The Spurious Rake
As the clouds rolled in, darkness descended quicker than the lone rider had expected. This stretch of the highway wound through an ancient beech forest, and the extending branches stretched over the road making it akin to a tunnel. The rider was just calculating the distance to the nearest inn when a loud cry rang out, followed by a gunshot. He spurred his horse forward, and upon seeing a coach on the side of the road, its horses no longer in their traces, he slipped from his own mount and left it under the cover of the trees.
As he crept towards the coach he noticed that the driver was slumped over, a dark stain spreading down the front of his greatcoat. A pistol was lying upon the ground. He picked it up and moved forward with even greater stealth. He paused at the side of the carriage and peered in. A female lay askew, head in an awkward position, the hair matted with what he could only assume was blood. He was about to enter to ascertain the severity of the injury when he heard a rough voice raised in anger followed by a defiant ‘No!' in a distinctly feminine voice.
He came around the back of the coach and held the pistol out before him, aiming it directly at the highwayman who grasped a struggling lady, little more than a girl by the looks of her, by one arm.
"Unhand her and throw down your weapon or I will shoot," he cried.
The highwayman laughed and raised his blunderbuss. "Fer a flash cove yer a fool -- move'n I'll crash this gentry mort."
The pistol exploded in the young man's hands. The sound of the shot was echoed a split second later and the highwayman crumpled to the ground in a heap. The girl simply stood and stared, one hand held up to her face, the other hanging limply at her side.
"Did the ruffian hurt you?" he cried as he ran forward.
She shook her head blindly. The young man crouched down beside the highwayman and reached out tentatively. There was a great, gaping, bloody hole in the man's chest. He did not need to touch him to know that he was dead. "I . . . I have killed him," he said, his voice raw. "I have never killed a man before."
The girl's voice was almost as shaken. "He would have killed you and me if given the chance. He has already killed my coachman. You . . . you saved my life, sir. How am I ever to repay you?"
The young man looked up into her face. Even in the dim light she could see desperation in his harrowed visage. "I meant only to stop him -- not to kill him."
She was moved to kneel beside him. "He was a murderer."
"What does this make me?"
"My saviour," she said softly, and then she swooned.
He had her in his arms before she touched the ground. His hand felt something wet and warm running down her left sleeve. He swore under his breath as he checked her shoulder and found a rent in the fabric of her pelisse and blood oozing from a raw, deep wound. "You told me you were unhurt!" he cried as he ripped his cravat from his neck with his free hand. She came to once while he bound it tightly about her injury.
"I'm sorry for causing you so much trouble," she whispered.
"Stay, miss. Do not speak. There is an inn not more than a mile along the road -- you will be tended to there."
"Y . . . your name?"
"Thank you, Mr. Avery," she said, and then she fainted once more.
He held her close to him and stood, surprised at how small and light she was in his arms. When he reached the trees he whistled for his horse.
"Steady old thing, he said. "I have to throw this lady up before I can mount." He laid her across the saddle and then pulled himself up. His horse shifted nervously as he drew the girl into his arms. When she was safely settled he gave it a gentle nudge with his heels. He rode through the forest as quickly as he thought to be safe and soon was turning into the stable yard of a small hostelry. As the stable boy ran up to take his reins he ordered him to go for the apothecary instead.
"I'll see to you later," he whispered to his horse, and then he carefully slipped off its back with the girl's inert body grasped tightly to his chest. She groaned softly but did not rouse. He strode to the door of the inn and banged upon it with his foot. The hosteler pushed open a gap and stuck his head through.
"What's the to-do? This be a respectable establishment!"
"This lady has been set upon by a highwayman. She needs a room at once. I have already sent your lad for the apothecary. Do you have a girl who can come up to the room to act as companion to the lady?"
The portly man's mouth gaped in shock. He held the door open and then led Avery upstairs, calling to his wife at the same time to send Betsy from the kitchen.
Avery looked down at the girl as she lay upon the bed. Her face was ashen. Her bonnet was askew and tendrils of pale hair had escaped from it. She looked very young and small and vulnerable. In contrast, the girl who had come up from the kitchen was a sturdy lass, with rosy cheeks and wild jumble of red curls tied upon her head. She stood at the corner of the bed, her face aglow with interest.
"Be the lady dead?"
Avery felt like asking her if she were daft, but only said that the lady had fainted and could she bring a jug of water and a towel. While she went about her task he sat on the edge of the bed and took his handkerchief from his pocket, using it to wipe a spot of dirt from the girl's face. Her eyes flickered open -- they were light grey. She stared up at him vacantly at first, and then opened her mouth to speak.
"Hush," he said softly. "I have sent for some water."
"Mr. Avery, where is my aunt?"
"Aunt Matilda. The . . . highwayman struck her upon the head with his blunderbuss before he pulled me from the coach."
Avery looked stricken. He had completely forgotten the injured woman in the coach. "I am afraid she must be . . ."
"No!" cried the girl. "Mr. Avery, please, can you not go back for her?"
"I cannot leave you."
At that moment Betsy entered the room balancing a jug of water and a basin.
"You must," the girl said weakly. "I am safe, but if my aunt should . . ."
"I will return as soon as possible," he said.
