13 Bond Street
West End of London
It took a moment for Clayton Kearsley, Viscount St. John, to register his friend’s words.
In part because of the din in Gentleman Jackson’s, where too many noblemen had packed into the club to play at being gentlemen gladiators.
In part because of the casualness with which the words had been delivered.
And in part because what he’d heard made no sense.
“Beg pardon?” he blurted.
And for a moment he thought perhaps he might very well have imagined that question—a request, really, after all. For the Earl of Norfolk, his closest friend since their Eton days, attended to the wraps on his hands with a good deal more focus than he did to Clayton.
He lifted his right hand up close to his face and angled it back and forth, inspecting his knuckles. “Someone is going to have to look after her,” he finally said, confirming that Clayton’s ears, in fact, hadn’t deceived him. That he’d heard what he thought he had.
And yet hearing it changed nothing, as Clayton still struggled to process the implications of precisely what his friend was saying. Because there could be no doubt: it was more a statement than a request.
“You will look after her,” Clayton said slowly, at last finding something meaningful to say. That was, after all, the other man’s responsibility . . . and had been for three years, twelve weeks, and a handful of days. “She is your wife.”
Norfolk flexed his fingers several times, as if testing the feel of the wraps before setting to work adjusting them once more. When he bothered to look up at Clayton, he wore a frown. “Have you been listening to anything I’ve been saying?” There was an impatient quality to his question.
“Have you been listening to anything you are saying?” Clayton countered, loud enough to garner looks from several sets of gentlemen.
Norfolk’s frown deepened. “Have a care, St. John. Show a little calm, would you?”
Clayton had long been the equanimous one of seven siblings—the rest being sisters for whom he was responsible. The Kearsleys were a volatile lot, tempests, really, and he the voice of calm and the family member of reason. As such, he drew on the thirty years of inner calm that had prevailed amongst the chaos that was his big, unruly family.
And yet, all that went out the proverbial window as he finally saw that Norfolk spoke with an absolute seriousness of intent. “Be calm? You’re telling me to be calm?”
More stares were directed their way. Long, curious looks that could come only at finding one of society’s most even-keeled, scandal-free lords raising his voice—to his best friend, no less.
“My God, man, you are talking about . . . about . . .” He couldn’t even get out the rest of what his friend intended.
Grabbing him by the arm, Norfolk forcefully guided Clayton back to the corner of the studio. “Quiet.”
The moment they had that flimsy privacy, Norfolk resumed speaking, this time in more measured tones. “I am talking about going away with the woman I love.”
Clayton had known Norman Prescott, the Earl of Norfolk, since they were boys of eight. There’d been times he’d been in awe of Prescott’s ease around people. In awe of his boxing. There’d been times he’d envied him.
He could count just one time he’d resented him.
But this? This was the first time he’d ever actually hated the man he’d called a friend.
“You have a wife, Norfolk.”
“I don’t love her,” the other man said simply on a little shrug that served only to overemphasize the callousness of his admission.
A haze of red fell across Clayton’s vision, briefly blinding, but not before he caught the casual way Norfolk went back to tending his hand wraps. That was . . . it? That was all the man would say? He’d just speak of leaving his wife and gallivanting off with his . . . lover?
“It is a little late on that score,” Clayton gritted out between his clenched teeth, and this time when he looked up, there was something akin to surprise in the other man’s eyes. Yes, but then why should he be anything but shocked at being challenged by the ever affable viscount? “You asked her to marry you.” Just three weeks after meeting her. “You courted her.”
A sound of impatience escaped Norfolk. “I do not need you to remind me of my courtship with Sylvia. I assure you, I am well aware of it. I did that which was expected of me.”
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