Less than a quarter of an hour later the two returned to the carriage with bad news only to discover that Eli was gone.
“We should never have left him alone,” Robert said heavily.
“Yes but where could he have gone?”
“I went in the servant’s entrance to see if I couldn’t locate the ladies Ward,” Eli said from behind them.
“And?” Warren said impatiently.
“They’ve been here,” Eli said before walking pass them to retake his seat in the carriage.
“Both the butler and Howard’s mama claims he and Lillian have gone to a house party in Brighton,” Warren relayed, “But the footman we bribed said they left here an hour or so ago with the ladies Ward in a hired carriage.”
“The upstairs maid told me something along those lines only she was convinced they had gone to Howe’s,” Eli said with amused smile.
“Let’s not be selfish,” Robert said with curious brow, “Share with us your amusement.”
“Come lads let’s not loiter,” Eli said without acknowledging Robert’s question.
“Won’t you tell us what you have uncovered?” Robert pressed after following Warren into the carriage.
“Would you believe I caused all this by underestimating Brian’s will?”
“You believe this is Brian’s doing?” Warren asked with concern.
“No, haven’t you been listening,” Eli demanded. “I am the root and he the instrument. I gave him cause and motivation out of a loyalty misplaced but that was yesterday. I see my error now.”
“I’ll remind you that he’s family and is dear to the woman you intend to marry,” Warren said with measure.
“And I’ve given her my word I’d leave him to her but I’m quickly losing patience.”
“Let us help,” Robert suggested.
“I want them located before this is made worse.”
“You mean to gather all the players and have their parts. Yes?” Robert asked.
“Just so,” Eli agreed.
A short while later the three separated outside Eli’s Park Lane home. It was his intent to change his shirt while his cousins unearthed what they could about Brian and the Howards’ misdeeds before getting word to Charlotte.
’Tis a pity none of them thought to call on Charlotte beforehand for had they, they would have discovered the uselessness of their efforts to stop what already was. As it turns out it had all been brilliantly planned by the lady herself and though the Howards and Wards were found a few hours later in Brian’s Fitzroy Square home the damage was already done.
All the necessary details for Jaclyn’s ruin were long made public, deliberately whispered within earshot of a few known gossips at Howe’s ball. Most of it with Eli’s name attached and vividly described – something about a secret liaison between the two under Charlotte and Jaclyn’s parents’ nose.
A matter that was made all the worst due to Eli’s absence from the evening’s festivities and by the morning, marriage was the only options available for the notorious duke and the disgraced miss.
Eli got no further than the second step of his centuries’ old Indigo Jones designed townhouse before he noticed Jaclyn’s maid Tessa standing in the shadows. She stepped forward once the carriage bearing his cousins pulled away her face pale and anxious then she said, “My mistress wonders if you could grant her a moment?”
Jaclyn was waiting in a hired hack just around the corner out the sight of prying eyes. Eli followed the maid who kept watch from a discreet distance. He climbed in, sat across from her in the serviceable carriage and searching her face by its dim light, his heartbeat rapid, her face serene.
The small space was made instantly intimate by his enormous presence. He seem just then a Norman Conqueror fresh from battle masculine, dangerous and virile. The very air changed at his attendance and Jaclyn’s silly little heart leapt with want for what it was he exuded.
“Thank you for coming,” Jaclyn said graciously, “And I won’t keep you above a moment but there was no one else I could turn to.”
“Whatever it is, I’m at your service,” Eli assured her.
“Then I pray you’ll be able to help. I need you to assist me in purchasing a husband. He need only be kind and cost no more than five thousand pounds.”
“It won’t come to that.”
“It has long been that,” she said sadly, “And for myself I don’t much mind, you understand, for the error was mine but I’m no longer willing to sit idly by while my parents pay for my indiscretion.”
“All right, leave it with me,” he said though he could think of nothing he wanted to do less and she rewarded him with a fierce embrace.
She in one swift movement bridged the gap between them to fling her arms around his neck with her eager grateful lips at his ear as she expressed gratitude. “And you needn’t take any heroic measures you know,” she said her breath crawling over his open nerves. “Any old body will do.”
At that proximity, she was an aphrodisiac, ripe and arousing, stirring in him a long seeded desired. Eli allowed himself to partake of her innocent offering, wrapping his arms about her and revelling in the feel of her while she was off happily rhapsodising about his generosity.
He memorized the smell and feel of her, cataloguing the delicious weight of her form there melded to his. All while his rapidly beating heart was being flooded by the frantic rush of blood, her touch provoked.
She was all warm and lush, her soft pale skin radiating the scent of exotic sweet almonds. He could feel her low melodic voice vibrating from deep in her to resonating on his receptive flesh along the place where their bodies touched. Eli held her dear, pulling her closer inhaling her essence.
