Chapter Two from Lady Beware|
In which Lady Thea has a dark encounter.
The illustration here is the step back to Lady Beware. It's very pretty, but doesn't have much to do with the story, which mostly takes place in London. I like the misty couple and I've reproduced it, darkened, as a background here, but that sort of thing doesn't go on in this scene. Not at first meeting!
Thea hurried out into the dimly lit corridor and headed back to the ball. When she turned the corner, she caught sight of herself in a gilt-framed mirror, illuminated by a wall-lamp at its side. That half inch of green showed again.
She tossed her fan on a small table and readjusted everything. Lord! Too low! The darker area around her nipples had been showing. Why did fashion have to be so outrageous? Society preached modesty and good behavior, but expected ladies to dress like this.
There. She cupped her breasts and rotated her shoulders, testing the stability of the arrangement. It should stay...
But then something alerted her. She glanced sharply to the left and froze.
In the shadowy corridor, a man watched her. A man with the dark hair and eyes of a foreigner -- heavy-lidded eyes which observed her with wicked amusement.
Face fiery, Thea grabbed her fan and flipped it open as a shield. "Who are you, sir? What are you doing in this part of the house?"
If he'd answered, this might be nothing but an embarrassing moment, but he did not.
And she didn't know him.
She knew anyone who had reason to be in Yeovil House tonight, and she certainly wouldn't have forgotten this man after even the briefest encounter.
Though not large or tall, his presence filled the corridor with an air of power and command. She could almost imagine that he'd sucked the air thinner. The light of the lamp beside her hardly reached him, and the next one was behind him, but she could tell his features were well-formed and strong.
Dark evening clothes spoke of wealth, as did the flash of jewels in his white neckcloth. But he wasn't a gentleman. No gentleman would look at a lady as he was doing now.
Who was he, intruding into the private part of her home, making her heart thunder?
"Sir?" Thea demanded.
"Madam?" he responded, speaking at last, the one mocking word revealing a surprisingly mellow voice. And perhaps a foreign intonation?
Thea almost laughed with relief. Of course. He must be a new member of one of the embassies. They sometimes arrived with poor English and strange manners. One of the Persian diplomats had constantly invited ladies to join his harem.
"You are lost, sir?" Thea said, speaking slowly and clearly. "This is the private part of the house."
He didn't answer. Instead, he walked toward her.
Thea took a sharp step back. She almost felt she should scream, but that would be ridiculous, here in her father's house.
"Sir..." she said again. Then she thrust out a gloved hand, palm forward. "Stop!"
To her surprise, he did. Her panic simmered down, but all the same, she was completely at a loss. She'd hate to cause a diplomatic incident, but every instinct was crying, Danger!
She gestured down the corridor. "May I guide you back to the ball, sir?"
"I believe I can find my way unaided."
She froze, hand out.
His English was perfect.
"Then I will leave you to your wanderings," she said and walked forward to pass him.
He moved to block her way.
Thea was caught within a foot of him, mouth suddenly paper dry. She could not possibly be in danger here, within call of family and servants.
But she was not within call of anyone. Her family were all with the guests, and most of the servants were busy there, too. She was, she realized, shockingly isolated in the dimly-lit silence, in the company of a dangerous man.
She put eight-hundred years of aristocratic power into an icy challenge. "Sir?"
He inclined his head. "Madam. At your service. Depending entirely, of course, on the service you desire."
In some subtle way, he lingered on the world `desire', and she remembered the way he'd been watching her.
"All I require is that you let me pass."
"I did say it depended."
"You, sir, are a boor and a cad. Step out of my way."
She glared at him, wanting to force her way past, but physical strength beat out of him like heat. He could control her one-handed.
"Then I will find another route," she said and turned to walk away.
He grabbed the back of her gown.
Thea froze, shock, terror, and fury tightening her throat. Her voice came hoarsely. "If you knew who I was..."
"Lady Theodosia Debenham, I assume."
He knew her? "Is this some ridiculous joke?" she demanded.
"Then what are you doing?"
"Trying to talk to you."
Thea inhaled and exhaled twice. "Let go of me."
To her surprise, he did. She was very tempted to run, but he'd catch her easily, so she chose dignity and faced him, flipping open her fan and waving it, trying to make her heart beats match that pace.
