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Middlesex, EnglandMarch 1807
Lady Fayre Eloisa Carlisle was ruined.
The notion did not exactly strike terror in Fayre's besotted heart. Not while her body still thrummed from the lingering aftereffects of arduous lovemaking she had experienced in the arms of her lover an hour earlier. If someone had told her three months ago that she was destined to meet a gentleman who would seduce her away from her world of protocol and decorum, she would have boldly called that person a liar.
With her eyes still closed, she expelled a soft sigh of contentment, thinking of the man who slept beside her. Fayre had never experienced such a visceral reaction to a man. Lord Thatcher Standish was simply extraordinary. At five and twenty, he represented both beauty and good breeding. A veritable tower of masculinity when compared to her smaller stature, Lord Standish, with his straight, dark blond locks, soulful brown eyes, and subtle wit, had caused quite a curious buzz with the unmarried ladies of the ton. He was the Marquess of Pennefeather's second son, but this had not diminished his popularity with the royal court. His circle of roguish friends and amusements was vastly different from Fayre's staid sphere. It was not surprising they had not encountered each other last season. Our chance meeting at Brighton three months ago has sealed your fate, my lord, Fayre thought with a trace of smugness. It was later that Lord Standish had confessed that he had fallen in love with her from afar as he had observed her chatting with one of the Prince of Wales's cousins. Too familiar with ambitious suitors, Fayre had initially dismissed his favorable opinion as false flattery.
However, Lord Standish had been determined to prove himself honorable in her eyes. An evening had not passed when she could not pick his handsome face out of the crowd, those soulful eyes focused wholly on her. To her delight, he composed poetry praising her beauty, the warmth of her smile. One night before she retired, he had surprised her by appearing outside her window and serenading her with touching songs of unrequited love.
He sent her gifts. Hothouse flowers had arrived by the basket each afternoon and also small tokens of affection such as handkerchiefs with her initials stitched on them and perfume that reminded Fayre of a meadow covered in wild flowers. No gentleman had ever pursued her with such earnest and romantic fervor.
Fayre had been charmed by his devotion.
Smiling at her memories, Fayre rolled onto her back and her hand reached for the man who occupied her pleasant thoughts. Her eyes snapped open when her hand connected with the cool surface of a pillow. Bewildered, she sat up and searched the room.
She was alone. Where had he gone?
Lord Standish had boldly expressed a desire to sleep in her arms throughout the night. Everything had been arranged in advance. They had both accepted Lord and Lady Mewe's invitation to join the festivities at their country house specifically for their tryst. The party at Mewe Manor had been vastly appealing, because Fayre knew her family had chosen not to attend. This was a matter of discretion, rather than fear of what her father, the Duke of Solitea, might do to Lord Standish if he had learned she had taken him as her lover. If one considered the countless affairs both he and her mother engaged in, they might, in fact, heartily approve that she had finally begun acting like a true Carlisle.
Where had he gone?
Fayre pondered the question while she quickly dressed. Lord Standish had been so pleased they had managed this time together. They still had hours before the servants would begin their early morning tasks. Considering the risks they had taken, she could not imagine why he had not remained to enjoy the benefits.
The predawn air was frigid so Fayre picked up her shawl and wrapped it around her shoulders. She did not take a candle, trusting she could make the quick trip down the hall to Lord Standish's bedchamber without breaking her toe on a stick of furniture. Fayre was dressed only in her nightclothes; however, she had no intention of encountering anyone but her lover. The very least she could do, if he was determined to keep her honor intact by leaving early, was to tuck him into his bed and kiss him sweetly on the lips. If he wanted more, Fayre thought wickedly, she was willing to grant it.
Slowly opening her door, she winced at the mournful groan the hinges made. She froze, hoping the sound had not alerted anyone. Perhaps she should make a casual remark to the viscountess at breakfast that her staff had been neglectful of their duties. No one could possibly conduct a discreet affair with a house filled with squeaky doors. Fayre held her breath and listened. The task was almost impossible with her heart pounding and her jangling nerves. Perhaps she did not possess the Carlisle spirit after all.
The notion brought her up short. Just because she appreciated rules and had actually paid attention to the lessons she was taught, unlike her brother Tem, it did not mean she lacked spirit! Fayre was eighteen and enlightened in the ways of the jaded ton. She could walk down a dark passageway to her lover's bedchamber without inducing a fit of vapors.
