Regency Fuck II
The next few days saw a return to Iphicles' idyll. He thrust from him any thought of the night of desertion, and enjoyed every moment of the Duke's favour that was his. It seemed that it filled almost every waking moment. There were times too when Iphicles roused briefly in the night to find the Duke's arm flung possessively across him, and heard Aresborough's breathing, slow and deep in sleep-pattern, change slightly as the Earl moved closer against him.
The Earl was crossing the hall late one afternoon, only to be stopped by the Duke's butler.
"My lord, a letter has arrived for you."
Surprised, the Earl took it from him A swift glance was sufficient to inform him of the sender's identity; the scrawl of the direction was one with which he was all too familiar. Harry's style of letter-writing was entertaining, to say the least. He usually contrived to manage at least four laborious lines of news to his brother, before the subject turned
candidly to his shortage of funds and the expenses incurred by an officer in His Majesty's army. As Iphicles broke the seal and scanned the single sheet, his ironic smile swiftly faded and his hand tightened convulsively on the letter.
"Tell my groom and my man to make ready to leave immediately," he ordered the butler, turning to take the stairs two at a time. He found Aresborough in his dressing room, removing his cravat as he began to change for dinner.
"I have to leave," he blurted out. "My mother is taken ill; I must return to town immediately."
The Duke shot a keen glance at him, then continued to unfasten his shirt. "I see. And what, may I ask, afflicts her?"
Iphicles realised he did not have that vital information. He raised the crumpled sheet to read it through again. "I don't know precisely. Harry does not offer that information."
"It’s your brother who writes to you, then."
"What does that matter? My groom is making ready, my man will pack my belongings directly. My apologies, Aresborough, but I must go immediately."
Lost in calculating the distance he could cover before the daylight was gone, Iphicles did not notice the Duke's approach until the touch on his cheek brought him back to his surroundings.
"I find it odd," the Duke murmured, as his hand slipped to undo Iphicles' shirt, "Decidedly odd, in fact, that your Mama who was, I understand, in perfect health but seven days since, should suddenly find herself afflicted by a mysterious illness which demands your instant return to town. An illness which, moreover, carries no apparent symptoms. If I had a distrustful mind, I might wonder at the timing of your brother's missive."
Iphicles stared in non-comprehension for an instant before he knocked the Duke's hand aside with a curse. "Damn you Aresborough - do you think this some sort of game?"
Fury blazed suddenly in the Duke's eyes, matched by the clear anger that burned in Iphicles as he glared at Aresborough. The Duke's anger seemed slowly to dim as he looked at the Earl before him.
"Come, Iphicles," he said at last, with the hint of a persuasive smile, "Your brother don't exactly approve of me." His hand moved across Iphicles' ass and pulled him close. Iphicles' cock leapt at the feel of the Duke pressing against him, protesting at the sudden tightness of his breeches. Aresborough's long fingers swiftly unbuttoned the breeches and grasped the Earl's cock at the base, before he slowly knelt before him, looking briefly up at the Earl.
"Perhaps he thinks I'll corrupt you," he remarked, then his mouth closed around the Earl's cock and he swallowed it deep inside. At the movement of moist muscles, the tightness and the pressure around him, Iphicles' hands wrapped mercilessly in the Duke's hair and he bit down into his lip until it bled in an attempt not to scream out his pleasure. Aresborough's hands reached around to run over his ass before tugging his breeches down. As one probing finger found his entrance, Iphicles almost lost control, and the Duke pulled swiftly away from him, leaving him to gasp his disappointment.
He let the Duke order him as he chose, allowing himself to be bent over the back of a chair, fingers pushing deep and eagerly inside him until Iphicles was pushing back onto them, moaning his need for the Duke. The Duke's breeches were suddenly unfastened, and Iphicles could feel the leaking head of Aresborough's cock pressing against his ass. Iphicles moaned again and pushed back in desperate invitation. He heard the familiar sound of the oil bottle being opened and groaned breathlessly in anticipation.
"Please," he got out, his voice thick with need as he heard the sounds of flesh against flesh, knowing the Duke was rubbing his oiled hand over his hard cock.
"Please," he whimpered when the sounds stopped and nothing further happened.
He felt the tip of the Duke's cock as the Duke thrust very slightly with his hips, then stilled again.
"So, Iphicles, do you think this is what your brother is worried about?"
It took a moment to penetrate his lust-fogged brain. "I have no doubt you're right," he managed with a choke of laughter as he suddenly imagined Harry seeing his dully dutiful brother bent over an example of Chippendale's better work with the Duke of Aresborough's cock in his ass.
"So, Iphicles," the Duke reached around and began to run a finger over the head of Iphicles' cock, wet with his pre-cum, "I cannot help but think that to return to London at his behest will only increase his determination to control you for his own advantage. Don't you?"
As he finished speaking, the Duke slid all the way inside Iphicles, leaving the Earl crying out incoherently, his eyes closing in the unbelievable pleasure of feeling Aresborough inside him.
Aresborough began to set up a rhythm, his hand around Iphicles' cock so that every thrust of his hips sent Iphicles' cock sliding through the tightness of the Duke’s hand.
"Stay, Iphicles," he said, his hips stilling suddenly.
The Earl bent over even further, offering himself. But the Duke made no move.
"Stay," the Duke said again.
Iphicles' eyes opened. "I can't," he got out at last. "I must go to her. She's unwell. She needs me…"
His eyes closed again as he felt the Duke withdraw from him.
Disbelieving, he straightened up in time to see the Duke walking towards the door of the dressing room, his breeches held together with a careless hand as he looked out into the corridor.
"You," he said. "Find Sir Rupert Farraday and bring him here."
He turned back into the room, his eyes glancing disinterestedly over Iphicles. The Earl was struggling with his breeches, pulling them up.
"Aresborough," he started.
The Duke opened one of the drawers in his dressing-table and lifted from it something of leather and chain which Iphicles didn't recognise, but which looked not unlike a piece of harness.
"Aresborough," he said again.
"What?" It was cool, bored, as the Duke walked through into his bedchamber.
The Earl stood in the doorway, hesitating. He wanted to explain that he didn't want to go, that he had no choice, but the coldness in the Duke kept him silent. Instead he turned away, finding it suddenly easy to fasten his breeches over his softening cock. With renewed resolve he turned back, only to find that the Duke was laying on his bed, his shirt open, his breeches still open and his cock standing forth, dark and hard. Iphicles swallowed. He moved forward towards the bed, but as he did so, the bedroom door was bursting open and Farraday was striding in, Hazell close upon his heels.
"Richard wanted to come too, Aresborough. I hope you don't mind." Farraday was hesitant.
The Duke's eyes glittered as they passed over Iphicles and met Farraday's gaze. "Why should I mind?" he enquired off-handedly. "You can suck my cock between you."
Farraday became suddenly aware of Iphicles' presence and his eyes moved between Iphicles and the Duke in ill-disguised speculation, while a knowing smile dawned on Hazell's face as he looked at the discomfited Earl. Iphicles turned abruptly and left.
He got no further than ten miles that night before the dusk forced him to stop. He knew from his groom's demeanour that the man thought him mad not to wait until the following day to begin his journey, but he couldn't have spent another moment there, let alone another night.
He left his groom to see the horses looked after, and strode across to the door of the inn, his bootheels striking the cobbles in a way which encouraged the groom to decide to spend some time overseeing the ostler, rather than repairing to the taproom for a well-deserved ale to wet the dust in his throat. It was not often the Earl’s temper was seen, but the man had been in his service long enough to recognise the danger signs.
The inn-keeper had been flustered by Morrison's sudden appearance and demand for a room for his master for the night. When the Earl entered he was in the midst of apologising fulsomely, mortified to the depths of his soul, for the fact that the private parlour was currently undergoing extensive renovation following an unfortunate incident involving a number of well-lubricated young officers on leave from the Peninsula and so was not fit to be offered to the esteemed customer, and that the meal which they could offer fell far short of that which he would wish.
The Earl tried not to let his growing impatience show as he abruptly disclaimed any desire for a private parlour, a meal, or anything save a bottle of claret which he would take in his room. He was shown to the best chamber of the modest inn, a room which might be described by those uncharitably inclined as poky. Iphicles scarcely noticed as he sat in the only seat which the small room offered, that at the dressing-table, and made steady inroads on the claret, the quality of which was no more than might be
expected from a tavern of this size.
He would not think of his mother, of how seriously ill she might be, and how she would be looking for his arrival while he was forced to wait here until daylight. Pouring himself another glass of the wine, he faced the unwelcome truth that he was powerless to do anything tonight; tomorrow he would do all that he could to reach London swiftly, but for now, he was helpless.
He thrust all thoughts of his parent determinedly from him as, by the light of the tallow candle, he began to untie his cravat. He had dispensed with his valet’s services that night. His eyes in the mirror grew dark as he realised that in fact he had dispensed completely with his valet's services for the last several evenings. The Duke and he had undressed one another each night, either ripping the clothes off in desperate need, or removing them slowly, mouths searching over the gradually uncovered flesh until their
clothes were a disordered heap on the floor and they lay entwined on the Duke’s bed, moving together in languorous desire. He picked up his glass and tossed back the contents, the rough wine burning his throat as he remembered the addictive pleasure of those long nights when the only things that mattered were the warmth of the Duke's body, the velvet of his voice, the delight of his caress, and the certainty that he wanted Iphicles.
Slamming the empty glass down, he wrenched his cravat loose and threw it aside. There was no point in remembering; it was over. He might think it all a dream were it not for the marks on his face where the Duke had taken him against the tree. They were fading fast enough, and would soon be completely vanished. Whatever madness had taken hold of him had gone, never to return. The Duke this afternoon had left no doubt that Iphicles’ place in his bed would be - indeed, already had been - easily filled.
Given that was the case, Iphicles decided, perhaps this was for the best after all. The Duke had made it painfully clear that the Earl’s decision to leave did not trouble him in any way. Iphicles had been simply the latest diversion, interesting only because of his novelty, discarded as soon as that was gone. Look at the other night; the man had grown bored of him already. Why he had come back to Iphicles afterwards remained something of a mystery however…
Iphicles groaned and dropped his head into his hands as full realisation finally dawned on him. There could be only one explanation for that: Aresborough had come back to Iphicles because of what he symbolised to the Duke. He had been a dutiful, proper member of the ton who had been willing, so very willing, to be corrupted. There was still satisfaction to be gained by the Duke in the knowledge that the hitherto respectable Earl of Royston behaved no differently than did a bitch in heat. Look at the way he had told the Earl as much when he had used his whip… Iphicles’ fists clenched against his forehead at the memory of his shameless depravity and Aresborough’s scorn of it, even then. There would have been immense gratification in keeping the Earl on his hook until they had returned to London, where the whole ton would have witnessed the Earl’s laughable obsession with the Duke, his eagerness to do anything that Aresborough wanted of him…
Iphicles’ head began to ache. He had been precisely what Harry had accused him of when first he met the Duke: an innocent at large. Worse than that, an innocent who had welcomed the excitement of corruption, mistaking it for freedom. He deserved to be whipped for his stupidity. How the Duke must have exulted each time Iphicles had begged for his cock. How he must have delighted in the wantonness that the Earl had discovered lay within himself, not caring how the Duke used him, only that he did. And how he must have revelled when Iphicles himself initiated their encounters, as he had
frequently done… The Earl’s stomach churned. No doubt the Duke’s friends would be entertained for months to come with stories of the gullible Earl’s eagerness and desperation. Stories which they would be only too pleased to spread to the gossipmongers of the ton. It was not only the fact of his depravity that would become common knowledge, but also the extent of it.
Iphicles sat in the dimly lit room while the evening’s business went on downstairs, sounds of drunken jokes and raucous laughter echoing through the inn. As the night grew later, the noises of the inn gradually stilled. He could hear the last customers leaving, the landlord locking up downstairs, and then heavy footsteps as he came up to his own room.
Moving stiffly, the Earl got to his feet and undressed, blew out the candle, and got into bed. He lay with his eyes open in the darkness, staring blindly up at the ceiling.
The Earl was up at dawn, setting off shortly thereafter without stopping to break his fast. He was filled with anxiety about his mother and pushed the horses hard. Harry had not intimated that the case was desperate, but then he would scarcely have written to his brother were it not serious.
By the time he pulled up in Half Moon Street, his set face and the frown between his eyes owed as much to anxiety as tiredness.
“My lord!” Brownlow was uncharacteristically bereft of speech when the travel-stained Earl burst into the hall.
“We did not know to expect your return,” he continued in explanation, only to watch in incomprehension as the Earl, who was rarely without a word of appreciation to his servants, ignored him and took the stairs two at a time, still in his driving coat and gloves. Rounding the landing to the next flight, he stopped as he saw Harry descending.
“How is she?” he asked urgently.
Harry made an instant quieting gesture, which did nothing to calm the Earl’s worst imaginings, and steered them into the nearby drawing room, closing the door behind them.
“Iph,” he started, as the Earl stripped off his gloves. “The thing is…”
“What?” Iphicles snapped as Harry trailed off. “Tell me the worst, Harry. How is she?”
The Captain moistened his lips. “She’s taken a turn for the better since I wrote to you,” he said at last.
Iphicles drew a breath of relief. Anticipating his next question, Harry quickly added, “She’s resting.”
“What ails her, Harry?” Iphicles asked more quietly, seating himself in the nearest armchair. “What does Cooper say?”
Captain Fairfax remained standing. “She hasn’t seen him,” he informed his brother.
Iphicles’ brows slammed together. “Hasn’t seen him?” he echoed. “Devil take it, he’s one of the few leeches worth consulting! I’ll call him in even if she don’t want it.”
“It’s not necessary, Iph, she’s nearly better,” Harry insisted.
The Earl looked uncomprehendingly at his brother. “Better? Yet it was only two days ago that she was ill enough…”
Iphicles didn’t finish his sentence. Instead his eyes began to fill with suspicion as they remained on the increasingly uneasy Captain Fairfax.
“Has Mama actually been ill at all?” he enquired in a dangerously soft voice.
“Yes!” It burst from Harry in indignation. “She’s not been right since the time you left, Iph. She’s been in fear that someone might find out where you had gone and ask her about it, and that put her out of sorts, and then Iorweth and I have been recalled from next week, and so she took to her bed with a sick headache.” He eyed the wrath on the Earl's face. “Oh don’t look like that, Iph,” he expostulated. “Damn it, she wasn’t right and she’s not been eating, and I thought if you were back, it would at least relieve her mind of one anxiety.”
Iphicles remained seated. If he were to stand, he knew he would surely kill his brother.
“So you dragged me up here under false pretences, let me worry myself sick about her, when all along she suffered from nothing more than a megrim and you simply wanted me back here because it suited your own purposes? Worse still, you don’t scruple to use Mama in that way?”
Harry fidgeted slightly then met his brother’s furious gaze. “It’s more than that, Iph,” he said at last. “People are beginning to talk. Somebody has let slip that you were visiting Aresborough.” His blue eyes were stubborn. “You might not care about your own reputation, Iph, but you should think of Mama.”
