Undone by Virginia Henley
A brilliant beam of sunlight reflecting on the water momentarily blinded him, then, in the blink of an eye, a radiant vision appeared before him. Is she real, or is she a wood sprite? he mused. After all, this is Ireland.
The girl was slim and delicate, with an ethereal quality about her. As he stared, a sunbeam touched her, forming a glorious halo about her head, and her shining hair, falling in ringlets below her waist, turned the color of pure-spun gold. She stood amidst the tall grasses of the riverbank while dragonflies and tiny insects with transparent wings flitted about her, rising like motes of dust from the myriad wildflowers. He had the distinct impression that if he moved or spoke, he would break the magic spell and she would vanish into thin air.
John Campbell, unable to help himself, couldn’t resist quoting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.”
The queen of fairies turned her head to gaze at him. “What, jealous Oberon?” She raised a dismissive hand to the dragonflies. “Fairies, skip hence.” She lifted a proud chin and glanced away from him with disdain. “I have forsworn his bed and company.”
The tall, dark young man took a step toward her and delivered Oberon’s line. “Tarry, rash wanton! Am not I thy lord?”
Titania smiled and sank into a curtsy. “Then I must be thy lady.”
He closed the distance between them in two strides and, laughing, took her hands and raised her. “What on earth is a beautiful English lady doing unattended in a meadow in the wilds of Ireland?”
He looked compellingly dark and dangerous, but her glance traveled over the fishing basket and the rod slung casually across his back. “I live here. I’ve come to the River Suck for salmon, just as you have, sir. Come, I’ll show you a good spot.”
He followed her as if mesmerized to a place where the willows hung low on the riverbank to dip their weeping branches into the water, then sat down beside her and cast his line. The enchanting creature was a mystery he could not fathom. Though barefoot and wearing a threadbare smock that shamelessly revealed her ankles, she spoke in a cultured English voice and was obviously well-read. “You have no trace of Irish dialect in your speech.”
Pretending a confidence she did not quite feel, she crossed her legs, cocked her head to one side and launched into a ditty:
“In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty,
I first set me eyes on sweet Molly Mallone;
Through streets broad an’ narrow, she wheeled her wheelbarrow,
Cryin’ cockles an’ muscles, alive, alive-o!”
Her Irish brogue was rich and authentic; her singing sweet and melodious. Her accent changed from Irish to Scots in a heartbeat as she decided to trust him. “I detect a wee burr in yer own speech, laddie. I’d guess ye’ve spent time in Scotland.”
It was an understatement. He’d spent time in Scotland all right. When the Jacobite rebellion broke out to overthrow the king, his father was appointed to command all the troops and garrisons in the west of Scotland. He’d fought alongside his father and the king’s son, the Duke of Cumberland, at Inveraray, then at Perth, and finally at the horrific Battle of Culloden where the uprising had been crushed once and for all.
John banished thoughts of war and smiled at her. “My mother is Scottish.”
She proceeded to tell him a joke about two Scotsmen concerning what they wore beneath their kilts. The subject matter was quite risqué, and John was almost overwhelmed by a powerful desire to take the delectable morsel in his arms and devour her whole.
She smiled at him; her golden lashes swept to her cheeks then lifted, and he received the full impact of violet eyes. “I’ve been trained for the stage.” When she immersed herself in a role, acting out a part, she was able to hide her acute shyness. “I’m going to be an actress!” she said importantly.
John Campbell’s breath came out in a rush of relief. Here was no lady, St. Patrick be praised, but an actress, which made her fair game for seduction. “How old are you?”
“I’m sixteen, almost seventeenquite old enough,” she assured him. “How old are you, sir?”
The corners of his mouth lifted in amusement at the inappropriate question, asked so matter-of-factly. “I’m eight-and-twenty and have all my teeth.”
“Do you have a name, sir?” The fine English lady was back.
“My name is John.” He did not offer his family name. “As you guessed, I am in Ireland to fish...and hunt.” He stressed the last word, glancing at her breasts, then his gaze returned to her lips.
