A woman laughed, and Alexander Lewis, Duke of Greyland felt the sound like a gunshot to his chest.
It was a very pleasant laugh, low and musical rather than shrill and forced, yet it sounded like The Lost Queen’s laugh. Alex could not resist the urge to glance over his shoulder as he left the Eagle chophouse. He’d fancifully taken to calling her The Lost Queen, though she was most assuredly a mortal woman. Had she somehow appeared on a busy London street at dusk? The last time he’d seen her had been two years ago, in the spa town of Cheltenham, in his bed, asleep and naked.
The owner of the laugh turned out to be a completely different woman—brunette rather than blonde, petite and round rather than lithe and willowy. She caught Alex staring and raised her eyebrows. He bowed gravely in response, then continued toward the curb.
Night came on in indigo waves, but the shops spilled golden light in radiant patches onto the street.
The hardworking citizens of London continued to toil as the upper echelons began their evening revelries. Crowds thronged the sidewalk, while wagons, carriages, and people on horseback crammed the streets. A handful of pedestrians recognized Alex and politely curtsied or tipped their hats, murmuring, “Good evening, Your Grace.” Though he was in no mood for politeness, responsibility and virtue were his constant companions—had been his whole life—and so rather than snapping, “Go to the devil, damn you!” he merely nodded in greeting.
He’d done his duty. He’d been seen in public, rather than disappearing into the cavernous chambers of his Mayfair mansion, where he could lick his wounds in peace.
The trouble with being a duke was that he always had to do his duty. “You are the pinnacle of British Society,” his father had often said to him. “The world looks to you for guidance. So you must lead by example. Be their True North.”
This evening, before dining, Alex had taken a very conspicuous turn up and down Bond Street, making certain that he was seen by many consequential—and loose-lipped— figures in the ton. Word would soon spread that the Duke of Greyland was not holed up, sulking in seclusion. His honor as one of Society’s bulwarks would not be felled by something as insignificant as his failed marriage suit to Lady Emmeline Birks. The Dukes of Greyland had stood strong against Roundheads, Jacobites, and countless other threats against Britain. One girl barely out of the schoolroom could hardly damage Alex’s ducal armor.
But that armor had been dented by The Lost Queen. Far deeper than he would have expected.
Standing on the curb, he signaled for his carriage, which pulled out of the mews. He tugged on his spotless gloves as he waited and adjusted the brim of his black beaver hat to make certain it sat properly on his head. “Always maintain a faultless appearance,” his father had reminded him again and again. “The slightest bit of disorder in your dress can lead to rampant speculation about the stability of your affairs. This, we cannot tolerate. The nation demands nothing less than perfection.”
Alex’s father had been dead for ten years, but that didn’t keep the serious, sober man’s voice from his mind. It was part of him now—his role as one of the most powerful men in England and the responsibilities that role carried with it. Not once did he ever let frivolities distract him from his duties.
Except for one time . . .
Forcing the thought from his mind, Alex looked impatiently for his carriage. Just as the vehicle pulled up, however, two men appeared and grabbed his arms on each side.
Alex stiffened—he did not care for being touched without giving someone express permission to do so. People on the street also did not normally seize each other. Was it a robbery? A kidnapping attempt? His hands curled instinctively into fists, ready to give his accosters a beating.
“What’s this?” one of the younger men exclaimed with mock horror. “Have I grabbed hold of a thundercloud?”
“Don’t know about you,” the other man said drily, “but I seem to have attached myself to an enormous bar of iron. How else to explain its inflexibility?” He tried to shake Alex, to little avail. When he wanted to be, Alex was absolutely immovable.
Alex’s fingers loosened. He tugged his arms free and growled, “That’s enough, you donkeys.”
Thomas Powell, the Earl of Langdon and heir to the Duke of Northfield, grinned, a flash of white in his slightly unshaven face. “Come now, Greyland,” he chided. A hint of an Irish accent made his voice musical, evidence of Langdon’s early years spent in his mother’s native County Kerry. “Is that any way to speak to your oldest and dearest friends?”
“I’ll let you know when they get here.” Alex scowled at Langdon, then at Christopher Ellingsworth, who only smirked in response.
Alex took a step toward his carriage, but Ellingsworth deftly moved to block his path, displaying the speed and skill that had served him well when he’d fought on the Peninsula.
“Where are you running off to with such indecorous haste?” Ellingsworth pressed. He held up a finger. “Ah, never tell me. You’re running back to the shelter of your Mayfair cave, to growl and brood like some big black bear in a cravat.”
“You know nothing,” Alex returned, despite the fact that Ellingsworth had outlined his exact plans for the rest of the night.
Ellingsworth looked at Langdon with exaggerated pity. “Poor chap. The young Lady Emmeline has utterly shattered his heart.”
Alex shouldered past Ellingsworth, only to have Langdon move to stand in his way.
“My heart is not shattered because of Lady Emmeline,” Alex snapped. At least that much was the truth.
“But why shouldn’t your heart be strewn in pieces throughout Regent’s Park?” Langdon mused. “You courted the young lady for several months, and you told Ellingsworth and I that you’d already received her father’s grateful acceptance of a marriage offer.”
“She never agreed to anything,” Alex said flatly.
“A modest girl, that Lady Emmeline.” Ellingsworth nodded with approval. “She wouldn’t have said yes right away. They never do. Nothing to be alarmed by.”
“How would you know?” Alex’s voice was edged. Ellingsworth had little experience with offering for ladies’ hands, committed as he was to a life of reckless pleasure.
Langdon added, “It’d be unseemly for an earl’s daughter to eagerly snap up a marriage proposal the moment it was offered.”
Alex scowled. Despite the fact that, at thirty-eight, he was sixteen years her senior, they would suit well as a wedded couple. Lady Emmeline had been perfectly trained in the responsibilities of an aristocratic wife. Though he wished she stated her own opinion rather than constantly agreeing with him, there were worse faults one could find in a prospective bride.
They could marry at Christmas, eight months from now. It would be a small but elegant wedding, followed by a lavish breakfast and a wedding journey in the Lake District. And then, if everything went well, in less than a year, Alex and Lady Emmeline might welcome their first child—hopefully a boy so the line would be secure. It would’ve been precisely the sort of match Alex’s
father would have approved, considering Lady Emmeline’s faultless background and her spotless reputation.
“Look at him now, mooning away,” Langdon sighed, smugly thwarting Alex’s attempts to step around him. “He looks poorly.”
It would be bad form to knock his friend to the ground. Damn the social niceties that dictated a man couldn’t punch another without repercussions.
“Perhaps he should be bled,” Ellingsworth suggested with his habitual smirk. It was his constant companion since returning from the War, as if he refused to take anything seriously.
“I am perfectly well.” Alex looked back and forth between these two rogues whom he called friends. “No need to call for a quack.”
“He’s already had an amputation,” Langdon noted, raising a brow as he always did. “One prospective bride—gone.” He made a sawing motion at his ankle, as if cutting the shackles of matrimony.
Alex glanced down at his own lower leg, as if he could see the invisible links that might have bound him to Lady Emmeline. He’d come so close to becoming a married man and sharing the rest of his life with one woman—the faultless duke his father had bred him to be. It hardly mattered that Alex felt nothing for the gel other than a sense of distant respect. She would have made a fine duchess.
“We were at White’s yesterday when we heard about what happened,” Langdon said with disapproval. “Didn’t even tell your two closest friends that Lady Emmeline had run off with a cavalry officer. No, we had to hear it from Lord Ruthven, of all people.”