“As you do when you’re with Iorweth,” Iphicles shot. “For God’s sake, Harry, don’t play self-righteous with me. You don’t give a damn about me or my reputation. All you care about is yourself, and the fact that I went against your advice.”
“That’s not true, Iph.” Harry looked hurt.
Iphicles’ eyes closed briefly. He would still happily see his brother’s bleeding corpse at his feet, but he couldn’t ignore the sick lurch as he registered what Harry had said. People had begun to talk. Already. And that was just because he had been known to be visiting Aresborough. Once Morrison’s tale got out… Even if the man were to keep his mouth shut, the others at the house party wouldn’t. Aresborough himself would no doubt delight in spreading the tales with that mocking smile of his.
He got slowly to his feet. “While I abominate your methods,” he said quietly, “Your intentions were good.”
He put out his hand to his brother. The Captain, looking startled but pleased, shook it. Iphicles turned away, ready to retire to his bedchamber and tidy himself after the long drive, when the door to the drawing room opened.
“Iphicles!” With a cry of joyous delight, his mama flung herself into his arms. “Iphicles, you can have no idea how glad I am to see you back. We have missed you so much, have we not, Harry? And to know you must be having such a horrid time with That Man and his awful friends quite overset me. Harry will tell you that I have not been quite myself all the time you were gone. But now you are back in time for the Foxcote’s assembly tomorrow night, and I have the most ravishing new gown you have ever seen, and Sir John Laxom will be present, and - Iphicles! What has happened to your
Puzzled when the Dowager’s dainty hand reached to his cheek, Iphicles’ face heated suddenly as he realised.
“A branch caught me as I was riding,” he supplied swiftly, aware of Harry’s eyes on him.
“Oh Iphicles, you haven’t changed, have you? You were so clumsy as a child, not at all like dear Harry. You would have thought by now you would have learned not to hurt yourself so. Now come,” she tugged determinedly at her eldest son’s arm, “Sit beside me and tell me how you are. Harry, come and sit beside me too. I want to know what Iphicles thought of Oxfordshire - an ungodly place, some call it, but I’ve had a penchant for it ever since the time…”
Iphicles sat obediently where he was bidden, and fastened an expression of polite interest to his face as the Dowager talked to Harry. There could be no doubt but that he was home.
The Earl did not follow his usual pattern when in town and ride out the following morning. Instead, he spent his time in the library, sorting through the papers and bills that had collected during his absence. The concentration they required allowed him to forget the disjointed dreams that he had suffered last night, waking to find time after time that he was alone, to remember time after time that, in full knowledge of what he was doing, of what the man was, he had gone gladly to Aresborough’s bed. His stomach had twisted as he realised he would still be there were it not for Harry’s subterfuge. He would still be pathetically loving every second he spent with the Duke, still unaware that the man was playing him for a fool, his only purpose in continuing with him after that first night the lure of the Earl’s public disgrace.
He had been relieved when the hour was sufficiently advanced for him to rise. Iphicles had joined his mother at the breakfast table, steeling himself to accompany her to the Foxcote's tonight as she so gaily assumed he would. The thought of being the centre of gossip there filled him with dread, but to avoid it would only confirm the rumours and allow them to spiral out of control. To continue in his usual way, ignoring the laceration of his feelings as the ton smirked and gossiped, was his only option. They would forget this soon enough, he comforted himself, just as soon as the next scandal happened along. Rumour, that was all it could be; nobody could prove a thing. The more he continued as usual, the more he was seen out and about in Society before the rumours gathered pace, the less credence would be given to them. It was just that the introspective Earl loathed the thought of being the subject of others' interest and speculation.
Iphicles looked up startled from the papers before him as the door opened and his brother entered the library.
It seemed that Harry was not here for small-talk.
"There are stories circulating about you and Aresborough."
Iphicles’ heart stopped briefly, then began to pound.
"Indeed?" he asked coolly. "And you listen to gossip, do you, Harry?"
"This is serious, Iph. I had it from Iorweth. Everyone is saying that you and Aresborough… that you went to his bed.”
The pulse in his head was hammering. “My private life is no concern of yours, Harry.”
“Your private life may not be, but this is no longer private, Iph.” Harry had ranged himself in front of the fireplace, standing full-square as he looked his brother over. “I know you did as they’re saying - I saw your expression yesterday when Mama asked about your face, although how that happened God only knows. But it’s why you went to stay with him in the first place, isn’t it? Iph, I *told* you - “
Iphicles was on his feet. "Is this offensive speculation leading anywhere Harry?"
Harry glared at his brother. "Will you stop being so damned condescending and listen to what I have to say? I want to help. I don’t want the family name in some sort of scandal."
Iphicles sat slowly down again. He was almost trembling. Word was out even more quickly than he had thought possible. And Harry was offering to help…
“What can I do, Harry?” he asked quietly. “It’s true. They all know it. What can I do?”
“Do you intend to continue the association with Aresborough?” Harry’s tone was hard.
Iphicles almost winced. “God, no.”
That won an approving smile from the Captain. “Well then, Iorweth said you should carry on as normal. No one can prove anything, and they’ll forget it soon enough. The worst thing you can do is hide.”
Although he was left smarting by the realisation that Harry and Iorweth had discussed his situation and that they obviously thought him too stupid to work out the need to continue in his usual way, Iphicles held his tongue. Harry meant well.
Harry’s blue gaze rested on Iphicles’ face. “Why’d you do it, Iph? I don’t understand.”
Iphicles shook his head slowly, unable to answer, unable to understand the madness that had driven him to behaviour he now regretted bitterly. “I don’ t know, Harry,” he managed at last, his voice almost inaudible. “I don’t know.”
“Damned stupidity, anyway,” Harry asseverated. “And how I’m going to explain to Mama - ”
Iphicles’ head jerked up. “Mama? For God’s sake, she must know nothing of this, Harry! The shock would likely kill her.”
“And whose fault is that?” Harry paused at the expression on his brother’s face and continued a little more reasonably. “Look, Iph, she’ll hear it sooner or later. Best she hears it from me first to get used to the idea.”
“Better still she hears it from me.” Iphicles’ teeth were clenched so tightly he was not sure how the words squeezed between them. “I forbid you to breathe a word of it to her, Harry. If she must be told, I shall tell her myself.”
“Well I lay you odds the Westcourt chit won’t have you now,” Harry sulkily returned.
It dawned on the Earl with a growing conviction that would not be denied. “That’s what all this is about, isn’t it Harry?" For some peculiar reason the sudden comprehension hurt him. "That’s why you want to help - so that my name isn’t muddied beyond what a respectable family would tolerate in their son-in-law. You don’t want me to spoil my chances of getting wed and producing an heir. That’s the only thing that bothers you in all this, isn’t it?”
Harry shrugged. “You’ve brought it on yourself, Iph. I tried to warn you; it’s not my fault if you’re too pigheaded to listen to me. How do you think I’m going to feel having everyone talking about my brother’s iniquity, anyway?” The Captain lounged towards the door. “Glad I’m going back to Spain is all I can say.”
The heavy oak door closed behind him, leaving the Earl alone to his bitter reflections.
Iphicles looked at himself in the mirror. He had dismissed Morrison that afternoon, giving no reason but paying him a sum the man could not protest, and had dressed himself. He would engage a new valet tomorrow. He noted with relief that the abrasions on his face were all but invisible now. He looked pale however, and there were lines of tension around his jaw; he could not be sure whether these were from the anticipation of what was to come this evening, or left over from his unpleasant interview with his Mama.
He had known it to be only a matter of time before Harry felt it his duty to inform her, and so he had taken the unwelcome step of breaking the news to her himself that there were some extremely unsavoury rumours circulating about his reason for staying with Aresborough. Of course he did not tell her the substance - God forbid that he be indelicate enough to mention such a thing to a member of the fair sex, let alone his mother! - but his father had thought nothing of reading his translations of the classics to his bride, and he was fairly certain she understood the nature of the rumours. Her face had turned perfectly white and he had had to send for her maid to bring her vinaigrette. It was some time before she was recovered enough to do more than moan softly.
“But I don’t understand, Iphicles,” she had wailed at last. “Why would people say such evil things about you? That man, yes, everyone knows he does wicked things, but why would they say it about *you*?”
Iphicles had tried to calm her again. “You know how people gossip, Mama,” he had told her, finding himself quite unable in the face of her distress to admit that it was said because it was true.
“I *knew* you shouldn’t have stayed with him,” she lamented. “I *told* you Iphicles. Why won’t you *listen* to your mother?” She broke off to uncork her vinaigrette again, and then her eyes raised disconcertingly steadily to his. “Why *did* you stay with him, Iphicles?”
Iphicles suddenly realised that she actually wanted an answer. This, to her, was the least comprehensible part of the whole damnable mess, that her own son should seek out the company of an avowed libertine.
Forced to confront his reasons, Iphicles at length confessed the truth. “I liked him.” He shrugged helplessly, remembering. “I thought we were friends…”
His mother suddenly wailed as awareness of a new disaster dawned on her. “And how can I possibly face dear Lady Annesley now? She trusted you with dear Sophia, you know, allowed you liberties in dancing with the girl and conversing with her, and now she will think you nothing more than a hardened *rake*! She will never accept your suit now. Oh Iphicles, how could you have been so *stupid*?”
The conversation had continued along similar lines until the Dowager had finally declared herself quite exhausted, and had herself put to bed. She was too overcome to attend the Foxcote's assembly tonight - to which she had been looking forward for an *age* - and she sincerely hoped that she was not too ill to sleep. It was only in sleep that she would be able to forget her son's selfishly stupid behaviour.
At least that meant that Iphicles was going to the Foxcote’s on his own, he reflected emptily. If there were to be gossip, his mother would not suffer it at firsthand. He had dressed himself with more than usual care; his clothes were of their accustomed sobriety, yet he wore a fob and a ring in a gesture of appeasement towards fashion. He would give Society nothing with which to reproach him there. He glanced down at the ring, the stone of which matched the amber of his eyes, remembering the evening on which Bella had given it to him. She had been unable to hide her pleasure at having found something special for him, and he had been hard put to it not to question her obvious excitement until she was ready to surprise him with the gift.
His heart was heavy as he left to face the verdict of the ton.
The Earl had purposely timed his arrival so that the evening's entertainment would be well under way and those whom he counted among his friends would be already present. He knew there would be stares and whispers, and he wished to make his entrance as unobtrusively as possible before swiftly joining a welcoming group.
The silence which fell when Iphicles was announced made mockery of his hopes. The sudden cessation of noise began with those closest to the door but spread rapidly through the crowded room until all was quiet and it seemed a battery of voraciously speculative eyes was concentrated upon him. The silence was broken briefly when one young gentleman leaned to his neighbours and said something, too low for Iphicles to hear, but which caused his companions to bray with laughter.
Iphicles stood an instant longer, his colour high at the unwelcome attention, waiting for his hostess to greet him. Lady Foxcote was not to be seen. An oversight, no doubt; she must be busy elsewhere.
He stepped forwards into the room, to find that the two ladies closest to him swept their skirts hurriedly aside. Curious eyes surveyed him from every direction, darting away as soon as he tried to meet them. He looked around for one of his friends, someone whom he might approach and begin to talk to, fighting down the beginnings of panic as acquaintance after acquaintance dropped their eyes before his. By the time his gaze at length fell on Jack Holloway, one of his acquaintances from White's with whom he dined on a regular basis, he knew a sense of indescribable relief. Attempting a smile at Sir Jack, he began to move towards him.
Sir Jack looked straight through him before deliberately turning his back. Iphicles stopped dead, vaguely aware that others were drawing back from him. Then shoulder after shoulder was turned, until he stood quite alone.
Iphicles moistened his dry lips, the blood draining from his face. To leave now would be to ensure that never again could he show his face in Society. Yet how could he stay when there was none to recognise him?
He turned slowly around once more, looking. None of them, none of the mamas who had been so assiduous in their invitations to him when they sought a rich husband for their daughters, none of his acquaintances from White's, not one of them would hold his gaze.
His head held high, Iphicles prepared to walk out of the ballroom.
“Royston! There you are, at last!”
He turned, startled, at the booming voice. Sir John Laxom was swiftly making his way through the practically silent gathering.
“Come, tell me all - I have heard such wild tales about your unseasonable house party and what you dashing young blades got up to. I think my favourite is the one involving the bevy of actresses especially imported from Lisbon. Is it another rumour put around by those who wish they were there, or is it true?”
By now Sir John had reached him and thrown a casual arm across his shoulders, turning him back into the room as his head bent close to catch the Earl’s answer.
“I’m sure you know as much as I,” Iphicles managed between bloodless lips.
A brief squeeze of his shoulder, so brief that he was not sure whether or not he had imagined it, and then Sir John’s voice boomed out again into the near silence.
“Linton, Royston is being most close-mouthed and insisting there was no impropriety. Perhaps you can persuade him to open up.”
The flash of fury in Lord Linton’s face betrayed his realisation of Sir John’s shameless methods. Refuse to acknowledge Royston, and Sir John would no doubt immediately ask whether his youngest son, whose involvement with Aresborough’s set the peer tried to keep quiet, had yet returned from the house party. Iphicles could see little of Farraday in his father as he bestowed a false smile upon the Earl and laughed awkwardly.
“Oh, I don’t doubt these young bloods are keeping the warmest tales to themselves,” he got out.
"Deuced unfair, I call it," Sir John agreed, as Linton turned away again. "Don't you agree, Linton?"
Realising he was not going to be let go so easily, the peer swung back round, ungraciously admitting defeat. “How is your brother?” he bit out, his eyes still furious. “The Frenchies must be glad to see him still on leave.”
“As we all are,” Iphicles agreed, his face stiff. “I am not sure quite when he and Captain Burnage return, but it will be a sad loss to us.”
A buzz of conversation started, swelling in volume as news of Royston being spoken to by one of the most respectable members of the ton began to circulate.
“Ringrose was just telling me that his son is due home shortly,” Linton continued, evidently unwilling to bear the burden alone any longer.
Ringrose, ever eager to talk of his son’s military career, needed no persuading, and it was a full half hour before his enthusiasm began to wane. By that time, those present had realised that they had been victims of a most improper practical joke played upon them; how could anybody think such a thing of the Earl of Royston, of all men!
Lady Foxcote finally took the plunge. “Lord Royston,” she trilled, successfully detaching him from Lord Ringrose. “I am so sorry I missed you when you arrived. Emilia, you know, was a trifle overcome by the heat. But I see you have not yet engaged yourself to dance. May I introduce you to a partner?”
Before the Earl could frame a diplomatic refusal - the very last thing he could afford to do was to put himself in a position where he might be publicly rejected - Lady Foxcote, with the air of one extracting a rabbit from a hat, triumphantly produced her daughter Charlotte.
Almost before he knew it, the Earl was following the familiar moves of the dance with Lady Charlotte, noting a curious look in her eyes as he did so. He wondered if her mama had placed her under duress to dance with him. It was only when she held his hand for an instant too long that he recognised the expression for what it was: excitement. She would not know the details, of course, but she must have picked up on something of the Earl’s disgrace, and her blue eyes held a thrill of illicit pleasure each time she looked at him.
