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Berkshire, EnglandSummer 1821
Ribald laughter and drunken babble spilled out into the night. The owner of the Spread Eagle Inn took cheerful part in the bonhomie as he shooed his last customers into the dark. He stood a moment, listening as they scattered, secure in the knowledge that they would be back tomorrow and that the satisfying weight of coins in his apron pocket would only grow heavier.
Inside his taproom, quiet settled over the abandoned tables and peace wrapped itself around the place in lieu of the dissipating curtain of smoke. Mateo Cardea alone had not stirred when the innkeeper called. Here the fire burned warm, the ale was good and the accommodating wench in his lap ran soft fingers through his hair. He should have been blissfully content.
He was not.
The lightskirt slid a finger around his ear. She leaned in close, her brassy blond hair tickling his jaw, her other hand trailing a whisper-soft caress against his nape. Mateo could feel the tough calluses on her fingertips. He closed his eyes and imagined the touch of them against his other, more sensitive areas.
Arousing as the image might be, Mateo still could not summon the enthusiasm needed to climb out of his chair. Ridiculous. A few paltry coins and the girl was his for the taking, yet the thought did not dredge up more than a faint stir of desire.
The yawning innkeeper ambled back into the taproom. He cast a glance at Mateo and crooked a finger at the girl. 'Get these chairs atop the tables, Etta, and I'll help you sweep up,' he said, not unkindly. The girl gave a soft groan of protest, but rose up and out of Mateo's lap. She trailed a finger over his shoulder and down the length of his arm as she went. Mateo recognised the gesture for the promise it was and briefly waited for an answering surge of interest.
It did not come. Inside him there was no room for such clean and simple things as peace and desire. 'Dio nel cielo,' he breathed. Oh, but he was tired of the unfamiliar burn of anger in his gut and the caustic flow of resentment in his veins. For weeks he'd been like this, since he'd first discovered his father's shocking betrayal.
All of it gone. Everything he'd spent his life working for, planning towards, gone with the reading of a few cold words. Years of biting his tongue, of endless explanations, of patiently coaxing his father to more modern business practices, and still the old man had not trusted him in the end. Mateo was in disgrace and, for the first time in a hundred years, control of Cardea Shipping had fallen outside the family. It was more than a man's pride could bear.
His indifference was more than the strumpet could bear. She had worked her way back over to his side of the room and into the dark corner behind him. Now she leaned against him, blocking the heat of the fire, but warming him none the less when she bent low to encircle him in her arms. Her impressive bosom pressed soft against his back.
'Are ye even here, tonight?' Etta asked, demanding the return of his attention. 'What are you thinkin' of, that's got your mind so far away?' She stiffened a little and drew back. 'Some other woman, p'raps?'
Mateo smiled. 'I am not so foolish, sweet.' With a sigh of regret he acknowledged the need to evade her interest and retire upstairs alone. Tomorrow held fair promise to be the worst day of his life and no amount of mindless distraction tonight would help ready him for it.
'What is it, then?' she demanded, circling round to the front of him again, her bottom lip forming a perfect pout. 'Something important, I hope,' she said low in his ear, 'to be distracting you from the bounties at hand.'
He disentangled himself and drew her around to his side. Taking the girl with him, Mateo crossed the small distance to the bar. Here the innkeeper tidied up, trimming the wicks on cheap tallow lamps and polishing the worn wooden counter with pride. Mateo took the furthest stool and gestured for the girl to perch next to him.
'No, tonight I have been lost indeedthinking of fathers, and of sons. Do you know,' he continued in a conversational tone, 'that my father once caused a city-wide riot over a wh' Etta straightened in her seat and he cleared his throat 'over a celebrated courtesan?' She relaxed. 'He never!'
Mateo smiled at her obvious interest. Even the innkeeper sidled closer to listen. 'Oh, but he did. It happened in Naples, long ago. La Incandescent Clarisse, she was called, the greatest beauty in Europe. Endless poems were written to the soft pink of her lips, to the sweet curve of her hips. Playwrights named their heroines for her, artists worshipped her as their muse. Men followed her carriage in the street. My father was only one of many caught firmly in her spell.'