“How do you do, John? My name is Beth. These parts are renowned for fine game birds. We have snipe, quail, pheasant, goldcrests, and even partridge, though I’ve never tasted it.”
“Really? It just so happens I have a plump roast partridge and a bottle of wine in my basket. Why don’t you share them with me?”
“I’m not the least bit hungry, but since it would be impolite to refuse your hospitality, it would be my pleasure to taste the partridge, sir, though not the wine.”
“Why not the wine?” he asked, amused.
“’Tis rumored that it steals the senses. Would you like me to hold your rod, John?”
For a moment her words dizzied him, then he realized that she had stolen his sensesshe was innocently offering to hold his fishing rod while he got the food. He handed it to her then opened the basket and extracted a large linen napkin that held the roasted fowl. He unwrapped it and broke the bird into pieces.
“Take it quickly.” She handed the rod back. “I believe you have a salmon on your line at this very moment.”
He reeled it in and with a swift motion dipped his net into the water and flipped the fish onto the riverbank. With any luck, I’ll lure another to take my bait. His dark brown eyes studied the lovely golden female at his side. “Tell me, Beth, how do you intend to catch a salmon without a rod?”
She picked up a leg of partridge with the thigh attached and bit down with relish. “A man needs fancy paraphernalia. A maid must manage without!”
John’s dark eyes widened. Had this enchantress made a racy observation regarding their anatomy to provoke his male lust? He watched her select a breast with its wing intact and saw her lick her lips in anticipation. She had denied that she was hungry, yet she was making short work of the partridge. When she set down the bones and licked her fingers, he felt his cock stir. He moved the napkin closer to her, and when he saw her look at the remaining pieces with longing, suddenly wished she’d look at him that way.
“You’re not hungry, John?”
He shook his head in denial. He was hungry, all right, but not for food. All he wanted at this moment was to watch her eat. With a feminine, feline grace, she quickly bit into the fowl with sharp, white teeth, closed her eyes with untold pleasure when she swallowed a morsel, then licked her fingers to savor the taste. He wondered if she would relish everything in life with such lusty enjoyment, and his imagination took erotic flight.
She devoured the last of the partridge and wiped her hands on the linen. Then she stretched out beside him, prone in the grass, and gazed down into the water’s depth. A shadow beneath the surface inched forward. She waited patiently until it edged closer, but the moment she slid her hand into the water, the salmon darted away. “We’ve been making too much noise,” she whispered, placing a finger against red lips that looked berry-stained.
John reclined beside her so that their bodies almost touched. I’ll let you hold my rod, sweetheart. He didn’t say it aloud, though it was what his body craved. He watched her lovely heart-shaped face as she focused fully on her task. Her skin was like translucent porcelain, and this close he could see the tiny blue veins of her eyelids. As her glance followed the shadow of the fish beneath the water, the tip of her pink tongue licked her full lower lip, and he was lost.
He hardened instantly and reached for her. His arms swept about her, holding her captive against his hardness, while his lips took possession of her tantalizing mouth. He drank in her loveliness thirstily, knowing he’d never tasted anything as sweet.
Shocked beyond belief, Beth bit down on his lip and sprang to her feet. He stood too, towering above her, wanting to gentle her to a giving mood. “How dare you try to ravish me, sir?” Her breasts heaved with indignation as she drew back her arm, reached up on her tiptoes, and slapped him full across the face. She turned on her heel and began to run.
Suddenly she stopped, turned around, and strode back to him, violet eyes blazing. She swept him with an accusing glance then bent and snatched up the fish he’d caught. “My salmon, sir!”
On the journey home her thoughts were filled with the devastatingly handsome devil she’d encountered by the river. He was tall, with a dark smouldering quality about him that should have warned her he was dangerousbut, truth to tell, she hadn’t experienced fear until she’d felt the strength of his well-muscled body when he’d held her against him. Still, she mused, the fear of him was minuscule when pitted against the fear she felt of returning home without a salmon for dinner. It would take far more courage than she possessed to face her mother empty-handed.