Returning her to her Mama as soon as was decent, he saw the gleam of triumph in Lady Foxcote’s eyes. She thought she carried the day by seizing the advantage as she had. She was not to labour under this misapprehension for long. Lady Annesley bore inexorably down upon him, the obedient Sophia in her wake.
“Lord Royston,” she cooed.
He forced a smile, seeing the peculiar mixture of speculation and distaste in her face. It seemed that she did not know what to believe, yet she would not risk losing the best prize on the marriage mart when nobody else gave credence to the rumours, and she proceeded to shamelessly dandle her daughter before him like a ripe apple before a horse.
Sophia was suspiciously close to being in a fit of the sullens. Iphicles realised after a while that he was still unforgiven for his cavalier treatment of her the last time they had met. His conscience made him uneasy for he had not meant to hurt her, yet at the same time it would not let him repair the damage. Better for her to continue with a low opinion of him than to have false hopes renewed.
He breathed a sigh of relief when finally Lady Annesley swept her prize off to be displayed elsewhere. Although he noticed that Lady Trent kept her daughters away from him, most others present continued to dangle after him in the most unsubtle way. He went through the motions, talking, listening, dancing, but by the time the hour was sufficiently advanced for him to leave without causing comment, Iphicles felt that he had lived through a thousand lifetimes.
He had just descended the steps of the Foxcote’s house when a voice sounded from behind him. “Hold, Royston, I’ll walk with you.”
Turning, Iphicles saw Sir John Laxom's slightly rotund figure hurrying down the steps. He had not managed to find him when he had earlier looked for him. Stopping, he held out his hand to the man.
“I owe you a debt, Sir John,” he said frankly.
Sir John’s grey eyes were shrewd in his good-humoured face as he took Iphicles’ hand briefly. “I don’t wish to see your mother hurt, Royston.”
“Neither do I!” Iphicles heard the defensiveness and the guilt in his voice. He knew how his actions had opened his mother up to that possibility.
The older man hesitated before speaking again. "Tell me to go to the devil if you wish, Royston," he said at last. "But your recent behaviour is not what I have come to expect of you."
Iphicles took a sharp breath at the man's impertinence, and was about to make a swift put-down when he saw the expression in Sir John's face. The man's eyes on him conveyed both his concern for the Earl, and his disappointment in him. It stung Iphicles as none of the gossip had.
"It was a temporary lapse of judgement," he returned through clenched teeth, turning and beginning to walk. Sir John kept pace beside him in silence, allowing the Earl to regain some sort of equilibrium.
"There is another matter about which I wish to speak to you, Royston," he said at last.
"Which is?" He could not hide the wariness in his tone as he glanced sideways to find Sir John's gaze on him.
"I think you are not unaware that I admire your mother."
Iphicles' lips twitched suddenly. "It does not come as a total surprise to me," he agreed.
The older man’s eyes softened slightly. “I’m aware of the care you have taken of her,” he admitted.
Iphicles looked startled at him.
"I have admired her for some time," Sir John offered in explanation, before continuing. “Your care of your mother is, however, a pleasure of which I would like your permission to deprive you.”
Iphicles stopped and offered his hand again, holding the man’s gaze. “Sir John, there is nobody to whom I would rather relinquish that pleasure. I hope you make her as happy as she deserves to be.”
“I have every intention of so doing,” Sir John agreed, taking his hand and clasping it firmly. “Thank you, Royston.”
They walked on a little way further before their paths diverged and, having arranged to receive Sir John the following morning, Iphicles continued towards Half Moon Street. At least with Sir John offering for his mother, she would be distanced from any subsequent unpleasant consequences of his ill-judgement. His lips twisted as he recognised that it might well be that consideration which had prompted Sir John’s declaration to him tonight. Whatever the reason, he could be nothing but pleased for her.
As for himself… his overriding emotion was one of immense gratitude to Sir John from saving him from certain social ruin. He knew the substance of the gossip would not be forgotten quickly, if at all. His one consolation was in the cynical knowledge that, whatever tales the Duke and his retinue might put about on their return to town, Society would refuse to believe them, publicly anyway. They might whisper the shocking tales in corners, but none would repeat them openly. The members of the ton would do almost anything to avoid looking foolish; to show that the Earl had duped them as to the accuracy of the rumours was unthinkable. No, the answer must be that the rumours were untrue.
Whether there would be quite as many doors willingly open to the Earl as had previously been the case was another matter however. Unlike Harry, there were no heroic deeds to counter the allegations, and, far worse, he had committed the solecism of having his name associated with Aresborough’s. To be seen to be a friend of the Duke’s was shocking, certainly, but to have his name linked with Aresborough’s in this context was well-nigh unforgivable The very thought of the man caused Iphicles’ chest to constrict in rage and humiliation. Every time the man caused another scandal the catalogue of his misbehaviour would be told, including the infamous rumours involving the Earl of Royston. As long as the man breathed, there would be scandal attached to his name, and as long as there was scandal, Iphicles’ moral turpitude would never be forgotten.
Well, it was no more than he deserved, he acknowledged as he climbed the steps to his front door. He had been foolish beyond belief, and now he reaped the bitter harvest of his stupidity.
As he dressed himself the next morning, the Earl found that a deep anger was burning steadily inside him. Those who had called him friend, had wished to call him son in law, had meant none of it when they did so. He wished nothing less than to spend more time with any of them, yet he knew that in order to consolidate his reputation, he must.
He found he did not care any longer for his own sake. He would happily tell all those who had been present last night to go to the devil and not give them another thought. But for the sake of his as yet unchosen new bride and their children, he must not become an outcast. He would wait upon the Duke’s return, despite the shudder of revulsion which ran through him at the thought of the man, confound any fresh gossip by continuing in his usual behaviour for a time, and then retire to his Estate where he would follow the example set by his father and stay there. The Dowager could continue to
enjoy her way of life under Sir John’s aegis. Harry would continue to be Harry, alas, yet he would be abroad again soon and would become the problem then of the French.
The thought of the peace of his country home, away from prying eyes and vicious tongues and all artifice, almost destroyed the Earl’s resolve to wait. He could leave today, ride down himself, and have his household follow as necessary. For a few moments he indulged in the fantasy, but he knew he could not. He could not desert his mother so, and his retreat would look to be precisely that. No, he had somehow to get through the next week or however long it might be until the Duke returned to town, and then his life would be his own again.
The Earl bade a good morning to Sir John as they passed on the steps. It was no accident that he left as the man arrived; since their interview, Sir John had been an almost constant visitor and while Iphicles liked the man, there was only so much one could take of one’s mother dimpling and blushing like a girl whenever he was around. At least in her pleasure at Sir John’s courtship she had forgiven Iphicles his ill-judged behaviour. The ton too, it seemed, had to all outward purposes forgiven him. The expressions in people’s eyes, however, and the conversations cut short as he entered rooms informed him that all was not forgotten.
No sooner had the Earl entered the park than Ravenscourt rode up to him. Iphicles was a little taken aback, as he and the Viscount had never been on close terms. As always, he found it an effort not to concentrate his gaze on the growth which adorned the man’s nose, but to hold his eyes instead. He discovered that Ravenscourt’s stare held both triumph and the hint of a challenge.
“You must wish me happy, Royston,” the Viscount declared. “Miss Westcourt has done me the honour of accepting my hand.”
So that was it. Iphicles was not surprised; he had obediently accompanied his mama to those functions which she had expressed a desire to attend, yet he had been as elusive as manners would permit when it came to dancing with young ladies, Miss Westcourt included. His character was now tarnished, and it would take only an unquiet tongue to cast aspersions upon the reputation of any young lady to whom he appeared to show favour. It had become increasingly obvious that rather than pursue what appeared to be a forlorn hope, Lady Annesley would settle for a match that was less glittering, though still highly respectable.
The Earl responded suitably to Ravenscourt. The challenge in the Viscount disappeared as he realised the Earl was indeed no competitor of his, and almost immediately he retired to where Lady Annesley’s barouche was pulled up beneath a horse chestnut tree. Iphicles watched for an instant, saw the delicately pink-cheeked pleasure that was Sophia’s at the eager attentions of her swain, and turned away. That was one ending which he was pleased to see. Why it left him feeling somehow empty, he could not explain.
Avoiding being drawn into any conversation, simply returning acquaintances’ greetings from a distance, Iphicles rode on. He nodded stiffly in return to Jack Holloway, whose unanswered invitations had reached embarrassing proportions since that night almost a week ago, but did not check his horse’s stride. He pushed the horse on, indeed, wishing for nothing more than an invigorating ride over open country, taking whatever obstacles were in their way. Soon, he reminded himself. It would not be long before he could retire to the country and please himself. Sir John would no doubt become a fixture at Royston too, so he need not worry about his mother’s entertainment. Harry and Iorweth were due to return to duty almost any day now. He would not have long to wait.
He was shaken rudely from his pleasurable reflections. Somebody was on the ride ahead of him, coming towards him. The exquisitely fitted coat of blue superfine, snowy white buckskins and gleaming top boots could belong to any one of a number of gentlemen, but there could be no mistaking the muscled perfection of the figure, let alone by one who was so intimately familiar with every last inch of it.
Iphicles’ horse began to fret under his suddenly rigid hand as the Earl’s breath came unevenly. He could not turn away and pretend not to have seen him; he could not do anything which might give any substance to gossip. Furthermore, he refused to give the man the satisfaction of seeing him turn
So it was that Iphicles was the first to speak as the horses approached one another.
“Aresborough.” Although it did not sound like his voice, he was pleased to hear how steady it was. His gaze was fixed firmly between his horse’s ears but at the last moment he could not stop himself glancing sideways to catch a glimpse of Aresborough’s face.
The Duke’s eyes were concentrated on him. They gleamed as they met Iphicles’ gaze.
“Iphicles,” he welcomed, swinging his horse around to accompany the Earl.
Iphicles was breathless for an instant at the man’s temerity. Then his eyes sparked fury at the Duke. “I did not invite your company.”
Something flickered in the Duke’s gaze before his lips curved into that familiar, hated, mocking smile.
“Iphicles, I am hurt,” he protested. “Such coolness towards me.” He glanced down, and without thinking, Iphicles followed his gaze to find the Duke’s hand rhythmically caressing the handle of his whip. “Did you not enjoy our last ride together?“
The surge of rage blinded him, deafened him, for an instant perhaps, or an eternity. When it receded, Iphicles was deadly calm.
“You have had what you wanted from me.” He held Aresborough’s taunting gaze steadily. “There is nothing further to be said.”
With that, he wheeled his horse abruptly around and rode away, careless of any possible watchers.
“My lord?” Brownlow’s voice at last penetrated. He was vaguely aware that it had been going on for some time. “My lord, are you ill?”
His butler’s concerned gaze began to come into focus. He slowly took in the fact that he was standing in the library, wearing his coat still. A dull throbbing in his hand began to make itself felt and he looked down to see blood dripping.
He looked back up at Brownlow, not understanding.
“It was the window, my lord.” Brownlow was carefully matter of fact.
Dim memories of rage, hitting out, the satisfaction of things breaking and smashing.
“May I see to your hand, my lord?”
Brownlow was talking gently and calmly to him as though he was a fractious colt, liable to lash out at the least provocation. Damn it all, it wasn’t enough for him to make a hideous mull of everything in his life, he now had to add to it by having the faithful family retainer convinced of his madness.
“I’m fine, Brownlow.” He pulled himself together with an effort. “Bring me some wine.”
“Yes, my lord.” The butler looked searchingly at him for a moment, before retreating.
Iphicles stared unseeingly at the smashed pane of glass. For an instant he could have sworn that the Duke had been pleased to see him, yet the man had gone on to mock him with that reference to the whip. His cheeks burned as he tried to deny the memories which came flooding back. Aresborough had been using him, and he had let it happen, doing anything and everything Aresborough had wanted. Worse still, he had made no secret of his enjoyment of doing so, nor of the fact that he had delighted in the Duke’s company.
He looked up sharply as Brownlow came back into the room, and his lips lifted slightly as he saw the truly estimable man brought not only wine and a glass, but a length of soft cloth as well.
Thanking him, Iphicles took this and began to wrap it around his hand.
“May I be of further assistance, my lord?”
Without looking up, Iphicles shook his head. Seconds later, the door closed softly behind the butler, leaving the Earl to survey the redness which began to soak through the white cloth. He found himself reminded of the time they had fenced, when the Duke’s blade had drawn blood. His eyes closed in denial at the memories which followed. The Duke kneeling beside him, his warm breath on Iphicles’ skin…
Hell and the devil take it, he was not going to let Aresborough win. Next time he saw the Duke, he would be as composed as Aresborough himself. The Earl found himself caught between dread at the thought of another meeting with the Duke, and a growing desire to show him that he meant nothing to Iphicles. At least he might be able to preserve a shred of dignity in all this.
The Earl rode out in the Park the following morning, his heart beating fast as he searched among the riders for the familiar arrogant figure. He did not wish to see the man again, yet he needed the Duke to know that Iphicles cared nothing for anything that had happened between them. There was still no sign of the Duke when finally Iphicles decided to return home, somehow both disappointed and relieved.
He found his mother in the drawing room with Harry and Iorweth, hunting through the pile of cards and letters which had been delivered. The Dowager was growing increasingly distracted by the thought of Harry’s departure and was desperate to make the most of the few days of her son’s company which still remained to her. Her search for invitations to suitable events to which her youngest son could accompany her had grown relentless and, judging by Harry’s resigned expression, she would not be refused. Iphicles felt none of the sympathy for his brother’s predicament which might be expected. Since their conversation in the library, Iphicles had avoided Harry as much as possible, finding that he could barely bring himself to be civil to the Captain. Harry, if his air of patient forbearance towards Iphicles was anything to go by, appeared to have generously forgiven the Earl for his peccadillo ever since he had asked for, and then followed, his younger brother’s advice. His tolerant manner, and Iorweth’s too, left no doubt that they believed Iphicles to have learned from his foolish mistake.
Iphicles reluctantly joined the domestic party at his mother’s insistence, managing with the expertise of long practice to tune out most of the running commentary as the Dowager picked through the pile. Until, that was, she exclaimed at a mysterious letter addressed to the Earl. He got to his feet and took it from her, frowning slightly as he saw the familiar hand. He could not immediately place it.
Returning a platitude to his mother’s questions about the sender he regained his seat where he was able to open the discreet billet in comparative privacy. He found himself informed that Mrs Howarth would be pleased to receive him if he cared to call that afternoon. Iphicles screwed up the note, cursing under his breath. Thoughts of Caroline had not crossed his mind once this past week. She deserved better treatment than that.
It appeared that Caroline agreed with him. As soon as he arrived he realised the purpose of this interview: it was to be a polite termination of their arrangement. He was inordinately relieved, having spent the past few hours wondering how he might effect the same himself without hurt to her. He was still fond of her, yet he could no longer continue as they had been.
What vexed him, however, was the fact that she gave no reason for her decision. She treated him the same as ever she had, her concern for him evident when she noticed the makeshift bandage on his hand and asked him if he was hurt. No, her calm friendliness and fondness towards him made him believe that her decision could not have anything to do with the rumours. Her dismissal smarted therefore, especially following so close upon the heels of his realisation of the Duke's true motive for taking Iphicles to his bed.