He wanted to tell her not to worry and that all would be well, but he remembered the blood he had seen and the awkward angle the lady had been lying in, and he could not bring himself to speak empty platitudes. He told Betsy to take good care of her and to tell the apothecary when he came that another patient would be arriving soon. He ran down the stairs and into the cool night air. His horse was waiting by the stable door.
"I am sorry, but we have one more trip before we can call it a night," he whispered in its ear.
The horse whickered in reply.
"I know. It is not every day that someone of my stamp plays the Good Samaritan. Do not worry -- it will not become a habit," he said as he threw himself into the saddle and guided his horse back into the darkness of the woods.
"Well, it's about time you returned for me," came a voice from inside the coach. "Dead men are not the most favourable of companions, especially in the woods at night."
Avery almost fell from his horse. "Aunt Matilda?" he asked in surprise.
"Did you think I had perished?"
He jumped from the horse and opened the coach door. "I was hoping that your injuries were not quite that severe, but I had seen a quantity of blood."
"Young man," said the lady as he helped her out, "head wounds bleed copiously -- but luckily I have an extremely thick skull."
He noticed that for all her bravado she was very unsteady on her feet. "Here, let me help you mount. I will have to sit up behind you for I only have one horse. I hope you do not mind."
"I have suffered so many indignities tonight one more will hardly matter."
When they were on their way, Avery asked her, "How did you know . . ."
"I was just coming to my senses when I heard two shots in quick succession. Then I heard someone, you I suppose, cry I have killed him. You were in such a hurry to get my niece to safety that I suppose you forgot all about me."
"In truth I did, Madame, but when she regained consciousness at the inn she sent me back for you immediately. Your niece is pluck to the backbone. I think it must run in the family."
Aunt Matilda chuckled, and then winced.
"Are you in much pain?" asked Avery.
"That is a foolish question, young man. My head was near cleaved in two."
Avery carried the girl's aunt into the inn amid protests -- the old lady was quite a termagant. The hosteler led him upstairs to his second-best bedchamber.
"I hope this be all of your party for I have no more rooms to spare," he said.
Avery ignored this, only asking if the apothecary had come.
"He is with the young lady."
"Where are you taking me?" cried Aunt Matilda in a rapidly failing voice. "I must be put with Faith so that I may nurse her."
"You must have your own bed in which to recuperate," said Avery shortly, "or you will be of no earthly use to your niece."
"You are a very ramshackle young man," she said as he laid her upon the counterpane of her bed. "I do not believe you are respectable at all. You are not even wearing a neck cloth."
He put his hand up to his collar. "My lack of neck cloth was unavoidable, but you are still correct in your assumption, Aunt Matilda. I am not respectable at all."
"I have bound Miss Delphinton's arm," said the apothecary. "It is only a flesh wound, but quite deep. She will need to be watched tonight in case fever sets in. I have administered laudanum. Bathe her forehead if she becomes hot and restless. I will see to her aunt now."
Avery entered the room. The coverlet of the bed was pulled right up under the girl's chin. Her pale hair was spread upon the pillow. Betsy sat in a chair by the side of the bed where a small table with a branch of candles, a basin of water, and a bottle of medicine were stationed. She got up and curtsied.
"The young miss is asleep, sir."
"I will take your place. See if the apothecary needs your help with her aunt."
The serving girl bobbed a curtsy and left the room.
Avery took the chair and sighed. It would be a long night. He knew that he could really have done nothing other than what he was doing right now, regardless of his reputation. No matter what the world had made of him, he still had a soul. He kept his eyes on the girl's face and tried not to think of the gaping, bloody hole in the highwayman's chest. Faith. That was what her aunt had called her. Faith was something he needed right now. He put his face in his hands and wept silently for the perfidy of life.
Betsy did not return. Avery was on the point of nodding off when Faith stirred restlessly in her sleep. In the candle's glow he could see that her face was flushed. It felt hot to the touch. He took the washcloth from the basin, wrung it out, and wiped it gently over her brow. All night he tended her while she tossed and turned, sometimes crying out but never waking. Pale, watery light was stealing across the sky when finally her fever broke and she settled into peaceful slumber again. He sat beside her for another hour but she remained sleeping deeply. He got up, and with one last look at her pallid face, left the room.
Downstairs he settled the reckoning with the innkeeper, paying for another few nights. Then he buttoned his riding jacket to the topmost button to hide his lack of cravat and went out into the stable yard. Soon he was upon the road again, his horse galloping fluidly beneath him. He would be home in London by nightfall, and all that had happened would be no more than a distant memory not to be revisited.
"It has only been a month since our misadventure," said Aunt Matilda crossly. "I do not believe you are ready to withstand the rigours of a London season."
"Is your head still ailing you?" asked Faith with concern. "If so I will not plague you to take me out to parties. I will go with Cousin Seraphina."
"A lot of good an empty headed chit like she will do you as a chaperone," said her aunt. "My head has been right as rain for weeks. It is your health I am concerned about."
"Mr. Baxter says that my shoulder has healed very well," said Faith. "I can perform almost any task without pain."
"I believe you have made this harum-scarum plan for a London season only in hopes of seeing him." Her aunt looked at her reprovingly. "For all that he helped us that night, I am convinced he is a dissolute rakeshame."
"Aunt! You disapprove of Mr. Avery only because he wasn't wearing a neck cloth and yet you know full well why."
