London, October 1740
Like many a worldly Lady of Quality in London, Lady Deborah Morley professed a mild curiosity to lay eyes on the new Viscount Darlington despite—or more rightly because of—his reputation for wildness and brash conduct. Bold fellows were always of interest to bored ladies who lived by their wits and bodies among the pampered pups of the English aristocracy.
The novelty of Lord Jack Laughton lay in part in the fact that he had been reared on the Caribbean island of Barbados. Come to London some months earlier to inherit his title, his singular purpose in remaining in town seemed to be to flaunt his contempt for the conventions of the English Beau Monde. This explained why London was agog with gossip concerning the doings and dealings of the mysterious expatriate.
Of greater import this morning was the fact that Lord Chichester, Lady Deborah’s lover, had challenged the viscount. This had followed Chichester’s neglected wife’s spiteful claim that Darlington had comforted her in her husband’s absence from her bed.
Lady Deborah’s small mouth firmed with smug satisfaction. The claim was outrageous! Lady Chichester did not possess the body or manner to satisfy her own husband, lei alone attract a man of the viscount’s notorious tastes. What concerned her was that despite Lord Darlington’s public assertion that he did not know Lady Chichester, her husband had refused to rescind his challenge. The West Indian was said to be as fearless as he was proud. He had taken up the gauntlet though there was no cause.
That aside, Lady Deborah was prepared to be disappointed by the viscount. She was prepared to observe and yawn at his boorish behavior. She was even prepared by boudoir gossip to feel a slight lustful shiver for the primitive islander. After all, she was wanton at heart. She was prepared for every contingency of feeling except that which arose as she watched the new viscount handle a rapier.
The duel was being held in a clearing in the shadows of Whitehall, a favored spot of aristocrats who did not wish to journey from London into the country so early in the day. As the mistress of the challenger, she was there to urge Chichester on to victory over his opponent. Yet one good glance at the handsome face of Jack Laughton with its wicked scar that gave him a devilish aspect and her fickle heart switched sides.
It was no match at all. The viscount’s mastery of the blade was dazzling. From the first clash of swords that rung with tinny scrapes and flashes of sparks in the milky blue mists of dawn, it was apparent that the challenger was sadly outmatched. The enraged husband of a silly, susceptible wife made poor sport for the Viscount Darlington.
Five … ten … twenty … in less than thirty heartbeats it was over. The quick graceful lunge under the challenger’s arm, the soft cry of his surprise, the withdrawn point, a fatal collapse into the grass: all executed with chilling exactitude and very little fuss.
Lady Deborah knew she should have been shocked, enraged, despairing of her loss. Yet her gaze remained riveted on the slayer of her lover.
Pure female curiosity had made other women who knew better, as well as foolish ones who did not, stand and challenge a disreputable gentleman in order to draw his attention their way. But the rapacious hunger awakened in Lady Deborah’s bosom had its roots in the admiration of one predator for another. As he turned from the man lying on his back in the dew-spattered grass, she stepped into his path and threw back the hood of her cape.
He paused, his rapier still unsheathed, the tip angled just above the damaging damp of the grass. The mists ripening with morning light revealed an attractive face of angular shadows. The nose was a trifle too long for true classicism, yet the mouth was mobile, sensual, patently mocking even in repose. Astonishingly, he wore his own golden hair unpowdered and tied back with a black ribbon. Beneath his jutting brow his beautiful hooded eyes blazed with the powerful vitality of life.
A strange thrill shot through Lady Deborah when he turned those light eyes on her. She inhaled sharply in the wake of the languid downward drift of his lashes as he surveyed her form. Oh, if only his touch were as stimulating! No Caribbean pirate or West Indian freebooter could have looked more imposing or less inclined to be cajoled by a woman’s mere innocent flirtation. Luckily for them both she had no such insipid liaison in mind.
She felt the latent hum of violence in the viscount’s stillness as she approached. His thin veneer of elegance was no more a part of him than his richly decorated clothing and, she suspected, just as easily shed. Like the blade unsheathed at his side he lacked only a cause to display the brutal, aggressive force that was his nature. Her lover had offered it and the cost was his life. She would make a better adversary.
When she paused within arm’s reach he did not speak to her, did not even offer her the civilized gesture of his hand or a smile, but turned his back and began a leisurely stroll toward the deeper penumbra offered by the spreading shelter of nearby ancient trees.
She hesitated only a moment, glancing back to where the physician and her lover’s seconds were carefully bearing the fallen man toward his carriage. She should go with him, should be there to comfort, to whisper, to cry.
She turned smartly on her heel and hurried across the wet verdant turf after the vanquisher.
Exhausted, elated, and submissive, Lady Deborah lay in the forked roots of a chestnut tree. Her silk skirts were muddy and crushed about her waist, her bare thighs opalescent with dew and the essence of their coupling. She had been ridden longer, with more finesse, but never with such heat and power or repressed violence. Darlington had not made love to her but had taken her with the same devastating accuracy with which he had dispatched his opponent. She had not, as she intended, been his reward but his second revenge. In quivering new knowledge of herself and despite the intended degradation, she had enjoyed it. Exquisite sensation still ran like fairy flame beneath her skin.
The languor of what the French referred to as la petite de mort made her reluctant to even open her eyes. Speech was a supreme effort. “You have cuckolded a dying man.”
The sound of his companion’s voice rasped against the silence that Jack Laughton preferred after coupling. Deliberately, he finished buttoning his breeches before replying. “I imagine he would have preferred it that way.”
“Have you no remorse, no regret?”
