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Giddings opened the door to find His Lordship standing upon the step, his face set in such rigid lines a shiver went down his spine. It was a relief when the Earl of Walton looked straight through him as he handed over his hat and coat, turning immediately towards the door to the salon. Thank God young Conningsby had taken it into his head to pass out on one of the sofas in there, instead of staggering back to his own lodgings the previous night. It was far better that it should be a man who could answer back, rather than a hapless member of staff, who became the butt of His Lordship's present mood.
But Charles Algernon Fawley, the ninth Earl of Walton, ignored Conningsby too. Striding across the room to the sideboard, he merely unstoppered a crystal decanter, pouring its entire contents into the last clean tumbler upon the tray.
Conningsby opened one eye warily, and rolled it in the Earl's direction. 'Breakfast atTortoni's?' he grated hoarsely.
Charles tossed the glass of brandy back in one go, and reached for the decanter again.
'Don't look as though you enjoyed it much,' Conningsby observed, wincing as he struggled to sit up.
'No.' As the Earl realised the decanter was empty, his fingers curled round its neck as though he wished he could strangle it. 'And if you dare say I told you so '
'Wouldn't dream of it, my lord. But what I will say is'
'No. I listened to all you had to say last night, and, while I am grateful for your concern, my decision remains the same. I am not going to slink out of Paris with my tail between my legs like some whipped cur. I will not have it said that some false, painted jilt has made the slightest impact on my heart. I am staying until the lease on this apartment expires, not one hour sooner. Do you hear me?'
Conningsby raised a feeble hand to his brow. 'Only too clearly.' He eyed the empty decanter ruefully. 'And while you're proving to the whole world that you don't care a rap about your betrothed running off with some penniless artist, I don't suppose you could get your man to rustle up some coffee, could you?'
'Engraver,' snapped the Earl as he tugged viciously on the bell-pull.
Conningsby sank back into the sofa cushions, waving a languid hand to dismiss the profession of the Earl's be-trothed's lover as the irrelevance it was. 'Judging by the expression on your face, the gossip-mongers have already been at work. It's not going to get any easier for you '
'My mood now has nothing whatever to do with the fickle Mademoiselle Bergeron,' he snarled. 'It is her countrymen's actions which could almost induce me to leave this vile charnel house that calls itself a civilised city and return to London, where the most violent emotion I am likely to suffer is acute boredom.'
'But it was boredom you came to Paris to escape from!'
He let the inaccuracy of that remark pass. Staying in London, with his crippled half-brother, had simply become intolerable. Seeking refuge down at Wycke had not been a viable alternative, either. There was no respite from what ailed him there. The very opulence of the vast estate only served as a painful reminder of the injustice that had been perpetrated so that he could inherit it all.
Paris had seemed like the perfect solution. Since Bonaparte had abdicated, it had become extremely fashionable to hop across the Channel to see the sights.
Leaning one arm on the mantelpiece, he remarked, with an eloquent shudder, 'I will never complain of that particular malady again, I do assure you.'
'What is it?' Conningsby asked. 'What else has happened?'
'Du Mauriac again, I take it?' Conningsby's face was grim. The French officer was gaining a reputation for provoking hot-headed young Englishmen to duel with him, and dispatching them with a ruthless efficiency gleaned from his years of active service. And then celebrating his kill by breakfasting on broiled kidneys at Tortoni's. 'Who was it this morning? Not anybody we know, I hope?'
'On the contrary. The poor fellow he slaughtered before breakfast today was a subaltern by the name of Lennox.' At Conningsby's frown, Charles explained, 'Oh, there is no reason why you should know him. He was typical of all the others who have fallen by that butcher's sword. An obscure young man with no powerful connections.'
'Then how ?'
'He served in the same regiment as my unfortunate half-brother. He was one of those young men who constantly paraded through my London house, attempting to rouse him to some semblance of normality.' Sometimes it seemed as if an entire regiment must have marched through his hall at one time or another, to visit the poor wreck of a man who had once been a valiant soldier. Though few of them paid a second visit after encountering his blistering rejection. Captain Fawley did not want to be an object of pity.