Drawing in a determined breath, she jerked the door open. Surprisingly, the action made little sound. Encouraged, she walked through the door. Using the wall as her guide, Fayre headed for Lord Standish's chamber. She mentally counted off the doors as she shuffled past them. The situation would turn rather awkward if she knocked on the wrong door. She was sweating despite the cold air, but she viewed the entire affair as an exciting adventure.
Or she had, until she heard the sound of someone fumbling with a doorknob. Eyes wide, Fayre almost knocked over a table in her haste to press herself closer to the wall. She managed to keep the table upright, but her right knee collided with one of the table legs. Muttering an oath and clutching the injured knee, she gaped in horror as the door opened and a sliver of candlelight illuminated a section of the passageway. Fayre hobbled behind the long, narrow rectangular table and crouched down. She prayed it would conceal her. To her dismay, even in the darkness her nightgown seemed to glow. She cursed herself for wearing a white gown. What had she been thinking? There was nothing stealthy about the color white! Her mind raced with possible explanations of why she was walking in the middle of the night half dressed and without the benefit of a candle. Sleepwalking. The word surfaced from the chaos in her head. Yes, she was walking in her sleep, she reasoned frantically as she watched the shadow on the floor shift and expand. It made perfect sense. She only wished it were true.
Her breath caught in her throat as a man stepped through the doorway. Good grief, it was Lord Standish. The relief she experienced was a watershed. What providence that it was the man she sought! Fayre started to rise from her crouched position, pleased that he was returning to her bedchamber. She opened her mouth to call out to him, but hesitated. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but his expression seemed menacing as he glanced down the hall. Fayre held her breath and crouched lower.
Lord Standish peered at the darkness cloaking her, and sniffed the air like an animal. He then raised his left arm and sniffed. Had he left her to bathe? Feeling a rising sense of alarm, Fayre wondered if she was the one who was odorous? She tugged on the bodice of her nightgown and tentatively sniffed. There was nothing offensive about the garment. Relieved, she smoothed the fabric back in place. From his furtive glances at the dark passageway, Fayre assumed the candle was blinding him from seeing beyond the small circle of dim light it created. Once he was satisfied with his scent and the passageway, Lord Standish gave one final glance in her direction before heading off in the opposite direction.
Fayre's eyes narrowed at this unexpected development. Using the surface of the table for support, she stiffly stood up. If he was not returning to her bedchamber, where the devil was he going at this hour, or more importantly, to whom?
The Carlisle clan had been called many things. However, no one had ever accused them of being cowardly. Fayre was no exception. She waited until enough distance would muffle her footsteps, and then she followed her lover. The candle Lord Standish carried benefited her twofold. Not only did it allow her to keep track of the errant Lord Standish at a discreet distance, his light also revealed hidden obstacles, making her progress less treacherous.
Fayre followed him down two floors and through a part of the large house she had not visited in the light of day. Or had she? This house was so confusing in the dark. They both jumped, visibly startled by the roaring laughter that abruptly boomed from behind one of the closed doors to what Fayre assumed was the music room. It appeared not everyone had sought their beds for the night. Lord Standish seemed equally perplexed by this discovery. He stared at the door, listening to the conversation within for a few minutes before continuing through a side door.
The next corridor was so narrow Fayre assumed it was used by the servants and not the family. It was also messy. She barely avoided tripping over several canvas-covered chairs that had been stacked on top of each other. She could not fathom where Lord Standish was going. He seemed to know his way and now only rarely checked behind him to see if anyone was observing him. At times, she thought she could hear him whistling faintly.
The narrow passage opened to a long gallery. Fayre slipped behind one of the huge marble pillars that lined the gallery, accenting the full-length portraits of Lord Mewe's ancestors. Lord Standish sauntered down the long gallery without gazing at the pictures and turned left. At Arianrod, the Duke of Solitea's country estate, their gallery had no exit at the end. It was possible the viscount's gallery was designed in the same manner. Cautiously, Fayre moved silently from pillar to pillar, hoping she would not come face-to-face with Lord Standish should he circle around without her knowledge.
Fayre noticed the light that had been her wavering beacon had stilled. Lord Standish had reached his destination. As she moved closer, she heard the soft murmur of voices. Fayre ignored the sickening dread bubbling in her stomach and peered around the left corner. It took merely a glimpse to confirm her suspicions. Biting her lower lip, she retreated slowly until she was hidden behind one of the pillars framing the entrance to the small alcove. Fayre doubted that Lord Standish had seen her. He was too busy devouring the woman he had pushed against the wall.
