Vanquished, p.16

Vanquished, page 16

 

Vanquished
 


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  More and more of late, he found himself scouring his brain for ways he might find the funds to repay Dandridge and call the whole thing off. Barring that, with only one more week to go, he'd have to work bloody fast at fulfilling his end of their bargain. That he'd let any number of opportunities slip by set off a chorus of alarm bells inside his head, casting grave doubts on his ability to exact ruthless ruin on someone whom he'd come to own as one of the most goodhearted human beings he'd ever known.

  A woman's heart, Mr. St. Claire, can be a very fragile thing particularly once it's been broken . . .

  Meeting Callie's aunt had only deepened his dilemma. Now there was a woman whose respect, under other circumstances, he would very much have liked the chance to earn. What she would say of him once she learned that his true intent was to ruin her beloved niece, to pick up where apparently some brute had left off years before in breaking Callie's heart, was enough to send him searching out the gin.

  But instead of drinking away his cares as he once might have done, he'd spent the past few hours since her leaving pacing his studio, too edgy to sit still let alone concentrate on his work. Finally, he gave up, stripped off his apron, and set out on foot for Gavin's. It was coming on dark by the time he reached his friend's rented rooms at the Inns of Court. With luck, he would find the barrister at home rather than working late in his office.

  Only when Gavin's manservant showed him into the flat's small sitting room, he found that his friend wasn't alone. Their old Roxbury House mate, fellow orphan Patrick O' Rourke lounged on the leather-covered couch, cigar in one hand and glass of whiskey in the other.

  Sighting Hadrian on the threshold, he set down his drink and shot to his feet. "Harry, man, we were just talking about you." Broad-shouldered and barrel-chested with a shock of thick, ginger-colored hair, Rourke enfolded Hadrian in a bone-crushing hug.

  Hadrian hid his awkwardness at hearing his true name yet again behind a smile. "No wonder my ears were burning. What has it been, an age and a day?"

  Pulling back, he surveyed his old friend. Loosened neckwear, rolled-up shirtsleeves, and rumpled silk vest aside, the Scot had done well for himself, Hadrian could see that straightaway. The diamond stud winking from the lobe of one ear was the genuine article, not paste, as was the large emerald set in gold on the middle finger of his work-roughened right hand.

  Impeccably dressed in a dark flannel suit and folded neck cloth, Gavin rose from the wing chair in front of the fire. "Our mate, Harry, styles himself Hadrian St. Claire these days." Hadrian shot his friend a grateful look. Trust Gavin to smooth over any awkwardness to do with his dual identities.

  If Rourke wondered at the reason for him taking a new name, he kept it to himself. "Ah, Hadrian is it? Verra fancy. I'll be sure to mind that."

  "What can I get you?" Gavin asked, already at the liquor cabinet.

  Walking over to the fire, Hadrian answered, "I don't suppose you've any gin lying about?"

  It was a well-worn joke between them, a way of tweaking Gavin over his blue-blooded lineage, and yet as always it served to bring out Gavin's rare smile. "I'm afraid not. Will brandy do?"

  Hadrian nodded and Gavin poured three fingers' worth into a crystal snifter. Handing it over, he waved Hadrian to an empty chair.

  When they'd settled in with their drinks, Gavin said, "Rourke was just telling me how he's been keeping himself these past years. It seems our friend here has returned to us rich as Croesus."

  Rich as Croesus! Blast, but if only Rourke has resurfaced a fortnight ago, how very different Hadrian's life might be now. Sipping his drink, he looked across the room at the Scot and mentally asked himself if he dared ask a friend he hadn't set eyes on for years to loan him what amounted to a minor fortune?

  Over the next half hour, Hadrian listened with half an ear as Rourke brought them up to date on his life over the past seven years. After leaving Roxbury House, he'd headed north to Scotland to search for his mother's family. To keep himself, he'd signed on to one of the railway crews, working his way up from the blistering labor of laying tracks to foreman to principal shareholder and finally to full owner.

  Finishing his story, Rourke shot Hadrian a wink. "Not bad for a braw Scottish lad who started out as a purse snitch, aye?"

