'Devilish' excerpt

Book 5 of the Malloren Series

Winner of the RITA award.
Chapter One

  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."
  "Whose money?"
  "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 eminence 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 with a master, and had insisted 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."
Devilish is the fifth novel in the Malloren series.

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