Read Smirke 01 - An Unlikely Hero Online

Authors: Cari Hislop

Tags: #historical romance, #regency romance, #romance story, #cari hislop

Smirke 01 - An Unlikely Hero

BOOK: Smirke 01 - An Unlikely Hero
An Unlikely

Copyright 2008
Cari Hislop

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Books by Cari
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Other books in
the Regency World of Cari Hislop include:

Lucky in

A Companion for

The Hired

The Invisible

Taming the

Redeeming a


Redeeming a


An Unlikely


Chapter 1


dishonourable John Smirke habitually cracked each knuckle of his
left hand as he tried to ease the growing tension in his right arm
being clutched close to his body for support. He was standing in a
secluded Hampshire field, shivering in his shirtsleeves with three
other men waiting for the sun to slide up over the horizon. His
black eyes reluctantly acknowledged the beauty of the mist hovering
over the grass dotted with sleepy ivory sheep and the shifting
tapestry of layered bluish greens. He licked his lips and carefully
tested the weight of his sword with his right hand, but the healing
gunshot wound in his right shoulder made him wince. He wasn’t fit
to shave his own chin let alone wave about a rapier.

Smirke blamed
his latest misfortune on everyone, but himself as his frustrated
artistic eye shifted shapes and colours into a mental frame that
was never going to be recreated on canvas. He’d be damned before he
followed his mother’s footsteps and became a painter. The sneering
laughter that followed her through high society caused him to
oscillate between acute embarrassment and deadly fury. She was his
mother and she deserved respect. She might have been born a French
bourgeoisie, but she’d married an English Viscount. She was a
beautiful woman who loved her three sons. Her only fault was
charging people to paint their portraits. She was Smirke’s Achilles
heel; he couldn’t bear to hear his mother insulted. It gave him
endless reason to hate people and so once again it was the reason
he was standing opposite the Earl of Mulgrave, only this time death
leered like a starving cannibal.

Smirke inhaled
the wet morning air as his lungs were chilled with thoughts of
loss. He hadn’t yet sent his mother her birthday gift. He hadn’t
seen her since the family’s annual Christmas gathering. He’d
probably never see her again. The thought discomposed him as he
swallowed a strange lump in his throat. The high probability of
dying brought to mind the fact he hadn’t bothered to tell his
family of his lately acquired ward. His eighteen year old nephew,
George, would inherit the guardianship of a vexing female of the
same age along with a house and land in Lincolnshire. Miss Lark,
Smirke’s unmet encumbrance, could only be a hideous antidote.
Whatever she looked like, she’d certainly enjoyed spending his
money over the previous six months. The bills he’d received as she
redecorated his country residence were almost as infuriating as her
chatty letters filled with local gossip and incessant requests for
his company or a reply detailing his feelings.

In spite of a
nagging urge to return to Bolingbroke in Lincolnshire, Smirke had
chosen to remain in London through the summer. So instead of
punishing his irritating ward he’d been shot in the shoulder and
now he was facing death at the end of a blade. John scowled as the
man standing opposite calmly polishing his sword as if he were
about to slice a loaf of bread, and hoped it wasn’t his day to

turned to the men beside him, “I fear John is rather quiet this
morning. Perhaps he’s pondering all the women he’ll never get to
blackmail into his bed?” The two seconds snickered in amusement.
“Never mind John, no doubt my fumbling will more deeply impress
them.” Mulgrave’s harsh bark of laughter unsettled the birds in
nearby trees who twittered in irritation. Sheep raised their heads
and looked at the four men with disinterest before returning to
dreams of greener pastures.

Smirke’s black
eyes burned with hatred, “You’re so amusing Mulgrave the whole
brothel laughs every time they see you coming, but I’ve heard they
laugh loudest after you’ve left.”

eyes narrowed at the insult and turned to his toady. “I’ve always
thought Smirke far too pretty to be a man. I’ll wager either of you
a fiver our John is really Johanna in breeches. You don’t have to
die today Smirke. Women don’t have honour; drop your breeches, bend
over and I’ll impale you with my favourite sword and let you

“I’d rather
die, you coward.”

“Then prepare
to give the Devil my regards.”

“Even the
devil doesn’t want your company Mulgrave, you’re a rat-faced

“I am a
handsome fashionable Lord; a superior state of being you can only
dream about. You, on the other hand, are nothing but an angry bee
about to have your stinger pulled out.”

“Not before I
sting you!”

“I’ll survive,
but you won’t.” Smirke’s eyes narrowed as his shoulder throbbed in
silent agreement. He held up his blade to see light warming
polished steel. He could feel his older brothers clapping him on
the shoulder the day he was freed from his nursery skirts and given
his first pair of breeches. He could see his father looking down at
him with a twinkle in his eyes, ‘Your mother kept telling me I had
three sons, but you were so pretty I hardly believed her.’ His
mother had picked him up and wiped away his tears, ‘Your Papa is
teasing you John. You look just like him, but with my eyes.’ His
father had died a year later from a fever. Sunlight gleamed off his
entire sword as the memory of his mother’s anguished wailing filled
his ears. This time she’d wail for her son. “The sun is up John, I
hope you’re ready to meet the devil.” Smirke sliced the air with
clenched teeth. The two combatants stepped apart and waited until
one of the seconds dropped a white handkerchief. The angry sound of
clashing steel brought the sheep to their feet as they watched in
dumb incomprehension as the two men in white shirts cut and thrust
at each other.

clenched his teeth as sweat dripped into his eyes. Deflecting
Mulgrave’s calculated blows took all his energy. He made several
good thrusts at his opponent within the first few minutes, but the
healthy man simply jumped out of the way and parried easily
returning more near fatal stabs. After ten minutes Smirke’s thin
steel blade felt like an iron battle axe. Mulgrave smiled revealing
teeth he’d had filed into canine points as Smirke was forced to use
both hands.

