To Recapture a Rake: A Hephaestus Club Novella (7 page)

BOOK: To Recapture a Rake: A Hephaestus Club Novella
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“I should think it would be obvious. For the
dishonor you have done Miss Sydney.”

“I hardly think that is necessary,” Vincent
said, with another half laugh. “She and I have an understanding.”

Mr. Howard stood his ground. “If you do not
think it is necessary, then it is all the more reason to challenge you.” He looked
at his glove again, as though measuring its weight. “Do you need me to strike
you again? Or would it be better to use my fist, as you did with Worthington?”

Now, it seemed as if Vincent grew larger
beside her. If Mr. Howard meant to try another blow, she doubted that he would
survive the response to it. Then Vincent stepped away from her. “Very well,
then. You will hear from my second in the morning.”

It was happening again, just as it had a year
ago. And it was all wrong. Before she could protest that this was not at all
what she wanted, Vincent was striding down the path away from them, and Mr.
Howard had taken her arm to lead her out of the park.

CHAPTER
EIGHT
 

“My Lord, you have a visitor. It is Miss
Sydney.” The footman stood in the hallway, waiting instructions.

“Show her to the drawing room. I shall be
down directly.” Vincent remained impassive as his valet finished the process of
dressing him. Then, he walked slowly down the stairs to the main floor, doing
his best to conceal the wonder that the announcement had wrought in him. Though
the whole household must know of her, he had never entertained her here. Time
spent with Caro had been spent in her house, which had come to be a magical
place where he was free of all responsibilities other than caring for the
pleasure of his lady. In return, she had treated him like a sultan: pampered
him, pleasured him, and let him think that the sun rose and set at his command.

Yesterday, she’d said she’d been a prisoner
there. It was a sobering revelation. But it made sense. On those occasions when
the thought of those four walls had tired him, he’d spent the evening
elsewhere. If she had offered to accompany him, to the theater, Vauxhall, or
even a walk through Piccadilly, he’d made excuses. He had not wanted to expose
her to gossip. She must have thought he was ashamed.

Now, to see her here, on the settee in his
own drawing room, the mistake he’d made was clear. Other than her beauty, there
was nothing shocking or exceptional about the lady before him. Her dress was
fashionable but modest. Her manners were impeccable. She belonged in a place
like this, making calls on polite society. Better yet, she should be receiving
them, as lady of this house. Any shame or gossip attached to her character had
sprung from her association with him. It had been his job to repair it, not
offer a weak shield against further insult.

To know this now, when it was likely too
late, was no consolation at all. “Caro,” he said softly, dropping into a chair
at her side. “What brings you here?”

He thought of offering her his hand and
decided against it. Her brown eyes were bottomless, and there was a firm set to
her lips that suggested she did not want to be petted into a better humor. “I
have come to put a stop to this foolish duel.”

“Have you now?” He hid a smile, for the
matter was a serious one. “How do you mean to do that?”

“You will cry off,” she said, staring
directly into his eyes.

“You know I cannot,” he said, as patiently as
possible. “It is a matter of honor. Howard was the one to challenge me, and
rightly so, for I was in the wrong. I cannot refuse. I have sent Tripp to
mediate with his second. Howard will not accept my apologies. We meet tomorrow,
at dawn.”

In truth, he had sent a brief note of
response.
It is not I who deserve the apology. If you wish to settle this,
you must speak to Miss Sydney.

He was doing that now. He hoped she would
welcome the only solution he had to offer. At the moment, she seemed more
concerned about the other fellow, than anything he had to say to her. She was
literally wringing her hands in distress.

“Aubrey will not talk to me at all,” she
said. There was that troublesome Christian name again. Blackthorne did his best
to ignore it.

“He doesn’t understand what he was done,” she
insisted. “He doesn’t know you as I do. He does not know what you are capable
of.” There were tears in her eyes, as though this complete knowledge of his
character was a cause for additional distress.

“What I am capable of?” He experimented with
a laugh, but it sounded false even to him.

“You will kill him,” she said, flatly. “Mr.
Worthington barely survived the encounter with you, and he was a marksman with
nerves of steel. Aubrey has no such skills. The fight is not fair. You must not
allow him to goad you.”

She was right. Howard would be no opponent at
all, with swords or pistols. With the last duel, he’d done more to damage her
honor than to defend it. If it happened again, she would not be just a
mistress. She would be the sort of notorious beauty that men fought and died
for. Every rake in London would hunger for her.

