This is the first chapter from an amazing Ariel Atwell book. Check it out:
“If women governed the world, ‘la relations sexuelles’ would no longer be forbidden or scandalous. Men are so vehemently against the thing they love so well for fear of giving too much liberty to the women who might otherwise challenge them.”
—Twenty-One Lessons from the School of Aphrodite by Madame X
Translated from the French Vingt et Un Leçons de l’École d’Aphrodite.
Published in London, England, in 1792 by Anonymous.
February 28, 1831
Penelope Cavanaugh, Marchioness of Huntley, had heard it said more than once that William Lindsay, Viscount Weymouth, was not the sort of man a respectable woman should ever consider marrying.
“He is handsome. I will grant you that,” the Duchess of Haverhill had observed years ago as they’d watched Weymouth flirting and charming his way through a bevy of ladies at a grand ball hosted by Lord and Lady Francis, his dark-brown hair gleaming in the illumination provided by more than five hundred candles.
“And he is reputed to be quite the swordsman, if you know what I mean.” Penelope had known what the duchess meant and blushed accordingly. “But the lad has a reckless streak a mile wide and will come to no good, mark my words.”
Penelope had nodded dutifully as the duchess continued. “If you are foolish enough to marry a scoundrel like Weymouth, he will fritter away all your money on horses and drink and gambling, and then where will you be? Much better to have an affaire de cœur with men like that. After you have given your husband an heir, of course.”
Penelope had been pregnant with the third of her six children at the time, all of whom would turn out to be girls, and thus disqualified as heirs, and so had never had an opportunity to test the duchess’s theory. Not that she would have anyway, as she had been devoted to her late husband, Henry Cavanaugh, the sixth Marquess of Huntley.
But on this chilly February day, as she observed Viscount Weymouth walking—staggering, really—toward her in the early morning mist, she realized the late duchess had known what she was talking about.
Weymouth was as drunk as a wheelbarrow, his bloodshot eyes and unsteady gait serving as the two primary giveaways, the pungent smell of spirits on his breath providing further confirmation as he drew closer to where she stood on the bottom step of the stone staircase leading up to Huntley House.
“Why, Lady Huntley,” he drawled, a noticeable slur in his voice. “Fancy finding you on the streets of London at this late hour.”
“Hardly the streets, Lord Weymouth,” she said, tipping up her head to look at him, for even when she stood on the stairs, he was at least three quarters of a foot taller than she. “And the hour is more early than late. Are you typically foxed at this time of the day, or is this a special occasion?”
“Paragons of virtue such as yourself would say it is early, I suppose.” He leaned against the iron stair rail and squinted at the rays of sun just beginning to kiss London’s rooftops. “Individuals with more open minds and forgiving spirits might regard it as very late. It all depends on your perspective.”
“I cannot speak for others, but here at Huntley House we are steadfast in our belief that eight o’clock is morning, probably because it is an hour when many of us are rising from our beds.” She gave him a critical glance. “Bed being a place where you have yet to find yourself from the looks of it.”
Now that he was standing close, she could see he was not only intoxicated, but also worse for wear. He wore no overcoat despite the chill in the air, and the blue velvet jacket that stretched over his broad shoulders had seen better days. If he’d been wearing a cravat, it was not in evidence as his white shirt was unbuttoned at the collar, providing a glimpse of dark chest hair. His leather boots were a total disgrace, scuffed and splattered with mud. A gentle breeze was riffling through the curling locks of hair that framed his face, while a layer of stubble covered the pale skin of his jaw. Fatigue was etched into circles beneath sapphire eyes. He was beautiful nonetheless, the very picture of what she imagined a fallen angel might look like. Although there was no indication that William Lindsay had ever been anything even close to angelic.
“My goodness, when was the last time you slept, Weymouth? Or spent time with your valet?”
“Those are rather personal questions, don’t you think, Lady Huntley?” he replied affably. “Now where is my sister Catherine? I have come to see her on her birthday.”
“Catherine and James departed for Everton with the children three days ago. And her birthday was last week, so you are late.”
“That is inconsiderate of her, considering the lovely tribute I have brought.” He held up a small bouquet of flowers for Penelope’s inspection. It was a haphazard collection of asters, periwinkles, and daisies of various sizes and shapes, some missing their blossoms, others lacking their leaves or suffering from stems that were bent or broken. In short, not the sort of bouquet anyone over the age of seven would have ever dreamed of bringing to the current Marchioness of Huntley for her birthday. But then it was well understood that Weymouth’s chronological age had long since diverged from his maturity level.
“I know what you are thinking,” he declared with a drunkard’s slurred conviction. His stance was now so unsteady that if he had not been holding on to the rail, she feared he would have tumbled over into the hedges.
“Oh, I sincerely doubt that. It might be best if you came inside the house.”
“Why, Lady Huntley, what did you have in mind?” he asked, a suggestive note in his voice. “I am a bit in my cups as you may have noticed, but give me a few minutes, and I might be able to come up to snuff.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know it will be difficult, Weymouth, but try not to behave like a complete arse,” she said crisply.
A grin spread across his face, softening his haggard features. “Did you just call me an arse?”
