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London, June 1763
The doors of the Savoir Faire club opened, throwing a path of light into
the midnight street, and causing a flurry among the idling servants. Linkboys ran forward, torches streaming, to offer the gentlemen light on their way home. A hovering footman blew a whistle, however, and a response shrilled back from one of the coaches lined up in the street. The coach's lamps sprang to light, and a groom could be seen removing nose bags from the two horses.
The liveried footman turned back to be sure the pesky linkboys didn't bother his master, the great Marquess of Rothgar, and his lordship's half-brother, Lord Bryght Malloren. With a few cheeky comments, the lads drifted back to an abandoned dice game in the shadows.
Despite precious lace gleaming pale at throat and wrist, and the flash of fire in jewels, the marquess and his brother didn't need protection. Both wore small swords, and gilded scabbards and ornamental ribbons did not make them any less lethal, especially in their hands.
They chatted as they waited for the coach to pull up in front of them. Then the doors of the fashionable club opened again, and a new group emerged laughing, one man singing badly out of tune.
Then the song changed:
"For chastity's a noble state,
A pity it don't wear, eh?
The lady doth protest too much
For the gentleman was bare, eh!"
Both brothers turned, swords hissing from their scabbards.
"I believe," the marquess said softly, "that song went out of fashion nearly two years back. You will, of course, apologize for being so out of style, sir?"
The song was one of the scurrilous ones which had flown about town when Lady Chastity Ware had been found in her bed with a naked man. The young lady had declared her innocence, but it had taken Malloren intervention to prove it, and have her restored to society. Chastity was now the wife of the marquess's youngest half-brother, Lord Cynric, now Lord Raymore.
The blond man who had been singing, disordered perhaps by drink, sneered at the swords. "Damned if I will. A man can sing a song."
"Not that one!" snapped Lord Bryght, blade point moving to touch the other man's throat. The singer didn't flinch, though his companions shrank back, pop-eyed.
The marquess used his blade tip to push his brother's away. "We'll have no street brawls, Bryght, or murders." He eyed the insolent singer. "Your name, sir?"
Most men in London would quail under the icy tone of the man many called the Dark Marquess, but this one only sneered more. "Curry, my lord. Sir Andrew Curry."
"Then, Sir Andrew, you will apologize for singing out of tune."
Nostrils flared, but the sneer stayed in place. "Don't tell me you're still trying to shovel blossoms over the dung heap, my lord marquess. Wealth and power can only do so much, and a stink will always linger."
"Especially in a corpse," the marquess remarked. "I fear we must meet, Sir Andrew. Your second?"
Instead of alarm, Curry smiled. "Giller?"
One of his hangers-on, overdressed and pug-faced, seemed to gulp, but said, "Of course, Curry. Your servant."
"Lord Bryght will act for me," said the marquess, "but we can settle the details I'm sure. Weapons?"
"Swords at nine, then, at the pond in St. James's Park. The one so popular for suicide." He sheathed his sword, then entered his crested carriage.
Lord Bryght sheathed his own sword, made wary by Curry's good humor.
"Giller? Step aside with me if you will."
"Why?" asked the pudgy man in alarm.
"Because you're my second, you numbskull," Curry said. "Lord Bryght is evidently meticulous about these things. Go and assure him that I won't apologize."
Giller teetered over on high heels, looking as if he feared to be skewered.
Bryght said, "It is our duty, Mr. Giller-"
"Sir Parkwood Giller, my lord."
"My apologies, Sir Parkwood. It is our duty to try to effect a reconciliation. Talk to Sir Andrew, and if he changes his mind, contact me at Malloren House, Marlborough Square."
"Changes his mind!" declared Giller. "Curry? I should think not. Try instead to convince the marquess not to commit suicide." He turned, nose in air, and teetered back to his friends.
So it was as he suspected. Curry was a professional duelist.
Bryght entered the carriage and it moved on, but behind them, singing started again. Bryght cursed but his brother put a hand on his arm. "It will be dealt with tomorrow in proper fashion, Bryght."