“It looks like
you’re having some difficulty John. Cry craven and walk away alive.
Society will laugh every time you show your pretty face in public,
but you know it’s your fate. Heaven knows your mother seems to
enjoy being a laughing stock. She’s rather attractive for an old
woman. After you’re dead, I believe I may sit for a portrait and
pay her with the pox.”

answer was an angry thrust that drew blood. He twisted out of reach
of Mulgrave’s enraged return lunge, but tripped over an unexpected
hedgehog making its way home after a night of feasting. John was on
his backside as Mulgrave moved in for the kill. “Au revoir John, I
hope your soul roasts on a slow turning spit in the deepest pit of
hell.” Smirke was up on one knee wondering why his second hadn’t
called out for Mulgrave to step back. It took all his strength to
deflect a blow away from his vital organs. He was nearly back on
his feet when Mulgrave’s blade pierced his chest, opening a hole in
his back. Staring down at the glinting steel impaled through white
linen; Smirke watched a rich red stain ooze larger with every
exhaled breath.

A piercing
scream hung in the pastoral air as the blade was withdrawn,
inducing icy agony. Dropping his sword he looked up at his second,
but there was only relief on the man’s face. Mulgrave cheerfully
picked up Smirke’s bright yellow silk jacket and used it to wipe
the blood from his sword. Staring at the garish brown stain, Smirke
fought the chill creeping into his limbs. He didn’t want to die. He
wanted time to pick up a paintbrush and cover acres of canvas with
images of the world. He wanted time to find a wife who’d think him
the most beautiful man in the world. He wanted time… Someone threw
a dustcover over the sun as darkness suffocated his mind.

The three
standing men watched the pretty blonde rakehell gasp his last
breath and collapse back in the grass, his blood covered hands
flopping useless beside his black and yellow striped breeches.
“What do we do with him?”

“We leave

“What, you
mean we aren’t going to take him back to his mother?”

“Do you think
he’d run you through, carry your body to the nearest church, sign
the death registrar and then write a polite note to your mother
informing her he’d killed you?”

“No, but we
could tell his servants at the Inn where to find him.”

“Do as you
please. I’m returning to London to celebrate.” Mulgrave threw the
stained yellow jacket over the body and danced away waving his
sword in the air. The other two men looked at each other, shrugged
their shoulders and followed at a more sedate pace.

“What if he
isn’t really dead?”

“Then he’ll be
dead soon enough; what difference does it make? If you love him so
much, you may camp in a field with Smirke’s corpse or dance with
the devil. I’d rather visit a brothel and spread my seed with the
pleasurable thought that Smirke won’t ever feel pleasure

Chapter 2

Standing over
the lump of yellow silk fabric Smirke clenched his fists and
shouted at the three men walking away, “I’m not dead yet you
coward. Come back here and I’ll show you how to use a blade.”
Smirke’s rage at being ignored was quickly forgotten as he felt
himself pulled into a dark tunnel. The lump of yellow fabric faded
from view as he collapsed into blinding light. A man in the light
called his name and willed him closer, but Smirke tried to crawl
away. The gentle voice called his name again stalling Smirke’s
attempt to leave. He curled into a ball and cowered, sobbing as his
life pass before him, in him, all around him; a pantheon of pain
and distress as he craved his mother’s comforting arms. It felt an
eternity before he could crawl away and tumble with relief into
darkness that echoed with weeping and wailing. The sound filled his
mind, penetrated his skin until his insides burned as if on fire.
Sobbing, he screamed for his mother. He could remember every person
he’d injured; feel their suffering in exquisite detail. He clawed
at his skin to escape the memories of the men he’d killed, the
lives he’d ruined, the fear and pain he’d caused, and his mother’s
poignant disappointment in her youngest son. Wishing he was dead,
he was about to give in to the mind numbing horror of enduring his
own company in solitary darkness forever when he was blinded by a
bright light.

“John Paul? No
that’s the other one. John Henri? No. John Marie? No…your papers
are here somewhere…”

“I don’t want
to be me…I want my Mamma!”

“I’m afraid
that’s impossible. You can’t have your mother and not be you.
Though I suppose you could have a different mother and almost be
you, but that’s all rather complicated and a pointless waste of
time. Oh here you are, John Sebastian Smirke; rakehell, frustrated
artist, aged thirty-three, died in a duel, run through the body in
Hampshire. You nearly squished that poor hedgehog you know.” The
man in white stuffed the loose papers into one pocket and pulled a
scroll out of another. “I have some unbelievably good news for you.
The Boss has decided to send you back to your body for another
chance. He believes, though only He knows why, you’ll change if you
can just grasp the concept of Charity. Personally, I think you’re
hopeless. Your paper work doesn’t show even a shadow of empathy. Do
you even know what that word means? I doubt it. Your heart’s
practically granite, but the Boss feels you’re worth trying to
save. Who am I to disagree? Your mother certainly loves you. The
woman’s an angel to put up with you all these years. If you’d been
my child I’d have shipped you off to war in one of the King’s
floating coffins…”

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