Lord Dansfire
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Chapter 1




     —London, England, Early March; 1801
                                 ——Easter Break: before the main season begins


     
       The dark amber liquid swirled creating a cavern of hidden caves within the soft whirlpool of shadows. Somewhere in that intoxicating mixture of light and dark lay the demons. 
      Around and round he watched it it spin, his head twirling with it until he felt like a feather drifting amongst the clouds.
      He could not catch sight of the elusive tormentors, but he knew, without doubt, that they were there, just waiting for a fool to release them. They were mischievous imps and loved to reek havoc; they always did once set free.
      It was safer just to leave them be. The swirls first slowed and then stilled.
      The demons called to him, begged to be released from their prison.  His hand shook and ripples broke the smooth surface. He took a long slow breath, the cool air burning his lungs as he trapped it deep within him. 
      He tilted the crystal decanter until it hovered right above the rim of his glass. The demons whispered to him, but he pushed away their beseeching pleas. 
      He poured a small, respectable amount of the high-end brandy that was always present in his London Townhouse and released his held breath.
      “But, Pert, you said you wanted me.” Jacalyn’s whine pierced his thoughts like a dagger, demolishing his clouds and plummeting him back to reality. 
      Lord Pertworth Dansfire, known lovingly as Pert to those who cared about him, and Dansfire to those disdained him, cringed at her puling words. He could see the pout on her face without even turning around. 
      He fell to the lure of the demons, and tilted the decanter once more, this time filling the glass to the rim. The liquor burned slightly as he guzzled it . He refilled his glass, spilling a few drops onto his hand, before turning to face his most recent of mistresses, this one of only a few months. 
      He stared at the woman laying upon his bed in a swath of shimmering red silks and translucent laces. She looked up at him through dark tear streaked lashes, her eyes shimmered and her lower lip trembled in a pout. 
      He only stared at her in silence. He could think of nothing to say. To his shame he had to admit that he had been unable to speak to her, beyond inane chatter, for several months.
      The silence grew thick and uncomfortable and she finally spoke. “I told you I am sorry for my behavior. I was just…out of sorts with you last night. I forgot my manners and propriety. I know you cannot marry me.” 
      He drained the last of his brandy and looked at her. She twisted the red silk between her fingers in what was either supposed to be seduction or just nervousness. Still Pert could not make any words come forth. 
      She had pestered him long into the evening for a promise of marriage. At first he had tried to properly put her off, to keep her feelings from getting hurt; and, he had to admit, to avoid the dramatic scene that had happened anyway.  Finally, unable to stop her pestering questions, he had flatly declined, telling her he had no desire to marry, not now, not ever, not anyone. He had felt like a heel to do so, but it had accomplished on thing. It had silenced her questions, at least temporarily, he thought with a soft grunt.
      “Pert?” Her words were now quiet, almost too soft to here, but the fear in her voice brought his attention out of the past. 
      “I am sorry as well.” He said and was relieved to find he really was. Last night she had called him a beast before turning onto her side and going to sleep, and he had not been able to argue. He had felt like one, still felt like one this morning. “I should have not been so rough with you last night.”
      Her tears started again, but this time they looked real. He sat his drained glass on the table beside the decanter and sighed. 
      “It is all going to be fine.” He made his way to Jacalyn and wiped the tears from her cheek. The bed creaked and she rocked toward him as he sat beside her. 
      She looked up at him, through her lashes, in what, he was sure, had to be a practiced move. She smiled and leaned more heavily into him, her bared breasts rubbing against him. Her lips were curved in a look of invitation, but her eyes still sparked with anger. He had been around her enough to know the look. She was still mad. His stomach rolled.
     He pushed the concern from his mind. He kissed along the soft trembling lines of her lips and ran his hand beneath the silken wrap that was draped across her warm naked shoulders. 
      He pushed her down to the bed, kissing the tears from her cheeks and running his tongue down her neck. He pushed the silks away a little at a time following his trailing hands with his lips. He stopped at an erect nipple. He expected an arch to greet him, a moan to encourage him, but he got neither. 