Bridget Gunning was an extremely attractive woman, whose red hair only hinted at her sharp tongue and flaming temper. She was the undisputed authority figure in their household, whom none would dream of disobeying, least of all her husband. Beth’s mother never let them forget that she had sacrificed her promising career as an actress on the London stage to marry John Gunning and give him two beautiful daughters. She called her husband feckless, which Beth acknowledged was true enough, but she loved her handsome father, known as Jack to his friends, for his easygoing ways and ready smile.
Jack Gunning’s family were well-to-do landowners in St. Ives, Cambridgeshire, but since he was the youngest son and could hope for neither wealth nor title, he had become an adventurer and a gambler. When he wed an actress, his reputation as the black sheep of the family was sealed, and the arrival of two daughters in rapid succession put an end to Bridget’s promising career on the stage. He took them to St. Ives to live off his family’s charity, where they were barely tolerated, while he haunted London’s gaming clubs.
Then, by a stroke of fortune, or so it had seemed at the time, her father had won Castlecoote in a card game at White’s. The couple instantly packed up their daughters and moved to their castle in Ireland. Castlecoote, it turned out, was no castle at all but a rambling old hall in need of repair. It stood, however, on a lovely piece of rolling farmland in County Roscommon, so they made the best of their disappointing situation and stayed. Though they were surrounded by prosperous sheep and cattle farms, Jack Gunning was no farmer and eked out a living by tending a few goats and selling the animals’ milk and cheese.
The Gunning daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, were exceptionally beautiful girls, and their mother, focusing her own aspirations on them, decided to train them for the stage, where they would undoubtedly make their fortune once they were old enough. To this end they were taught to sing and dance and were made to practice a scene from a play every night of their lives. Though their mother was a strict taskmaster, Beth knew she was more lenient with Maria who was elder by two years. Because of her exquisite looks, she was her favorite. Beth felt no resentment. It was right and proper that Maria’s beauty made her special.
“Elizabeth Gunning, where the devil have you been?” her mother demanded sharply the moment Beth stepped into the kitchen.
Tongue-tied as always in the face of her mother’s wrath, she held up the salmon for explanation.
“Is this to be another dumb show, where you practice your mime? Don’t think the salmon excuses you from bringing the water from St. Brigid’s well. Maria had to wash her face in ordinary well water today because you forgot.”
“Don’t fuss, Bridget. Water is water.” Jack winked at his daughter as he took the salmon.
“Water is not water, Jack Gunning! Your daughters owe their flawless complexions to the water from Holywell House.”
“Beth can run there and fetch a jug, while I fillet the fish.”
“Do not call her Beth. Her name is Elizabeth. I picked beautiful names for our daughters, names that will benefit them when they are on the stage.”
Beth almost made a grab for the jug, but her mother’s critical eye stopped her. Instead, she lifted it gracefully from the stone sink and sank into a curtsy. “I shall be pleased to go for the water now, ma’am.” She would do anything to please her mother.
“Much better, Elizabeth. Never forget that plainer girls must try harder to please.”
“Why didn’t you tell her about the letter?” Jack asked when Elizabeth left the house.
“And spoil the surprise for Maria? I shall tell them tonight after they’ve practiced their parts.”
Elizabeth encountered Maria as her sister came out of Holywell House. The two girls fell into step and they walked toward St. Brigid’s well. “I’m sorry, Beth. I told Mother it was your turn to fetch the water today. Will you forgive me?”
“Of course. I met a man todayhe was fishing by the river.”
“Was he a gentleman?” Maria asked avidly.
“Well, he wasn’t Irish, if that’s what you mean.”
Maria laughed at her sister’s droll remark. “I mean, was he rich and well-spoken?”
“Yes, English gentry I expect, here for hunting and fishing.”
“Oo-la-la, most likely staying at the royal hunting lodge at Ballyclare. Was he handsome?”
“Handsome in the extreme,” Beth said with an involuntary sigh.
“Did he try to kiss you?” Maria asked knowingly.
“How on earth did you guess?”
“Oh, Beth, you’re so innocent! How could any man resist you?”
“Well, I resisted him, I can tell you!”