"Proper fashion? Why the devil are you fighting a man like that? You could have taken a whip to him for singing that song and no one would have objected."
"You think not? This is not autocratic France, and besides, he seemed intent on a duel."
"You aren't usually so obliging to those with intent," Bryght snapped, for it touched on an issue he'd come to London to raise. Now, however, was definitely not the time. If this went amiss, it would end the issue anyway.
Rothgar smiled slightly in the flickering light of the carriage lamp. "The duel would have been hard to avoid, Bryght, and I found myself curious as to who wants me dead."
Bryght looked at his brother. "So, you do know the man's reputation?"
"A bully and probably a cheat who gets away with it because people are afraid of his skill with a sword. He needs a lesson."
"But why from you?" Rothgar was good, damn good, but there was always someone better. He'd drilled that into his younger half-brothers when preparing them for the world.
Rothgar didn't answer, and Bryght remembered what he'd said. "You think he's a hired killer? Devil take it, Bey, who would want you dead?"
Rothgar turned one of his deceptively mild looks on him. "You think me unworthy of hate and fear?"
Bryght laughed-Rothgar often had that effect on him-but said, "He'll not make a killing matter out of it. Deadly duels can land a man in prison these days."
"What else is the point? And he's just the sort of rootless rogue to flee to France without a care, especially with a large bag of blood money for comfort."
"That's the interesting question. I fail to see any enemies who would go to such extremes. Rather lowering, really. Surely the passion of one's enemies should mark the stature of one's triumphs."
"You probably have enemies you don't even know about." Rothgar's almost playful mood made Bryght snappish. "The trouble with being the 'Dark Marquess,' and the éminence noire of England is it makes it easy for anyone to blame their misfortunes on you."
Rothgar laughed. "Like a warty village crone? The sort simple people blame for every misshaped child or suddenly dead sheep?"
Bryght had to laugh, too, for a less likely image for his elegant, sophisticated brother was hard to imagine. As the coach halted in the front courtyard of Malloren House, however, humor faded. Did someone want his brother dead?
After a restless night, he was still asking that question the next morning when their coach arrived at the area of St. James's Park close to the gloomy pond. "Devil take it! Why are there so many people here? This is a duel, not a theatrical performance."
"Is there any difference?" Rothgar asked dryly as he climbed out of the carriage. Bryght could not know if his brother had slept well, but he seemed his normal, unruffled self.
Bryght climbed down, staring around at the crowd. Most of London Society seemed to be here-the male part at least. Behind the fashionable circle in lace and braid clustered the lower orders, bobbing up and down to try to see. Some, by Hades, carried children on their shoulders, and a number of men, women, and children were up in nearby trees. In the distance, people massed in the windows of overlooking houses. Flashes of reflected sunlight told him some had telescopes.
Anything his brother did was cause for public excitement, but this was damned improper for a meeting of honor. Who the devil had alerted the world? It almost turned the duel into a joke.
Then Bryght noticed Lord Selwyn at the front of the crowd. Selwyn had a morbid taste for public executions, and traveled Europe to watch the most gruesome. He wouldn't have risen early from his bed for a joke.
Selwyn, at least, expected to enjoy a death here today.
Bryght realized that he was staring around in far too revealing a manner. He forced himself to relax, pulled out a silver box, and took a pinch of snuff. Though he'd abandoned London's games for the country when he married, he still knew the rules. One did not show fear or even concern over personal safety. Rarely in private. Never in public.
Or, as in the animal world, they'd tear you apart.
He turned his attention to Rothgar's opponent. Curry was already down to shirt and breeches, showing a body that was whipcord thin and strong. Height and reach must be similar to his brother's.
Bryght wished to hell Cyn was here. Despite a lack of height Cyn had that extra something, that instinct and reflex that made a true swordsman. He was just possibly better than Rothgar. This was even Cyn's fight since the insult was to his wife.
Curry took his rapier from an attendant to begin some practice passes and lunges.