      Her normally energetic lovemaking was gone and in its place was a lifeless enthusiasm. She lay motionless beneath him on the large feather bed. He took a deep breath, the smell of powder and rouge, thick and cloying, began to overtake his nostrils. 
      He pushed his robe off and positioned himself between her open and waiting legs. He kissed her, he rubbed her, he pressed all the buttons that normally worked, but she lay there like a dead horse. 
      Irritation, spawned by too much brandy and too little sleep, was starting to turn to anger. Anger at her spiteful indifference was only part of it. The biggest part was reserved for himself and at his rebellious body that had showed no interest in women, at least for more than a mere tussle, in a very long time. 
     A swell of fear and uncertainty hit him like a wave, crashing upon him until he felt he would drown. He closed his eyes and took long deep breaths. His kisses slowed and his caresses stopped altogether. His member lay limp against her warm thigh and he tried to tell himself it was the demons of the brandy and it was her emotionless responses, or lack of, that were causing his malady. 
       Of course, it was happening more and more often of late. He groaned and pushed the painful thought aside.
      “Is everything alright? Nothing appears to be happening down there.” Jacalyn sounded almost happy, gloating.
      Pert’s head spun and his stomach gave a tremendous heave. His breath hitched in a throat filled with sawdust and he felt nothing beyond the need to get away from her, to get away from it all. He shoved away from her and lunged himself off the bed.
      Suddenly he felt apart from himself, as if it were all a dream, floating above the scene and wishing he could believe that was all it was, just a bad dream; a nightmare where he would soon awake.  
     He watched this ghostly versions of himself dress rapidly, leaving his white silk shirt unbuttoned and flailing behind him as he rushed around the room. Jacalyn had left the bed and was sputtered words that he could not hear. He was thankful for that much at least. Pert watched as he pulled on his boots and grabbed the brandy decanter.  
      He took a long drink straight from the bottle. Fire ripped down his throat and set his stomach ablaze. He coughed painfully and suddenly was once more himself; no longer just a safe bystander. He turned and fled his townhouse. 
      He barged into the stable and saddled his large bay stallion as the open-mouthed stable-hand stared at him in shock. He swung his boot for the stirrup, and cursed when his foot thumped heavily to the ground. Banshee turned and snorted at him.
      “Shut up.” He grumbled at the horse, this time managing find the stirrup. He waved off the stable boy, who regaining his senses, had stepped forward to help him. 
      He finally got his seat and gave Banshee an irritable kick. They lunged forward.
      He took a deep breath, pain rushed to his brain clouding his thoughts. He grabbed his temples and nearly unseated himself from the rocking saddle. He shook his head and tried to dispel the anger that still tormented him. The pounding hooves on the cobblestones did nothing to help help his pain or his irritation. 
      He could see houses from the corner of his eye, he could see the street signs, but could not focus enough to see what the names were. He only thought of escape and nothing more, and the blurred images that rushed past him slipped from his mind. He closed his eyes and let the Banshee have his head, no longer caring where he was taken.
      The demons of the brandy taunted him. Released by his gluttony, they were now loathe to let him go. He could feel their grip in the icy fingers of the wind. They ripped at his hair and clung to his clothing in a desperate attempt to draw him back. It both terrified and excited him. Let their mayhem take him, he thought.
      Their enticing whispers teased him, flitting about in the rushing wind. Their voices were nonsensical, but he knew what there saying. “Come back to us.” The sweet cadence of their siren’s song pulled at him and he was desperate to go. 
      Banshee’s thundering hooves clattered and slid on the cobblestone streets.  Suddenly Banshee lunged forward, his hooves leaving the street and ripping through hard packed soil. It sent shuddering jolts through Pert’s tense body. He opened his eyes. His fingers clenched. The reins bit sharply into his hands, but the pain was distant. Just a whisper in the fog and nothing like the cataclysm that screamed within his head. 
      The thrashing tails of his unbuttoned shirt whipped out behind him sounding eerily like the fluttering of a thousand wings. He tried desperately to ignore it, but he could almost feel the darkness that pursued him and urged his mount to greater speeds. He could almost see the pale moonlight glinting off the beady eyes of the bats those wings belonged to. He shuddered.
