Gray. Everything was gray: the dawn, the day, the fog. The trees that appeared like ghostly soldiers in the mist were gray. So were the reasons for this blasted duel.
He was right. He was wrong. And neither made ha’penny’s worth of difference this dreary morning. It was too damned late.
Hell, Ian thought as he walked the paces, his Manton pistol heavy in his hand, his footsteps on the damp grass sounding loud in the hushed clearing, nothing was black and white anymore. He had to defend his honor, didn’t he? Yet Lord Paige had to avenge the insult to his marriage, didn’t he? So which man had the right on his side?
Ian was wrong to have bedded the baron’s wife, he readily admitted. But Paige was wrong to make an issue of it, choosing White’s Club to issue his challenge, where Ian could not refuse and still consider himself a gentleman. Lud knew Ian had not been the woman’s first lover, and the roomful of lords gathered at the card tables had known he would not be her last. Hell, half of them were hoping to take Ian’s place in the lady’s affections, he guessed, if they had not already enjoyed the lush beauty’s favors. They were welcome to Lady Paige’s perfumed embrace, Ian, Earl of Marden, decided, at least a week too late. She was the one who had broken her marriage vows, and she was the one who had sworn Paige was a complacent husband, content with his mistresses. Damnation, she should be the one out at Hampstead Heath at this ungodly hour, ruining her footwear in the wet grass.
Instead, Mona was likely curled in her warm bed, with a warm someone beside her. The devil take them both, and her loutish lord, too. Ian knew that, sooner or later, he himself was destined for hell, no matter the outcome of this morning’s work. He prayed for later, of course.
Actually, Ian did not bother praying. Cursing, yes, praying, no, for this was not liable to be his day of reckoning. While an illegal duel might be brushed aside, a dead earl could not be as easily ignored. Paige knew it, so he was not likely to be aiming at anything vital. Even if he were, Paige was a notoriously bad shot. Besides, he was merely making a statement. His lusty young wife had cuckolded the fat old fool one time too many, and Paige had to protest before he became a laughingstock for all of London. Ian wished the beef-witted baron had not chosen to make his point by pointing his finger in Ian’s direction, along with accusations of everything from seduction to wife-stealing.
It was too late now to wish he had simply bloodied the baron’s nose. Hell, it was too late to wish he had never set eyes—or hands—on the buxom baroness. Never again, Ian vowed as he took another step. No more Lady Paige. No more married ladies, period. They were not worth the few moments of pleasure.
What if, Ian wondered as he felt the damp morning cold penetrate his shirt, Paige were a better shot? Mona Paige was hardly worth dying over. No woman was, except Ian’s sister and his mother, of course, but that was different. A man had to defend his family—not that either of the earl’s womenfolk would act the wanton, thank goodness.
The thought of his mother and sister chilled Ian worse than the fog. If he were to die today, they would be left at the untender mercies of his cousin Nigel and his shrewish wife, for Ian had not yet performed his duties of ensuring the succession. Damnation, there was another black mark in his book. A peer of the realm had one overriding obligation to his lands and titles: providing an heir and perpetuity. Ian’s lands were all in good condition, the family coffers were full, but his nursery was empty. Here he was, thirty years of age, mucking about with other men’s wives, without one of his own to bear the next Earl of Marden. His late father must be spinning in his grave that Ian might soon join him in the family plot before begetting a boy child. Lud, the old man had been a tyrant in life. The devil only knew how mean he would be in the afterlife. Ian did not fancy finding out. He could only hope that Paige’s aim was not bad enough to kill him by accident. As for himself, he meant to fire in the air. He had trespassed on Paige’s preserves, after all. In addition, while he had no respect for a man who could not control his wife, Ian had no wish to have to flee the country for killing an old goat whose worst offense seemed to be an aversion to soap and water.
Ian’s friend Carswell was counting out the paces. Never had so few steps taken such an eternity. Ian felt as if he were walking under water, as if he were watching himself watching the fog roil across the clearing, as if time were standing still, waiting for two grown men to make imbeciles of each other.
Damn, he was too old for this claptrap. If he was too old, Paige was far past the age of hotspur and pistol, steel and sword. He should have known better. He should have known better than to take a wife twenty years his junior.
It all came back to the woman. It always did. A muddle-headed man committed any number of idiocies, all to have a woman warm his bed and no one else’s. Warm? Bah. Ian wondered if he would ever feel warm again, or if his very bones would turn to blocks of ice, like Old Man Winter, with icicles dripping from his nose. The November morning was not all that cold, he told himself. The grave was.
Whose idea was it to remove one’s coat during an affair of honor, anyway? Someone who thought jacket buttons made better targets than plain white shirts? Or someone who was such a slave to fashion that he had himself sewn into his coat, and could not lift his arm high enough to shoot? Ian would be deuced if he ever let his tailor fit him so tightly that he could not protect himself, and to hell with fashion. But Paige had shrugged out of his, with his second’s assistance, like a fat snake shedding its skin, so Ian had done the same. Their white shirts—Paige’s was slightly yellowed, and slightly spotted with yesterday’s meals—billowed in the breeze.
Thinking of Paige’s dinner made Ian’s stomach growl. Most likely the same clunch who decreed gentlemen should remove their coats also decided they should meet at dawn, before breaking their fast. That lackwit must have possessed something smaller than Ian’s six-foot one-inch, muscular frame, which needed hearty and frequent sustenance to maintain. The early hour might have been chosen for secrecy’s sake, which was more of a fallacy than going to face one’s enemy weak with hunger. Why, half of London knew Marden and Lord Paige were to meet this morning. They had changed the location of the duel at the last minute to avoid a public spectacle and to avoid running afoul of Bow Street. Otherwise the empty field would look like Epsom on race day, with odds-makers and ale-sellers amid the throngs of spectators.