Rain clouds moved in from the horizon, promising a drenching in the next thirty minutes or so. Nicholas Bateman, tenth Duke of Kilve, was glad he’d completed his outdoor activities for the day. He stared at the expanse of ocean stretching beyond the cliffs, never failing to appreciate the immensity and treachery of the world around him. Or how small and insignificant it made him feel.
The sound of Markley’s gentle query drew Nick to turn from the window. He looked at the butler in silent response.
“His Grace, the Duke of Romsey, has arrived.”
A jolt of surprise hummed through Nick’s frame. He hadn’t expected to see his oldest—his only, really—friend until next month when they would meet at Simon’s hunting lodge in the north of England.
Nick leaned back in his chair. “Show him in.”
With a nod, Markley pivoted and departed. A few moments later, Simon strode into Nick’s office, his dark hair artfully disheveled—as it usually was—and his brown eyes alight with some sort of mischief. When one considered Simon’s background, it was no small feat that he was a near-constant source of wit and humor.
Simon deposited himself into a high-backed chair and stretched his long legs out before him.
“Comfortable?” Nick asked.
“Not yet, but I’ll get there. It was a hell of a ride. I was trying to beat the weather.”
“Well done of you,” Nick said. “To what do I owe this surprise?”
Simon slipped his hand into an inner pocket on the front of his coat and withdrew an envelope. He rose from the chair and tossed the missive on Nick’s desk before falling back onto the cushion.
Wordlessly, Nick opened the parchment and read the contents. The ill humor he worked to keep at bay stole over him as surely as the storm clouds moving rapidly toward the shore.
He dropped the letter on his desk and fixed his friend with an icy stare. “So?”
Simon exhaled with great exasperation. “It’s an invitation. I realize it’s been eons since either of us has received one, but surely you recall what they look like.”
“Vaguely.” Nick didn’t bother trying to remember. What was the point? He didn’t want to go to house parties or balls or any of the other nonsense that mattered to the ninnyhammers in Society. Nick wasn’t ever supposed to be one of their number, and he would never forget that.
“You’re being purposely morose.”
“It’s my way.”
Simon rolled his eyes. “Yes. However, it is not mine. I am thrilled to finally be invited to something, and I’ll be damned if you’re going to keep me from it.”
Nick shrugged before resting his elbows on the arms of his chair. “I wouldn’t dream of doing so. You should go.”
Simon pulled his legs up and leaned forward. “Didn’t you read it? I am heartily encouraged to attend the party with the Duke of Ice.”
“It didn’t say that.”
“No, it said Duke of Kilve, but let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?” Simon gave him a bland smile. “Anyway, it’s not nearly so derogatory a nickname as mine. Plus, it fits.” Simon leaned back in his chair with a resigned sigh. “I suppose mine does too.”
Not by half, but that was because Nick knew Simon better than anyone, and his friend didn’t deserve to be called the Duke of Ruin. Nick, on the other hand, was the bloody Duke of Ice whether he liked it or not. And truth be told, he liked it. Or at least preferred it. When people thought you were incapable of interaction, they generally left you alone. And that made Nick quite content.
“Yes, mine fits. Yours, however, does not, and I’ll not argue with you about that.”
Simon shook his head. “Heaven forbid anyone debate you.”
Nick snorted. “You debate me constantly. Your insisting I go to this house party is ample evidence.”
“True,” Simon said with a grin. “So you’ll go?”
“I’d rather have my entrails removed through my nose.”
Simon let out a bark of laughter. “What a disgusting image. But I do believe you would prefer that. Still, because you’re my dearest friend, you’re going to do it.”
Nick glanced down at the letter and recalled the details. It was a house party hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Linford.
“It’s not terribly far—just outside Wells,” Simon said. “And we’ll go to my lodge after that. It’s on the way, if you think about it.”
“It isn’t, but that’s a nice attempt,” Nick said wryly. “If it’s terrible, we’ll leave early.”