“I feel bloody well certain that I did not,” she replied primly.
“Will wonders never cease? Lady Perfect has a gutter mouth.” He gave her a considering look. “Do your children know their mother curses?”
“My children would be the reason I curse. If I cursed.” She gave him her most beneficent smile. “Which I do not.”
“Yes, I imagine they would. You have, what, a dozen or so brats by now?”
“A mere half dozen. Do you intend to stand out here in the cold, or will you come inside for breakfast? Cook doesn’t seem to realize that most of the household has gone away to the country, and it would be a shame for so much delicious food to go to waste.”
“As much as your kind offer warms the cockles of my heart, I fear I must be going.” He tried to bow and would have fallen over had she not grabbed his arm.
She sighed. It was tempting to allow him to go on his merry way, but anything might happen to him in this sorry state. He was family, after all, albeit by marriage.
“I think you are coming inside,” Penelope said, tugging his arm and pulling him up the stairs toward the front door. She expected him to protest, but he proved unexpectedly compliant, following her almost obediently in the house and into the warmth of the library, where a fire had been lit.
“Now try and behave while I go to see if breakfast is ready,” she ordered sternly. Weymouth nodded, and she strode down the hallway to find the butler, with whom she placed an order for porridge, eggs, kidneys, sausage, and toast.
She was gone only a few minutes, but that wasn’t fast enough. Returning to the library, she found him dead asleep, his long legs stretching almost the length of the leather sofa where he was sprawled. With help from the footman, Weymouth’s boots were removed, and he was covered with a blanket. He did not stir, so sound was his slumber.
The servant departed the room, leaving Penelope to stare pensively at the viscount. He was tall, his body lean but muscular, with no sign of a drunkard’s paunch despite a life largely spent in idleness and debauchery. When sleeping, he appeared much younger and more vulnerable, and she could easily picture the boy he had once been.
A dark lock of hair had fallen against his forehead, and Penelope felt something inside her stir at the sight of him lying there, looking so vulnerable. Without thinking, she leaned over to push the hair back off his face, stopping herself only at the last moment. He was not a boy, but a grown man, and she had no business touching him, no business at all. She forced herself to step back out of temptation’s way.
The duchess had been right. As he had demonstrated this very morning, Viscount Weymouth was not the sort of man a respectable woman should ever consider marrying. As for what else the duchess had believed him to be good for—well, that was something she simply wasn’t going to contemplate.
Morning, April 3, 1831
It was the incessant pounding that finally awakened him. At first, he had thought it was only the throbbing in his head. But when it did not stop, he realized someone was seeking entrance to his bedchamber.
Bang, bang, bang.
Quite insistently at that. He opened his eyes and closed them just as quickly, the pain vibrating with sharp ferocity from his scalp down through his eyeballs. He had not reached his bed until dawn, and his throat and mouth were both damnably dry, as if the whiskey bottle had sucked all the spit out of him.
He shifted and became aware that he was still fully dressed—never a good sign—and that he was not sleeping in his bed, but lying on something far less comfortable. Something downright uncomfortable in fact.
Where was he, then? Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and winced as memories far more painful than any hangover came flooding back. Weymouth House emptied almost entirely by creditors. The house and land at Rossendale Hills near foreclosure. The people who were counting on him. His solicitor’s ominous words ringing in his head like the voice of doom.
“You must sign over the estate, my lord, or you will be sent to Marshalsea prison until the debts are settled.”
The debts would never be settled, for there was no money with which to settle them, and as the bitter taste of his failure swept over him, he closed his eyes in search of sleep’s sweet oblivion. But it was not to be, at least not this morning.
Bang, bang, bang. Whoever was knocking upon his door seemed determined to deprive him of even the comfort of his slumbers.
“Haven’t you vultures already picked my bones clean?” he growled, his breath visible in the cold air, for the small fire in the hearth had long since burned out.
Bang, bang, bang.
Pulling himself to a sitting position, he then swung his legs over the side of the narrow couch where he had been sleeping. The motion was almost more than his throbbing head could endure, and dizziness passed over him in waves.
“Steady now, old man,” he muttered, forcing himself to rise. “One step in front of the other.” He made his way across the vast sitting room, now empty of the fine furnishings and paintings that had decorated the space for his entire life, and out into the once grand hallway before at last reaching the massive front door. Feeling as if he had traversed the Sahara Desert, he unfastened the latch and pulled open the door. Standing on his doorstep was a well-appointed gentleman dressed in a dark overcoat and beaver hat, a gloved fist raised apparently in preparation for another cruel round of knocking.
“For the love of God, stop that infernal racket, for I am trying to sleep,” William snarled.
“My apologies for disturbing you, sir.” Through William’s bleary eyes, the man did not appear to be the least bit sorry. “I am seeking Viscount Weymouth.”
“Sadly for me, you have found him.” William pinched the bridge of his nose, desperately seeking some relief from the stabbing pain in his skull.
“Good morning, sir,” said the man with a respectful bow. “Laurence Heath at your service. I am here to discuss a matter that I believe will be of great interest to you.”