Up close, she saw that indeed his features were regular and could be called handsome – if one didn’t mind cold harshness. But she also saw his flaws -- a nose slightly crooked by violence, and a number of minor scars.
This was a man who knew danger, and carried it with him.
When faced with a dangerous animal, one should try not to show fear.
"I do not know you, sir,” Thea said, “so how do you know who I am?"
"You have a distinct look of your brother. We were at school together."
Her fear lessened a little.
"You're a Rogue?" she asked. She hadn't met all of Dare's friends from his Harrow schooldays, but this wasn’t the behavior she’d expect of them.
"No." Something in the flat word made Thea twitch with alarm.
"Whoever you are, you are too old to behave like a schoolboy. Let me pass."
His dark brows rose. "You often have such confrontations with schoolboys?"
Thea snapped her fan shut. "Let me pass!"
He didn't move.
"I will be missed. Someone will come to look for me and then you will get what you deserve!"
"But I so rarely do."
Was that a smile? If so, it was twisted by a short scar that cut white through the left corner of his mouth and another that pulled up his right brow. He was truly dangerous and despite her bold words, it could be a long time before anyone came to this part of the house. Even a scream might not be heard.
Don’t show fear.
"Who are you, sir? And what do you want?"
"My name is Horatio, and I want to talk to you."
"You are talking to me, but to no purpose that I can see."
"It's making your bosom heave delightfully."
She glanced down. Cursing herself, she fixed her gaze back on him. "Speak!"
"Or forever hold my peace? How suitable. I have a proposal for you."
Thea gaped. "You're asking me to marry you?"
Dark brows rose again. "Would you?"
"Of course not! Enough of this. Let me pass, Mr. Horatio Nobody, or you will rue it bitterly."
"Or your brother will."
The words poured over Thea like icy water. "You said you were a friend of his."
"Everyone who went to school with Dare Debenham must adore him? But then, he must need friends now -- crippled, broken, and addicted to opium-"
"-and accused of cowardice."
"Which is a black lie.” She narrowed her eyes. “Are you responsible for that story? If so, sir, you are the most despicable worm ever to crawl the earth!"
"You often talk to worms?"
Thea's would have hit him with her fan, but it would shatter a work of art to absolutely no effect. A hammer might not dent him.
Then he raised a hand. It might even be in apology.
"I had nothing to do with the rumor," he said, "but now it exists your mother can host a ball a week and command the ton to attend every one of them without wiping it away. You need a credible witness to deny the story, or it will hang over your brother forever."
"You think we don't know this?"
"Sometimes it helps to state the obvious."
"And it pleases you to do so." It was a wild shot, but it hit. "You wish Dare ill," she said, frowning. "No one wishes Dare ill."
“Really? How pleasant it must be to be him. Any pleasure I take in his situation is solely because it will allow me to correct the error."
She distrusted every word he said. "Why?"
"For a suitable reward."
"Ah, money." She spat it, and his lip turned up wryly.
"Lady Theodosia, people only sneer at money if they've never lacked it."
This was the most bizarre encounter of Thea's life, but she was beginning to see her way, though she was strangely disappointed that this man prove so base.
"So, sir, what do you have to offer? And what is your price?"
He showed no sign of offense. "I can tell the world that I saw your brother's horse shot from under him, in the midst of action not in flight. In other words honorably."
Her heart leapt, but she tried not to show it. "Would it be true?" she asked.
"Would it matter?"
A startling question, but it struck home. To save Dare from this burden, she'd lie herself if there was any point to it.
"Then, would you be believed? That is crucial."
He inclined his head in acknowledgement. "I fought at Waterloo, and in about the right place."
A soldier. Of course he was. It didn’t make him any less dangerous, but at least she understood. Her world had been full of officers all her adult life. They came in all types, but there was something that marked them, even the most light-hearted, as having looked into the eyes of death, and delivered it. In this man, it was particularly potent. It sizzled down her nerves and didn’t make him safe, but it eased her anxiety. Her main comfort came from knowing this was a matter of buying and selling.
"So," she asked, "your price?"
"Marriage. Marry me and I will clear Dare's name."
Click here for the third and final installment.
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