Authors: Candace Camp
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
For my sisters:
Mary Elizabeth, Barbara and Sharon.
You're the best.
The front door slammed. Startled, Lady Irene Wyngate, in the library upstairs, turned, and the book she was holding tumbled to the floor.
It was well past midnight, and everyone in the house besides herself was tucked into their beds, sound asleep. Indeed, she had gone to bed an hour ago and had arisen only because sleep had eluded her, so she had decided to slip into the library and find a book to read. There should be no one about—especially no one slamming doors.
As she stood there, listening, the silence of the night was once again broken by a crash, this time followed by an oath. Irene relaxed, grimacing. Though the knowledge gave her no pleasure, at least she now realized who had made the noises downstairs. No doubt her father, Lord Wyngate, was home and stumbling about in his usual drunken state.
Quickly she bent and retrieved her dropped book from the floor; then, picking up her candlestick, she tiptoed out the door. Even though she was only sixteen years old, she was the only one of the household who would stand up to her father's bullying. Frequently she placed herself between him and her mother or brother, the people on whom he was most likely to take out his anger. However, Irene was not foolish; like everyone else, she did her best to stay out of her father's way, especially when he came home roaring drunk.
Now she hurried silently along the hallway, hoping that she could make it to the sanctuary of her bedchamber before her father made his way up to the second floor. Downstairs, a voice was raised, angry and deep, and was followed by a response. Irene paused, her brows drawing together, wondering who was talking to her father. There was a loud smack, as of flesh hitting flesh, followed by another crash.
Irene darted to the railing at the top of the stairs and peered over it to the foyer below. Her view was partially obstructed by the lower tier of the sweeping staircase, but she could see her father sprawled on his back, the remnants of a shattered vase scattered around him on the Persian rug. The old-fashioned powdered wig that he insisted upon wearing, despite the fact that it was quite out of fashion, had been knocked askew and now tilted precariously to one side, rather like some small furry animal clinging to his bald head. A line of blood trickled down from his nose.
As Irene stared, astonished into momentary immobility, a man moved into her line of vision, striding rapidly over to Lord Wyngate. The stranger's back was turned toward her, so she could see only that he was tall and was dressed in the same sort of formal black suit that her father wore, though he eschewed the unfashionable wig and his black hair was hanging loose.
As Irene watched, the stranger reached down and grasped her father by his lapels, yanking him to his feet. Lord Wyngate put both his hands up to the other man's chest and shoved ineffectually.
"Damned puppy," Lord Wyngate growled, his voice slurred. "How dare you?"
"I dare a bloody lot more than that!" the other man snapped, drawing back his fist.
Irene did not wait to see the blow land, but whirled around and ran to her father's study. She raced across the room and jerked open one of the glass-fronted cabinets, then pulled out a case from one of the shelves, laid it on the desk and opened it.
Inside, on red velvet, rested a set of dueling pistols. Her father, she knew, kept them loaded, but she quickly checked, just to make sure, before she ran back out of the room, carrying one in each hand. The sounds of fighting and shouting grew louder as she neared the staircase. She could not see the men; they had moved. But it was clear from the sounds that the fight was still being waged in earnest.
Irene fairly flew down the first set of stairs to the landing. As she turned the corner, she could see them again, grappling at the bottom of the stairs. Just then, the younger man broke free and slammed his fist into Lord Wyngate's stomach. As her father doubled over, the other man brought his fist up sharply, landing a hit flush on the older man's chin. Wyngate staggered back and crashed onto the floor.
"Stop it!" Irene shouted. "Stop this at once!"
Neither man paid the slightest attention to her, didn't even turn to look at her. The stranger pursued her father, reaching out to grab him and pull him up again.
"Stop!" Irene shrieked once more. When she was again ignored, she raised one pistol and fired up into the air. She heard the ping as the ball hit the chandelier above, and a few prisms fell, crashing to the floor.
Both men froze. The stranger straightened and swiveled his head to look up, and her father, too, turned his wavering eyes upon her. Irene scarcely noticed her father's gaze. Her eyes were riveted to the other man.
He was tall, and his wide shoulders filled out the suit admirably. Clearly his tailor was not required to resort to padding to give the jacket the shape it needed. His hair was black as coal in the light from the wall sconces, and he wore it a trifle longer than was strictly fashionable. His face was all sharp angles and flat planes—handsome, yet hard and unreadable. The only signs of temper lay in the faint color along the line of his cheekbones and the unmistakable glitter of anger in his eyes.
She had seen other men more handsome than he; there was something a little raw and rough about him that was different from the more elegant gentleman she was accustomed to. Yet he affected her far more than any gentleman she had ever met. Looking at him, she felt a strange, visceral tug, a sort of twisting deep in her core, and she found it difficult to pull her eyes away from him.
"Irene?" Lord Wyngate croaked, and struggled to his feet.
"Yes, it is I," she replied in some irritation, not sure whether she was more annoyed with her father for bringing chaos into their house or with this unknown man for evoking such an odd and unsettling reaction inside her. "Who else would it be?"
"That's my girl," Wyngate slurred, wobbling where he stood. "Count on you."
Irene's mouth tightened. It galled her to be forced to help her father.
