A lovely rejection letter was waiting for me this morning but I do not despair, though I will admit that it does take it out of me - this seemingly unending string of rejection. In a day are two, once I've accepted this latest setback I'll send out 'STRANGE' and 'WESTMORLAND.'
Eli Hastings, Duke of Ravensworth, was never the sort of gentleman to give in easily to anger.
Eli Hastings, Duke of Ravensworth, was never the sort of gentleman to give in easily to anger.
He had always been of the mindset that one harnessed negative emotion in order to yield the greatest return. It was for that reason, that when he woke with a throbbing head to find a half-naked maiden sprawled atop him, he remained calm. Even while the ones who arranged her there pretended outrage, he remained calm.
It was all very cloudy, returning to him in slow painful waves, but then it was little wonder for whoever had knocked him over the head had nearly taken it clean off his body. His head hurt like the very devil and there was a troubling amount of blood on his neck cloth but more important than that was the scene unfolding around him.
And what a spectacle it was. He lay there, bleeding from the head, while the girl and her mama wept beneath Lord Stuart’s bellows. Stuart was having a go at the old rhetoric about satisfaction, all of it typical to a scenario when one finds one’s unmarried daughter in bed with a cad.
They meant business. That much he could see even through the fog of his concussion. He didn’t recognize the space but it was gentle enough to offer him some assurance that it was not indeed hell, despite the horror of his current circumstance.
The space was decidedly female but not fussily so with pretty frills here and there. It belonged to the weeping maiden with the devastated sobs. She was crying in earnest, her body rocking with the weight of her sorrow. She was crying for him. Her face closed, her words a prayer.
“You’re alive! Oh, thank God.”
Her lips were a benediction on his aching brow.
They were all talking at the same time but she was close and true. Whispering with her hot terrified breath at his ear, “Lillian and Cyril did this. You must come to your senses and help me reason with papa.”
He knew her. She had haunted his dreams. She was James and Lillian’s sister… the one who posed nude for that portrait that made her un-marriageable. His Naked Jaclyn, the glorious nude he had fallen in love with, when he purchased it. Then James and a few of the other gentlemen at one of his drunken revelries had recognized her.
The outrage from the fallout led to her near complete exile from society.
Though he had spoken to her portrait a thousand times, confiding in it his deepest secrets, he had never seen her in the flesh until now and was half-convinced he was suffering the effects of his injury. None of it made any sense to him.
What was he doing here? What did Jaclyn mean by saying that Lillian and Cyril were responsible? They weren’t in sight… Only her upset mother and equally furious father.
Eli sat up in order to grasp the full scope of his dilemma and instantly regretted it. His head protested by pulling at the nerve connected his pain centre. He paled and Jaclyn took him in hand before calling over her shoulder for a doctor.
“He will die if you don’t send for the physician.”
“No,” her father countered, “He will die because I shoot him through his idiot heart.”
“Tessa,” she yelled over her father before turning back to Eli to ask. “Who should I send for?”
“I’m alright,” he said steadily, “I need but a moment to get my equilibrium.”
She was looking at him intently as if assessing the strength of his words against the lack of colour in his cheeks. His words lost and she called once more for Tessa. Tessa appeared, her loyalty was to her mistress whom she tended right away, fixing her torn frock and listening to her attentively.
“Tessa don’t fuss. My frock will keep until you return. Now, I want you to go straight away to Lady Susannah Hastings and tell her to come with her husband at once.”
“No,” Eli said firmly, “There is no need for that.”
“Have you any idea what’s taking place here?” Jaclyn asked with urgency.
“I have a fair idea.”
“Then why would you object to an advocate,” she demanded.
“One is sufficient and from the looks of it, I have you.”
“Yes, but you are bleeding and papa has stopped listening to reason.”
“Shall I try and talk with him?” Eli said with a slow charming smile.
“You have nothing to say that I want to hear,” Lord Stuart spat, “And you, girl, make yourself decent.”
She flinched at this as if it just then occurred to her to be embarrassed by her exposed body. She gripped, with suddenly white knuckles, her frock that appeared to have been ripped in haste down the front and her Tessa stepped forward with gentle hands to lead her away. She did not look at Eli but she held awhile, her voice small and wounded, then said, “I’ll be but a moment.”