"He himself admitted that he was not respectable."
"Faddle! I am convinced he was only sporting with you. What could have been more gentlemanly than his treatment of us? He saved both our lives and paid the landlord at the inn for our rooms. Only, he should not have left before I was able to thank him properly."
"This trip is all for naught anyway. Seraphina knows everybody in Town and she has never heard of a Mr. Avery."
Faith had to admit the truth of this statement. Even if Mr. Avery did not travel in as exalted circles as her fashionable cousin, one would think a gentleman with his extraordinary good looks would draw the attention of the ladies of the Ton, and she could have sworn he had the look of Town about him. She sighed. Even if her search were fruitless, it was time she had another London season. She had been out of mourning for six months now and desperately needed a change in her surroundings after being cooped up at Abbotsfield for three years.
"Cherie, wake up."
The young woman put her candlestick down and knelt beside his bed. "You have had another of your dreams. I heard your cries from my room."
"Stay with me?" he implored, grasping her hands.
"Were anyone to see you now they would never recognise the Villainous Viscount," Florence said. She climbed up onto the bed and lay down, taking him into her arms and stroking his head like he was a young child. "Why do you not tell me what happened to you that night? I know all of your other secrets."
"This one I will bear myself," he said, and then he drifted off, his head lying heavy against her breast.
The ballroom at Lady Addersly's glittered with the light of a thousand candles. Seraphina urged Faith through the throng while her Aunt Matilda doggedly tagged behind.
"It is such a squeeze!" cried Seraphina in delight. "Let me introduce you first to Lady Addersley and then I will find you some charming gentlemen to dance with."
"Will it be possible to dance?" asked Faith with a smile.
"Oh yes -- the dance floor is sacred -- it is always kept clear of the crowds."
Faith glanced around, hoping to see him somewhere among the elaborately dressed hordes. As it was she barely recognised a soul from those she had met during her come-out three years previously. She greeted her hostess politely and then allowed her cousin to set her up with a dance partner. The gentleman, a Lord Grafton, was affable and attentive, and, as her cousin had whispered in her ear, one of the most sought after -- she should have felt lucky being paired with him. But even as she danced and did her best to participate in polite conversation, her eyes scanned the room. There was only one person she truly wanted to see. One person she longed to dance with.
When the set ended, Lord Grafton escorted her off the dance floor and bowed over her hand. She flashed him a smile and uttered a few words of thanks, but hardly listened to him as he offered to bring her some refreshment. It was only after he left her standing alone that she realised she had agreed to a glass of lemonade. She was too busy trying to steady the beating of her heart as she watched a dark head weave its way through the crowds.
She had only seen him before in dim light and travel-worn clothes. In evening dress he took her breath away. There was, however, something different in his bearing that made her almost wonder if she were mistaken, but when he was close enough she was able to see the dark eyes that she remembered so well.
"Mr. Avery," she said, stepping forward in excitement.
His expression showed no recognition. He walked right past her as if she weren't there. Her eyes continued to follow him as he stopped beside a very glamorous lady and then led her out to the set that was forming. The look he gave the lady and the smile that accompanied it were almost too intimate to be shared on a dance floor. Faith felt a bitter pang run through her.
Lord Grafton was at her elbow with a glass of lemonade.
She took it and thanked him, then asked as casually as she could muster, "Who is that gentleman?"
"Which?" he asked, following her glance.
"The one dancing with the stunning lady in red."
"Oh!" He took her elbow and began leading her towards the chairs where her aunt Matilda was seated. "He is not someone you should know."
"But I think I do know him," she persisted.
Lord Grafton looked shocked. "He is a . . . libertine," he said. "I will say no more. Unfortunately he is a viscount so he has entrée into even the best of circles."
"Then it cannot be him," said Faith thoughtfully, "because the gentleman I met was called Mr. Avery."
Lord Grafton almost choked on his lemonade. "Promise me you will have nothing to do with him, Miss Delphinton."
"If he is what you say, sir," she replied, "I am certain I shall have no cause to speak to him at all, nor he to me for that matter. I must have been completely mistaken. The gentleman I am referring to was kind, chivalrous, and courageous. He saved my life, you see."
Lord Grafton breathed a sigh of relief. "Not the same fellow at all. Ilford wouldn't lift a finger to help anyone."
The evening was getting on and Faith was resting between dances.
"Aunt Matilda, how are you faring?"
"Girl! I am not an invalid. I can hold up better than you can -- but a bit of lemonade would be lovely."
As Faith was standing in line waiting for the lemonade she became aware of a dark presence beside her. She did not turn her head, but glanced sideways. From the corner of her eye she could see that he was looking straight ahead. It was uncanny, but he looked so much like her Mr. Avery she could not understand how he could possibly be someone else.
"If you go out on the terrace in five minutes I will be waiting there for you," he said, so softly that she was certain no one but herself could hear.
She merely nodded and then was attended to at the refreshment table. When she turned around with the drink, he was gone. She hurried back to her aunt.
"Do you know where Seraphina is?" she asked.
"Flitting like a butterfly here, there, and everywhere," said Aunt Matilda.
"I must find her," she said. "I will be back shortly."
