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The Marriage Bargain
By Diane Perkins
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2005 Diane Perkins
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSpring 1816
Mist still clung to the grass in a field on the outskirts of London near the Uxbridge Road. Only the barest peek of dawn glimmered on the horizon. Spencer Keenan paced the length of the field and back, mist swirling around his feet like smoke above a cauldron.
"This is utter nonsense." His friend Blake's voice sounded crisp and clear in the damp air. It was also filled with exasperation.
Spence turned to him. "Nonsense it may be, sir, but the idiot accused me of cheating. What else was I to do but call him out?" He gave a wry grin. "You are my second. You were supposed to prevent settling the matter on the field of honor."
Blake shook his head. "Damnedest thing, Spence. There was no reasoning with these fellows."
As the heavy dew stained his boots, Spence crossed over to where Blake waited. Their other friend, Wolfe, paced nearby. Who else but these two men would have stood by him through this foolishness? At this ungodly hour as well.
Spence glanced at them, Blake rocking on his heels, hands in his coat pockets, Wolfe prowling back and forth at the edge of the road, checking every two seconds to see if a coach was coming. Spence saw not the tall, imposing exsoldiers they were, but the young, skinny lads he'd befriended at Eton. He grinned again, this time at the memory of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these two against larger, older bullies. And of sitting in the dark, risking more brutality from the upperclassmen for not being abed, naming themselves The Ternion, one plus one plus one, stronger together than apart. Even Napoleon, the biggest bully of them all, had been unable to vanquish them.
Wolfe, still searching the fog-filled road, walked over to where Spence and Blake stood. Spence glanced from one to the other. Theobold Blakewell, Viscount Blakewell, with his impeccable breeding and good looks that never failed to make the ladies swoon. Gideon Wolfe, as dark as Blake was fair, the son of an East India Company nabob and a half-Indian mother, always ready to fight anyone who dared take issue with that fact. And finally Spence himself, Earl of Kellworth, resisting the use and confines of his title ever since the reckless accident that caused his brother's death eight years before.
Spence laughed out loud. The Ternion stood shoulder-to-shoulder this day because of one foolish young cub who dared accuse Spence of cheating at cards. That night, the whole of White's game room had pleaded with young Lord Esmund to render an apology to Spence. Blake and Wolfe had demanded it. But Esmund, looking as frightened as a cornered fox, with hair every bit as red, had shaken his head like a willful child, refusing to retract his ill-conceived words. And Spence, feeling a leaden dismay, had been left with no other choice but to call Esmund out to this duel at dawn.
Wolfe turned to Spence with a furrowed brow. "The stripling cannot have any skill with the pistol."
Spence, on the other hand, had accrued almost a decade of war in which to hone his skill, but that need not be said.
"As we all well know," agreed Spence. Blake slapped Spence on the shoulder. "You might actually hit the fellow and kill him, you know. Then what? We all dash off to the Continent before you are hanged for murder?" Blake gave him a teasing expression. "I have had my fill of France, Spence, old fellow. I pray you will make a dumb shot."
"Shoot into the air?" Spence pretended to bristle. "I cannot so dishonor myself."
For all his levity, Spence's gut twisted painfully at the unlikely prospect he might draw the blood of that foolish pup. Spence had spilled the life-blood of many an enemy, but this mere boy was not his foe, and Spence had no desire to end one more young life merely to preserve his good name.
Besides, he no more relished fleeing to the Continent than Blake did. Why, the Ternion had just begun to sample London's delights. There was sport, gaming, and drink aplenty still to enjoy.
Spence set his chin in resolve. He would simply use his skill to make it appear as if he aimed directly at Esmund's vitals. With any luck, the pistol ball would not go wayward and accidentally kill the fellow.
"You could kill him, Spence." Wolfe's voice was as serious as Blake's had been jesting.
"I shall try my best to miss him." Spence patted his friend's arm.
Spence paced again. He hated being backed into a corner like this. He detested confinement of any kind, such as a flight to the Continent would impose. Not now when they were free to go and do as they pleased. The Ternion were still young and unfettered. At least Blake and Wolfe were unfettered, and Spence had arranged his responsibilities in a way that very nearly demanded no attention at all. In time the Ternion must change. Eventually Blake and Wolfe would want to settle themselves, and their adventuring would come to an end.
The familiar restlessness pounded at Spence's chest. How long before Blake and Wolfe desired to marry and set up their nurseries? Not long, he suspected.
For some odd reason he thought about his wife, Emma, residing safely at Kellworth Hall. Blake and Wolfe had never understood the bargain he'd made with her, the wife they had never met. But neither had Blake and Wolfe understood his decisions about his inheritance and property. Spence had managed all these matters very well, had he not? There was no reason to speak to Blake and Wolfe about them now. No reason to mention Emma.
"I have examined the pistols." Blake's voice cut through Spence's thoughts like his boots had split the mist. "An extremely fine set. Made by Manton."
Blake, as any good second ought, had negotiated all aspects of the duel, especially the pistols. He lifted a finger and shook it at Spence. "What foxes me is where a nodcock like Esmund would acquire such a pair."
Spence good-naturedly pushed Blake's arm aside. "Devil if I know."
"I insisted upon firing them both," Blake went on. Blake had been meticulous about the duel, as meticulous as he was about the tailoring of his coat or the cleanliness of his linen. He tugged at the snow white cuffs of his shirt. "Seems to me both pistols pulled to the left."
Perhaps Blake was succumbing to a fit of nerves, Spence thought, because this must have been the fifth time he'd mentioned the pistols pulling to the left. Spence bit down the impulse to tease his friend about turning soft after only a month of civilian life.
