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Excerpt: The Duke of Danger

Excerpt: The Duke of Danger

The Untouchables, Book 6

Chapter One

London, July 1817

“He really wishes to go through with this?” Lionel Maitland, Marquess of Axbridge, asked his friend and second, Sebastian Westgate, Duke of Clare.

West clenched his mouth into a grim line. “Apparently. I tried talking sense into his second, but Chalmers said Townsend isn’t having it. He’s dead set on dueling.”

“Dead set? Did he use those exact words?” Lionel shook his head. “He’s a hotheaded idiot. I challenged him, and I’m offering him an opportunity to make things right.”

“He maintains your accusation is baseless.”

Lionel swore viciously. “It isn’t.”

West arched a brow. “Of course not. I trust your word.”

Lionel took a deep breath to calm his anger. “Townsend really won’t agree to end and bury this entire affair? It would be best for him.”

“He won’t.” West threw a narrowed-eyed glance over his shoulder toward Townsend and his second, Chalmers. “I would guess he needs the money. I think your only chance to keep him quiet is to pay him off.” He expelled a breath. “Or kill him.”

A chill raced down Lionel’s spine. “I’ve no intention to do either. I meant to scare him. What featherbrain accepts a challenge from me?” Lionel had fought two prior duels, the latter of which had resulted in his opponent’s death. That he found himself in this situation for a third time was alarming. However, he simply couldn’t allow Townsend’s behavior to continue unchecked.

West coughed. “Indeed.”

He cast West an apologetic stare. “I must apologize again for rousing you from your bed to attend me. Assuming I survive today, the Duchess will surely kill me.”

West quirked a half smile. “Perhaps. For now, her hands are full with our daughter.” He sobered. “I suppose we should get on with this.”

Lionel exhaled. “If we must.”

He waited while West and Chalmers walked out the twenty paces and marked the location. That way neither Lionel nor Townsend could shorten their gait to increase their advantage. It also meant they wouldn’t be able to turn and fire early.

After reviewing the pistols, West approached him with the loaded weapon. “All is ready. What do you plan to do?”

In his first duel, Lionel, as the challenger, had declared himself unsatisfied after the first shots hadn’t drawn blood. The second shots had—one of them, anyway. He’d hit his opponent in the arm.

His second duel had gone much worse. Lionel blinked, expelling the memory from his mind. That wouldn’t happen today.

“I will fire over his shoulder, close enough to scare the hell out of him.” He grimaced, removing his coat and delivering it into West’s keeping. “I hope.”

West exchanged the coat for the weapon. “Good luck.”

Lionel walked to where the seconds had marked the start. Townsend met him there, his lip curling. Despite that show of bravado, he lacked any color to support even a modicum of confidence.

“You still have time to settle this without weapons,” Lionel offered.

The viscount was several inches shorter than Lionel, his brown eyes dark and chaotic. The man was known for his short temper. “Our seconds have already discussed the matter. Let us continue.”

Lionel leaned over him, using his height to intimidate the man. “Don’t be a fool, Townsend. You need only cease your activities with regard to our mutual acquaintance, and this entire affair will be concluded.”

“As I’ve said before, I am not guilty of what you accuse me of. My honor is at stake, and I must defend it.”

Lionel didn’t disagree that the man’s honor was at stake. However, he was choosing the path that would see it in ruins. “At least think of your viscountess.”

“I am thinking of her. Now let us begin.” He spun around, presenting his back.

Turning, Lionel gripped the pistol in his hand. Chalmers started the count, and with each number, Lionel took a measured step. His heart began to beat faster as the distance between him and Townsend increased. He pushed away the images threatening to crowd his mind—the times he’d done this before.

How the hell had he got here again?

Because you have more honor than sense.

His father’s voice took over his conscience. Though he’d never said those words, Lionel could imagine him doing so. If he were still alive.

Lionel jolted himself after nearly failing to take the next step.

“Eighteen.”

