Darcy Burke

Excerpt: Impassioned

Book Two: The Phoenix Club

Chapter One

March 1815, London

Constantine Westbrook, Earl of Aldington, slid the key into the lock. Apprehension overwhelmed any anticipation he might have possessed. He glanced over at the beautiful woman he’d hired for the evening and doubted his actions.

Don’t. Plenty of gentlemen take a mistress.

Constantine, however, was not plenty of men, and his arguments for tonight’s activity were not entirely persuasive. He prided himself on being a man of integrity and principle. He was also a man of needs, and he was weary of being alone every night, despite having a wife. If one could even call her that when she avoided his presence and behaved as if he were either repulsive or terrifying. Or both.

Barbara slid her hand beneath his coat and curled her arm around his waist. Sidling closer, she brushed her large, round breast against him. “Come on then, love.”

His body reacted, quieting the doubts. The key clicked, and Barbara pushed the door open with her hip, giving him a saucy smile.

She turned from him and sucked in a breath. “What in the devil is going on here?”

Constantine immediately took in the scene. The Earl of Overton stood close to a young woman—his bloody ward, whom Constantine had met and who was a close friend of his sister’s—and both were undressed. Overton scrambled to pull on a shirt and responded to Barbara, though Constantine didn’t hear what he said over the cacophony of distress in his head. This was supposed to be a private assignation—secret.

Horrified at being seen, and seeing Overton with his ward, Constantine pivoted. His feet were somehow rooted to the floor despite his brain screaming at him to leave as quickly as possible. Damn, Overton was coming toward him. Constantine glanced in the man’s direction before stalking away from the room, quickly retracing his steps to the back staircase that he and Barbara had used to ascend to the second floor of the Phoenix Club.

Apparently, they should have gone to her lodgings instead. But Constantine had asked his younger brother for assistance with carrying out his scheme in a more discreet location so as not to be seen entering or leaving Barbara’s. As the owner of the Phoenix Club, Lucien had enthusiastically provided Constantine with a key to a bedchamber on the second floor of the club, saying he and Barbara would be completely undisturbed.

Not only had that been untrue, but Constantine now found himself in the infuriating position of having his behavior known. Hopefully, Overton and his ward would say nothing. That seemed likely since they wouldn’t want their assignation to become public knowledge either.

Then he heard Overton coming after him. “Aldington, wait! Why are you here?”

Constantine did not turn as he gritted his teeth. In fact, he hastened his pace. “This was a mistake. Please don’t follow me out.” He opened the door to the backstairs and slipped through, closing it firmly behind him.

Thankfully, Overton did not continue his pursuit. Still, Constantine hurried down to the ground floor and made his way out of the back of the club into the garden. Sounds from the club’s assembly, the first of the Season, carried to him from the ballroom. Constantine had never been to an assembly at the club because he wasn’t a member. His brother and his mysterious membership committee hadn’t invited him.

Tonight’s scheme had been ill-planned. Lucien should have warned him that both the gentlemen’s and ladies’ sides of the club would be teeming with ball-goers.

Eager to put this entire event behind him, he found the almost unidentifiable door in the wall along Bury Street where he and his companion had come in. He opened it just enough to slip outside and made sure it was latched before he rushed away, head down, toward St. James where he would be far more comfortable.

The thought nearly made him laugh. Was he ever comfortable? Yes, when he worked on the matters that he was most passionate about in the House of Commons, despite the fact that his seat there was yet another duty his father had insisted upon, like his marriage. But while his service in the House of Commons had actually brought satisfaction and even given him a sense of purpose, his marriage was another story entirely.

As he approached the entrance to White’s, Constantine cast his head back and took a deep breath, inhaling London’s scent of coal smoke and horses. Sometimes he envied his wife and the time she spent at Hampton Lodge, the home they’d chosen as their country residence about fifteen miles outside London, with its country air and open spaces.

Residence? Hers, certainly, but not his. Constantine visited twice a year—in the summer for a few weeks and over the holidays. Yes, he envied Lady Aldington and the fact that she had a place where she felt at home. Since moving there after they’d wed, she’d refurbished several rooms and planned to redesign the gardens. Her enthusiasm and dedication were impressive. Inspiring even. It seemed to be her passion, just as his work in the Commons was his. Notably, they had no passion for each other.

“Good evening, Lord Aldington.” The footman greeted Constantine as he entered the familiar space.