Faith felt guilty about lying to her aunt, but she knew that she could not tell her she had just made an assignation to meet a rake on the terrace. She walked nonchalantly over to the rich damask curtains, looked around, and then slipped through them and the open French doors, which they hid. She could feel her blood pounding through her body. Her hands were clammy. The terrace was ill lit so it took a few moments for her eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. In a far corner she saw a tall, shadowy figure separate itself from the wall. She walked towards it.
"Mr. Avery," she said.
"There are three things I need to say to you, and then you can return to Aunt Matilda."
She stood and looked up at him impassively, waiting.
"How is your arm?"
"It has healed completely, thank you." She smiled.
"I have a request I would like you to honour. Please tell no one that it was I who rescued you that night."
"Why not, sir? You performed a heroic deed."
In the dark she could see that his face was overcome with scorn. "Heroic! I bumbled it so badly I almost caused your death."
"You saved my life," she said, with conviction.
"I did not ask you here to argue the point. Will you make me that promise?"
"I will promise anything you like, Mr. Avery," she answered softly.
He sighed. "I am sorry if I misled you. Avery is my given name. I am actually called Ilford."
"So I was informed tonight by Lord Grafton."
"Then I imagine he has already told you what I am about to."
"What he told me I cannot readily believe."
"If he has told that I am a rake, he has told you the truth. I asked you here to tell you -- to explain why I ignored you earlier, and why it would be dangerous for you to be seen talking to me."
"I will chose whom I know -- and I refuse to cut you simply because of what people will say. I would like to be your friend."
"You are little more than a child -- do not you realise that libertines do not form friendships with ingénues?"
Faith stood as tall as she could and held out her chin. "I am not a child, your lordship. I am twenty years old and not an ingénue. I came out a full three years ago."
"I was once twenty myself -- naïve and high-principled like you -- and I destroyed that innocence through my own misguided actions -- I refuse to allow you to do the same. Go back inside and dance with Lord Grafton; you cannot chose better than he." He turned and walked swiftly away from her.
It was then that Faith realised she was trembling.
"Do not tell me you were alone out here with that man!"
Faith looked up and saw Seraphina rushing towards her, shawl and scarves and feathers fluttering as she moved.
"I . . . I came out because I was overheated. He was perfectly civil. He told me I should not be seen with him and to go back inside."
"He did not make any improper advances?"
"Of course not! He is a gentleman."
"Faith dearest! Do you not know who that was? The Viscount of Ilford. He is notorious! Devilishly handsome, but the worst libertine imaginable. He killed a man and fled the country with his widow. He lived on the continent for seven years gambling and philandering and committing all manner of licentious acts. He returned this past year with his French mistress. He has her in a house on Half Moon Street. You must never, ever be seen with him. It is death, my dear. Certain death. But what I wouldn't give for a few stolen moments under the moonlight with him myself!" She giggled. "As much as I love my darling Humphrey, some men are irresistible -- especially with such a dangerous past!"
Faith knew that it could not possibly be true. He had never killed a man before he had shot the highwayman -- he had told her so himself. The anguish he had displayed had been very real. And if that part of the tale were untrue, then it followed that the rest must also be nothing more than the fabrication of evil lies and gossip. The only things she knew to be true were that he was a man of deep compassion and that he was living a life of torment. She fervently hoped she would somehow be able to change that.
Over the next two weeks Faith noticed the viscount at many of the same social functions as she attended, but he always kept his distance. Upon each occasion she heard more rumours about his notorious deeds, both past and present. She witnessed nothing more than that he danced with many beautiful women, the majority of which were married, but he did not appear to take much pleasure in it. According to Seraphina he was leading each one of them on, pitting them against one another for sport.
"He is too cruel," she sighed. "I wish he would single me out only once that I may become as desired as the rest."
"If you are happily married to Lord Burrard then why would you like to be desired by dissolute gentlemen?" asked Faith.
"You silly goose! I want no man but my dear Humphrey, only it would be so much fun to have all the young bucks fall at my feet just because Ilford had paid me notice."
"They sound to me like tiresome fools."
"Indeed! But what a lark it would be!"
"You cannot really be serious," said Faith, shaking her head. "Besides, I do not understand why for you it would be a good thing to receive his attentions and for me it would not."
"You are such an innocent! It would ruin your chances of marriage. I am already married, so it would add to my allure."
Faith could only muse about how baffling were the mores of London's high society.
"Do not look now," said Seraphina, "but Mr. Everard is coming our way. He is not nearly such a dastardly rake as the Villainous Viscount, nor as handsome, but he is shockingly loose in the haft and still a gentleman to be courted with care."
Faith was not attending because she had seen Lord Ilford barely a few paces away, speaking with a brilliant blonde in an emerald green gown that advertised her natural endowments. He had a mocking sneer upon his face as he whispered something into the lady's ear. The blonde laughed softly and looked at him provocatively from under her eyelashes. He placed his hand beneath her elbow and was about to lead her to the dance floor when his eyes met Faith's. His expression was unreadable, but she smiled and held his gaze until he looked away.
She turned to her companions again to discover that the gentleman who had joined them had not missed the interchange at all. He smirked at her in a way she thought quite unseemly and asked her to dance. Faith glanced at Seraphina who looked disappointed, having obviously anticipated that the invitation was about to be made to herself. She looked out at the dancers and saw the viscount going up the set with the lady in green, and she made up her mind.
