“Edmund, your cousin’s arrived.”
Even a haze of cigars and liquor could not disguise his ominous entrance. All of London could hear his poised step toward Edmund Fenner as a thousand eyes glared upon him in envy and hatred. He was as pleased to attend this as his father’s funeral, and his presence was regarded with much the same attitude.
Silence bound the kinsmen, now hairs away from one another. Once allies, their allegiance had been shattered by misplaced affections, and no longer could one look at the other without a shred of disdain and abhorrence.
“Still flustered, Eddie?” A mordant grin appeared to elevate him higher than every other gentleman there.
“Why have you come?” Edmund demanded, fury blinding all senses and sense.
“Edmund,” he sighed ruefully, “we’re celebrating our cousin’s marriage.”
“Henry is my cousin, not yours,” growled the Fenner boy.
“Ay, but he’s more my brother than you’ll ever know.”
“Do not toss about your fancy titles like you’re above all rules and—!”
“Your Grace, you made it,” Henry Fenner interrupted. His glimmering smile seemed to dissolve the present conflict, but the contempt for the Duke of Cambria and Martisine could not so easily be uprooted from every man at court. With the arrival of his other cousin, Edmund skulked away with his band of companions.
“I was invited,” the Duke replied, wrapping a finely clothed arm around Henry. As the smaller man patted his back for release, Vaughan Cantington’s grin spread farther, laughing, “I would not have missed it for the world.”
“Well surely an invitation from my mother could have deterred anyone; I would not have been surprised to lament your attendance,” Henry said kindly. His green eyes glistened from drink and happiness, and he gazed at his guest with more admiration than most.
“I was in need of company,” Vaughan professed. “And perhaps your pleasure shall persuade me to find my own.”
“Yes,” Henry beamed, “I think you would find it a most gratifying occasion. Zora’s impact on my life is already most profound, and I daresay she’s bewitched me. I find myself unable to recall who I was without—oh, her father’s just come. I’m afraid we will have to meet again later.”
After a nod from Vaughan, the golden-haired boy dashed off to greet his future-wife’s father. Still grinning, the Duke spotted another familiar face in the chaos. Recognition flashed in the other’s eyes as he hastened forward, and a chuckle escaped when Vaughan enveloped him in a comfortable hug.
“Zeke,” Vaughan said, stepping back from their hold.
“You’ve come,” Ezekiel Shevington stated brightly. “I haven’t so much as seen you for weeks, and you’ve come to a wedding party. If romance is what lures you from your cave, I should have married years ago.”
“I came for the gossip, Zeke, not the sickness,” he answered evenly, his gaze locked on whom Henry was speaking to. “The Countess is a surly woman on her best days. If I’ve scarcely heard a word of the Baron of Lekenbourgh, certainly she’s up in arms about her son’s marriage to his daughter.”
“Vaughan,” Zeke said, snapping his friend’s attention back to him. “Why do you care what the Countess thinks?”
Frowning, the Duke articulated the obvious. “I very rarely am entertained, Zeke, and the squirming of the court’s women is the best sport to watch.”
“Perhaps,” Vaughan admitted. “But you must admit, she’ll certainly be ecstatic to hear that I attended.” Zeke smiled in agreement. “Now, tell me, what do you know?”
“Well,” he began, “the Baron and his wife have lived comfortably in the country for the duration of their marriage. Zora was presented to the Queen just this season, as was her sister,” he grumbled the word. “They’re both rather stunning, if I may say so, and Zora is as horribly devoted to Henry as her parents are to one another. They have plenty of money, and the Baron is an exceedingly intelligent man. Talks a bit funny, though.”
“Like me?” Vaughan jibed, flicking his friend’s scrunched nose.
“No,” Zeke barked, swatting away unwanted hands. “You’re a Welshman, he’s picked up some eastern habit, I’d say.”
“Hmm,” he hummed. “What’s the other girl’s name?” Again, his eyes distanced to the Baron.
“Lecia,” harrumphed Zeke.
“Pardon?” Vaughan chuckled, turning to take in his suddenly grumpy companion.
“She’s a monster.”
“How so?” the Duke smiled. The sinking of Zeke’s demeanor brought a sense of joy to him, a twisted pleasure in pain that had driven him to the party from the start.
“When I met her, she smiled her naïve little smile, blushed at her silly missteps on the dance, and giggled at my every joke,” he breathed dolefully. “Then,” he became dark, “I called on her a few days later. She convinced me to take her out of town aways, so we could stroll through some meadows and nonsense. She claimed to be so terribly heartbroken from moving to London, and I—the fool—believed every word she said. The chaperone, some handmaid, she had as much idea as I when that girl convinced me to eat wildlife. ‘I learned what’s good to eat’,” he mimicked in a squeaky, bitter tone. “She knew what to eat, all right, and she knew not to eat what I did. The sick grin on her face on our way to return her was as much a tell as ever.”
“That bad?” Vaughan snickered, though he was less convinced that a young lady had the gall to torture a Marquis.
“Yes, that bad,” Zeke growled. “And I’m not the only one. Miller’s on bed rest for a month; stung by a whole swarm of bees. And Walsh—poor rake—had his foot broken when she stumbled and knocked him into the street, where a cab ran straight over him.”
