London, England, 1817
Matthew Strathmore, Earl of Whittingham, examined the array of puzzle pieces strewn across the mahogany table positioned near the paned glass windows of his study. A map of the world awaited his skill and attention. With a satisfied grunt, he completed another portion of the puzzle and reached for what could be Sicily as much as Sardinia, when a knock sounded at the door.
"Milord, you have a caller." The butler stood within the door frame without his customary salver in hand.
"Thank you, Spencer. Has the visitor presented a card?" Whittingham turned and stepped forward, his limp pronounced as he maneuvered with care.
"He did not, nor did he offer his name."
"Then I have no time." The earl retrieved his cane from where it rested against the desk and spared a glance, intent on progressing further with the puzzle before he focused on more purposeful matters.
Spencer's tone gave him pause and he angled toward the butler in curiosity. "Yes?"
"The gentleman requested I offer this if you refused him admittance." The servant advanced, a suede pouch in his gloved palm.
"What the devil?" Whittingham snatched the bag from the servant's extended hand and spilled the contents. His sharp gasp overrode the foreboding chime of the hallway clock as a wave of recognition gripped him. "Show him up at once."
The butler walked with brisk steps toward the door.
"Hurry, Spencer, before the gentleman takes his leave." Whittingham barely recovered his composure before the Duke of Scarsdale entered. Then a devilish smile broke loose and he embraced his friend in a hale and hearty welcome.
"Scarsdale, I can't believe my eyes." They moved apart, shook hands, and the ten years separating their last visit evaporated as if it never existed.
"Nor can I. You, more than anyone, know how much I despise this city."
His reference to the turn of events that sent Lunden Beckford, third Duke of Scarsdale, as far from England as possible, charged the air with unresolved tension, but Whittingham refused to allow it to taint their visit. He was much relieved to see his old friend and harbored no ill feelings despite how society viewed Scarsdale's unexplained voluntary exile.
For a moment, no one spoke and then Matthew reached for the pocket watch where it rested on his desktop and slipped it into the suede pouch. He offered it with a solemn exhale.
"Thank you." The two words expressed volumes as Lunden returned the pouch to his trousers pocket.
Matthew leaned against the front of his desk and with a wag of his chin, indicated his friend take a chair. "Brandy? Or have you sworn off the poison?" He looked toward the liquor cabinet. "Last time we were together, you were drunk out of your wits."
"Don't look at me that way. You were equally impaired." Lunden declined with a nod. "Besides, you didn't expect me to sink to the bottom of a bottle and stay there for ten years, did you?" He shifted in his chair and his gaze traveled down Matthew's left leg, then upward along the curve of the cane.
"I do all right, you know." Matthew offered no further reassurance, and none was warranted. "So, why have you returned?"
"My solicitor transferred the ducal title and all entailments after my brother's death, but Douglas had some sort of damnable clause added to the paperwork in regard to his town house. I've allowed the property to be leased since I abandoned London, but the tenant has created a problem and I can no longer wait for solicitors and their legalities to unravel the mess. I want to sell it and detach from this city forever."
"No doubt you'll be able to resolve it with your solicitor's assistance now that you're here." Matthew walked to the cabinet
intent on a drink. "Perhaps your brother had a specific reason for the clause. I think of him often. Douglas was a good man."
"Yes, he was." Lunden touched his fingers to the suede pouch secured in his pocket.
Matthew didn't wish to resurrect dead memories and silence descended like a heavy rock thrown into a deep puddle. "So how can I help? Do you need a place to stay?" He carried his brandy in one hand, his cane in the other, and took a seat behind the desk. "You're welcome to live here as long as needed. I would enjoy the company."
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