Maximillian Burke was a very bad man.
He watched a tendril of smoke rise from the mouth of the pistol in his hand, trying to figure out exactly when he had embraced the role of villain in the farce his life had become. He had always been the honorable one, the dependable one, the one who chose each step he took with the utmost care to avoid even the possibility of a stumble. He had spent his entire life striving to be the son every father would be proud to claim and the man any mother would want her daughter to marry.
At least that's what everyone believed.
It was his younger brother Ashton who had gone around getting into brawls, challenging drunken loudmouths to duels and facing the occasional firing squad. But now Ash was comfortably settled in their ancestral home of Dryden Hall with his adoring wife and their chattering moppet of a daughter. A daughter who had her mother's flaxen hair and laughing green eyes.
Maximillian briefly closed his eyes, as if by doing so he could blot out the image.
While Ash enjoyed the domestic bliss that should have been Max's with the woman Max had loved for most of his life, Max stood in a chilly Hyde Park meadow at dawn, his boots coated in wet grass and the man he had just shot groaning on the ground twenty paces away.He had little doubt Ash would have laughed at his predicament, even if it had been a drunken slur cast on Max's sister-in-law's good name that had prompted it.
Max could not seem to remember Clarinda's honor was no longer his to defend.
When he opened his gray eyes, they were as steely as flints. "Get up and stop whining, you fool!" he told the man still writhing about in the grass. "The wound isn't mortal. I only winged your shoulder."
Clutching his upper arm in bloodstained fingers, the young swell eyed Max reproachfully, his ragged sniff making Max fear he was about to burst into tears. "You needn't be so unkind, my lord. It still hurts like the devil."
Blowing out an impatient sigh, Max handed the pistol to the East India Company lieutenant he had bullied into being his second and stalked across the grass to help the wounded man to his feet, gentling his grip with tremendous effort. "It's going to hurt more if you lay there whimpering until a constable comes to toss us both into Newgate for the crime of dueling. It will probably fester in that filth and you'll lose the arm altogether."
Max was only too relieved to hand the wounded fellow off to his own white-faced second and the hovering surgeon. Resting his hands on his hips, he watched them load the lad into a carriage.
He had to confess there was something almost liberating about relinquishing his heroic mantle. When you were a villain, no one looked at you askance if you drank too much or neglected to tie your cravat in a flawless bow. No one whispered behind their hands if it had been three days since your last shave. Max ruefully stroked the stubble on his jaw, remembering a time when he would have fired his valet for letting him appear in public in such a disreputable state.
He was no longer forced to make painfully polite conversation with those who sought his favor. Nor did he have to suffer fools graciously, if not gladly. Instead, everyone scurried out of his way to avoid the caustic lash of his tongue and the contempt smoldering in his smoky gray eyes. They had no way of knowing his contempt wasn't for them, but for the man he had become, the man he had always secretly been.
If he hadn't been so deep in his cups when he had overheard his unfortunate dueling opponent loudly tell his friends that legendary adventurer Ashton Burke had married a sultan's whore, he would have never challenged the silly git to a duel. What the boy really needed was a sound thrashing before being sent to bed without supper.
Shaking his head in disgust, Max turned on his heel and went striding toward his own carriage. He needed to get out of London before he killed someone. Most likely himself.
The lieutenant hurried back across the grass to retrieve the pistol and return it to its mahogany case before trotting after him. "M-m-my lord?" he asked, the stammer betraying his nervousness. "W-where are you going?"
"Probably hell," Max snapped without breaking his stride. "All that remains to be seen is how long it will take me to get there."