“Little goose. You shouldn’t have resisted. If he fancied you, perhaps he’d take you to England with him. How else will you get out of this godforsaken country? Tomorrow, I’ll come with you and try my own luck.”
Beth pulled on the rope then tipped water from the wooden bucket into her jug. For all her beauty, Maria had no reticence and said whatever thought came into her head, whether it was appropriate or not. “You’d truly let a man kiss you, Maria?”
“I’d let him do anything that pleased his fancy, if he’d take me to London, Beth. Only if he was rich, of course.”
During the course of the afternoon as John Campbell caught half a dozen salmon, his thoughts were filled with the image of the enchanting wood sprite he’d encountered. She was easily the most beautiful female he’d ever seen, but that wasn’t the only thing about her that was so arresting. She was direct, without subterfuge, and he found it enchanting. She was also natural and free-spirited, speaking her thoughts without coquetry or calculation, and she was completely unaffected as if she had no notion of her exquisite loveliness.
When he arrived back at the lodge, he saw that his companions, who had been hunting, were there before him. He left his catch with Ballyclare’s chef then joined the other men.
His younger brother, Henry, raised his glass of Irish whiskey in a salute. “You missed out on a damned good hunt, old man. I bagged a red deer.”
“How was the fishing?” enquired his friend William Cavendish.
“Fresh salmon for dinner,” John announced with a grin. “I don’t think I missed anything.” He pictured Beth in his mind. “Enjoyed myself so much I believe I’ll try my luck again tomorrow.”
“Speaking of dinner,” said Michael Boyle, waggling bushy red eyebrows, “we all need to bathe before we dine, and since the lodge has such amenable maidsthanks to our host, Will Cavendishwhat are we waiting for? Let the water games begin.”
All the young men present were lords in their own right. Michael Boyle was the nephew of the wealthy Earl of Burlington, Will Cavendish was heir to the Dukedom of Devonshire, and John Campbell was heir to the great Dukedom of Argyll, no less.
“You have my father to thank for the amenable maids. What’s a hunting lodge without sport? Still, the randy old devil is finally past it. His only indulgence these days is drink.” Will’s father was the regal Viceroy of Ireland, appointed to this lucrative post by Robert Walpole, late Prime Minister of England. “He has become such a hard drinker,” Will jested, “’tis rumored he killed two aides-de-camp this year who tried to keep up with him.”
John Campbell laughed. “What a wasteI’d rather die on the upstroke any day.”
“By the number of women who throw themselves at you, brother, I’ve no doubt you’ll get your wish.” Henry tossed off his whiskey and set down the glass. “Well, I’m off for some splash and tickle. How about the rest of you?”
All the males, save one, drained their glasses and eagerly headed toward the staircase. “Coming, John?” his brother asked.
“You go ahead.” John poured himself a glass of claret. “If I came up to the bathing room, what chance would you have?” The chorus of rude raspberry noises his friends threw at him didn’t perturb him. Truth to tell, his afternoon encounter with the ethereal golden goddess had quite spoiled his appetite for coarse Irish bawds with fleshy titties.
At Castlecoote, after an early supper, the goddess pulled on a pair of britches and one of her father’s tie-wigs. Jack brought two smallswords from the cupboard while Bridget opened the costume box and handed Maria a paper fan. Tonight’s play was The Rakehell, and they were enacting a scene where two rivals fight a duel over a ravishingly beautiful, but innocent, damsel.
“Why can’t I take the male lead? I long to fight with a rapier. Elizabeth has all the fun!” Maria threw down her paper fan.
“Absolutely not, Maria. I forbid it. We dare not take the chance of the guard coming off the sword. If the point of the rapier touched your face, it would mar your beauty forever!”
“Ah, it’s because my beauty is greater than Elizabeth’s.”
Beth and her father exchanged an amused look. Apparently, the danger to her younger daughter’s face did not constitute a calamity. Jack said, “No, it’s because Elizabeth is an excellent swordsman. I’ve taught her everything I know, and I was trained by a fencing Maestro at Cambridge.”