Pity! If only he knew! If he, the ninth Earl, had been injured so badly, there would be not one well-wisher hastening to his bedside in an attempt to cheer him. On the contrary, it would be vultures who would begin to hover, eager to see who among them would gain his title, his wealth
'At least he was a soldier, then.'
'He never stood a chance against a man of Du Mauriac's stamp, and the blackguard knew it! He sat there laughing about the fact that the boy did not look as though he needed to shave more than once a week! And sneered at his milk-white countenance as he faced him God, the boy must have been sick with fright.'
Charles smote one fist into his palm. 'If only Lennox had asked me to be his second, I would have found a way to stop it!'
Conningsby eyed him with surprise. The only thing he had known about the Earl before his arrival in Paris was that, upon coming of age, he had caused a ripple through society by ousting his guardians from his ancestral home and subsequently severing all connections with that branch of his family. He had not known of a single man who dared claim friendship with the chillingly insular young lord. In Conningsby's capacity as a junior aide at the English embassy, he had dutifully helped him to find these lodgings in the Rue de Richelieu, and generally smoothed his entry into the social scene. It had been quite a surprise, the previous night, when the Earl had reacted as any man might on discovering the beautiful Parisienne to whom he had just proposed had run off with her lover. He had gone straight home to drown his sorrows. Though his head had proved stronger than Conningsby's.
'Couldn't have backed down, though, could he?' he ventured sympathetically. 'Wouldn't have wanted to live with an accusation of cowardice hanging round his neck.'
'Somebody should have found some way to save Lennox,' the Earl persisted. 'If only '
He was prevented from saying anything further when the butler opened the door. 'There is a visitor for you, my lord.'
'I am not receiving,' Charles growled.
Giddings cleared his throat, and eyed Conningsby warily, before saying diffidently, 'The young person insists you would wish to see her.' He stepped forward and, in a voice intended only for his master, said, 'She says her name is Mademoiselle Bergeron.'
Charles felt as though he had been punched in the stomach.
While he struggled to draw breath, Conningsby, who had remarkably acute hearing, rose gingerly to his feet. 'She has in all probability come to beg your forgiveness '
'She shall not have it!' Charles turned to grasp the mantelpiece with both hands, his shoulders hunched. 'I shall not take her back. If she prefers some artist to me, then she may go to him and welcome!'
'But there may have been some dreadful mistake. Let's face it, my lord, the Bergeron household last night was in such a state of turmoil, who knows what may have been going on?'
They had gone to escort Felice to a ball, where the engagement was to have been announced. They had found Monsieur Bergeron slumped in his chair, as though all the stuffing had been knocked out of him, and Madame Bergeron suffering from a noisy bout of hysterics upon the sofa. The only clear piece of information either of them had been able to glean was that she had turned off the wicked maidservant who had aided and abetted her ungrateful daughter to elope with a nobody when she could have married an English earl.
The Earl was breathing rather rapidly. 'I am not safe to see her.' He turned back to face the room, his entire face leached of colour. 'I may well attempt to strangle her.'
'Not you,' Conningsby assured him.
The Earl looked at him sharply, then straightened up. 'No,' he said, his face freezing into a chillingly aloof mask. 'Not I.' He went to one of the fireside chairs, sat down, and crossed one leg nonchalantly over the other. 'You may show Mademoiselle Bergeron in, Giddings,' he said, keeping his eyes fixed on the door.
Conningsby got the peculiar impression he had just become invisible. And, though he could tell the Earl would not care one way or another, he had no intention of becoming a witness to the impending confrontation. It was one thing helping a man to drown his sorrows in a companionable way. Hell, what man hadn't been in a similar predicament at one time or another? But becoming embroiled with some hysterical Frenchwoman, with his head in its present delicate state, was asking too much! He looked wildly round the room for some other means of escape than the door through which Mademoiselle Bergeron would shortly appear. The only other exit appeared to be through the windows.
