The two gentlemen who were in their shirt sleeves despite the brisk chill of a spring morning were about to blow each other's brains out. Or attempt to do so, at least. They were standing on a secluded stretch of dew-wet lawn in London's Hyde Park, facing in different directions, each ignoring the other's existence until the moment should come to take aim at each other and shoot to kill.
They were not alone, however, this being a duel of honor in which due process had been followed. A gauntlet had been thrown down, even if not literally, and challenger and challenged had progressed toward this morning's meeting through the medium of their seconds. Both seconds were now present, as were a surgeon and a gathering of interested spectators, all male, who had risen early from their beds -- or had not yet gone to them after the revels of the night before -- for the sheer exhilaration of watching two of their peers attempt to put a period to each other's existence.
One of the duelists, the challenger, the shorter and stockier of the two, was stamping his booted feet, flexing his fingers, and licking his dry lips with a drier tongue. He was almost as pale as his shirt.
"Yes, you may ask him," he told his second through teeth that he tried in vain to keep from chattering. "Not that he will do it, mind, but one must be decent about such matters."
His second strode off smartly to confer with his counterpart, who in his turn approached the other duelist. That tall, elegant gentleman showed to advantage without his coat. His white shirt did nothing to hide the powerful muscles of his arms, shoulders, and chest, as his breeches and top boots only accentuated those of his long legs. He was nonchalantly engaged in smoothing the lace of his cuffs over the backs of his long-fingered, well-manicured hands and holding a desultory conversation with his friends.
"Oliver is shaking like a leaf in a strong breeze," Baron Pottier observed, his quizzing glass to his eye. "He could not hit the broad side of a cathedral from thirty paces, Tresham."
"His teeth are clacking like trotting hooves too," Viscount Kimble added.
"Are you intending to kill him, Tresham?" young Mr. Maddox asked, drawing to himself a cool, arrogant stare from the duelist.
"It is the nature of duels, is it not?" he answered.
"Breakfast at White's afterward, Tresh?" Viscount Kimble suggested. "And Tattersall's after that? I have my eye on a new matched pair of grays for my curricle."
"As soon as this little matter has been taken care of." But the duelist was distracted both from straightening his cuffs and from his conversation by the approach of his second. "Well, Conan?" he asked, a touch of impatience in his voice. "Is there good reason for this delay? I must confess myself eager for my breakfast."
Sir Conan Brougham was accustomed to the man's cool nerve. He had served as his second during three previous duels, after all of which his friend had consumed a hearty breakfast, unharmed and perfectly composed, as if he had been engaged for the morning in nothing more lethal than a brisk ride in the park.
"Lord Oliver is prepared to accept a properly worded apology," he said.
There were jeering noises from their acquaintances.
Eyes of such a dark brown that many people mistook their color for black looked back into Sir Conan's without blinking. The narrow, arrogant, handsome face to which they belonged was expressionless except for one slightly elevated eyebrow.
"He has challenged me for cuckolding him but is willing to settle for a simple apology?" he said. "Do I need to spell out my answer, Conan? Did you need to consult me?"
"It might be worth considering," his friend advised. "I would not be doing my job conscientiously if I did not thus advise you, Tresham. Oliver is a pretty decent shot."
"Then let him prove it by killing me," the duelist said carelessly. "And let that be within minutes rather than hours, my dear fellow. The spectators are displaying distinct signs of boredom."
Sir Conan shook his head, shrugged, and strode away to inform Viscount Russell, Lord Oliver's second, that his grace, the Duke of Tresham, did not acknowledge the necessity of any apology to Lord Oliver.
There was nothing for it then but to proceed to business. Viscount Russell in particular was anxious to have the meeting over with. Hyde Park, even this secluded corner of it, was a rashly public place in which to hold a duel, illegal as such meetings were. Wimbledon Common, the more usual venue for affairs of honor, would have been safer. But his friend had insisted on the park.
