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He had a regrettable weakness for beauty: in horses, in clothes, in art, in women. He was known for it. That he was also generally considered dangerous amused him, though not because that assessment was false. He was just about to discover his mistress burning his clothes in the street in front of his townhouse. Yet Robert Dovenby's first reaction was simply that it was a damned unfortunate moment to be riding a young, half-trained stallion in Mayfair.
With a slightly corrosive smile, Dove brought his mount firmly back to the ground.
A bloodred flame of muscle and spirit, with fine-boned glossy black legs and the fierce eye of an angel, the bay sidled and fretted, the bit clinking.
A light mist curled about the chimneys. Moisture lay on stone and wrought iron like fresh paint. Yet a crowd had gathered on foot, abandoning carriages and sedan chairs to the encroaching winter dusk, while a fitful column of smoke rose from their midst.
Dove glanced up. His bedroom window stood open, a scrap of lace caught forlornly on the sill.
With their canes and quizzing glasses, silks and lace, the flower of London society was obviously waiting for him, Robert Sinclair Dovenby, to return home.
He wove a cocoon of persuasion with legs, back, and reins. Abdiel minced forward.
Like a field of daisies honoring the sun, every powdered head turned in anticipation as the stallion cleaved through the crowd. At their center Lady Margaret, Countess of Grenham, was feeding a bonfire with a fortune in clothes.
Shock and disbelief tore his first wry impulse to mirth into shreds.
Clever and splendid, daughter and granddaughter of dukes, Meg was the toast and arbiter of fashionable London. Her favor had brought him indulgence, granted him opportunities, opened doors, and given him some of the loveliest days and nights of his life.
He owed her everything.
Now she was publicly shattering his social survival, his credit, his future -- and their relationship. He had no idea why.
Yet the audience waited. The air shimmered with their eagerness: to witness a duel of wits -- if not of blood -- with every expectation, in their ravenous world, to see the loser eaten alive.
Whatever his distress, whatever his feelings about Meg, Dove could not afford to lose. Neither, of course, could he afford to win.
Her hem brushed through drifts of exquisite embroidery, discreet silks, translucently fine linens, scattered haphazardly over the cobbles. She selected a coat of dark-gray cut velvet and tossed it into her fire. The velvet smoldered, belching ruinously expensive smoke, before the flames caught and the coat blazed.
The glorious, unassailable Lady Grenham, destroying a triviality.
Hooves rang an uneven staccato on the flagstones.
By pure force of will Dove rode his agitated bay up to the bonfire. The fire crackled. The horse's fractured breathing reverberated. All human sound died away.
Meg glanced up, her face lovely, intelligent, bright with anger. "So what do you make of my bonfire, sir? A pretty enough blaze, don't you think?"
Dove bowed from the saddle and spoke, as he must if he was going to survive this, not only for her. "Indeed, Lady Grenham. A perfect funeral pyre to our friendship, so well represented by these few gaudy trappings. Let them burn!"
It was a monstrous untruth, or had been, but she laughed and began to throw his boots, then his shoes, into her fire. Buckles melted in a blaze of multicolored flame.
"Do you dare to hold me at no value, sir?"
"Ma'am, you are a diamond among pearls: more brilliant, more valuable, more magnificent -- and with a sharper cutting edge, of course."
The crowd laughed behind flamboyant handkerchiefs. Meg gathered an armful of fabric.
"Yet you would allow your cheap strumpet--"
"I' faith, ma'am, to which strumpet do you refer? London breeds strumpets faster than your bonfire consumes shirts."
Billowing silk hit the fire.
"But do they all burn as furiously--"
"As you did for me? Hard to say, ma'am."
The audience's amusement exploded. Abdiel careened sideways. Color flooded Meg's skin, like paper catching fire.
"Lud, sir, you deserve to get thrown!" There was -- appallingly -- heartbreak as well as anger in her voice. "Damn you for a faithless, brazen-faced bastard!"
"Allow me to claim brazen and bastard, ma'am, though I defy any horse -- even this one -- to unseat me."
Daring fate, he slipped the reins into one hand and unbuttoned his coat. The bay skidded as Dove tossed the contents of his pockets -- pistol, snuffbox, his pair-cased silver watch by Joseph Antram of London -- to his groom, who now stood, mouth agape, in the crowd. Bending Abdiel in a tight circle, Dove managed to shrug out of the coat sleeves. A feat of some difficulty, but he was just lucky enough to do it.
"Pray, burn this jacket, also, ma'am. I never cared for the cut." He flung her his full-skirted coat, then winked as he swept off his tricorn. "And this hat has gone quite out of style!"
The onlookers cheered as Meg caught the hat.
Her eyes now held a hint of trapped laughter, as if she already saw the absurdity in what she had done and in his outrageous response to it. "You will spend a cold winter, sir!"
"Without you, or without my coat, ma'am? It's a damned paltry comparison." On the knife edge of chaos he stripped off his waistcoat and held up the ivory satin, examining the silver-thread roses with deliberate gravity. "Though this? Alas, I always rather liked it. But let it burn, by all means!"
"You cannot afford this!" Meg cried suddenly.
"You think not, ma'am? But it makes such rich fodder for the scandal sheets--"
The waistcoat sailed into the flames. The spectators shouted with glee as Abdiel rose on his haunches. Dove would have to take both hands from the reins to pull off his shirt, and everyone knew it.
Meg's eyes blazed with horrified mirth as the snorting horse dropped back to the cobbles. "You're mad, sir! Insane! That stallion will kill you!"
"What will you wager on it, ma'am? One last exquisite night?"
"My nights aren't up for wager, sir, though your death will be, if you don't dismount this instant."
"But I never abandon any creature, once mounted, ma'am, unless by my own choice."
Hilarity detonated like cannon fire. The stallion's muscles convulsed. Foam flew back from the bit as four iron-shod hooves clanged desperately on the pavement. Dove held the bay on the brink, reassurance firm in hands and legs: Easy, my brave fellow! It's all right, Abdiel. Trust me!
The stallion calmed, just enough. A tiny relaxation shimmered through reins and seat. Dove signaled his groom. The boy ran up and seized the bit, allowing Dove to vault to the ground. Dragging the groom, the stallion skidded away -- beauty in every line of arched neck, flared nostrils, startled eye.
"Anyone would think you adored that hell-begotten bay," Meg said.
Her voice held a certain regret, along with a determination that Dove couldn't quite fathom. No doubt his own conveyed the same. Neither of them could undo this now.
"Since you found him for me yourself, ma'am -- whether in hell or out of it -- perhaps I do. So you concede the game? I still live."
"What a pity!" Meg waited until the crowd's silence was more palpable than the ash filtering down over her feathered hat. "The scandal sheets cannot give you the triumph, sir, for the trump is still mine. Far more heat is being generated by my bonfire than could ever be found in your glacial bed."
Faces swiveled, waiting for Dove to deliver the deathblow.
Yet he bowed. "I' faith, in affairs of the heart, ma'am, the lady is always right. If I could not love you as you deserved, it is my loss. As it is my failing that I was not rid of such an unsightly wardrobe a long time ago. My homage is yours, Lady Grenham, along with my undying gratitude." He took her fingers and kissed them. "Even for Abdiel, though he came deuced close to making a bloody fool out of me."
Meg laughed. Leaving the crowd in bewilderment, Dove strode into his townhouse.
Two losses: a wardrobe and -- far more important -- the favors of a lady he truly cared for. One more loss would make three. Didn't they say trouble always came in threes?
Dove knew with certainty that this disaster had only just begun.
Copyright � 2004 by Julia Ross.