Almost there.

Lionel squared his shoulders, then loosed them, forcing himself to relax. A steady shot required a calm body and an even calmer mind.

“Nineteen.”

He briefly closed his eyes and said a prayer.

The sound of a shot was followed by a searing pain in his left shoulder. He twisted, raising his arm, and took aim.

He fired.

Townsend dropped to the ground, and Chalmers rushed to his aid.

“Christ, you’re bleeding,” West said, taking the pistol from Lionel’s hand.

The pain had disappeared for a moment, while he’d focused his shot. He’d intended to shoot above the bastard’s shoulder. Until Townsend had fired before twenty. Then Lionel had altered his tactic—aiming to take the man down lest he have any other stupid plans.

But Townsend had moved at the last second, and Lionel’s intention to nick him in the leg hit him squarely in the thigh. Instead of a glancing wound, it would be far more destructive.

The burning pain returned, and Lionel cradled his left arm with a wince. “Where’s the physician?”

“Here, my lord.” The man arrived at his side and immediately pressed a cloth to Lionel’s shoulder.

Lionel swore under his breath, his heart pumping furiously. “This is nothing. Go tend to Townsend.”

The physician frowned. “It’s not nothing, my lord. I need to determine if the bullet is lodged within you. And there is always the chance of infection.”

“I know that.” He’d been terrified that the first man he’d shot would contract an infection, but that hadn’t happened, thank God. He prayed the same for the imbecile now writhing on the opposite end of the field. “The bullet didn’t go in—it grazed the flesh. See to Townsend.”

The physician instructed West to hold the cloth to the wound.

“Not so bloody hard,” Lionel said. He wasn’t entirely sure where the bullet was, but he’d wanted the physician to attend to Townsend first.

“That’s the point—to stop the flow of blood.” West shook his head. “One would think you’d never been in a duel before.”

Lionel glared at him. “I’ve never been shot in one before.”

“I suppose that’s true.” He looked down the field where the physician knelt next to Townsend. “What happened to your plan to frighten him?”

“I abandoned it when he fired at nineteen.”

West turned back to him, his gaze dark. “Understandable. He behaved like a blackguard.”

“Given the man’s temper and apparent lack of honor, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The cursed fool.” He began to walk toward him.

“What are you doing?” West struggled to keep his hand pressed against Lionel’s shoulder as well as keep up with him.

Lionel ground his teeth as he approached the man on the ground. Chalmers ran off just as they arrived.

The physician looked up at Lionel’s shoulder for a moment. “I’ve sent Chalmers to my coach for the litter. Townsend will need surgery to get the bullet out. You will need a few stitches, at the very least. Send a footman to fetch my colleague.”

“I’ll take care of it,” West said. “Here.” He handed the bloodied cloth to Lionel before taking off toward Lionel’s coach.

Lionel stared down at Townsend, whose eyes were squeezed shut. His face was drawn tight with pain, his hand grasping his leg just above the wound, where the physician was pressing a cloth. The flow of blood was dark but slow.

“Townsend,” Lionel said. “Open your eyes.”

The viscount fluttered his lids before looking up at him. “Come to gloat?”

“No. I came to ask why you fired early. For a man so concerned with defending his honor, you behaved without a shred of it.”

Townsend closed his eyes once more and moaned. “I thought it was twenty.”

Lies, it seemed, came as easily to this man as breathing. “You don’t have a very close relationship with the truth, do you?” Lionel asked.

Townsend’s eyes flew open, and he scowled up at Lionel. “You’re a nasty son of a bitch, aren’t you? You would insult a man while he’s down.”

Chalmers arrived with a pair of footmen and the litter. The physician directed them to place it next to Townsend. “We’re going to move you now, my lord,” the physician said. He nodded at the footmen, who transferred him onto the litter.

Townsend groaned, his face losing what little color it had.