  Hadrian agreed it was so. Indeed, their common past as petty thieves had been a big part of their early bonding as boys. When the leader of the flash house from which Rourke worked was picked up by the law, he'd saved himself by turning over Rourke instead. The plucky twelve-year-old had been on his way to Newgate when luck and a stranger's benevolence had landed him in Roxbury House instead.

  Mind on his own troubles, Hadrian asked, "So, my friend, other than looking up your old mates, what brings you back to London?"

  Gavin answered for him. "It seems our friend here is trolling for an heiress."

  Wondering why a rich man need marry for money, Hadrian turned to Rourke and asked, "Have you anyone in particular in mind?"

  Rourke answered with a slow nod. "I've my eye on Lady Katherine Lindsey."

  "Kat Lindsey!" Startled, Hadrian almost choked on the swallow of spirit he'd just taken.

  Rourke's gaze narrowed. "Aye, you know her, then?"

  Hadrian nodded. "She's one of the reigning Professional Beauties. Society ladies who model for me," he clarified when Rourke's mouth flew open.

  "You've no touched her, have you?"

  Taken aback by the ferocity of the Scot's gaze, Hadrian hastened to reassure him. "Hardly. Lady Kat is about as warm as a cake of ice and has the temper of a wildcat when crossed. If it's a fortune you're after, you'd best look elsewhere. Rumor has it her father is a gamester who's landed the family deeply in debt."

  A rumor he knew to be true given that unlike the other society beauties he'd photographed, Katherine Lindsey sat for him for money, not acclaim. Yet something inside him, what he might have termed honor were he a better sort of man, held him back from revealing the terms of the private arrangement between the two of them.

  Seemingly satisfied, Rourke settled back into his seat. Stretching his muscular legs out to catch the fire's heat, he yawned and said, "Nay matter. It's the lady's blue blood I'm after, no her purse."

  So Rourke wanted a highborn wife to serve as a breeder. Stubborn as the day was long, the Scot loved nothing more than a challenge and courting Lady Kat would certainly provide him that and more.

  Then there was Gavin sipping his drink and quietly observing the byplay. Orphaned after his parents perished in a tenement-house fire, he'd come to Roxbury House only to be reunited with his maternal grandfather. Restored to his rightful place in society, Gavin would one day inherit a baronetcy. In the interim, he'd followed in the footsteps of his forbears in reading the law, a profession he professed to despise despite his fast-growing reputation as a crack barrister. Looking between his two old friends, at the solid successes they'd made of their lives, Hadrian felt ashamed at the depth of his envy.

  Rising to refill their drinks, Gavin asked, "By the by, what brings you here in the middle of the week?"

  Hadrian handed over his empty glass. "A visit from a lady actually."

  "No surprise, that." Rourke grinned. "We always did call you Handsome Harry for good reason."

  Considering he might have done better for himself had he been gifted with less looks and more brains, Hadrian shrugged. "A friend's widowed aunt, actually. She's invited me to a benefit ball tomorrow evening." He reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out the invitation, which he handed around.

  Taking it, Gavin glanced down. "The Tremayne Dairy Farm Academy is an excellent cause, to be sure. I'm going myself, family duty and all that." He grimaced as though being the heir to title and fortune was a good deal less amusing than one might imagine. "Given the cachet of Lord and Lady Stonevale as sponsors, members from every top-drawer family in London are sure to attend."

  "Every top-drawer family, you say?" Reaching for the embossed invitation, Rourke fingered it for a moment, befo
re venturing, "How might a charitable fellow like myself go about wrangling one of these?"

  Gavin's dark brows shot upward. "I've an extra invitation. You can go as my guest if you like, only since when do you fancy formal affairs? My God, you scarcely can bring yourself to tie on neckwear."

  Rourke glanced to Hadrian and grinned. "But then it's not so much a ball as a hunt, only my quarry isn't deer or elk but a certain Wild Kat in want of taming."

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  "Oh! Isn't it jolly

  To cast away folly

  And cut all one's clothes a peg shorter

  (A good many pegs)

  And rejoice in one's legs

  Like a free-minded Albion's daughter."