      He closed his eyes and leaned into the rushing wind. Its icy fingers slithered across his fevered skin. A shiver raved up his spine. Fear and confusion battled within him, crashing together and tearing at his sanity.
      He tried to focus on the wind, tried, unsuccessfully, to drive away his demons. He pushed his horse to its limits, but nothing calmed the storm of confusion that raged inside him. 
      Pert’s mind reeled, he teetered, With a curse he clenched the saddle, barely keeping his seat. He jerked his eyes open. His breath came in heavy gasps. He stared into the darkness, but the darkness held no calming peace, no safe haven in which he could find solace. What there was in that quiet dark made his innards tighten. He took a deep breath, the image of Jacalyn’s beautiful face floating accusingly before him elicited a gasp of surprise that left him once again struggling to keep his seat. 
      He blinked heavily into the wind to dislodge this drunken, guilt fed vision. It was stubborn, but by the time he opened his eyes for the third time it was to a blessedly empty night. 
      Peering around him he had a moment of disorientation when nothing looked familiar. 
      Trees and bushes blurred by, shadows and branches clung to him. Banshee thundered on and in his drunken state he did not think of slowing. Suddenly, from out of the dark, he caught sight of an old and gnarled oak. It was right in his path and he wrenched on the reins. 
      The ancient tree had been there since long before he was born, long before his parents were born. Hit by lightning about five years ago, the locals had thought it was going to die, but instead the deformed branches grew longingly into the path to reach for riders, as it did now for Pert.
      The long slender fingers loomed before him. Banshee skid to a slow halt, the reaching tips of the branches slid harmlessly across Pert’s chest, snagging on his shirt. 
      This tree had, on many a night, unseated the careless and the drunken. Tonight Pert was both and he thanked the heavens he had regained his senses soon enough not to be knocked clean off the saddle by the familiar tree. 
      Relief swept through him and he decided that drunk or not, he had not drank nearly enough to sooth his frayed nerves. But now that he knew where he was, he also knew who could help him. A smile touched his lips. The endearing talents of Lady Joanna Torsdale would make his night pleasurable. 
      He reined Banshee off the path and in the direction of the Golden Gander Tavern. Pert’s smile grew as he thought about the feisty young woman who ran it. Joanna was only five and twenty, surprising to most, seeing as the number of times she had become wedded. 
       Joanna was a widow of the fourth degree, having just buried her fourth husband not more than three years before. She was also a wealthy woman, thanks to her last husband. Though she had never deemed to questions where the money had come from, Pert had his suspicions. He would never reveal them to her. 
      On top of her husband’s ill gotten gaming money she had also inherited the Golden Goose Tavern, which she had promptly renamed the Golden Gander Tavern and to everyone’s shock had actually began to run it.
      As if Pert’s thoughts had conjured the blessed vision, the soft lantern glow of the tavern appeared in the distance luring him forward. Relief surged through him. “I should have just come here in the first place.” He told the twinkling stars. They coldly ignored him. 
      He pulled his mount to a stop and swung his leg over Banshee’s quivering, sweat-lathered flanks. The brandy sloshed through his brain and his vision blurred. His foot slipped in the stirrup and he grasped the coarse mane to steady himself. He tugged his boot free and nearly fell. He cursed loudly. Irritation swelled, and he cursed once again.
      “That is no way to speak in front of a lady.” Joanna’s amused voice teased from behind him. 
      He whirled around and groaned, he closed his eyes as the world continued to spin for long moments after he had stopped. He cracked open one eye. Her smiling face, now close to his, was, to his relief, no longer swirling in and out of focus. He opened his eyes and smiled. 
      He let loose of the horse and wobbled. He did not complain when she wrapped an arm around his waist. He leaned into her warmth, inhaled the soft comforting hint of spices and rum that always surrounded her and allowed her to lead him inside.
      “How about a drink for a bone weary traveler?” The world teetered and he tightened his grip on her small shoulders. 
      She chuckled. “You look to be already well into your cups, my lord.” She wrinkled her nose. “And you smell like a drunken stable boy. One would think that you had the sense to quit before it got any worse.” Her soft voice chided him.
