Authors: Marriage Most Scandalous
HEY MET AT DAWN. It was a narrow opening in the trees, just off the forest path, but a well-known spot nonetheless. An old rock there, partially hidden in the brush, nearly two feet round, was reputed to mark the site of some ancient battle. It was now known as The Dueling Rock.
At least seven duels were verified to have taken place there over the years, many more were mere rumors. There were other places in the south of England, of course, for men to settle their differences, but none quite so renowned as The Dueling Rock. Men even came from as far away as London to satisfy their honor at this site in Kent.
Sebastian Townshend and his best friend Giles had explored the area as children, fascinated, as boys will be, by tales of honor and bloodshed. They were neighbors and had grown up together as their estates bordered each other. The Dueling Rock was located in the forest north of their homes.
It was the natural place for Giles to name for them to meet, just after Sebastian had said to him,
“My God, you married a whore?”
Giles had socked him, and rightly so. Sebastian shouldn’t have been so blunt. His only excuse was that he’d been in shock. But then he’d just found out he’d unwittingly slept with Giles’s new wife.
How the devil was he to have known? The woman shouldn’t have been at that soirée in London
—alone. She shouldn’t have given the impression that she was available, introducing herself by only her first name, Juliette. But she had done more than that. She’d flirted outrageously with him and hinted they should meet to get better acquainted. Sebastian had been delighted. She was lovely, a new face, a sophisticated woman who knew what she wanted and obviously went after it. He was pleased to oblige her. Not once, by her actions, did he guess that she was married.
That quick marriage had been a rash move on Giles’s part. So unlike him. He had a fiancée at the time, a lovely English heiress, Eleanor Landor. So he’d been hesitant to break the news to his father, was keeping his new bride in London until he could figure out a way to explain her. She shouldn’t have been at that soirée, alone, without her husband.
Giles had come to Sebastian’s home to make his accusation. His new wife, in her apparent guilt over the matter, had tearfully confessed everything to him. She’d put the blame entirely on Sebastian, even swore that he’d seduced her, when that hadn’t been the case at all. And Giles, in his fury, wouldn’t listen to Sebastian’s account of it.
“The Dueling Rock, at dawn,” Giles said before he stormed out of the house.
The accusations had been delivered in the entry hall of Edgewood, the Townshend ancestral home, the moment Sebastian came downstairs. Unfortunately, Sebastian’s father, Douglas, had been drawn from his study by the shouts and had heard most of it. He wasn’t angry. His disappointment in his oldest son and heir was apparent, though, and that cut Sebastian deep. He couldn’t recall a single time in his life that he’d ever given his father a reason to be ashamed of him—until now.
Douglas Townshend, eighth earl of Edgewood, had settled into marriage at an early age and was now only forty-three. Tall, with black hair and amber eyes, he was a handsome man who frustrated the local matchmakers because he had refused to remarry after his wife died.
He’d bequeathed his handsome visage and impressive height to his two sons, Sebastian and Denton. A year apart in age, with Sebastian being the older at twenty-two, the brothers should have got along splendidly, but that wasn’t the case. Sebastian was much closer to his friend Giles Wemyss than he
’d ever been to Denton. Not that he didn’t love his brother. But Denton had a jealous nature that he’d long since given up trying to conceal. It had grown over the years, until now he was a bitter young man driven to excesses in drink due to his resentment that he’d never wear a title other than lord, simply because he was a second son. Unlike Sebastian, Denton had often gained their father’s disapproval.
Douglas sighed now. “I will assume you didn’t know this woman was Giles’s wife.”
“Good God, no one knew he’d married while he and Denton were touring France. Denton didn’t know, or he was sworn to secrecy, because he said nothing about it when I went to London to welcome them home. And Giles didn’t tell me, hasn’t even told his family yet. He’s obviously kept her secretly in London since he returned to England, probably to give him time to break off with his fiancée before she hears of it. I didn’t know the woman was married, Father, to anyone, least of all to my best friend.”
“But you did make love to her?”
Sebastian flushed, wished to hell he could deny it, but couldn’t. “Yes.”
“Then go after him, explain your part in this, make amends however you must. But you will not meet him in the morning. I forbid it. He’s not some passing acquaintance. You two have been inseparable since you were children, just as Cecil and I have been. And he’s Cecil’s only son.” Sebastian had every intention of doing just that, and not just because he loved Giles like a brother.
His father said it aptly just before he left to find Giles.
“I know you, Sebastian. You wouldn’t be able to live with yourself if you harmed him.” Unfortunately, the harm had already been done. There was nothing that could undo it or explain it away. Sebastian realized that clearly as the day wore on and he agonized over how to make amends to his friend. His explanations did nothing but enrage Giles more. He was in no state of mind to listen.
Whether he believed Sebastian or not, it still came down to the simple fact that however unintentionally, Sebastian had slept with his wife.
Dawn barely lightened the sky the following morning. The rain had started several hours earlier and continued, with no sign of letting up. Sebastian’s second, Theodore Pulley, was hopeful the duel would be canceled because of it. He was only an impartial acquaintance, but he was behaving as if he’d melt if the rain didn’t stop soon. Actually, it was the accompanying thunder that made him so jumpy.
