Lady Claire Jellicoe hadn’t thought to protest. She hadn’t thought Lord Peter Rosing would ever do anything untoward. She hadn’t thought someone she’d just met on a ballroom floor could ever wish her irreparable harm.
She simply hadn’t thought.
She had smiled. She had smiled because she was Lady Claire Jellicoe, pretty, privileged daughter of the Earl Sanderson. She had smiled because she was polite and considerate, and did as she was asked—she had been asked to dance with the handsome, fair-haired heir of the Marquess of Hadleigh. She had been taught to smile, and say yes.
“No” was what she said now. “No. No. No.”
No, when Lord Rosing pushed her into the dark seclusion of the boathouse at the Dowager Duchess of Fenmore’s lovely riverside villa in Richmond. No, when he pulled Claire’s arm, and grabbed her by the neck. No, no, no, when he shoved her face-first against the rough brick wall.
The brick was hard, and hurt. Stone bit into her face. Sharp grit clawed and scratched against her skin and tasted like dust. But the chalky, bitter bile in her mouth was really fear.
Fear that for the first time in her life, she was powerless.
Powerless because she had been spoiled. Powerless because all her life, she had been pampered and cosseted and buffered and protected from all the truly ugly unpleasantness of the world. And she had never known it until that exact moment when she screamed, “No.”
Because her voice was too small—shadowed with the fear pouring like acid down her throat, filling her chest with the high suffocating heat of panic.
She bit the gloved hand choked across her mouth as instinctively as a wild animal caught in a trap. Her teeth tore through the thick fabric, and the taste of blood suffused her mouth with the metallic tang of hatred and shame.
But all she got for her desperation was a low profanity spewed hot into her ear, the shifting of his grip to grind her face into the brick, and the bloody glove shoved into her mouth and held there as a gag.
He was everywhere around her, covering her mouth, standing on the train of her gown, pinning her against the wall with his weight. Closing out everything else, every hope of help, every thought of action. There was nothing but his body and his breath and his smell and his power.
And she had none.
She couldn’t scream, and she couldn’t move, and she couldn’t stop Lord Rosing.
She could only hear the roar of her heartbeat filling her ears until she was drowning in it. She could only taste the bloody fabric clamped inside her mouth, suffocating out sense. She could only feel the wall cutting into her skin, and the grabbing and pushing and rending of her clothes as he exposed her body.
She could only think in the tiny, screaming part of her mind that was still capable of thought, no, no, no.
No, this could not be happening to her. No, he had to stop. No, someone had to stop him. Please. Please. Please.
And then someone did.
Rosing fell away from her for one suspended moment. Then his head cracked hard against the bricks two inches from her wide-open eyes. He stared back at her, his own eyes open and blank and uncomprehending for one agonizingly sick moment before they rolled back in his head, and he slid slowly down the wall, collapsing in an untidy half-clothed heap at her feet.
Claire clung to the wall, paralyzed and cold and shaking, until something inside her finally rattled free. She spat out the choking glove and scrambled back—away from him, away from the danger. But there was no room to go anywhere with the corner of wall at her back. And there was another threat.
A huge black shadow hung over Rosing’s inert form like a monstrous carrion crow.
And then, without saying a word or making a sound, the shadow reared back, and stomped viciously on Rosing’s splayed leg. A dull, sickening crack bounced up from the brick-paved floor, and lapped upward into the vaulted silence of the boathouse.
Everything else inside Claire wrenched into a single, tight knot of pain and misery that hollowed out her throat, and clutched its clammy way across the surface of her skin.
She shrank back into the corner, away from the looming specter.
And then the specter spoke. “Are you all right?” The voice was a dark, deep rumble she had never heard before.
“No.” Her own voice was nothing but a fracture of a whisper.
“Yes” was all he said, and Claire couldn’t tell if he was agreeing with, or contradicting her.
She couldn’t tell anything. “What have you done?” She looked from her rescuing specter to the heap of man and tailoring at her feet who had only moments ago been the duplicitous Lord Peter Rosing.
“Broken his leg, I should think. It’ll be a bloody long time—if he is lucky enough to heal well enough to even walk—before he rapes another girl.”
There it was. Spoken plainly and ruthlessly. Rape. She had almost been raped.
And another girl. Claire’s pulse throttled against her throat, but she could think enough to understand exactly what those words must mean—she was just another girl to Lord Peter Rosing, not Lady Claire Jellicoe whom he had asked to walk with in the moonlight because he found her enchanting. No matter her name, or her rank, or her fortune, or her parents, she was just another girl for him to do with as he wished. Like a maid or a shopgirl, or anyone else who was as powerless to stop him. Anyone.
