“Your Grace, I…”
Endymion de Waryn, Duke of Pendeen, lifted his quill mid-word. He raised his head and stared at his personal secretary…astonished. Yes. Astonished. Not surprised, as Babcock had stood there long enough to repeat those same three words twice now, punctuated by a few moments of painful silence and violent throat clearing after each utterance.
At two and thirty, Endymion had been neither astonished, nor surprised, nor shocked in nearly two decades. His carefully scheduled life precluded it, just as he preferred.
Astonished. Precisely, and the Duke of Pendeen was nothing if not precise. A quality he also expected of every man, woman, and child in his service.
“Your Grace, I…” The secretary, standing just inside the door, extended his hand. The stack of the day’s post, trapped in his long, knobby fingers, fluttered like so many ivory butterflies caught in flight.
Endymion settled his writing instrument into the silver quill rest mounted on his black marble inkstand. “Babcock, I am in the room. You are in the room. I know why I am here.” He cocked his head inquiringly.
“I suppose I count for nothing,” a bored voice intoned from the long, silk-brocade sofa before the empty hearth across the room.
“Less than nothing. If not for the stench of your cologne, I’d have forgotten your presence entirely.” Endymion shot a disparaging glance at the impeccably dressed lord draped with indolent elegance across the most comfortable piece of furniture in the room.
“I’ll have you know my cologne is the finest Floris has produced in twenty years. It was mixed to my specific order.” Anthony Farris, Marquess of Voil, adjusted his neckcloth and flicked a piece of lint from the top of his champagne-polished Hessians.
“You smell like a brothel on Sunday.” The duke waved his secretary forward.
After a moment’s hesitation, punctuated by a deep bob of his Adam’s apple, Babcock minced across the Persian carpet to stand before Endymion’s broad, mahogany desk. He dropped the clutch of letters onto the polished wood surface and took a step back, hands folded at the waist, one letter still in his grasp.
“How would you know? When have you ever darkened the door of a bawdyhouse?”
“I am married, Voil.” A familiar twitch settled between Endymion’s shoulders.
The marquess levered himself into a half-reclined position. “Not so much as anyone might notice. Least of all, your wife.” He filched a lemon tart from the generous plate on the tea table next to the sofa. “I’m all for a convenient marriage, man, but, good God. Seventeen years?”
Babcock squeaked. He actually squeaked and crumpled the letter in half. Endymion leaned forward, his fingers pressed to the curved arms of his leather chair. The man took another step back.
“Stubble it, Voil. Babcock, is that letter addressed to me?” He didn’t know which irritated him more—his friend’s knowledge of the state of his marriage or his secretary’s odd behavior.
“Your Grace, I…” The wiry man of middling years ran a finger under his neckcloth.
Endymion fixed Babcock with his most benign gaze. Having inherited his title from his grandfather at the age of twenty-five, he had a carefully practiced repertoire of expressions with which to gain the best performances from those he employed. “Well?”
“It… That is… Your Grace, I…”
“Am I paying you by the word, Babcock?”
“Of course not, Your Grace,” fairly stumbled from the secretary’s lips. He gasped at his own impertinence and then adopted a hushed tone. “This letter is from Cornwall, Your Grace. A second response to the invitation, that is, the letter. The letter you wrote. That is to say, had me to write.” He swallowed hard. “The letter.”
Endymion pushed to his feet. And immediately regretted it. Poor Babcock blanched and took yet another step back. Two more and he’d be in the corridor. At a bit over six-and-a-half feet tall, the duke tended to intimidate even when seated. Should Babcock faint, he’d never discover the problem, and he had far more pressing matters to see to today than a swooning secretary. He reached for the leather-bound volume that contained his schedules and plans for the year—each day carefully divided by the hour, tasks to be accomplished and social engagements that required his presence. He had precisely ten minutes to conclude this interruption to his afternoon.
Wait. What had Babcock said?
“The letter?” Scarcely out of his mouth, the question shot into his brain and bottled up the air in his lungs. He refused to look at his friend, who had suddenly unfolded himself from the sofa enough to sit up completely, too damned attentive for anyone’s good. Especially Endymion’s.
“Cornwall?” Voil looked from Babcock to Endymion and back. “In response to what letter? What sort of invitation?”
“One that does not include you. Aren’t you expected somewhere for luncheon?” The duke stared at the single missive trapped in his secretary’s shaky grip.
“By every marriage-minded mama in London. Why do you think I have sought sanctuary in the library of the dullest duke in Christendom? What letter, Babcock?” Voil had all the appearance of a hound pointing grouse.