Sebastian said nothing in response to the man’s nervous chatter. He was numb. Over the long, sleepless hours of the night, he’d decided what he had to do, the only thing he could do to redeem himself. It wouldn’t be the first time a man had gone to a duel with the intention of dying.
Giles was late. Theodore was suggesting they leave when Giles and his second arrived. Sebastian didn’t recognize the fourth man, who was acting as Giles’s second.
“Couldn’t find the bloody path in the rain,” Giles explained.
Theodore still wanted to get out of the rain sooner rather than later and put the suggestion to the late comers. “Ought to cancel this, don’t you think? Wait for a clear morning?”
“At this time of year?” the other second countered with a slight indistinguishable accent. “When is there ever a clear morning?”
“We duel now or I murder him,” was Giles’s clipped response.
So much for hoping a night’s sleep might have dredged up some forgiveness, or at least the realization that Sebastian hadn’t wronged him intentionally. But Giles appeared to be just as angry as he had been the day before.
Theodore coughed and said, “Quite right. We’ll keep it sporting, then.” Giles’s pistols were brought to Sebastian for inspection. He waved the man away. His own pistols were taken to Giles for the same. His friend seemed interested only in making sure the chambers were loaded. Sebastian was aware that Giles knew he didn’t want to kill him.
“Prepare yourselves, gentlemen.”
They stood back-to-back, shouldn’t have spoken, but Sebastian’s remorse was torn from him with the simple words, “I’m sorry.”
Giles said nothing, giving no indication that he’d heard him. Instructions were given, the count begun. The rain hadn’t let up, nor had the thunder, which boomed every few minutes, but the sun had risen enough to spread a gray gloom through the trees. It was enough light to see by, enough light to kill by.
They paced off the required steps, each man holding his chosen pistol in his hand, pointed at the ground. The count was continued, then the call to turn, take aim…
Sebastian stood with his gun pointed toward the sky, intending to fire the obligatory shot anywhere but at Giles. But Giles fired the very second it was called to do so, nicking Sebastian under his arm just as he was pulling his own trigger. Giles was a good shot; he should have done better than this at such close range. The wound he delivered was minor, but it brought Sebastian’s arm down in an involuntary reaction. His bullet fired, the sound echoing through the trees along with another crack of thunder. It should have been wildly off the mark, but instead it landed at the dead center of Giles’s chest.
Sebastian watched as his friend dropped to the ground. The look of surprise on Giles’s face as he crumbled would forever haunt Sebastian. Shock kept him rooted to the spot while Giles’s second bent down to examine him, then looked toward Sebastian and shook his head.
“I will inform his father,” he said. “I assume you will inform yours.” Beside him, Theodore said, “You weren’t going to fire at him, were you? What changed your mind?” He paused, seeing the blood under Sebastian’s arm. “Ah, so that’s why. What bloody rotten luck, eh? Or rather phenomenal luck, depending how you look at it.” Sebastian didn’t answer, hadn’t really heard him. It was impossible to describe what he felt in that moment of realization that he’d killed his best friend. Grief, horror, rage—it was all there choking him.
And guilt, so strong it took root in his heart and would never let go. And he still had to tell his father that he’d defied him, that his plan to exonerate himself with his own death had backfired.
Sebastian should have died there at The Dueling Rock that cold, gloomy morning. As far as he was concerned, he did.
IKE MANY TOWNS AND VILLAGES throughout Austria, Felburg had its share of Baroque architecture in its churches and its plaza, its fountains and charming squares. Where Vienna over-whelmed, Felburg offered peace and quiet, which was why Sebastian Townshend decided to spend the night there as he passed through the Alpine hills.
The job he had just finished had been frustrating, taking him from France to Italy, back to France, then to Hungary, and finally to Vienna. His mission had been to retrieve stolen books, very rare books that a wife had absconded with. His current employer didn’t want his wife back, just the books.
Sebastian had them in his possession now. The wife hadn’t been cooperative, though. He’d had to steal them from her.
It had been a distasteful task but not as abhorrent as some of the jobs he’d taken over the years since he’d left home. For quite a few years he hadn’t discriminated. He simply had little reason to care about anything. Disowned by his father, all ties to his family broken, and carrying a bitterness deep inside himself that he refused to acknowledge, Sebastian wasn’t a man to trifle with. You had to have a reason to live in order to value life. He didn’t particularly value his.
He used to. Wealth, title, good friends, and family had all been his. His life had seemed almost charmed. He had a tall, strapping body, exceptional good looks, and enjoyed splendid health. He’d had it all. But that was before he’d killed his best friend in a duel and had been told by his father never to darken England’s shores again.
He hadn’t gone back, had sworn he never would. England, once his home, held only painful memories for him. He’d been adrift now for eleven of his thirty-three years and saw no end to it.
Europe could be called his home if he had to name a place, but there was no place in particular that he favored. He’d been to every country on the Continent and a few beyond, spoke all of the major languages and a few of the less well-known ones, three acquired by necessity, six in all. He could afford a nice property to settle on. He’d left home penniless, but the jobs he took were lucrative, and with nothing to spend his money on, he was quite rich. But the idea of “home” reminded him too much of his real one, so he’d avoided establishing one. And he was rarely in one place for long. He lived in inns and hotels, and frequently when he was on a job, on a pallet on the ground.