Dear Readers and Fans:
Greetings! We have an encore for First Chapter Friday. Another upcoming work from Autumn Montague, ‘An Unintended Seduction’. Please find the first Chapter below. Please Enjoy! Happy Saturday. 🙂
“Hell and damnation!” Julian Charing, Ninth Earl Hetherton, swore as a wayward drop of sweat stung his eye. He scrubbed at the offending moisture with his upper arm, the one part of that limb still covered. Both sleeves were rolled to the elbows, though that precaution had done little to preserve their once-pristine whiteness. The young stallion being groomed slammed sideways, momentarily pinning him to the stable wall.
“Stand still, you impudent piece of cattle!”
“He won’t listen, m’lord.” The old groom’s eyes twinkled with the humor and subtle impertinence of a lifelong servant.
Julian attempted to quell that bit of presumption with a severe frown, an impossible task at best. As expected, James only flashed him an impudent grin. The man had known Julian since he’d worn leading strings.
Turning back to the horse, Julian continued the rubdown of his skittish mount. As the arrant idiot who’d let his temper best his good sense, it behooved him to master his rage until both he and Mercury calmed. Venting his frustration on the hapless animal was useless. He should have yielded to the heat of his anger earlier—perhaps it would have ended the ridiculous, aggravating situation that plagued him now.
His once-cherished morning ride had become a disaster and he a laughingstock. All of this thanks to a woman who did not understand the word no meant exactly that. His greatest humiliation, the scandal of the ton, had become an embarrassment, a ball and chain he could not break.
It had not promised to become such a terrible thing at the start. Affairs among men of his station were commonplace, though usually one did not dally with the wife of an old friend, as he had done. Nor was it unusual to pursue such engagements with more than one woman. Most men, however, did not repeat their disastrous mistakes with the same woman.
Having finally realized this error, Julian had striven for two years now to disentangle himself from the situation—to no avail. Geraldine Huntsford possessed an appalling habit of being disobliging and making a public display of the two of them. Did the woman feel no shame?
Mercury snorted and stamped, irritated by the painful brush strokes against his hide. Julian unclenched his white-knuckled grip on the wooden handle. The stallion soon steadied under the softer brushing.
Failure? An abysmal disaster, rather. Lady Huntsford stalked him like a cat after a mouse in a hole. He could not avoid her, no matter where he went. Once, the morning rides had been a mutual thing, meant for privacy, despite the blatant nature of their affair. Now they were akin to a ride through hell. The woman flung herself in his path at every opportunity in her attempts to recapture what he now refused.
He’d given thanks when she’d left London last month to visit her parents. For four blessed weeks, he’d reveled in his solitude. He had hoped her decampment meant she had taken his last words of parting to heart. Her behavior this morning dashed those hopes. Geraldine Huntsford would not let him go, gracefully or otherwise.
“I think he’s clean, m’lord,” James suggested, as he moved to Julian’s side to take the brush. “I’ll finish him, if you don’t mind.”
Julian gave the man a rueful glance. “Made a fool of myself, did I?”
“No, m’lord, not a fool, but this colt’s still green. Ye’ll set his teeth on edge. I’ve no liking to be kicked when I muck.”
“You’re right, of course.” Julian sighed. “I should have known better.” He stepped back to let the man finish the job, watching as Mercury settled under the groom’s knowledgeable touch.
Julian’s fingers still itched to wring one dainty, ill-bred woman’s neck. She had him taking out his anger on a hapless animal with ruthless abandon. A rough rubdown wouldn’t hurt the horse, but it could compromise Julian’s relationship with the fine steed. He left the stall and headed across the garden to the kitchen entrance, using the back stairs to avoid traipsing his dirt through the halls.
Upstairs in his room, Julian dropped into the armchair beside the fire, sagging against the raised wingback. He made no move to undress, despite the stable dust he was undoubtedly leaving on the intricate brocade. He yanked his cravat loose, crushing the starched material in his fist, taking a small bit of pleasure from the satisfying crunch of the crisply starched linen.
Julian shut his eyes, wishing himself to the devil. Not for the first time, nor the last. He was a craven coward—that was the long and the short of it. He must be, for he’d made such a mull of his life that there was no saving him.
Julian suppressed a groan at the subtle reproof in that mild question. “Forgive me, Stimms,” he sighed, opening his eyes to look at his valet’s stern expression. “It seems my temper has gotten the best of me this morning, and I fear I have made more work for the staff as a result.”
“I am certain Mrs. Cannon will manage, Master Julian,” Stimms replied.
Though Stimms’ tone remained mild, Julian winced over the man’s reversion to the childhood form of address. It was another subtle reminder that his actions were a touch beyond the pale.
“Lady Huntsford called while you were out, Master Julian.”
It took Julian a moment to register what Stimms had said. Then his head began to pound. “I am not at home when she calls, Stimms. I do not wish to receive her. Ever.”
“Yes, Master Julian. The staff understands, and she is always advised that you are not at home, as you have ordered. However, Lady Huntsford seems…rather determined.” Stimms set aside his casual tone; his voice had become outright disapproving.