"There is time for this later, Thatcher. What of the girl?" the woman asked when Lord Standish moved to her neck.
"I left her blissfully snoring in her bed."
Forgetting herself for just one second, Fayre's lips parted as if to challenge the fiend's outrageous lie. By God, I do not snore! She clapped her hand over her mouth, finding it ludicrous that she was fretting over a tiny insult when the duplicitous fraud was breaking her heart.
The woman pushed him away. "The deed is done?"
Frustrated by her resistance, Lord Standish expelled a harsh breath. He braced his hand against the wall above the woman's right shoulder. "Yes. Lady Fayre Carlisle surrendered her virginity with the carelessness of a Covent Garden whore." He grabbed her breast with his other hand and squeezed. "I did my part, Othilia. Now I want my reward."
Part? Reward? Fayre had forgotten that she had her hand clamped over her mouth until she felt the warm splash of tears on her hand. Carefully, she lowered her hand. Her fingers curled and unfurled at her side, betraying her agitation. She risked another peek.
"Seducing the little paragon of virtue is only the first act of our little drama." The woman panted, and tilted her head back so he could feast on her succulent mouth. She evaded his next foray and wickedly smiled. "Oh, how I wish I could have arranged for Solitea to come upon you just as you deflowered his precious daughter. His devastation might have kept me smiling for years."
The man Fayre had believed she had fallen in love with snorted with laughter. "Though not very practical, my love, when the duke gelds me." He ground his pelvis against her. "I know you would miss my rod almost as much as I." The woman pulled his face to her breasts, while his hand curled possessively over her rounded hip.
Fayre pressed her cheek against the chilled marble and silently wept. Her slender frame shook with repressed grief. She was so distracted by Lord Standish's betrayal, it had taken her several minutes before she recalled the woman's name. Othilia, he had called her. She only knew of one lady who bore the first name Othilia, and that was Lady Hipgrave.
She was also her father's mistress.
Or had been. Fayre rubbed her brow, feeling the stirrings of a headache. She would be the first to admit that she had stopped paying attention to her sire's current companions years ago.
"Not here," the countess huskily murmured, though she was hardly discouraging him. "We might be discovered."
"That did not stop us from enjoying Mewe's conservatory last evening." He had been steadily working his hand down to the hem of her skirt. A good portion of her leg was exposed.
"We have plans to make, Thatcher," Lady Hipgrave explained, widening her legs slightly to accommodate his exploring hand. "Despoiling the little virgin was just the prelude. Now the ton must learn what naughty games the Carlisle chit has been playing in your bed."
Standish stopped nibbling on the woman's shoulder. Lifting his head, he said, "Is that necessary? As it stands, her brother will be issuing challenges every time I step out of my house."
Fayre ground her teeth at the countess's trill of laughter. Wiping her eyes with her fingers, she hugged the marble pillar and listened.
"Not likely. Lord Temmes is almost as depraved as his father with regard to his liaisons. It would be rather hypocritical of him to accuse a gentleman of debauchery when he has seduced his fair share of innocents."
Lord Standish shook his head, unconvinced. "Not when that innocent is his sister," he countered.
"Darling, there is no such creature as an innocent Carlisle," Lady Hipgrave purred. "Lady Fayre's downfall was sadly inevitable. I should know. His Grace has shared my bed off and on for eight years."
The countess had only been twenty when Fayre's father had seduced her. Even if Lady Hipgrave had been a virgin when she climbed into the duke's bed, no one could ever convince Fayre that she had not been there willingly. Fayre knew enough about the young countess to form an unflattering opinion of her character. There had been rumors when she was younger that she had been the Prince of Wales's mistress first. How she had gained the duke's attentions was a favorite tale of the gossips. Fayre had heard several versions. One version ended with the prince growing bored with her and discarding her for another. The countess, in retaliation, had set her sights on the duke as a means of slighting the heir to the throne. Another version was more dramatic. It pitted both gentlemen against each other for the lady's affections. If one believed the gossip, there had been a very public argument, the details of which varied with each storyteller. In the end, she had chosen the duke over the Prince of Wales.
Even eight years ago, at the tender age of ten and tucked away with her governess at Arianrod, Fayre had heard the servants talk about her father and his beautiful mistress. The lady's machinations had even roused her mother's ire, Fayre recalled, and she knew of no other woman who was more tolerant of her husband's infidelities.