  --BARBARA BODICHON, circa 1850

  Callie stood before the floor-length dressing glass in her bedroom stripped down to her dressing gown. Jenny had just left from arranging her hair into a soft upsweep she had to admit became her. She turned her head from side to side, checking to make sure the paste diamond brilliants remained in place. The ornaments matched the stones in the thin straps of her gown almost exactly. At Lottie's urging, she'd even applied a light touch of cosmetics. Perhaps it was only the benefit of the encroaching evening shadows but her eyes looked a deeper green, her mouth moist and inviting, and her skin luminous rather than simply pale.

  She glanced to the back of the door where her evening gown hung. At any moment, Jenny would be back to help her dress and then she would join Lottie downstairs. Together they would go in her aunt's carriage to Hadrian's shop and from there to the Covent Garden Opera House. Before the thought of walking into a formal function wearing something so very revealing would have been the stuff of nightmares, but she found she could scarcely wait to put it on.

  Her aunt's words of a fortnight before rushed back to her. Take a chance, Callie. Be brave in this as you are in so many other ways.

  Take a chance. Be brave. If not now, this night, then when?

  "Who's the goddess?" Gavin asked Hadrian, looking across the chandelier-lit ballroom to where Caledonia stood deep in conversation with a clutch of evening-clad gentleman.

  "Caledonia Rivers," Hadrian supplied, sipping from his flute of champagne.

  They were standing in the main opera room of the Covent Garden Opera House, the great crystal chandelier in the center of the dome and myriad incandescent burners ablaze with light, the tiered boxes festooned with flowers, the floor a veritable crush of London's well-heeled. Earlier that evening, the queue of carriages had extended down Wellington Street and far up the Strand. It had taken beyond a half hour for the Rivers' driver to wend their way to the entrance. He felt as though he'd been holding his breath ever since he'd entered.

  As for Callie, since they'd made their way through the receiving line the hour before he hadn't been able to get close enough to her to say two words. The sight of her looking sleek and beautiful, laughing and relaxed, sipping champagne and seeming utterly at ease should have pleased him enormously. This was what he'd wanted for her, after all. Nonetheless, the fact that his caterpillar had blossomed into a splendid butterfly without so much as a glance his way bothered him more than he cared to admit.

  Gavin's blue eyes widened. "The Caledonia Rivers? The suffragist?"

  Against all reason, Hadrian found himself bristling "Yes, what of it?"

  "Not a thing, my friend. I quite admire the lady protestors' dedication even if at times I question their methods."

  "Meaning?" In an instant, protectiveness blossomed into full-blown alarm. If there was trouble brewing, Hadrian meant to find out from his friend all he could and warn Callie.

  "There's a small but militant branch of the movement that espouses employing such tactics as hunger strikes and property destruction to advance their cause. There were several women from Manchester arrested last year and who, when taken, declared they would embark on a hunger strike until released."

  "Were they released?"

  Gavin hesitated, and then nodded. "Eventually but in the interim to prevent them from starving themselves, they were subjected to force feeding. As you can imagine, intubation is a ghastly experience and some of the women claim to have sustained lasting damage to their throats and digestive organs. I would hate to see your Miss Rivers become mixed up in any such unpleasantness."

  Hadrian thought back to the episode at the match factory, to how selflessly Callie had set aside any consideration for her own wellbeing to pitch in and help the strikers, and a chill swept over him. That day he'd been there to hurry her away to safety, but what if the next time . . .

  "Callie has too sound of a head on her shoulders for that," he said reflexively, hoping that were indeed the case.

  "And a verra handsome set of . . . shoulders, they are, too." Grinning, Rourke sidled up to join them.

  Against all reason, Hadrian felt jealousy rising. "She's off-limits, Rourke."

  Pulling at his starched cravat as though it were a hangman's noose, the Scot gazed out onto the packed floor. "Dinna fash, man. Bonny as your Miss Rivers is, I've set my cap elsewhere."

  Hadrian followed his friend's open stare to where Lady Katherine Lindsey held court amongst a circle of bedazzled admirers. Hadrian had photographed her any number of times, but this was the first he'd seen of her out of his studio. Though she stood a full head shorter than the men surrounding her, there could be no doubt that she was in complete possession of both herself and them. All in all, she was just the woman to give his friend, Rourke, a fair run for his money.

