotter, you’ve not been approached, have you?”
The ensuing argument was impossible to follow if you had more intelligence than a worm. They seemed to have forgotten he was even there.
He grabbed the footman closest to his right hand by the scruff of the neck and threw him against a table. Muted conversations cut off, and the footman’s half-sobbed apologies limped alone into the silence. He heard men rising from their seats, could feel the wary space they left around him. He didn’t look away from the duke.
The duke sighed, then smiled with false patience. “Why do you suppose you want to kill me, old boy?”
“You.” BenRuin forced a couple of heavy breaths through his nose, trying to bring himself to speak it. “And my wife.”
“Ah.” Understanding dawned slowly, and the duke spread his manicured hands out before him. “Look, she told me it was one of those marriages, you know. That you both found pleasure where you could.”
The pain was swift and sure, and for a moment BenRuin couldn’t speak, like it had cut his tongue out of his mouth. Then, “Stop talking,” he said.
“But I’m sure she…wait, so you’re back from your trip to South America, then? Did you collect any interesting new specimens?”
The noise in BenRuin’s ears meant it took a while for the words to sink in. “Stop talking,” he said. “Stop.”
The boy on the ottoman leapt up, a huge smile on his face. “You’re thinking of Lady Drysdale, Your Grace!”
“Of course!” The duke placed slim fingers against his perfect brow and made an apologetic face. “All a misunderstanding, old boy!”
“Call me old boy one more time,” BenRuin said, his brogue almost unintelligible to his own ears, “and I won’t wait to hear your explanation.”
“Explanation?” The duke was getting…not angry, but certainly annoyed. Snitty. “Lady Drysdale and I had an understanding, and I don’t see that it’s any of your concern!”
“And your carriage—in my driveway?” God how he hated to say this in front of an audience. To admit that he wasn’t man enough to keep what was his. But there was no other way to get close to the duke. He was always, always among company.
“Which driveway would that be, old—er.” The duke leaned down to Crispin and said, “Do you know who he is? I’m not sure what name to address him by.”
He had meant to level his accusations—the snippets overheard at parties, the caricatures in the gossip rags that he never usually read, but which Lydia left just where he would see them. The snickers in Parliament, behind his back.
His muscles gathered and bunched. He saw the world in flickers, in blood. Time slowed as he lunged forward, the duke’s face and person his only focus.
Which was why he saw something so surprising his step faltered. The duke’s blue eyes flared with an intelligence that cut. He looked at BenRuin and he didn’t flinch. He showed no sign of fear. He…anticipated.
That faltering step probably saved the duke’s life. The men around BenRuin managed to pull him to a stop when his knife was an inch from the duke’s throat.
And was that disappointment that flared in the duke’s eyes? A moment later his face was genial again, his hand fluttering by his throat, and as BenRuin was pulled away he thought he must have imagined it. Violent passion could make you see all sorts of things that weren’t really there, and it simply was not possible that the effete duke was more than a match for the brawny Scottish earl. It was not possible.
What BenRuin had seen was a man lit up from the inside, as fierce and dangerous as a god. The Duke of Darlington was not that man. Someone would have noticed it by now.
He gathered himself again, readying his body for its grisly purpose. Then a stronger hand circled his arm, and his man Tobin said quietly in his ear, “James, come away.”
The voice touched some still sane part of him. He started to shake, like a horse after a hard race.
“I will not hang for the sake of seeing your pretty blood,” he finally ground out, “else you and I would settle this now. Do not try me again.”
It took more than it should have to walk away. The only thought that gave him any comfort was that if the duke put so much as a toe wrong he would carve his heart out. He could only hope the man was as stupid as he seemed.
The Duke of Darlington couldn’t breathe. He tried to swear as he crouched down over his legs and couldn’t do that either. He sat on the edge of his opulent bed, shaking. His heart pounded in slick, baseless beats and he tried to slow them down by breathing, but he couldn’t breathe and he couldn’t slow them down and he felt like he was dying.
Fuck. The meeting with the Earl of BenRuin today was meant to have taken care of this. He had never played a game so dangerous as the one that had come to a head this morning in White’s.
And maybe if he didn’t feel like he was dying, he would have the presence of mind to hate himself for it. For bringing a strong, proud man like the Earl of BenRuin so low. Using people like pawns was lamentably easy, but even he knew that he had crossed some invisible line this time. He had gone from a cynical observer of society to an unsavoury beast that feasted on it like a maggot on soiled flesh.
That single moment between he and BenRuin, when his life had hung exquisitely on the edge of extinction, had been the work of six months of planning. Six months of well-placed hints and suggestions, of rumours started and spread, of players arraigned for and against. Then Darlington’s father had died, and Darlington had taken his name and gained access to his private papers, and all he could think of was meeting BenRuin’s rage.
He tried to unbutton his jacket, to pull the garment from his skin, but he couldn’t get the thing off on his own, and he couldn’t call Grey. Everyone believed the Duke of Darlington was a dandy of middling intelligence and more than average charm. He couldn’t bear for his valet to see him as he was now, drenched in his own sweat, wrestling his jacket like it was the devil on his back, and ready to cut himself if that would only free him of it.
How had it come to this? One of the most powerful men on earth, struggling just to breathe. And he couldn’t think of a single person he could call to his side. A single person he didn’t lie to, or use, or mislead. A single person who would look at him and really see him.
He held a shaking hand against his chest, where his heartbeats slid by so fast.
Before Darlington had learned to hide all but the smallest percentage of himself he had regularly scared the people around him. But he had never scared himself before today. It had been such a close thing, and looking into the earl’s murderous eyes he had wanted, with an intensity that left him shaking now like a boy locked up in the dark.
There was a quiet knock on the door, and Grey entered.