The wretched knot within her clenched violently, and she had to close her mouth down around an unbecoming sound very much like a moan. Her hand rose to her throat. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Try not to.” He leaned nearer—across Rosing’s prone form—as if he were trying to see her more clearly, and the dark, imposing shadow resolved itself into the tall, lean outline of a man she recognized instantly, though she did not really know him. “You haven’t got time. Breathe deeply through your nose. Can you move on your own? Or would you like me to help you? I’m Tanner Evans, by the way. We have not been introduced.”
It was a ridiculously enormous understatement. He spoke as if they were still within the ballroom, or in a shop, or at a musicale, or anywhere else upon the earth but standing across the unmoving form of her would-be rapist. “I know who you are.”
But he wasn’t some mere Tanner Evans. He was His Grace the Duke of Fenmore. The same impassive, impenetrable man she had seen at such events for years, hanging aloofly at the edges of ballrooms, and never being introduced so he might dance. She had thought him a strange, different sort of man, with a haunted, faraway look, like the men who had come back from the wars last summer with death stalking behind their eyes. Except that she knew the Duke of Fenmore hadn’t gone to war. He had never done anything that she knew of, except stand around ballrooms looking chilly and off-putting.
And he was still rather more than off-putting now, breaking people’s legs with such violent efficiency, though he also shook out an immaculate white handkerchief and held it carefully toward her. “You’ve blood,” he said quietly, “on your face. Scratches from the coarseness of the mortar between the bricks, I should think. You might also want to put a cut of beefsteak or a potato on them, when you get home. You are so fair you’re likely to bruise.”
Beefsteak? Was he mad? Or perhaps it was she who was mad. Perhaps being assaulted by a bastard of the first rank did that to a person—drove them toward Bedlam—judging by the way she flinched from the gloved hand His Grace had extended toward her.
But he wasn’t looking at her as if she were mad. He was nodding, as if he were reassuring and calming her, the way her father might do with a trembling gundog. “It’s all right,” he said. “I won’t hurt you.”
No, he didn’t look like he would, though he did look rather inscrutable, with those narrowed eyes she could not read staring at her so intently. But Lord Peter Rosing’s warm brown eyes had seemed charming not five minutes ago.
“Oh, God.” Clearly, she knew next to nothing about assessing the character of a man.
Claire calmed her battered breathing enough take the proffered square of precisely folded linen from his hand. But her hands shook, and the brick floor beneath her feet wobbled unevenly, as if she were standing upon a floating dock, and not on solid stone.
She leaned against the wall for balance, and pressed the starched handkerchief to the part of her face that stung the most. She immediately withdrew it to see the dark staining of her own blood. Her head began to ache as if someone were scratching at it with an out-of-tune violin. “How bad is it?”
He shook his head, a kind negation. “Not too bad,” he said, though the serious look in his dark eyes said the opposite. “But it were better if we removed ourselves immediately to a less dangerous, less illicit, and better-lit position. Especially before he comes to.” He ducked his head out the open door of the boathouse, before he closed it, and he looked back to her. “Can you move on your own?”
As if the Duke of Fenmore knew she would rather do anything than be touched. Claire stiffened her legs with several hundred years of inherited Jellicoe pride, and tried to push herself away from the wall. Only to find the bricks shifting precariously underfoot again. The enormity of it all—of what had just happened and what had yet to happen—rocked her back against the wall.
“No.” Heat built like a bonfire in her throat and behind her eyes, and her breath was seesawing in and out of her chest, but she pushed the tears away with the back of her shaking hand.
“Stay there a moment. So you might recover. I will stand here, and make sure he doesn’t move.” His Grace took a place on the other side of Rosing’s bleeding head, where he was at a more than respectful distance. If anyone should chance upon Claire and the Duke of Fenmore in the boathouse at the bottom of the garden, they would only be seen to be conversing politely. Albeit across the unconscious form of her would-be rapist.
Yet tongues would wag even if she were seen to be only conversing politely with the Duke of Fenmore. The Duke of Fenmore did not converse politely with young ladies. He had never conversed politely with any young lady in all the time that Claire had observed him looming around the edges of ballrooms. He looked and he brooded and he judged, but he never conversed.