He got up abruptly to leave. She hesitated for a moment, then asked him in a most offhand way if he had enjoyed the Duke of Aresborough's house party. There was an odd tone in her voice as she mentioned Aresborough, which made him realise that she did know of the rumours. He looked away as he assured her that he had had a pleasant time.
"He is a man of resource, the Duke, is he not? One who moreover displays a definite singleness of purpose."
"He is certainly unique," Iphicles agreed stiffly, highly uncomfortable at talking of the man, particularly with Caroline.
"But you must now take your leave?" she anticipated, her eyes betraying amusement at his momentary discomfort.
All of a sudden he found himself smiling back at her. He would miss her, as much for her quickness of mind and her conversation as for anything else they had shared.
It was with a mixture of sadness and relief that Iphicles kissed her farewell and left.
The Dowager was desperately disappointed, and did not care who knew it.
"But Harry, you *know* that I have been looking forward to this for an *age*!"
"My apologies, Mama, but I cannot refuse a senior officer's invitation." Besides which, Iphicles mentally supplied, the quality of Colonel Kempsford's cellar was well known, and Iorweth too was invited. Harry softened the blow with a dazzling smile. "I am sure my brother will be pleased to accompany you in my stead."
"Of course, Mama," Iphicles agreed automatically.
"But Harry has booked a box and was to spend the whole evening with me, and now it is all spoiled."
The Earl managed to maintain his smile. "I'm sure you will contrive to have a tolerable evening."
"Oh very well," she allowed pettishly. "Although Sir John is not able to be present either."
A tactful move on Sir John's part, Iphicles had deduced, allowing Alicia some time alone with her younger son before he returned to duty.
"You know I would wish nothing more than to accompany you, Mama," Harry assured her, as he rose to his feet. "Let us look on the bright side; perhaps Kempsford will be trampled by a runaway horse before tonight."
The Dowager's laughter pealed out in response to Harry's grin. "Odious boy!" she reprimanded, her good humour on its way to being restored. "Well there is always tomorrow night, I suppose."
By the time they reached their box at Vauxhall gardens, no one would have suspected that the Dowager had suffered such a crushing blow a few short hours before. Everywhere she looked there was another of her cronies, or somebody about whom she had heard the most *unbelievable* news, and she was lit up with enjoyment as Iphicles seated her in their booth situated in the open centre of the gardens, from where she could survey all who passed by. Iphicles arranged his features into their usual calm politeness and spent his time calculating how much longer it would be before he could reasonably retire to Royston. Harry and Iorweth would be gone before the end of the
week; glancing sideways at his mother, he realised it would be unnecessarily cruel to expect her removal to the country before they had left. Yet it was soon enough now for him to be able to begin making arrangements. He was still determined to leave London and all it represented. It would also remove him from the danger of seeing the Duke again. Iphicles had seen nothing of Aresborough since the morning ride two days ago, and was now relieved. To see him again would be only to stir unpleasant memories, best forgotten. Furthermore, it would have given the ton new food for their gossip.
Eventually even his musings were no longer enough to block out his mother's
explanations to every passing acquaintance about why dear Harry was not with her tonight, how duty bade him dine with the Colonel, and how much she would miss him when he went back to face the dangerous French. "And dear Iorweth too," she would add. "He is such a comfort to Harry, to have a friend like that in the trials he faces. I do believe they are closer even than brothers."
It no longer had the power to unsettle the Earl - it was nothing he was not used to - but the frequency of the recitation set his teeth on edge. Seeing that she was comfortably enjoying the sympathy of Lady Maria Kempe about her younger son's unavoidable absence, Iphicles excused himself to walk through the gardens. The hot summer night was brilliantly lit by the number of gaily coloured lanterns strung alone the walkways, their light splashing colourfully over the walls of the Grecian Temple at the end of the Long Walk as he passed by, but the Earl noticed none of their effect as he continued
to wander slowly along the various pathways. It was only as his passing disturbed an intently whispering couple ensconced on a secluded seat that he realised he was inadvertently in Lovers' Walk and intruding upon those who might reasonably expect to be allowed to enjoy the gardens in peace. He remembered bringing Bella here, shortly after they were married, and her horror when, unable to resist touching her any longer, he had swept her into the shelter of one of the small summer houses that were scattered around the gardens. She had protested as he held her to him, and when he had tried to
kiss her she had slapped him, her sensibilities outraged at his public display of affection.
It had been their first quarrel. She might welcome him to her bed, but marital relations were to be kept strictly within the bedchamber. She had considered him shameless and dissolute for thinking otherwise. His lips twisted as he reflected that she had been right in her reading of his character. He had not cared that Aresborough took him where anybody might discover them; on the oak desk in the library, ink spilling under the
onslaught to stain the Earl's skin, or on the chaise longue in the drawing room, until Iphicles' creamy white seed garlanded the red velvet seat, or even that first time, on the grass in the rain. Iphicles' eyes closed momentarily, then he pulled himself together. Turning abruptly, he made his way back towards the open centre of the gardens. Perhaps he could persuade his mother to attend the concert due to be held in the pavilion later this evening, where his thoughts could be concentrated upon the music instead of wandering in such a destructive fashion. Although he had to confess that he
held no great hope of this; to sit for so long in silence was not an activity much to the Dowager's liking.
Making his way towards their box, he saw that she was engaged in close colloquy with yet another passer-by. His heart stopped as he recognised the figure leaning familiarly over the front of the booth to speak to her.
The Dowager’s tinkling laugh rang out, and as she saw Iphicles approach, her eyes brightened still further and she crowed with delight.
“Oh Iphicles, you didn’t tell me how droll your friend is. I declare, he is much maligned. Such pleasant company; he has been keeping me so entertained while you have been gone.”
Iphicles had hardly taken his eyes from the Duke. At length, the man turned and met his gaze, dark eyes unreadable.
“A word with you, Aresborough," the Earl snapped out.
The Duke inclined his head. “For you, Iphicles, anything.”
He returned his attention briefly to the Dowager and lifting her hand to his mouth, kissed
it. “I look forward to resuming our conversation,” he promised.
She smiled at him. Biting back a curse, Iphicles turned and walked off, aware through his fury that the Duke was following him, the very laziness of his stride somehow an insult. Stopping in one of the darker and consequently less-frequented walkways, Iphicles spun round to face Aresborough. The light from the lanterns did not penetrate here, and he could see little of the Duke's face.
“Why have I never made your mother’s acquaintance before, Iphicles?" Aresborough enquired. "She is a most delightful lady.”
“Keep away from her.” It was a furious snarl “I don’t know what game you think you’re playing now, Aresborough, but I will not have you bothering my mother, understand me?”
“You would rather I bothered you, perhaps?” The invitation in the velvet voice was unmistakable as the Duke moved a step forward.
Iphicles took a sharp step back. “Stay away from my mother,” he warned, hearing suddenly how ridiculous he sounded.
He wasn’t the only one to see the absurdity of the situation. The Duke laughed. “Any moment now, you’ll be demanding to know whether my intentions are honourable.”
“No need for that,” Iphicles bit out. “I know they will be only dishonourable.”
“You didn’t mind that once, Iphicles,” Aresborough's voice was low. “Why so proper now?”
Even in the gloom he saw the expression change in the Duke’s eyes, yet he was still unprepared when the man moved swiftly forward and pulled Iphicles to him, his mouth descending on Iphicles', persuading his lips to open and admit his seeking tongue. Iphicles gasped at the response which rocked his body, focusing in his cock. Drowning in the kiss, his hands clutched at the Duke, holding him close, ever closer, as the comfort of that well-loved muscular body hard against his swamped his defences. His mind, his body, his whole being was consumed by Aresborough. A sound of need echoed deep in his throat, mirrored by the Duke as he pulled Iphicles tight against him and buried his face in Iphicles' neck. "Iphicles," he whispered, hot breath against warm skin before his mouth buried deep, lips and teeth seeking.
For one heady moment, Iphicles opened himself fully to the Duke. This was all he wanted, all that mattered. Then the nagging knowledge at the back of his mind became reality. This was precisely what Aresborough wanted, to overwhelm him with sex until he could no longer think. With an incoherent sound of protest, Iphicles' hands thrust hard against the Duke's chest, pushing him away.
Aresborough seemed dazed as he stared at the Earl. He moved forward a step, his hand reaching to Iphicles' face. "Iphicles?" he questioned.
Iphicles stepped abruptly backwards. Allowing Aresborough to touch him would be his undoing.
"Do you really think I'm so stupid?" His voice was low, but its bitterness lent it strength. "Do you really think I would fall for your stratagems a second time, allow you to parade me like a lapdog before the ton for your amusement and their disgust?" His lip curled. "You may save yourself the effort, Aresborough; my turpitude is already the talk of London. I should congratulate you, I suppose, on achieving your aim."
Aresborough stood as though rooted to the spot. "It is not what I meant…" he began at last.
"So you had no intention of destroying my reputation and that of my family?" Iphicles' voice lashed the night air. "Why else would you do what you did, Aresborough?"
The Duke was silent, his lips twisting oddly under the Earl's burning gaze.
"I have already told you, I want nothing more to do with you." Iphicles' tone was satisfyingly cool and unemotional. "Do not bother my family again; they are nothing to do with whatever aberration of judgement may have been mine. I wish you good day." He executed a sketchy bow and strode away, slightly unnerved by the Duke's continuing silence.
As soon as he reached the Long Walk, he turned blindly into one of the secluded paths that joined it and sank down on the nearest bench, almost trembling. He had done it; he had let Aresborough know that he meant nothing to him. The man had no more leverage over him. He thrust aside the memory of that kiss; whatever it was the man did which spoke to his baser part, he would not admit it. He would not permit the memories to surface. All that mattered was that he had seen that arrogant, manipulative character at a loss for words, and that it was he, for once, who had had the ordering
of their encounter. Better still, it was over now. The whole disastrous chapter was finished, never to be revisited.
He finally got to his feet and made his way back to the booth. A petulant frown spoiled the beauty of the Dowager’s face when she saw Iphicles entering the box. The Ladies Foxcote and Linton, seated next to Alicia, took one look at the expressions on mother and son's faces and swiftly excused themselves.
“Why did you whisk him away so suddenly?” the Dowager demanded pettishly. “We were having such fun until you spoiled it all. Your brother would never have done such an ill-mannered thing, you know. It is such a shame dear Harry was not able to come tonight."
“What did Aresborough speak to you of?”
Her frown deepened. “Oh Iphicles, you’re so abrupt sometimes," she chastised him. "Not at all like your brother. No, the Duke was kind enough to enquire after my health. He seemed to have been under the impression that I had been ill, although he realised of course as soon as he saw me that nothing could have been further from the truth.” Her frown vanished suddenly and she gave a gurgle of delighted laughter at the memory as she smoothed an imaginary crease in her skirt. “I told you, did I not, that
this gown suited me?”
“Mama…” Iphicles was frustrated beyond belief. “You yourself warned me from him, and here you are, publicly talking to him!”
“Well, yes, perhaps I did say something of the sort,” allowed his mother. “Yet that was before I met him. Such a charming man! I know he has a rakish reputation, yet handsome young men will be a little wild, you know. I daresay dear Harry has broken more than a few hearts; he does look so *dashing* in that uniform. But now that I have met Aresborough, I am sure his reputation is mostly undeserved.”
His eyes closing in defeat, Iphicles settled himself again next to his mother. Damnation but he’d be glad to pass the task to Sir John of protecting her from herself. At least there was one thing of which he could now be sure, and that was that the Duke would not trouble her, or him, again.
The Earl woke suddenly, his heart pounding. It had been a dream, that was all. Yet it had seemed so real: the Duke and he in the gardens, their kiss holding and deepening until hands searched frantically for one another, tearing open clothing that was in the way until finally they were pressed skin to warm skin. Iphicles' cock had been hard and desperate as he felt the full hot flesh pushing eagerly against his, and he had moaned into the Duke's mouth, rubbing himself frantically against the Duke's hardness until he whimpered and his seed spattered Aresborough's skin.
The Duke had finally released his mouth, allowing him to slide down until he was on his knees, eagerly taking the Duke's thick cock into his mouth. He used every refinement of the skill that he had learned from Aresborough, intent only on the Duke's pleasure, until Aresborough's head went back and he groaned as he shuddered and came into Iphicles' mouth. The Earl had released him afterwards, to rest his head against the Duke's hip, one hand lightly tracing a muscled thigh through the soft material of the Duke's breeches.
"I love you, Aresborough," he had whispered.
The Earl's eyes closed as he tried desperately to dispel the recollection of the Duke's mocking laughter at his declaration. Turning abruptly in his bed, he tried to leave the memory behind him, only to encounter damp evidence that his release had not been only in his dream. He turned sharply back the other way, hauling the covers up over himself, desperate to forget.
Iphicles returned from his customary ride in the Park later that morning, and found Harry alone in the Drawing Room, the scattered pile of cards and invitations beside him on the sopha evidence that the Dowager had enlisted his help in identifying suitable functions at which he might spend his last few evenings of leave. It had become their daily ritual, and was one with which Iphicles found no fault, meaning as it did that he did not have to sort through a mound of billets in order to find the bills.
Harry rose swiftly to his feet at his brother's entrance, his hand tightening angrily to crush the billet in his hand as he glared at the Earl.
"Devil take it, Iph," he accused furiously, "What madness has got into you?"
Iphicles paused momentarily as the door closed behind him, wondering quite what it was that his brother referred to now.
"You may care nothing for your own name, but to introduce a man of such reputation to Mama goes beyond anything!"
Sudden guilt made Iphicles defensive. "I did not introduce them!" he threw back. "God above, Harry, do you really think I would do such a thing?"
Harry's blue eyes were stormy. "Frankly, Iph," he confessed, an edge to his voice, "I find I no longer have a notion what you will do next, only that the consequences will be damned unpleasant for your family."
Iphicles teeth were gritted. "Aresborough will not bother Mama again. I have made sure of that."
He turned to leave.
Harry snorted. "If not for you, she would not have been subjected to his attentions to begin with."
Iphicles swung back on his brother. "Stow it, Harry," he flashed. Breathing heavily he determinedly reined in his temper. "He did not go beyond the line with her, as well you know," he pointed out abruptly, "and it would have been peculiar behaviour in her indeed to cut one of her son's acquaintances. I have made sure that it will not happen again. You have said more than enough on this matter."
The Captain stepped forward, shoulders squared. "It seems to me I have not said enough. Damn it Iph, you told me that you would have nothing more to do with him, yet not only do you arrange this assignation but you must needs drag Mama into it."
His jaw dropping, Iphicles stared at his brother. "I suggest you return to whatever asylum is currently missing an inmate," he said at last. "Last night's meeting was coincidence, no more."
A harsh laugh escaped Harry. "Why else would he approach Mama if not to speak to you, Iph? Do you think me a half-wit?"
"Frankly, Harry, I do."
