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Authors: Andrea Pickens

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BOOK: Code of Honor
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Chiding himself for acting like a mooncalf, he waited until her brush lifted from the paper, then stepped quietly into the room.

 

"I hope this means my hibiscus is finished."

 

Alex whirled around at the sound of his voice.

 

Her face was pinched and there were faint smudges under the eyes, as if her nights had been fitful. Rather than the undisguised warmth that he had become accustomed to in her glance, there was a veiled grayness to her expression. He walked to the table and put the box down.

 

"What is wrong, Alex?"

 

He caught a flicker of some emotion at the sound of her given name before she turned away to slowly and deliberately rinse her brush, then wipe it on a clean rag.

 

"Only that I do not like to be interrupted when I am at work." Her voice was cool, almost harsh. "I believe I have mentioned that before."

 

He frowned at the sight of her rigid shoulders. "Alex, look at me."

 

She turned slowly. Her face was composed, only the set of the jaw betraying the underlying tension.

 

"Don't play me for a fool. It is obvious..."

 

"Play you for a fool," she echoed. "No, sir, rather it is I who do not care for the game any longer."

 

Branford took a step closer to her. "What in the name of Heaven are you talking about?" His expression was one of puzzled consternation. He reached out his hand to touch her cheek but she shied away.

 

Her gaze locked with his and her mouth set in a hard line. "Very well, " she said. "Since you seem reluctant to lay things in the open, I shall do it for you. We are both adults after all, so there is little need for prevarication." Her face was a stony mask. "Is it true that you entered a wager in the betting book at your club for five hundred pounds that you could..." She took a breath of air to steady her voice, then went on "... that you could — I believe the term was mount — me?"

 

Branford's face drained of all color. He was utterly still save for a slight twitch in the muscle of his locked jaw.

 

"Alex..." he began.

 

She cut him off sharply. "It is not a difficult question, Lord Branford. Is it true or isn't it? Yes or no."

 

"Yes." His voice was barely more than a whisper.

 

Alex bent her head and began to fiddle with her brushes to hide her trembling hands. She chose one whose sable hair tapered to a perfect point, tested its feel, then returned it to the earthenware jar.

 

"I must fetch my other brushes — I wish to get back to work, if you please. No doubt you are able to find your own way out, just as you found it in."

 

She made as if to go by him, but this time his hand came to rest on her arm.

 

"Alex, I never.... " He hesitated, seeming to struggle for words.

 

Her mouth set in a tight smile. "Oh come now, you needn't feel you must invent some apology. It isn't necessary. As I said before, we are both adults." She brushed a ringlet of hair from her cheek, adding another tone to the smudge already there. "Anyway, as I intend never to marry, I was curious about the physical act — and why not experience it with someone who is said to be so very skilled at it? After all, you've had such a great deal of practice, haven't you." Her eyes had become overly bright, brimming with a hurt her words tried to belie. "Now sir, if you will excuse me." She wrenched her arm free and fled the room, leaving Branford in stunned silence.

 

He stood motionless, struggling to master his feeling of utter shock. He felt as if he had been pushed from a cliff and was falling, falling into a vast black void.

 

"Have you a shred of decency left, or do you also intend to break your promise to meet my challenge?"

 

Branford's eyes closed for a moment, then he turned slowly to meet Justin's burning glare. The young man's face was taut with anger, made fiercer by disillusionment. His hands clenched at his sides were white at the knuckles. As he stood blocking the doorway, he struggled manfully to keep his shoulders from sagging with disappointment.

 

"What a bloody sapskull I was to believe you actually...." He grimaced in self-disgust. "Well? Will you show any honor?"

 

Branford rubbed his eyes wearily. When his hand fell away, the young man was surprised to see a spasm of naked pain evident on the earl's face before his expression became entirely blank.

 

"Send your second to Ashton. He will arrange things," said Branford in a low, resigned tone. "And for God's sake, man," he added. "Choose someone with discretion and a rein on his tongue, else your sister will be fodder for the gossips!"

 

A short while later, Alex returned to the library, closed the door firmly and locked it with a twist of the heavy brass key. She undid the strings to a canvas roll and added an assortment of different sized brushes to those already standing in the crock by her easel. Mechanically her fingers reached for a square tipped one, dipped it in a glass of clean water and began mixing a new tint on her palette. It was then that she noticed the small box still sitting on the edge of the oak table. She stared at it for a lengthy time, then put her brush down and slowly walked over to it. After wiping her hands on the sides of her old gown, she lifted the top and stared down at the intricate veined leaves of a small plant, its roots carefully balled in a piece of damp burlap. Her breath caught in her throat with a tiny sound. Sinking into the nearest chair, she buried her head between her arms and let the tears come at last.

 

"Are you utterly mad!"

 

Henry Ashton laid aside the papers he had been studying and peeled off his reading spectacles, as if hoping a clearer view of his friend's face would reveal the words he had just heard were nothing more than a bad jest.

 

"If you do not wish to stand for me I shall go elsewhere, Henry. Do not feel in the least obliged."

