Realm 02 - A Touch of Velvet

BOOK: Realm 02 - A Touch of Velvet
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Touch of

Velvet

 

By Regina Jeffers

 

Copyright

2010 by Regina Jeffers

All rights Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced or transmitted in any manner (electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any informat
ion storage and retrieval system) whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

All rights reserved. First published in 2010 by Xlibris Corporation.

Re-edited and Released in 2012.

Cast
of Characters

 

Members of the Realm and Their Ladies

James Kerrington, Viscount Worthing
–the leader of the Realm; the future Earl of Linworth; from Derbyshire; resides at Linton Park

Eleanor Fowler
–Brantley Fowler’s sister

Brantley Fowler, the Duke of Thornhill
–from Kent; resides at Thorn Hill

Velvet Aldridge
–the Fowlers’ cousin; lives at Thorn Hall with Eleanor

Marcus Wellston, Earl of Berwick, Lord Yardley
–from Northumberland; resides at Tweed Hall

Cashémere and Satiné Aldridge
– Velvet’s younger sisters; Cashémere resides with the Averettes; Satiné with Baron Ashton

Gabriel Crowden, Marquis of Godown
– from Staffordshire; resides at Gossling Hall

Miss Grace Nelson
–daughter of Baron and Lady Nelson from Lancashire; she works as a governess for the Averettes

Aidan Kimbolt, Viscount Lexford
–lives in Cheshire; resides at

Lexington Arms

John Swenton, Baron Shannon
–lives in Yorkshire; resides at Marwood Manor

Sir Carter Lowery
–second son of Baron Blakehell; a baronet from Kent; was given Huntingborne Abbey by George IV, the Prince Regent

 

Minor Characters of Importance to the Series

Shaheed Mir
–leader of a band of Baloch warriors; seeks revenge on the Realm for stealing a fist-sized emerald

Murhad Jamot
–Mir’s agent in England

Viscount Averette (Samuel Aldridge)
–the Aldridge girls’ paternal uncle; raised Cashémere

Baron Ashton (Charles Morton)
–the Aldridge girls’ maternal uncle; raised Satiné

Ashmita
–Brantley Fowler’s first wife; attacked by Mir’s band

Sonali
–Fowler’s daughter

Shepherd
–the Realm’s leader; so named because he gathers “lost souls”

 

Prologue

 

Pretending to need to exercise his legs, Brantley Fowler stretched. “I believe I will take a walk,” he announced to the rest of the men gathered in the tent. Yet, before Bran could take more than five steps in the direction of an adjoining tent, a burly-looking Baloch soldier blocked his path. Without saying a word, the man told Bran to reconsider his choices.

For over a day, Fowler had watched as various men had entered the nearby tent. He had listened to the girl’s screams and had heard the brutal responses of her attackers. With each cry of pain, Fowler inwardly recoiled–his heart and mind remained tuned only to the abuse that the girl suffered; and she was a girl, probably no more than fourteen or fifteen. Bran had spied her when a guard walked her to a nearby area where she could bathe. Under Shaheed Mir’s orders, the Balochs had separated her from the other women in the encampment, as if she was a nonentity. Bruises had covered her face and arms, and Fowler had imagined the rest of her body held similar maltreatment. However, he noted with interest that even with the physical markings, she had maintained a regal appearance–her body had been abused, but her spirit had prevailed. Despite the abhorrent physical abuse she had suffered, his body had reacted to her immediately–coal black hair, sun kissed skin, and hazel eyes–so familiar, stirring something Fowler had thought he had left behind, but here it was again in this innocent.

“What do you plan to do?” his friend James Kerrington, the future Earl of Linworth, instinctively asked. It was no secret among the Realm members that Brantley Fowler took it personally when a man used a woman for his own pleasure, especially an innocent. Kerrington served as the group’s “Captain,” but he offered no direct orders when it came to a man fighting his own devils, and such molestation was Fowler’s “devil.”