      “And one would think that a friend would not bedevil me while I am clearly not in the condition to defend myself.” He pulled her close as they walked through the double doors and into the bright, smoky interior of what had once been his favorite hideaway. 
     He came to a stop, swayed, and looked around the large and inviting room. The tavern was brimming with drunken men, some deep into games of chance and some just nursing a bottle or two. Pert’s smile grew. 
      It was a far cry from her meager beginnings. The tavern had been in disrepair and a shambles when she had inherited it and not one of the snobbish ton would accept her bar nor her drink.
      Pert had changed all that. He scoffed. He had never understood why he was one of the elite, one of the trend-setters. It had always irritated him, especially knowing it was more because of his father’s reputation, than because of anything he had contributed on his own.
      Pert remembered Joanna’s first husband, Michael Madison, with a happy fondness. Michael had been one of his closest friends and Pert had met Joanna through him. A familiar pain touch his heart, he had been devastated when Michael had died. He had stood by Joanna’s side through her grief and had grown close to the young woman. 
      Annoyed at societies stupid rules or not, Pert had been unable to stand aside while her business had struggled. He had begun to spend every night at the Golden Gander, shamelessly using his popularity to give her the boost she needed. In the years that had followed he had never once regretted it.
       He looked down at the top of her head. She stood patiently waiting for him to move forward. He pulled her tighter. She looked up at him with a grin. 
      It had not taken long for her to bolster a well-established list of patrons and hers had fast become the favorite of the pubs, seeing one after another of the shadier taverns go out of business. A good improvement, if one were to ask him. “You have a full house tonight, my dear,” he said with a smile.
     “Most every night, though you would know that if you ever deemed to come and see me anymore.” Her voice was teasing, but the hurt he could hear hidden within it pulled at his heart. 
      Finally feeling steady enough to risk the walk through the maze of tables and patrons he led her to the back of the pub, a spot usually occupied by lovers in a tryst. ‘Thankfully, it is empty this night,’ he thought as he dropped his frame into a sturdy oak chair. He was in no mood for frivolous company.
      A chair scraped against the well swept floor as Joanna pulled it up beside him  She gestured to a barmaid, instructing her to bring brandy. Pert smiled, it warmed his spirits to know that someone knew him so well. It made him feel less alone. “Should you not see to your other guests?” He reluctantly asked, though he had no desire for her to leave his side.
      “They will not miss me,” she said with a slight laugh. Her fingers wrapped delicately around his wrist. He sighed deeply as the warmth of her small hand soothed his frazzled nerves.
      Pert forced himself to relax and looked across the crowded bar at the many young and well-endowed barmaids who made themselves indispensable to the lecherous men. They giggled and squirmed as the men pinched their bottoms or pulled them onto their laps. “No, they do not appear to be missing anything tonight.” He laughed in good humor, but she did not join in.
       He cut his laugh short, but forced his lips to remain in a grin as he watched her. Her eyes were filled with concern and he could not hold the smile in the face of what he thought was her disappointment in him. He let the misplaced smile fall away.
      He realized, and not for the first time, that his smile had felt misplaced for quite some time now. He knew how he felt, lost. The problem was, for the life of him, he could not figure out why. 
     "What is it that ails you tonight?” She asked, almost as if she had read his thoughts. Her soft voice was tinged with the same concern that was etched across her features. 
      Pert only grunted and downed the tall glass of brandy that was set before him. “Leave the bottle,” he said to the maid without looking up. 
      What ailed him, she had asked. He shook his head and poured another tall glass of courage and fought to get his thoughts in order. It was no use. They wandered back to the mistresses that had come and gone from his life. His joy in their company seemed to be fading quickly of late. Jacalyn had been with him only a few months and he had not made love to her in half that time. His desire to go see her was gone after the first two days. 
      He had went anyway, because that was what was expected of a fashionable, single, man of the ton. But the passion and desire that everyone said he was supposed to feel had never been there. He went, mostly for the same reason that he took a mistress in the first place. Because he could never tell anyone that his body no longer responded. He had to struggle to keep himself hard enough to finish and it more than angered him, it was humiliating.  