As the Captain's brow darkened still further, Iphicles turned and walked out, nodding curtly to Iorweth as they passed in the hallway. It was only the knowledge that his mother was in the house that had prevented the Earl from delivering some unpalatable home-truths to his brother.
He did not see Harry again that day, nor the next. The gallant Captain was engaged elsewhere, and Iphicles could not but welcome the fact. The worst of it was that Harry had been justified in his anger with his brother; were it not for Iphicles' friendship with Aresborough, his mama would never have been placed in such a position. The galling knowledge that he had given Harry something else with which he might legitimately reproach his older brother did not help to reanimate any feelings of fraternal amity within the Earl's breast.
Iphicles was relived to find the following night that he was dining alone. His mama and Harry and Iorweth were gone somewhere; he had lost track of which particular event it was that enjoyed their presence tonight. He sat at the dining table long after the covers had been cleared, steadily making his way through the port. He was reluctant to move, for to move would be to go to yet another empty room, where there was nothing to be done and nobody to talk to. The possibility of going out for the evening had fleetingly
occurred to him, but had been as swiftly discarded. He no longer wished to pass his time in the company of those who, however briefly, had revealed to him their true colours.
Sitting in the brightly lit room, the abundance of candles somehow emphasising its emptiness, he tried not to make the mental comparison between this and the dinner times at the Duke's country seat where the company had been relaxed and the after dinner conversation when the port did the rounds usually became riotous. Those times when he had stayed, that was; there were several occasions when he and Aresborough had left early to be by themselves.
Damnation, why had he allowed himself to remember that now? He ignored the
beginnings of desire, as he had managed to do ever since returning to London, and poured himself another glass of port, vaguely surprised to see how far the level in the decanter had lowered, desperately tearing his thoughts away from the memories of the Duke's velvet mouth moving over his skin. Surely those long nights together must have meant something to the man…
What if they had, and Iphicles had somehow hastened to a wrongful conclusion about the Duke's motives, misled by Harry's dislike of the man? Although, the Earl hesitated, if that were the case, why had not the Duke defended himself against Iphicles' accusations at Vauxhall? Because what he had said was true, he surmised cynically. He splashed more port into his glass, his slightly unsteady hand causing crimson drops to spoil the purity of the white linen cloth, and swiftly downed the wine, as swiftly refilling his glass from the depleted decanter. Or perhaps it had been that the Duke had
been too angry for words at the Earl's wild allegations. For the first time he regretted the darkness of their encounter, which had prevented him from seeing the man's face clearly. His eyes closed briefly as he considered the dreadful possibility that he had wronged the Duke.
Yet whatever Aresborough's motives had been in seeking him at Vauxhall did not change the fact of his behaviour when Iphicles had been called home by Harry. There he hesitated again. The Duke knew now that the Dowager had not been unwell. If nothing else, Iphicles owed the man an apology for Harry's clumsy subterfuge. He turned the glass slowly in his hand, watching the way the ruby liquid reflected the brilliant candlelight and realised that he also needed the Duke to know that he had not been party to his brother's games. Tossing off the remains of the port, he got determinedly to his feet.
The Earl took a hackney to the Duke's residence. He would not call for his carriage and have the entire household know of his destination, and when he began to walk, he found that his gait was not entirely steady. He stumbled out at the end of his journey, and made his way determinedly up the steps to the Duke's town house. The front door opened almost before he had finished beating an uneven tattoo on it.
He unceremoniously pushed past the footman. "Where is he?"
The man scrambled backwards in an attempt to block the inebriated Earl's way. "His Grace is not receiving visitors, sir," he said.
Iphicles' head cocked; he had heard a familiar voice. "The devil he isn't," he returned and strode to the door from behind which he had heard the sound. It was slightly ajar, and so he pushed it further open to stand in the doorway, unnoticed by those in the room. The Duke was seated in a chair with Ogborne knelt between his open legs, Aresborough's hands wrapped relentlessly in his blond hair as he pushed the man's head down on his cock. Iphicles stood unmoving, seeing the way Aresborough's head fell back against the chair, his eyes lidding as Ogborne's head moved up and down on him,
deeper and faster, until the Duke was groaning, just as he had groaned for Iphicles.
Iphicles stumbled away towards the front door, pushing blindly past the footmen who had been summoned as reinforcements to expel the intruder. He got out onto the street and around the corner, out of sight, before he stopped and clung to the nearest set of railings, his breathing ragged as he convulsively clutched at the metal and tried desperately to deny what he had seen.
Sickened, he finally moved on, not wanting anybody to see him here, to know what a pathetic fool he had been. He walked for miles, no idea in his head of where he was going, knowingly only that he had to keep walking in order to stop himself thinking.
Not thinking slowly became increasingly difficult, and he impulsively hailed a passing hackney, demanding to be taken to the nearest drinking shop. The jarvey demurred briefly, looking at the finely-dressed gentleman so obviously out of his way in this part of London, but a few choice phrases from the Earl made him shrug and do as he was bidden. He left the Earl in Tothill Fields, a haunt of some of the more adventurous young bloods who, in a search for excitement sadly lacking in the staid parties of the ton, patronised insalubrious establishments peopled by those who might not be counted among the most wholesome of the capital's population. Iphicles had never before been anywhere like this, but he barely noticed the grim exterior of the place; paying off the jarvey he strode inside, checking for an instant at the atmosphere thick with the emissions from countless clay pipes, before demanding whatever was their strongest drink.
It was some considerable time before anything disturbed the Earl in his estimable aim of drinking himself unconscious. He had set himself with gusto to the task of forgetting his reasons for being here; forgetting, indeed, most everything. He had not once considered how he might find his way home again from wherever here might be.
"Royston! What the devil are you doing here?"
He slowly looked up from his fierce concentration on his drink to find Asbury standing there, looking decidedly odd. Pleased to see a friend, he blinked, trying to work out what was different about the man before his brain gave up the unequal struggle.
"Drinking," he explained, taking an illustrative gulp before pushing his beaker in the Viscount's general direction. "Want one? S'good stuff."
Asbury picked it up and sniffed, recoiling suddenly. "God man, that stuff will send you blind if you put it away like that without being used to it."
"Used to it," Iphicles responded smugly. "Been drinking it f'r hours. Blue Ruin, tha's it."
Asbury was suddenly wrestling him to his feet. "If that's Blue Ruin, I'm a parson's aunt. Bad brandy, that's what that is. Come on, I'm getting you out of here. How in hell did you come to be here anyway?"
"Hackney," Iphicles helpfully supplied.
He didn't resist as Asbury moved him towards the door and out into the street, although he did offer the observation, "Only jus' 'rived - can't wanna leave."
"I'm getting you out of here. Look at you, man, it's a wonder you didn't have your throat slit for that diamond in your cravat."
Iphicles looked down at himself before turning his eyes back on Asbury, who was dressed anonymously, a kerchief rather than a cravat around his neck, and boots which lacked their usual high polish. That's what was different about him, he realised. "Look better'n you."
"Yes, and that's the whole point. Who in God's name pointed you to such a place on your own?"
He was pulling the Earl onwards, regardless of the difficulty Iphicles was having in negotiating the uneven cobblestones underfoot.
"Don't need pointing," Iphicles informed him pugnaciously. "Do what I want."
"Yes, and don't we know it. God, I don't recall when I last saw Aresborough in such a taking as when you left. He was not best pleased."
Iphicles knew a stab of satisfaction. "Spoiled his game."
"I don't know about that," Asbury returned, "You certainly spoiled his temper. It got so we were all ready to return to town long before he was."
Iphicles had pursued his own train of thought. "Bastard."
"You'll thank me in the morning," his companion assured him. "Come on, I'm finding you a hackney and sending you home."
"Not you. Him. Bastard's fucking Ogborne. Saw 'em."
"Is he?" Asbury responded without interest. "Well, he's had everyone else over the past week; no doubt he's started at the beginning again."
The Earl lurched suddenly as Asbury let go of him to signal to a hackney, which stopped.
He helped Iphicles up into the carriage, ignoring the jarvey's protest that the gentleman looked as though he was about to cast up his accounts.
"There you go, Royston," he said, assisting the unsteady Earl to sit upright. "I hope to God you remember where you live because I haven't got a clue, and I have to go back to meet Appleton."
Iphicles blinked up at him. "Like you, Asbury, even if y'are interfering nuisance."
Asbury stood looking at the Earl for a moment. "Oddly enough, Royston, I return your regard. Call on me when you're recovered - if you remember a word of this conversation, that is."
He closed the door on Iphicles and instructed the driver to take his passenger towards a more godly area of the capital.
Iphicles remembered nothing of getting out of the hackney, just that suddenly the world was spinning around him and he was bending over, a burning stream through his throat and mouth as his stomach voided itself, sourly wrenching even when there was nothing more to follow. Finally it stopped. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, Iphicles staggered on, the flagstones under his feet damnably uneven, until all of a sudden the pavement was cool beneath his cheek. He was suddenly reluctant to move. To do so would be to cause everything to start spinning again. No, better to lie here and sleep.
Voices, someone shaking him. "Royston, for God's sake, man."
Blurred faces looking down at him, then he was being pulled up, his arms put around people's necks as he tried to support his own weight with his legs, but they would not work properly. That was the last he remembered.
He awoke slowly the next morning to a pounding in his skull and a stirring in his stomach. Opening his eyes, he saw the empty bowl placed beside him on the bed and leaned over just in time before his stomach expelled its meagre contents. He lay back, shivering, his arm flung across his eyes.
It was some time later, after his stomach had rebelled again, that there was the sound of curtains being drawn and a familiar voice. "Drink this."
His eyes opened a painful amount against the light, and he could see Sir John thrusting a glass at him. Carefully propping himself up, he waited for the expected wave of nausea. Knowing a sense of relief when it didn't come, he clumsily reached for the glass of water. He drank it all and handed the empty glass back to Sir John, slowly letting himself back down against the pillows.
The man put it to one side and stood looking down at him, his arms crossed
"Tell me, Royston, have I been deceived in your character all these years?" His eyes betrayed his distaste as he looked at Iphicles. "I thought you the epitome of responsibility, yet first you go to stay with Aresborough, and I have heard more than I wish to about your behaviour while you did so, and then Lionel and I find you rolling in the gutter, drunker than a brewer's cat. Certainly in too reprehensible a condition to be taken to your home where your mother would hear of it." He shook his head slightly. "God knows we all dip too deep sometimes, but not drink ourselves to oblivion. How did you end up like that?"
Iphicles' eyes closed. He could not remember how he got there, just the reason for it, which he emphatically wished he could forget. And he really was not in a state to deal with lectures. God, his head hurt.
"Is this behaviour I am to expect regularly from my son-in-law?" Sir John pursued mercilessly.
He turned his head away. "No."
There was a pause, then the bed dipped and creaked as Sir John sat down on the edge of it. "I thought I was not wrong in my reading of you. And you certainly seemed to find no pleasure in it last night. Mind telling me why you did it?"
The sudden sympathy in his voice was too much for the Earl in his weakened condition. He shook his head slightly, keeping his face averted.
"Very well." Sir John hesitated slightly. "If I can be of help, Royston, let me know."
He got up and quietly left the room, leaving the Earl to his humiliating reflections. He did not deserve the man's sympathy. The stupidity of his port-driven imaginings left him mortified; how could he have been feeble-minded enough to believe even for a minute that the Duke had not been using him? God, the thought of going around to the Duke's like some moon-struck idiot was enough to make his stomach turn even without the
brandy. His only hope was the possibility that the Duke's footmen did not know the identity of the intruder. And that Asbury kept his mouth shut. Iphicles all but moaned at the memory of their conversation, informing the man that he had gone to Aresborough's. Compared to that humiliation, the possibility of his drunken stupor being witnessed by various members of the ton paled into insignificance. After all, it was no more than they had come to expect from him. At least it might keep some of the matchmaking mamas from his back for a while.
He lay there for a while longer, before the foul taste in his mouth drove him to brave the soreness in his head long enough to get to his feet and rinse out his mouth. He was too ashamed to hold his own bloodshot gaze in the looking glass for long; all he could think was how desperately he needed to return to the country, where he would never again run the risk of seeing the Duke.
The Earl spent most of the day at Sir John's, slowly recovering from the worst effects of his over-indulgence. Sir John had sent word to the Dowager that Iphicles had stayed with him last night, leaving her to draw the inference that they had made a pretty batch of it together. Both men knew they would have to endure a little fond scolding about the bad habits of the male sex, but it was infinitely better than Alicia finding out the truth.
Yet again Iphicles stood in Sir John's debt.
He acknowledged as much when he came to take his leave.
"It's not that I mind, Royston," Sir John informed him with disconcerting frankness. "More that I am worried about what has caused your unpredictable behaviour of late."
Flushing slightly, Iphicles gave no answer save to thank the man again, and returned home. There he was informed by Brownlow, who yet again showed his worth by appearing not to notice the state of the pale and unshaven Earl, that a visitor had called for him once this morning and twice this afternoon, appearing most desirous of speaking to the Earl. Iphicles took the card that had been left, and the remaining blood left his face when he saw the Duke's name on it. Automatically he thanked Brownlow, before
instructing him that he was still not at home to visitors and retiring to his room to wash and change.
Once there he took great care over shredding the card into as many small pieces as he could manage, desperately wishing he could do the same to himself. It seemed the Duke knew of his visitor yesterday; he must now believe that he still exercised the same
power over the Earl as he once had and intended to put that to use again. Either that, or the man simply wished to crow. With a groan, Iphicles bent forward over the bowl and emptied the jug of water over his still-aching head. God, what a damned idiot he'd been. He flicked back his wet hair, the resulting rivulets of water dampening his
shirt, causing the fine cotton to cling transparently to his skin as his course of action became suddenly clear.
Despite the reluctance evinced by his stomach at the thought, Iphicles joined his family for dinner. His mind was made up and he wished to waste no time in informing his mother of his decision.
"I am sure Sir John will be delighted to accompany you, Mama, when you wish to join me," he reassured the Dowager who was looking decidedly pettish at the news he had broken. "He is of course welcome to stay at Royston for as long as he wishes."
"I think it a capital idea," Harry struck in. "By going ahead, Iph can make sure that all is ready to receive you and Sir John."
Alicia turned injured eyes on him at his betrayal. "But Harry, *nobody* goes to the country at *this* time of year."
Harry smiled at her. "True, Mama, but just think - you will be setting a trend. And I do think it a good idea to have something else to do once Iorweth and I are gone. If you stayed here, you would no doubt be moped."
The Dowager sighed at the reminder of her son's departure. "No doubt you are right," she confessed in a small voice, toying with the calf feet jelly on the plate before her as though her appetite had quite deserted her.
Iphicles finally knew a sense of contentment. He had arrived late yesterday afternoon to a genuinely warm welcome from his housekeeper, Mrs Thornton, and had almost instantly felt his heart begin to ease. A good night's sleep, a morning spent listening to the happenings in the lives of the principal figures in his household, a brief update from his bailiff, and now the delight of a good horse under him on a summer's afternoon on his own estate filled him with peace.
