Threatened by his father with disinheritance, Lord Edwin Nash arrives in London with a sole purpose: to find a wife. A more than eligible bachelor, and titled to boot, the society matrons see to it he’ll be shackled to one of the girls by the end of the season.
During a masquerade ball, Nash hides from the ladies vying for his attention. He is discovered by Lord Thomas Downe, the Duke of Lynwood. Nash is horrified when Downe calmly tells him that he knows the secret that Nash has hidden for years, and that he sees through the mask that Edwin presents to the rest of the world.
And then he offers him an alternative.
“Good evening, Downe.”
Thomas Downe, the present Duke of Lynwood, smiled at the greeting from his friend. “Evening, Leicester. I’m surprised to see you here. The weather has been foul.”
Lord Leicester sat in the high wing-back chair next to his. They were the closest to the fire in the large study, and Downe appreciated the warmth after the chill of the winter’s day. “I was in London to see my solicitor. The rain was so heavy I’ve delayed my return to the country for a day or two. Can’t afford to lose another carriage to the mud.”
“Or the horses,” Downe said.
At the start of the winter, Leicester had been lucky to survive a serious accident after a landslip that had cost him a new carriage and pair.
“Or the horses,” Leicester agreed. “I thought I was going to lose my stable master. He was distraught after the accident. It was only the gift of Gideon’s foal that calmed him down.”
Downe smiled at his friend. “I’m only too pleased to restore calm in your household.”
Gideon was Downe’s prize bay stallion and giving his first foal was no small gift, but then Leicester was no ordinary friend. Downe would have given twice that to have his friend happy and laughing next to him.
Leicester looked speculatively at Downe. “If you don’t mind me saying, you look a little gloomy.”
“I—” Downe expelled a long breath. “I can’t deny I feel a little below par today.”
“For any particular reason?” Leicester smiled and murmured his thanks as a footman brought a pot of coffee and set it at the small table by his elbow.
Downe waited until the footman had poured the coffee and retreated before he answered. “’Twas my birthday a sennight ago.”
“Seven-and-twenty.” Leicester smiled. “I remember.”
“You always remember, my dear friend. You sent me a fine red.”
“More than one, as I recall. But why should that make you gloomy?”
Downe huffed loudly. “The Valentine’s Ball is in a few days.”
Leicester groaned just as loudly. “You think I don’t know? Charlotte and Elizabeth have driven me to distraction with their preparations.”
“They are coming?” Downe was surprised. Leicester’s wife and children spent most of the year in the country, none of them having a taste for Town.
“My eldest grandchild is being presented this year. They will be in town for the season.”
“I had no idea she was old enough to be presented to the king. The last time I saw, she was a mere slip of a thing.” Life was flying by far too quickly for Downe’s liking.
“To me she’s still a mere slip of a thing, as are you, my friend.”
Downe shook his head. “I am getting old, Monty. It is time I took a wife and started a family.”
Leicester frowned. “What brought this on? I thought matrimony was the last thing on your mind.”
“I’m….” Downe trailed off. In truth, the thought of a wife and squalling brats made him feel nauseous, but Leicester knew that as well as he did.
“Lonely?” Leicester suggested gently.
“Sometimes,” Downe agreed.
“It’s been a long time since you’ve been involved with anyone.”
“Over three years aside from the occasional visit to the Blue.”
The end of Downe’s last relationship had been so vicious, it had curdled his desire for another for a while. But “for a while” had extended beyond Downe’s expectations as he had dealt with the loss of his parents and his sister had been widowed and returned to the family household. The Blue, a brothel he had been visiting for many years, satiated his physical desires. The madam was handsomely paid to supply his demands and keep her mouth shut.
Leicester frowned, his green eyes fierce. “You don’t want a wife, Thomas.”
Downe smiled at him. “You only call me Thomas when you think I’m being stupid.”
“Or when we made love.”
Downe didn’t bother to look around to see if anyone was listening. They were in a safe place where they could be honest with each other. “Or when we made love. But that was a long time ago.”
Leicester leaned forward and took Downe’s hand. “Do you need…? We could go upstairs.”
Downe looked at their entwined hands. Despite the fact Leicester was fifteen years older than him, he was one of the most attractive men Downe had ever met, his dark hair graying slightly at the temples and green eyes framed by long lashes. A few years ago, he would have jumped at the opportunity to take Leicester to bed. As a young man, Downe had fallen desperately in love with Leicester, but age had brought wisdom and more than a little resignation. The attraction between them was mutual and occasionally flared into something physical, but they weren’t destined for anything long-term because Leicester’s heart belonged to someone else. Downe accepted their friendship as a blessing because Leicester had shown him how to be the man he was today.
He brushed the back of Leicester’s knuckles. “I am tempted,” he admitted, his voice hoarse in its honesty. “But it wouldn’t help. Not today.”
Leicester pressed a hot kiss into Downe’s palm. “I understand, my friend. I truly do.” He let go of Downe’s hand and sat back to signal for more coffee.
“If your wife is in town, will you be at the dinner tonight?” Downe asked.
“Of course. She has plans to visit my son. His wife is unwell, and she wants to check on her.”
“Will Asher be here?”
Leicester’s face softened as Downe mentioned the name of the man he had loved for over twenty years. They were the owners of the Gentlemen’s Club and an enigma Downe had never cracked. The love between them was passionate and fierce, but as far as everyone knew, they had never consummated it. They both had taken lovers over the years, yet their hearts remained only for each other.
“He will be.”
“I look forward to seeing him.”Downe had been away from London for many weeks dealing with business interests at his various properties. He’d missed his weekly dinner at the club and looked forward to reconnecting himself with his friends. “Tell me what’s been happening.”
“Did you hear about Walsey?” Leicester asked.
“He was found balls-deep in some young whore when he should have been in Parliament.”
Downe wrinkled his brow. The Walsey he knew was a terrible bore and someone to avoid at all costs. “Deadly-dull, God-fearing Walsey?”
“The very same.”
“So he can get it up for a young filly. Good for him.”
Leicester’s lips twitched. “It wasn’t a young filly.”
Downe’s eyes opened wide. “He was screwing a boy? The old hypocrite!” Downe had been subject to many a lecture on sodomy when he’d had the misfortune to cross paths with Walsey.
“Caught hook, line, and sinker by his wife.”
“Where is he now?”
Leicester sobered. “He’s in Newgate.”
The amusement slid off Downe’s face. All of them faced the possibility of the same nightmare. Being caught with a man and sentenced to hard labor—or worse.
“What’s going to happen to him?”
“His wife is determined to have her pound of flesh.”
“Is there something we can do?”
“I don’t know, my friend. I really don’t know.”
They both knew that attempting to intervene laid them open to the same kind of charges.
“We should be extra careful,” Downe said.
“I agree, but that doesn’t mean you need to take a wife. Even at your vast age of seven-and-twenty. You have plenty of time to make that decision.”
“You were married with two children by my age,” Downe pointed out.
“Because I knew I could never have Asher.” Leicester gave a wry smile. “My wife is a remarkable woman.”
It wasn’t a question. Downe had met Leicester’s wife on more than one occasion, and he knew that she was, as Leicester said, a remarkable woman, aware of where her husband’s true heart lay. She accepted it for a stable marriage, a beautiful home, two children, and many dogs. Downe knew that many wives among his acquaintance did the same. He didn’t like imposing that on any woman, but the alternative…. The alternative was Walsey’s fate.
It didn’t stop him being lonely, though.