“Don’t answer that, Babcock,” Endymion ordered. His secretary paled another shade and swayed slightly. To be expected of a man trapped between a marquess and a duke.
“You wrote to Cornwall?” Voil perched on the edge of the sofa.
“I didn’t say that.” A line of sweat meandered along the twitch between Endymion’s shoulders. He took a casual step around the far side of his desk.
“Babcock said it.” Voil pushed slowly to his feet. “You don’t acknowledge the existence of Cornwall, let alone write letters to anyone there. As far as you’re concerned, England stops at the River Tamar.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Pendeen’s family seat is in Cornwall. I am Pendeen. Therefore, I have estates to manage in Cornwall.” Damn Voil for spending half his life draped over the most nap-worthy furnishings in Endymion’s Grosvenor Square home.
Babcock’s eyes followed this exchange, his breath bated.
Voil snorted. “Your uncle manages those estates.” He sidled toward Babcock. “And writes and dispatches all your correspondence to Cornwall. Including your monthly letters to…”
The marquess’s jaw went slack.
Oh hell. Endymion suppressed a groan and stepped around the front of his desk.
“You wrote to your wife?”
“Babcock, give me that letter.” Endymion all but lunged at the terrified secretary.
Voil scrambled over a tapestry-worked ottoman and made a grab for the missive, which Babcock raised over his head, attempting to hand it off to the duke. Babcock waved his arm back and forth as the two peers shifted from side to side in an effort to capture the now much-mangled, folded, and sealed parchment. Using the three odd inches he had on his friend, Endymion snatched it from his frantic employee’s trembling fingers.
He failed to resist an “Aha!” of triumph. Voil used that moment to snatch the letter from his hand and dance away behind the sofa.
Babcock stifled a gasp.
“Your Grace, I…” The secretary appeared torn between a bolt for the door and a bout of tears. Voil had that effect.
Endymion’s reaction was far more visceral. Determined to keep his frustrated trepidation to himself, he folded his arms across his chest and leaned a hip against the desk. “Don’t trouble yourself, Babcock. You and I are too far removed from our childhoods to defeat Lord Voil in such a juvenile game. His lordship is still in the midst of his.”
“Says the man who has his uncle correspond with his wife on his behalf.” The marquess examined the folded and sealed letter from every angle, prolonging his schoolboy antics. Endymion refused to give him the satisfaction of a reaction.
“I am accustomed to my uncle handling all of my Cornwall concerns on my behalf.”
“A point on which he makes certain everyone in London is quite clear. Why he continues to do so seven years after your grandfather’s death is rather less clear. To me, at least.”
“Our friendship does not obligate me to offer you clarity on the management of my dukedom.” Endymion might have favored Voil with one of his ducal glares, but it would have been wasted on the arrogant arse.
“As may be, Pendeen. However, neither you nor Babcock would be so concerned at my reading a response to one of your obsequious toad-eater of an uncle’s letters. Cut line. What in God’s name persuaded you to write to your wife?” He braced his hands on the back of the sofa, the letter pressed into the blue and gold brocade under his fingers.
“Uncle de Waryn has decamped to the Continent for the next few months. I had no choice.” Endymion tapped a finger against the cool fabric of his jacket. A trick he’d learned long ago to clear his head when unwanted thoughts came to mind. Thoughts of Cornwall. And loss. And his wife.
Voil came around the sofa and retook his seat, the letter now dangling from his hands, which rested between his knees. “Babcock said a second response. What was the first?” Even half-asleep, the man missed nothing. Dammit.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The first response was ‘no.’” Which had both intrigued and infuriated Endymion. Not that he’d give his friend that information.
“A simple ‘no’? Nothing more?”
The duke and the secretary nodded in unison. Babcock cleared his throat and stared at the window at the end of the room. Plotting his escape from this debacle, no doubt. Endymion suspected he might like to join the man. Nay, he didn’t suspect. He knew. The only person who wanted to read the contents of that letter more than he did was Voil. Knowledge was power. And whilst Voil knew more than anyone about Endymion’s past, there were some things Endymion had kept to himself. A small bundle of power not even his grandfather had held.
“And your response to that succinct reply? Don’t bother to lie about it, Pendeen. I’ve played chess with you for years.”
“You’ve lost at chess with me for years.” Endymion uncrossed his arms, leaned back fully against the desk, both hands gripping the ancient, polished mahogany desktop behind him. “I sent my travel carriage to fetch her. That was my response.”
Voil raised a brow. He rubbed his chin with one hand, still grasping the letter in the other. “Rather like fetching an incorrigible child who’s been sent down from school?”
