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Stephen Hawkhurst, Lord of Atherton, felt the wind rise up from the bottom of Taylor's Gap, salt on its edge. He frowned as he breathed in, a smooth wooden railing all that held him between this world and the next one.
So very easy to end it, to simply let go and fall into oblivion. Pushing harder, he felt the barrier give and a few stones, dislodged by the movement, hurled down the incline to disappear into nothingness.
'If you jump, you would need to land exactly between that rock and the cliff,' a voice said, one small gloved hand pointing downwards. 'If you veer to the left, you will be caught on those bushes, you see, and such a fall could leave you merely crippled. To the right is a better option as the shale would be more forgiving before it threw you over the edge into the sea. However, if you excel at the art of swimming ?' She stopped, the implication understood.
Stiffening, Hawk turned to see a woman standing near, a black veil hiding every feature of her face. Her clothes were heavy and practical. A lady of commerce, perhaps? Or the daughter of a merchant? God, what luck was there in that? Miles from anywhere and the voice of reason close by.
'I may, of course, merely be taking in the view.' The irritation in his words was unbecoming and he was a man who was seldom rude to women. But this one was far from cowed.
'One would generally look to the horizon if that was the case, sir. The sun is setting, you see, and it would be this vista your eyes would be drawn towards.'
'Then perhaps I am tired?'
'Fatigue would show itself in a leaning gait and great exertion would be seen in dust upon your boots.' Her head tipped down to look. Stephen imagined her satisfaction when she saw his shiny new black Hessians. He wished she would turn and leave, but she stood silent and waiting, breath even and unhurried.
Surveying the nearby paths, he realised that she was alone. Unusual for a lady not to be chaperoned. He wondered how she had got here and where she would go to next.
There was a hole in the thumb of her right-hand glove and an unbuffed nail was bitten to the quick. The hat she wore hid her hair completely, though an errant curl of vibrant red had escaped from its clutches and lay across the darkness of her clothes like rubies in a coal seam. Beneath the notes of a heavier perfume he smelt the light freshness of violets.
'I came here often as a young girl with my mother and she would stand just where I am and speak of what was over the seas in all the directions that I might name.' This was said suddenly after a good few moments of silence. He liked how she did not feel the need to fill in every space with chatter. 'France lies that way, and Denmark, there. A thousand miles to the north-east a boat could founder against the rocky coast of the Kingdom of Norway.'
She had a slight accent, though the cadence held the timbre of something that Hawk did not recognise. The thought amused him for he was a master of discerning that which people wished not to divulge. He had made his life from it, after all.
'Where is your mother now?'
'Oh, she left England many years ago. She was French, you understand, and my father had no desire to stop her in her travels.'
His interest was firmly caught as he took a step back. 'He did not accompany her, then?'
'Papa loves poetry and text. His vocation is as small as my mother's was large and a library filled with books was all he ever claimed to want in adventure. Her journeys would have worried him.'
'The adventurer and the academic? An interesting combination. Which parent do you favour?' The question came from nowhere, for Stephen had certainly not meant to voice it, but the woman had a charm that was unexpected. It had been a long time since he had felt the sense of aliveness he did here with her.
One hand crossed to her face, pushing the gauze closer to her cheek. In the slanting light of sunset he could make out a finely chiselled nose. 'Neither,' she answered. 'The will to do exactly as one wants requires a certain amount of spare time which is a commodity I can ill afford.'
'Because you spend the day rearranging your father's extensive library?' He found himself smiling.
'Everyone has a story, sir, though your assumptions lack as much in truth as any tale that I might fashion around you.'
Stepping back another pace, he felt the bush at his back, sturdy and green. 'What would you say of me?'
'I would say that you are a man who leads others, though few really know you.'
Such a truth cut quick, because she was right. He seldom showed anyone who he was.
But she was not finished. Taking his hand, she turned it palm upwards, tracing the lines with her first finger. Stephen felt like snatching it back, away from the things that she might or might not see.
'You have a high falsetto singing voice, seldom touch strong drink and never bet at the New Year races at Newmarket.'
Her voice held a note of humour, and relief bloomed. 'So very exact. You ought to have a stall outside the Leadenhall.'
'It's a gift, sir,' she returned, her head tipping to one side as though measuring all that he was. Like a naturalist might watch an insect before sticking it through with a pin. There was something in her stillness that was unnerving and he tried his hardest to discern the rest of her features.
'Do you have a name?' Suddenly he wanted to know just who she was and where she came from. Coincidences were seldom as they seemed. His job had at least taught him that.
'Aurelia, my lord,' she offered, a new tone in his given title, a tone he understood too well. She gave no surname.
'You know who I am, then?'
'I have heard of you from many different people.'
'And the gossip of strangers is so very truthful.'
'It is my experience that beneath the embellishment, tittle-tattle always holds a measure of truth. It is said that you spend a lot of time away from England and its society?'
'I am easily bored.'
'Oh, I doubt that entirely.'
'And easily disappointed.'
'An explanation that may account for your presence here at Taylor's Gap.'
He breathed out hard, the possibility of blackmail creeping in unbidden.
She faced him directly, now, and lifted her veil. Freckles across the bridge of a fine nose were the first things he registered. Then he saw that one eye was blue and the other dark brown. A mismatched angel!
'It was an accident. A bleed. I fell from a horse as a child and hit my head hard.' This explanation was given in the tone of one who might have often said it.
She was so pale the blood in her veins could be seen through the skin at her temple. Like the wings of a butterfly, barely there. He wanted to lean forwards and touch such delicacy, but he did not because something in her eyes stopped him. He knew this familiar look of supplication, his many estates holding the promise of a largesse that was tantalising.