Then she stilled in his arms suddenly aware of the liberty he was taking and embraced him in earnest. All her passion and compassion expressed in this one act then she with some emotion in her throat said, “There is nothing for it you know.”
“I do,” he agreed his voice warm and low as it crawled over her skin and rested on her bosom. It said something to him that she too felt some of what it was that held him captive and made it all the more difficult for him to release her. It took her pulling away some and putting a gentle hand on his face to finally give him composure enough to let her go.
A moment later, he watched, his heart in his eyes as she and Tessa drove away.
Eli returned home but only got as far as the portrait of Jaclyn in his antechamber. She lay there in a romantic setting with an open, honest stare looking at him. And then there was Brian, laying in wait by the dying fire and half-burned candles. He was striking, with a strong resemblance to Eli.
He was Michelangelo David to Eli’s Adam as painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. One eternally a boy on the verge of manhood encased in marble the other a man, made in the image of the divine, with his strong lines and powerful allure. Both fair haired, dark eyed and tall with wide shoulders.
“I didn’t realize you’d kept it,” Brian said with pointed gesture to the painting once Eli took the seat across from his.
“I could never bring myself to destroy it,” Eli said conversationally despite the clear menace of Brian’s presence in his private quarters.
“She’s very beautiful.”
“I always though so.”
“Did you know it was a self-portrait?”
“Is that right?” Eli continued with his usual ease to poor Brian’s mortification.
“Yes, she confided it to Charlotte and it was stolen from her studio shortly before you happened on it in the marketplace.”
“Shall I pour us a brandy?”
“I’ve come to offer you an explanation in hopes it will garner your understanding.”
“So is that a no to the brandy?” Eli asked with an easy rise for the cabinet where he kept the brandy.
“Do you mean to kill me, Cousin?”
“You ask me that though I’m the one ambushed, betrayed and left in ruin?”
“She’s with child, Eli. Surely, you see I could do no less.”
“Why are you here Brian?”
“You are the head of the family and without your support we will be cast into infamy.”
“On what sentiment am I to rely in order to muster this tender feeling for you and your predicament? Familial love, your honesty or perhaps I ought to take inspiration from your complete willingness to sacrifice all your goodwill with one blunt blow.”
“This was not done to spite or injure you but to appease her father who wanted no more than your fortune.”
“So this was done on my behalf then?”
“I realize you are not able to see that now but it is so. Charlotte and I love you Eli, we always will. On that you have my word.”
“Your word has no value to me Brian. I asked you and you swore –”
“How could I believe that you would give her up for me when the two of you have been friends a hundred years.”
“For just that reason,” Eli said simply. “Our arrangement was based on a long won friendship and I would have gladly given her up if it meant you could both find happiness but I already told you that. Didn’t I? And what of Miss Stuart?”
“Here she was reckless enough to allow that ruinous portrait out of her sight and you did put the bleeding thing on display –”
“I trust you’ve said all you intended.”
“It says something I think, that I cannot even move you to anger,” Brian said with an open sob.
“You’re making a spectacle of yourself.”
“I’m sorry for it.”
“You needn’t be,” Eli said apathetically with the decanter in hand. “Here, you didn’t say whether or not you wanted a brandy.”
“What can I do?”
“I don’t know Brian,” Eli said thoughtfully and without malice. “Loosing one’s honour and having one’s words without weight is outside my experience.”
With that Brian left and Eli rang for a bath then sat nursing his brandy, studying Jaclyn’s rendition of herself while it was readied.
He loved the painting right from the start and adored it all the more now that he knew she painted it.
Jaclyn returned to her room after meeting with Eli to find all traces of him gone, bloodstained sheets replaced by crisp white linen and the places he occupied only awhile ago, now barren. His absence filled her with a sort of despair and for a moment, she wondered what it would be like to be his wife.
She hadn’t thought of marriage, let alone marriage to a specific gentleman she would wish to marry in so long that she barely know how to process it. It set her at odds with herself and made her feel guilt for thinking of Charlotte’s fiancé as her own but she was saved from her wallowing in her shame by her loyal Tessa.
“Your father has just now sent a note round to Lord Warwick,” said a frantic Tessa as she entered with a tray of warm biscuits and hot tea.
“That horrid man who wanted us to pay him for the honour of his hand only so I could be mother to his thirteen motherless children?”
“Don’t fret, Tessa. I won’t insist on you sharing my awful end,” Jaclyn assured her, “For despite my reputation you are still a coveted lady’s maid and I’ll write you a brilliant recommendation.”
“And work for one those mean-spirited misses that scorn you in public? No thanks. Besides your Mama is dead set against you marrying a gentleman five years her senior.”
“Yes, well… it could very well be our only option.”
“Could we not simply return to France? It wasn’t so bad once we got used to missing everyone, was it?”