Now, as Bran prepared to make his move, he innately knew the others in the group would support his current action. He noted from his eye’s corner that Gabriel Crowden, the Marquis of Godown, placed himself in a position to attack Mir’s men to his left, and Aidan Kimbolt, Viscount Lexford, to his right. Carter Lowery, Marcus Wellston, and John Swenton remained alert, waiting for Bran’s signal.

“Forgive me,” he mumbled, backing away from the warrior. His words were more than an apology: They were a warning of what was to come. Raising his hands in submission, Fowler shrugged as if to agree with the Baloch guard blocking his way, but in a split second, he struck the man an upper cut, sending the guy reeling with a broken nose.

A heartbeat later, Fowler and Kerrington stood back-to-back, taking on all comers, delivering lethal thrusts after deathly jabs. “I have it,” Kerrington called as he parlayed a broken chair for a weapon. “Retrieve the girl. Take her to the safe house in Bombay.” He shoved Fowler towards the girl’s tent.

Bran did not look back; he knew his friends would give him time to make a safe escape. At a run, he covered the space between the two tents in seconds, delivering several blows to the mid section of an approaching guard and a chop across the larynx of another.

In the tent, the girl cried as the man posed to find his gratification. Tied to the makeshift bed’s posts, she could not move her upper body. Stripped naked, she had turned her face from the oncoming assault. She no longer fought the invasion of her body–accepting that she would die at one of her attackers’ hands–no longer caring. She possessed no reputation–no dignity; it had deserted her when Ahmad Waaja raped her during a drunken fracas. Then Mir declared her marked as a “fallen” woman–actually saying her worth less than a rupee. So, man after man violated her, giving her a rupee for the pleasure of leaving his seed in her body. A cloth sack with over sixty rupees rested on the overturned basket. For two weeks, such attacks had occurred several times per day.

Bran burst through the tent’s opening, prepared to stop the girl’s suffering. His eyes adjusted quickly to the shadowed lighting, and he observed the man’s bare buttocks glowing like a lamp in the darkness. Bran sprang forward to encircle the Baloch’s neck, tightening the hold and wrenching it to the side. A loud crack of bones told him the girl’s attacker would die momentarily, and Fowler shoved the body aside.

The noise of the fight outside the tent rose louder as he rushed to free her. He grabbed a robe and threw it across her body as he knelt to cut the ropes tying her to the post. “I will have you free in a moment,” his voice came breathy after the altercation. She refused to look at him, ashamed of her exposed body, but he heard a weak whimper of relief when the first rope gave way.

Realizing he had only seconds before the Realm would retreat to their horses, Bran frantically cut at the second rope. Free, at last, he jerked the girl to her feet and draped the robe about her, not taking time to fasten it. “Come with me,” he demanded taking the girl’s hand and pulling her to the opening. She paused only briefly to grab the rupee sack before following his urgings.

At the entrance, he slowed to check for an attack before sliding along the shadows. The girl said nothing, just tightened her hand around his and clutched the robe to her. Bran ran, a pistol in his right hand and his left holding the girl. Reaching the horses, he struck a guard across his head with the gun before pulling the tethering strings from the line, freeing all of Mir’s horses. “Yah!” he shouted, throwing his arms about to scare the animals away. They bucked and scattered in several directions. Then he released the holding ropes for his friends’ mounts. Swinging up in the saddle with one smooth movement, Bran reached down and caught the waiting girl’s shoulders and hauled her up before him.

Without looking back, he kicked the horse’s flanks and took off at a gallop. The girl swung before him, capturing the robe’s belt about her before Bran pulled her closer into his embrace, holding her tightly to his chest. “I have you,” he spoke close to her ear. “No one...no one will hurt you ever again!” The girl encircled his waist with her reedy arms and began to cry–sobs shaking her thin shoulders.

The feel of her pain and of her relief touched Bran’s heart. He had saved another one. The thought of it caused his chest to heave with its own sorrow. At the hill’s rise, he glanced over his shoulder to assure himself of his friends’ escape. They scattered in three different directions. In two days, they would meet at the common house in Bombay’s dock district. “Let us see you to a safe place,” he assured the girl before kicking the horse again.