Her mother cajoled, “Maria, you play the beautiful, innocent heroine to perfection. All who see you will fall instantly in love. Some day, you will be the toast of London.”
Maria picked up the fan and delivered her lines. It took no acting ability to be beautiful; she simply had to be herself.
Jack played the villain who had lured the titled young beauty to a secret rendezvous with the vile intention of seducing her. Elizabeth played the noble hero who uncovered the plot, challenged the rakehell to a duel, and saved the damsel from ruin. The moment the rivals crossed swords, her father’s superior strength and experience were obvious, but what Elizabeth lacked in height and reach, she made up for with speed and agility. She handled the rapier with great flair, relishing the risk of the thrust and parry with flamboyant, practiced moves designed to make an audience gasp.
At first she was careful to make it look like the villain was winning, allowing him to take the offensive as he backed her across the stage and gaining the sympathy of the audience by playing the underdog. Then, the moment they thought all was lost, she ceased to be on the defensive. With obvious enjoyment, she began to lunge and extend, beating back her opponent with daring strokes and reckless courage, skillfully holding the audience in the palm of her sword hand. The coup de grâce came when she deliberately caught the button on the tip of her opponent’s sword in the intricate basket design of her rapier’s hand guard and with a swift twist of the wrist sent it sailing across the stage. Then, holding her weapon close, so the edge of the blade touched her nose, she took her bow.
“Bravo! Well done! Now your mother has a surprise for you.”
Both girls turned to Bridget Gunning with expectant faces.
“I’ve had a letter.” She looked like the cat who’d swallowed the cream as she withdrew the envelope from her bosom.
“From Peg?” Maria asked with a squeal of delight, while Beth drew in a ragged breath of hopeful anticipation.
“Yes, from my dear friend, Peg Woffington!” Bridget confirmed.
It was a name that conjured magic in the Gunning household. Peg, now the reigning star and leading actress of Drury Lane Theater in London, had begun her stage career with Bridget when they had taken any bit parts that fell their way. Then, as fate would have it, Bridget found herself pregnant, just as Peg snared a role in The Beggar’s Opera. The play proved such a favorite that it was performed at Smock Alley Theater in Dublin. Peg stayed on at the theater to do her apprenticeship and became an accomplished actress. She moved to London, acted with the great David Garrick, and the rest was history. When she became Garrick’s mistress, he bought Drury Lane Theater and made her its star.
Bridget unfolded the crackling pages of the letter with more reverence than she would accord the Magna Carta. She did not read verbatim but rather paraphrased what was written on the precious parchment. “Peg is in Dublin! She has returned in triumph to play the Smock Alley Theater and insists that we go to see her.”
Both girls gasped with delight.
“I wrote to her about you and told her of Maria’s exceptional beauty. Peg wants to take a look at you both and promises to see if she can get you parts at Smock Alley!”
The Gunning sisters shared a bedchamber, and that night in bed, the girls whispered long into the night about going to Dublin and finally getting a chance to act on a real stage. Elizabeth’s dreams were often filled with the roles she hoped to play and, without fail, she was always adorned in a lovely costume, but tonight when her dreams began, they had nothing to do with the theater. Instead, she dreamed about food.
Spread out before her was an array of delectable dishes that made her mouth water. There were platters of roast fowl, braised lamb, and baked salmon. Meat pies with flaky crusts sat next to dishes of Yorkshire pudding, egg custards, and warm crusty bread. The desserts took her breath away. Fancy cakes and pastries vied with piles of russet apples and bowls of strawberries and cream. The trouble was the food belonged to John, the dark and dangerous man she had met by the river.
He gestured toward the dishes. “Why don’t you share them with me?” he invited.
She looked longingly at the food then glanced with hesitation at the dark, attractive male, wondering if she could trust him. Finally, her hunger and the temptation were too great. “It would be my pleasure.” And indeed it was. He insisted on feeding her with his own fingers, and she relished every morsel as if it were ambrosia from the gods. As he fed her, Elizabeth’s fear of him vanished and she began to enjoy his company as much as his food. She licked her lips, then, with great daring, licked his fingers.