The pistols had been loaded and carefully inspected by both seconds. While an expectant hush fell over the spectators, the protagonists each picked up a weapon without looking at the other. They took up their positions back to back and at the agreed-upon signal paced out the regulation number of steps before turning. They took careful aim, each standing sideways in order to offer as narrow a target as possible to the other. They waited for Viscount Russell to drop the white handkerchief he held aloft, the signal to fire.
The hush became an almost tangible thing.
And then two things happened simultaneously.
The handkerchief was released.
And someone shrieked.
"Stop!" the voice cried. "Stop!"
It was a female voice, and it came from the direction of a grove of trees some distance away. An indignant buzz arose from the spectators, who had held themselves properly silent and motionless so that the protagonists would have no distraction.
The Duke of Tresham, startled and furious, lowered his right arm and turned in order to glare in the direction of the person who had dared interrupt such a meeting at such a moment.
Lord Oliver, who had also wavered for a moment, recovered fast, corrected his aim, and fired his pistol.
The female screamed.
His grace did not go down. Indeed at first it did not appear that he had even been hit. But a bright red spot appeared on his calf, an inch or two above the top of one perfectly polished leather boot, just as if suddenly painted there by an invisible hand with a long-handled brush.
"Shame!" Baron Pottier called from the sidelines. "For shame, Oliver!"
His voice was joined by others, all censuring the man who had taken unfair advantage of his opponent's distraction.
Sir Conan began to stride toward the duke while the crimson spot increased in diameter and the surgeon bent over his bag. But his grace held up his left hand in a firm staying gesture before raising his right arm again and taking aim with his pistol. It did not waver. Neither did his face show any expression except intense, narrow-eyed concentration on his target, who had no choice now but to stand and await his death.
Lord Oliver, to his credit, stood very still, though the hand that held his pistol to his side was trembling noticeably.
The spectators were silent again. So was the unidentified woman. There was an air of almost unbearable tension.
And then the Duke of Tresham, as he had done at every previous duel in which he had been engaged, bent his arm at the elbow and shot into the air.
The red spot on his breeches spread outward in rapidly expanding concentric circles.
It had taken iron willpower to remain standing when it felt as if a thousand needles had exploded in his leg. But even though incensed with Lord Oliver for firing his pistol when any true gentleman would have waited for the duel to be reorganized, Jocelyn Dudley, Duke of Tresham, had never had any intention of killing or even wounding him. Only of making him sweat awhile, of giving him time to watch his life flash before his eyes and wonder if this would be the one occasion when the duke, famed as a deadly shot but also known as a man who contemptuously wasted his bullet on the air during duels, would act untrue to form.
The needle points had taken over his whole person by the time he had finished and tossed the pistol onto the wet grass. He felt like agony personified and remained upright only because he would be damned before giving Oliver the satisfaction of being able to claim that he had been felled.
He was also still angry. An understatement. He was in a white-hot fury that might have been directed against Oliver had there not been a more obvious target.
He turned his head and looked with narrowed gaze to the spot at the edge of the trees where she had been standing a few moments ago, shrieking like a banshee. A serving girl, running an early-morning errand, no doubt, and forgetting one of the primary rules of service -- that one minded one's own business and left one's betters to mind theirs. A girl who needed to be taught a lesson she would never forget.
She was still there, staring as if transfixed, both hands pressed to her mouth, though she had stopped her caterwauling. It was a pity she was a woman. It would have given him intense satisfaction to set a horsewhip whistling about her hide before being carted away to have his leg attended to. Deuce take it, but he was engulfed in pain.
Only a few moments had passed since he had fired his pistol and tossed it down. Both Brougham and the surgeon were hurrying toward him. The spectators were buzzing with excitement. He heard one voice distinctly.
"Well done, by Jove, Tresh," Viscount Kimble called. "You would have contaminated your bullet by shooting it into the bastard."
Jocelyn held up his left hand again without looking away from the woman by the trees. With his right hand he beckoned imperiously to her.