Blood of the devil. Lionel didn’t like the man or his principles, but he didn’t want him to die. He transferred the cloth to his left hand and grabbed the physician’s shoulder with his right before he could walk away.

“He’ll be fine, won’t he?” Lionel asked in a near whisper.

The physician shrugged. “Hard to say just now, but if infection doesn’t set in, he should recover well enough. He may have a slight limp, but I won’t know until I find where the bullet is lodged.”

Lionel pierced him with a steady stare. “You’ll send word as soon as you have news?”

“Aye, my lord. Now, we must be off.”

Lionel released the man and watched them bear the viscount off the field. Chalmers paused, glaring at Lionel. “You’d best pray he doesn’t perish.”

“Have you nothing to say of his behavior today? You were counting—you did not reach twenty.”

Chalmers, a young bloke with too much of the stain of inexperience about him, looked at Lionel as if he were mad. “Didn’t I?”

Lionel snatched the man’s sleeve as he made to turn. He sneered at the dandy. “Watch yourself, Chalmers. Do not spread misinformation. That—or rather the threat of it—is precisely what led your friend to this predicament in the first place.”

Chalmers’s gray eyes widened but he said nothing more before dashing off. Lionel dropped his hand and watched him go.

“Are you ready to leave?” West asked from behind him. “I’ve dispatched one of the footmen to fetch the other physician.”

Lionel turned, feeling suddenly heavy. He started toward his coach, then stumbled.

West rushed to his side, propping his weight against him as they walked to the coach. “You were supposed to hold that cloth against your wound.”

Lionel grunted in response.

A short while later, they were at his town house on Brook Street. The physician arrived just after and found there was indeed still a bullet lodged in Lionel’s shoulder. It was, thankfully, rather easy to remove, particularly after he dosed Lionel with a measure of laudanum. The stitches, however, required a bit of whiskey.

By the time the surgery was finished, he didn’t feel a thing. Except a growing remorse and the beginning of self-loathing.

No, do not take that path.

Townsend would be fine. He would survive this and likely try to continue his harassment of Marianne.

Lionel reached toward the bedside table for his glass of whiskey only to find that it was empty. “Hennings!”

His valet rushed into the room, a concerned expression pulling at his middle-aged face. “Are you all right?”

“My glass is empty.”

Hennings exhaled, his shoulders drooping. “I see. Well, I daresay you’ve had enough.”

Lionel glared at him. “Do not manage me. I’ve been shot.”

“Of course.” He took the glass and set it back on the table before picking up the decanter. He poured the contents out. “And now this is empty, so you’ll have to make do.”

Lionel snorted as he accepted the glass from his valet. “As if I don’t have more liquor in the house. But never mind. I doubt I’ll make it through this serving before I pass out.”

Hennings pivoted to go.

“Hennings, you’re to wake me when we receive word about Townsend. I am expecting his physician to inform me of his state.”

“Just so, my lord,” Hennings said.

Lionel took a drink, then set the glass back down. He fell back against the pillow, rotating his trunk so that his right shoulder took the brunt. A moment later, he surrendered to blackness.

Images of his dueling opponents, their bodies twisted and bloody, their mouths open in anguished cries, assaulted him from all sides. He jerked awake, and blistering pain radiated out from his shoulder, reminding him why he’d had that nightmare.

He blinked his eyes open and pushed himself to a sitting position. The chamber was dim, but a bit of light stole beneath the drapes.

Pushing back the covers, he swung his legs out. His head pounded—perhaps he’d had too much whiskey after all—as he stood. His banyan lay at the end of the bed. He grabbed it and fought to pull the sleeve over his wounded arm, wincing and cursing with the effort.

When he’d finally accomplished the task, he donned the rest of it and tied the sash at his waist. He made his way slowly to the bellpull and rang for Hennings.

The valet rushed inside, appearing as alarmed as he had earlier. “Is everything all right, my lord?”

“I’ve a headache, which shouldn’t surprise you, and do spare me your consternation. I’m famished.”