Eli felt tremendous sympathy for her and would have called Stuart out if he was a different sort of fellow, but then again he was not the kind to give in easily to emotions and so he bided his time. Waiting until the door closed behind Jaclyn and her maid before addressing her father once more.
“What is it that you hope to gain?”
“We’re not the villains in this,” Lord Stuart said with venom.
“My hand or my life,” Eli said without waver.
“There are guests in the house,” Lady Stuart with a genuine sob, “And it’s not that we don’t believe Jaclyn about what Lillian and her fool of a husband did.”
“How could you be so reckless,” Lord Stuart demanded.
“You think I bear fault in this?” asked an incredulous Eli.
“They could not have done this without some cooperation from you,” his Lord insisted.
“You say this despite the obvious trauma I suffer.”
“How did you come to your injury if not by our own folly? They are conniving but they could not have done this without a degree of trust from you.” Lord Stuart charged.
“No, it was pity,” Eli corrected, “Lillian entreated and I sympathized.”
“And she thanked you in her usual way,” her father chimed in, “So, you see, you are to blame.”
“You’ll have to marry her,” Lady Stuart repeated once more.
“That I cannot do,” Eli replied with certainty.
“But you must,” Lord Stuart said flatly, “There is simply no other way. We could not purchase her a husband when it was but one travesty and she had her youth… this will ruin us all.”
“Couldn’t you simply contain the guests?” asked a hopeful Eli.
“It was Miss Annabelle Ward, not we who discovered you here with Jaclyn and her along with her mama and the rest of our guests are as we speak packing their belongings for more reputable accommodations,” Lady Stuart explained.
“But she could not say for sure who she saw,” Jaclyn said from the door, “So why don’t we send a footman to fetch James, bring him in through the servants’ entrance and bandage his head. Then we tell them that he had an accident and I was tending to him.”
“And where are we going to find your brother at this time of night?” her mother demanded.
“At Howe’s ball, same as everyone else,” said an undeterred Jaclyn.
“Plenty of good that would do us then,” her father riled, “What with half the ton seeing him well and without injury when he’s supposedly under your care.”
“Now, my Lord,” his wife said calmly, “Clearly she, like us, is but overwhelmed by the proceeding and isn’t thinking.”
“There is nothing else but marriage,” her father said once more, “So you had both better resolve yourselves to it.”
“I will not be party to Lillian’s villainy and there is no forcing me into it. I will tend his head in the absence of the physician you refuse to call then I will see a carriage readied in order to deliver him safely home and that is where my obligation to him will end,” she said firmly.
“What you don’t seem to understand,” Lord Stuart said to his unyielding daughter, “Is that you have but one choice in this and that you have no one else to blame but yourself.”
“See, now there is where you are wrong,” Jaclyn said with temper. “Your Grace, are you able to stand?”
“And where do you think you are going?” her father yelled at the slowly rising Eli.
“He’s coming with me to the dressing room so I may dress his wound,” Jaclyn said before taking Eli in hand and leading him to the room where she had gone earlier with Tessa.
She had him sit on a chair while she poured water from a pitcher into a washbasin then she cleaned the gash at the back of his head. He could hear her parents’ anxious whispers in the next room and thought to say something to her but could think of nothing appropriate. Then she was finished and came round to stand in front of him with urgent amber eyes.
“Do you think you could manage to make your way home if I told you how to navigate the secret passages?”
He did not want to leave her. He could not stand the thought of leaving her. She smelt of something he could place but knew well. She was his, the woman of his life and she looked at him as a stranger.
“I can’t leave here without first reaching some resolution.”
“So long as you understand that they will not bend on this,” she said with sad hush. “You are their opportunity to be free of me.”
“And what will become of you if I leave without first coming to some understanding with your parents.”
“I can’t imagine it being any worse than it is now. Besides, what resolve is there besides marriage and if gossip is to be believed you’re rumoured to already be engaged to Charlotte.”
Ah, he had forgotten about Charlotte, who did not love him, but whom he would not abandon.
His engagement hadn’t been mere rumour to Jaclyn she had heard it from the Charlotte. The note had arrived Saturday evening saying simply: All is well. We are to marry. I’ll tell you all on Tuesday.