  Turning his attention back to Rourke, Hadrian was taken aback by the look of raw longing on the Scotsman's rugged face. Wrenching his gaze away from Lady Katherine, he turned back to them and added, "If you'll excuse me, there's a lady who's promised me the next dance . . . only she doesn't know it yet."

  Gavin's eyebrows rose. "Pardon me for asking but since when do you dance?"

  Rourke grinned and backed away. "Since now."

  Watching their friend push a path through the crowd as the orchestra struck up a waltz, Gavin and Hadrian exchanged amused glances. Hadrian had to admire the way Rourke inserted himself dead center into Lady Katherine's circle and then proceeded to steal her straightaway. It seemed that street cunning won out over blue blood at least on this occasion. Lady Katherine laid her slender gloved arm atop his and followed him out onto the dance floor without a backward glance to the men staring balefully after her. As for Rourke, Hadrian doubted he'd looked any more triumphant when he'd acquired controlling shares in his railway company, perhaps not even then.

  Gavin turned to Hadrian. "It seems Cupid's arrow has found purchase in our friend's crusty heart."

  Hadrian chuckled. "Patrick has a heart?"

  "Apparently . . . as well as two left feet." Frowning out onto the dance floor, Gavin added, "I only hope he doesn't crush her toes, at least not before she's had the opportunity to discover his finer qualities."

  "Call it artistic instinct if you will, but I have an inkling she has on some impressively high-heeled slippers this evening and isn't above using them to stomp on Rourke's foot, especially if he manages to put it in his mouth first."

  "I rather see her as more the knee-to-the-groin type, but then I'm only a barrister, after all." Gavin's amused gaze left Hadrian to settle on a spot at the far end of the room. "The delectable Lady Katherine isn't the only one to draw an entourage of admirers this evening. Your Miss Rivers seems to be making quite a splash. I suspect that within twenty-four hours that rather striking gown of hers will be copied by every dressmaker in London."

  Feeling inexplicably on edge, Hadrian shot back, "She's not my Miss Rivers and if you must know, the gown is a copy of the one worn by Madame X in the Sargent painting."

  "I thought it looked familiar though I don't recall Madame X looking nearly as sumptuous."

  "If you'll excuse me, I had better go and rescue her."

  "Indeed." The mirth flickering in Gavin's gaze did little to lighten Hadrian's mood. Turning, he forded his
way across the packed room.

  He approached in time to hear Callie say, "Yes, of course, Mr. Winston, I agree with you but only to a point. Far too many husbands do exert undue influence over their wives, including squelching their right, even their ability, to form independent opinions. That said, the same holds true of many fathers and their adult sons and yet the British government does not deny impressionable young men the right to vote. I therefore cannot comprehend how your argument can be used, in good conscience, to deny the franchise to women, be they single or married."

  "She has you there, Winston." The man with the boyish face and ginger-colored side whiskers chuckled.

  The man, Winston, sketched a brief bow that not coincidentally placed him at eye-level with her bosom. "Touche, Miss Rivers. You have bested me, and now I have no choice but to cede defeat and humbly lay my sword at your feet."

  Reaching out, Hadrian tapped his pudgy shoulder. "You'd do well to keep your sword in your pocket, Winston, and while you're at it keep it buttoned up as well."

  "Hadrian!" Callie's face was suffused with pink.

  Watching all that lovely heat travel down the long column of her throat to beyond where the gown touched the high slopes of her beautiful breasts, Hadrian felt his groin tighten and his mouth go dry. Judging by the bug-eyed looks and clearing throats firing off around him, he was far from alone in noticing.

  He reached for her gloved hand, not waiting for her to offer it. "Gentlemen, if you'll be so good as to excuse us, I believe this dance is promised to me."

  It was a lie. He hadn't bothered to reserve so much as one. He'd assumed all her dances, if indeed she ventured onto the floor at all, would be his for the taking.

  Callie turned her face up to his. Her mouth, tinted with a touch of pale rose paint, looked moist and full and infinitely kissable. "As I was just telling these gentlemen, who were kind enough to ask me, I'd really rather watch the dancing than join it."

 
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