For generations the Carlisle males had been notorious for two things: their illicit love affairs and their equally dramatic deaths. With the exception of her father, Fayre could not think of one male ancestor who had inherited the title who had not died before his fortieth birthday. As a child, she had worried about what the servants had referred to as the Solitea curse. Nevertheless, her father had lived past his fortieth birthday and beyond. Considering his choice in mistresses, Fayre decided this feat was nothing short of a miracle.
The sound of Lord Standish's voice brought Fayre back to the present.
"I regret telling you about Jinny and Solitea. You think of nothing else these days," he complained.
"Even if you had not told me that the duke had invited that bitch to his bed, someone else would have been pleased to share the good news with me." Lady Hipgrave stroked his face in a soothing gesture.
There was a wealth of bitterness in the countess's voice. Fayre might have sympathized if the lady had not maliciously sent one of her lovers to Fayre as an emissary of revenge for her father's misdeeds. Fayre wrapped her arms around herself in a comforting gesture. Everything Lord Standish had said to her was a lie. Their courtship had never been about love. He had never felt anything for her. Fayre faced the truth unflinchingly, letting the pain wash through her. She needed to be using her head, not mourning the loss of an illusion.
Fayre suspected she knew this Jinny of whom Lord Standish spoke, though she knew the woman as Lady Talemon. Four years younger than Lady Hipgrave, the ambitious young lady had married her earl when she was sixteen. She had buried him when she was nineteen. The widow had grieved for her husband and then gone on to make the most of her title and money. She moved within the high echelon of the ton, spending her time dallying with the royal princes and their friends. Her beauty and liaisons had garnered her many enemies, including Lady Hipgrave.
It must have galled the countess when the Duke of Solitea had chosen a younger, prettier rival as his latest companion. A predator in the truest sense, the countess had attacked who she had perceived was the weakest Carlisle. Fayre wiped away the tears she could not will away. Oh, she could not fault Lady Hipgrave for viewing her as a means to hurt the duke. However, the lady had underestimated her prey. Fayre was far from helpless and she was liable to strike back if provoked.
There was no doubt she had stepped beyond feeling provoked. She felt murderous. Unlike her family, she had never permitted herself to be caught up in the illusion of love. It was that fact alone that had made Lord Standish unique. The feelings she had felt for him now shamed her. She could not decide who she despised more, the two people who were trying to ruin her, or herself for allowing them to do so.
"It must be public," Lady Hipgrave murmured.
Lord Standish swore aloud. "My God, woman, you are fondling my balls in front of Mewe's ugly ancestors. How public must it be before you let me have you?"
"Not us," the countess protested with a laugh. "The Carlisle chit. When you cast her aside, I want you to do it in front of witnesses. I suppose the young fool fancies herself in love with you?"
"Completely." His firm assurance was a knife in Fayre's heart. He shoved the countess's skirt higher. "There are few women who can resist my, ah, charms."
There was an unspoken challenge in the countess's eyes. "Except me."
"Oh, I think I have something here that will persuade you, sweet Othilia." Lord Standish had his back to Fayre, but there was little doubt of his intentions.
Lady Hipgrave squirmed in his arms in an effort to hold him off. "In public, Thatcher."
"Yes, in public. I promise. Now let me have you," he entreated.
"I want her devastated. She will be both mocked and pitied by the ton for her fall from grace. I will settle for nothing less."
"Lady Fayre's tears will taste of wormwood," he vowed, kissing her harshly on the mouth. "She will embrace sorrow as a lover, and take no other man to her bed for the rest of her life."
"Is there no limit to your arrogance?" the countess marveled with approval twinkling in her eyes.
"Absolutely none. Permit me to demonstrate." Lord Standish shoved the countess against the wall. She made a startled sound, which turned into a moan as he thrust into her.
Fayre watched the rutting couple dispassionately. The coldness of the night seeped into her bones. She told herself to slip away quietly while they were preoccupied. Confronting the pair served no purpose, and in her present state, she was likely to do or say something she might later regret.
It was a sensible notion. Unfortunately, she was not feeling particularly sensible at the moment.
Fayre used the marble pillar for support as she walked out into the open. "You make the most unusual sounds when you are in the throes of passion, my lord. It reminds me of a boar rooting for scraps of garbage in the filthy muck. Do you not agree, Lady Hipgrave?"
"Damn me!" Lord Standish exclaimed, glancing at Fayre in genuine disbelief. He was completely undone by her sudden appearance. "W-what the hell are you doing?" He jerked himself out of the countess and tried to stuff his turgid member back into his breeches.