 

"Damnation, you know very well I'd roast in hell rather than betray our friendship in such a manner," he muttered. "Trouble is, Cecelia will no doubt roast both of us if she gets wind of this."

 

Branford gave a tight smile. "Then let us make certain she does not."

 

Ashton nodded glumly. "Perhaps I can resolve this unfortunate matter with whomever young Chilton sends to me."

 

The earl's expression became grim. "I think that well-nigh impossible now, Henry." He let out his breath in a heavy sigh. "The pup hasn't a decent gun to his name. Offer the use of this set to his second, if you will." He placed a polished rosewood case on the desk.

 

Ashton gave a snort of disgust as he opened the lid. "From Mantons, naturally." His eyes narrowed. "Those aren't your regular pair. And those aren't your initials engraved on the butts."

 

"No. they were meant for him in any case. Al — Miss Chilton had mentioned his birthday was approaching." His mouth twisted into an unwilling smile. "A gentleman should have a decent gun with which to entrust his honor."

 

"So you are providing him a deadly accurate weapon.," he observed with a touch of asperity. "Do you plan to forgo your own ball and powder as well, to make the match more even? I know you, damn it!" His voice began to rise. "I know you damn well won't put a bullet in the pup. What in the devil's name is this all about? Because I also you know would never... "

 

"Henry," said Branford softly. "Kindly keep your voice down."

 

Ashton's mouth snapped shut.

 

"and as to my reasons, I will not discuss them. As I said, the choice is entirely yours."

 

It was Ashton's turn to let out a sigh. "I shall make it for the north clearing at Houndslow Heath. Tomorrow morning, then?"

 

Branford compressed his lips into a grim smile. "I am acquainted with the spot. I shall see you there at dawn."

 

The mist swirled in the grey dawn light, nearly obscuring the three figures that stood at the edge of the clearing. Two carriages waited a short distance away, black smudges against the hazy outline of trees. The only sounds were the muffled jangling of the harnesses as the horses shifted in their traces and the restless pacing of one of the figures.

 

Lord Ashton turned back in the other direction, throwing another wrathful look at the two young men huddled close together. He muttered something unintelligible under his breath then shifted the wooden case that was clamped tightly under one arm.

 

"Once again, I ‘ll ask you to reconsider this folly. Surely any imagined" — he stressed the word, adding a tinge of sarcasm — "insult can be settled by gentlemen in a more civilized manner than this?"

 

Frederick Hartley glanced nervously at his friend.

 

Justin did not raise his eyes from the ground. "No," he replied, barely above a whisper.

 

"Very well. It's your own funeral," snapped Ashton, hoping with a touch of malice to put enough fright into the young man that he might faint dead away. It had happened before.

 

Hartley's eyes blinked rapidly and he cast a surreptitious look at his friend. Though his shoulders flinched slightly at the harsh words, Justin remained silent.

 

"As agreed, Hartley, I have engaged the services of a good surgeon," continued Ashton. "Though he naturally wishes to remain removed from these proceedings unless he is needed."

 

Hartley swallowed and nodded.

 

The sounds of an approaching rider caused all three heads to jerk around. A large black stallion materialized from the gloom. The rider pulled up next to Ashton's carriage, dismounted and tossed the reins to the lone coachman standing at the head of the lead pair.

 

Branford walked purposefully to where the others were standing. His face was impassive, and he merely nodded a curt greeting to Ashton as he came to a halt and began to remove his gloves. Young Hartley swallowed once more as he took in the earl's cool demeanor. Beads of sweat began to form on his brow at the sight of the imposing figure clad in black. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but a quelling look from Justin caused him to reconsider.

 

Ashton cleared his throat. "As it appears that all attempts to resolve this matter have failed, we shall proceed." He opened the lid of the box to reveal a brace of gleaming, long barreled pistols. "The pieces have been checked and loaded by me with Mr. Hartley as a witness. Agreed?"

 

Hartley croaked a yes.

 

Branford signaled with his eyes to Ashton. The other man frowned slightly, then extended the box towards Hartley and Justin.

 

"Mr. Chilton, you may choose."

 

Justin reached out and grasped a weapon with no more than a cursory look. His hand shook ever so slightly.

 

Ashton offered the remaining one to Branford, who took it up casually, letting his hand fall immediately to his side.

 

"Hartley and I have marked off the paces. You will move to your spots. When I give the signal, you may fire at will. One shot each."

 

Both participants took up their positions.

 

Ashton called "Ready?" and glanced to either side. Both men turned sideways and nodded.

 

With a muttered oath, he dropped a white handkerchief.

 

Branford's right arm came up in one swift motion. When it reached shoulder level, he adjusted his aim with a quick, precise movement and pulled the trigger.

 

Justin's weapon had not yet risen above his waist when he heard the sharp crack. He squeezed his eyes closed very tightly and waited for the inevitable impact. His last thought was of how furious Alex would be at him to let it all end this way. But truly, for honor's sake, he had had no choice.

 

He almost didn't feel the rush of air as the bullet whizzed past him, so far off the mark it was. His jaw dropped slightly in astonishment and it took an instant for him absorb the fact that he was indeed unscathed.

BOOK: Code of Honor
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