A Duke of Her Own

Page 11


But there was something about the way Villiers lazily watched his opponent…The silent boy slipped through the door, keeping his eyes fixed on his father.
Even so, he almost missed the opening foray. The duke’s blade slashed forward with such quick force that the boy expected blood to splatter the floor. The ballroom rang with the clear, high notes of clashing steel.
“Sharpen the angle of your arm, Your Grace!” Tobias had heard that kind of accent before. French, he thought. A Frenchman had hired him to hold his horse once, but afterwards he rode off without giving him a penny.
This particular Frenchman had a chiseled nose and an excitable look to his wide-set eyes. He wore no wig, and his short hair stood around his head like the needles of a pine tree. He was perspiring so heavily that Tobias could see the wet on his upper lip, even from the side of the room.
Tobias looked back at the duke. Villiers had raised his right elbow, but even so, the Frenchman seemed to be beating him back, step by step. Tobias slid quietly down the wall onto his heels. His heart was pounding, which was stupid, because he knew it was only practice. It looked violent, but that was nothing more than pretense.
“I would advise—” The Frenchman’s voice broke off.
In one lightning quick motion, the duke slipped through his opponent’s guard. His right arm was poised high in the air; his rapier just touched the Frenchman’s throat.
The only sound to be heard in the ballroom was the panting of the two men.
Then the Frenchman fell back a step. “Your cavazi-one is still too easily countered.” He sounded peevish. He turned to the large glass on one side of the ballroom and readjusted the hang of his waistcoat.
“Damn it, I’m covered in sweat!” Villiers complained. He put his sword down, hauled his shirt over his head and threw it to the side.
Tobias’s eyes widened. The duke was all taut muscle in his middle, and above his waist those muscles widened to a broad chest. He had never seen anything akin to the duke’s stomach. It was covered with ridges formed of muscle.
He couldn’t help a glance at his own skinny limbs. He looked better than he had a month or two ago, remarkably well, considering he’d spent the last few years in a “highly undesirable situation,” as Ashmole the butler had described it. Tobias didn’t quite see how “undesirable” covered wading through sewers filled with muck, fishing for silver spoons and lost teeth, but he got the idea.
The men started circling each other again. He had never seen his father without a shirt before now. In fact, he’d never seen him in less than formal attire, clothed from head to foot in silk or velvet adorned with fantastical embroidery.
Just this morning the duke had paid a visit to the nursery, and the children had all sat about, staring at his coat. It was made of red velvet with a pattern of small flowers, the whole of it covered with twining vines made from gilt thread with pearls sewn here and there.
Even one of those pearls could keep a family in meat pies for weeks. Months, maybe. He was getting used to Villiers’s extravagant clothing, but his little sister, the one whom the duke had fetched a fortnight ago, and his brother Colin, who had arrived a mere week before, had been struck dumb.
Suddenly, Tobias realized that the duke was staring straight at him. He quickly came to his feet, back against the wall. The duke opened his mouth as if to say something, and then pivoted to parry a thrust from the Frenchman.
Tobias felt his heart beating in his throat again. Their swords clashed until his ears rang. Then the duke twisted his wrist sharply and his blade darted forward. His opponent’s blade flew down and to the side, skidding to a halt a foot or two away.
The Frenchman broke into a string of incomprehensible curses, but the duke walked away as if nothing were being said. He plucked up a linen cloth from the bench and walked toward Tobias.
Tobias pulled his shoulders back. It was hard to imagine that someday he too might have a body like that, all gleaming muscle. Like that of a wild animal, really, he thought, remembering the body of his former employer. Grindel was flabby and soft, even though he had terrible strength in the swing of his arm. But Villiers was stronger.
“Your Grace,” he said, barely inclining his head. The butler, Ashmole, had instructed him to bow whenever he met the duke, but he couldn’t make himself do it. Bowing was for—for people who bowed. He had a strong feeling that if he started bowing to people, he might just find his head down all the time.
That was what life was like for bastards, he reckoned.
Villiers answered in that dusky voice that Tobias knew well enough was an older version of his own. “That was bloody hellish in the nursery this morning,” he said, pulling the ribbon from his hair and rubbing his head all over with the linen cloth.
Tobias quelled an impulse to grin. You weren’t supposed to smile around a duke. Ashmole had made that clear too.
“Are those children always so quiet?”
Given that Tobias had fled the nursery an hour ago because Violet’s happy, high-pitched screaming was threatening to drive him out of his mind, he could answer that. “No.”
The duke pulled his shirt over his head again. “I have met a lady whom I’ll probably marry. Clearly, we need a woman in the house. And since I’m going in a few days to look at an orphanage in Kent, and there’s another appropriate candidate living close by, I’ll meet her as well. I can choose between them.” His head reappeared through a billow of white linen.
“A—A wife?” Tobias stammered.
“You and I could probably just rub along together, but I’m no good with girls. They need a mother.”
Tobias just stared at him.
“All right,” Villiers snapped. “I’m no good with boys either.”
He strode off before Tobias could say another word, but he paused next to the Frenchman on his way out the door. “Naffi, I have a feeling my son might have a talent for the rapier. I think he would benefit from some lessons. See Ashmole about arranging it.” And he was gone.
Tobias had learned a lot about the natural order in the months since Villiers plucked him out of a back street in Wapping and brought him to the mansion. Dukes were gods, and servants were rubbish; gentlemen were somewhere in between. Bastards were at the very bottom of the heap.
But as far as Tobias could tell, Villiers treated everyone as if they were rubbish. He had walked straight past Naffi without waiting for an answer, even though the Frenchman had lost two bouts in row. The man was quivering with annoyance, and Villiers’s abrupt command could only have made things worse.
Tobias watched warily as the Frenchman walked over to him, rapier in hand. His lower lip was curled so savagely that Tobias could see the pink flesh inside. “So I’m to teach the by-blow to fence,” he said in a low, dangerous tone, picking up his wig and jamming it onto his sweaty hair. “I, the great Naffi, lauded in three courts, am to waste my time teaching a trollop’s bit of rubbish. As if you would ever have cause to defend your honor. What honor?” He threw his head back, laughter erupting from his mouth like a horse’s whinny. “Honor! I hardly think so. Bastard begot, bastard in mind, bastard in valor, I say!”
Tobias had learned that watching people silently made them uneasy: it was only after he moved into the duke’s house and observed his father’s chilly eyes that he realized it was a family talent. So he said nothing, just let his eyes rest on the sweaty hair sticking out from under Naffi’s wig, the red patches high in his cheeks.