“Evening,” Constantine said as he walked into the main room where Brummel sat in the bow window with his acolytes surrounding him.

Constantine strode past without pausing and was immediately intercepted by one of his colleagues, Mr. Horace Brightly. Short and fit, Brightly was a fellow member of the Gentlemen’s Phaeton Racing Club.

“Evening, Aldington. May I have a word?” Brightly asked pleasantly.

Relieved to turn his mind to something other than the mistake he’d nearly committed and would surely have regretted, Constantine inclined his head. “Certainly.”

They moved to a relatively quiet table in the corner where a footman brought them glasses of port. Brightly took a sip before setting his glass down and fixing Constantine with an intense stare. The man was tireless in his work and saw the gentlemen’s clubs as an extension of Westminster—places where he could present his arguments and hopefully persuade others to his side. Like Constantine, he had no interest in gaming, placing wagers in the betting book, or drinking to excess.

“The Importation Act is gaining ground,” Brightly noted with grave concern. “I’m hoping we can count you among our supporters. To oppose the law, that is.”

Constantine tensed. “I haven’t yet decided, but I promise I am giving it careful consideration.”

“Without your father’s input, I pray.” Brightly gave him a direct, sincere look before abruptly changing the subject. “Has Lady Aldington arrived in town yet?”

“No. I don’t expect her for a few weeks.” That was a lie. Constantine didn’t know when to expect her, if at all. She’d written a few letters since he’d returned to London in mid-January, all of them about the newly refurbished drawing room and the spring plans for the garden. He’d responded in kind, discussing his activities here in London. Their correspondence was polite and respectful and utterly devoid of anything personal. Once upon a time, he’d hoped that would change, but after nearly two years, he accepted their marriage was one of extreme convenience.

He supposed she’d probably come sometime this month. Last year, she’d arrived in mid-March. Really, he should write to her and ask. Perhaps he’d do that tomorrow.

“Well, when she’s in town, you must come for dinner,” Brightly said. “Mrs. Brightly thoroughly enjoys her company.”

“I’m sure Lady Aldington would be delighted.” Because she would. During the few dinners they’d shared with the Brightlys last Season, Sabrina had been at her most animated. Most Society events seemed to terrify her.

“Excellent, we’ll look forward to it then.” Brightly finished his port. “And I won’t harass you about the tariff until next week.” He winked, then rose and took himself off.

Constantine smiled faintly into his port before sipping. Then he promptly drank the liquid down the wrong side of his throat as his father walked into his line of sight.

Coughing, Constantine set his glass down with a bit too much force. Or perhaps, in his agitation, he gripped the stem too tightly. Whatever the reason, the stem snapped, and the glass fell over onto the tablecloth, spilling what remained of his port. The jagged edge of the broken glass tore into Constantine’s palm. Blood welled on his flesh, and he turned his hand over to keep it from spilling onto the tablecloth.

“Good Christ,” the duke muttered before waving for a footman who hurried to the table. “Bring his lordship a cloth for his hand and tidy this mess.”

“Yes, Your Grace.” The footman rushed to carry out the older man’s bidding.

Constantine looked up at his father, into the familiar dark eyes that seemed to detect everything in Constantine’s mind and soul. He hoped his father hadn’t seen that Brightly had just been sitting here.

That was, however, far too much to hope for.

The duke’s cool gaze flicked to the chair Brightly had vacated. “Why were you speaking with that upstart? I really should ensure he’s cast out. He has no business here and should keep to his kind at Brooks’s.”

His kind. Constantine winced as he pulled the glass from his palm. He set it on the tablecloth, staining the fabric with his blood. “Because he has Whig tendencies.”

“Because he is a bloody Whig.” The duke spoke in a low but irritated tone.

The footman returned to the table, accompanied by another. The first one handed Constantine a small towel while the other gathered up the tablecloth and broken glass. The latter hurried away, and the former spread a fresh, clean cloth over the table.

“Can I fetch anything else for you, my lord?” he asked Constantine.

“No, thank you.” Constantine gave him a reassuring nod, knowing how intimidating his father could be and understanding the footman was likely anxious.

“A glass of claret,” the duke barked before sitting in a chair that hadn’t been occupied by Brightly. Which put him directly to Constantine’s right. The footman quickly departed, and the duke glowered after him. “I do think I’ll see what I can do about having Brightly expelled. He doesn’t belong here.”

“Why not? His father was a member.” Besides, nearly everyone liked Brightly. He was an enjoyable verbal sparring partner, regardless of whether you agreed with him.

