“Your grace,” Harry said, with that wicked smile he always used when using an honorific.
Thomas started to scowl at him for his cheek, then almost laughed. If he only knew.
“Pretty eye, there,” Harry said, quite conversationally. “Always did like the royal purple.”
Thomas thought of ten different retorts, but in the end lacked the energy to bother with any of them.
“A pint?” Harry asked.
“Of your best.”
Harry pulled the pint, then set it down on the bar.
“You look like hell,” he said baldly.
“Not even that,” Harry said, shaking his head. “Your grandmother?”
Harry knew his grandmother well.
“Among other things,” Thomas said vaguely.
Thomas blinked. He hadn’t given Amelia much thought that afternoon, which was remarkable, considering that he’d nearly tupped her in a meadow just six hours earlier.
“You have one,” Harry reminded him. “About this high . . . ” He made an indication in the air.
She was taller than that, Thomas thought absently.
“Blond,” Harry continued, “not too buxom, but—”
“Enough,” Thomas snapped.
Harry grinned. “It is your fiancée, then.”
Thomas took a swig of his ale and decided to let him believe it. “It’s complicated,” he finally said.
Harry immediately leaned against the bar with a sympathetic nod. Truly, he was born to the job. “It always is.”
As Harry had married his sweetheart at the age of nineteen and now had six little urchins tearing through the small house he had behind the inn, Thomas wasn’t completely convinced that he was qualified to offer judgments on matters of the heart.
“Had a bloke in here just the other day . . . ” Harry began.
Then again, he’d surely heard every sob story and sad tale from here to York and back.
Thomas drank his ale as Harry nattered on about nothing in particular. Thomas wasn’t really listening, but it did occur to him, as he sucked down the last dregs, that never in his life had he been more grateful for mindless chatter.
And then in walked Mr. Audley.
Thomas stared at his tankard, wondering if he ought to ask for another. Downing it in under a minute sounded rather appealing just then.
“Good evening to you, sir!” Harry called out. “How’s your head? ”
Thomas looked up. Harry knew him?
“Much better,” Audley replied.
“Gave him my morning mixture,” Harry told Thomas.
He looked back up to Audley. “It always works. Just ask the duke here.”
“Does the duke often require a balm for overindul-gence?” Audley inquired politely.
Thomas looked at him sharply.
Harry did not answer. He’d seen the look that passed between them. “You two know each other?”
“More or less,” Thomas said.
“Mostly less,” Audley added.
Harry looked at Thomas. Their eyes met for barely a second, but there were a hundred questions in the exchange, along with one astoundingly comforting reassurance.
If he needed him, Harry would be there.
“We need to go,” Thomas said, pushing his stool back to stand. He turned to Harry and gave him a nod.
“You’re together?” Harry asked with surprise.
“He’s an old friend,” Thomas said. More of a grunt, really.
Harry did not ask from where. Harry always knew which questions not to ask.
He turned to Audley. “You didn’t mention you knew the duke.”
Audley shrugged. “You didn’t ask.”
Harry appeared to consider this, then turned back to Thomas. “Safe journeys, friend.”
Thomas tipped his head in response, then headed out the door, leaving Audley to follow in his wake.
“You’re friends with the innkeeper,” Audley stated once they were outdoors.
Thomas turned to him with a broad, false smile. “I’m a friendly fellow.”
And that was the last thing either of them said until they were just minutes from Belgrave, when Audley said, “We’ll need a story.”
Thomas looked at him askance.
“I assume you don’t wish to set it about that I am your cousin—your father’s elder brother’s son, to be precise—until you have verification.”
“Indeed,” Thomas said. His voice was clipped, but that was mostly because he was angry at himself for not having brought the same thing up earlier.
The look Audley gave him was blindingly annoying.
It started with a smile but quickly turned to a smirk.
“Shall we be old friends, then?”
“Eh, no. Do you box?”
Like a master. “I’m passable,” he said with a shrug.
“Then that’s our story. We studied together. Years ago.”
Thomas kept his eyes straight ahead. Belgrave was looming ever closer. “Let me know if you wish to practice,” he said.
“Everything you could possibly need.”
Audley glanced at Belgrave, which now hung over them like a stone ogre, blotting out the last dusky rays of the sun. “And everything one doesn’t need, too, I imagine.”
Thomas didn’t comment, just slid off his mount and handed the reins to a waiting footman. He strode inside, eager to put his back to the man behind him. It wasn’t that he wished to cut him, exactly. It was more that he wished to forget him.
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