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Forbidden to Love the Duke(95)

By:Jillian Hunter

Then he walked up to the chair in which Oliver was sitting, raised him up by his lapels, and hurled him into a table. Two glasses of claret went flying. Oliver shook his head at the assault and James punched him with all his might in the jaw.

“I’ll pay for all damages,” James said to no one in particular.

Oliver rubbed his chin, looking stunned. “Does that include the damage to my face?”

James pulled off his coat. A waiter took possession of it and hastily stepped behind an armchair. “Where is your mobcap, Oliver? Did you leave your apron at home? Do you mind if I dust the floor with your deceitful face?”

“An apron?” someone echoed.

“A mobcap?” said another.

The club porter arrived and summoned every waiter in the establishment to break up the fight. None of these men appeared eager to intervene. In fact, the porter decided to start taking bets on the outcome of the match. The duke had said he would pay all damages. He could afford the bill.

Society could be fickle. Society chose its darlings. A handsome poet might be popular for a season. But a duke was always in favor, especially when he had been privately wronged and took revenge in public, representing the ideals that his peers could not be bothered to uphold. This would make the papers and give the gentlemen present some good gossip for their wives.

“I have never known the duke to lose his temper,” one baronet remarked as James apologized for stepping on his foot. “He must have good reason.”

“It must be a woman,” another said, shaking his head over his newspaper.

“His brother was wounded at Vitoria,” the gentleman at his side murmured. “It’s enough to make one go mad, the casualties we have suffered.”

Oliver had crooked his forearm to deflect the next blow. James drew back his left fist and drove it into Oliver’s belly. “Fight back, Mother Goose. Fight me, you coward.”

Oliver reached inside his pocket and James took another jab, remembering how quick Oliver was with a gun. Oliver’s head snapped back. This time when he recovered, his eyes blazed with anger. Defiantly he pulled out a handkerchief to dab at the blood trickling from his mouth. At last he threw a punch that glanced off James’s cheekbone.

They crashed through the door and out into the hall, battling like two unchained beasts. Oliver hit the mirror hanging on the wall. It fell, showering glass on his head and shoulders. Before he shook himself off, James bore him to the staircase and down they went, heads banging, fists flying until they reached the bottom. Oliver lifted his hands in surrender to the small crowd gathered above.

“I forfeit,” he said in a ragged voice. “I have wronged His Grace. I deserved the beating he gave me tonight. I have acted dishonorably toward him.” Oliver leaned his head back against the balustrade. “If you challenge me to a duel, I won’t fire. I am a cad,” he said, speaking now in an undertone to James. “Courting Ivy was all a ploy, except that I began to care for her and her sisters. All along I sought the treasure at Fenwick.”

James fought a wave of faintness. His eyes wanted to close and his head kept jerking back. “Treasure? What the hell are you talking about?”

Oliver shook him hard. “Don’t fall asleep. We have to keep each other awake through the night to monitor our injuries.”

James snorted. “We are not spending the night together. Explain more to me about this elusive treasure.”

“The pawnbroker Ivy sold her pearls to swears there is a fortune hidden somewhere in Fenwick. I wanted to find it. I didn’t realize that my conscience would interfere with my attempts.”

“Forgive me if I have no tears to spare.”

Oliver put his head between his knees. “I made the mistake of mentioning my plans to Joseph Treadway one night when I was drunk. He in turn told that hulking fool Ainsley, and I assume Ainsley told Elora.”

The name wrenched James out of his thoughts. “Did I hear you correctly? Elora was involved in the attack on Fenwick Manor?”

“That isn’t what I said. Elora merely knew the men who attacked Lilac and Quigley. Ainsley was the one who got away. I shot Joseph, and I do not regret it. I might be a blackguard but—”

James lumbered to his feet. “Where is Ainsley?”

“Had he any brains in his bloated head, he would be en route to France. The chances are, however, that he’s in a gambling hell.”

“Well, I know where Elora is, and I’m not happy about it. Wendover,” he called up to the slender figure descending the stairs, “I need your help. Oliver, get off your arse. If you are sincere in your regret, your atonement starts tonight.”