"Plague take it," Bryght muttered. "He's left-handed."
"A truly sinister advantage," Rothgar remarked as his valet eased him out
of his coat. "I know."
It was like a rap on the knuckles. Of course Rothgar knew. His brother never moved into even a casual encounter without research. Between last night and now he'd doubtless discovered how many bugs Curry had in his bed.
"As I thought, he's good," Rothgar said as his valet relieved him of his long waistcoat. "He's fought three duels in England and won them all, leaving his opponents with nasty but nonlethal wounds. Rumor says he's killed two men in France."
Bryght drew on his training to act as unconcerned as his brother, but real worry churned. Rothgar practiced regularly wiith a master, and had insiste that all his brothers did the same as protection against just this sort of incident. A trumped-up excuse for a duel.
But was he good enough?
Fettler, his brother's valet, was calmly folding the discarded coat and waistcoat. The liveried footman who held his master's inlaid and gilded rapier case looked unalarmed. Clearly in the servants' eyes Rothgar was already cast in the role of victor. Bryght wished he had that ignorant security. No match between skilled swordsmen was ever certain.
Rothgar turned to him. "Go. Do your secondary duties."
"What are my primary ones?"
His brother twisted off his ruby signet and passed it over. "To take up my burden if things go awry." With a slight smile, he added, "Pray, my dear, for my success."
"Don't be damned stupid."
"You thirst after the marquisate?"
"You know I don't. I meant, of course I pray for your success."
"But I doubt either of us have voices heard by angels. Go, therefore, and make a last attempt at peace."
"Is there any basis upon which you would?"
Rothgar was tucking his lace ruffles into his cuff. "But of course! Am I an animal? If he crawls over here on his knees begging forgiveness, he may flee into exile unharmed."
Though his own terms would be exactly the same, Bryght felt like rolling his eyes as he walked partway between the two groups and waited. The chance of apology was nonexistent, but one must always go through the correct steps.
Sir Parkwood Giller minced forward to meet him, clearly enjoying his central role in this popular drama. He even produced a gaudy, lace-edged handkerchief to flourish as he bowed too low in a sickening cloud of cheap perfume. "My lord!"
Bryght cloaked his disgust and gave the slightest possible bow. "I come to ask if your principal has realized his error."
"Error!" The handkerchief wafted again. It could constitute a secret weapon.
"Lud, no, my lord. But if the marquess realizes that his offense was misplaced-"
"Not at all. Everyone knows-"
"Giller, the days in which seconds engaged in combat are past, but I will oblige you if you insist."
Handkerchiefs at twenty paces. No, make it thirty.
White showed around Giller's eyes-or bloodshot pink to be precise. "No . . . not at all, my lord. I assure you!"
"How wise." Bryght then stated his brother's terms, at which Giller's snub nose pinched and he stiffened in affront. "Then the duel goes on, my lord!"
"It is your duty to put the terms to your principal, as I will put Curry's to mine." With a sharp bow, Bryght returned to his brother.
"Complete acceptance that Chastity is a trollop, of course."
Rothgar, warming and loosening his muscles, didn't respond. Bryght didn't say more, knowing his brother had a way of settling and focusing his mind before swordplay. It wasn't something he himself had ever been able to do well, which was doubtless why Rothgar and Cyn could always defeat him in the end.
Come to think of it, fire-eating Cyn didn't seem to do much mental settling before a contest either. With him it was pure lightning brilliance. Bryght wished again Cyn was here. He'd slice Curry to ribbons and enjoy every minute of it. Six years of soldiering had hardened him to death-dealing to a remarkable degree.
Everyone was waiting now for Rothgar to indicate he was ready. Bryght certainly didn't want to rush him, but he wished they'd get on with it, get it over with. Of course, it was quite likely this delay was designed to put Curry off balance. The man had already stopped his exercises and taken to marching back and forth in obvious impatience, playing to the crowd.
The crowd, though restive, showed no signs of siding with Curry in this. When death hovered, impatience was gauche.