But not from her. The disappointment of it pierced hard even as she began to speak.
'I would ask a favour of you, Lord Hawkhurst.'
There. It was said, and in the circumstances he would have to be generous. It wasn't everyone who had seen the demons in him so clearly.
'I have a sister, Leonora Beauchamp, who is both young and beautiful and I want her to marry a man who would care for her well.'
As her words settled, fury solidified. 'I am not in the market for a wife, madam, no matter what you might like to say of this encounter.'
Her voice shook as she continued to speak. 'It isn't marriage I petition. I merely want you to invite Leonora to the ball I know you to be giving next week at your town house. I shall accompany her to ensure you know who it is to make some fuss of. A dance should do it, or two, if you will. After that I promise to never darken your pathway again.'
The anger in him abated slightly. 'To where should I send the invitations?'
'Braeburn House in Upper Brook Street. Any delivery boy would know of it.'
'How old is your sister?'
She did not answer and his heart felt heavy as he looked down at her. 'So you are Aurelia Beauchamp?'
The shake of her head surprised him. 'Nay, that is Leonora's surname, but if you could see it in yourself to welcome my sister despite any misgivings, I would be most appreciative.' Removing one glove, she delved into her pocket and brought out a pendant fashioned with a single diamond in white gold. 'I do not ask you to do this for nothing, Lord Hawkhurst, but if you say yes to the bargain between us I do expect you to hold up your end of it, without excuse. Could you promise me that?'
Interest began to creep under wrath, the flush on her face as becoming as any he had ever seen on a woman. She was a beauty! Beneath the fabric of her other hand he saw a ring, bold against the sheen of superfine.
Was she married? If she was his woman, he would have not let her roam the countryside so unprotected.
He smiled at such thoughts. Unprotected? Lord, was he finally growing a conscience? Thirty-one years old and all of them hard edged. The ends of his fingers curled against his thighs and he made himself breathe in, the souls of those he had sent to the afterlife calling close.
For Queen and for country or for the dubious needs of men left in charge of a foreign policy decades out of tune. Aye, England had not thanked him at all and he did not wish it to. But sometimes in a quiet corner of the world such as this one, and in the company of a woman who was as beautiful as she was beguiling, he wished for something else.
He could not name it. It was too removed from the roads that he had followed, at first in wanderlust and excitement and now out of habit and ennui.
Murder, even in the circumstances of national security, sounded wrong. His father would have told him that, and his mother, too, had she lived. But they were long gone and the only family member left to give some guidance was Alfred; his uncle's scrambled mind still lurked in the remnants of the second Peninsular Campaign under Wellington, reality lost in the scarred remains of his left temple.
Stephen would have sworn had he been alone, but the sunset crept over her upturned face, painting untarnished skin the blush pink of dusk. The very sight of her took his breath away. Like an angel offering redemption to a sinner, her fragile stillness warming a heart long since encased in ice.
'Keep the pendant, madam, for I should wish another payment altogether, here in the open air and far from any community.' The beat of his rising want hummed beneath the banter. Part of him knew he should not voice a request that was as inappropriate as it was banal, but the larger part of him ignored such a warning. He was a man who had lived for years in the land of shadows and ill repute and it had rubbed off on him, he supposed. Aye, he almost welcomed the distance scandal had brought, though sometimes, like now, a crack appeared, small and fragile, and a worm of longing for the good life that he might have lived wriggled through. He should turn and walk away, protecting the little decency still left inside him.
But he didn't.
Instead he said that which had been building from the first moment of meeting her. 'All I want as payment is a kiss, given freely and without anger.'
She waved such a notion away, the diamond clutched awkwardly in her hand. 'You do not understand, my lord, it is my sister whom I need you to introduce into polite society. It is not a liaison for myself that I seek here
'Then I refuse your terms.'
She was silent and still, long slender fingers worrying the dark folds of her skirt, and further away the birds gathered for a last chorus before slumber.
'Only a kiss, you say?' Whispered. Unbelieving.
The deep blush of blood bloomed under paleness.
He would know her name soon enough and then he would despise her as everybody else did, and too late to change it. But a chance for Leonora to be in the top echelons of London's Society was not to be dallied with.
Fate had a way of occasionally throwing a lifeline and who was she to refuse? Even had he asked for more she could not have said no. For Leonora and for the twins. The stakes had risen as their circumstances had declined and with Papa She shook her head. She would not think of him.
Goodness, why did he not just take the pendant and be done with it? It was worth so much more than this nonsense he sought. And how was this to work? Did she face him and wait or did he require some prior flirtation?
A refusal would egg a man like him on. She knew it. Better to be sensible and allow him this one small favour, hold her lips up to his and close her eyes, tightly, until it was over.
His finger against her throat stopped every logical train of thought, the gentle play of the sensual so very unexpected. If she had been stronger, she might have stepped back and away. But the sensation of a man whose very name incited hysteria and frenzy amongst a great portion of the fairer sex in England caressing her was mesmerising and she could neither move nor call a stop to it.
The braiding holding the material of her gown together was thick and stiff, a resilient barrier to any more intimate caress. She was glad of such armour.
The hat surprised her, though, his free hand simply lifting the contraption off her head and away, the trailing ties lost in a growing wind as the piece fell to her feet.
'The colour of fire,' he said of her hair.
Or of shame, she thought, deep amber catching the final burst of sunset. She could see in his expression just what she had so often seen in those of others.
All the difficulties in her life surfaced, roaming free in her head, and she shut her eyes.