And he looked so intent now, she felt the need to explain how she had gotten herself into such a god-awful predicament. “His father asked me to dance a couple of country dances with Lord Peter Rosing. That’s who he is, Lord Peter Rosing.” Her voice sounded thin and small. So unlike the girl she had been until three minutes ago. “His father said he’d be obliged if I would make myself agreeable by dancing with his son. So I did. And then he asked—Rosing—if I’d like to take a turn on the terrace.” To cool the roses in those beautiful cheeks, he had said with just the right amount of warm feeling when he had offered Claire his arm. “I thought he might try to steal a kiss.”
The duke made an exceptionally unducal, rude sound of disgust. “Steal a kiss.” Fenmore’s gaze dropped to the inert man heaped on the floor. “Rosing was obviously intent upon larceny of an altogether grander design. As is his habit.”
The duke’s tone was strangely vehement. As if it were some sort of a personal affront to the dukedom that Rosing had tried to rape her on Fenmore’s family’s property.
There it was again, the awful, horrible, brutal word.
“I said no to him. I said—” She could hear her voice try to scale the icy cold that was just now seeping into her bones.
“I know,” he said shortly, though he did not look at her. “I heard you. And now, I reckon, so will he have done. And past bloody time. He has grown altogether too brazen.”
In the strange fitful light that came from the wavering reflection of the moon off the water beneath the boathouse docks she took a closer look at the duke’s face. At the rage which was only barely concealed behind the off-putting veneer. “Why are you so angry?”
“Ah.” His dark gaze flicked to hers only momentarily, before he looked away again. “I am not angry. I am outraged. Contrary to popular opinion, I happen to be a nice man. Rosing is not.” He snapped the word off as if he could break it as easily as he had Rosing’s leg. “And you needed help.”
Another ridiculous understatement. But she could only be grateful. “Yes. Yes, I did. Thank you.”
He waved off her thanks with an elegant, economical gesture of his hand. “And you still need it. Your hair is coming down from its pins. You’ll want to restore yourself a bit before you return to the house. Or would you rather I brought your parents down here? I would have done—brought them, or sent them to find you—but I reckoned time was of the essence.”
It had been. A few moments more and—
The realization hit Claire like a shovel to the back of her head. Sick pain snaked its way around the dark edges of her skull—sharp pinpricks of light stabbed at the soft sides of her vision.
Fenmore must have anticipated what had almost happened.
“Did you know he was going to—” She stumbled over the detestable word—it was like an anchor, dragging her down, down, down. Drowning her in the doubt and shame.
“To rape you? Yes. I did. Rosing is a rapist, Lady Claire. Behind those angelic looks lies a dark, twisted heart of rapine. He has made a rather execrable habit of it.”
A habit. A hideous hive of an itch that had to be scratched.
Lord Peter Rosing might have picked anyone, anyone else in the ballroom, but she had been foolish—and maybe even, if she were honest with herself, desperate—enough to smile at him and consent to the dance. Even on the ballroom floor, Lord Peter Rosing must have been thinking and planning what he would do to her.
“Were he not the son of a peer, Rosing would have twisted at Tyburn long before now.” Fenmore brought his dark gaze back to hers before he went on relentlessly, nearly spitting out the words, as if they left a bad taste in his mouth. “I do not know if it will comfort or disgust you to know that you are not the first young woman Lord Peter Rosing has raped, or attempted to rape. But I do mean you to be the last.”
The calm surety with which he spoke sucked the last of the air from her lungs. “You mean to kill him.”
Again that obsidian gaze came back to hers, so sharp it was nearly cutting. “I meant to cripple him. I mean that in the future, if he isn’t hanged, he should find it so difficult to walk that he will find it utterly impossible to shove young ladies up against brick walls.”
The same feeling of powerless shame, of helpless, hopeless, choking despair, tightened around her chest.
But she fought it back. It had not happened. Lord Peter Rosing had not raped her. But only because His Grace, the chilly Duke of Fenmore, had come in time.
She meant to thank him again, not only for herself, but also for the greater population of London’s women, it seemed. But she could not. The words were stuck tight in her throat, trapped there by the casual violence of both men’s actions.
Within her skull, her head began to ring like a church bell.
“You are not yet recovered.”
Again, she could not tell if the strange, dry ordinariness of his observation was an attempt at humor or censure. But pride was the last refuge of the weak. And Claire felt desperately weak.
So she put up her chin. “Yes. Thank you, Your Grace. You do have a penchant for the obvious.”
“And you have a penchant for the dangerous,” he shot back. Some of that vehemence had leapt back into his tone. “Planning to let a man like Rosing steal kisses.”
