The rumors this writer has heard about the most sought-after bachelor in all of England. And what wicked things this particular man has committed.… Could you suspend belief if I accused a certain duke of engaging in acts only a commoner would participate in?
Mayfair Chronicles, May 1846
“Hold, Miller.” When the valet dodged around a tall stack of crates on the dock, Hayden, the Duke of Alsborough, had no choice but to punch out the blunt end of his cane to knock the man to the ground. Hayden roughly pulled Miller up the rest of the way.
Dazed but still determined to escape, Miller stood on wobbly legs and threw out a fist that glanced off Hayden’s left shoulder. The feeble hit was ineffective and only angered Hayden further.
He returned the blow, striking the valet square in the face and knocking him back another step. The man teetered to the right before falling like a sack laden with rocks to the cobbled road. He tried to scramble backward on his hands and feet, but his shoulders came up against a wall.
For two days Hayden had searched for this man. There was no way in hell he would give Miller the opportunity to run now that he had finally caught up to him. He unsheathed the blade from his cane and pointed it at the valet’s neck, a mere inch from piercing his pale skin. It took everything in him to hold back and not bury it deep into Miller’s throat.
“We’ve been over this,” Hayden reminded him, the sharp edge of his temper spilling out in his words. “You came here willingly not an hour ago on the presumption that you would be leaving London. Tonight.”
He exacted enough pressure to the valet’s throat, just above his rumpled cravat—it would only take the flick of Hayden’s wrist to end the other man’s life should he run again.
Miller laughed, the sound gurgled and broken as he spat out a wad of blood next to Hayden’s boot. When Miller grinned, a gaping hole at the front of his mouth oozed more blood where his tooth had been knocked out. “You’re no better than me, Duke.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Hayden said.
Hayden stared at the one man who threatened the only person who mattered to him, the only woman he’d ever truly loved. Though he’d only been tossed out of his master’s house a week past, Miller’s dark hair stood on end greasy with dirt, and stubble covered his jaw and neck. He also sported a black eye that Hayden had not been the one to deliver.
“You’ll leave or the outcome will look like child’s play compared to what I’ve already done to you.”
Miller shook his head, a sinister smile curling his lips. “You’re mistaken to think you have any hold over me.”
“Oh, I assure you I do. Should you choose to stay in England, you will live to regret that decision before the day is through.” Slowly, Hayden removed the blade from the man’s jugular.
The valet wiped his dirty sleeve across his mouth as he stood on unsteady feet, following the tip of Hayden’s blade as though they were in the midst of some macabre dance of death.
“Why did you do it?” That was the one question Hayden wanted answered most.
“She’s got no right to the fortune. I told my lordship I’d do anything he saw fit done.” Miller spat and wiped his sleeve across his mouth again, smearing blood across his cheek. “You’re too late to change the outcome. His Lordship would have divorced her were he still alive.”
Hayden glared at the valet and took a threatening step forward. Jessica had every right to the fortune she’d married into. Hell, Hayden didn’t know a person more deserving of a decent life, one that she’d been deprived of since the ill-fated day her father gave her to Fallon. Divorce seemed drastic, even for the old earl—and on what grounds?
Divorce was risky. The valet was lying. He had to be.
“Why are you here, Duke? Hushing up a bit of dirty work? Protecting that whore’s reputation, or at least what’s left of it?” The valet sneered. “You aristocrats are all the same, thinking your secrets are so precious. Especially Lady Jessica’s. We both know she’s no better than a trollop.”
Hayden looked at the glint of steel in his hand. He could end all of Jessica’s problems right now. But what kind of man would that make him? He lowered his blade long enough to sock Miller in the face again. The valet shook his head, dazed.
Hayden pulled away, cracking his knuckles, satisfied in knowing that Miller’s face hurt a hell of a lot more than his fist.
“I’m willing to let her secrets die at the cost of your life,” Hayden said bluntly.
“Then get on with it.” The valet took a brazen step forward, letting the tip of Hayden’s blade pierce his dirty vest and shirt and press just above his heart. “Go ahead; slide the blade in the rest of the way. It’s only a matter of time before Lady Jessica’s reputation is well and truly destroyed.”
The man had a death wish, but Hayden would not grant him that wish tonight. “Who else has been privy to her secrets?”
“That’s for me to know. But it’s not me you should fear. She’s garnered enemies far and wide. That’s what happens when a woman leads a disgraceful life, without thought to her reputation.”
All Hayden had to do was buy Jessica a few months by ridding London of the pathetic weasel of a man standing before him. Who else knew about Jessica’s situation, aside from him? Hayden needed the valet gone, before he could sell his secrets to the highest bidder. The last thing Hayden wanted to see printed in the gossip columns was Jessica’s current predicament.
Wiping his bloodied knuckles on a handkerchief, Hayden reached into his breast pocket to retrieve the papers for the valet’s voyage. He watched Miller in case he tried to run again, but there was a defeated look in the man’s eyes that hadn’t been there the last time he’d taken flight. Had he honestly thought he’d escape Hayden?
The valet snatched the papers from Hayden’s grasp. “I wouldn’t have minded tossing Her Ladyship down a flight of stairs, you know. It might have done the trick sooner.”
Hayden grasped the man’s throat tightly. He wanted to squeeze the last breath from his lungs and forever silence him. He watched as Miller struggled to breathe, his face flushing red.
In slow increments Hayden relaxed his grip, though he left the sword’s sharp edge resting over the man’s heart as he took a step back.
“I’ll tell you this once because the repercussions for any disobedience will be the forfeiture of your life.”
“I’m a dead man either way,” the valet challenged him.
“You’ll find no compassion from me,” Hayden said. “You’re a bigger fool than I imagined if you think I’ll end your life swiftly. Board the ship set for Australia. The debt holders after you will be far kinder than me.”
The valet pushed himself off the wall to stand on shaky legs; his height was nearly even with Hayden’s. Miller really did have a death wish, but Hayden could not fulfill the man’s wish to die so easily. In reality—and with no irony lost on him—Hayden had bought the man a second chance at life, since he probably would have been dead inside a week had he stayed in London. But the damage that could be accomplished in even a few days wasn’t a chance Hayden was willing to take with Jessica’s future.
Hayden motioned his sword in the direction of the ship that was leaving that evening. The valet straightened out his jacket, and held his head high as he stared back at Hayden.
“You haven’t gotten the better of me.”
“But I have, Miller.”
Hayden nodded toward the ship again. He did not want to stand and talk to a man he reviled for threatening the woman he loved. Though he had every intention of waiting here till the ship had truly sailed from the dock.
This man leaving London would be the first right in a long list of wrongs, not wrongs done by him but wrongs committed toward Jessica. Hayden would do everything in his power to ensure her life from here on out started on the right foot.
Miller didn’t grumble a moment longer and slowly ambled toward the ship, holding out his papers as he approached. Hayden sheathed his sword inside his cane and leaned on the stylized eagle handle as he waited.
How had everything turned into such a bloody mess?
With a heavy sigh, he left the docks when the ship was but a dot on the dusky horizon.
It was time to pay Jessica a visit and let her know the good news. Though he doubted the valet’s removal from London would lighten her spirits; she’d been out of sorts since her husband’s death, but Hayden hoped this would cheer her some.
Copyright © 2014 by Tiffany Clare