“Series of bad luck,” Vaughan muttered.
“Strategies of a she-devil,” Zeke countered, crossing his arms in displeasure.
“If she’s as innocent as you say, there’s no way to know your misfortunes were results of premeditated attacks. What young lady would desire to accomplish such agony when her main concern is to…” The realization came in the split of a second.
“To what?” Zeke huffed.
“Find a husband,” Vaughan replied dazedly. Once again he watched the man with a deviant daughter, a plan formulating in his head. “You’ve met him?”
“Well, I did call at his house,” quipped the Marquis.
“Introduce me,” was all that was said before the larger man dragged the other across the room.
Henry had long since disappeared to greet other guests, and only the Baron was left to look on in bewilderment.
“Lord Harper,” Zeke addressed him awkwardly. Met with a blink, he continued, “My dear friend and cousin, the Duke of Cambria and Martisine, desired to make your acquaintance. If you’ll excuse me, I’m in need of a drink.”
Zeke scampered away.
“Duke,” the Baron received him with a bow.
“No need for that,” the Duke smirked. “Call me Vaughan, please, I insist.”
“Vasyl Harper,” the Baron spoke composedly, extending a hand for a firm and telling greeting.
“How do you like Henry? He’s a regular brick,” he complimented.
“Yes, I would say so,” Vasyl complied uniformly. A moment passed, only a single grin shared between them. “What do you want?”
“You’re to the point; I like that.” The Duke was met with a raised brow of displeasure, a mere damper on his fun. “Well, I was hoping to discuss the future of your other daughter. Miss Lecia, I believe.”
Stiffened, the Baron of Lekenbourgh studied his new acquaintance. He could not be much older than Henry’s three-and-twenty, but he was undoubtedly a Duke. Fine garments draped his limbs, too large to have just been found in a shop, and although it was apparent in their style that the clothes were not new, a tailor had taken great care to construct them. Though a young man, there was age in the Duke’s glaucous eyes, and lines of worry on his brow. There was no denying that he was an attractive man, yet his tactics to deflect his beauty were endless, including an unkempt jaw and messy, uneven curls on his head. So the Baron had to wonder the intentions of a gentleman who so eagerly repelled standards.
“Yes,” the Baron carefully engaged.
“Has she any prospects?”
Frowning, Vasyl Harper answered. “Since you seem to admire my frankness, I will be frank with you. I am aware that nearly every young man who has beheld my daughter finds her…ravishing,” he spat the word. “I am also aware of how the misfortunes of a few suitors have circulated their way around the ton. While I do pretend to be unaware of her schemes to deter marriage, I will in no way overlook the appeal of a challenge between young men. My daughter means more to me than your titles, so I’m afraid if it is a conquest you seek, you might look elsewhere.”
Disappointed with where the conversation ended, the Duke scowled.
“Sir, I apologize for leading you to believe my intentions so terrible.” Seeing the Baron was unconvinced, Vaughan continued. “I have yet to encounter your daughter, and this may, in fact, discredit my proposal, but I assure you that as I ask now for her hand, it is not for any competition. Had I been challenged, I promise you that I would not have approached. You seem devoted to your children, and I can admire your love, but what I know about such passion is that your word is finalized by another. Your wife will hear of this meeting, as will nearly every member of court. So, accompanied by these rumors, gossip of Miss Lecia’s questionable actions will only ruin her. I am a Duke; I have more power and more wealth than half the peerage combined, so I encourage you to firmly consider what that means.”
“Are you threatening me?” asked the Baron in disbelief.
“No,” Vaughan smiled. “We both know that your daughter has and will terrify every man she encounters. Thus far, every suitor you’ve approved has scampered away like a worried kitten. While I know that she will hate me for a time, and perhaps you as well, I am not overlooking this need she has to remain free. My offer will provide her security, and garner the Countess’ approval of your other daughter. Our marriage may not be as lovely as yours, but I can promise that without this, she is destined to suffer more greatly than any hatred I may inflict upon her. And although I am a wretched human being—perhaps the worst man for any girl to marry—all I want is what she wants, and I am likely the only man willing to give it to her.”
After a moment of pondering, the Baron let out a light sigh. He eyed the young man, carefully weighing his options.
“And what is it you are so sure she wants?”
“Freedom. From this,” Vaughan gestured to the hundred other gentlemen in the room.
With his words, the young duke knew he had convinced the man to consider.
“I’d like to have time to reflect on your generous offer,” the Baron yielded.
“Excellent,” Vaughan smiled. “I’ve been invited to the celebratory ball. I shall have my answer then?”
“Yes,” conceded the elder man.
Satisfied, Vaughan bowed in adieu and strode away to find Ezekiel. The grumpy Marquis swallowed a tumbler of rum at his friend’s approach and raised a brow in intrigue. The Duke denied him an answer, instead finding his own drink, and through his smile he watched the conflicted Baron dismiss himself from the room. He would have what he wanted, he knew that much. By the end of the season, there would be a Duchess of Cambria and Martisine to soil the sordid graves of his fathers.