Chapter 1

 

Lady Eleanor leaned back into the soft squabs of the coach’s bench seat. She knew not how long she might have to wait for him, but she would wait as long as necessary. Her driver had given her a look of disbelief when she had ordered the coach readied long after most refined women retired for the evening. Now, well past midnight, she had periodically heard his
humph
of discontent as he shivered with the encroaching fog. However, what those at the posting inn had thought of her traveling the short distance from the inn to sitting outside the men’s club did not bother her. Lady Eleanor had come for him, and she would not return home without him.

Despair no longer lived in her heart; it and misery had died the day her father, the Duke of Thornhill, took his last breath. Now, only a desperate need to finish what she had started existed. Eleanor’s pride swelled. She had survived–she had overcome the piercing loneliness and the chaos of the last few years. Unconsciously, she fumbled in her reticule for the letter. It was too dark to read it, but knowing it was there reassured her that within a few hours or even a few minutes, the searching would be over.

Her shadowed eyes surveyed the establishment’s door once again, praying it would open, and he would be there at last. Nerves and stress had ridden with her tonight, and a faint trembling shook her being.
Would she even recognize him?
“Eight years,” she whispered to the night, and the night responded ominously, “Nearly eight years may have dimmed your memory. A boy of seventeen and a man of five and twenty must not look the same.” Therefore, she studied each man entering and leaving the hall, looking for the familiar face.

Brantley Fowler absently watched the table’s other players and even those at the adjacent ones. Sometimes men set on manipulating the cards worked in pairs. Although surrounded by players, dealers, servers, and courtesans, he sat in isolation. A raised eyebrow periodically displayed his deference to polite society’s rules. Remote and enigmatic, he demanded attention. Usually a man would need another decade’s experience to control such regard, but no one who ever looked upon his face would doubt him to be anything but a man of action.

He narrowed his gaze. “Do you plan to wager, Sir Henry?” He drawled amusedly.

“I will get to it, Fowler,” Sir Henry’s voice betrayed his attempt at convincing his opponent that his cards were strong enough to justify his bet. Yet, Fowler heard the timbre of a bluff. Instinctively, he knew the hand was his for the taking.

Bran’s eyes darkened, and a decided coolness spread across his features. “I only asked because I wished to be home before dawn. At this pace, we will be fortunate to finish the game before your wife comes to root you out.” A smirk played across his mouth’s corners. This was not London; it was a thriving town in Cornwall, and although there were signs of decadence within the establishment, no one would refer to it as a gaming hell.

Sir Henry tossed away the card and requested another from the stack. Smiling, he had made the wager only to find Fowler’s hand the stronger one. “It appears as if you win
again
,” Sir Henry grumbled as Fowler gathered his winnings.

He had heard that tone before. Fowler paused giving the man a warning look. “Men have many vices,” Bran spoke with a quiet assurance, “but I limit mine to cards, Sir Henry. I win often, but I also lose. Tonight, however, was not one of those times.”

Sir Henry flustered; he had looked about, hoping the other players might also object to losing to Fowler, but his tablemates diverted their eyes. “I did...I did not mean an offense, Mr. Fowler,” he stammered.

“Of course, you did not,” Brantley said sardonically. “It is just the hour’s lateness. It makes enemies of men who would be friends in the daylight.”

Sir Henry nodded. “We are friends, Mr. Fowler,” the apology inherent in the words.

Brantley’s smile showed a confidence he knew the others lacked. “I count you as a friend, Sir Henry. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I believe I will call it an evening.” He pocketed his winnings. Making a polite bow to the table, Fowler picked up his walking stick and headed towards the door. He retrieved his hat and cloak from the hostess and bid the doorman a good night.

Stepping into the intruding dampness and fog, Fowler breathed deeply, clearing his lungs of the cheroot smoke and the smell of stale ale. He paused, allowing the night to creep into his blood. But an unusual sight caught his attention: A woman, one of society if her appearance was any indication, descended from a coach parked directly before the club. A footman assisted her, and for a few brief seconds, Fowler found the scene anachronistic. Why would a refined lady be in this part of town–in this town, even–and at this time of night? Then his gaze fell on the livery, and his heart stopped. Nearly eight years ago he divorced himself from any connection to that line. Raising his eyes, they locked on the woman’s face standing before him. A face from his past.