“Agreed. Does that mean you’ll go?”
“No. I’m humoring you.” Nick gestured toward the invitation on his desk. “It doesn’t say you have to go with me.”
“I take ‘heartily encouraged’ as a demand. I don’t think it would do me any favors to arrive without you.”
Nick made a guttural sound in his throat. “Then perhaps they should have invited me.”
Simon arched a brow at him. “Do you know they didn’t? I thought Markley burned any invitations upon receipt.”
Yes, he did. Nick called for the butler, who returned to the study with alacrity. “Yes, Your Grace? Should I bring tea?”
“I suppose, but that isn’t why I called for you. Did I receive an invitation from the Linfords in Somerset?”
“Indeed you did.” A bit of color leached from Markley’s middle-aged face. “I’m afraid I disposed of it as usual. Was that a mistake?”
“Of course not. I will advise you if I wish the procedure to change. Thank you, that will be all. Except for the tea.”
An expression of relief crossed Markley’s features before he departed.
“They’re still petrified of you,” Simon said.
“They’re deferential, as they should be.”
Simon’s response was an inarticulate sound that managed to convey his disagreement.
“Why the hell do you want to go to this party?” Nick asked. “Society has been horrible to you.” It was universally accepted that Simon had killed his wife four years ago, though he was never prosecuted for the crime. The fact that Simon had been drunk out of his mind and couldn’t remember a thing hadn’t helped matters. He’d also done nothing to defend himself, but he hadn’t imbibed a drop of spirits since. Indeed, his surrender of drink had only served to make him look guilty in the eyes of many. Such judgment by strangers only reinforced Nick’s need for isolation.
Simon’s dark brows pitched low over his eyes as he steepled his fingers and stared at the windows beyond Nick. “Unlike you, I get lonely. One can only read so many books or visit so many corners of the kingdom before one begins to go mad.”
His eyes met Nick’s, and for a fleeting moment, Nick saw the hollow darkness that Simon tried so hard to bury. That was where they differed. Simon tried to keep his past from dragging him into an abyss, whereas Nick refused to forget the tragedies that had led him to his cold solitude.
“What do you hope to gain?” Nick asked softly.
Simon dropped his hands to the arms of the chair and lifted a shoulder. “Diversion? That’s all I ever hope for.”
“Will we know anyone there? I can’t say I’m acquainted with Mr. or Mrs. Linford.”
“Linford was at Oxford at the same time as us. He was in New College, if memory serves.” Simon shook his head. “Might’ve been Hertford.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Nick said. “Clearly, we barely knew him. Why would he suddenly attempt to rekindle the acquaintance?”
“I can’t say.”
Nick narrowed his eyes. “I find it suspicious.”
“Just come with me, stay for one bloody night, and then continue to the lodge.”
“Won’t you come with me?”
Simon shrugged. “It depends on whether I’m enjoying myself. If I’m uncomfortable, I’ll leave with you.”
“I’ll do my best to ensure you’re uncomfortable, then.” A rare smile curved Nick’s lips provoking a shout of laughter from Simon.
“There’s my old friend.”
“Since you’re here, you should stay the night,” Nick said. “Unless you’ve somewhere else to be?”
Simon’s country home was a two-day ride at a swift pace, longer if one wasn’t in a hurry. But Nick doubted Simon would go back there. The house party was in a little over a week, and Simon would use that time to explore Cornwall or perhaps even venture into Wales. He had a hard time staying in one place.
“I don’t, as well you know. I’d be delighted to stay for a day or two. Perhaps we can go searching for the elusive dragon in the caves.”
Nick snorted at his mention of the old legend of Blue Ben. “It’s far more likely we’ll run into a smuggler.”
“Indeed?” Simon’s brows rose.
“Perhaps. Although I’ve done my part in quashing the activity.”
“Of course you have. You’re nothing if not a staunch patriot.” Simon said this with a somber note, silently referencing Nick’s service to King and country as well as the great sacrifice his family had made.
