“Surely you’re not accusing Mr. Reynaud of murder.”
“He might as well,” Chase said. “My cousin didn’t die at my hand, but I killed him just the same.”
Ashbury rolled his eyes. “If you’re going to interrupt me every ten seconds, you may as well do this yourself.”
“You know, that’s a fine idea.” Chase set aside his brandy. “I’ll take over, Ashbury. There are a few sporting magazines on the tea table if you need to amuse yourself in the meantime.”
Chase leaned forward, bracing his arms on his knees and folding his hands together. “He was the youngest of my three cousins, and the best of the lot. Meant for the church, not the dukedom. But my middle cousin died in the war, and the eldest had a riding accident not long after. And then suddenly . . . Anthony was the heir. Twenty years old, no experience of the world or preparation for the title. Still grieving for his older brothers, and so na?ve. My uncle sent him to London for the Season. I was supposed to show him the town, give him some exposure to society, help him make friends. I promised I’d look after him. And . . .” He sat back with a sigh. “I failed.”
“That’s a generous summary,” Ash put in.
“I’m getting to the details, Ashbury.” Chase continued, “It’s probably no surprise that my ideas of society and culture were somewhat different from my uncle’s. I took my cousin around to the clubs. Pleasure gardens. The theaters, both respectable and less than so. He needed some true experience among his peers. Enough confidence to hold his own. One night, we began at the club. Then it was on to the opera dancers. By the time we arrived at the gaming hell, we were having a right jolly time. Looking back, he was deeper into his cups than I realized. I wasn’t precisely sober, either. An alluring bit of satin skirt floated by. I was flirtatious; she was willing. I told myself Anthony would be fine. He had to learn to look after himself eventually, didn’t he? So I left with her. And I never saw my cousin alive again.”
Alex was tempted to offer some crooning words of sympathy, but she didn’t want to interrupt him when he so clearly had so much more to say.
“He accused a man of cheating at the vingt-et-un table. The fellow denied it, but Anthony wouldn’t let the matter go. It was the sort of row I could have smoothed over in a matter of seconds, had I been there. But I wasn’t there. So the argument escalated. They went outside and . . .” Chase rubbed his face with both hands, and when he looked up again, his eyes were red. “Had I been keeping watch on him as I’d promised, I could have saved him.”
“Perhaps you didn’t want to save him,” Ashbury said. “It’s rumored that you killed him yourself.”
“Ash.” Alexandra was aghast.
“No one saw this ‘fight’ happen in the alleyway. Reynaud was conveniently nowhere to be found.”
“I told you, I was with a—”
“A woman, yes. Which woman was that, again?”
Chase’s jaw tensed, as though he didn’t want to answer. “I couldn’t give you her name. I never learned it.”
Alexandra spoke up. “Surely you don’t believe he killed his cousin in cold blood.”
“Perhaps not. But the suspicions are not wholly unreasonable. As next in line, Reynaud stood to benefit directly from his cousin’s death.”
“I should think you know better than to heed that sort of gossip,” she said.
“He’s only relating facts,” Chase said. “I did directly benefit, and there are many who suspect that my cousin’s death was no accident. And then I wrangled legal control from my uncle a few years later. Your friend is not the first to deem it remarkable that I went from fourth in line for the title to presumptive heir with power of attorney, in the span of a few years.”
“Remarkable, indeed,” Ash said.
“But don’t believe the rumor that my uncle’s illness is some sort of ruse. When he viewed the lifeless body of his third and only remaining son, he suffered an apoplexy on the spot. The old man’s been paralyzed and unable to speak ever since,” Chase said bitterly. “So you see, I couldn’t have planned it—but if you’re conferring with the gossips, it worked out well for me anyhow. Is there anything I’ve forgotten, Ashbury?”
Ash rose to his feet. “The bit where you’re a base, rascally, cheating, lack-linen mate.”
Chase snapped his fingers. “Oh, yes. That, too. Whatever it meant.”
“Ashbury only swears in Shakespearean,” she explained.
The duke turned to Alexandra and crossed his arms over his chest. “Alex, I hope you see him clearly now.”
The suggestion that Chase would devise a plot to kill off his cousin and wrest legal control from his uncle was absurd. She knew Ash loved Shakespeare, but this wasn’t a performance of Richard III.