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“If you insist on visiting Lord and Lady Powning, then you shall do so without me.”
Fowler Knowden, Earl of Ramscar, scowled at his sister’s back, noting the rigidity in her stance as he paced behind her. He had known even before he had uttered the suggestion that his younger sister, Meredith, would reject his offer to spend an evening with one of their closest neighbors. Still, he refused to give up.
“Meredith,” he said, mentally preparing himself for her anger and tears. “You have been mistress of Swancott for eleven years. During that time, how many times have you called on Lady Powning? How many times did you invite her and Powning into your drawing room?”
She bowed her head. Her light brown hair was arranged high on her head, allowing him to admire the graceful curve of her nape. At nearly four and twenty, his sister lived like an elderly recluse. Guilt soured his stomach like an unpalatable dinner. He blamed himself for this sad business, and he was determined to rectify his neglect.
Ramscar strode over to her and placed his hands on her shoulders in a comforting gesture. She flinched at his touch. Her reaction cut him to the core. “It has been eleven years. It is time to let go of the past.”
He felt the fragile bones of her shoulders quake before she shrugged off his hands. “Let go?” she echoed. “You might have the luxury of forgetting the past, my brother. I, however, must face it each time I look into a mirror.”
Showing more spirit than he had glimpsed in six months, Meredith turned and faced him. She had grown into a beautiful woman. She was short in stature, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulders. Her shiny light brown hair was a legacy from their father, and her melancholy blue eyes reminded Ramscar of their mother. His sister never glimpsed her natural beauty when she used her mirror. All she saw was the awful scars marring her right cheek and neck, a permanent reminder of the house fire she had survived eleven years earlier.
Ramscar unflinchingly held her gaze. “I have never forgotten the past. I was there that night. If you recall, I was the one who carried you from the room, the one who extinguished the flames consuming your nightclothes.” He stared down at his hands. Meredith was not the only one who bore scars from the fire that had claimed the lives of their mother and Meredith’s twin sister.
Some nights, nightmares still plagued him over the choices he had made that night. Ramscar had been fifteen and arrogantly thought himself a seasoned gentleman of the world. His closest friends—Holt Cadd, Marquess of Byrchmore; Townsend Lidsaw, Viscount Everod; and the future Duke of Solitea, Fayne Carlisle, Marquess of Temmes—all belonged to the elite class of wealth, privilege, and refined bloodlines. They had been wildly reckless, prone to use their fists rather than their intellect, and feared no man or beast.
His father had not discouraged Ram’s inquisitive nature that led him to adventure and mischief. The former Lord Ramscar was a traditional sort of gentleman, who believed a man’s carnal exploits were connected to his well-being while a gently reared lady needed to be protected from her predatory nature. It was an opinion that Ramscar heartily disagreed with, because, well, simply put, he enjoyed ladies too much. If a young lady desired to explore her predatory nature with him, he would not be so cruel and deny her the pleasure. Ramscar meant no disrespect to the dead, but his father had never understood the workings of a lady’s mind.
His ignorance had cost him his life.
“Meredith, it was Audra who died in the fire, not you.” Ram cringed at the hint of tears in her eyes. He rubbed the back of his neck in vexation. “I have been a poor substitute for a mother and father, haven’t I? I have allowed sympathy to overrule my concerns for you. You do not deserve the fate of a spinster, my loving sister. You should be dancing at balls and flirting with gentlemen.”
“Look at me, Brother,” his sister commanded, stepping closer so he could see her face. “See me not with the hazy veil of what was, but with the harsh truth of the waning daylight.”
She turned her face to the left, exposing her scarred cheek. Most of her right cheek was ruined. The mottled rough pinkish flesh stood out in contrast to her pale complexion. The scarring began at her high cheekbone and disappeared along the line of her delicate jaw. There was more scarring on her neck that extended beyond her high collar. Meredith wore long sleeves year-round, so Ramscar was uncertain of the damage she kept concealed. It was a subject she refused to discuss at length.
