The Duke of Darlington was sitting in the bow window at Whites, when the Earl of BenRuin entered. The man was huge – almost ugly with it.
‘We’ll need another pot of coffee, after last night,’ Darlington said to Jewellyn, who sat beside him comparing three silk handkerchiefs.
‘Mother says the daffodil yellow makes me look consumptive, but the pale is just so joyless.’
‘Your mother knows best, darling.’ He took another sip of coffee, and didn’t look around. But he felt BenRuin’s eyes on him. He heard a hush follow the Earl through the room as he made his way over.
‘Darlington.’ BenRuin spat his name with a thick Scottish R.
He looked up and smiled sunnily. ‘What ho, old boy!’
BenRuin looked as though he wanted to crush Darlington’s throat and stop him from ever speaking again. Something woke, and shivered through Darlington, and he despaired because it was not fear.
He brushed a speck of lint from his cuff. ‘Coffee?’
BenRuin stared at him. ‘I am going to kill you,’ he said slowly, every word clear. Men looked up from their papers, frowning. BenRuin gripped the back of an empty chair, his hand a powerful, blunt instrument.
Darlington lowered his cup and wondered that his hands didn’t shake at all. He had been waiting so long for this. A month ago he had been given an old iron key that unlocked his father’s private papers with his father’s things. The key might as well have unlocked this sick, loose delight in him. It had brought him to this moment.
He screwed up his brow, and turned to Crispin, who sat at his feet on an ottoman. ‘Was I supposed to meet this man in a duel today?’
The boy looked back at Darlington with perfect trust, undiminished by the slight confusion on his face.
‘I don’t think so. No one’s come to see me about being your second. Unless—’ Crispin flushed and turned to Hopwell, across the table. ‘Hopwell, you rotter, you’ve not been approached, have you?’
Hopwell drew himself up. ‘And if I had? Are you the only one who could possibly represent him?’
‘But you know that I—’
BenRuin’s face clearly spoke his frustration – his disbelief that these boys, these butterflies would ignore him. His huge frame bunched and he threw the chair at the wall so hard it broke. Muted conversations broke off, and a footman’s half-sobbed apologies limped alone into the silence. Men rose from their seats, but left a wary space around BenRuin. Darlington couldn’t look away from BenRuin’s pale eyes.
He smiled as if his patience was wearing out. ‘Why do you suppose you want to kill me, old boy?’
‘You.’ BenRuin forced a couple of heavy breaths through his nose, like speaking the words was a feat of strength. ‘And my wife.’
‘Ah.’ Darlington let understanding dawn in his voice and spread his manicured hands out before him. At last. At last they had come to it. All this violence was his for the taking. ‘Look, she told me it was one of those marriages, you know. That you both found pleasure where you could.’
For a moment BenRuin couldn’t speak, like Darlington had cut his tongue out of his mouth. Then, ‘Stop talking,’ he said.
‘But I’m sure she…wait, so you’re back from your trip to South America, then? Did you collect any interesting new specimens?’
‘Stop talking,’ BenRuin said. ‘Stop.’
Crispin leapt up, relief clear in his smile, his voice. ‘You’re thinking of Lady Drysdale, Your Grace!’
‘Of course!’ The Duke placed slim fingers against his brow and made an apologetic face at BenRuin. At last. ‘All a misunderstanding, old boy!’
‘Call me old boy one more time,’ BenRuin said, his brogue making him almost unintelligible, ‘and I won’t wait to hear your explanation.’
‘Explanation?’ He had begun to shake with a kind of excitement. ‘Lady Drysdale and I had an understanding, and I don’t see that it’s any of your concern!’
‘And your carriage – in my driveway?’
He had forced a proud man to say this in front of other men. It was despicable. He would do it again in a heartbeat for what he wanted – needed.
‘Which driveway would that be, old – er.’ Darlington leaned down to Crispin and said, ‘Do you know who he is? I’m not sure what name to address him by.’
And then it came. So fast that for a moment his whole body felt the shock of not being ready. Of needing a moment to think.
BenRuin came at him, all muscle and murderous intent, his eyes fixed on Darlington’s face.
And Darlington was greedy, his whole being a gruesome invitation. Everything he normally hid flared to life within him.