As if judging his moment, Rothgar paused, straightened, gave Bryght one of his rare smiles, then walked into the center of the space.
Gad, but he was magnificent.
He always moved with a fluid grace, but before swordplay it changed slightly, as if the balance of his whole body shifted a lethal fraction. Of course, he'd taken off his heeled shoes, but he'd also dropped the studied grace of the courtier and released the beauty of the predator beneath.
Tall, broad-shouldered, lean, and muscled-the truth was no longer disguised by the elegance and artifice of the fashionablle nobleman. A hush settled o the crowd, and Bryght knew it was more than anticipation of the duel. It was awe.
Everyone was familiar with the aristocrat who wielded great influence in England without taking political office. Few, however, had previously seen beneath the manners, wit, and silk.
Bryght wondered if Rothgar's reluctance to indulge in duels was not just that he had better things to do. Perhaps he disliked exposing this extra layer of power. It declared itself now in his strong body and lean features, still and focused on his deadly opponent.
Curry didn't seem to feel the change. With an audible huff, he stalked confidently to meet his opponent, only then settling into fencer's stance, and a rather rigid version.
Bryght relaxed slightly. Perhaps they were uneven after all.
Not enough. From the first click of the swords, Curry too changed, and it was clear he deserved his reputation. More of a fire-eater than a scientist, he was still strong, quick and skilled, and had that advantage of being left-handed. He even possessed some of the magic spark that took sword fighting beyond speed and mechanics, a separate sense that made him able to avoid the unavoidable, and take advantage of the slightest slip.
The light but lethal blades tapped and slithered, stockinged feet padded back and forth on the springy grass, agile bodies flexed and twisted, recovered, extended, retracted, lunged. . . .
Attacking blades were beaten back, but not always without contact. Soon, despite the cool morning air, both men poured sweat, and hair flew free of ribbons. Both shirts were gashed red. No more than scratches yet, but Bryght's heart was racing as his brother's must be. Plague take it but it was close. A slip could settle this, or it might come down to endurance.
The two men fought in silence to the music of the blades, all concentration in eye and hand, and on the sword-the flexible extension of the hand, arm, and body. Agile feet and strong legs moved them back and forth with lethal speed. Both must know it was even, for they pushed the risks now, hunting the falter.
Curry thrust high, forcing an awkward parry that still sent the point slicing across Rothgar's shoulder. Curry was ready with an echo thrust to the heart, but by some miracle Rothgar kept his balance and knocked the rapier wide.
Both men stepped back, panting and dripping, then lunged forward again. It could not go much longer. Then Rothgar parried another clever thrust and extended, extended almost beyond strength and balance so his rapier point penetrated Curry's chest just below the breastbone. Not deep enough to kill. Not even deep enough to seriously wound. But instinct staggered the man back, shocked, hand to the wound, and the crowd gasped.
Perhaps they thought him killed.
Perhaps he thought the same.
With a rapid flick, Rothgar pinked him in the thigh so blood ran free. Curry tried to collect himself, to get back his balance and control, but Rothgar's sword flickered past a confused defense of the heart to pierce deep into his left shoulder.
The maiming wound. Curry would live, but unless he was very lucky, he would not use a sword with his left arm again.
Bryght realized he'd stopped breathing, and sucked in air. All around, cheers and applause made this seem absurdly like a popular scene at the opera.
Curry, to give him credit, seized his fallen sword in his right hand and tried to go on, but Rothgar disarmed him in a few moves. His sword rested at the man's heaving chest, poised with intent over the false wound. Still sucking in breaths, he said, "I assume you are now . . . resolved to sing songs that are up to date and in tune?"
Rage flared in Curry's eyes, the rage of one who'd never been defeated, who had thought himself invulnerable, and in a way still did. "Singing be damned. Lady Chastity Ware was a whore, and still is-"
He died, his heart pierced, before more filth could spew forth.
Reprinted from Devilish by Jo Beverley by permission of Signet Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Jo Beverley. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.