Christmas in the Duke’s Arms Excerpt

> Standalone

The Year of Our Lord 1818

London, England

His head was pounding, but the thump, thump, thump against Nicolas Thornhill, Marquess of Eppingham, future Duke of Westhaven’s skull was nothing compared to the noise his boiling blood was making in his ears. The deafening rushing made it hard to balance as he strode through the Cloaks and Caskets gaming club. He frowned, trying to decide if his current faulty equilibrium was due to the four brandies he’d tossed back or his seething rage. Did it even matter?

“No!” The bellowed answer to the silent question sent heads swiveling in his direction. He glared at each and every man until all but one had looked away–Beatty, his former best friend, as of one hour ago. Damn his faulty balance. He was going to beat the bloody betraying bastard to a pulp.

Nic stalked through the crowd of men he’d long called acquaintances. Many tried to greet him, but he supposed something on his face told them to do so was unwise, for their smiles faded, their gazes averted, and a wide berth was given to him directly from the front door to the table that sat in a far corner away from others. He knew people were talking and laughing by their faces, but all he heard was the pulsing blood moving in his ears.

Beatty looked away from Nic to grab at a slip of a girl who was walking by the bastard’s table, and the fury that rose in Nic’s throat almost choked him. The girl slapped at Beatty’s hands, which were circling her waist and then moved to her bottom. Nic closed the distance between him and the man he had just discovered was sleeping with his wife. The wife Nic had loved. The wife who was now carrying a child that might or might not be his.

“Nic! I didn’t think you could join me tonight!” Beatty crooned, even as he pawed the girl trying to squirm out of his hold. In a daze of anger mingled with spirits, Nic swept his gaze over the chit, registering very short hair and a pallor that made him think the girl was ill.

“Let me go!” she heaved, trying to break from Beatty’s grasp.

Nic stepped around the girl so that he stood almost directly in front of Beatty who was sitting down. “Let he go. I’m going to bloody kill you, and you’ll need your hands to defend yourself.” It took effort, but he kept his voice low. He didn’t want all the patrons to know that his wife has cuckolded him with his best friend, as he couldn’t have the news sweeping through the ton. He didn’t give a damn about either of their reputations, nor his for that matter, but he did care about Anna. His younger sister didn’t need yet another rumor swirling about their family before she could make her debut in Society and chose a husband to her liking. And there was the unborn child to think of.

“I’m just having a little fun, Nic. You remember what fun is like, don’t you? This chit here likes my attention, don’t you?”

Nic’s gaze met the girl’s for one brief moment. Her eyes were oddly tinged pink, but they were so full of anger. “This woman”–because based on the curves hinted at by her gown, he decided that she might be more woman than girl–“doesn’t want your attention. I would think you’ve quite enough to amuse yourself with your afternoon romps with Ree.” He purposely used Muriel’s pet name, which no one but he, Muriel, and Beatty, who had overheard Nic use the name before, would have known.

All the color left Beatty’s face. “Nic, Christ–” Beatty released the woman and shoved her away.

And that indifference to a woman’s safety, to others in general, and to their friendship, pushed Nic right over the brink. He caught the slight woman and circled her around him so that he was between her and Beatty. Once he steadied her, he turned back to the one person he had allowed himself to trust in his life other than Anna and Muriel. His parents taught him trust was foolhardy, but he’d slipped and allowed the emotion.

“Nic, you, of all people, know how it is in the ton.”

Oh, he knew. his parents had been faithless to each other as long as Nic could remember. A black calmness descended, which allowed the noise of the club around him to rush back in. All at once he heard laughter, and chatter, and music. “You, of all people, are aware of how I feel about the people of the ton and how they live their lives,” he said, cooly taking off his coat. He turned to set it on the chair behind him and was surprised to find the woman still there.

Silently, she held her hands out, and he realized that she was offering to hold his coat. “Thank you,” he said, yanking on his cravat with one hand while handing her the coat with the other.

“Will this be quick?” she asked.

“Very,” he assured her, thinking how quick Beatty and Muriel had to have been to have been meeting in the woods on his property for romps. He would have never known if Anna hadn’t seen them by happenstance that morning. He squeezed his eyes shut on lurid, haunting images of his wife in his best friend’s arms.

“Are you certain you can do this?” the woman asked.

He nodded. “Quite.” With that, he opened his eyes and turned toward Beatty, who had the wits about him to look worried. He should be. Nic had been boxing since he was a lad, and Beatty’s idea of being physical was apparently bedding Nic’s wife. “Put up your fists so that when I knock your teeth out, you can at least attempt to defend yourself.”

“God, Nic, don’t be gauche. You’re a future duke, after all.”

He shot his fist out straight into Beatty’s face to shut the damned fool up. Blood poured from the man’s mouth, which he attempted to stem with his hands. Around them, silence descended, and Nic could feel all eyes watching them. He leaned close to Beatty so that only the man could hear what he said. “Put up your fists. That first hit was for saying something that my father would say to me. The second will be for your betrayal, the third for the woman you just treated poorly, and I won’t need to deliver a fourth because you will be lying on the floor unmoving.” With each word Nic spoke, Beatty grew paler. It was slightly gratifying but not nearly enough. “Last warning, Beaty old boy,” Nic said, leaning his head to the left, then right, and rounding his shoulders to loosed up.

“Nic, can’t we be reasonable–“

His patience snapped. He shot his fist out again, slamming it into Beatty’s right eye and then his left. The smack, smack of flesh on flesh rang through the silence, and then there was a loud crash as Beatty fell back onto his arse, knocking over the table where he’d been sitting alone as he went.

“Jesus, Nic,” Beatty cried out, “you’re mad!”

Nic leaned forward, grasped Beatty by his coat, which was wet with blood, and looked into the man’s eyes as they were rapidly swelling shut. “This is me reasonable. Don’t ever speak to me again, and don’t harrass this woman when you wake. If you do, you’ll see firsthand just how unreasonable I can be.”

With that, Nic let his fist fly once more. This time it connected with Beatty’s nose with a crunch. Blood spurted, the man’s eyes fell shut, and he slumped over as Nic released him to the floor. He stood straight, staring down at his former friend, his pulse finally slowing and the rushing in his ears receding.

Suddenly, a throat was cleared behind him. He turned and met the concerned gaze of the woman Beatty had been importuning. A knot of bitterness twisted with sorrow lodged in his throat, but he swallowed it down in the face of the pitiful creature before him. Her hair was shorn almost to her head, and he thought her eyes were brown but they were so bloodshot from obvious sickness that it was hard to tell. She was gaunt and pale, and her gaze darted between him and Beatty.

“If he gives you any trouble when he wakes, Nic said, an overwhelming need to depart the club hitting hi, “come find me at 211 Mayfair.” Not waiting for a reply, he turned and strode out the way he had come, bypassing his driver who scrambled from the coachman’s seat to help him into the carriage.

“My lord, do you want me to take you home? the man asked.

Nic didn’t break his stride. “No.” He wasn’t going back to the home he shared with Muriel. They had a marriage full of lies, and he wanted no part of it or emotional entanglements ever again.

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