“Brantley?” her voice caressed the air.

“Ella?” The word caught in his throat. “Ella, is that you?”

An elongated second held before she was in his arms. “Thank God, I finally found you.”

After his initial shock, Fowler directed Eleanor’s coach to follow his. He could not take her to the posting inn at such a late hour, and his household staff had adjusted to his unusual comings and goings years ago. The alarm of seeing her on Cornwall’s streets after all these years had nearly sent him into apoplexy. Sitting in his favorite carriage’s darkness, amazement became his companion. “Thank God, I finally found you,” she had said. How had he known the woman standing before him was Eleanor–his Ella? The last time he had seen her, she was but thirteen. He supposed it a combination of recognizing the Thornhill crest and the sound of her voice–a voice, which brought back a flood of memories. She did not say why she had come, but Brantley knew: His father no longer lived. That would be the only reason Eleanor would come for him.

In her coach’s luxury, Eleanor rolled towards his residence. She had spent a small fortune finding him, but now Bran could no longer hide from his future. Instinctively, she reached for the letter again. Eleanor had read it so many times that she could repeat it from memory. “From the age of seventeen, Fowler sold his services to various foreign dignitaries. As a youth, he served in different mercenary units–fighting for causes no Englishman would deign worthy; and as a young man, he offered protective services to the rulers of several foreign countries, thwarting the plans of assassins and spies. Reportedly, Fowler nearly died on three separate occasions, as he has a penchant regarding the protection of innocent women and children. His time dealing with the Punjab earned him a fortune. By all monetary standards, Brantley Fowler would be deemed a man of success. He has lived for years in Brittany–yet, the wars with Bonaparte have driven him home. He returned to England nearly two years ago, living in Cornwall.” Now, Eleanor wondered if she could convince him to really return “home.”

The coaches rolled to a halt before a stately, but moderately sized manor on a secluded lane. Eleanor only glimpsed at the house’s exterior: Her thoughts remained on her mission. Within moments, a footman set down the steps, and Bran extended his hand to assist her down. They climbed the few stairs to the entrance, her hand cupped in the crook of his arm.

“Good evening, Sir.”

“Good evening, Mr. Horace.” Brantley’s voice not betraying the angst he felt. “Mr. Horace, I shall entertain Lady Eleanor in my study. Please have someone bring us tea and something to eat.”

Eleanor turned in surprise. “Bran, that is not necessary.” She wondered what Bran’s staff must think of her coming to his home in the night’s middle.

“It is necessary, Ella,” he cautioned. “We are likely to be some time in renewing our relationship.”

Fowler handed Horace his cloak, walking stick, and hat. “I also need the large guest room for Lady Eleanor.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Where are your trunks, Ella?” Bran returned his attention to her.

“At the Fin and Fowl.” Not sure what to expect, she finally took a long look at the entranceway. Tastefully elegant in its presentation, the décor reminded her of her mother’s influence.

“Mr. Horace, send a footman to the Fin and Fowl to retrieve Lady Eleanor’s belongings. Be certain to give her coachman proper shelter, as well as housing her coach and cattle in the stables.”

“Right away, Sir.”

“Ella, did your abigail remain at the inn?” He watched her as she scrutinized his household.

“She did.” Her answer relieved his concern. The idea of Eleanor traveling so far alone worried him.

“Be sure the lady’s maid is brought here and housed properly.”

“Yes, Mr. Fowler. Anything else, Sir?”

“No, Mr. Horace. Once those needs are met, please release the staff for the evening. Lady Eleanor and I will partake of a late breakfast so allow everyone a few extra hours of sleep in the morning.”

“Thank you, Sir. They will appreciate your thoughtfulness. The tea will arrive shortly. I will deliver it myself, Sir.”

Displaying his acceptance, Bran simply acknowledged the gratitude with an aristocratic nod of his head. Taking Eleanor on his arm, he led her to his study. Upon entering the room, she strolled to the sofa and settled herself comfortably among the cushions, while he took up residence in an opposing wing chair.