It took but a second to vault over the sofa on which he'd spent the night and dive through the heavy velvet curtains.
'Mademoiselle Bergeron,' he heard Giddings intone, as he fumbled open the shutter bolts.
Charles experienced a spurt of satisfaction when she paused on the threshold, her gloved hand fluttering to the heavy veil draped from her bonnet.
Instead of rising to his feet, he deliberately leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, eyeing her with unremitting coldness. She squared her shoulders, taking one faltering step forward. Then, to his complete astonishment, she broke into a run, flying across the room and landing upon her knees at his feet. Seizing his hand, she pulled it to her face, kissing it through the veil.
Impatiently, he snatched it back. Whatever she had been up to last night, he was not prepared to unbend towards her without a really good explanation. And probably not even then. To feel such strong emotions that they could reduce you to the state of mind where not even copious quantities of alcohol could anaesthetise them was something he did not care to experience again. He was just about to tell her so when she knelt back, lifting the veil from her face.
'Oh, thank you, milord! Thank you for letting me in. I was so afraid! You have no idea how unpleasant it is to walk the streets unescorted with feelings running so high '
Charles reeled back in his seat. 'You are not not '
'Felice? No.' The young woman who knelt before him returned his look rather defiantly. 'I regret the deception, but I did not think you would agree to see anyone but her today. And so I led your butler to believe I was she. And, indeed, the deception was not so very great. You were expecting Mademoiselle Bergeron, and I am Mademoiselle Bergeron '
'You are entirely the wrong Mademoiselle Bergeron,' he snapped. How could he have mistaken the much shorter and utterly plain Heloise for her beautiful, glamorous, and entirely captivating younger sister? He couldn't blame the bonnet, though the peak of it did protrude from her face by over a foot, nor the heavy veil that was suspended from it, though it had concealed her features. He had wanted to see Felice, he acknowledged painfully. He had clung to the faint hope that there had been some dreadful mistake, and that she had come to tell him that she wanted no other man but him. And so he had seen what he wanted to see. What kind of fool did that make him?
Heloise swallowed nervously. She had been expecting a little antagonism, but the reality of facing a man whose heart had been broken was altogether more daunting than she had supposed it would be.
'No,' she persisted. 'I do not think you will find that I am when you hear what I have to propose '
'I cannot imagine what you hope to accomplish by coming here and prostrating yourself in this manner,' he began angrily.
'Oh, nohow could you, when I have not yet explained? But you only need to listen for a very few minutes and I will tell you!' Suddenly very conscious that she was still kneeling like a supplicant at his feet, she glanced about the room.
'May I sit upon one of these so comfortable-looking chairs, my lord? This floor it is most hard, and really I do not see that you can take me at all seriously if I do not make some effort to look more rational. Only I did not know what was to become of me if you did not let me in. I was followed all the way from the Tuileries gardens by a contingent of the National Guard of the most vile manners. They refused to believe at all that I am a respectable female, merely visiting a friend of the family who also happens to be an English milord, and that they would be entirely sorry for accusing me of the things they didfor why should I not be entirely innocent? Just because you are English, that does not make me a bad person, or unpatriotic at all, even if I am not wearing either the white lily or the violet. If they are going to arrest anyone, it should have been the crowd who were brawling in the gardens, not someone who does not care at all that the emperor has gone, and that a Bourbon sits on the throne. Not but that they got the chance, because your so kind butler permitted me to enter the hall the moment he saw how things were, and even if you would not see me, he said there was a door to the back through the kitchens from which I could return home, after I had drunk a little something to restore my nerves '
The Earl found he had no defence against the torrent of words that washed over him. She didn't even seem to pause for breath until Giddings returned, bearing a tray upon which was a bottle of Madeira and two glasses.