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London's Hyde Park was decked out in all the splendor of a May morning. Sunlight beamed down from a clear blue sky and twinkled off a million dewdrops, giving a fresh, newly washed appearance to trees and grass. It was a perfect setting for the customary promenade along fashionable Rotten Row, the riders cantering along the wide stretch of turf that ran from Hyde Park Corner to Queen's Gate, the pedestrians strolling on the footpath beside it, separated from the equestrians by a sturdy rail.
Perfect except for one discordant detail. In the middle of an open stretch of grass well within sight of the Row some sort of commotion was rapidly drawing a crowd of the curious. That it was a fight became quickly evident. Not a duel-there were four participants instead of two and the morning was far too well advanced-but an indecorous outbreak of fisticuffs.
Gentlemen, and a few ladies too, rode closer to see what was transpiring. Many of the gentlemen stayed to watch the progress of the fight, their interest in the morning considerably piqued. A few, those unfortunate enough to be escorting ladies, were obliged to ride hastily onward since it was most certainly not a genteel sight for female eyes. Some pedestrians too approached the scene along the path that ran close by and either hurried on past or drew closer, depending largely upon their gender.
"Scandalous!" one haughty male voice declared above the hubbub of the crowd gathered about the empty square in which the brawl was proceeding apace. "Someone ought to summon a constable. Riffraff should not be allowed into the park to offend the sensibilities of decent folk."
But although the shabby garments and generally grubby, unkempt appearance of three of the participants in the fight proclaimed them to be undoubtedly of the very lowest classes, the elegant though scant clothing and general bearing of the fourth told an entirely different story.
"It is Ravensberg, sir," the Honorable Mr. Charles Rush explained to the outraged Marquess of Burleigh.
The name was apparently explanation enough. The marquess raised a quizzing glass to his eye and from the vantage point of his position on horseback peered through it over the heads of those on foot at Viscount Ravensberg, who was stripped to the waist and at that particular moment was having much the worst of the encounter. He had an assailant clamped on each arm while the third pummeled him with hearty enthusiasm in the stomach.
"Scandalous!" the marquess declared again, while all about him gentlemen cheered or jeered, and two or three were even engaged in laying wagers upon the outcome of such a seemingly unequal contest. "I did not believe I would live to see even Ravensberg stoop so low as to brawl with riffraff."
"Shame!" someone else called as the red-haired giant who was doing the pummeling changed the direction of his assault and planted a fist in his victim's undefended right eye, snapping his neck back in the process. "Three against one is no fair odds."
"But he would not accept our assistance," Lord Arthur Kellard protested with some indignation. "He made the challenge-and insisted that three against one suited him admirably."
"Ravensberg challenged riffraff?" the marquess asked with considerable disdain.
"They dared to be insolent after he rebuked them for accosting a milkmaid," Mr. Rush explained. "But he would not simply chastise them with his whip as the rest of us suggested. He insisted-oh, I say!"
This exclamation was occasioned by Lord Ravensberg's response to the punch in the eye. He laughed, an incongruously merry sound, and suddenly lashed out neatly with one slim leg and caught his unwary assailant beneath the chin with the toe of his boot. There was a loud cracking of bone and clacking of teeth. At the same moment he took advantage of the astonishment of the two who held his arms and twisted free of them. He spun around to face them in a half crouch, his arms outstretched, his fingers beckoning. He was grinning.
"Come on, you buggers," he invited profanely. "Or do the odds suddenly appear less to your advantage?"
The opponent whose jaw had just been shattered might have thought so. But although his eyes were open, he appeared more intent upon counting stars wheeling in the morning sky than considering odds.
There was a roar of appreciation from the ever growing crowd of spectators.
Viscount Ravensberg showed to far better advantage without his shirt than with it. A gentleman of medium height and slender grace, he had doubtless appeared an easy mark to the three thugs who had taken him on with a collective smirk of insolent contempt a few minutes before. But the slim legs, encased in fashionable buff riding breeches and top boots, showed themselves to be impressively well muscled now that he had descended from the saddle. And his naked chest, shoulders, and arms were those of a man who had exercised and honed his body to its fullest potential. The white seams of numerous scars on his forearms and chest and one the length of the underside of his jaw on the left side proclaimed the fact, as his clothes did not, that at one time he had been a military man.