“If you are a bill collector, you have come too late, for anything of value is long gone. Now go away and leave me in peace.” William moved to shut the door in the man’s face, but a well-polished boot placed in the doorway frustrated his attempts.
“Quite the other way around, sir. I am a solicitor,” the older man said earnestly. He looked around the street meaningfully. “Might we talk in a more private setting?”
“I doubt there is anyone within earshot who will give a tinker’s damn about whatever it is you have to say,” William said wearily.
The solicitor gave him a beseeching look. “This is a matter of great…delicacy, sir. It really would be best if we went inside.”
It seemed the man was not going to give up without gaining a private audience. “Come in if you must,” William said, ushering Laurence Heath through the door with a grand sweep of his hand as if he were welcoming him into St. James’s Palace instead of a mansion that had been stripped of nearly every comfort and ornament by his creditors. He saw the place the way Heath must be seeing it, the once grand room now containing only a few scattered pieces of furniture, including the settee where he had passed a most uncomfortable night. It was better than sleeping on the floor, but only just.
“Do not keep me waiting, man, for I have a busy day of social engagements ahead of me,” William quipped.
Heath responded with a pained smile. “This will not take long, sir.” The solicitor removed his hat to reveal a mane of silver hair held back in a black ribbon. From his coat pocket, he withdrew a rolled sheet of vellum and handed it to William. “As I said, I do believe you may find this to be of interest.”
William unfurled the sheet and began to read. “In exchange for services, a sum of…shall be paid to Viscount Weymouth…agreement to commence…and continue until…both parties agree to keep the terms entirely confidential.” William looked up. “Is this some sort of jest?”
“Not at all. It is a legitimate offer from a benefactor who wishes to provide you with the opportunity to, shall we say, recover from your current financial difficulties,” Heath replied.
“Who is this benefactor?” William demanded, feeling his temper rise. “If it is Huntley, you will see me dead before I will be found hanging on his sleeve.”
“If you are referring to your brother-in-law, the Marquess of Huntley, rest assured that neither he nor your sister, Lady Huntley, are involved in any way,” said Heath, his firm manner convincing William that he was not dissembling.
William scanned the document again, searching for clues to the mystery unexpectedly confronting him. “Who is it, then? And what sort of service am I expected to provide?”
“I could not say, sir.” Heath’s expression was inscrutable. “That would be a private matter between you and the other party.”
William gave a snort of disgust and flung the document back at Heath. “Times are difficult, but I am not so loose in the haft to sell myself to some old man—” he began, but the solicitor interrupted him.
“Not a man, my lord, but a woman. A lady,” said Heath, carefully rolling up the contract and setting it down on the room’s one remaining table. “Quite a fine lady, in fact.”
“A lady?” William was momentary flummoxed by that. “Which lady?”
“I am not at liberty to reveal her identity,” Heath said. His tone was almost prim, and William gained the distinct sense that the solicitor did not approve of the mystery lady’s proposal—whatever it might be.
William swiped an impatient hand across his brow to keep the hair out of his eyes. He desperately needed to get it cut, but his valet had resigned two months ago to take a job “where the gentleman can pay me, sir.” He couldn’t blame the man, but it had been damned inconvenient to be left without anyone to assist him with his toilet. “Will I be expected to commit a crime? Knock off an inconvenient husband, or have a go at stealing the crown jewels?”
The solicitor compressed his lips into a terse line. “You will not be asked to do anything of a criminal nature. Beyond that, I cannot be more informative, as the lady herself wishes to explain the particulars. I will leave the contract here for your consideration. If you are interested in pursuing this opportunity, you need only contact me, and I will arrange a meeting between you and the lady in question. But do not tarry long, as an answer is required by the end of the week.”
William did some rapid calculations in his head. The funds on offer were damned tempting. Enough to pay off his largest creditors and get his estate back on its feet. For the first time in months—nay, years—he felt a faint spark of hope.
“That’s a fair amount of blunt—enough to stake me for at least a month or two of faro,” William said carelessly and was rewarded with the solicitor’s look of dismay.
“It is none of my business, sir, but you might be wise to consider putting aside some of the funds so that you can assure the future of your patrimony.”
William gave the solicitor a haughty look. “You’d be wise to refrain from giving unsolicited advice to your betters, Heath,” he said coldly, sounding a right jackass, even to his own ears. From the pained look on Heath’s face, the man obviously thought William a pompous fool.
But the solicitor was far too circumspect to betray his personal thoughts. “My apologies, sir,” he said, handing William a card. “Send word to me at this address when you have made your decision.”
William pictured the families who would lose their homes when Rossendale was divided and sold off. Was there anything that this lady could want from him, short of murder, which he was not prepared to do?
Unbidden, he heard his dead father’s voice whispering to him.
What sort of man sells himself for money? Are you a tradesman now? Where is your pride, boy?
Go back to hell where you belong, you old bastard.
“I will meet with this mysterious lady,” William said to the solicitor. “But it must be today, for I am expected at Crockford’s at midnight and will want the cash in hand by then.”
Heath nodded, looking not at all surprised. Maybe the man made these sorts of arrangements all the time. “I shall let her know to expect you.”