BenRuin saw it. He faltered.
The men who had leapt into action had their arms about BenRuin, their hands gripping him wherever they found purchase. BenRuin’s knife never reached Darlington’s throat.
Darlington felt so bereft that for a moment he couldn’t breathe.
A man was hurrying through the room. Perhaps someone had sent a boy to find him, because he spoke in BenRuin’s ear and BenRuin listened. Tension leeched out of BenRuin’s huge body, and he began to shake, like a horse after a hard race.
He pointed a finger at Darlington. ‘I’ll not hang for the sake of seeing your pretty blood,’ he ground out. ‘This time. But the next time you trespass against me, you will know what I mean to do.’
BenRuin left, and Darlington fluttered his hands about his throat, and went into mild hysterics and allowed Crispin to fuss over him.
‘I do wish you would leave the servants alone,’ said Lydia, Countess of BenRuin, graciously accepting a cup of tea from the footman. She and Kit sat in the upstairs parlour, squares of sunlight fat and warm on the carpet. ‘It makes them so uncomfortable.’
And your house and your friends and this fine dress make me uncomfortable. ‘Yes, my lady.’
Lydia, of the white-blonde hair and perfect figure, looked at Kit like she was a rat who had crept in and sat down for tea. Not scared of rats, Lydia, just deeply disdainful. ‘You only need to call me that in public,’ she said. ‘Lydia will do in private. I grow tired of telling you.’
‘Of course. Lydia.’
‘I suppose “sister” would be too much to manage.’
Kit resisted the urge to throw her hands up at her – a dreadful, base gesture. ‘We’ve not had cause to call each other sister these thirteen years, but the habit could be learned, if you wish it.’
Something interrupted Lydia’s smooth expression, then was gone. ‘Just a passing fancy,’ she said, her vowels round as a line of marbles. Bored marbles. ‘Is the tea not to your taste? Fetch a new pot,’ she said to the footman. ‘And be sure it is hot when it arrives.’
You wouldn’t know by listening to them, Kit thought, that she was older than Lydia by seven years. The instant you laid eyes on them you’d not be confused, though. The fresh, fair-skinned Countess and her dark hobgoblin sister. Although perhaps she was too tall and strong for a hobgoblin. Perhaps the child of a hobgoblin and a tree.
‘What did you make of Mr Wetherby, last night?’
‘A nice man,’ Kit said carefully.
‘He told me he was going to ask you to dance, but he left your side looking a little…embarrassed.’
Bloody mortified would be closer to the mark. Oh, how Lydia loved this – sending pinks of the ton to pay court to her uncultivated sister and then going through every detail of Kit’s humiliation like fingers searching through a basket of odd ends for a particular ribbon.
Kit hadn’t wanted a season in London. She’d guessed at how badly she would fit in society. How she would never be made to fit.
‘I only told him that I don’t know how to dance,’ she said.
Lydia turned her cup just so on the saucer. ‘Make use of your disadvantage,’ she said. ‘Insinuate that you haven’t had the felicity of being guided around the dance floor by a truly skilled gentleman. Make him think of having his arms about you. Make him decide that he, above all other men, could teach you to dance. You needn’t tread the boards with him to enter into a dance with him.’
Lydia turned her head slightly, as though to see how her words had landed in her sister’s mind. After a long, silent moment in which Kit couldn’t hold her eye, she sat back. ‘Who else did you—’
‘I heard our uncle, Lord Barton, announced. I tried to catch sight of him, but I was too far from the door. Have you been introduced?’
Lydia ran a finger across the lip of her teacup, and her lips expressed distaste. ‘We have crossed paths occasionally. He doesn’t acknowledge me. I prefer never to think of the hateful family at all.’
‘But if they acknowledged us, Ma could—’
‘Kit, they didn’t even write to Mother when we were born! Have you never thought what our uncle might have prevented, had he only intervened? He is an earl. Our father was nobody.’
Kit had thought of it, and then tried not to, because it was no good wishing the past had been different. It was gone and done.
Lydia sniffed. ‘And we have other, better connections now.’
The single word was violent as a bullet shot through the house, and Kit hated the way she shrank in on herself. Then she apportioned the blame where it was really due and hated her father that little bit more. It was a trick only recently learned, some twelve months after his death, but she was getting better at it every day.