Waiting for a response, which never came, Bran cleared his throat. “You certainly gave me a surprise, Ella. I never expected to see you on The Blue Bull’s steps. I am not certain I would have recognized you without the livery. Your looks have changed from that gangly girl that I used to chase away from my room.”

“Your looks, too, have matured. You filled out nicely, Bran. However, your image surrounds me daily at Thorn Hall.” Silence followed her remarks as they both allowed their eyes to assess the person before them.

The butler arrived with the tea, scones, preserves, and seed cakes. He placed the tray on the low table between them. “Shall I serve, Sir?”

“No, Lady Eleanor will serve. See to the other arrangements, and then you may retire.”

“Yes, Sir.” Horace made his bow, exiting the room and closing the door behind him.

Eleanor poured them both a cup before she spoke again. “I suppose you know, Bran, why I have come,” her voice barely above a whisper.

“I suppose I do.” Bran placed the teacup down on a side table before seeking the brandy decanter from his desk. “I believe I will require something stronger than tea.” He poured two fingers’ worth, tossed it off, and then poured another. “When?” he began after a long silence. “When did he pass?”

“A little over a month ago.” Eleanor’s words held no true regrets. “He really passed nearly two years ago. He was nothing but a figurehead for some time. I have run the estate since he began to suffer from the infirmity of his mind. We kept it as secret as possible.”

“Then why are you here, Eleanor. Surely you do not believe I mourn the man? The day I left, I said farewell to Thornhill and all claims I might have. You are welcome to it. If you have the competence to run it, then be at it.”

“If I had a legitimate claim to Thornhill, I would not be here, Bran. I would leave you to your life. I understand you have amassed a substantial fortune on your own. My reports say you live the life of a rake–gambling and women being your products.”

He cautioned, “Eleanor, bitterness does not play well for a refined lady.”

She barked out a laugh. “Then you deny the reports? Are you more, Brantley, than what your critics say?”

“How I live my life is my business,” he charged. “I have just told you, I hold no desire to claim Thornhill. Take it and do what you will.” He strode to the chair and flopped down, ignoring what he did to his clothing.

“Bran, when you walked away from Thornhill, you also walked away from me and from Velvet. You left us to survive on our own. Excuse me if I resent having to ask you to return; yet, I have no other choice. Our father left the estate entailed upon the male line. Even though it has been mine to oversee from the age of nineteen, I cannot succeed. The estate and title are yours.”

“I do not want it, Eleanor!” He leaned forward to press his point. “I want nothing that once belonged to our father. Not the title. Not the estate. Not the position. And not the money!”

“Then you will leave Velvet to Cousin Horton’s touch. Shall you turn over to Horton the estate, the title, the money, as well as the girl you once promised to marry? I suppose he will permit me to continue on as Velvet’s companion, a poor relative. Imagine a duke’s daughter in such a position. Will that not set tongues wagging?”

The mention of Velvet Aldridge’s name brought a brief smile. He had wondered about her forever. When he had lain on a muddy battlefield in those early years, it was Velvet’s innocent face, which had kept him alive–had kept him going. However, he had betrayed her–betrayed her with a need to never be like his father. Decidedly, Bran had placed his memories away on the shelf, never to disturb them again. “Velvet surely does not expect my attentions after all these years?”

“We have purposely not discussed Velvet’s hopes since before father’s illness, but I seriously doubt she expects anything from you, Brantley. You were seventeen when you swore to love her forever; Velvet was not yet twelve. If she holds any such delusions, she does not openly speak of them, and truthfully, our cousin does not require your regard. Velvet has turned out quite lovely. If father’s illness had not prevented us a proper coming out, we both could be established elsewhere, and Thornhill’s fate could be someone else’s problem. However, father’s lifestyle only allowed for his own needs. Cousin Horton is five and twenty years older than Velvet; he suffers from gout and rheumatic spasms. Worse than that, the man’s reputation for debauchery far outshines father’s. Will you leave our cousin and me to such a fate? Horton will run through the money within a year. We will be destitute, and we will be subject to the same kind of profligacy Father brought daily into our lives.”

BOOK: Realm 02 - A Touch of Velvet
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