“The Dandies have arrived, Your Grace. Do you desire to change, before you see them?”
He tried to focus. The Dandies.
“I believe they desire to discuss Sunday evening. Lady Marmotte’s charity ball, Your Grace?”
He grasped the thought and held on. There were other games to play, other pieces on the board. He reminded himself that Grey did not see a grotesque, sweating beast, but a man. A duke.
“I’ll need the blue coat you ordered last week, and the gold silk waistcoat.”
He looked up and caught Grey taking a surreptitious inventory of him—eyes, neck, temples, hands.
“Dear Grey,” he murmured, “I am flattered, but my taste does not run to servants.”
The valet was very good. It was almost impossible to tell that he flinched. He bowed his head over Darlington’s hands and swiftly unbuttoned the cuffs. His fingers brushed briefly, professionally over Darlington’s wrist as he did so.
Brief, but thorough enough for Grey to feel how damp his skin was, and how fast his pulse. He wondered how long Grey had been monitoring him, and wished all that care was nothing more than desire. How much simpler that would be.
And how much less it would make him feel like throwing up.
He forced himself to be still, to let Grey take his coat off, instead of the mad frenzy his body wanted. The man was too close, and the coat was too close, and he forced himself to be still.
“Hello my darlings,” he trilled, when he arrived in the parlour twenty minutes later. “I was in need of a restorative nap after that oaf accosted me this morning. What a to-do! You acted admirably, Crispin, my love.”
The five men who had dubbed themselves The Duke’s Dandies rose, and came to him across the cavernous room. He waved them back and sat himself on the sofa with Crispin, a mark of favour.
“Are you ready for Sunday, my boy?” he asked, draping one arm across the sofa back.
“I have been practicing, Your Grace,” said Crispin. “I swear I will not let you down.”
Of course you won’t, thought Darlington. Because all that love and loyalty you think you feel for me, I have lodged in your breast so that I may ask such a thing of you, and you will not let me down.
“Good lad,” he said. “What a lark it will be! I’m rather in the mood to celebrate with some champagne.”
He had the quality of servant that he didn’t need to repeat an actual request to the footman by the door, for his desire to be met. Not five minutes later his butler entered, to preside over the footmen pouring champagne. He bore a letter on a salver.
“I didn’t like to interrupt you earlier, Your Grace.”
“Quite right, quite right,” said Darlington, and took the letter. He sipped his champagne. It cut through some of the pond scum his anxiety had left behind it, and he had to remind himself not to drain the glass. He opened the letter and smiled.
“Here is a victory, my darlings. Lord Liverpool writes to wish me a pleasant evening two nights hence at the ball, and on quite another note, as he would have it, wishes me to know that he has already drafted the bill for Lord Marmotte’s divorce from his wife.”
The clink of glasses, and toasts to a victory made small inroads into the room. Darlington watched his pretty butterflies, and pitied them all to be caught in his web. Crispin was the youngest of them, only twenty-two. Jewellyn was the eldest at thirty, one year younger than Darlington. They wore colours that hurt the eye, and their unique personal scents, concocted at great expense and pleasure, did battle with each other. Crispin wore his hair after Darlington’s own distinctive, stormy style, while Hopwell pomaded his into a great wave atop his head. He apparently hoped it would catch on and become a fad.
He should categorise them one day, into species and subspecies, each identifiable by his own unique markings.
“Is the lady so sure of making it up with you then, Your Grace?” asked Eugene, whose sub-species would be recognised by the monocle it insisted on wearing.
“You know I am not a difficult conquest,” he tittered. “Any lady may have me for the asking.” Any man too. He didn’t say it aloud, because the Dandies were his one exception.
“If only she hadn’t blabbed her desires to anyone who’d listen!” said Crispin. “Lord M is keeping so close an eye on you I daresay you couldn’t sneeze without his knowing it.”
“But then you wouldn’t have the felicity of playing your part on Sunday, my dove, and what fun would that be?”
“No, of course, I think it is delicious fun.”
A small disagreement broke out between Hopwell and Eugene regarding the level of deference they would be expected to pay the duke at the ball, and Jewellyn stepped in as mediator. He was doing quite well until Babylon came to his aid.
“Your Grace,” said Crispin beneath the hubbub, something wary and disquieting in his eyes. “The argument today, with the Earl of BenRuin, was that a surprise to you?”
“It would hardly have been gentlemanly to spit my coffee out when he arrived.”
“I just…it’s awfully impertinent in me to think it, but I couldn’t help wondering…”
“The suspense is killing me, dear boy.”
“Was that a game? Did you mean for it to happen? Because I’ve been wracking my brains, and I just can’t think what you meant to gain by it, if it was.”
First Grey, now Crispin. Soon Darlington might have to do away with even this small indulgence of company.
“You think far too much of me, if you suppose I can divine what that great lummox might do from one moment to the next!” he said. “I’ll be happy never to see him again in my life.”
“Don’t suppose he’ll attend on Sunday? Or the c-countess.”
“I believe the countess is attending, but that is no business of ours. Her husband has rather scared me away.”
“What’s this, Your Grace?” Jewellyn broke in. “Are we not to pay court to the countess any longer?”
“That’s coming it a bit rich,” said Babylon. “Always got something cutting to say about my waistcoats. Miss ’er.”
“I think the earl would like any excuse to part me from my head,” Darlington said. “And as I am rather attached to it, I’m afraid we shall have to bid the fair countess adieu.”
Lydia would not like it—not one bit. But just the thought of Lord BenRuin, and what Darlington had almost succeeded in driving him to do, made his heart begin to race. He forced it from his mind and accepted a second glass of champagne.
He would simply not allow himself near the edge again. He might not make it back down, next time.