As in all else, the Ternion had together sold their commissions, all agreeing they'd had enough of war after Waterloo, when their regiment, the 28th Regiment of Foot, bore the onslaught of wave after wave of French cavalry.
Wolfe gazed toward the road for the hundredth time. "Where do you suppose Esmund found a surgeon willing to risk attendance at a duel?"
Blake shrugged. "His brother located the man." He gave a soft laugh. "Can you imagine what sort of surgeon would take the risk? I pray he is not needed."
So did Spence, who wheeled around and trod into the field again, busying himself in judging distances, searching for a tree branch or rooftop or something in the distance that would make a good place to aim.
The mist thinned as the sky grew lighter, but the morning's unseasonable chill gave Spence a shiver. The plain brown coat Blake and Wolfe insisted he wear had no buttons. "Nothing to give Esmund a place to aim," Blake had told him. "Stand sideways," he'd also instructed. "But turn your head toward him." Spence had listened, nodding agreeably, going along with the instructions as if he did not already know this trick of making himself as small a target as possible.
"I hear a carriage." Wolfe stepped into the road to check. The dark chaise clattered into view, rumbling to a stop not far from where Wolfe stood. Two men stepped out. Lord Esmund was hatless, and his shock of red hair glowed in the early-morning light. Spence studied him. The fool was in debt to his ears from gambling, and naught but a boy, barely of age, but only five years younger than Spence himself. Esmund was as unfledged as a bird just pecking out of its shell. He played at a man's game, however, and Spence figured he was too green to even know it.
Blake and another young man who, with his red hair, had to be Esmund's brother, Lord John, bent their heads together in conference. A third man stumbled out of the carriage, a bulbous creature with an unkempt coat and a weave to his step.
Wolfe strolled up to Spence. "The surgeon looks as if he's been dipping deep into his medicine." "His brandy, more like." Spence laughed. "Precisely." Wolfe looked grim.
Spence and Wolfe tried to overhear the discussion between the two seconds.
"I'll be glad when this is over and we might get some breakfast," Spence whispered.
"It still makes no sense why the boy carried things this far." Wolfe frowned.
"Spence?" Blake called to him as casually as if asking him to gaze upon some interesting shard of antiquity. He walked over.
Blake's handsome features appeared chiseled in stone, as they always looked before battle. "The pistols are loaded."
Spence nodded as Wolfe joined them, a deep line between his eyebrows. "I dislike this whole matter, Spence. It smells rank."
Wolfe always smelled trouble, but at the moment Spence did not care what drove Esmund to make his false accusation. He merely wanted to get the business over with, so the three of them could set off toward that fine inn they'd passed on the way. He was hungry for eggs and ham and a pint of brew.
Spence glanced at his offender, who shook like a wagon rolling down a stony road. God help the lad. Esmund would be lucky not to shoot himself in the foot. Spence gave Wolfe a wry smile. "In any event, there's nothing to be done but see it through."
Lord John handed Esmund the pistol. To the young man's credit, he seemed to garner some backbone. His trembling eased a bit.
Returning to his customary cocky smile, Blake handed Spence the other pistol. Its stock was walnut, textured to keep from slipping in a sweating palm. The barrel was heavy and nearly as thick at the muzzle as at the breech. Sighting ought to be more accurate. If this pistol contained some of Manton's secret rifling, it would be more accurate still. All in all, it was a fine weapon.
Blake and Lord John consulted their watches. "Stations, gentlemen," Blake announced.
Spence and Esmund each counted out twelve paces and turned, arms at their sides, pistols pointed to the ground. The scent of new grass and honeysuckle filled Spence's nostrils. In the distance a cock crowed. The breeze was light but bracing on his cheek. It was like any fine day in the country.
"As agreed, you will fire simultaneously at my signal." Blake used his best captain's voice. Its volume threatened to summon the magistrate from the next county.
Spence drew in a breath, held it, and watched Blake from the corner of his eye.
"Attend!" Blake called, his white handkerchief raised high above his head. "Present!"
Spence's heart accelerated. He raised his arm, glancing from the church spire just visible over Esmund's shoulder back to Blake. Blake's fingers opened and the handkerchief fluttered from them like a butterfly in flight. Spence fired.
Through the smoke from his pistol, he spied Esmund, frozen in place. Unbloodied, thank God. The barrel of Esmund's pistol swayed up and down, back and forth.
Spence turned his face to him, unflinching. He'd stood fast countless times as French soldiers charged straight for him. Their sabers and pistol balls had not killed him then, and Esmund's swaying hand was more likely to shoot one of the birds soaring overhead.
Suddenly Esmund's face contorted and he emitted a sound more like a sob than a battle cry.
Fire and smoke flashed from the barrel, and the crack of the pistol broke through the air. Spence heard the pistol ball zing toward him. He smiled and thought of how cool the ale would feel on his throat.
The ball hit Spence with a dull thud. Its force knocked him backward as it passed through his coat, through his shirt, and, with a sharp, piercing pain, into his flesh.
He realized with a shock that he had been hit and was falling backward. This was not the way the Ternion should end.
Then, as if time stood still, Spence thought of his wife. He remembered her youth, her vulnerability, her gratitude when he'd married her-in name only. He opened his mouth to beg Blake and Wolfe protect her, because now he could not. The only sound that came from his mouth was a moan.
Emma, he thought as his head seemed to explode against something hard on the ground. Forgive me.
Excerpted from The Marriage Bargain by Diane Perkins Copyright © 2005 by Diane Perkins.
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