      “Ignore my questions then.” Her chiding words pulled him from his depressing reverie. She placed her hand across his forearm and smiled at him. “You are impossible. I had heard you would not be available to see me this night, or any other on this trip into London.” She sighed dramatically. “ I was quite heartbroken." 
      “I bet you were.” He looked over his dear friend. She was beautiful. Her long pale blonde hair spilled around a soft white face, tumbled down her shoulders and past her trim waist. It cascaded over the soft curves of her hips that disappeared beneath the table. 
     He felt warm fingers grasp his chin. She tilted his face up so he was forced to look at her. “So what is the problem?” Her voice said she would not let this go until she had an answer. The only problem was...he did not have one to give her. 
     Frustration began to eat at him as she sat staring at him awaiting some kind of explanation. He took a deep breath but nothing seemed to help.  His chest began to tighten, sweat trickled down his temples and a maelstrom of conflicting emotions began to bombard him. "I do not know.” He jerked away from her grasping fingers and her probing gaze. “If I did I would be out fixing the issue and not sitting in this god forsaken place talking to you." His voice was angry, bitter, but he did not know how to fix it. He took a long swill of the brandy and tried to ignore the panic. He refilled his tall glass before turning back to her. Her shocked expression tore at him. “You know I did not mean that.”
     Her smile was sad and she reached across the table and grasped his wrist. “I know. I just want what is best for you.”
      He leaned over and softly kissed the dropped corner of her frown. Pulling back he kept his gaze locked on her. “You know, I love you.” Her lips twitched in a small smile and relief swept through him. Her friendship and her forgiveness meant more to him than he could say.
      Her smile turned to a soft laugh and she shook her head.
      She worried him, she had shown signs of unhappiness of late and he thought her to be lonely. “Are you ever going to remarry?”
      Her eyes widened in surprise and her smile fell away. “I do not plan to remarry, ever...” She shook her head and seemed to decide on something. “besides, it is not safe for the man I marry. It is better for me to keep my distance.” 
      “You cannot just remain unmarried.” She was too full of love and spirit not to share it with someone. She had loved being married and he did not want her to give up on that. 
      “I have fallen far from the respectable ton. What kind of man would want me now?” She shook her head and waved off his answer. “You, my dear lord, are changing the subject.”
       He laughed, but the sound echoed false in his ears. “I tried.” He smiled at his self-proclaimed little sister and shook his head. He could not fathom a valid reason for not visiting her more often, but it had been too long since he had sat at her tables.
       “What of you, will you marry soon?” He snorted bitter laughter. She jumped and placing a hand over her heart frowned in displeasure. “That, my lord, is a bad attitude to have.”  
      He tried to smile, but could not manage and only shook his head. “I will never marry. It is not in the cards for my future.” He pulled another long drink and sighed. With the way his body was failing to respond to his mistresses he had a bad feeling that marriage was the least of his worries. His passions were gone for a woman within a couple of times, how would he ever satisfy a wife for a lifetime?
      “You should marry.” She tilted her head, a sadness touching both her lips and her eyes. “You cannot spend your life in the past.”
      He frowned deeply. “I know.”
    “Do you?” 
      He refused to answer, afraid of what would come out of his mouth if he opened it.
      “Please do not wait months to come see me the next time.” Not waiting for a response she kissed him gently on the brow and left him with his bottle and his misery. 
      Pert stared at her retreating figure and silently cursed her. Not because of her words, but because he knew they were correct. Images of Caroline swirled through his mind and his heart sank. He had loved her; he still loved her. 
       He took a long swig of brandy straight from the decanter, pushing his thoughts away the best he could.
      He drank heavily. The demons swarmed around him, racing through his thoughts and bringing nightmarish images that he had thought long buried. It soon became apparent that he was getting no closer to the sweet oblivion he desired. He grunted loudly as the last of the brandy flowed from the bottle. He considered ordering another, but quickly changed his mind. 
      There was a full bottle at his library in his father’s manor and just perhaps he could outrun his demons on the way. And once there, there would be no people staring at him or gossiping about his drinking. 
      Without finding Joanna, he stumbled toward the door, his horse and what he hoped was salvation.

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