"Thank you sir," she said, holding out her hand to him.
"Why have I never met you before?" asked Mr. Everard in a voice like velvet.
"I really cannot say," said Faith.
"Cruel words from such a beautiful mouth!"
Faith wondered if such fatuous sallies impressed many other ladies. She forbore to respond.
"You are acquainted with Ilford?" he asked.
"Yes," she said simply.
"I am, very much surprised," he responded, then he swept his gaze up and down her person. "But delighted at the same time."
She stared at him directly. "Oh?"
"You are not his usual style," he answered. "But I quite like what I see."
"Is that a compliment?" she asked.
He remained undaunted by her coolness and continued to flirt in a manner she supposed usually garnered him better results. By the end of the dance he was almost at a standstill but made one last stab at breaking through her reserve.
"The ballroom is so very stuffy -- would you like to take a turn upon the terrace for some air?"
When she agreed immediately he laughed.
"Miss Delphinton you are an enigma," he purred.
There was no one else upon the terrace. Faith sincerely hoped that her instincts had not led her wrong. Mr. Everard took a firmer hold of her elbow and pulled her closer to him. "You do know what moonlit terraces are for?" he whispered as he ran his free hand up her other arm.
"I suppose you intend to show me," she said, leaning a little away from him.
"Has Ilford not enlightened you already?" A gleam came into his eyes. "Well, let me be the first." He bent his head towards hers.
"Everard, if you do not unhand the lady immediately, I will have no compunction about calling you out."
Mr. Everard jumped back from Faith as if he had been burned. "Ilford! If I had thought you still had an interest in Miss Delphinton I would never . . ."
"What do you mean, still? Unlike you I do not seduce innocents. For that remark alone I think I should kill you."
Everard looked from the viscount to Faith and back again. "I have been operating under a severe misapprehension," he said. "Your servant, Miss Delphinton. Good evening, Ilford. I do not believe this slight error in judgement is worth my life, and as the lady will surely attest, there has been no harm done."
The viscount looked at Faith who nodded. Everard slunk off as they stood and regarded each other.
"Do you have some perverse predilection for rakes?" Avery asked.
"If that odious creature is any example of the species, no," she said.
"Then why in heaven's name did you come out here alone with him?"
"To verify something that I already knew. You are no rake, sir."
"Do you realise what would have happened if I had not come along at just that moment?"
"I fully expected you to arrive in time," said Faith. "And if not, I should have trod upon his instep very hard."
"You expected it of me? This is outside of enough! I save your life once and you think I shall always be there when you need help?"
"I did not believe you would be happy to see me dance with him, not after you had warned me against yourself with such vehemence. It was not done to force a rescue, my lord, but to prove a point."
"This little exercise has proved nothing except that I cannot trust you to behave sensibly."
"Then let me be your friend. I can see that you are not happy with this charade you are playing."
"How I live my life is no concern of yours," he said, almost viciously. He seemed to regret his words immediately and came closer to her, taking her hand and looking into her eyes. "Please believe me, Miss Faith. I am no good for you. How I came to this state is a long and sordid story, which I shall not bore you with. It was just chance that I was on the road that night. You need not feel indebted to me for your life. We are two people who were destined to be strangers and our lives must continue apart."
She looked up at him steadfastly. "Nothing you say can stop the way I feel in my heart."
The expression on his face was one of dismay. He opened his mouth to speak but was interrupted by a voice from behind.
"What the devil?" Avery was grabbed roughly and pushed forcibly against the wall. "Name your seconds, sir!"
"No! Lord Grafton, let him go please!" cried Faith.
"Grafton," said Avery, pushing him aside and straightening his clothes. "I have no desire to kill you. Take Miss Delphinton back inside and dance with her. I wish the two of you every happiness." He ambled over to the balustrade and swung himself over the side. "Very boring party. Please convey my respects to our hostess." With that he climbed down a trellis and walked into the garden and away.
Lord Grafton stared after him, baffled, and then turned to Faith. "Did he harm you?"
"No, of course he did not," she replied with some asperity. "There was no need to treat Lord Ilford like a common criminal."
"But . . . explain to me what you were doing out here with him then. You did not . . . desire his advances, did you?" he asked in a shocked voice.
"He made no advances. I should like to know what brought you out here in such a dither!"
"I wanted to dance with you. Your cousin told me she had last seen you dancing with Mr. Everard, but did not know where you were at the moment. Mr. Everard was upon the dance floor himself, but I did not care to approach him. Instead I decided to search for you. Miss Delphinton, I have warned you before to stay clear of gentlemen with loose morals." His voice had taken on a tone of deep disapproval.
"You may be assured that I shall not dance with Mr. Everard again," said Faith, affecting a light smile. "Now, why do you not do as the viscount ordered and take me inside? If we are lucky a new set will be forming."
Avery woke up sweating. He'd had the dream again, just when he thought he had rid himself of everything that brought it on. It was the encounter with the girl upon the terrace, he knew, that was responsible. He had avoided Faith for two weeks and the dream had ceased. This time it had been much more insidious. Usually the face on the dead body was that of poor, betrayed Lord Hargrave or the highwayman. This time it had been Faith lying there with a hole in her chest and blood seeping slowly across the bodice of her gown. And then the dead lips had opened and she had whispered, ‘Mr. Avery, I only wanted to be your friend.'
