Authors: Christine Merrill
“Ajax is the only greyhound ever to be banned
from a hare coursing club, Tripp answered. “He is deathly afraid of rabbits and
an embarrassment to his species, aren’t you old fellow?”
Ajax whined in his sleep and gave a single
thump of his whip-like tail.
“I’ve brought Gentleman John to him, hoping
that we might elicit a cure,” an odd looking man in the corner announced. “So
far, it has done no good. The hare bullies him shamelessly, and he permits it.”
“Howard gets up to all sorts of strange
ideas,” Massey announced. “It is why he is welcome here, and nowhere else.” He
shrugged. “But who are we to judge?”
As if to prove the truth of it, Mr. Howard
had gathered up the rabbit from the floor and appeared to be speaking to it.
The other members of the room ignored it, as though there was nothing the least
bit strange in such behavior. Instead, they raised their glasses again, to
“We honor our new member, for I swear, we did
not think it likely to see you here,” Massey announced. “It is difficult to be
removed from society, when one shuns its rules so completely as you. Yet you
never suffer for it.”
Blackthorne prepared a tart retort about
suffering being a relative thing. He had paid dearly for his mistakes, and
there was nothing in this alleged camaraderie that required him to stand for
Then, Massey looked at him with genuine
sympathy. “Now that you are here, we all hope that you have paid the last of
your dues to this particular club. You are more than welcome, Blackthorne.
Share a glass and we will share our stories, to prove that we are all brothers
The knock came at the same time it did almost
every morning, and Caroline Sydney’s servant opened for the heavily veiled
woman standing on the stoop. As soon as the door closed, the visitor cast off
her disguise and held out her arms for a kiss.
“Darling,” Caro held her at arm’s length,
admiring her. “You grow lovelier each day.”
“Because I grow to look more like you,” her
sister replied. “Mother and Father send their love.”
Caro snorted. “You know they do not. I am
sure they prefer to think I have died, than to acknowledge I am here.”
Alene shrugged and tossed her head, the
perfect picture of innocence. “A day may yet come when they will be only too
willing to claim you as their daughter.” She still expected there to be a happy
end to the story, when none was possible. “But we will never get you back in
the fold if you have been foolish. Are the rumors I heard true? Did you really
cast Blackthorn out into the street? Whatever could you have been thinking?”
Caro turned away from her, towards the
parlor, giving her skirts an extra swish as she did so. When had she developed
this tendency to flounce? Gently bred ladies did not do so. It must have
happened at some time during the last twelve months of infamy. She was behaving
as though she were prone to tantrums and moods. Next, she would be wearing
jewels in the day time.
Not that there would be a next time. She had
not gone to Vincent from a desire to be under a gentleman’s protection. But in
the eyes of the
that had not mattered. To them, she was nothing
more than an unattached courtesan. Offers for her favors had begun to
arrive before the bed sheets had cooled.
She had ordered her maid to burn the notes,
toss the flowers and return any jewelry to its sender. She had no intention of
taking another lover and making a habit of debauchery. But the mail had
increased, for her aloofness made her all the more intriguing.
And now, even her sister wondered at her
motives. “Why did I send Blackthorne away? Because I could not abide him,” Caro
announced. “Not a moment longer.”
“Did he do something? Did he ask for
something inappropriate?” Alene’s eyes were wide, as though she expected Caro
to reveal the act so
that she would have refused it. She almost
smiled. It was hard to imagine Vincent suggesting a thing so out of bounds that
she would not have at least considered it.
“Of course not.
He was, as always, the perfect gentleman. At
least, as we define gentlemen in this city.” Though it was commonplace, there
was nothing too terribly noble about keeping a bit on the side, when one had a
wife and children at home. At least Vincent was not guilty of that. He was
still as single as the day she’d met him.
“But what did he say to you that upset you
so? I have never known a cross word to pass between the pair of you, and you
have known him for ages.” Alene swallowed as if trying to find the most tactful
course. “While the last year has not gone as your family hoped, we consoled
ourselves with the fact that you were happy with him.”
Caro sighed and admitted the truth. “He said
he loved me.”