Charlotte confided in Jaclyn her love for Eli’s Cousin Brian and her agony at being forced to accept Eli’s offer because of her heartless parents. She wondered if he loved Charlotte and it made her sad for him. She was surprised by how much she really felt for him.
She had felt thus when he had opened his deep blue eyes just now on her bed, her breath had caught in a sort of start like sense memory and for a moment she felt as if she was on the verge of remembering something every important. It still nudged at her mind but she simply could not call it forth.
“Could we not simply reason with this Miss Ward?” he asked hopefully, when she refocused.
“Annabelle is one of Lillian’s friends and would think nothing to lie on her behalf so it would be no hardship for her to tell this truth.”
“Is she above enticement?”
“Her family is modest and her mama ambitious so yes, I suppose there is a chance,” Jaclyn smiled.
“Come, we should return to your parents.”
“Not just yet, I sent Tessa to fetch one of your relations but she’ll be awhile yet for everyone has more than likely gone to Howe’s ball.”
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
“How is your head?” she continued as if he hadn’t spoken.
“Have you had supper?”
“Alright, then. I’ve done what’s best and you will more than likely see that once whoever it is arrives,” she said confidently. “Now rest your head for we’re not leaving this dressing room until it’s entirely necessary.”
“To whom did you send your maid?”
“Susannah and your brother Michael but I instructed her to proceed on to your cousin the Earl of Weston if they were not at home.”
“Right,” said Eli while rising to his feet, “I want this settled before anyone else arrives here.”
“Then you’ll have to do precisely as I say no matter how distasteful you think it,” she said while deliberately blacking his path out the door.
“Let’s have it then.”
“Tell my parents you will negotiate with Miss Ward and her family for their discretion on the matter but you will ‘under no circumstance concede to marriage’ – now this is the important bit and you must say it exactly as I do – ‘with one such as her.’”
“You’re right. I do find that objectionable.”
“And if you could manage a look of disgust when you say –”
“I’m not saying that Miss Stuart,” Eli said with measured patience, “And I can’t believe you would think I could after your efforts on my behalf.”
“You listen to me you ungracious fool, for this does not only concern you,” Jaclyn said with a furious jab to his chest. “My parents are, as we speak, clinging to a hope long dead and if you allow this go on much longer they will be hurt and that I will not permit.”
“And what? Do you think that my implying you to be disreputable will cause elation?”
“They have made their peace with what is being said of me in society and have even come to expect it but this thing that my sister has done…”
Her words fell into some emotion that Eli could interpret. She looked at once defeated and murderous then she smiled. It seem odd to Eli but the truth was that he was relieved. He did not know this young woman, not even in the polite and he was engaged to one of her only friends for nearly a year.
She was kept locked away for the most part as far as he knew, socializing only among a small select group of trusted friends… one of whom, just so happened to be his fiancée Charlotte. This wasn’t so strange, since she was also dear friends with his brother Michael’s wife, Susannah.
Then suddenly he understood the smile. How does that old adage go: show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are…
She meant to kill Lillian. He knew that now without doubt for he’d seen that look on both Charlotte and Susannah a thousand times before. The knowing caused his already pounding head to scream.
For just then he had a vision of a viciously motivated Jaclyn bathing in Lillian’s tears and possibly blood. He’d have to reason with her. Get her to promise good behaviour.
“How do you plan on punishing your sister for what she’s done?” he asked in the manner of one accustomed to unearthing delicate information from troublesome females.
“I beg your pardon?”
“That smile, Miss Stuart I know it well and you would be wise to simply tell me what you intend to do,” he stood so he loomed over her, his body reading of resolution and command.
“And this tactic you now apply… Has it ever worked on any of the others you saw this particular expression on in the past?”
“You see here,” Eli said with easy menace, “You’ll do precisely as I asked, young lady.”
“No. You plot your own revenge. I came by mine honestly and will exact it at my leisure.”
“Think of your parents and what her death at your hands will mean for them.”
“Oh, what an innocent you are, here fretting you’re little heart out that I will murder Lillian.”
“Does that mean you won’t?”
“Take heart I’ll but make it so she wishes I had ended her miserable life.”
Eli almost felt sorry for her.
Part One of Six
A lovely weekend to all,