When Florence saw his face in the morning, she held his cheeks in both her hands and kissed his forehead. "You must tell me, Cherie."
"This dream will be the death of me Florence. It should be enough that my waking life is blasted to eternal damnation. Sleep should offer oblivion." He leaned back in his chair and sighed.
Florence poured herself some coffee. "So -- is it the dead Lord Hargrave again? Why does his death so torture you when the blood was not on your hands?"
"I must tell you all, finally. When I found Belinda Hargrave with the pistol in her hand and her husband dead at her feet, I did what I thought was honourable and just."
"I know this. You escaped with the widow to France and took the blame to save her from the gallows."
"There was so much blood, her gown was spattered with it. That I will never forget to my dying day. Or her woeful face and her cries as she told me how cruelly he had treated her and how she had grabbed the pistol only to protect herself. But what I did not tell you was that later, on the passage over when I was trying to comfort her, she confessed quite proudly that she had contrived the scene and she had killed him only to be free to fly with me. He had no vicious propensities but was merely boring. His family did not trust her and if they had been able to prove her responsible in any way for his death, she would have lost all his fortune. I was sick with disgust and left her in Calais, but I could not escape the dreams that haunted me. I felt as responsible for his death as if I had killed him myself. I had destroyed my reputation and my life for what? Because I was beguiled by the smiles of a cheating wife."
"But the dreams were almost gone by the time we met. What has brought them back with such a vengeance?"
Avery got up from the breakfast table and walked over to the fireplace. He was in no mood for food as it was. He leaned against the mantle and stared at the flames.
"Remember my trip to the country two months ago? I was returning when I came upon a coach that was being held up by a highwayman. I -- I tried to play the hero but I made a dashed mess of the whole affair. I wanted only to shoot the gun out of his hand, but the girl was so close and he was levelling his own weapon. The pistol had a hair trigger. It went off before I had properly aimed. As it was, he fired at almost the same instant, only not at me -- at the girl. I killed him."
"And so? He was vermin that deserved to die!"
"It is not for me to decide who lives or dies. There are courts for that purpose. Instead I have the stain of his blood on my hands and in my mind, and more than that, the knowledge of how my actions almost lost the girl her life. Yet she insists on casting me as her saviour."
Florence appraised him with a new light in her eyes. "This girl -- how old is she?"
He looked away from the fire and back at her. "I thought her no more than a child, but she tells me she is twenty."
"And you have obviously seen her since this incident."
"Yes. That night I took her to an inn along with her aunt. She was shot in the arm when the highwayman's gun went off. I nursed her through the night and left in the morning."
"But now she has come to London."
"Is she very pretty, this young lady?"
Avery stared at her for a moment. "Beautiful, brave, and headstrong. She insists on recognizing me though I have done my best to dissuade her."
"She is in love with you, yes?"
Avery turned back to the fire and did not answer.
"But of course she is, Cherie. You saved her life -- the mysterious, handsome stranger. That is a recipe for love. And now she discovers you are a dashing libertine. That only makes you more desirable."
He picked up the poker and jabbed it into the fire. "If only it were that simple! She is no hair-witted filly. She knows that I am no rake and that my life is a sham. She had the nerve to go out onto the terrace with that hound Everard because she knew I would come out and send him to blazes! She doesn't understand that to know me would spell ruin for her. She almost completely scotched it with Grafton."
"His lordship is dangling after her?"
"Yes -- but can you imagine such a high stickler ever accepting me at his dinner table?"
"And that is what she would like? Are you certain it is not your dinner table she would prefer presiding over?"
"She wants to reclaim me, not marry me -- and even if I loved her I could never drag her down to my sordid level. No -- Grafton is the man for her."
"Very well, ma moi, I can see nothing for it but for you to seduce her -- then she will know you for the rake you profess to be."
"Save her by ruination? Florence, the idea is appalling."
Faith was quite put out when she discovered that Lord Grafton had told her aunt that he had found her alone on the terrace with Lord Ilford.
"I told you all along that Mr. Avery was a rascal!" Aunt Matilda said.
"You know very well he is nothing like the wild lothario Seraphina paints him," said Faith. "He is almost as bad as Lord Grafton, the way he goes on about protecting my reputation."
"At least the two have an ounce of sense between them, which is more than I can say for you, my girl."
"Auntie, what good is my reputation if it separates me from the man I love?"
"Love!" snorted Aunt Matilda. "You are talking like a fool. I wish Lord Grafton would just come out with it and say the words so that I can be good and well rid of you -- you are too trying by half."
"Lord Grafton will not make me an offer," said Faith with a sweet smile. "Not if there is anything I can do to prevent it."
"Don't be a silly widgeon, Faith. Grafton is exactly the man your sainted father would have wished for you."
Since Faith was certain what her father, sainted or otherwise, would have said in disparagement of either gentleman were he still alive, she ignored her aunt's parting shot completely.
At Lady Sandringham's ball Faith decided it was high time to put Mr. Grafton firmly in his place. She could see that he was itching to come to the point as he attempted to contrive for them to sit behind a bastion of potted palms.