“He only meant to help me,” she whispered. “I
should never have involved him in this. It is
all my
fault.”

“It is not,” he said. “It was never your
fault.” Howard was right. He owed her reparation. If he’d cared as much about
her as he claimed, he should not have seduced her in a public place, scant feet
from discovery. That was not the action of a man in love. At what point had
wickedness stopped being a game? He had thought himself a man of honor. It seemed
he was a blackguard, after all. “The blame is
mine
,
alone. I behave like an idiot, when I am around you. And I am most heartily
sorry for the wrong I have done.”

She waved his apology away with a twitch of
her handkerchief. “It does not matter, really. What did we do last night that
we have not done a hundred times or more?”

“Do not put the blame upon yourself. I should
have known better than to take risks in Vauxhall.”

“Risks to whom, Vincent? I am sure it is not
the most scandalous thing you have done, and my honor has been gone for quite
some time. While it is terribly sweet of him to try to fight for me, there is
no point in it.”

Was that really the way she felt about
herself? “But it does matter, Caro.”

“I fail to see why. Who saw us, but poor
Aubrey?” she said. “If we all agree to forget it, then no one need ever know it
happened.”

But I would know,” he said. “You deserve
better than to be tumbled in the bushes.” He looked at her again, still fresh
and lovely, and just as pure and modest as the day he’d met her. There was one
thing he could do that would solve all. It would restore her honor, placate
Howard, and they would be together again, as they should be.
“Caro.”
He wet his lips, surprised to be nervous about her answer. “Caroline. You are
right. We must stop this disagreement with Howard. No good
will
come
of it.”

“Thank God,” she said, with a relieved sigh.
She leaned forward, laying her hand on his thigh. “Promise me you will walk
away from this, and you may have me again. It will be as it was. I will not
trouble you over trips to the theater or Vauxhall. You may do just as you like,
and say what you like.  I will not comment or complain.  I shall not
be an embarrassment to you, ever again. Forget this duel and I shall do
anything for you. Anything you ask.” There was a slight increase of pressure
from those magical fingertips. It brought to mind any number of things he might
suggest, that she would willingly comply with.

“Anything at all,” she repeated. “But do not
fight Aubrey over me. He is the sweetest of men, Vincent. And he has been so
kind to me. I swear, if anything should happen to him…” Her composure slipped,
and a sob escaped her.

His proposal stuck in his throat, as if the
words were a troublesome bit of gristle. He swallowed, and they were gone. Then
he leaned forward, and carefully removed her hand from his leg, clasping it in
his own in what he hoped was a brotherly way. “It will be all right,” he said,
wondering how it ever could be. She was offering him the use of her body, while
weeping over another man. And though he had confessed his love on more than one
occasion, he could not remember her ever responding in kind.

“You will not hurt him?” she said, through
the tears.

“Your Mr. Howard is safe. I give you my
word.”

She lunged forward to kiss him, and he
accepted it. What harm would one kiss do, if it gave him strength? Then he set
her away, as gently as possible, and wiped the last of her tears with his own
handkerchief. “Now you must go. Do not worry yourself any further. After
tomorrow, everything will be all right.”

CHAPTER
NINE
 

Vincent had lied to her.

Or perhaps not.
But Caro could find no evidence that he’d
told the truth. On the previous day, she had relayed his assurances to Mr. Howard.

That man had given her a searching look. Then
he’d said that the duel would go on as scheduled and that she was not to worry.

How could she not? Aubrey was being so
bullheaded about going forward with it that she was beginning to wonder if he
had developed a
tendre
for her. If that was
the case, he had mistaken her kindness for more than it was. He was totally out
of his depth in challenging Vincent.

Vincent had been equally stubborn and equally
cryptic. He had assured her of Aubrey’s safety. But he had sent her away after,
unwilling to explain himself, and had not visited her house in the evening. She
had sent him a note, reminding him of his welcome. The prompt, written response
she had received was that further contact between them would be unwise, and
that she was free to spend the evening with Mr. Howard, if she chose to do so.

She had railed at that poor man for the
better part of three hours, demanding that something must be done. All she had
gotten from him was permission to ride in his carriage to the duel.

The sun was rising as she sat beside him in
the barouche, and received disapproving looks from his second, Mr. Massey, who
clearly blamed her for putting his friend’s life at risk.