Hennings nodded. “I’ll have a plate brought up immediately.”

“Any word about Townsend?”

Hennings’s face turned ashen. Lionel reached for the bedpost, feeling suddenly lightheaded. His insides churned, and the floor seemed to tilt.

“I’m afraid he succumbed to his injury,” Hennings said gently.

Fuck.

Lionel half sat on the end of the bed because his legs simply refused to support his weight. “How is his wife?”

“The missive didn’t say.”

How should she be? Shocked. Grief-stricken. Devastated. Lionel wished he hadn’t reacted to Townsend’s lapse, that he’d maintained his plan to only scare the man by sending the bullet close. But no, he’d been shot and sought to take the man down lest he somehow manage to wreak more damage. It had been a defensive maneuver, but that didn’t alleviate Lionel’s guilt.

He gripped the bedpost until his knuckles were white. “Pack my things. We’ll leave in the morning.” After he sent a note to West informing him of his plans to depart London and instructing him that no one was to know that Townsend had fired early. Chalmers, the idiot, wouldn’t say anything. It was bad enough that Lady Townsend had been robbed of her husband—she didn’t need to know he was a scoundrel.

Unless she already did. But that was none of Lionel’s concern.

He’d banish himself once more until he was fit for polite society. And he had to accept, given his penchant for killing people, that he might never be.

“Might I argue that you recover for a few days before we leave?” Hennings asked, his voice heavy with concern. “It won’t make a difference.”

Lionel doubted he’d be pursued for the crime. While illegal, it was accepted that men of their class dueled as a point of honor. Death, while rare, was not unheard of. The last time, Lionel had spent a year in Dublin. When he’d returned, he’d been greeted with caution and, by some, a bit of fear and awe. He’d worked hard to show everyone that he was a likeable, jovial fellow, and not a murderer.

“I’ll see how I feel,” Lionel said. That was all he would promise. He wanted to escape as soon as possible. Not that he would find relief—this would haunt him forever.

Hennings nodded and left. He’d accompanied Lionel without complaint the last time he’d left England. He was a trustworthy and faithful servant, having been Lionel’s father’s valet until his death eight years ago. Lionel had kept him on as a sort of surrogate, a lasting, living reminder of the person he’d loved most in this world. A person who would be horrified at what Lionel had done.

Yet, he also would’ve encouraged Lionel to defend Marianne. It was, in fact, the primary reason Lionel had done it—knowing it was something his father would do.

His father wouldn’t have killed anyone, however. Certainly not twice. Lionel stood, and the pain in his shoulder burned through him. It was nothing compared to the agony of his regret.

***

Lady Emmaline Townsend stared at the stack of condolence notes, completely unmotivated to read any of them. For the past two days, she’d spent most of her time keeping vigil over her husband, Geoffrey. Thankfully, he’d been transported to the church last night because he’d begun to smell quite horrid.

Instead of feeling anger or despair or guilt—which she probably ought to feel—she felt nothing. Just a numb emptiness that concerned the servants and frightened her mother.

“You must feel something,” Mother had said last night as Emmaline’s father and Geoffrey’s secretary, Mr. Fuller, had escorted the body to the funeral.

Yes, she ought to, but she didn’t. And wasn’t that better?

Turning her head, Emmaline caught sight of herself in the glass hanging on the wall. She was pale—which her mother had also noted—a fact made more prominent by the black bombazine of her gown.

“Lady Townsend?” The butler, a usually ambivalent fellow who’d paid more care to Emmaline in the past two days than in the past almost year that she’d lived here, walked softly into the drawing room.

“Yes, Purney?”

“You’ve a visitor. I informed him you weren’t receiving, but he was quite insistent.”

Him. The only males she could think would be calling on her were her father, Mr. Fuller, or Mr. Mullens, who’d been Geoffrey’s tailor and apparently a friend. Gravely concerned following the duel, he’d paid a visit to Geoffrey’s bedside.