The duke’s eyes glittered with annoyance. “His father is deceased and can no longer recommend him.”

Constantine held the towel to his wound, pressing hard to staunch the flow of blood. “Do you plan to have Lucien expelled too?” His brother also had “Whig tendencies.” Frankly, so did Constantine. “Or is he exempt from such action because he’s your son?”

“Don’t be clever.” The duke glowered at Constantine before lifting his gaze to the footman who arrived with the claret. “Thank you.” His brief show of gratitude eased some of the tension in Constantine’s shoulders. His father was in quite a mood this evening. He wasn’t a genial sort at any time, but he wasn’t always this surly either.

“If you’ll excuse me, I need to go home and bandage this.” Constantine’s palm stung and was still oozing blood. But more importantly, he wasn’t of a mind to suffer his father’s interrogation about Brightly, which was surely coming.

“Yes, you should. I hope that doesn’t affect your racing grip.” He said that because he liked to wager on Constantine’s coach races. That Constantine had formed a racing club with a group of gentlemen a few years ago was a point of pride for the duke.

“Good night, Father.”

“Good night.” He inclined his head before sipping his claret.

Before leaving, Constantine gave the stained cloth to a footman. A few moments later, Constantine stepped into a hack, which he directed to his house on Curzon Street. His hand was still bleeding a little, so he removed his cravat and wrapped it around his palm.

By the time he arrived home, he was exhausted, aggrieved in a myriad of ways, and he realized his wounded right hand wouldn’t allow him to ease at least a part of his frustration. Smiling at the absurdity, he greeted his butler, Haddock, at the door. “You’re up late. Did one of the footmen take ill?”

“Good evening, my lord.” Haddock’s wide brow furrowed beneath his severely combed gray-black hair. Constantine knew right away that something was amiss.

The tension he’d just managed to push away in the hack returned, shooting a pain down his spine. “What’s the matter?”

Haddock’s pale blue gaze dropped to Constantine’s wrapped hand. “Did you injure yourself, my lord?”

“A broken glass at the club. Are you going to tell me what’s going on, or do I need to go in search of Mrs. Haddock?” His housekeeper was the wife of his butler, and she would likely be abed by now. As Haddock typically was. Or at least not at their posts. Constantine had no idea what they did when they weren’t performing their duties, and it was none of his concern.

Haddock stiffened, his shoulders squaring as he met Constantine’s stare. “Lady Aldington arrived earlier this evening.”

The pain in Constantine’s spine sharpened, overtaking the wound in his hand. “I see. Thank you, Haddock.”

“Shall I have some bandaging and poultice brought up to Peale?”

The valet would offer to dress the wound, and Constantine supposed he should let him. “I’d appreciate that.” He started toward the stair hall but paused and looked back at the butler. “The countess’s arrival surprised you.”

“Yes, my lord.” Faint color rose in Haddock’s cheeks. “Perhaps you mentioned it to me, and I forgot.”

Constantine nearly laughed at the preposterousness of that occurrence. “You know that didn’t happen. I’m surprised too. Did she say why she arrived unannounced?”

“She did not.”

“I’m sure I’ll find out in the morning. Good night, Haddock.” Constantine left the entry hall and climbed the stairs. Passing the drawing room, he made his way to the sitting room that served as a sort of antechamber to his and his wife’s bedrooms.

Upon entering, he stopped cold. Seated in a chair before the fire was his wife.

Sabrina Westbrook was the most beautiful woman in England. Or so many had called her during her debut Season two years ago, including him. With her red-gold hair that made one think of honey glistening in the sun, her brilliant sky-blue eyes, and warm cream complexion, she was an ideal. To Constantine, she was the only woman who’d taken his breath away the moment he’d seen her. That she was the young lady his father wanted him to wed had seemed an impossible dream.

Too bad his dream wife had tried to avoid marrying him and was clearly filled with so much loathing that their union was damned from the start. Oh, she could be pleasant and polite, but there was no question that she detested being forced into this marriage and despised his nearness and his touch. Constantine had done a fair job of burying the hurt he’d felt then. So much so that he could almost forget it. Almost.

“What happened to your hand?” She came toward him, jolting him from his reverie. The skirt of her dark green dressing gown swirled about her ankles. Without waiting for his answer, she reached for him.

He took a step back, shocked by her approach. “I think the more important question, madam, is what are you doing here?”

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