“You must stay in the carriage,” Aubrey said
absently, glancing out the window at the dueling field. “The grass is damp from
the morning.” He sniffed. “And I believe the site my friend has chosen is a cow
pasture. You do not want to ruin your slippers.”

The idea was so ludicrous that she laughed,
which earned her another glare from Mr. Massey. She was probably violating some
rule of male etiquette by being here at all. Of course, polite ladies were not
the subject of duels in the first place. Neither gender would approve of her
plan to throw herself between the two combatants, should it be necessary. This
argument was her fault. She meant to do whatever was necessary to end it.

She ignored Aubrey’s words and followed the
men when they got down out of the carriage.

He gave her a sad look. “Very well, then. But
please, stand quietly to the side. There must be no dithering about, no weeping
or running into the line of fire. It will spoil my aim, as well as being
unnecessarily dramatic.”

“As if this duel is not dramatic enough,”
Massey said, with a snort. “You are likely to get yourself slaughtered over
this. What am I to tell them, back at the club? We cannot very well blackball
Blackthorne over it. There is no rule to cover one member killing another.”

“Perhaps there should be,” Mr. Howard said,
thoughtfully. “But do not bother to make one on my account. Besides, as my
second, you should try to exhibit some confidence in my abilities. I have been
practicing, you know. Perhaps I shall be the one to kill him.”

“Do not joke over this,” Caro snapped. “I do not
want to see either of you dead.”

Aubrey gave her a stern look. “I told you
that you must not interfere. Trust that things will work out as I planned for
them to.”

“You have a plan?” Caro said, with doubt.

“Of course.
As I said from the first, you must trust me.
Everything will be all right.”

As the combatants divested themselves of
coats and waistcoats, the seconds met, a few yards away. Vincent’s friend, Mr.
Tripp, produced the pistol case. He and Massey spent a few moments examining
the weapons and remarking on their quality and weight before loading them. Then
each delivered a gun to his friend.

She looked to Vincent again. “You promised,”
she said, and removed her handkerchief from her reticule, dabbing at the first
tears.

He refused to meet her eye, instead, staring
at the gun in his hand. “I promised that it would be all right. It will.” He
turned to Mr. Tripp. “I know what she intends. Keep her clear of this, Bob.”

His friend nodded, and came to her side,
gripping her arm like a manacle, while Mr. Massey arranged the two men back to
back, and instructed them to pace ten, turn and fire. When they stood so close,
the contrast between the two seemed even greater. Mr. Howard was the taller.
But while Vincent was the very image of male perfection in crisp linen, tight
breeches and Hessians, Aubrey looked like a bundle of animated sticks, wrapped
in wrinkled cloth.

“Let me go,” she said and struggled against
the grip on her arm.

“When it is done,” Tripp said, emotionless.

The men walked. They turned. They raised
their weapons.

Caro stared, her fist in her mouth to stop
the scream, forcing herself to watch.

Then Vincent very deliberately raised it
further, and fired a single shot into the air before dropping it to the ground
at his side.
“Fire at will, Mr. Howard.
I have earned
what is to happen.”

“You have
deloped
?”
Caro all but shrieked at him. “Why could you not have told me earlier?” She
pulled free of Tripp and started forward.

“Caro,” Mr. Howard gave a warning. “We are
not through here, yet. I have not responded.”

She ran forward, throwing herself against
Vincent and wrapping her arms around his impassive frame. “I do not care what
your plans are. I will not stand by and let you shoot the man I love to prove
some ridiculous point of honor.

“A moment, please,” Blackthorne said, calmly,
freeing one of his arms from her grasp to gesture at Mr. Howard. “I must speak
to Miss Sydney. Then you may have satisfaction.”

Aubrey lowered his pistol.
“Fair
enough.”

He folded her easily into his arms. But there
was no kiss, only a shaky sigh. “What is the meaning of this, Caro?” he said.

“He will not shoot you,” she said. Her voice
was muffled for her face was pressed into the linen of his shirt front. “If he
does, he will have to shoot us both. I will not let you go again.”

“You said you loved me,” he whispered.

“Of course,” she answered.

“Why did you not tell me sooner?”

She looked up, surprised. “When did you ever
require love from me? Your first proposal spoke of the honor and the title, and
your need to marry and get an heir. I was but the means to that end.”

“You were always more than that,” he assured
her.