That was condemnation in his low voice. Claire felt the thoughtlessness of her action burn a trail of heat down her face. She swallowed down the hot embers of her shame. “Yes. Stupid. But I think Lord Peter Rosing has cured me of stupidity.”
“Good.” Fenmore took an audibly deep breath, as if he were as fraught as she. “Though I suppose you could not be expected to know what he is.”
“No.” The admission gave her some small measure—a very small measure—of comfort. “Though if you did know what he is, why did you not tell anyone? Why is he still allowed to show his face in polite company? Why was he invited to your grandmother’s ball?”
“A mistake.” The vehemence was back. “One for which I will never forgive myself. Nor ever make again. And he was not invited.” He spoke with such low, savage heat, she was taken aback. But his anger was all for himself.
“It wasn’t your fault.” The words came out of their own volition—a forgiveness she could not grant to herself.
“Wasn’t it?” He seemed unconvinced. “I should have anticipated that they would come, even uninvited.”
It gave her another small measure of comfort to see him doubt himself. “They?”
“Rosing and his father. Hadleigh.”
“I don’t see how you could have anticipated that.” She was happy to find she could take a rather more normal breath. “My parents would never dream of going someplace they weren’t invited.”
“Yes, parents. We ought to be getting you back to your mother, so she can take you home.”
Yes. She wanted her mother. She wanted to be safe in her arms, and forget this had ever happened. But it had. “We’re not meant to go home. We’re meant to stay the night, as guests.” The worry and doubt and shame and anger wrapped itself ever tighter and tighter. “Oh, God. I don’t think I can bear the questions.”
“No one will question you. I’ll make sure of that.”
“Will you?” It was probably not the wisest thing, to allow herself the relief and sanctuary of hope. But she already had.
“Yes.” This time the vehemence sounded more like surety. More like a promise.
For which she could only be grateful. “Thank you.” Another small measure of comforting relief tiptoed its careful way into her lungs. And she took the opportunity to take a long look at him, this vehement man she had thought so aloof. “Contrary to popular opinion, you are a nice man.”
A nice man who had crippled Rosing, still splayed upon the pavers.
For her. This time the heat in her chest was something more comforting than mere relief.
But there was still a man on the ground. “We can’t just leave him here, can we?”
“Yes. We can. I’m not that nice. Someone will find him. In fact—” He came to an alertness, livid with stillness, rather like one of her father’s hunting dogs scenting the air. And then he swore. “God’s balls. Someone is coming. Now.” He turned that implacable gaze upon her. “Lady Claire, you have approximately three seconds to decide what comes next. Stay here and be discovered with Rosing—and bear all the possible and different consequences of that. Or you can come with me.”
“What?” Her heart started pounding in her ears again.
Claire pushed off the wall, and found she needed to move. To get air back into her lungs. To get away from Rosing. But not back to the house and the ball. Not with her face like this, still scratched and blotted with blood.
Fenmore had crossed to the narrow wooden decking that projected out over the water, and unwound a line to one of the boats from its cleat. “I can take you away in the skiff. We can slip away, out onto the river, with no one the wiser.”
The idea was astonishing.
And she was truly astonished. Astonished to find the events and words and feelings of the past few minutes swirling and twisting through her head, trying to sort themselves out into something approaching logic.
Going in a boat with His Grace the Duke of Fenmore would undoubtedly be just as rash and stupid as walking into the garden with Lord Peter had been.
But the Duke of Fenmore was not Lord Peter Rosing. He looked across the narrow dock at her, and he understood. He reached behind his back, under the tail of his beautifully tailored coat, and pulled out an elegant, well-polished pistol. The shifting moonlight glanced off the slick metal barrel as he held it out to her, handle first. “So you’ll feel safe. But choose. Now.”
Astonishment was too tame a word for the rush of alarm and something else—something unfamiliar and altogether off-kilter—that gripped her, once more stealing the air from her lungs. “Is it loaded?”
“Yes. Do you know how to use it properly?”
Claire didn’t answer. But she did take the gun. Because it gave her her answer.
“Yes.” She scrambled into the narrow boat. “Let us go then and escape. Just for a little while, at least. Until I’m ready to come back.”
“Yes.” The Duke of Fenmore gave her an oddly boyish smile that crinkled up the corners of his eyes, and softened his narrow face, and made him appear young and almost vulnerable. As if he were taking as big a chance as she. “Yes. Just for a little while.”
Copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Essex