Julian clenched his jaw against the vile imprecations hovering on the tip of his tongue. “She is not to be admitted under any circumstances. I don’t care if she is standing on the front step without a stitch on.” Julian ground the words out, jaw muscles aching from the tension. “Find the idiot who told her where I was and dismiss him—or her—for blatant disregard of my wishes otherwise. Fending off Lady Huntsford ruined my morning ride.”
“As you wish, sir.” Stimms tsked over the state of Julian’s clothes, taking the crushed cravat and looking expectantly at Julian. “I understand you will be attending Lord Parkman’s masquerade this evening, Lord Hetherton. Would you prefer your bath now, or would you rather wait until the afternoon?”
The hint was plain, and Julian agreed with only the faintest of growls. Bathing now would save time later and would not delay his other morning duties overmuch.
Once sufficient hot water had been boiled to fill the slipper tub, Julian stepped in with a sigh, considering the masquerade and regretting the acceptance he’d sent to the baron a week earlier. His friendship with Robert Parkman had grown exceedingly strained over the years, primarily due to Julian’s involvement with Lady Huntsford. Not to mention that other, more shameful act that haunted him. Knowing he’d no one to blame but himself, he could only hope Parkman forgave him. If so, Julian would do his best to make amends for his other offense.
First, though, he had to extricate himself from the clutches of a woman who had once been his fiancée. A sigh escaped him, borne of frustration and worry. He’d spent the past two years fighting his way back into society’s good graces and trying to make amends to his old friend.
He fervently hoped Lord and Lady Huntsford would not be attending the Parkman masquerade. If so, she was likely to make a scene and put paid to any chance Julian had of returning to Parkman’s favor.
* * * *
A mass of people crowded the Parkman residence, attired in a variety of costumes, from Roman senators to Aristotle and Sophocles. Lady Parkman graced the rooms dressed as the wife of a Roman senator in a blue sleeveless gown, her blonde hair capping her head in a mass of curls held back by a gold bandeau. Beside her, Lord Parkman wore the white robes of a Roman senator with the signature red cape trimmed in gold. He looked regal and uncomfortable.
Not as uncomfortable as I feel.
Julian had come dressed in full Roman military regalia, complete with a crown of laurel leaves, to represent Julius Caesar, in a nod toward renewing the closeness of their friendship with a hint at what they had once called a “triumvirate.” He hoped it did not make him look ridiculous.
At least he carried it off with more aplomb than did Lord Milford, whose stout figure better suited a senator’s gown than a soldier’s garb. Unfortunately, the mask covering his face did little to hide Milford’s identity. The woman beside him could only be Abigail Milford, more sedately attired. He could not tell which of the myriad Greek or Roman goddesses she had chosen to represent.
He scanned the room in a preemptive search for Lord or Lady Huntsford. Instead, his gaze was caught by the unmistakable figure of Lady Griffindon. The giggling group of young ladies nearby could be none other than her daughters. Julian had no doubt that Matrimonial Ambition lurked in Lady Griffindon’s heart, and he determined to avoid her—and her brood—if such a thing was at all possible.
Near the chattering gaggle stood a young woman garbed in white Grecian robes, sporting a golden shawl and carrying an equally golden apple. Glittering ribbon threaded throughout her coronet of curls and braids, continuing the theme. The red-brown color of the hair and the expressive curve of the lady’s lips called an old memory to mind.
Like sun through dappled autumn chestnut leaves, came the recollection, along with memories of happier times.
Miranda Parkman. Robert Parkman’s little sister, who had traipsed after her brother and his friends, determined not to be outdone. She’d provided a gentle anodyne for a terrible summer and given him tender attention that had almost lured him into marriage.
A twinge of guilt stabbed Julian’s conscience. He had toyed with her affections, leaving her with hopes he had never returned to fulfill, despite hints promising that very thing. A greater shame, even, than his repeated cuckolding of a man who had once been his closest friend.
Yes, forgiveness from Robert Parkman would be hard-won, not only for the wrong Julian had done to their friend Anthony Huntsford, but for crushing the bloom of Miranda Parkman’s first love. Even though such puppy love rarely survived, Julian knew he had been cruel in his complete abandonment of her girlish hopes.
Tonight, Miranda wore a brilliant smile, laughing a little at something one of the Griffindon chits had said. Her merriment caused Julian to smile in turn, and he admired the way her figure showed the simple Grecian gown to great advantage. She had filled out, maturing from a lithesome girl to a lovely, curvaceous beauty.
Though he’d always held a predilection for slim, fragile-seeming women, the full swell of Miranda’s hip and bosom sent a quiet thrill through him as he watched her meander through the crowd, the pleasant sway below her waist drawing his attention downward more than civility allowed.
Julian nearly jumped from his skin at the greeting. He turned and glared at Lord Parkman, who had come up beside him.
His host sported a broad smile, plainly enjoying the sight of Julian in Roman garb. It augured well for a rapprochement and obtaining Parkman’s forgiveness.
“My compliments on such a bold choice,” Parkman continued, with no attempt to hide his amusement. “Elinor insisted on the theme.”