Ram cupped her cheek and stroked the ruined flesh with his thumb. “Everyone has scars, Meredith. So yours are more visible than other people’s. You are still beautiful to me.”
She shut her eyes at his sweet words as if his compliment pained her. “You have a unique notion of beauty, Ram. I doubt any gentlemen I might encounter on the street or at a ball would view my countenance with similar generosity. Or any noble lady would gaze upon me with envy in her heart.”
It was the same predicament every year. He tried to coax Meredith into polite society, and she rebuffed all of his arguments. After hours of tearful debate, he always yielded to her fears. Eleven years had slipped by. Ram knew another eleven could pass and her answer would be the same. “Come with me to Lord and Lady Powning’s house. They are friends. No one would dare—”
“Pity me? Refuse to look upon my face?” With a sadness in her expression that always twisted his gut, she shook her head, her mind already made up. “You are a good brother, Ram. The very best. However, I am reconciled to my seclusion. It is time for you to accept it as I do.”
She was the only family he had left. Ramscar felt conflicted. He truly loathed hurting Meredith. Nevertheless, he was convinced that if he allowed another year to pass without a sincere effort to lure his sister away from Swancott, the damage would be irreparable. His visits to the rural country estate were usually brief. The family owned several houses, and the properties demanded his vigilance. He also preferred extending his stays in London, where friends and amusements awaited his return.
What he refrained from mentioning to Meredith was his selfish, less honorable motive for gaining her swift acquiescence so he might immediately depart for London.
Two days earlier, he had received a curt missive from his mistress impatiently awaiting his return to London. Miss Angeline Grassi was an impetuous creature who was prone to spectacular tantrums when she felt she was not being properly adored. Under normal circumstances, he was willing to indulge his little actress, but her latest threat to secure a new protector during his absence had Ramscar wondering if he had been too accommodating to the lady.
Angeline was not aware he had a sister. The intimate details of his private life were not something a man shared with his lover. It grated a little that his mistress thought him so enthralled that he would jump to her bidding.
His friend Everod would have advised him to offer the ambitious chit her congé and move on to a more agreeable lover. In spite of her threats, Ramscar found he was reluctant to coldly cut his ties with her. Angeline was an amiable companion, whether she was entertaining him in a drawing room or in her bedchamber. She had been the first mistress he had taken in several years, and his visit to Swancott had prevented him from fully enjoying his good fortune.
Ramscar sighed. A tryst with Angeline would have to wait. Meredith mattered too much to him to abandon her to her melancholy and solitude. “Do you recall meeting my good friend Solitea? Years ago, he once drunkenly proclaimed to all and sundry that he would not marry until he was in his forties. Last summer, he madly dashed off with his future duchess to Gretna Green. I have never seen a man so smitten with his lady wife or so blissfully leg shackled.” He ignored the tug of envy at his friend’s happiness. “Solitea was as blind to his future as you are, Meredith. Join me this evening at the Pownings’.” Ram took up her hand and impulsively danced a few steps of a country dance, causing Meredith to giggle. Heartened, he pressed his advantage by saying, “Think of our outing as the first steps in casting off the self-imposed shackles you have chosen to don. Let me show you our world.”
Ramscar arrived at the Pownings’ estate alone.
“Why are you being so cruel, Ram? I wish I had died in the fire!”
With his sister’s broken sobs echoing behind him as he walked out the door, the notion of an evening out held little appeal. He was in a sour mood, but the confrontation with his sister had left him restless. Ram suspected a few hours in good company would restore his earlier optimism. This business with Meredith was his fault. He had pushed her hard, too quickly. Although his intentions were honorable, he had overwhelmed his shy, reclusive sister. Ram was certain that given time, he could coax her from her sanctuary.
Angeline Grassi would not await his return forever.
He gnashed his teeth in frustration. It appeared the ladies in his life were determined to keep him in a state of perpetual agitation and physical denial. However, there was no visible sign of his inner turmoil on Ram’s face when he approached Lord and Lady Powning.