Thankfully, Markley entered with the tea, putting an effective end to that line of conversation. While Nick would never forget, he also chose not to discuss those matters. It was enough that they all lived in his mind.
Rain began to batter the windows as the storm moved over the house. Markley served the tea and departed.
Simon sipped his tea, peering over the rim of the cup at Nick.
Nick braced himself for another unwelcome topic. Could it be worse than cajoling him into attending a house party?
“Since we’re going to the Linfords’ party, should we discuss whether we’re on the Marriage Mart?”
Oh yes, it could be much, much worse.
“No.” The single word dropped into the room like a shard of ice.
Simon, heedless as ever when it came to Nick’s irritation, cocked his head to the side. “No we shouldn’t discuss it, or no we aren’t on the Marriage Mart?”
“I’ve no idea where the hell you are, although I might suggest an asylum.”
Simon grinned as he grabbed a cake from the tray Markley had perched on Nick’s desk. “It probably doesn’t matter. I can’t imagine anyone would consider us marriage material. Not yet anyway.”
Nick detected a note of hope in Simon’s voice. “Do you really wish to marry again?” he asked quietly. It seemed almost sacrilegious to even pose the question.
“I think I do,” Simon said, his tone equally soft. He shook his head. “I don’t know. I think I do, but when I consider it—actually think of how that would play out—I think not.” He shoved the rest of the cake into his mouth.
“I don’t even consider it.” How could he without sacrificing the memories of Jacinda and Elias? To look for, let alone accept, someone else would be to lay them to rest forever. He wasn’t sure he could do that.
“No, I don’t imagine you do.”
They drank in silence for a few minutes before Simon said, “Perhaps it’s time we consider it. We’re dukes. We have a responsibility to our titles.”
“I have cousins who can inherit.”
The question made Nick wince. He had a cousin or two but hadn’t established a connection with them, for fear of what might happen. Just as he feared what might happen to the woman he was selfish enough to wed.
“My apologies, of course you do,” Simon said.
Nick steered the conversation back to Simon since he’d brought up the infernal topic. “That is your goal, then? You’re going to this party with the hope of finding a wife?”
Simon shrugged. “I have no expectations. I may very well walk into the Linfords’ drawing room and receive the cut direct from everyone in attendance.”
“And you’d risk that?” It wouldn’t bother Nick, but he wasn’t sure about his friend.
“I prefer it to sitting alone and staring at the sea,” he answered dryly.
Nick smirked at Simon’s jest. “We’re an odd pair. I hope the Linfords and their guests are ready for us.”
“Indeed.” Simon’s eyes glowed with mirth. “I’m pleased to hear your enthusiasm.”
“Do not take my surrender to your pitiful pleas as enthusiasm. I am going to support you, and I will leave at the earliest opportunity. On that I want to be quite clear.”
“Understood.” Simon stood and stretched. “I’m going upstairs to change and then I shall beat you at chess.”
“You can try.”
Nick watched his friend leave, his mind churning over the hell he’d just agreed to. A house party? When he was in London to conduct business and perform his duty in the House of Lords, he kept to himself. He hadn’t the first notion who was who, nor did he care. Yes, he’d go to support Simon, and he’d do his damnedest to keep to himself as he always did.
Markley entered to remove the tea tray. As he gathered up the implements, he shot a quick, curious glance at Nick. “May I say how nice it is to see His Grace here? His visits always brighten things.”
What he meant was that when Simon was around, Nick was somewhat palatable. “Yes.”
Nick knew he was difficult. But he was also patient and generous when it came to his retainers and tenants. So they didn’t love him or particularly like him. It was for the best.
To care for Nick was to commit yourself to misery. Nick had tried to warn Simon off, but he only rolled his eyes and told Nick to lighten up.
And now he was going to a house party where he should be light of mood. Except that wasn’t who he was. He was the Duke of Ice.
That was precisely who the Linfords and their guests would get.Return to The Duke of Ice