William Baskerville provided the answer to that as he counted out his chips. "His nephew's birthday, I believe. Duchess of Claymore is giving a small party to celebrate the occasion. Lovely woman, the duchess," he added. "I tell Claymore that every time I see him." Glancing at Nicholas DuVille who was seated on his left, he said, "You were friendly with her grace in France, before she came home to England, I believe?"
Nicki nodded without looking up from his cards, then he automatically added a proviso to forestall any gossip. "I count myself fortunate to be on friendly terms with all the Westmoreland family."
One of the youths who'd been drinking heavily heard that with some surprise and then demonstrated his lack of polish—as well as his inability to hold his drink—by verbalizing it: "You don't say! Gossip had it that you and Langford nearly came to fisticuffs at Almack's over some red-haired girl you both fancied."
Baskerville snorted at such a thought. "My dear young fellow, when you've more experience in town, you'll learn to separate rubbish from truth, and to do that, you need to be better acquainted with the individuals involved. Now, I heard the same story, but I also know DuVille and Langford, so I knew the whole story was pure faradiddle. Knew it the moment I heard it."
"As did I!" the more sober of the young men announced.
"A lamentable bit of nonsense," Nicki confirmed, when everyone seemed to wait for his response, "that will soon be forgotten."
"Knew it was," said Miss Charity's brother, the distinguished Duke of Stanhope, as he shoved chips into the growing heap at the center of the table. "Doesn't surprise me in the least to discover you and Langford are the best of friends. Both of you are the most amiable of men."
"No doubt about it," the sober young man said to Nicki with a mischievous grin, "but if you and Langford were ever to come to blows, I'd want to be there!"
"Why is that?" the Duke of Stanhope inquired.
"Because I've seen Langford and DuVille box at Gentleman Jackson's. Not with each other, of course, but they're the best I've ever seen with their fists. A fight between them would have lured even me to Almack's."
"And me!" exclaimed his companion with a hiccup.
Baskerville was appalled by their youthful misconception of civilized manhood, and he felt obliged to point out their gross lack of understanding. "Langford and DuVille would never stoop to settling matters with their fists, my good fellow! That's the difference between you hotheaded young pups and gentlemen like DuVille and Langford and the rest of us. You ought to study the excellent manners of your elders, acquire some of their town polish, don't you know. Rather than admiring DuVille's skill with his fists, you'd be wise to imitate his excellent address and his way with a neckcloth."
"Thank you, Baskerville," idly murmured Nicki because Baskerville seemed to be waiting for some sort of affirmative response.
"Welcome, DuVille. I speak only the truth. As to Langford," Baskerville continued, waiting for his turn to bet, "you couldn't have a finer example of refinement and gentlemanly arts. Fisticuffs to settle a disagreement, indeed!" he scoffed. "Why, the very thought of it is offensive to any civilized man."
"Ludicrous to even discuss it," the Duke of Stanhope agreed, studying the faces of the other players before he decided whether to wager on his rather poor hand of cards.
"My apologies, sirs, if—" the sober one of the young pair began, but he broke off abruptly. "Thought you said Langford was rusticating," he said in a bewildered tone that implied there was evidence at hand that proved otherwise.
All five men glanced up and saw Stephen Westmoreland heading straight toward them wearing an expression that, as he came nearer, looked far more ominous than amiable. Without so much as a nod to acknowledge acquaintances calling out greetings to him, the Earl of Langford stalked purposefully around tables and chairs and gamblers, bearing down on the five men at Baskerville's table and then circling around their chairs.
Four of those men stiffened, eyeing him with the wary disbelief of innocent men who are suddenly and unaccountably confronted with a threat they neither understand nor deserve from a predator they had mistaken for tame.
Only Nicholas DuVille seemed unconcerned with the tangible danger emanating from Langford. In fact, to the population of White's, who were all turning to watch in incredulous fascination, Nicholas DuVille seemed to be positively inviting a confrontation by his deliberate and exaggerated nonchalance. As the earl stopped beside his chair, DuVille leaned back, shoved his hands deeply into his pockets, and with a thin cheroot clamped between his white teeth, he acknowledged the earl with a sardonic questioning look. "Care to join us, Langford?"
"Get up!" the Earl of Langford bit out.
The challenge was unmistakable and imminent.
It caused a minor commotion as several young bucks sprinted for White's Betting Book to enter their wagers on the outcome. It caused a lazy, white smile to work its way across DuVille's face as he slouched deeper into his chair, thoughtfully chewed the end of his cheroot, and appeared to contemplate the invitation with considerable relish. As if he wanted to be certain his hopes weren't unfounded, he quirked a brow in amused inquiry. "Here?" he asked, his smile widening.
"Get out of that chair," the earl snarled in a dangerously soft voice, "you son of a—"
"Definitely, here," DuVille interrupted, his smile hardening as he shoved up from his lounging position and jerked his head in the direction of one of the back rooms.
News of the impending fight reached White's manager within moments, and he rushed out from the kitchen. "Now, now, gentlemen! Gentlemen!" the manager entreated as he shoved through the crowd exiting in polite haste from the back room. "Never in the history of White's has there ever—"
The door slammed in his face.
"Think of your attire, gentlemen! Think of the furniture!" he shouted, opening the door just in time to hear the savage sound of a fist connecting with bone and to see DuVille's head snap back.
Yanking the door closed, the manager spun around, his faced drained of color, hands still clutching the door handle behind his back. A hundred male faces eyed him expectantly, all of them interested in the same information. "Well?" said one of them.
The manager's face contorted with pain as he contemplated the possible damage to the back room's expensive green baize faro tables, but he managed to gasp out a quavering reply. "At this time…I would suggest… three-to-two odds."