“How was I to know? You confessed no feelings
to me at that time.”

“It was good I had not. It would have been
even more humiliating when you turned me down,” he said.

“Because I loved you.
I did not want to tie myself forever to a
rake
who
did not care for me. You’d have broken my
heart without a second thought.”

“I loved you,” he assured her. “Since the
first moment I saw you.”

“I suspected as much, in Bath. But in
London?” She shrugged. “After I refused your proposal, your next offer was of a
more physical nature. It was so much easier to understand.”

“But if you loved me, why did you accept?”

She sighed. “I could not resist. It was the
only proof I had that I had captured any part of you. If you did not love me,
at least you desired me. And I still loved you. Perhaps it would be enough.”
 

“Last night, you spoke of nothing but
Aubrey,” his lips twisted in disgust.
“And your feelings for
him.
If you would prefer him…”

“She does not.” Mr. Howard set down the gun
and approached them. He looked at her, nervously. “You do not, do you?
Because that would be dashed inconvenient.
Do not mistake
me. You are a lovely girl. But I cannot afford to keep you, as wife, or
mistress.”

She smiled at him.
“No
offence taken, Mr. Howard.”
She looked back at Vincent. “Aubrey is my
friend,” she said, trying to be as reasonable as she could. “I did not want you
to kill him. I remember how you were, after the duel with Mr. Worthington. It
affected you, Vincent. Whether you admit it or not, you are not a violent man.
You would both have been hurt, had you shot him.”

“You know me, better than I do myself.” His
arms tightened on her. This time, he kissed her, as though it
were
the first time, or perhaps the last, and she felt the
love in it.

Mr. Howard cleared his throat. “Are you
almost ready to continue? The sun is full up, and a lady’s honor is still at
stake.”

“I have no honor,” she cried in frustration.

Vincent set her aside. “Exactly my point,” he
informed her. “It is because of me. I was wrong to take you as mistress.
And in Vauxhall?
That was wrong as well.”

“No!” If he’d had second thoughts about his
alleged feelings, she did not want to hear them now.

“I should have begged you to marry me, that
very first night.”

“I was no longer worthy,” she reminded him.

“You did nothing that I could not forgive. I
was jealous of your interest in Worthington, and still smarting from your
rejection of my suit. And I wanted you.” He said with a sad smile. “I wanted
you so bad it hurt. Suddenly, it was in my power to have you, that very night,
if I wished. I was weak, when I should have been strong for your sake. I took
advantage.”

“It is all right,” she assured him.

“Even worse.
It was everything I’d hoped for. If I’d
thought that the passion for you would burn away, I was a fool.”

She touched his lips with a finger to silence
him. “I have not regretted a moment of it.”

“It is a pity that you have declared your
plans to remain single until death,” Mr. Howard prompted.  

Vincent looked puzzled. “I must have been
drunk if I said such a thing. Why would I avoid the opportunity to spend a
lifetime with the woman I love? I must pray that it is not too late to do so.
He dropped to one knee before her, in the wet grass. “Miss Sydney, will you
make me the happiest of men?”

“I seriously doubt it,” she said.
“For I know you too well to do that.
If, however, you wish
me to marry you…”

He smiled and took her hands in his,
examining the fingers. “You own so much jewelry. And yet, I have given you no
ring. I will remedy this, at last. You may have the one worn by my mother.”

“Your mother.”
She remembered how difficult a marriage it
was likely to be, after all they had done. “She will not be pleased that you
chose to marry a member of the demimonde.”

“She will be overjoyed,” Blackthorne said,
wryly. “She thinks me too timid.”

“And society?”

“Can go hang,” he said, snapping his fingers.
“They want far more from me than I do from them. Anyone who shows disrespect to
my countess will answer to me.”

“No more duels,” she said, firmly.

“No more duels,” he promised. “Now, let us go
back to my house, for breakfast. This afternoon, I shall go to procure a
special license, and we will be married before the week is out.” He stood and
offered his hand to Mr. Howard. “And you sir, must join us, to prove that you
are satisfied with the way this has ended.”

“I am satisfied,” Mr. Howard agreed, with a smile
and a bob of his head. “But I have other plans for the morning. I must go back
to the club and adjust the odds on the betting board. And then, I have
work
to do.” 

 

THE END

 
 

 

BOOK: To Recapture a Rake: A Hephaestus Club Novella
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