Her sister smiled and leaned forward in her
chair. “That is the best of all possible news. You love him as well, do you
“Of course,” she said. “But I certainly do
not admit to it. A man does not take a mistress to hear declarations of love.
Such arrangements are meant to be temporary. It would be terribly vulgar of me
to act as though what we shared was something more.”
But that had been exactly what she’d done.
She had pretended that their happiness could last forever, even as he planned
for a future without her. She put that painful thought aside. “Besides, it is
one thing for me to love him, and quite another for him to love me in return.”
Her sister still looked doubtful, so she did
her best to explain.
“Perhaps you do not remember how it was when
the scandal first broke over me. You were still in school and missed much of
it. I had already refused him once.”
“You refused him?” Her sister’s eyes grew
“What choice did I have? He was known all
over London as a notorious rake. While it was flattering to have him pay court
to me, I was not so foolish as to take it seriously.” Flattering was an
understatement. She could still remember the thrill that had gone through her
the night he had first asked her to dance. It had been nearly two years, and
she still felt it, each time he smiled at her.
“You quite liked him when we met him in Bath,
the year before your come out.”
“He was not Blackthorne, then,” Caro said
with a sigh. “When we met in London, he had changed.” When they’d first
met, she had thought him boyishly handsome, with too much blond hair and blue
eyes a little too wide for his soft face.
But by the time of her come out, the pleasant
young man who had stolen her heart a summer before, had become an
. His shoulders had broadened, and his features
sharpened. The lovely golden hair that had made him seem innocent as a cherub
was now a wild tangle of curls. And his blue eyes had
he was every bit as charming as he had been, there was something dark and
dangerous about him that was as frightening as it was attractive.
“But he offered for you,” her sister said.
“If he still loved you, he must not have changed so very much.”
“Loved me?” At this, Caro laughed. “He said
nothing of such feelings to me.” He had felt something, she was sure. How could
she explain to her naïve sister what it had been like to be wooed by
Blackthorne? He had imbued each glance, each touch, each casual word, with a sensuality
that had nothing to do with their innocent infatuation in Bath. He had wanted
her, and he had needed a wife. But it had been nothing more than that.
She gave Allie a sad smile. “I am sure, in
way, he was still quite fond of me. But the truth of
it was this: he’d come into his title and was expected to marry. Since we
seemed so well suited, he offered. Even as we courted, his affairs with other
women were an open secret. He made no effort to hide the truth from me, or
anyone else. Since I did not want a husband who could not at least pretend to
be faithful, I refused him.”
“Did he know that his lovers upset you?”
Alene asked. “Perhaps he would have given them up, had you made your feelings
“How could I? A young lady should not
know of such things, much less ask about them.
Nor should a
Even if a man’s faults are plain as day, we are not to ask
embarrassing questions.” It made even less sense to ask a question, when one
feared what the answer might be.
Caro patted her sister’s hand, hoping that
she sounded as wise as she was pretending to be. “Our courtship was rather like
fox hunting. I am sure he enjoyed the pursuit. But if he had caught me, he
would have lost interest. By the time our first child was born, he would have
left me at Blackthorne Manor and returned to London. Since I loved him, it
would have made me very unhappy.”
Alene glanced around her at the neatly kept
little house, clearly not impressed, as she compared it to the homes and
holdings where the Countess Blackthorne might have been abandoned. “He offered,
and you refused. How did it come to this?”
“My next choice of suitors was even less
wise. Mr. Worthington seemed ready to offer and had no scandal attached to his
name. Since I trusted him, I went freely where ever he led. One night, he
coaxed me down the dark walks of Vauxhall Gardens. That was how I learned he
was no gentleman at all. The minute we were alone, he pressed his advantage,
arguing that since we would likely be married soon, there was no reason to wait
Her sister’s eyes grew wide. “He assaulted
“He attempted to.” She shuddered in disgust.
“If I’d have kept my head and held my tongue, no one might have been the wiser.
Instead, I cried out, and Blackthorne came rushing to my aid.”