The larks singing overhead, the soft thud of the horse's hooves, the slight creak of the saddle, and the smell of summer grass were all things he associated intimately with Royston. He smiled as he passed by the climbing tree on which he and Harry had played so often, remembering when they had defended it tooth and nail from their cousins on their one and only visit to Royston. The older boy, George, had given Harry such a pasting one day that Alicia had declared the boy must be removed from her house at once. They had not returned.
He paused at the crest of the hill and sat looking down on Royston. As had been the intention of the genius who had created the gardens, the long ride drew an observer's eye irresistibly to Royston House. Designed by a well-known disciple of the Palladin style, its symmetry and proportion were exquisite, while its light stone seemed to shine in the sun. This westerly approach was one which suited Iphicles better than the conventional southern one; he loved his home in every season, every aspect, but the openness of this countryside appealed to him more than did the formal gardens, even
though every care had been taken to ensure they reflected nature.
His horse began to fidget at the enforced inactivity, and Iphicles dismounted. He loosened his horse's girth, unfastened the reins from one side of the bit to give the animal length enough to graze without troubling him, and sat down, his back propped against the sun-warmed stone of the obelisk behind him, memorial to some long-dead Earl. Settling himself more comfortably, he laid his head back against the rock, looking down on his home, feeling the sunshine warming him through his clothes. The drowsy
humming of the bees, the horse cropping the short turf, its tail whisking occasionally to keep the flies away, and his own deep breathing were the only sounds in the world.
Soft whickers brought him awake some time later, and he opened his eyes to find his horse's head was up, its ears enquiringly pricked. He twisted his head round to follow the direction of the animal's concentration, and found a figure seated on a dark horse a few yards away, sitting still and simply watching him.
For an instant, he thought he must still be dreaming, but then the man swung off his horse, leaving it to wander freely and approached Iphicles. He stopped close to the Earl, one polished boot propped on the lowest level of the monument's base, an arm resting on his muscular thigh as he leaned forward and regarded Iphicles.
The Earl got slowly to his feet.
"What in hell's name are you doing here?" He was furious to hear that his voice shook with the shock of this unexpected visitation.
The Duke's eyes gleamed momentarily as he straightened. "Don't get up on my account, Iphicles, please. You cannot know what a charming picture you make, nestled against mother earth, your limbs sprawled in so artless and inviting a way, your eyes closed peacefully and your lips very slightly apart as you breathe softly. Quite charmingly pastoral. All that is missing is your herd of cattle to drive and the haystalk in your
"What the devil do you want, Aresborough?" He would not let the man see how his sudden appearance had caught him off-balance, though his knuckles were white around his reins.
Aresborough's expression was watchful as his eyes dwelt reflectively on the Earl's face. "I consider that to be a most grudging welcome considering the length of journey that has been mine to visit you here, not to mention the means I have had to employ to ascertain the path you took on your ride this afternoon. Are you not going to profess yourself pleased to see me?"
"Understand this, Aresborough, I made an error of judgement once; it does not give you the right to hound me ever after." Iphicles glared into the dark eyes, so unreadable on his. "Move on to your next victim; you will gain nothing more from me."
He was aware that his breath was coming swiftly, but he refused to be the first to look away.
"If that is how you feel, Iphicles, why did you visit me not three nights since?" The smooth voice for once held no mockery; in fact, it held no discernible emotion at all.
Iphicles hesitated for a brief instant. "To offer you my apologies for my brother's behaviour. That is all."
One dark eyebrow raised slightly. "For which aspect of his behaviour in particular? His very existence demands apology, though I do not think that you may properly be held accountable for that."
Suppressing his sudden urge to agree with the Duke, Iphicles merely said stiffly, "I refer to his machinations in bringing me back to London."
"I see." Dark eyes watched him, intent. "There was no other reason for your visit?"
Iphicles gave a crack of jeering laughter. "Given how I found you, Aresborough, with your cock buried deep in the mouth of one of your tame pets, why should you think there might be another reason?"
The Duke's gaze dropped suddenly and his lips twisted. "Why indeed?"
Iphicles turned to his horse and began to tighten the animal's girth. "There is a passable inn not ten miles from here," he said offhandedly. "You have plenty of time to reach it before sunset. Moreover it lies on the road back to London so you will have a good start on your journey tomorrow morning."
He was unprepared for the Duke's reaction. A hand fiercely gripped his shoulder and pulled him round.
Aresborough's dark face was almost unrecognisable, filled with fury. "We finish this *now*," he snarled. "Speak plainly, Iphicles - why did you come to my house?"
Anger surged in the Earl's breast, rising to meet the Duke's own temper. "To see if I had wronged you in my opinion of your character," he spat, his lip curling in disgust as he remembered the sight that had greeted him. "Evidently I had not."
The Duke released him abruptly. Iphicles glared at him for a moment longer, before turning back to his horse to refasten its reins.
"I had thought you were not coming." Aresborough's voice was low.
Iphicles spun round, his brow furrowed with impatient question. He wanted it over, done, to recover the sense of peace that had been his such a short while before, yet the Duke's unusual hesitancy caught his attention and stayed his tongue.
Aresborough met Iphicles' eyes briefly, and the Earl's gaze narrowed as he saw Aresborough's uncharacteristic defensiveness. Then he realised; this was yet another ploy, one which he had not previously encountered, to be sure, but it was just another of the Duke's games.
"Why should you have expected me?" he flicked contemptuously at Aresborough. "I had already told you I wanted nothing more to do with you."
Anger flickered in Aresborough's eyes at Iphicles' tone, and when he spoke, his voice was harsh. "You did not come in answer?"
"In answer?" Iphicles repeated, angry and confused. "I don't understand you."
The Duke made an impatient gesture. "That damned letter."
As he took in Iphicles' stare, his mouth twisted in a sneer. "No matter," he dismissed abruptly. "I will leave you to your respectable life, Iphicles. I shall not bother you again."
He turned away and strode towards his black horse, which was tearing hungrily at the grass, one foot through its reins.
When there was no response, Iphicles led his horse after the Duke.
"What?" the Duke snapped out, swinging round to face him.
Iphicles shrugged slightly. "I don't know what you mean. What letter?"
The Duke's eyes were hard as they quartered his face suspiciously. "Do not presume too far, Royston. Whatever maudlin thoughts I may inadvisedly have committed to paper were due simply to an excess of brandy. Do not think to hear me repeat them."
"Aresborough, I do not know to what you refer. I have received no letter from you."
The Duke's jaw tightened before he spoke. "My man delivered a letter to you, the morning after our meeting at Vauxhall." His tone was sceptical. "Do you try to tell me you did not receive it?"
Iphicles shook his head, helplessly. "I have had no letter from you, Aresborough. What did it say?"
Aresborough's eyes were hard still. "It was delivered to your house. Do not play me for a fool, Royston."
Confused, Iphicles cast his mind back. He had received nothing other than endless invitations from Jack Holloway, and bills; any invitations except to him privately had been seized upon long before the post had ever reached him by his diversion-seeking mama and --
"Harry," he hissed it, knowing it for the truth even while he could barely credit his brother with such outrageous behaviour. He glared at the Duke, sudden fury lending a vicious edge to his voice. "Tell me, Aresborough, did you seal the letter?"
The Duke's eyes narrowed. "Of course. What has that to do with anything?"
Iphicles took a very slow, deep breath and let it out equally slowly before he trusted himself to reply. "Everything, I should imagine. I cannot but believe that my brother, upon seeing your seal on a private billet addressed to me, should feel it incumbent upon himself to interfere."
For a heartbeat the Duke was silent, then his face filled with wrath. "He has gone too far this time."
He turned to his horse and wrenched its head up. Iphicles stepped forward and grabbed his arm, forcing Aresborough back to face him.
"Agreed," he gritted out. "But he is *my* responsibility."
The Duke's eyes were filled with rage, still, and Iphicles' grip tightened on his arm. "It is for *me* to deal with, nobody else," he reiterated, his voice holding a threat which boded ill for the absent Captain.
The Duke's chest rose and fell swiftly as he glared at the Earl. As Iphicles held his gaze, his breathing gradually slowed, and his eyes began to lose their violence. "Very well," he conceded finally. "But if you wish for a Second..."
Iphicles gave a sudden choke of laughter. "I do not think it will come to that," he informed Aresborough. "He is, after all, my brother."
All desire to laugh swiftly left him as he looked into the Duke's eyes. There was an uncertainty there which he had never seen before. Suddenly aware that he held the man by the arm, he let go. Aresborough turned and concentrated his attention upon sorting out his horse.
"So this letter," Iphicles broached finally, his hand running over the velvet muzzle of his own mount. "What did it say?"
The Duke's movements stilled for an instant, and then he because very busy in checking the fit of the bridle. "Aresborough," Iphicles said quietly.
The Duke turned back round, his lips twisted self-deprecatingly. "As I said, jug-bitten maunderings, no more."
Iphicles' hand dropped from his horse's head to his side. Aresborough's eyes followed its path, then looked back into the Earl's face.
"I may have asked you to talk to me, to allow me to explain that matters between us were not as you thought," he admitted at last.
His heartbeat suddenly uneven, his throat dry, Iphicles stared into the Duke's eyes. "Then talk to me," he invited breathlessly.
The Duke moved forward. "I would rather show you, Iphicles."
"No." Dropping his horse's reins, Iphicles stepped abruptly backwards. Aresborough stopped.
"I want you to tell me," the Earl said. He knew that if the Duke were to touch him, the man would be able to convince him of anything he chose.
Anger flared briefly in the Duke, then he looked away from Iphicles, his face unreadable. "Very well, Iphicles." His voice was clipped and low. "You were right. To begin with, your seduction was a challenge, a game, no more. You were so upright and proper, and with you being brother to the self-righteous Harry Fairfax, how could I be expected to resist the temptation?"
His head pounding at the man's brutal candour, Iphicles looked abruptly away. "You are honest at least," he managed, his throat tight.
He was vaguely aware that the Duke's gaze was on his face. "To begin with, I said," Aresborough's voice was rough. "It is different now."
Iphicles looked dazedly at him. The Duke's eyes were steady on his as he moved towards Iphicles, not stopping until his muscular body was so close to the Earl that Iphicles imagined he could feel the heat emanating from him.
"It is not like that now, Iphicles."
He shivered at the caress of the low voice, and then he was aware of nothing else as the Duke leaned in and his lips met Iphicles' own. Iphicles felt the soft warmth, and his mouth opened to the Duke, his eyes closing as Aresborough's tongue slowly pushed into his mouth and he tasted the Duke again. His arms went blindly around Aresborough, hands clutching, and he whimpered deep in his throat as he moved closer against the hard body, his tongue meeting the Duke's, lightly stroking in a way which drew a sound from Aresborough.
"You see, Iphicles," Aresborough's voice was husky when finally they broke the kiss, "This is how it is now."
Iphicles remained pressed against the Duke, feeling the warmth of his body through their clothes, pressed thigh to thigh, cock to swollen cock, breathing in the heady scent that was the Duke's own as Aresborough's mouth buried deep in his neck.
"We should move," Iphicles managed breathlessly at last. "Anyone might see us here."
The Duke's hands moved to caress his ass, causing the Earl to arch in response, pushing himself closer to Aresborough. Aresborough's whispered breath was hot in his ear. "And if they do, Iphicles, what does it matter?"
Iphicles was breathing fast, a sound escaping him as the Duke's finger slowly traced the centre seam of his buckskins. "They will all know sooner or later, Iphicles." That hypnotic voice again, sending shivers through him.
Lips moved against his neck as far as the neckcloth would allow, and then a tongue flicked his ear while a seeking hand slid down the front of his body, separating him briefly from the Duke to stroke his cock through his breeches.
His heart was pounding as he finally pulled away from the Duke. "Not here," he said firmly. He caught the Duke's mouth in a brief kiss, his tongue pushing demandingly into the moist warmth before he made himself pull away again. "The spinney. We're less likely to be disturbed."
The Duke captured his mouth again and kissed him in return, his tongue thrusting insistently in a promise so explicit that it was all Iphicles could do not to whimper. Aresborough finally released the Earl's mouth and began to unfasten his waistcoat buttons, his hands slipping underneath the loosened garment, unerringly finding Iphicles' nipples with his long fingers. He stroked them through the light shirt before running his nails hard across them, hungrily watching the Earl's face as he gasped at the sensation. Then he stopped, and pulled Iphicles' waistcoat together again.
"You are right," he confessed, "I would hate, really hate, to be disturbed in what I have in mind for you, Iphicles."
It was a short way only to the spinney, but the journey seemed to the Earl to last forever, for each step of the way was filled with the Duke's low voice telling Iphicles precisely what he was going to do to him once they reached the privacy of the spinney, how he would use his mouth and hands to bring him to quivering desperation before he finally thrust deep inside him.
They didn't bother even to tether the horses, but dropped the reins and reached for one another. The Duke's tongue thrusting excitedly into his mouth and the feel of Aresborough's body against his were almost more than Iphicles could bear and his hands fumbled as he tried to unfasten the Duke's coat. Aresborough pulled away for an instant to help Iphicles rid him of this, and then was back, pulling the Earl's shirt open so that his eager fingers could skim across his nipples. Iphicles was gasping as they kissed
desperately and then the Duke began to strip him properly of his clothing. He made an attempt to reciprocate, pulling away the neckcloth, opening the waistcoat and shirt to reveal the clearly defined muscles of the Duke's broad chest, but then the Duke's hot mouth closed around his nipple, his teeth scraping the hard nub, and it was all he could do to remain standing as Aresborough's hand lightly stroked his fullness through the buckskins.
The Duke raised his head and looked into Iphicles' eyes as he stroked him again, causing the Earl to whimper and arch into his touch.
"Lie down, Iphicles."
The unevenness of the voice excited him beyond bearing and he instantly complied, lying on his back in the sunlight dappling through the branches above them. He stared up at the Duke standing over him, eyes drawn irresistibly to where Aresborough's own buckskins strained over excited flesh.
"Aresborough, *please*." His own voice was ragged.
The Duke's breathing came fast as he looked down at the Earl. "What do you want me to do, Iphicles?"
"Fuck me." It came out as a desperate demand.
The Duke suddenly knelt down beside Iphicles and, leaning forward, kissed him. "In a while, Iphicles," he promised when he drew back.
He moved and began to remove the Earl's right boot.
"Aresborough," Iphicles protested despairingly.
The Duke paused and looked at him. "I want to see you first, Iphicles," he said. "I want to see your body waiting for me."
Iphicles closed his eyes in frustration as he felt the Duke remove his other boot, then he was scarcely breathing as skilful fingers moved against his stomach to undo the top fastening before working on the side fastenings. He opened his eyes again in time to raise his head slightly and watch the Duke slowly fold the flap down and expose his eager cock. Aresborough leaned forward, his mouth closing briefly over the head, and his tongue swirled hotly, sending Iphicles arching upwards in helpless delight. He was still gasping when the Duke stripped him swiftly of his buckskins and then stood up again, looking down on the naked Earl. Iphicles felt no self-consciousness as he lay in the dappled sunlight, watching the Duke's eyes moving slowly over his body, lingering on his full cock. He stretched wantonly in the soft afternoon air, the harsh edge of a twig under his shoulder briefly interrupting the softness of the grass beneath him as he
luxuriated in the warmth of the greenly-filtered sunlight and the heat of the Duke's gaze. As he saw Aresborough's eyes devouring him, he smiled slightly and opened his legs, drawing his right knee out and sliding it upwards on the grass until his achingly full cock was displayed further for Aresborough.