Lord BenRuin appeared in the doorway, his massive shoulders blocking out the hall, his close-cropped hair hiding none of his rage. He came to stand in front of his wife, towering over her. ‘Get up,’ he said.
Lydia showed no signs of the fear that was prehistoric in Kit’s bones. She looked coolly up at her husband, and took another sip of tea. ‘Why?’
Kit waited for the Earl to lay his hands on Lydia, to haul her up. He would have no difficulty doing so.
‘Because I’ll not give you into trouble like a schoolgirl,’ he said. ‘Get up.’
Lydia took another sip of tea. ‘No,’ she said.
The silence got between Kit’s skin and her flesh. BenRuin was so thinly divided from a beast and his rage had nowhere to go. It clawed into the room, howling for blood; Lydia was a blank wall.
And she wondered why Kit sought refuge in the kitchen, where honest work was done and the worst dramas of the day were whatever petty points the second footman had scored against the first. She’d had a lifetime of rage, and she couldn’t bear it, that her little sister had chosen rage again.
She’d had time, curled up at night listening to them explode at each other, to discover the ways Lord BenRuin was different from their father. She had waited for the single crack of a fist or slap that meant she would take Lydia away for good. It never came. And no matter how angry BenRuin was – and God knew Lydia could drive anyone mad – he never insulted her. He never called her stupid, or ignorant, or a whore. His rage was that of a lion trying and failing to unlock something intricate with his big clumsy paws.
Her mind had learned the difference – her body hadn’t. She would not look at the man breathing hugely into the room, fine china at his wife’s fingertips. She suffocated on the silence.
The Earl fell to his knees before her sister, and though standing he was too large, too much for Kit, seeing him brought so low was awful.
‘I almost killed a man today,’ he said, his hands reaching for Lydia and finding no place they would be welcome. ‘I swear to you, I would have put my knife in his throat. Do not drive me further than this.’
Kit looked at her rough hands. Here was the part that was not so easy. She had given everything, so that Lydia could marry well.
Lord BenRuin stood, as though he could no longer bear to be near his wife. ‘Do not see him again,’ he said. ‘I beg of you, do not see him again.’
Kit would need to clip her nails soon – the whites were peeping above her fingertips, small moons rising.
‘You may raise your eyes,’ Lydia said. ‘He is gone.’
Kit looked up at her sister, almost expecting to see the small child who used to climb into her lap in her rare – precious – moments of stillness. She saw a countess, clean and sleek, diamonds at her ears. They were no longer small.
She didn’t want to ask what must be asked. But she wasn’t simply going to accept that the aristocracy swam deep, and let her sister drown. She had fixed worse messes than this.
‘Was Lord BenRuin talking about the Duke of Darlington, the man they say is your lover?’
Something sharpened in Lydia’s face, but her voice was as apathetic as usual. ‘Dear Kit, never say you are au courant with town gossip.’
This is one piece of gossip, she wanted to say, it would be impossible not to know. She kept her eyes steady on Lydia’s face.
‘You may have noticed he never named the poor man whose life he endangered, but one is to assume it was the Duke, yes.’
‘Are you going to give him up, then?’
Lydia gave a heartfelt sigh and collapsed back into her seat. ‘It is very vulgar to suppose the rumours are true, darling.’
She didn’t miss the way Lydia’s eyes lingered on the door her husband had left by. Her hand was white where it clasped the seat.
‘Do you want to leave BenRuin?’ She made herself ask it, though she was blunt and graceless in the asking.
Lydia’s face betrayed no expression save boredom, but her hand on the chair grew involuntarily whiter. ‘If there is to be any talk of husbands, let it be of yours. I did not invite you to London so that you could befriend my staff. We were speaking of Wetherby, I believe?’
There were few topics she wanted to discuss less, but she let the conversation turn, and Lydia’s grip on the chair gradually lessened.
NOTE: As the book is constantly changing, this chapter reflects most closely what the book looks like now, but isn’t necessarily what any of the comments/pingbacks are responding to. I’d delete the comments, but that would mean deleting a compliment from Meredith Duran. Not gonna happen.