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The Rogue Not Taken: Page 53
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He drank deep, guilt turning to frustration. What a damn fool he was to have brought Sophie here, to have introduced her to his demons. To have tempted them both with what could never be.
Because even if he did marry her-he could never love her.
He'd done that once. And look where it had landed him. Alone. Drunk. In the library.
King turned his attention to the door, where Agnes stood. Agnes, who had been by his side from childhood, more mother than housekeeper, more friend than servant. She was the only person in the world who could look at him with such equal parts adoration and disdain. "Come in, Agnes," he said, waving a hand to the chair opposite. "Sit and tell me tales of the last decade."
She drew closer, but did not sit. "Are you drunk?"
He looked up at her. "I'm working on it."
She considered him for a long moment and then said, "Your father wishes to see you."
"I do not wish to see him."
"You don't have a choice, Aloysius."
"No one calls me that," he said.
"Well, I am most definitely not going to call you King," Agnes said, dry and certain. "I already have one of them."
"And a monarch in London, as well," King quipped.
"That's the drink talking, or I'd take a switch to you for rudeness."
He looked up into her pretty face. The years had been kind to her, despite the fact that he imagined his father was anything but. "I'm too old for switches, Nessie. And I'm well past the age where I mustn't disrespect the pater."
She narrowed her brown eyes on him.
"You may disrespect your father all you like. I won't have you disrespecting me. Drunk or otherwise."
The words set him back. For a boy who had grown up without a mother, Agnes had been the best possible companion, always forthright, always caring, always there. She'd been young and pretty when King was a child, always willing to play. It had been Agnes who had shown King the secret nooks and crannies of the castle, always finding time for him. When King had broken his wrist after tripping down the castle stairs, it had been Agnes who had gathered him in her arms and promised him he would be well. And it had been Agnes who had always told King the truth, even when it made him feel like an ass.
The housekeeper nodded. "And while we're at it, why not try your hand at not disrespecting your future wife, either?"
It was too late for that.
"She's not my future wife."
Agnes raised a brow. "Has she come to her senses and left you, then?"
Somehow, she hadn't. But he was through keeping her here, against her wishes, forcing her to tell a story that she didn't want to tell. He was releasing her from their agreement as soon as possible. This afternoon. The moment he next saw her.
And she would leave him.
"She will," he replied, hating the words.
"You know that will be entirely your fault."
He nodded. "I know."
And he did. He'd drive her away, just as he did with every other woman who had ever shown a modicum of interest in him since Lorna. Except, all the other times, it had been easy . . . a smile, a stolen kiss, a promise that they'd find someone even better. More ideal. Perfect for them.
But he didn't want Sophie finding someone more perfect.
He wanted to be someone more perfect for her.
Except he didn't know how to be.
"I hate this place."
He sighed, leaning his head back on the chair and closing his eyes. "Because it makes me feel like a child. It makes me feel like the child I was when I lived here, clinging to your skirts, uncertain of what to do next. The only difference is that now I could not care less about his opinion of my actions."
She watched him carefully. "I'm not certain that's true."
She was right, of course. He cared deeply about his father's opinion of his actions. He wanted him to loathe them. He stood, irritated by the revelation. "When I inherit, I'm razing the place and its memories." He moved to a low table nearby and filled his glass once more. "Lead on. Take me to the king of the castle, so I may receive my instructions and leave him in peace. If all goes well, we can have it out, and we'll never see each other again."
He would have left already, if not for Sophie.
"He is not the villain you think he is, you know."
He cut her a look. "With due respect, you are not his son."
"No," she said, "but I have run his house since you were born. I was here the night you left. I've been here all the nights since."
"Since he forced my hand and left me to kill the woman I loved."
Agnes stopped short. King had never said the words aloud, and in the last twenty-four hours, he'd said them twice. It was as though telling Sophie had unlocked something in him.
"What is it?" he asked.
She shook her head and began to move again. "I promised your father I'd fetch you."
"I am fetched, Agnes," he said. "I do not require escort."
"I think he is afraid you will leave if you are left to your own devices."
If not for Sophie, he would have already left.
"He isn't wrong. I only came to tell him that the line dies with me."
"You don't think that lovely girl will want children?"
Of course she would. And she'd make a wonderful mother.
But not to his children.
To someone else's children. Someone who loved her as she deserved, her and her damn bookshop stocked with texts no one but she would ever want. That would be his gift to her. The freedom to have that bookshop. To find that happiness. That love.
Just as it had been his gift to all the other women whose marriages he'd stopped before they happened. The chance to find love.
The chance Lorna had never had.
Sophie would have it.
That he hated the idea of her in love with another man was irrelevant.
"You'll hear what he has to say before you leave," Agnes said, as though it were her bidding that would make him. "You owe it to me."
She looked to him then, and he realized that, though fifteen years had passed and she remained a beautiful woman, this place had aged her. "For all the years I've worried about you."
He was ever disappointing the women around him.
They were at the door to his father's study and as he stared at it, he remembered being a child and standing here, heart in his throat, worried about what the man on the other side would say.
There was none of that youthful trepidation in him now.
Agnes lifted her hand to knock, to announce their arrival.
King stayed her. "No."
He turned the handle, and stepped inside.
The Duke of Lyne was standing at the far end of the study, at the oriel windows that looked out on the vast estate lands. He turned at the sound of the door. His father was impeccably turned out in navy topcoat and buckskin, boots to the knee, and perfectly pressed cravat.
"One would think that you would eschew formal attire this far from London in both distance and time," King said.
The duke leveled him with a long, thorough, disdainful gaze. "One would think you would remember your manners in spite of the distance, and not turn up drunk in the middle of the day."
King did not wait to be told to sit, instead sprawling into a chair nearby, enjoying the way one of his father's grey brows rose in irritation. "I find that alcohol helps with my great distaste for this place."
"You didn't hate it when you were a child."
"I didn't see its truth."
"And what is that?"
King drank. "That it turns us into monsters."
The duke approached and sat in the chair opposite him. King considered his father, still tall and trim, the kind of man women would find handsome even as he aged. And he had aged in the last decade, the silver that had once been the purview of his temples now spread throughout all his hair, lines at his mouth and eyes that King had once heard referred to as signs of good humor.
It was humorous indeed to think of his father as the kind of man who was known for such a thing.
"You look well," the duke said. "Older."
King drank. "Why am I here?"
"It is time we speak."
"You sent word you were dying."
Lyne waved a hand. "We are all dying, are we not?"
King cut him a look. "Some of us not quickly enough."
The duke sat back in his chair. "I suppose you think I deserve that."
"I know you deserve more," King said. There was a pause, and he said, "I won't ask again, Your Grace. You either tell me why I've been summoned here or I leave, and the next time I see this place, I shall bear its name."
"I could follow you to London."
"I have avoided you for fifteen years, your grace. London is a very big city."
"It will be difficult for you to do so if I resume my role as duke."
"To do that, you'd have to take your seat in Parliament.
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