Ever since she could remember, her father had been the major source of misery and discomfort in the lives of everyone around him. The servants, her mother, her brother and she herself had always walked in fear of him. He had a wicked temper, an unquenchable thirst for alcohol and an affinity for trouble. When she was a child, she had known only that he made her mother cry and the servants tremble. She had learned to stay out of his way, especially when he was staggering with drink. In more recent years, she had come to have a better understanding of the many sins in which he indulged—of the gambling and whoring that went hand-in-glove with his imbibing, of his many excesses, both financial and of the flesh. Lord Wyngate was a libertine, but worse than that, he was an often cruel man, one who enjoyed the trepidation that others felt around him.
Irene had been taught, nevertheless, that she should love him, that he deserved her respect simply because he was her parent. It was not a lesson that she had ever truly embraced. She was not, she knew, a good-enough person to forgive him or to love him despite his faults, as her mother seemed able to. Nor was she so given to doing what was expected of one as her brother, Humphrey, so that she would offer him loyalty and respect simply because tradition required it.
Irene was of the opinion that if someone had attacked her father, he had probably deserved it. Still, he was her father, and she could not allow this stranger to kill him.
"Don't you think it is a trifle late to be brawling in the foyer?" she asked in the coolly commanding tone that she had learned was best in dealing with her father.
Lord Wyngate tugged down his jacket and brushed it off in the heavy-handed and supremely careful way often adopted by those in an inebriated state. He wiped his hand across his face, then looked down in apparent-surprise at the blood on his palm.
"Damn—I think you broke my nose, you jumped-up cardsharp!" Lord Wyngate glowered at the other man.
His companion, however, did not so much as spare him a glance. His eyes remained on Irene.
She remembered suddenly how she must look. She had not bothered to throw a dressing gown on over her nightdress when she had decided to search for a book to read. Her feet were bare, and her thick blond hair, released from its pins for the night, tumbled in wildly curling abandon over her shoulders and down her back.
It occurred to her that the wall sconces from the floor above must be casting a light behind her, probably revealing the outline of her body, naked beneath the cotton nightgown. She blushed to the roots of her hair.
Why would he not look away?
Clearly the man was a mannerless ruffian.
She tilted up her chin and gazed back at him, refusing to let this boor see that she was embarrassed. Out of the corner of her eye, however, she saw her father sneak back step and wrap his hand around a small statue that sat on pedestal against the wall. He raised it, starting toward the other man.
"No!" Irene snapped, swinging the loaded pistol in her left hand toward her father. "Put that down this instant!"
Lord Wyngate cast her a sulky look but set the statue back on its base.
The other man glanced over at Lord Wyngate, his lip curling in contempt. He turned back and sketched a bow toward Irene.
"Thank you, my lady." His voice was deep and rough, his accent not that of a gentleman.
"I do not care to have any more blood on the Persian rug," Irene retorted tartly. "'Tis far too difficult to clean."
Her father leaned against the wall, still sulking, and refused to look at her. To her surprise, however, the other man let out a bark of laughter, and amusement lit his face, briefly warming and softening it. She was barely able to stop herself from smiling back at him.
"'Tis past my understanding that this old goat should have so fair a daughter," the man said.
Irene grimaced, annoyed at herself as much as him. The man had an enormous amount of gall to grin at her that way. And how could she be tempted to return the ruffian's smile?
"I think you should leave now," she told him. "Else I will be forced to call the servants and have you ejected."
He raised an eyebrow to convey how little her threat moved him, but said only, "Of course. I would not wish to disturb your peace."
He walked over to Lord Wyngate, who backed up a bit nervously. The man grasped Wyngate's shirt front in one hand, clenching his fist in it to hold the man still, and leaned in a little.
"If I ever hear of you bothering Dora again, I'll come back and break every bone in your body. Do you understand?"
Irene's father flushed with anger, but he nodded.
"And do not come back to my place again. Ever." The stranger gave her father a long look, then released him and strode toward the front door. Opening it, he turned back and looked up the stairs at Irene.
A faint sardonic smile touched his lips, and he said, "Good night, my lady. It was a pleasure to meet you."
Then, with a bow, he was gone.
Irene relaxed, realizing now that it was over, how tense she had been. Her legs felt weak under her, and she dropped her hand back down to her side.
"Who was that?" she asked.
"Nobody," her father replied, turning toward the stairs. His steps were weaving, and he had to grasp the railing to keep from stumbling. "Filthy lout ... thinks he can talk that way to me ... I ought to show him." He looked up at Irene, his expression sly and calculating. "Give me that pistol, girl."
"Oh, hush," she said, feeling suddenly weary. "Don't make me regret keeping him from killing you."
She turned and started back up the stairs. Just to be safe, she thought, she would take the pistols to her bedroom, where her father could not get at them.
"That's no way to speak to your father," Lord Wyngate bellowed after her. "You'll show me respect."
Irene whirled back around. "I will show you respect when you deserve some," she told him tightly.
"You're a poor excuse for a daughter," he returned, his eyes narrowing. "And no man'll marry you, with the airs you put on. What'll you do then, eh?"
"I'll rejoice," Irene replied flatly. "From all I can see, a life without a husband would be quite pleasant. I, sir, will never marry."
Pleased to see that her words had at least startled him into momentary silence, Irene turned and swept back up the stairs.