“Confound it, Your Grace, a bloody damn duke should act like a bloody damn duke, not hold hands with these puling malcontents who would save the world at our expense!” Lord Townsend paced the ducal study, shaking the papers in his fists.
Golden brown head bent over the bill under discussion, His Grace, Neville Perceval, the Duke of Anglesey, ignored the hostilities raging around him as he impassively scribbled notes in the margins of the bill.
The forbidding third man in the room, the Marquess of Effingham, threw the silent duke a look of exasperation and retaliated to Townsend’s diatribe. “You’ve been living at the expense of the commons for centuries, my lord. It’s damned well time you pay them back!”
As the argument died to an expectant silence, the duke raised his head. Their quietness had gained his audience the attention their earlier shouts had not. Arching a shaggy eyebrow in an expression that delineated anything from derision to surprise, he halted the scratching of his pen and raised his quizzing glass. Realizing both combatants glared at him, he waited for an explanation. Some days, he never had to use his voice at all.
“Devil take it, Your Grace, you’re a duke of the realm! You cannot support Effingham’s bill for Catholic emancipation. The king will have an apoplexy! Your grandfather would spin in his grave if he heard this sedition. If Castlereagh had some inkling of this, it’s no wonder he killed himself. The mobs will tear London apart if we acknowledge papists. Imagine what will happen in Ireland should Catholics take office! Act like the duke you are and tell this bloody American to get the hell back where he belongs!”
The dark eyebrow remained quizzically lifted as the duke raised his ornate walking stick and slammed the gold knob on the table. The room’s dignified occupants jumped several inches in startlement.
“I’ve already agreed to support the bill, Townsend, so sit down and listen or depart,” he said impassively. “Was that ducal enough for you?”
The tall marquess grinned as much as his scarred features allowed.
Townsend, on the other hand, grumbled. “Liverpool won’t appreciate your defection. You won’t have the support of any but a few closet Whigs and Irish scoundrels. You’ll regret this, Your Grace.”
“What will you do? Take away my title?” In blatant dismissal, the duke picked up the pages before him, leaving the older politician to continue blustering or depart, as he so chose.
Glaring at the marquess, Lord Townsend grabbed his leather-bound files from the table and stalked out.
“You’ve made a dangerous enemy there, Neville,” Effingham stated bluntly as the door closed.
The duke didn’t even lift his head. “I repeat, what can he do? Have me thrown from the Lords? Strip me of my estates? Have the archbishop excommunicate me? You do realize, if it were not for all those disreputable blights upon the face of the earth that we call princes, I could conceivably be in line for the throne? If Edward hadn’t married and finally legitimized one of his progeny, King Georgie truly would have had an apoplexy.”
The Marquess of Effingham offered a decidedly unaristocratic snort. “So that’s what’s frustrating Townsend. No matter what your politics, men will still court your influence. You’d best watch your back then. Heirs to royalty often have short lives.”
Unperturbed, the duke flipped another page. “If that were true in this day and age, the government would have been relieved of the considerable burden of Farmer George’s repulsive offspring by now. Instead, they romp around the country, polluting blood lines with their bastards, driving us to financial ruin, and giving the scandal sheets more material than they can reasonably print. It continues to amaze me that they haven’t killed each other yet—a certain sign that they aren’t true royalty.”
“Gad, you’re a cynical bastard.” The marquess pulled out a chair as the duke raised his speaking eyebrow again. “I know, you wouldn’t be duke if you were a bastard.” He took a seat but didn’t pick up the papers before him. “You know, you’re becoming a little too like Castlereagh—stiff, uncompromising, concerned only with having your own way, completely out of touch with the feelings of the people around you. It’s not healthy, Neville. You see what happened to Castlereagh.”
The duke replaced his quizzing glass and returned to his papers. “I’m in no danger of cutting my own throat, I assure you.”
“I think I liked you better as a young pup who still believed the world was made of black and white,” the marquess said.
“Pardon my straying from the straight and narrow,” the duke replied dryly. “But I believe you and that dratted brother of yours might have had some influence in the matter of recognizing shades of gray.”
“Don’t lay the blame on me and Michael,” Effingham protested. “It’s your cousin Blanche who sits serenely in her country nest, pulling all our strings.”
Neville frowned at that. “Money talks,” he agreed bluntly. “But Michael has a way of twisting arms. He’s even made me believe the only way out of an Irish revolution is to pass this bill. I don’t give a damn whether Catholics hold office or jump in the ocean and swim the sea. The country simply cannot afford a revolution.”
Before Effingham could comment on the cynicism of this declaration, the door burst open, letting in a whirlwind of silk and blazing fury.
“You monster! This is the last time I allow you to make a fool of me! I care not if you are the king of all countries, you will never pass through my door again!”
A parasol smashed onto the table, fracturing several delicate ribs. As the beautiful virago beat it against the backs of two empty chairs in a fit of frustration, it fragmented entirely. The duke raised his head with what would pass as a flicker of astonishment. When a reticule whizzed by his left ear, his expression went blank again.
“Take back your petty gifts! I will have naught to remind me of your faithlessness.” A glove box dented the table, sliding off one side and falling to the floor in a splinter of carved rosewood. “No more will you make this place your mistress and me your rug to walk upon!” Apparently dispossessed of any further gifts to heave, she reached for an inkstand and flung it instead. “Never will you leave me waiting again! I am gone.”
With a dramatic twirl, she stalked out, leaving a heavy trail of perfume.