If she had been wise, she would have turned and run. He was hardly in a position to go chasing after her, and he doubted that anyone else present would be interested in running to earth on his behalf an unappealing, gray-clad slip of a servant girl.
She was not wise. She took a few tentative steps toward him and then hurried the rest of the way until she was standing almost toe to toe with him.
"You fool!" she cried with angry disregard for her place on the social scale and the consequences of talking thus to a peer of the realm. "What an utterly idiotic thing to do. Have you no more respect for your life than to become embroiled in a stupid duel? And now you have been hurt. I would have to say it serves you right."
His eyes narrowed further as he determinedly ignored the pulsing pain in his leg and the near impossibility of standing any longer on it.
"Silence, wench!" he commanded coldly. "If I had died here this morning, you would as like as not have hanged for murder. Have you no more respect for your life than to interfere in what is no concern of yours?"
Her cheeks had been flushed with anger. They paled at his words, and she stared at him wide-eyed, her lips compressed in a hard line.
"Tresham," Sir Conan said from close by, "we had better get that leg attended to, old chap. You are losing blood. Let me carry you with Kimble here over to the blanket the surgeon has spread out."
"Carry?" Jocelyn laughed derisively. He had not taken his eyes off the serving girl. "You, girl. Give me your shoulder."
"Tresham--" Sir Conan sounded exasperated.
"I am on my way to work," the girl said. "I will be late if I do not hurry."
But Jocelyn had already availed himself of her shoulder. He leaned heavily on it, more heavily than he had intended. Moving at last, shifting the weight off his injured leg, he found that the wave of agony made a mockery of the pain hitherto.
"You are the cause of this, my girl," he said grimly, taking one tentative step toward the surgeon, who suddenly seemed an impossible distance away. "You will, by God, lend me your assistance and keep your impertinent tongue safely housed behind your teeth."
Lord Oliver was pulling his waistcoat and coat back on while Viscount Russell packed away his pistol and came striding past Jocelyn to retrieve the other one.
"You would do better," the girl said, "to swallow your pride and allow your friends to carry you."
Her shoulder did not bow beneath his weight. She was rather tall and slender, but she was no weakling. She was doubtless accustomed to hard manual labor. She was probably equally accustomed to cuffings and beatings for impudence. He had never heard the like from a servant girl.
He was well-nigh swooning by the time he reached the blanket the surgeon had spread on the grass beneath an oak tree.
"Lie down, your grace," he instructed, "and I will see what damage has been done. I do not like the look of the positioning of that wound, I must confess. Or all the blood. I daresay the leg will need to come off."
He spoke as if he were a barber who had discovered a tuft of hair that did not blend well with the rest of the head. He was a retired army sawbones, supplied by Lord Oliver. Bloodletting and amputation were probably his answer to every physical ailment.
Jocelyn swore eloquently.
"You cannot possibly know that from a single glance," the serving girl had the temerity to observe, addressing the surgeon, "or make such a dire prediction."
"Conan," Jocelyn said, his teeth clamping tightly now in a vain attempt to control the pain, "fetch my horse." It was tethered not far away.
There was a chorus of protests from his friends who had gathered around him.
"Fetch his horse? He is as mad as ever."
"I have my carriage here, Tresham. Ride in that. I'll go and have it brought up."
"Stay where you are, Brougham. He is out of his mind."
"That's the fellow, Tresham. You show them what you are made of, old sport."
"Fetch my damned horse!" Jocelyn spoke from between his teeth. He had a death grip on the girl's shoulder.
"I am going to be very late," she scolded. "I will lose my employment for sure."
"And serve you right too," Jocelyn said, throwing her own words back at her, his voice devoid of all sympathy as his friend strode away to bring his horse and the surgeon launched into a protest.
"Silence, sir!" Jocelyn instructed him. "I will have my own physician summoned to Dudley House. He will have more regard for his future than to suggest sawing off my leg. Help me to my horse, girl."
Excerpted from More than a Mistress by Mary Balogh. Copyright © 2000 by Mary Balogh. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.