Chapter 81: A Vendetta of Power
A sense of deja vu washed over Nicholas as he studied the three people seated at the table around him, and recalled a similar scenario where Octavia, the Prime Minister, and King Henri had sabotaged him with Eleanora’s marriage proposal. He slumped back into his chair with a sigh. ‘Good luck, Percy.’
The Earl offered his mother a benevolent smile before he replied, “I am not getting engaged to Lady Evelynn.” His rejection and expression were in such disharmony that Nicholas took a moment to register what he said.
The Countess recovered much faster. “Percy!” she snapped in a tone filled with reproach.
The Earl ignored her as he turned his attention towards the Dowager. “As much as I appreciate the Queen Regent’s interest in the future of the Hawthorne family, respectfully, I think your Grace should focus on Nicholas and Eleanora’s coronation and other matters—” he tapped at the document before him “—that are important for Lafeara’s future.”
Nicholas clamped his lips together as a laugh threatened to prick the dangerous bubble of tension that enveloped them all. He covered his traitorous lips with a hand as he watched his old friend with begrudging respect. Right now, the best thing Nicholas could do for Percy was to remain silent. Though he would be happy to step in if the Earl so much as looked in his direction for help, something told him, this would not be the case.
Lady Constance’s usually guarded topaz-blue eyes flashed with barely contained rage as she attempted to pin down her rebellious son. Whatever plan she had laid out by bringing up the engagement in front of the Dowager, Percy was clearly unwilling to comply.
Octavia raised a single elegant grey eyebrow and offered Percy an amused smile. The Earl continued to ignore the beams of wrath radiating from his mother as his gaze remained locked with that of the Queen Regent.
“No one is suggesting we rush towards marriage, Lord Percy,” Octavia said with a tone of reassuring calm. “But your mother and I both agree that Lady Evelynn is a good match. And the Hawthorne and Hendrix households have been in talks for some time as well. It would be ignoble of you to drag the matter on any further, only to break the poor girl’s heart.”
“Your Grace,” Percy responded without a flicker of guilt or reproach. “You know as well as I do that an engagement cannot be made official without the intended groom’s consent. More importantly, I already rejected Lord Hendrix’s initial offer of marriage three months ago, so I am bewildered as to why the matter bares any further discussion. I have not changed my mind since then, nor have I given Lord Hendrix or Lady Evelynn any cause to believe I would.”
“I see,” Octavia replied as her gaze shifted to Constance. “Then, do you have another bride in mind?”
“I am very focused on my new responsibilities at the moment, your Grace. But I will be sure to let you know when I find a woman equal to the task of being the next Countess of Hawthorne,” Percy answered without hesitation.
“Nonsense,” Constance interjected, finally breaking her silence. “Lady Evelynn is refined, educated, resourceful, and comes from one of the most eligible noble families of Lafeara.”
“Hendrix is only a Viscount, Mother,” Percy replied with a hint of restraint.
“So, the young Earl is aiming for someone higher?” Octavia commented with a calculating tone. “Perhaps, the daughter a Marquess?”
Nicholas doubled over sharply as he choked down a laugh. He hastily coughed and reached for his tea in an effort to cover his unwelcomed interruption. Fortunately, the Dowager and Countess remained focused on the obstinate Earl.
There were only two women of marriageable age who belonged to the house of a Marquess, and one of them had been his father’s secret mistress. That left the daughter of Marquess Borghese, Lady Priscilla.
‘Percy and Priscilla?’ He considered it for a moment then rejected the idea altogether. It was, perhaps, a match even more disastrous than his own marriage. ‘Though it would be an interesting way to keep the Marquess in check.’
Percy interlocked his fingers and pressed them against the document before him. “Again, your Grace, I respectfully ask that we focus on the matter of Lafeara’s impending future.”
“I simply don’t understand why a young man of twenty years is so intimidated by the thought of marriage,” Octavia replied with a teasing smile.
“Perhaps because I wish to live longer than my father did.”
This time Nicholas not only choked on his tea but managed to dump half of it down his ceremonial jacket. Beside him, the Countess sucked in a sharp breath as her cup clinked against the saucer plate. ‘Pope’s Balls, old friend, so much for keeping your cool.’
Around the room, the Queen Regent’s attendants quickly retreated to safety. Nicholas cast an anxious glance between the silent Dowager and the Earl as he hastily wiped down his jacket and the royal medallion. The tension between those pairs of ice-blue and winter-gray eyes was enough to send a familiar, foreboding chill down Nicholas’s spine.
The Dowager smiled, a sight about as cheerful and reassuring as a wolf spreading its fangs. Percy wisely lowered his gaze, though from the locked position of his jaw—the Earl didn’t appear ready to recant those words any time soon.
“Lord Percy,” Octavia murmured with deadly calm. “Would you care to expound upon that statement.”
“Certainly, your Grace,” Percy replied without a shred of hesitation.
‘Has he gone mad?’
“I think—” Nicholas quickly interjected as he grabbed Percy’s wrist and squeezed tightly “—that it’s been a while since my friend and I have seen each other. If you’ll excuse us.” He pushed back his chair and yanked the Earl from his seat.
“Nicholas.” Octavia’s calm tone only solidified the fear in his gut. “We still have to—”
For the first time, in a very long time, Nicholas blatantly ignored his grandmother as he led his old friend from the wolf’s jaws towards the nearest exit.
“Percy, wait!” the Countess called after them as she rose from her seat.
Beaumont opened the doors ahead of them and followed at their heels as Nicholas dragged the rigid Earl in the direction of the front doors.
Once they were outside on the palace steps, Percy shook his grip loose. “Thank you, your Majesty,” he growled and brushed past Nicholas down the steps, “but I can leave on my own.”
“Wait a minute!” Nicholas grabbed the Earl’s shoulder and turned him around. “Are you out of your mind, Percy?”
“I am not you, your Majesty,” Percy replied coldly. “I refuse to be manipulated by that woman.”
“You! You’re still holding onto those unfounded suspicions, even after all these years?” Nicholas scoffed as he ignored the sting of Percy’s words.
Percy inhaled slowly and brushed Nicholas’s grip from his shoulder. “I may barely remember my father’s face—or the sound of his voice, but I have not forgotten who had the most to gain from his death.”
“Percy!” Nicholas shook his head. “Do you honestly believe Lady Constance would support my grandmother if she believed the Dowager had anything to do with your father’s death.”
Percy stared back at him, frustration and anger slipped past the mask the Earl had learned to wear from a very young age. Then he stepped closer. “Do you still believe it was a coincidence Queen Catalina died a week after my father was murdered? Do you even remember how she looked like when she died, your Majesty?”
Nicholas’s hands curled into fists, and Beaumont moved warily closer.
“You know what?” Percy continued with a dismissive, cold smile. “I don’t need an answer.”
Beaumont’s hand caught Nicholas’s shoulder as Percy turned his back on the crown prince and continued down the steps.
“By the way,” Percy paused at the bottom step and turned back, his political mask once more in place. “Belated congratulations on your marriage to Princess Eleanora. Please be sure to treat my cousin with the respect she deserves. Her happiness and security are of the greatest importance to the Hawthorne family.”
‘Was that a threat?’
Nicholas’s fists tightened as the Earl turned around once more and continued towards the palace gate. Beaumont maintained his gentle grip long after the Hawthorne carriage pulled away from the entrance.
Nicholas jerked free as he pulled out his ceremonial sword, stormed towards the nearest garden bush, and hacked it to pieces. “Bastard!”
‘You bloody fool! Don’t you realize, digging into the death of the queens is what got Tristan killed!’