She waved a hand, her gaze drifting back to the mound of missives on the small escritoire. “Show him in.”

A minute later, she heard an unfamiliar voice.

“Good afternoon, Lady Townsend. May I offer my deepest condolences?”

She turned on the chair, barely curious as to who might be visiting and eager to send him on his way. But as soon as she pivoted, it was as if a dam inside her split in two and a cascade of emotion tumbled forth.

Bolting from the chair, she took two long steps toward him. “You.”

“Yes, me.” The Marquess of Axbridge didn’t flinch. Indeed, he stared into her, his blue eyes clear and piercing.

“You’ve a singular audacity to come here.”

The marquess bowed deeply. “I beg your pardon.” He looked at her once more. “And your forgiveness.”

Rage spiraled through her, and it was glorious to feel. “You’ll never have either.”

“That is completely understandable.” His tone was tight, measured. His cool reserve antagonized her.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “I’m so glad I have your approval.”

“I wouldn’t ever ask for, nor expect that.”

“And yet you ask for my forgiveness. It hardly seems to matter—I’ll give you nothing save my undying hatred.”

“Which I deserve. Nevertheless, I would apologize for what happened.”

“Apologize? You didn’t step on my foot during a dance. Nor did you spill a glass of ratafia on my gown. You killed my husband.

Now he flinched. His eye twitched, and his lips pressed together so hard, they turned white. And yet he was still incredibly handsome. That hardly seemed fair.

He took a step toward her. She didn’t retreat, but her body tensed. She clenched her hands into tight fists. Her spine was so straight and stiff that she could have flown a flag from her shoulder.

“I didn’t come to make excuses, but please know I had good reason to demand satisfaction. I’d hoped he would settle the matter before moving to weapons, but he refused.”

She gaped at him. “Are you somehow trying to blame my husband for your actions?”

His jaw tightened, and he blew out a breath. “No. I came to offer my condolences, beg your forgiveness, apologize, and offer any assistance you may need—ever.”

He wanted to help her? She stared at him, the anger inside her curdling. “I would never want anything from you, nor would I ask.”

“I certainly understand you not wanting anything from me; however, if a need should ever arise, I would very much like to help you.”

“I think you’ve done quite enough.” Fury churned through every part of her, and she wanted to lash out. Needed to. “Actually, I can think of one thing I would like from you.” She took a step toward him, her lip curling. “I should appreciate it if you would be miserable for the rest of your life. I would take great joy in knowing that you will wallow in guilt and anguish for all your days.” She glared at him, long and hard.

“I can do that,” he said softly, without a shred of irony. “You may be pleased to know that I am already well on my way. And I shan’t trouble you with my presence. I’m leaving England today.”

“Good.”

“My offer will always stand, whether you choose to take advantage of it or not. Should you require anything at all, please contact my man of affairs.” He held out a card.

She didn’t want to take anything from him. “Choke on it,” she spat.

He withdrew his hand to his side. “Again, my deepest apologies, Lady Townsend.” He turned and strode from the room, his broad shoulders straight, his gait sure.

Damn him.

Damn him.

Her heart pounded. She forced herself to take a deep breath. The color in the room seemed to become more vivid, the scent of the flowers more fragrant. They’d surrounded Geoffrey’s body the past two days, chasing away the smell of his rotting frame.

Her legs weakened suddenly, but she didn’t fall. He was really gone. Sadness seeped through her, and the emotion made her glad. It was good to feel again, to react. She supposed she had Axbridge to thank for that.

No. She’d thank him for nothing.

With the sadness came something else—something that shamed her. Relief swelled in her chest. Yes, Geoffrey was gone, and with him the problems of her young marriage.

She closed her eyes and chastised herself. Things would have worked out. He would have grown calmer, less temperamental. She’d been hopeful that the man she’d fallen in love with was somewhere beneath the irascible hothead he’d become.