Julian gave a wry smile of appreciation. “Hopefully I do scandalize all the mothers here as I prance about with my knees bare to the world. At least my girth does not strain this soldier’s tunic.” He gave his flat midsection a firm slap to emphasize that distinction between him and the unfortunate Milford.
Robert answered with an appreciative cough and then led Julian over to where Lady Parkman chatted amiably with a woman in green robes. Despite the myriad colors, most of the ladies wore the same style: Grecian or Roman robes, and a black or gold mask. Very few had obvious personas, such as Miranda’s Aphrodite, evident from the gold-painted apple she carried with her.
As they approached, Lady Parkman turned and gave Julian a welcoming smile. “Lord Hetherton. How wonderful of you to join us this evening. I am so glad you acceded to Parkman’s advice. You look quite splendid as Julius Caesar.”
The woman beside Lady Parkman nodded her agreement. “You do look very imperious, Lord Hetherton. I am certain you will have all the ladies here swooning at your feet.” She followed this with a giggle and bade good-bye to Lady Parkman.
Julian followed her progress through the room, certain she went to spread his identity to everyone she met. He sighed, knowing his anonymity would be no more protected than Lord Milford’s. That meant a host of women converging on him throughout the evening, cornering him at every opportunity.
He turned back to Lady Parkman and caught an odd twinkle in her eye. The idea came to him that she had deliberately revealed his identity to her companion. Julian kept his groan firmly behind his teeth. Was this some subtle chastisement for past actions?
As he chatted with the pair, Julian glimpsed a cluster of determined females headed their way. Clearly, it was time to make his escape, if any were to be had. He bowed low, Roman fashion, right fist to left shoulder, and took his leave of host and hostess, ignoring Robert’s sardonic smile.
Despite his haste, Julian’s attempt to flee came too late. The women descended en masse, burying him in a cluster of voices, all clamoring for his attention. Damn. He could not escape with any grace, so he gave in and did his duty as a gentleman, greeting the ambitious mothers and allowing himself to be pressed into dancing with one hopeful daughter after another. He had barely finished when he saw that another group had coalesced, moving to converge on him even before the last strains of the contra-dance ended.
Robert Parkman rescued him just as he wriggled from the clutches of Lady Griffindon and her pretty daughters. Maintaining pleasant conversation with the dowager and her brood had exhausted him, though his dance with Elise Griffindon had been blandly pleasant. His mere presence clearly overawed the young woman. He could not say if it was his title or his person that intimidated the girl.
He said nothing to Lord Parkman until they were out of earshot. Once they had reached a far corner, he leaned against the wall and took a deep breath. “What was your wife thinking, Parkman? She has made me the target of every matchmaking mother and bored wife present.”
Robert laughed at him, taking no pity on his predicament. “She is determined to have you wed, Hetherton. She told me so the other night. She feels it is high time you started your nursery and did your duty to your estate.”
Julian groaned. “Not another matchmaker.”
Parkman laughed. “As reluctant as ever. Nevertheless, Elinor is right, you know. You should leave a son to inherit after you, if only to honor your father’s memory and your grandmother’s wishes.”
Julian looked away. Parkman had the right of it, but the idea of living in a loveless marriage for the rest of his life depressed him beyond measure. “You are correct, of course, but I feel like a prize bit of horseflesh on the block. All the young ladies here are insipid, or spoiled, or unable to utter a coherent sentence in my presence.”
Robert looked at him hard for a moment, his companionable smile gone, replaced by a grim sternness. “Then you should have married my sister. She is none of those things.” He walked away.
Julian stared after, caught unaware by the rebuke, but not at all surprised. He regretted stirring the dormant embers of Parkman’s wrath. Robert Parkman had thoroughly raked him over the coals eight years ago, but Julian’s explanation of concern for her youth had mollified him. Parkman had said nothing on the subject since then, though Julian had known it still rankled. To date, he’d been stonily silent on Julian’s dalliance with Lady Huntsford, despite the gossip the rest of the ton engaged in.
He’d known his friend viewed his dereliction seriously, but Julian had never realized how deeply he must have hurt Parkman, who had always adored his younger sister. Julian hadn’t given thought to the way his actions had humiliated Parkman as a doting brother.
Abandoned for the moment, his own self-recriminations made him uncomfortable. The sight of Lady Griffindon weaving her way through the room with all four girls in tow did not help to ease his situation. Julian cast about him for some means to escape, wishing to avoid the dowager’s matrimonial efforts for her daughters. She had not yet spotted him, but if he lingered where he stood, she would catch him, with no hope of reprieve.
The dark mahogany of Parkman’s study door gleamed between a pair of candlelit sconces, inviting entry. He opened it and slipped in with a soft sigh of relief. “Safe at last.”
Julian nearly jumped out of his skin at the small shriek of fright that met his muttered words. Across the darkened room, the dying embers in the fireplace outlined the shadowed figure of a woman. In the faint red-orange glow, the glimmer of a white Grecian robe and gold-tasseled fringe of a shawl told him Miranda Parkman had also come to this darkened hideaway.