“No, I suppose it wasn’t but that’s for us to sort out in the morning.”
“What will you do about your Duke?”
“He isn’t mine Tessa,” Jaclyn said miserably.
“I was with you and saw your face after you had been alone in the hack with him.”
“It’s impossible. He loves Charlotte.”
“You forget I also saw his face as we drove away.”
“What will I do Tessa?” Jaclyn asked around terrified sob. “He held me with all the tenderness in the world his kind heart beating in his chest and I’m now without end. I can’t bear it.”
“Here, pet,” Tessa said with gentle hand, Jaclyn wrapped her arms around her truest friend and wept.
“What can I do?” Tessa asked once her tears subsided.
“You have done it,” Jaclyn said with genuine smile. “There is nothing for it. You go on to bed. I’ll be better in the morning.”
Tessa bid her goodnight with compassionate hand after seeing to the fireplace and turning down the bed, then she was alone once more with her worries. Left to wonder how she would see them all well without having to marry that lecherous Lord Warwick or poor Charlotte’s Fiancé.
She could think of nothing beyond what she had just proposed to Eli. She was at her end and was soon rooting through her belongs searching for what she did not know and then she found it. Her sketchbook and pencils, there in the bottom of her wardrobe wrapped in canvas and an old blanket.
She sat back on her heels and held then to her chest, her entire body shaking in anticipation. She hadn’t drawn one solitary thing in nearly five years. Not since the morning before what was to be, her début was ruined by her own hand.
Oh, when she thought of her poor Papa going with James to see her on display for himself and how he had returned without words, or colour in his cheeks before packing her off to his sister Gene in Provence. They had left her there for three years and had banished in her absence all her paintings, paintbrush and sketchbooks.
All of it exiled same as she, not that it mattered, for she had given it all up at any rate. Yet there she was on the floor by the fire, her frantic fingers trying to keep pace with her minds memory of Eli’s angular symmetrical face with its stunning eyes, ridiculously long lashes and full sensual lips.
She kept getting him wrong though, as the fire then the candles died. He was too layered for pencils and her compromised recollection she told herself as she set the pencils aside.
If only she could make a complete study of him. First in charcoal, so she could get the right contrast, texture and the true value of his light. Then once she had full understanding of his core she would pull him over canvas and bathe him in colour.
It felt good to draw again even if her muse was outside her reach. She was happier than she had been in nearly five years and that was all thanks to Eli’s gorgeous face. It had inspired her back to the thing she loved so and as thanks she had resolved to see him happily married where he desired.
She fell asleep with that thought and was roused a few hours later by her mother’s urgent hand.
“Your sister was here and has confessed to your ruination.”
“Why did she do it?” asked an instantly awake Jaclyn.
“She says it was to save us from five more years of you thumbing your nose at society while your family suffered the humiliation from the fallout.”
“I realize that as awful as it as been for me it has been twice so for those of you attempting to shield me from the ugliness so believe me when I say this hostile isolation is the last thing I desire. I hate having to brace myself before leaving the house and would do most anything to save you all from the shame I caused.”
“But you will not marry Ravensworth?”
“How could I when that would mean me betraying one of the only friends that stood by me through it all.”
“Jaclyn listen to me,” her mother with said before sitting on the edge of the bed and taking hold her hand. “This is dire.”
“Yes, mother, I know.”
“No, my girl, you do not,” the Baroness said with an ominous sigh before adding, “The whole awful truth has been made known to those in attendance at Howe’s ball and is now, as we speak, being spread through the ton.”
“Then I’ll marry Lord Warwick.”
“He won’t have you.”
“Yes, well he was at Howe’s ball last night and now he refuses to even set foot through our doors.”
“Then I’ll go once more to Aunt Gene’s.”
“I don’t know my dear,” her mother said with measure. “Your aunt may not be able to take you on with her own daughters to think of and gossip being what it is.”
“Yes, of course, how very thoughtless of me.”
“Are you alright my dear?”
“I’ll be fine, mother. I just need a moment to gather thought and ready face.”
“I shall leave you to it then,” her mother said with reluctant rise. “I’ll go see to Dorothea and the girls leaving.”
“Where will they go?”
“Lillian has made arrangements for them to stay on with Cyril’s mama.”
“That is it, for this I will have no less than the sight of her blood on my hands,” Jaclyn railed in something like a battle cry before leaping from the bed.
There was murder in her eyes has she rushed passed her mother for the door.
“Temper, temper,” her brother said with a staying hand from just outside her door. “All things in good time Jack.”
“You would deny me satisfaction James?”
“Not deny, but I'll ask you to exercise a little prudence,” he said with pointed look to her nightgown.
“Very well,” she said begrudgingly before ringing for Tessa and stalking off to her dressing room to plot Lillian’s demise while her maid helped her ready for the day ahead.
A lovely weekend to all,