And yet, she’d begun to lose hope. With every night that he failed to come home and every instance in which he railed at her for some perceived slight, a bit of her faith had been destroyed.

Perhaps Axbridge did you a favor.

She jerked her eyes open and snarled at the empty room. “He did not.” He had, however, restored her ability to feel. And while she’d give him no credit, she was ready to face things that needed to be addressed.

Such as meeting with Geoffrey’s secretary to settle affairs. She stalked from the room and asked the butler to send for Mr. Fuller.

An hour later, she awaited the secretary in Geoffrey’s office. She sat behind his small desk, which was painfully neat. She found that odd since he’d been rather untidy with his personal objects.

Mr. Fuller arrived with a stack of papers. He was a slight man, with wire-rimmed spectacles and a head full of dark, wavy hair. “Good afternoon, my lady.”

“Good afternoon. Please, sit.” She gestured to the chair on the other side of the desk. “What have you brought?”

His gaze turned wary as he set the documents down on the desk. He dropped to the chair and adjusted his spectacles on the bridge of his nose. “These are his lordship’s outstanding bills.”

Emmaline’s eyes widened at the large stack. “All of those?”

He nodded just once and gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m afraid so.”

“My goodness. Well, I assume there is enough to settle everything.”

He winced. “Unfortunately, there is not.”

The devil you say.

She didn’t utter the words, but they echoed inside her head.

“I will speak to his creditors, my lady, and hopefully come to an arrangement of some kind. At least the funeral expenses have been paid for.”

She hadn’t known that. “I will thank my father for his generosity.”

“It wasn’t your father, my lady, but Lord Axbridge.”

He’d paid for Geoffrey’s funeral? The anger he’d provoked earlier spun again inside her until it formed a hot, tumultuous mass. “He’s a scoundrel.”

“Mayhap, my lady, but his generosity is still a boon.”

It was a bloody sacrilege. He killed her husband and had the gall to pay for the funeral. She’d refused his assistance and yet he’d helped her anyway. How she wished she could meet him on a dueling field. First, she needed to learn how to fire a pistol. Her friend Ivy had a friend—Lady Dartford—who could shoot. Perhaps she’d teach Emmaline—

“My lady?” Mr. Fuller’s gently spoken inquiry broke into her musings.

“What?”

“I was just saying that the lease on the town house expires at the end of the month. Where will you be living after that?”

Emmaline had thought to simply extend the lease, but if there were debts and a shortage of funds… She’d have to speak with her parents. Her insides tightened with anxiety. Her relationship with them had been particularly strained since she’d eloped with Geoffrey. He’d asked for her hand, and her father had refused him, citing his temper and immaturity. That Emmaline had run off with him to Gretna Green had caused a rift that was nowhere near healed. Indeed, it was worse now that Geoffrey had died, for instead of comforting Emmaline, they’d reminded her of the mistake she’d made in marrying him in the first place.

And now she had to rely on their support.

“My lady?” Mr. Fuller prompted once more.

She straightened, refusing to be defeated by the challenges she currently faced. “I’ll speak to my parents. It would be most helpful if you could itemize the debts.”

“Right away, my lady.” He gathered his papers and stood. After delivering an awkward bow, he departed.

Emmaline looked around the sparsely appointed office and realized there were items missing—a painting, some knickknacks. It seemed Geoffrey had been selling things off, and she’d been utterly unaware.

Frustration and anger burned inside her. Perhaps she was better off not feeling.

Damn you, Axbridge.

In truth, she’d be better off if the marquess hadn’t ever existed. She’d still have Geoffrey. Along with whatever financial hole he’d dug himself into. Actually, she had that anyway.

What a tangle.

Suddenly, she laughed. She’d long wanted to live her own life, away from the yoke of her parents. That desire had been paramount in her decision to elope with Geoffrey, equal to the love she’d felt for him.

And here she was—her independence at risk as she faced financial ruin.

Damn you to hell, Axbridge.