Interrupting his search for his coat, which he had discarded in his haste some distance away, Jack turned to gaze at the reclining woman. She rose to a sitting position, her generous bosom spilling from her unhooked bodice as she carelessly tossed her skirts down over her nakedness. She was lovely, had pleased him as well as many another. Despite that, he felt nothing for her, merely a vague momentary sense of respite from his surpassing indifference to the world. He did not know or care to know her name.
Involuntary emotion passed like a cloud shadow across his thoughts and was gone—yet he recognized it “What use is regret? It is a meal eaten with a corpse.”
Despite the rebuff she smiled at him, the edges of it licked by covetous desire. “Will I see you again?”
A wolfish gleam entered his silver gaze. “No, my dear. I never sup twice at a dead man’s table, however tempting the meal.”
He saw the sudden wounding of his rejection in her light eyes and then just as quickly a readjustment of her emotions into ones of anger and resentment. Ah yes, the woman scorned. He knew that face as well as his own. “Someday you will meet your match, Darlington, and she will roast your heart and eat it while you watch.”
“What a charming demise you devise for me,” he answered with a hint of amusement. “The exercise should prove stimulating for the pair of us. I eagerly anticipate the arrival of this she-devil.”
Jack strolled rapidly away from the woman who began shouting invectives at his back, feeling once more a sullen moodiness closing in around him.
Since his return to London he had not grown accustomed to England’s wan climate of incessant chills and gloomy mists. Yet nothing had sufficiently moved him to consider leaving the misty isle. Nor could he account for the sudden whim that had made him decide to sail for London after twenty-two years’ absence. Perhaps it was only idle curiosity. What he had discovered upon arrival affected him less than most supposed.
His detested father had been dead three years and for an equal period of time the Darlington solicitors had been searching for him in order to bestow the news that he was the new Viscount Darlington.
Neither discovery held the drama it might have for another man. His solicitors were confounded by the laughter that greeted the news of his father’s death. In the months since, his squandering of what should have been a sizable fortune had repeatedly scandalized them. They cautioned him not to spurn the legacy his title bestowed upon him. They thought to appeal to his noblesse oblige. Unfortunately for the viscountcy, he had none.
Jack absently rubbed the C-shaped scar that curved under his right cheekbone, a habit that betrayed his rare moments of agitation. A title and estates could not blunt his father’s more enduring legacy: his mother’s murder and his own disfigurement.
Damn them all! They need not know what aroused and directed him. He never explained himself, nor rejected a slight.
He had grown to manhood in the West Indies amid a passionate Creole society that held sway even in the British territories like Barbados, a world where a high-spirited lust for life and an easily offended pride were badges of honor. Born with a natural if aloof arrogance, he had quickly discovered reasons to become handy with a sword and pistol. From Port Royal to New Orleans, when liquor flowed and passions were aroused, a casual remark or the smallest slight could result in a duel between friends. Experience had taught him to never back down, ever show mercy, or ever let an enemy go unpunished.
In comparison, life in London bored him. Gaming offered the only source of relief for his apathy. When winning paled, he began to play ever more recklessly until now he lost more often than he won. Strangely enough, though he might soon again be poor, his title offered him the same protection it had once offered his murderous sire. His shortcomings were seen as rights of his birthright, his excesses his due, his guilt pleasures the way of the world. The duels he had fought since his arrival were of note only because dueling in England was rare. Men of reason, he was told, demurred from the exercise. They brought suit in courts of law!
Jack cursed under his breath. He had not meant to kill Chichester. He had executed the disarming maneuver dozens, nay, hundreds of times. If his foot had not slipped an inch in the dew-slick grass, the fool would be alive instead of a blot on his conscience.
As for the man’s mistress … now there was a predator, ever ready to seek the advantage in a situation. Chichester had not bled his last drop before she had hiked her skirts in invitation to anoint the conqueror. Lust had had little to do with why he had succumbed to her embrace. Rage over a needless death had spurred his action. The interlude had blotted out, if only for its duration, the deed.
Perhaps his detractors were right and he would soon come to a much-deserved bad end. He was bored with his life, bored with the prospect of his future. Yet he was young, not quite thirty. And so he would remain in London, caught between ennui and the malicious delight he took in ruffling the feathers of his detractors by claiming their gold at the gaming tables and their women in the boudoir. Clasped to England’s cold bosom, he was in perfect harmony with his own dissatisfaction with life, and with himself.
As Jack neared his waiting carriage, an imposing black silhouette detached itself from the shade of a nearby tree trunk. The full morning light fell upon him, yet the silhouette remained ebon. The man stood six foot six, his skin smooth and glossy black as japanned wood. Though his clothes were European, his features were an exotic mixture of slanted black eyes, broad nose, and generous mouth chiseled in high relief topped by a cropped cloud of frizzled black hair. When he spoke his words came forth in a deep baritone of perfect English. “You are well, my lord?”
Jack smiled at his personal servant, the only person in the world whose good opinion he valued. “Yes, Zuberi. Without a scratch.” If one discounted those left by the lady, he mused.
Zuberi answered Jack’s smile in kind, and it brought into focus the pleasing shape of its owner’s features. “The enemy is vanquished.”
Jack sighed. “Alas.”
As they moved in together toward the carriage, the opening notes of a lark’s serenade floated down to them from a branch.
Jack paused and lifted his head. A rare genuine smile touched his lips as the fatigue of another sleepless night momentarily fell away from him. As the melody repeated itself in the cool crisp air, he found himself thinking the most unusual, nay incredible, thought. He did not know what joy was.
Most men claimed to have found whatever joy they possessed in the arms of a woman and named it love. If there were such a woman who could rouse and arouse him from the galling monotony of his life, then he would gladly stake everything he possessed for a taste of that joy though it ultimately cost him his life.
“The she-devil,” he murmured under his breath. Yes she would need to be able to hold her own against him.
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