The Duke was suddenly on him, his tongue forcing his lips apart, hands greedy on his skin until the lips were abruptly gone from him and two fingers were being pushed into his eager mouth. As instant later, the Duke was sliding a slick finger inside him. Iphicles gasped and thrust down, wanting, needing, but somehow the Duke knew and added a second finger, working him, stretching him, until finally Aresborough was satisfied. He
withdrew his fingers and undid his buckskins, freeing his rigid flesh. Iphicles bit hard into his lower lip, trying for control, as he looked and saw the Duke produce the familiar glass bottle from his pocket, upending it to pour some of the liquid directly onto his hardness, before casting the bottle aside, his hand smoothing the viscous liquid until his cock was glistening.
Any attempt at control was forgotten as Iphicles felt the blunt head nudging against him before Aresborough pushed his legs up and began to slide inside. He was crying out helplessly, pain and pleasure both, until the Duke drew back slightly and angled himself differently, pushing harder this time. This time he wasn't even aware of crying out, just of a voice rising in the summer afternoon in uncontrollable delight. Again and again, the Duke's size and hardness pushed deep into him, until his voice was lost and whimpers
were all that remained. That was when Aresborough leaned forward to kiss him, his hand wrapping gently around Iphicles' cock. He straightened up again and thrust harder, his touch on Iphicles' straining flesh in time with his rhythm, and as he buried himself deep inside Iphicles, the Earl came, his arcing seed shining in the sunlight. And still Aresborough pushed into Iphicles, desperately now, sounds escaping him with each thrust, until he looked down at Iphicles' flushed face and his hips suddenly pumped
erratically as he gasped out his completion.
Iphicles held Aresborough close as the Duke collapsed onto him, his head hidden against Iphicles' shoulder, Iphicles' hands beneath the Duke's shirt slipping on the damp flesh. Aresborough's breathing finally slowed, and with a kiss to the Earl's neck, Aresborough moved off him and lay down beside him with a satisfied sigh. Iphicles turned onto his side, his head propped on his hand to better watch the Duke's face, unable quite to believe that he was not dreaming. In the space of one short hour, everything had changed beyond comprehension. The past weeks of misery were forgotten; all that mattered was the fact that the Duke was with him.
"How did you find me?" he asked suddenly.
The Duke shifted slightly to become more comfortable where he lay before answering the Earl. "When I realised you did not intend to return my visit, I paid you another visit, on which occasion your butler graciously informed me that you were gone out of town." His lips curved as he looked at Iphicles. "It did not take too wild a guess on my part to reach the conclusion that you were visiting your estate, and your butler was obliging
enough to inform me, albeit in tones of shocked reproach, that this was in Hertfordshire, *not* Yorkshire as I had remembered it to be."
"Good God!" Iphicles stared at him with an awful sort of fascination. "You really thought me so beyond the pale?"
The Duke grinned suddenly. "Not at all, Iphicles. But I could hardly ask him outright where Royston was, now could I? And to find that I had in fact regularly attended races held on the Heath not five miles from here was something of a chastening experience."
"And I thought you had done your research." Iphicles shook his head in mock disgust.
"Only into those aspects which affected me at the time, Iphicles"
"Fair enough," the Earl allowed. He lay quietly for a moment, before it dawned on him.
"And Caroline affected you, did she not?" He sat up, glaring down at the Duke. "What caused her sudden unexplained absence, Aresborough? You did not threaten her?"
"Iphicles," the Duke protested, seemingly amused as he followed the Earl's train of thought without difficulty. "I would not do so to such a remarkable woman. Perhaps I needed to apply a little pressure the first time, but upon the second occasion she saw that nothing would deflect me from my intention and even had the audacity to give me her unexpurgated opinion of my character and my behaviour towards you."
"The second occasion?" Iphicles became aware that his jaw was hanging open and swiftly shut it. "You mean she ended it between us because you forced her to?" And then the vision of Caroline giving Aresborough a piece of her mind would not go away, and he laughed.
"She is a remarkable woman," he agreed, laying down slowly beside the Duke.
"But tell me, why did you not dispose of Harry at the same time?" he pursued. He was teasing, yet suddenly remembered his brother's action and his lips compressed. "Talking of whom, I shall have to pay brother dearest a visit tomorrow before he returns to his heroic deeds. I cannot believe even Harry would do such a thing."
The Duke shrugged briefly. "He and I do not see eye to eye," he said. "In his own twisted and, thankfully, inimitable way, he probably thought that he did you a favour."
"But still," Iphicles expostulated, "To appropriate a sealed letter addressed to me goes beyond anything."
"I can only hope that he did not read it." Aresborough's voice was sour. "I do not enjoy the thought of Captain Harry Fairfax knowing anything of me that I do not choose him to know."
Iphicles looked quickly at him. "What was in it, Aresborough?"
The Duke shrugged again before responding in a carefully off-hand way. "An attempt to explain to you that things were not as you had thought, and something of how I wished them to be." His lips twisted self-deprecatingly. "I believe that I even painstakingly explained that I wrote to you rather than inflicted my presence upon you to show that I took notice of your request not to bother your family again. Had I known how your family would bother me, I would not have been so compliant."
Iphicles laughed suddenly. "At least my mother will be relieved by the overturning of the ban upon contact."
Aresborough's eyebrow rose in query.
"Your shameless flirtation - about which we still need to have words - made quite an impression," Iphicles explained. "I do believe you might be able to cut Sir John out with her if you were to put your mind to it."
Aresborough shuddered artistically. "Iphicles," he complained, "Just tell me that you have not given her my direction in Oxfordshire."
Iphicles regarded him consideringly. "Not yet," he finally admitted. "Although…" His voice suddenly faltered as the Duke raised himself onto one elbow and his hand began to trace light patterns over Iphicles' chest. "Perhaps I will not do so after all," he managed, his breathing uneven. He fell silent as the Duke leaned over and began to lick at the mixture of sweat and seed on his naked body, his breathing quickening further at the feel of that hot tongue on his skin, licking again and again.
"You see, Iphicles," the Duke finally raised his head and looked down at the Earl. "I do not wish anyone to disturb us any more than may be avoided."
He returned his mouth to Iphicles' skin, this time his tongue rasping as it swiped over a nipple, causing Iphicles to jolt upwards. "You are no doubt right," he got out at last, his hands burying themselves in the Duke's dark hair. And then he was able to say nothing further, only to cry out Aresborough's name as the Duke swallowed his cock, moistness and warmth tight around him. He raised his head briefly, and the sight of his cock sliding between the Duke's lips, the sight of the Duke, ripped a cry from him and, without warning, his seed spilled into Aresborough's mouth.
He was vaguely aware of the Duke moving back up, and he reached blindly for him, holding him close as heaving breaths shook him in response to his release. After a while, his breathing eased and he let go his tight hold on the Duke, who again moved so that he lay down beside Iphicles. The Earl began to make his way down Aresborough's body in turn, intent on showing the Duke what he knew he could not say. He finally took the swollen cock in his mouth, loving the way Aresborough's hands tightened in his hair, but loving even more the taste of the Duke and the way he filled his mouth, filled his senses. He slid his mouth down, allowing his teeth to graze very slightly, as he reached for the Duke's balls and began a gentle yet insistent caress. For an instant, the Duke's groan brought back to mind the image of Ogborne kneeling before Aresborough and his eyes screwed shut in an attempt to block out the memory, even while his tongue worked against the Duke's cock. The memory faded abruptly when he heard Aresborough gasp his name as he came.
Afterwards Iphicles lay on the soft summer grass with his head resting against Aresborough's hip, the Duke's hand moving idly through his hair as Iphicles' breath whispered across his skin, following the path of the lazily moving sunlight and shadows. Lying quietly listening to the Duke's breathing, feeling the warmth of Aresborough's body next to his, Iphicles knew that this was where he belonged.
Iphicles awoke the next morning to find Aresborough asleep next to him, the covers thrust off, and their legs tangled together. Iphicles took the opportunity to study the Duke for a while. They had got no more than half way through their dinner last night before it had been disregarded in favour of other appetites. For the sake of appearances, and to spare Mrs Thornton's blushes, the Duke had been allocated the best guest bedchamber. This just happened to be the one closest to the principal bedchamber which, of course, the Earl occupied. They had retired there and in the candlelight undressed one another, in less haste this time as they learned one another's
Iphicles smiled as he moved closer against the Duke and felt the regular beat of his heart. Aresborough stirred suddenly and his eyes opened. He yawned, and then blinked for a moment in sleep-driven confusion before his lips curved as he returned Iphicles' steady regard.
"Are you still of a mind to return to London today?"
"It will be my last chance to speak to Harry before he returns to duty," Iphicles informed him. "So although my inclination is without a doubt to stay here," his hand began to trail across the Duke's chest, " I must go."
The Duke rolled on top of Iphicles, the suddenness of his action not giving the Earl an opportunity to resist. His mouth buried in his neck, tongue and lips busy exploring, causing Iphicles' cock to harden in instant response. Pulling up for a moment to look down at the Earl, the Duke eyed him consideringly.
"You know, Iphicles, I am minded to keep you here indefinitely." He returned his attention to the soft skin over the Earl's collarbone, moving downwards slowly. Iphicles moaned at the burn of unshaven skin rubbing against his nipple, then soft lips and a gentle tongue soothing the pain. "You see," the Duke's voice was growing indistinct as his mouth moved inexorably down Iphicles' body, "I think your brother has interrupted us enough times already."
Iphicles gasped, his hands knotting in the sheet beneath him as hot wetness greeted the head of his cock and he gave himself completely to the Duke.
It was mid-morning before they set out upon the road to London. It was not only their delayed emergence from the bedchamber which put back the start of their journey, but one other matter also. Iphicles had intended to do it yesterday afternoon, yet the Duke's sudden appearance had changed that. There was something he had to do before he could leave Royston again, something he did each time he visited.
He chose the roses carefully, and cut each one himself. It was part of the ritual. Then he went to the Temple of Apollo, where Bella had loved to sit and gaze out on the gardens, particularly as the time for her confinement had grown closer. On entering the temple he paused before approaching the stone bench where she had always sat, trying to understand what was different. He realised suddenly; in the past, he had always known she was there, that if he had just managed to turn his head an instant sooner, he
would have seen her. Now there was nothing here save a beautifully-proportioned empty building. He laid her favourite flowers on the seat and knelt beside it for a moment. These were the last flowers he would cut for her.
He paused at the entrance to the temple and looked back one last time. Splashes of crimson petals on the white stone seat were the only living things the place contained, and he shivered at the realisation. Turning away from the cold empty stone, Iphicles set his face to the sun and strode down the hillside towards his home.
Even Brownlow's equilibrium was shaken by the Earl's sudden return to Half Moon Street, although he recovered valiantly to inform Iphicles that the Dowager was gone out, as were Captains Fairfax and Burnage.
It was not long before this situation was remedied. Iphicles and the Duke were ensconced comfortably in the drawing room when the door opened to reveal Harry. No sooner was Iphicles in his sights than he burst out, "What the devil brings you back here, Iph?"
Iphicles looked up, but did not rise from his seat. " Come in, Harry," he invited cordially. "I believe you are already acquainted with Aresborough."
Harry's forward momentum ceased suddenly, and his head swivelled, his eyes fixing with disbelieving outrage on Aresborough.
"Devil take it," he swore furiously. "What in hell's name is *he* doing here?"
"Aresborough is my guest, Harry, as are you and Iorweth," the Earl informed him calmly.
"*Iph,*" Harry turned wrathful eyes on him, apparently struggling for words. "We need to talk - *now*," he ground out finally.
"We do indeed," Iphicles agreed. "I am interested to hear what excuse you intend to offer for your behaviour. Please do continue."
"*Alone*." The Captain's tone was dangerous.
Iphicles held his brother's eyes. "There is nothing you can have to say that cannot be said in front of Aresborough."
"God, he really has blinded you, hasn't he?" Harry snarled. "Very well, Iph, I will not scruple to tell you that you are being stupid beyond imagining. He -" and here he jerked his head in Aresborough's direction, apparently unwilling to pollute his eyes by even looking at the man again, "He is nothing but a libertine, delighting only in depravity and vice." His colour was high as he flung the words at the Earl. "God above, Iph, he has
no other end in mind than to ruin you, and you will not see it! He has soiled your reputation enough already; continue this alliance and *no* one will receive you!"
The Earl spared a swift glance for Aresborough. He sat apparently relaxed, a mocking smile on his lips as he regarded the Captain, but there was dark rage in his eyes.
"I do not intend to repeat myself, Harry, so please concentrate." Iphicles' voice was cold. "I will not have you insult my guest under my roof. If you cannot be civil, you may find accommodation elsewhere. What I do is my business and mine alone, as long as it does not affect Mama."
"And what *about* Mama?" Harry flung furiously. "You bring *him* under the same roof --"
"While you have not scrupled to fuck your lover under the same roof as her for the past God knows how many years?" Iphicles lashed. "You are nothing more than a selfish hypocrite, Harry, totally unprincipled in the means you employ to achieve your own ends. Your only objection to my action is that you will now be looked to for stud duty."
"Damn you, Iph, I refuse. You cannot make me!" The Captain glared mulishly at his brother.
"That is your business," the Earl returned disinterestedly. "I would not presume to comment on your decision."
"Damn you to hell, Iph." The Captain's eyes were bright and his colour dangerously high. Then he whirled round on Aresborough. "I suppose *you* are satisfied now, aren't you?"
"I cannot deny that I find your brother extremely satisfying," Aresborough agreed smoothly. "Which is more than I was able to say about your little friend."
The Captain took a crashing step forwards, but Iphicles was out of his chair, a hand warningly to his brother's chest. "I have already told you, Harry."
Harry's eyes burned on his brother's. "You are a damned stupid fool, Iph."
"I wish for the return of my property." Iphicles' voice was edged with fury. "And then, as far as I am concerned, you may go to the devil."
"Your property?" The Captain's face reflected his sudden confusion.
"I believe you have in your possession a letter addressed to me."
Harry's eyes flickered, and then he smiled in surly triumph. "I burned it."
The lack of shame in his brother, the lack of regret that his selfish action could well have cost Iphicles his happiness, was too much for the Earl. Without conscious intention, his fist connected with his brother's jaw in one clean blow. Taken by surprise, the Captain went down like a felled ox, his head connecting solidly with the leg of the sopha.
Iphicles was left staring in amazement and an instant of glorious satisfaction. Aresborough slowly unfolded himself from his chair and moved towards the Earl where he stood over his brother's unmoving figure.
"Had I known what a punishing right you possess, Iphicles, I might have treated you with a little more circumspection," he commented.
"I didn't mean to do it," Iphicles confessed, flexing his hand somewhat gingerly.