"I beg your pardon for interrupting. My ears are weary from listening to the pair of you drone on and on." Fayre admired the blasé inflection she managed, while she felt raw and bleeding inside. There was simply nothing she could do about either her tear-ravaged face, or the tremor in her hands. "Regardless, I have been rude for interrupting. Please carry on, my lord. I know from personal experience your ardor is regrettably brief."
Lady Hipgrave pulled her bodice up, covering her exposed breasts. "I have noticed this lamentable problem as well, Lady Fayre," she said, shaking out her wrinkled skirt so that it covered her legs. The countess ignored her lover's protest. "Still, a beautiful man like Thatcher has other uses."
"Like sending him to seduce an innocent woman who has done nothing to you."
The older woman did not even bother to feign ignorance. "You should be grateful I chose our Lord Standish to be your first lover. There are others who match his beauty, but are not . . . shall we say, as gentle."
Fayre glared at Lord Standish, wishing she could not recall that he had been indeed a tender lover. But he had claimed her innocence and it had been nothing more than a task for him, like writing a letter or currying his favorite stallion. "There is a name for gentlemen like you."
Once he had buttoned the falls on his breeches, Lord Standish turned to face her. His dark-blond hair was in damp disarray and there was a slight coloring on his cheek. Fayre suspected it had more to do with her interrupting his labors than shame.
"And what is it, my lady? Disreputable rake? Liar?" he defiantly taunted.
She stepped closer into the light and searched his face. Fayre wanted desperately to see some tiny sign that he regretted the part he had played in hurting her. She shook her head, saddened that all she saw was outraged arrogance. "No, my lord. Lady Hipgrave's trull."
The pinkish hue on his cheeks darkened at her insult. The corner of his mouth twitched. "You are the one who behaved no better than a doxy, Lady Fayre. Though considering who your mother is, I expected no less. Or should I say, I expected more."
The composure she had managed snapped its tenuous tether. Blinded by fury, she struck him across the face. The impact had him staggering into Lady Hipgrave. "Leave my family out of this!"
The countess shoved Lord Standish away. "Oh, I fear I cannot comply, my dear girl. It will spoil my fun."
Fayre's hands curled into fists. The voluptuous Lady Hipgrave was six inches taller and outweighed her by several stone. Her disadvantage was not going to stop her from bloodying the woman's pouting lower lip. Fayre took a menacing step toward the countess.
From behind someone seized her roughly by the shoulder. She whirled and snarled at the offending hand.
"Ho, what do we have here?" her host, Lord Mewe, demanded in a cheerfully slurring voice. He was not alone. The five gentlemen and three women standing behind him gaped in undisguised fascination at the scene they had interrupted.
Lord Standish glared at all of them, the imprint of Fayre's hand burning on his left cheek. "Mewe, I thought you passed out hours ago," he said, visibly struggling to appear nonchalant.
"Balderdash! I never pass out. Besides, you supposedly retired hours ago so how would you know?" The viscount gave Standish an exaggerated wink. "Taking 'em on in pairs, are we now?"
Fayre deliberately took a deep breath and tried to slow down her breathing. She pulled her shawl tighter, suddenly aware of her half-dressed state. "My lord, this is very awkward."
"Calm yourself, child." Lord Mewe patted her shoulder and withdrew his hand. "You are among friends. There is no need for explanations."
"But my lord, I feel I must. I" Fayre's confidence wavered as she glimpsed Lady Hipgrave's expression. The woman did not seem bothered that their host and several guests had stumbled across them. In fact, the countess's eyes gleamed with merriment. One would have thought the woman had been granted her fondest wish.
Perhaps she had.
"What we must do is retire," the countess finished Fayre's sentence. "I for one am exhausted." Her inflection hinted at a double meaning to her innocuous words. Several of the gentlemen behind Lord Mewe chuckled behind their closed fists.
Fayre shifted her gaze from one guest to the next, confirming her worst fears, for their faces were as easy to read as the Morning Post. They had put the vilest twist on what had occurred between the threesome. If any of them had doubts, she was certain Lady Hipgrave and Lord Standish would serve up enough half-truths to confirm their suspicions. By breakfast everyone in the household would know she was involved in some sordid affair with Lord Standish and her father's ex-mistress. Fayre despaired, worrying that the gossip would reach London before she managed the journey by coach.
Fayre cleared her throat, and gave her host an appealing glance. "I suppose you would not believe I have a problem with sleepwalking."
Everyone roared with laughter.
She was ruined!
Copyright © 2006 by Barbara Pierce. All rights reserved.