Her sister’s arms were around her now,
offering comfort where none was needed.
did the right thing. There was no reason to stand mute when threatened.”
“My reputation was forfeit, either way. It
seemed all of London was watching as I was led from the park in disgrace.
Vincent was livid. He called Mr. Worthington out and put a bullet through him.
He very nearly killed him.”
“He shot a man?
Her sister was all agog.
Caro gave a shaky laugh and dispelled the
glamour. “While you might dream that it would be nice to have two men fighting
over you, it is really quite awful. It did nothing to restore my good name, and
it cemented Blackthorne’s infamy. He should have run to the continent until the
scandal had passed. Instead, he stayed and weathered it without turning a hair.
It was a sordid mess, and I was trapped in the middle of it. Then, Vincent came
to me with his offer.”
She stared into the unlit fire, remembering
how it had been. His cool, distant smile had been so alluring before he’d
proposed. It had hardly changed, but she could smell the brandy on his breath
and imagine Worthington’s blood still on his hands. “You are ruined through
your own foolishness, my dear. Now, no decent man will have you. Fortunately
for you, I am not the least bit decent, and want you as much as I did before.”
“Do you seek to renew your suit?” she had
said, wavering between relief, and fear.
“Not bloody likely. You refused me once,
which is more than my pride will allow. The offer I have for you is of an
entirely different nature. Better you take it from me now, than await a better
one. I doubt Worthington will be back, should he survive.”
“How dare you.” She raised a hand to strike
him, and he seized her wrist and pulled her into his arms to show her what he
wanted from her.
The kisses in her parent’s parlor should have
reminded her of the ones that had been forced upon her in Vauxhall. They were
just as rough and possessive. She should have fought, but she did not. Instead,
she answered them with all the passion in her heart. She had been foolish to
reject him. She had been his, all along.
But that was in the past.
She straightened his skirts and composed
herself. There were some things that one should not share with a curious,
little sister. “He made it clear that a marriage between us was out of the
question. With the scandal attached to my name, no other man would want to wed
me. It was either remain a spinster or accept his offer of protection.” The
choice had been simple. What if she chose spinsterhood, only to see him kill
the next man who insulted her? There would be no more
because of her. “I went with him that very day.”
“Mother told me none of the details,” Alene
admitted. “Only that you were gone, and that I must not ask after you. I found
your direction through a friend.” She hesitated.
“Well, not a
A girl who thought to hurt me with gossip.”
Caro gave a sad shake of her head. “It is a
wonder that our parents allow your visits.”
“They do not know of them,” her sister said.
“They think I go to Cheapside to do good works for orphaned children.”
“That would be the proper place for you to
spend your energies,” Caro agreed. “It is dangerous for you to be here. Think
of your reputation.”
“I always wear a veil.” Alene argued. “But
really, society’s opinion does not matter to me. I will not be parted from you,
no matter what people might say.” Then, as she always did when pressed on her
own reputation, she changed the subject. “Now tell me of your trouble with Blackthorne,
for that is what I want to hear.”
“He said he loved me,” Caro repeated, still
somewhat in awe of the words. “If, after all this time, he has decided he has
these feelings? It is not good. Not good at all. In fact, it is unbearable and
I do not want to see him again.”
It was clear by the blank look on Alene’s
face that she still did not understand, and Caro wondered if there was a point
in trying to explain. “A man who loved me, truly, as he should, would not have
treated me in this way. He would have offered a second time and made me his
wife, not his mistress. That Vincent should have discovered this feeling after
a year in my bed…” She paused, surprised to be near tears over it, even after
all this time. “It is simply too late. He means to marry soon. He must do so,
for the sake of the title. What good will his
“But he has you.” Her sister’s eyes were
still wide, and as innocent as ever.
“He has opera dancers, as well,” Caro said, a
little stiffly. “He goes about in public with them, should he want to go to the
theater, or a horse race, or fight. If he wishes to dine, or dance, or be seen
in respectable company, he escorts proper young women who would never have
accepted his protection. But where ever he goes, he does not take me.
When I leave this house, I do so alone. For all his fine words, he does not
want my company, other than in bed.”