"Atrocious language to use in a public place," the marquess remarked disdainfully. "And an unseemly display of flesh. And all over a milkmaid, you say? Ravensberg is a disgrace to his name. I pity his father."
But no one, not even Mr. Rush, to whom his remarks were addressed, was paying him any attention. Two of the bullies who had thought to amuse themselves by coaxing unwilling kisses from an unaccompanied milkmaid in the park were taking turns rushing at the viscount, who was laughing and repulsing them with his jabbing fists every time they came within range. Those who knew him were well aware that he spent a few hours of most days at Jackson's boxing saloon, sparring with partners far his superior in height and weight.
"Sooner or later," he said conversationally, "you are going to put together your two half-brains to make one whole and realize that you would stand a far better chance against me if you attacked simultaneously."
"This is not a sight for ladies," the marquess said sternly. "The Duchess of Portfrey is walking past with her niece."
But although one gentleman detached himself hastily-and perhaps reluctantly-from the crowd at mention of the duchess's name, his lordship's disapproving voice was largely drowned out by a roar of enthusiasm as the viscount's remaining two assailants took his advice and charged him in tandem, only to find their progress checked when he reached out his arms and cracked their heads together. They went down as if their four legs had turned to jelly, and they remained down.
"Bravo, Ravensberg!" someone called above the chorus of whistles and cheers.
" 'E's bloomin' broke my jaw, 'e 'as," the third young man complained, clutching it with both hands and turning over on the grass to spit blood and at least one tooth onto the grass. He had abandoned counting stars but did not look as if he were about to resume the fight.
The viscount was laughing again as he wiped his palms on his breeches. "It was too easy, by Jove," he said. "I expected better sport from three of London's choicest laboring men. They hardly merited my getting off my horse. They were definitely not worth stripping down for. If they had ever been in my regiment in the Peninsula, by thunder, I would have put them in the front line to shield the worthier men behind them."
But the morning had one more incident of interest to offer-both for him and for the cheering spectators. The milkmaid who had been the unwitting cause of the fracas came hurtling across the grass toward him-the crowd parted obligingly to let her through-flung her arms about his neck, and pressed her person against his.
"Oh, thank you, thank you, your worship," she cried fervently, "for saving a girl's virtue. I'm a good girl, I am, and they would of stole a kiss or p'raps worse if you 'adn't 'appened along to save me. But I'll kiss you, I will. For a reward, like, being as you earned it an' all."
She was plump and shapely and ruddily pretty and drew shrill whistles and admiring, bawdy comments from the spectators. Viscount Ravensberg grinned at her before dipping his head and availing himself of her offer with lingering thoroughness. He tossed her a half sovereign along with a wink from his good eye when he was finished, and assured her that she was indeed a good girl.
There were more whistles as she made her unhurried departure, all dimples and saucily swaying hips.
"Scandalous!" the marquess said one more time. "In broad daylight too! But what can one expect of Ravensberg?"
The viscount heard him and turned to sketch him an ironic bow. "I perform a public service, sir," he said. "I provide topics for drawing- room conversation that are somewhat more lively than the weather and the state of the nation's health."
"I believe," Mr. Rush said with a chuckle as the marquess rode on, his back ramrod straight and almost visibly bristling with disapproval, "you are barely whispered about by the more genteel, Ravensberg. You had better come to White's and get a beefsteak on that eye. That rascal gave you one deuce of a shiner."
"Hurts like a thousand devils," the viscount admitted cheerfully. "Egad, life should always be so exhilarating. My shirt, if you please, Farrington."
He looked about him after taking it from the hand of Lord Farrington, to whom his clothes had been entrusted at the start of the fight. The crowd was dispersing. He raised his eyebrows.
"Frightened all the ladies away, did I?" He squinted off in the direction of Rotten Row as if searching for one in particular.
"It is an alarmingly public place, Ravensberg," Lord Farrington said, laughing with him. "And you were bare to the waist."