“Lord Ramscar, you honor us,” Lord Powning warmly greeted him, embracing him as if they were intimately connected. A stout gentleman in his mid-fifties, the marquess had more hair on his brow than the top of his head. He rubbed his hands gleefully, and Ram reluctantly found the man’s joviality contagious. “I was just telling my wife at breakfast that nine months have passed without a visit from our esteemed neighbor.”
Lady Powning extended her hand for Ram to clasp. She was ten years younger than her husband, and the passing years and birthing of ten children had softened her figure to matronly proportions. Her brown eyes twinkled with merriment as she glanced at Lord Powning. “And I had to remind the old charmer that we encountered you and your friends at some function last October.”
The marquess snorted in disbelief. “You could not recall what you had for breakfast, let alone a banal gathering last autumn.”
“On this, I am correct.” She inclined her head regally and gave Ram a coy smile. “Les sauvages nobles tend to make an impression on a lady.”
Ram rewarded her with a flirtatious wink. “Anything less and we would be disappointed, my lady.” Laughing at his remark, his host and hostess moved on to greet some newcomers.
Les sauvages nobles, or the noble savages, was an amusing soubriquet the ton had bestowed on Ramscar and his friends Solitea, Cadd, and Everod years earlier when they seemed oath-sworn to stir up as much mischief as possible. Their wealth and family connections granted their every whim, while their endearing charm and good looks tumbled even the most intractable chit into their beds. Solitea, Cadd, and Everod were like brothers to Ramscar, and like all siblings, they had a tendency to annoy one another.
A pity his friends had not joined him at Swancott.
There had been some notable changes in their lives since his last visit to Swancott. Carlisle’s father, the Duke of Solitea, had died last season. His death had been swift and occurred under some less than respectable circumstances. If half the speculation had been true, the old duke would have been proud. Carlisle had taken his father’s death harder than most, and he had expressed his rage on numerous fellows who were idiotic enough to challenge him in his grief.
With true Carlisle luck, he had found the lady of his heart during his bleakest months. Ram was happy for the couple. Carlisle’s duchess was an enchanting lady who was obviously besotted with her new husband. The new duke even managed to utter the words “marriage” and “husband” without hesitation. Yes, Ram, Everod, and Cadd were highly amused, witnessing the demise of one of London’s notorious rakes. Ram could not fathom a lady having such a hold on him.
Absorbed in his private musings, he collided into a young woman dashing out of the ballroom. Ram grunted as the unrefined impression of female softness, ringlets of pale blond hair, and the scent of clove teased his senses. He caught her in his arms and then promptly released her.
“Oh my, I do beg your pardon, my lord,” she said, her voice surprisingly low and strong for such a petite young woman. She had yet to meet his curious gaze. Distracted, she scanned the large hall for her quarry. “There is no shame in wearing your spectacles. I vow, it will spare you from future mishaps.”
Without giving him a chance to respond to her outrageous suggestion, she walked away from him. Ram was speechless. He could not decide if he was bemused or insulted by her casual dismissal. As one of les sauvages nobles, he was accustomed to attracting a lady’s interest. His looks were above passable. He gave his right shoulder a discreet sniff and pronounced his scent inoffensive. Ram was not a vain man, but it was rare for anyone to ignore him.
He sullenly watched the blonde greet and embrace a tall, slender brunette. His brows lifted questioningly at their affectionate exchange. Perhaps the lady favored female lovers. The explanation was a palatable balm to his wounded pride. Viewing her only from the back, he watched the voluptuous blonde as she nodded brusquely at whatever her companion was whispering into her ear. The blonde grasped the other woman by both wrists and gave her a firm, reprimanding shake. Whoever the petite blonde was, she was in charge. Glancing about to see if anyone was listening, she dragged her agitated companion across the room and disappeared through one of the open doors. Intrigued, Ramscar decided to follow them.
The evening was turning into a debacle. All her plans, the hours of hard work she had dedicated to securing this engagement for their small troupe, were evaporating before her grim gaze. Patience pulled Deidra McNiell into a small antechamber of Lord Powning’s library. Did her companions foolishly believe legitimate employment was as easily attained as a pot of beer ordered in a local tavern? Oh, this was too much to bear!