Aresborough was standing very close to him. "I am pleased you did, however, as otherwise I might just have had to run him through to prevent him annoying me any further." He pulled Iphicles to him, his teasing eyes steady on the Earl's as he continued, "And you know, Iphicles, it would not suit me to have to flee the country. Not now."
Iphicles' mouth opened to the Duke's searching tongue, before he pulled back a little way. "Iorweth?" he questioned.
The Duke's lips curved. "I believe he had suffered a surfeit of your heroic brother one night. Whatever his reasons, he attended a party of mine and threw himself - with great enthusiasm, if memory serves - into the spirit of the occasion." He glanced past Iphicles at Harry's unconscious figure. "I would never let your brother know this, Iphicles," he confessed, "But there were so many present and enjoying themselves that night that I cannot even be sure that I had him."
Iphicles tried to hold back his laughter. "So you mean to tell me that Harry hates you for something you may not have done?"
Aresborough's eyes gleamed. "Well, I'm not entirely convinced his friend was in a fit state to remember what had happened. I can only assume that he confessed what he thought to be the whole to Fairfax in a fit of remorse. I am certainly the devil incarnate as far as your brother is concerned."
A sudden groan interrupted them, and reluctantly Iphicles stepped back from the Duke. Harry was beginning to stir.
He caught Aresborough's eye, and in unspoken agreement, they left the room. Before they had got far along the landing, the Dowager's voice reached them, announcing her approach up the stairs.
"It is such a *fortunate* coincidence that we met you and Harry as we did, although it was such a *shame* that he had to rush away so swiftly. Still, I know that Annabel was flattered by your attentions, and perhaps you might be able to put a good word in for dear Harry tonight?"
She broke off with a startled cry when she looked up to see her eldest son standing at the head of the stairs. "Iphicles! What are you doing back so soon? Is everything all right?" And then she saw his companion and the worry disappeared, replaced by a charming dimpled smile. "I declare, what a pleasant surprise."
She made her way up the remaining stairs with surprising speed and offered her hand to the Duke. Aresborough gallantly kissed it. With a delighted chuckle, Alicia looked round for her companions who were just gaining the landing behind her. Sir John's eyes were moving swiftly between the Duke and Iphicles, while Iorweth's gaze was fixed on Aresborough's face in a manner which reminded Iphicles irresistibly of a rabbit watching the approach of a fox.
"Sir John, Iorweth, I am sure you know his grace of Aresborough," she said.
Before either of them could do more than bow stiffly, she continued. "But really, Iphicles, it is *too* bad of you not to give me warning. I trust you will be dining with us tonight?" she ascertained, bestowing a dazzling smile upon Aresborough.
"I shall be delighted," the Duke returned immediately.
"And you must join us now," Alicia continued. "I wish to hear what brings you here to us today."
She turned round, seeking Sir John. His eyes were on Iphicles and seeing this, the Dowager put her hand instead through the crook of Iorweth's arm and drew him towards the drawing room, inviting Aresborough to accompany them.
"You see, it is as I said," she confided to the dazed-looking Iorweth in a tone which she fondly believed not to be audible to anyone else as they moved along the landing, "He is such a charming man. I am sure he is maligned and is not wicked at all."
Sir John looked at the Earl where they remained at the head of the stairs. "Well?" he asked.
"Do you foresee a long engagement?" Iphicles enquired.
Sir John's eyes were shrewd. "We will marry just as soon as is possible," he offered.
Starting forward at the Dowager's shriek of alarm, Sir John checked as Iphicles put a hand to his arm.
"It is not serious," the Earl assured him.
Sir John's lips suddenly twitched in a manner which betrayed his swift comprehension of the situation. He was serious again almost immediately. "Your mother will have the protection of my name," he said, lowering his voice still further. "But what of you, Royston? Do you know what you are doing here?"
Iphicles' eyes were sober on his. "I believe I do, Sir John. Whatever the outcome, you must be aware that I have no desire to go abroad in society any longer."
Sir John sighed. "I cannot admit myself surprised," he confessed. They began to move along the landing together.
Stepping back, Sir John allowed Iphicles to go ahead of him into the room. "I wish you happy, Royston." It was murmured, so low that Iphicles was not entirely sure he had heard it correctly. He looked startled at the man, but Sir John's eyes were fixed on the tableau which met them.
Alicia was kneeling down beside her younger son who was sitting on the floor, leaning back against the sopha, one hand nursing his jaw. Aresborough was sprawled comfortably in a chair as he watched, and Iorweth was perched uncertainly on the edge of another chair, his glance darting from Harry to Aresborough but not resting on either one for too long.
"How *could* you be so clumsy, Harry?" The Dowager was fondly scolding him.
"Iphicles, get Brownlow to get something for your brother's face; he has fallen and hurt himself."
At her words, Harry looked up to see his brother standing regarding him, and his glare was suddenly murderous. Sir John's lips twitched again as he seated himself. Iphicles delivered the message to Brownlow, and then sat down in a chair near to Aresborough, enjoyably watching the Dowager fuss around Harry until the Captain was unable to take it any longer and firmly declaring himself healed, seated her on the sopha, dismissing the recently appeared Brownlow as he did so.
"But will you be well enough to go to the Trent's tonight, dear?" She was anxious. "I would hate you to spoil your chances with either of the girls by having an ugly mark on your face, although of course it would take much more than that for you not to make the right impression. I had hoped that you might engage your interest with Annabel before returning to Spain. There is no point of course in looking to Louisa. She is not such a
handsome girl, although her mama agrees with me that Iphicles would do for her." Suddenly reminded, she turned upon Iphicles. "And if you do not make a push to fix your interest with her, you will find that she too has been married elsewhere while you have been dragging your feet."
Surmising that he was still unforgiven for allowing Sophia to escape, Iphicles smiled amiably at his mother. "Do not worry, Mama, I will not hold it against my brother should he wish to make a play for her." Harry's fulminating gaze filled the Earl with a pleasant glow of satisfaction.
"In fact, I hope he will," Iphicles continued blandly, "because you should know, Mama, that you must not expect to see me married again. If you wish for an heir, I suggest you look to Harry."
He watched with interest for a moment to see if Harry really would go off into an apoplectic fit, then got to his feet while his mother's mouth was still working soundlessly. Iorweth's blue eyes were tragic on Harry's face, and Sir John's attention was determinedly concentrated on the ormolu clock on the mantelshelf, his lips having not yet recovered from their recently-discovered tendency to twitch alarmingly.
The Duke and he made their farewells, and left the room.
They retired early that night, before the other members of the Earl's family had returned from their entertainment. Upon learning that the Duke's household did not know of his sudden return to town and so would not have made preparation for him, Alicia had instantly invited him to stay with them.
Dinner had been one of the most interesting meals that Iphicles could remember ever having enjoyed around the family table. Alicia had continued in her enthusiasm for Iphicles' new friend, although she was decidedly cool towards her eldest son following his disappointing announcement. Sir John had been punctiliously polite, his attitude thawing slightly as the evening progressed and he realised that the Duke was capable of behaving with propriety when he so chose. Harry and Iorweth had proved almost completely silent and had, in fact, appeared desirous of making an early appearance at
"So, Iphicles," the Duke murmured while unfastening the Earl's cravat. "What have I done that you must needs have me put in the bedchamber furthest from your own?"
The Earl paused in his own attentions to Aresborough's clothing. "The other
bedchambers are occupied," he reminded the Duke. "It means simply that you must not sleep in tomorrow morning." He continued pulling the Duke's shirt off, his mouth moving over the skin exposed as a result.
"I think there to be little danger of that with you to wake me," Aresborough pointed out. "Anyway, we should leave early if we are to make Royston at a godly hour. Sit down."
Iphicles obediently sat on the edge of his bed. The Duke knelt before him and began to remove his boots. Iphicles' teeth sunk hard into his lower lip as he watched Aresborough's dark head bent before him, and his cock threatened to burst. Hands wrapping into the Duke's hair, he pulled the man up for a kiss, pulling him onto the bed on top of him, tongue thrusting, rubbing his hard cock against the Duke's while his hands explored desperately. The Duke kissed him back, hard, then bit his lip, drawing
blood. Iphicles cried out, and jerked upwards, his own teeth burying in warm flesh. A sound from the Duke, and Iphicles' hands were suddenly pinned against the bed as Aresborough stared down at him, breathing deeply.
"Don't be impatient, Iphicles," he commanded.
Iphicles strained upwards to rub himself against the Duke's hardness. Aresborough pulled back, his grip on Iphicles' wrists tightening. "I said no."
"God," Iphicles gasped in frustration. "Just fuck me, Aresborough."
"Oh, I will," the Duke promised. He released the Earl's hands and slid back down to finish removing his boots. This time Iphicles let him, but as soon as the Duke was back on the bed, Iphicles' hands were tearing frantically at his clothes, needing to see, to feel the Duke. Aresborough responded, but as Iphicles' eager fingers began to undo his breeches, he stopped the Earl again and pinned his hands above his head
"Not yet," he growled.
Iphicles bucked upwards beneath him, trying to dislodge him. Aresborough's eyes gleamed suddenly as he looked down at Iphicles. Bending his head, he kissed the Earl thoroughly, so thoroughly that Iphicles barely noticed that the Duke now held his wrists with one hand only and was feeling about on the bed with his other hand. By the time it had registered, it was too late; Aresborough had picked up the cravat which had been tossed anyhow onto the bed when it had been removed from its wearer's neck and wound the length of material firmly around the Earl's wrists, holding them together. He reached further and tied the ends around one of the bedposts before sliding back down the Earl's body and looking down at him.
"Let us see you try to hurry me now, Iphicles," he said.
Iphicles' initial uncertainty at this development was assuaged by the Duke's smile, and then he forgot everything except the torture of the Duke's touch. Aresborough's lips, tongue and teeth explored every single inch of Iphicles' naked upper body. And then his hand glanced over the swelling in his breeches. Iphicles tried frantically to angle himself to get the Duke to touch him there again, but all the man would do from where he was placed between Iphicles' open legs was lightly run his hands again and again up his inner thighs, promising, yet never touching. With a final desperate effort, the Earl managed to move at the right moment so that the Duke's hand brushed over his cock rather than his thigh. Aresborough instantly removed his hand, and Iphicles groaned in anguish.
Aresborough raised his head from his consideration of Iphicles' body to look at the Earl's face. "So that's what you want, is it? Why did you not just say so?"
Iphicles' response would have brought a warmth to the cheeks of even a hardened hackney driver. Certainly the Duke seemed to think so, for he leaned forward and stopped his mouth with his tongue. When he drew back, he asked the Earl. "Who has the bedchamber next door to this?"
"Harry." Iphicles' voice was strained.
"Nobody important then," the Duke concluded. "I was thinking I might have to gag you had it been your mother."
As he spoke, he had been undoing the side opening to Iphicles' breeches. Iphicles cried out as long fingers slid inside and touched his desperate cock, smoothing over the damp head, and then withdrew. "Please, Aresborough," he begged now, yanking yet again at the cravat which held him mercilessly, "Please."
Aresborough slowly finished undoing the Earl's breeches, and Iphicles raised his hips to allow him to pull them down. Warm breath against his balls, and then unspeakable delight as the Duke's mouth worked them. By the time the Duke moved off him to finish undressing himself, Iphicles was nearly sobbing with every breath he drew. He watched the Duke's body slowly revealed in the candlelight and moaned anew, unable to tear his eyes from the dark thrusting cock. Aresborough saw where he looked and knelt astride him, offering himself to Iphicles. Unable to guide it with his hands, with the
Duke not doing so for him, the shiny head nudged clumsily against his lips where his head was raised desperately to receive it, before it slid into his mouth and he tasted the Duke. He was whimpering breathlessly as he sucked, close to coming himself just from the Duke's beautiful cock in his mouth. Aresborough suddenly realised, it seemed, and pulled out, leaving Iphicles staring imploringly up at him.
"All right, Iphicles." Aresborough's voice was soft, and then he was pushing the Earl up the bed slightly so that there was sufficient slack in the cravat to roll him onto his side. He pushed up against him and teased a little while longer, moving the tip of his cock around Iphicles' entrance, before he lifted Iphicles' leg and pushed slowly inside. Iphicles would have moaned, but for the fact he couldn't breathe. Slowly the Duke began to fuck him, moving almost lazily, or so it seemed to the Earl who gasped softly each time Aresborough slid home. One large hand curved around the Earl and began to stroke his nipples, rolling and pulling at them while teeth grazed his shoulder and the hard cock kept sliding in and out of him, again and again.
Iphicles lost all awareness of everything except the Duke's touch and the Duke's cock. He didn't even want to come any longer, just to stay like this forever. But then the Duke's hand moved down, and his thumb smoothed over the wet tip of Iphicles' cock, causing Iphicles to cry out. He felt Aresborough's smile against his damp skin as he kissed Iphicles' shoulder, before the rhythm of the Duke's thrusts changed, gradually becoming faster as his hand moved on Iphicles' cock, until Iphicles was sobbing his need and Aresborough was groaning with each thrust. "Come for me, Iphicles," he
gasped, thrusting hard. "Come for me."
With a sobbing groan, Iphicles did so, his seed soaking the sheet beneath him, and as soon as the Duke felt the dampness on his hand, his own seed filled Iphicles' ass.
They lay like that for a long time, before the Duke kissed the Earl's shoulder and pulled away. Iphicles turned onto his back and looked at the Duke.
"I take it you intend to do something about this?" he indicated the way his hands were still fastened above his head.
The Duke grinned suddenly. "Don't tempt me," he threatened, before moving to work on the knots. It took him some time to work the tightly-pulled material free, and Iphicles was beginning to feel distinctly uneasy, thinking that even Brownlow's equanimity would not survive being called to release his master in this situation, when finally Aresborough managed it. Iphicles brought his hands down, and began to rub at stretched muscles. Busy as he was with this, it took him a while to notice that Aresborough was unnaturally still on the bed beside him. He looked over at last, and saw the Duke staring unblinkingly up at the canopy above them.
"Aresborough?" Iphicles sat up in concern. "What's wrong?"
There was a pause before Aresborough spoke quietly. "Your brother may be a
damned annoyance, but he was right about one thing, Iphicles."
"*Harry*? Right about *what*?"
The Duke's lips lifted briefly at the incredulity in Iphicles' voice, but he quickly sobered again.
"Your reputation. If you stay with me, you will no longer be welcomed by those who matter in society."
"I know." The Earl's quiet admission brought the Duke's head round to meet his gaze. "I have thought on it, believe me." How could he not have thought on the way those who professed to be his friends had been so quick to disown him? One corner of his mouth twisted as he met the painful query in the Duke's eyes. "I am here, am I not? I have made my choice, Aresborough."
The Duke still did not relax. "Are you aware what it will mean….?" he began.
Iphicles stopped his mouth with a brief kiss. "I am," he said.
As he settled back down beside the Duke, Aresborough drew him close. Iphicles lay with his eyes closed, listening to the Duke's quiet breathing and the steady beat of his heart.
"Iphicles." The soft breath stirred his hair.
"I know," he murmured, and the Duke's arms tightened around him.
Held in the warm security of Aresborough's embrace, Iphicles slowly drifted into a peaceful sleep.
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