“I would not know. I was never sent down from school.” Endymion’s even tone covered his inward wince. Voil’s description, born of a great deal of personal experience, had struck a bit too close to the mark. Had his duchess seen it that way?
Voil snapped the wax seal and opened the letter. “Shall we find out how this particular child has responded to being sent for, Your Grace?”
Endymion pushed away from the desk but willed his feet not to move. Babcock’s sharp intake of breath punctuated the silence. At least, he hoped it was Babcock’s. Voil waggled his eyebrows and leaned back against the sofa cushion to read the letter.
Voil’s response started with a snort. Followed by a childish chortle. In moments, Voil lay on the sofa howling with laughter. Waving that damned letter like a flag of surrender.
Endymion strode over and snatched it from the idiot’s lax fingers.
“Your Grace, I…”
“Yes, Babcock,” Endymion said without a backwards glance at his long-suffering secretary. “That will be all.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” From the clatter of his footsteps and the scrabbling noises at the door, Babcock had fled the room like the last fox in England upon hearing the baying of hounds.
Voil’s laughter subsided only to start up once more when he looked from the letter to Endymion and back. Breathing in through his nose, Endymion flipped the slightly crimped missive over to peruse the duchess’s latest reply.
To His Grace, Endymion Michael George de Waryn
Duke of Pendeen
Thank you for your kind invitation. Again. It may be breeding season for dukes in London. As there has not been a duke of breeding age in Cornwall in my lifetime, I am unfamiliar with their breeding season here. And here is where I intend to remain.
Rhiannon Harvey de Waryn
Duchess of Pendeen
“What did you write to deserve such a response?” Voil sat up and drew a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe tears of laughter from his eyes.
Endymion stared at the piece of stationary crushed in his hand. He didn’t remember closing his fist around it. Ignoring his friend, he returned to his desk and smoothed out the letter. On the shelf directly behind him, he plucked the box marked This Month’s Correspondence Received from its place and tucked the still wrinkled page inside it before returning the box to the shelf. At the end of the month, Babcock would file it away in the box reserved for the duke’s correspondence with the duchess.
The duke’s correspondence.
With the duchess.
Until a month ago, he’d not written a single letter to his wife of seventeen years. He’d left that task to his uncle. In spite of the many reasons that had arisen for Endymion himself to correspond with his interests in Cornwall, perhaps he should have left this chore to his uncle. What had possessed Endymion to write to her now? He stared at the rows and rows of boxes as if they might hold the answer.
“If you cannot recall what you wrote, for God’s sake, man, can you tell me why you wrote to her after all this time?”
He faced Voil, still seated on the sofa but more alert than he’d seen him in years. Alert and…pitying. Hell! This was not to be borne. Endymion lifted the book by which he conducted his life, strode to the sofa, and dropped the leather volume into his startled friend’s lap. A singular honor. Few people beyond Babcock and Endymion’s butler, Vaughn, had been allowed the privilege he now afforded the Marquess of Voil.
“You cannot tell me the old bastard ordered you when to…” Voil stopped leafing through the pages of the schedule book and slowly raised his head. “Please tell me you did not invite your duchess to London in order to— Good God, you did.” He tossed the book onto the table before the sofa.
“Did what?” This conversation was about to take a road Endymion did not want to travel. Not even with his oldest friend. Too many roads in his mind led to dangerous places. Places he had put behind him. Places he had no memory of and no desire to visit to regain those memories.
“Hell and the devil, man, you’re still living your life by your grandfather’s rules. He’s dead, Pendeen. You’re alive. You can make your own rules.”
“I know I’m alive.” Endymion collapsed into one of the high-backed leather chairs before his desk.
“Do you? I’ve seen little evidence of it, especially since the old man stuck his spoon in the wall. I know bluestocking spinsters who’ve had more fun. They don’t hang you for breaking the rules.”
“You will forgive me if I decline to take advice about rules from a man with little to no acquaintance with them.” Endymion resisted the urge to scrub his hands over his face.
Voil grinned. “On the contrary, I have an intimate acquaintance with them. I use the rules to live the most scandalous life possible without offending anyone. You use the rules as a place to hide.”
“Ridiculous.” He rolled his shoulders and slouched down into the chair. “What have I to hide from?”
“I don’t know, but if that letter is an example of her response to your wooing talents, I suggest you hide from your duchess, for starters.” Voil slid down on the sofa, mimicking Endymion’s posture.
“You are not helping.”
“At least, until the breeding season for dukes is over.”
“Nor are you amusing in the least.”
“Very well, Your Grace.” Voil snatched the leather-bound book from the table and tossed it at Endymion. “What does His Late Grace’s book say you should do next?”