Deidra sniffed into the handkerchief Patience had pressed into the young woman’s hands. At four and twenty, Deidra’s tall, gaunt figure towered over Patience, emphasizing her own shortness and soft, feminine curves. Her friend was a talented player with straight black hair and wide liquid blue eyes that seemed made for tragedy. At the moment, her gaze was haunted with foreboding doom. “What are we to do?” she whispered, gesturing at the closed door. “All those people expect us to perform . . . something. . . . What a fine time for Link and Perry to run off.”
“We have been a family too long for them to simply run off, Deidra,” Patience said, trying to hide her growing concern.
It had been Julian Phoenix who had brought their little theatrical troupe together all those years ago. Long before he had seduced Patience away from her family with promises of love and dreams of becoming an actress, Phoenix had plucked Perry Kiffin off the filthy streets of London. The pretty twelve-year-old had been selling himself to anyone who fancied him to provide food for his invalid mother and younger siblings. Perhaps Phoenix saw something of his former life in the desperate young lad to offer him another means to fill his purse than whoring himself out to sodomites.
Deidra had been picking pockets in Dublin when Phoenix had encountered her. He bought her a pretty dress and vowed that she had the potential to be the next Mrs. Woffington. Deidra had been vastly devoted to her lover; that was, until the day when Patience had been forced to lie to the troupe about Phoenix’s disappearance.
Finally, there was Link Stolker. He had been the first to pair up with Phoenix. Patience did not know much about Link’s earlier life. Once he mentioned that he had been an apprentice to a tailor before he ran off. Another occasion, he claimed he was the bastard son of a baron. Link was the oldest of the group, even older than Phoenix by four years. At seven and twenty, Link was a quiet, reflective man with curly, fiery red hair so contrary to his sober nature. His value to Phoenix was in his uncanny ability to quote from memory anything that was read to him. It was a convenient talent, since the man spent most of the day with a bottle of wine within reach. Link always boasted that he did his best work one step away from falling down drunk. Although there was no doubt the man could perform while inebriated, it was his temper that could be unpredictable. They had been forced to leave more than one village as the result of Link’s drunken misconduct.
“We are too far from the nearest tavern,” Patience mused aloud. “Besides, why walk miles in the cold weather when Lord Powning owns an enviable cellar?”
Deidra hiccupped and dabbed her eyes. “Oh, how I wish Julian was still with us,” she lamented, her voice raspy from her tears. “Link was more manageable back then. He respected Julian.”
Deidra did not have to remind her that Julian Phoenix was a better tyrant than Patience. What providence, she thought with mocking disdain, that she turned out to be a superior liar. The pain in her temple was throbbing now. She resisted the urge to rub the painful spot.
Her friend’s loyalty to Phoenix was remarkable, considering the lie Patience had told her companions two years earlier when she had walked out of the barn in Cheshire and Julian Phoenix had not. To this day, Link, Perry, and Deidra believed their arrogant leader had abandoned them. Phoenix had studied his fellow man thoroughly and knew all of Patience’s private fears. He had known the dishonorable course she would be forced to take as he lay dying in the barn, even before she had. Had he not taunted her, provoked her into concealing his death from the others? It was fear that had kept her silent the day she had returned to the inn alone. She did not want to hang for his death. Neither did she relish pulling her family into another scandal. It was one of the reasons that she had stopped using her family name, Farnaly, and adopted the last name of Winlow.
“Julian Phoenix is gone, Deidra,” Patience said tiredly. “So that leaves us to find Perry and Link or face Lord and Lady Powning’s displeasure. I am weary of making all the decisions for the family. For once, why do you not offer some constructive advice?”
Something akin to hatred flashed in Deidra’s blue eyes as her thin lips quirked as if to deliver a scathing retort. Even though she and Patience had a tenuous alliance with regards to keeping the troupe together, their differing opinions of Phoenix would always prevent their being true friends.
“Forgive me for interrupting,” a masculine voice interjected from the threshold. “Perhaps I can be of service?”
Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Pierce. All rights reserved.