"Sir, I do not think it is altogether proper to be on our own in such a fortified location," she said. "You are forever admonishing me for being alone with gentlemen in out of the way places."
"But, dash it! That was not a gentleman and this is quite different. I have something most particular to say to you."
"And I have something most particular to say to you," said Faith in a deceptively calm voice. "For weeks you have been treating me in the most proprietary way imaginable. I am not answerable to you. If I want to be alone with a gentleman I will chose for myself whom to be alone with. I do not wish to be alone with you, whereas I had a strong desire to be alone with Lord Ilford the other day. He saved my life, though he does not want me to tell a soul about it, and I have the greatest respect for him. Yet you interrupted our conversation with no more than a by your leave, and had the audacity to call him out for nothing more than talking to me. He, on the other hand, treated you with the utmost civility, but you continue to refer to him with your customary contempt. You are not fit to clean his boots, sir, and I no longer chose to be your friend."
As she was speaking, Lord Grafton's countenance changed from slightly flushed to red to a glowing purple. "You are enamoured of that rake!" he said through clenched teeth.
"Since when was that a crime?" asked Faith as she stalked off and left him seething beside the palm trees. She had no idea where she was going and was halfway down a hall when she felt her arm being grabbed under the elbow.
"What on earth do you think you are doing?"
She whirled around. The viscount was staring at her with glittering eyes. "Half the room must have heard your parting remarks!"
"I do not care if the entire world heard them," Faith said.
Avery opened a door. "When I carry on my seductions this is the compartment I generally use."
"I dare swear it is the first time you've ever entered this room."
"There is a balcony just outside this window," he said, leading her to it.
"There always is in a house of this style," she said with disdain.
"And once on the balcony, this is how I invariably proceed," he said, and he slipped an arm around her waist and drew her close. His head came down swiftly to meet her upraised face. He had meant to kiss her roughly and brusquely as she recoiled in disgust and alarm, but when their lips met he was swept up in a sensation that was entirely overwhelming. When he finally broke off the kiss he held her away from him and looked at her face in disbelief.
"I love you," she whispered.
"I am utterly despicable!" he cried. "Please forgive me." He pushed her to one side and almost ran from the room.
Avery burst through the front door of the house at Half Moon Street and took the stairs two at a time. He entered Florence's bedchamber and pulled her up from her dressing table where she had been employed at brushing out her hair for the night. He took her roughly into his arms and said, "Kiss me."
"Are you disguised?" she asked, trying to push him away.
"I have not touched a drop," he cried. "Please, I am in earnest. Kiss me."
"But, Cherie, I am not that type of girl."
"I know, and I am not that type of man, but I need to discover what has just happened to me."
Avery was so frantic that Florence obliged him. It is not that she would not have liked to be kissed by him, but she knew that a kiss would lead nowhere, certainly not to marriage. And though she had posed as his mistress for the full time she had been in London with him, her virtue was still as intact as upon the day she was born.
Avery tried to replicate the kiss he had just shared on that balcony at Lady Sandringham's town house, but the only sensations he felt were lips against lips, and the clash of teeth and tongues. Nothing stirring, nothing overwhelming. It was faintly repellent. He pushed Florence aside and apologised, then threw himself onto her bed.
"I am truly done for," he said.
"What is so terrible, ma petite?" She sat beside him and stroked his hair.
"I was so angry with Faith that I did what you said."
Enlightenment dawned. "You seduced the young miss and now you are overcome with guilt."
"I kissed her and it was the most entrancing thing I have ever experienced. I thought she would push me away in horror -- instead she told me that she loves me."
Florence whistled. "And rather than telling her you love her in return and asking her to run away with you, you came here to kiss me? You English are so very strange."
"I was confused. I did not know what was happening to me. I did not want it to be happening to me and I was disgusted with myself because I wanted nothing more than to stay with her and kiss her repeatedly."
"I see that I will have to look for a new position soon," said Florence with a sigh. "I thank you for the protection you have afforded me."
"No! Florence -- I will marry you."
"Addle pate!" she laughed. "After that kiss we shared? I am sorry, my lord, but I want more passion than that in my life. You must marry this Faith of yours."
"That is not an option," he said, and hurled a pillow across the room. "How can I expect her to share my disgrace?"
"From what I know of her, I think that she wants to."
"Enough damage has been done already. The gossips will have a field day after her argument with Grafton over me."
"Aha. I think you must surrender."
"I will have to allow the story of the highwayman to get around. That will explain her unusual behaviour without compromising her."
"I think you will have to face the inevitable, my lord. Your charade is at an end."
"No one will ever believe that I am pure as the driven snow, not even Faith, I am afraid. A good reputation can be lost in the blink of an eye -- a bad one is stuck with you for all eternity."
"So what do you intend to do, Cherie?"
"Go into seclusion and hope that she forgets my very name."
Florence chose the most demure dress that she owned and borrowed a very ugly bonnet from the kitchen maid. She had managed to discover through the gossip mill that Avery's Faith was staying at the home of Lord Burrard, and that her name was Miss Delphinton. She gave the direction to the hackney driver and then settled down to compose what she would say. At the door of the townhouse the butler looked her over with evident disapproval.
"Is Miss Delphinton at home?" she asked.
His disapproval grew deeper upon hearing her foreign accent.