"Ah," the viscount said carelessly, taking his coat from his friend and shrugging into it, "but I have a reputation for wild living to live up to, you see-though I believe I must have done my duty by it for one morning." He frowned suddenly. "What the devil are we to do with these two slumbering bodies, do you suppose?"
"Leave them to sleep it off?" Lord Arthur suggested. "I am late for my breakfast, Ravensberg, and that eye is crying out for attention. The mere sight of it is enough to threaten one's appetite."
"You, fellow." The viscount raised his voice as he drew another coin out of his pocket and tossed it onto the grass beside the only one of his opponents who was conscious. "Revive your friends and take them to the nearest alehouse before a constable arrives to convey them elsewhere. I daresay a tankard or two of ale each will help restore you all to a semblance of good health. And bear in mind for the future that when milkmaids say no they probably mean no. It is a simple fact of language. Yes means yes, no means no."
"Bloody 'ell," the man mumbled, still holding his jaw with one hand while setting the other over the coin. "I'll never so much as look at another wench, guv."
The viscount laughed and swung himself up into the saddle of his horse, whose bridle Mr. Rush had been holding.
"Breakfast," he announced gaily, "and a juicy beefsteak for my eye. Lead the way, Rush."
A few minutes later Hyde Park in the vicinity of Rotten Row was its usual elegant, tonnish self, all traces of the scandalous brawl vanished. But it was one more incident to add to the lengthy list of wild indiscretions for which Christopher "Kit" Butler, Viscount Ravensberg, had become sadly notorious.
"I cannot tell you," the Duchess of Portfrey had been saying to her niece a few minutes earlier, "what a delight it is to have your company, Lauren. My marriage is proving more of a joy than I ever expected, and Lyndon is remarkably attentive, even now that I am in expectation of an interesting event. But he cannot live in my pocket all the time, the poor dear. We were both pleased beyond words when you accepted our invitation to stay with us until after my confinement."
The Honorable Miss Lauren Edgeworth smiled. "We both know," she said, "that you are doing me a far greater favor than I can possibly be doing you, Elizabeth. Newbury Abbey had become intolerable to me."
She had been in London for two weeks, but neither she nor the duchess had touched upon the underlying reason for her being here until now. Elizabeth's supposed need for Lauren's company while she awaited the birth of her first child two months hence had been merely a convenient excuse. Of course it had.
"Life does go on, Lauren," Elizabeth said at last. "But I will not belittle your grief by enlarging upon that theme. It would be insensitive of me, especially when I have never experienced anything to compare with what you have suffered-and when I have finally found my own happiness. Though that fact in itself may be of some reassurance to you. I was all of six and thirty when I married Lyndon last autumn."
The Duke of Portfrey was indeed attentive to his wife, with whom he was clearly deeply in love. Lauren smiled her acknowledgment of the words of intended comfort. They strolled onward through Hyde Park, as they had done each morning since Lauren's arrival, except for the three days when it had rained. The broad, grassy expanses on either side of the path looked enticingly and deceptively rural despite the frequent glimpses they afforded of other pedestrians and riders. It was as if a piece of the countryside had been tossed down into the middle of one of the largest, busiest cities in the world and had survived there, untainted by commerce.
They were approaching Rotten Row, from which Lauren had shrunk in some alarm the first time Elizabeth had suggested they walk there two weeks before. The morning gathering was nothing like the crush of the fashionable afternoon promenade in the park, it was true, but even so there were too many people to see and-more significant-to be seen by. She had thought she would never find the courage to face the beau monde after the fiasco of last year.
Last year half the ton had been gathered at Newbury Abbey in Dorsetshire to celebrate the wedding of Lauren Edgeworth to Neville Wyatt, Earl of Kilbourne. There had been a grand wedding eve ball, at which Lauren had thought it was impossible to feel any happier-and how horrifyingly prophetic that thought had proved to be! And then there had been the wedding itself at the village church, which had been packed to the doors with the creme de la creme of the beau monde-a wedding that had been interrupted just as Lauren was about to step into the nave, on her grandfather's arm, by the sudden appearance of the wife Neville had thought long dead and of whose very existence Lauren and his whole family had been totally unaware.