'What happened?' The girl's face shone bright and she had briefly forgotten her practised seduction.
'The inevitable.' Mateo shrugged. 'La Incandescent got with child. All of Naples held their breath, fascinated to hear who she would name as the father.'
'Who was it?' she breathed. 'Not your da?'
'After a fashion. You see, Clarisse could only narrow down the field. The father of her child was either my father, or Thomas Varnsworth.'
'No!' The innkeeper gasped.
'Him what's the Earl of Winbury?' Etta asked, amazed.
'The old Earl, rather,' Mateo replied. The innkeeper could not contain his shock. 'But his daughter lives'
'Yes, I know,' Mateo interrupted. 'Shall I continue?' They both nodded.
'Upon hearing the news, Lord Thomasfor he was not the Earl yetand my father got into a terrible row.
They fought long and hard, nearly destroying La Incan-descent's apartments, and still they raged on, until the fight eventually spilled out into the streets. Spectators gathered. Someone spotted the tearful Clarisse and the rumour spread that La Incandescent had been harmed. The crowd grew furious, for Clarisse was a favourite of the people, and soon the two men found themselves fighting for their lives.'
'And all over a strumpet?' the innkeeper said in wonder.
'Hush, you,' the girl admonished. 'Let him finish.'
Mateo shifted. Too late he worried about raising the tavern wench's expectations, but that thought set off another surge of bitterness. It had been a woman's damned expectations that had ruined his life. Portia Varnsworth had once expected to marry him. Mateo's father had expected him to go along with the idea. Mateo might have expected somebody to consult him on the matter, but no one had bothered.
Etta, however, appeared to have taken the tale as a challenge. She raised a brow and tossed him a saucy grin. 'I'm summat well known, myself, in these parts,' she said.
'Oh, aye,' she purred. 'Would you like to know what I'm famous for?'
'He don't need to know now,' grumbled her employer, 'and not in front o' me. What ye do upstairs is yer own business. Down here, it's mine. Don't ye want him to finish his tale? And you've a taproom to straighten first, in any case.' He nodded for Mateo to continue.
'Ah, yes, well, my father and Lord Thomas were arrestedfor their own protection. They spent two days in a cell together and came out the best of friends.'
'And the lady? Clarisse?' Etta leaned closer.
'When they were released, she had gone. She left Naples and disappeared. No one ever knew where she went, although rumours abounded. My father and Lord Thomas made a vow to find her and searched for years.'
She stilled. 'Did they? Find her, that is?'
'No,' he said soberly. 'Not to my knowledge. But they never stopped looking, either, until their dying days.'
Her eyes shone in the dim light, bright with unshed tears. 'That's the most romantic thing I ever heard.' She sniffed.
The innkeeper snorted. 'Then I would say you were in sore need of a little romance.' He nodded towards Mateo. 'He might be the one to give it to ye, but first'
'Aye, I know, I know, the taproom,' Etta grumbled. The weight of her gleaming gaze felt nearly solid on Mateo's skin. 'I just mean to give him a taste of what comes after.' She slid down from her stool and reached for him.
Mateo saw the stars in her eyes. The girl's mind tumbled with fancies and dreams and he knew that he had perhaps not been so wise in his choice of tales. It is no bad thing to create a vision of things that might be, but of a certainty he would not be the one to bring her grand ideas to fruition.
He stilled as her arms went around him. He had no wish to damage her feelings. A woman had brought his world to a crashing halt, but he would not take his revenge on this, her artless sister. He sent a swift plea to the heavens for something, anything to distract the girl and extract him from the awkward situation of his own making.
The knob on the taproom door rattled. A floorboard creaked in the passage outside. Mateo jerked to attention along with the others as the door opened swiftly and his name echoed through the empty room. He stared, speechless, at the figure framed in the shadowy entrance and he knew that in the future he would be more careful in what he wished for.