"Whom should I say is calling?"
"Just tell her it is a friend of Mr. Avery. I am certain she will see me."
Florence's confidence was not misplaced. Very shortly she was escorted to a pretty yellow salon. The girl who rose from a chair upon her entrance was hardly what she had expected. She was small, with delicate features and a mist of pale hair that framed her face. Her grey eyes regarded Florence with almost unnerving candour.
"Oh!" she said. "You must be Lord Ilford's mistress."
"And I took such care with my dress," Florence sighed. "I thought I looked completely respectable."
"You do indeed," said Faith. "But you also look very French."
Florence smiled. "I must tell you straight off that I am a mistress in name only."
"I do not doubt it," said Faith. "You have not the look of a demimonde."
"You could not possibly know anything of such things."
"Do not tell me you are just the same as Lord Ilford and insist that I am an innocent?"
"No, I do not accuse you of that, miss, but there is another world out there that you cannot have the slightest knowledge of. It is what Avery wants to save you from, but me, I think that you will have him whatever the cost. And the more I know of you, I think he will not drag you down but you will pull him up."
"Thank you," said Faith with a sigh. "You are the only person who agrees with me so far. My aunt is outraged -- but of course she enjoys being outraged so that is neither here nor there -- and my cousin is devastated because she has had a secret penchant for the viscount all along. She says that my name is blacker than mud, but I think it will only last until the next sensation comes along."
"I have a most improper suggestion to make," said Florence. "Would you accompany me to my home? I shall send a note to Avery that I would like to speak with him. I have a tiny terrace on the back of my house where the two of you can be quite alone."
"Of course! Just give me a moment to tell my aunt I am going out and to fetch a hat with a veil. The viscount cannot possibly complain about propriety if I take every precaution, can he?"
On the trip to Half Moon Street, Florence told Faith all about the impetuous actions and years of ostracisation that had led Avery to attempt to live up to his notorious reputation.
"What did you need to discuss with me that is so pressing?"
"Cherie, you look terrible," said Florence. "But do not worry. All will be well soon -- I have taken measures into my own hands."
"What are you talking about?" Avery asked in exasperation.
"Go out onto my terrace. You look as if you have been living in a cave. The sunshine will do you some good."
Avery squinted in the sunlight. At first he didn't see the figure standing, leaning against one of the pillars. "What are you doing here?" he gasped. "Is this what Florence means by taking measures into her own hands? You must leave at once."
"Not until we have come to an understanding, Mr. Avery."
"I understand the impropriety of this all, even if you don't."
"Please do not talk such fustian. You sound like Lord Grafton, and though you kindly pushed him at me, I found him excessively boring."
In one swift movement he was by her side and had her hand in his. "I hated the thought of the two of you together, but it was better than the alternative."
"The alternative being?"
"You were charging down a road to ruin. You still are."
"But something has changed, hasn't it?"
"Yes. How did you know so early, when it took me so long?"
"I had no demons to fight."
"I knew you were strong, the way you faced up to the highwayman, the way you kept your head at the sight of his dead body, and the way you fought the fever when I nursed you throughout the night, but I never knew just how very tenacious you could be in the face of adversity till I attempted to lock horns with you."
She reached up and touched his face. "You nursed me through the night and never told me till now? Sir, you have already compromised me completely, then."
"My love," he whispered, "it is nothing to joke about. Do you know what a scandal this will create? Your family is sure to disown you."
"Aunt Matilda already has a soft spot for you, though she will be the last to admit it."
He laughed. "I have a soft spot for the old tartar a well. The first thing she did was rail at me about leaving her with only dead men for company." His face became serious again. "This will not do, you know. Marriage to me will ruin you most completely."
"I rather think not," said Faith with a teasing look. "My cousin Seraphina explained to me how associating with rakes can only elevate a married lady in the eyes of the Ton."
"So you insist on helping me fight my demons?"
"No -- I think it is best just to set the demons to rest. I would prefer raising children."
He lightly kissed her hair, and then rested his head against hers, pensive. "There are things you need to know about my past before we can continue any further."
"Florence has told me everything," she said, reaching up again and stroking his cheek. "But she had no need. I knew anything anyone said of you was false. The moment you cried over the death of that highwayman, my heart was touched by your compassion. I knew that whatever dire straights you were in, that was what had led you there, not lust."
"Faith. You live up to your name in every way." He stroked her arm. Leaned over and kissed her shoulder where her wound had been. "I ought never to have kissed you the other day," he said. "I told myself I was only doing it to repulse you, but I know now that I must have wanted to for the longest time."
"What could possibly have made you think I could be repulsed by a kiss, when I had been longing for you to kiss me for ever?"
"I suppose love obscures my powers of reasoning." Avery brought his face down to hers, until she could feel his breath upon her cheek.
"From the moment I met you, it has made me see things more clearly."
Faith turned her head and their lips met. Avery felt the world dropping away from him again. He held onto her tightly and savoured every sensation that her nearness brought. When at last he ended the kiss he held her from him and looked into her eyes. "I love you," he whispered.
She smiled. "I find myself unable to call you despicable."
"We must be married as soon as possible or you shall have to. I fear I am in very great danger of becoming a rake for real," said Avery, and he pulled her to him and kissed her again.
© 2005 Copyright held by the author.