—London, England, Early March; 1801
——Easter Break: before the main season begins
The dark amber liquid swirled creating a catacomb of hidden caves and somewhere in that intoxicating mixture of light and darkness, the demons lie, waiting for a fool to release them.
He could not catch sight of his elusive tormentors, but he knew without a doubt they were there. They were mischievous imps and loved to wreak havoc, they always did once set free.
It was safer to put it down, to walk away, and leave them be. The swirls slowed and then stilled. The demons called to him, begging to be released from their liquid prison. His hand shook and ripples broke the smooth surface. He inhaled deeply, the acrid aroma of alcohol burning his lungs.
He tilted the crystal decanter until it hovered just above his glass. The demons whispered, but he pushed them away. He poured a small, respectable amount of the high-end brandy that was always present in his London townhouse, and took long slow breaths allowing his body to calm and his mind to drift until he felt like a feather drifting amongst the clouds.
"But, Pert, you said you wanted me." Jacalyn's whine pierced him like a dagger, demolishing the clouds and plummeting him back to reality.
Lord Pertworth Dansfire, known lovingly as Pert to those who cared about him, and Dansfire to those who disdained him, could see the pout on her face without even turning around. It was a familiar pout, one she had perfected long before he had met her. Her eyes would be shimmering with near tears, but her dark brown eyes would be conniving. She knew her beauty and had learned to use it well.
He groaned as the demon's claws dug into him, dragging him into their depths. He tilted the decanter once more, this time filling the glass to the rim. The liquor burned as he drained it in one greedy gulp.
He spilled a few drops onto a trembling hand as he refilled his glass. He took a slow sip this time, enjoying the heat that raced to his stomach and the buzz that climbed to his head.
Steeling himself, he turned to face his most recent mistress, 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, her lower lip trembling in the expected pout.
She was gorgeous, the kind of beauty that most women only dreamed about. Perfect lips, porcelain skin, and a body that could wrap itself around a man until he could not breathe, let alone think. She was a goddess.
So why could he not find any passion for her, any desire? He asked himself this question, as he had for the last several months, but no answer came. As he stared at her, unable to find any words of comfort to appease her the silence grew thick and suffocating.
She looked at him expectantly and when he still did not speak she finally broke the silence, her words lilting and sweet. "I told you I was 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, it was devilish of me to push it." She fluttered her eyelashes at him and smiled, a smile that should have made him weak at the knees.
He drained the last of his brandy as she twisted the red silk between her fingers in what was either a ployed 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 flatly declined, telling her he had no desire to marry. Not now, not ever. Not her, not anyone. He had felt like a heel to do so, but it had accomplished one thing, it had silenced her.
At least temporarily, he thought with a groan.
"Pert?" Her voice was now quiet, almost too soft to hear, but it brought his attention out of the past.
He took a deep breath. "I am sorry as well," he said and was relieved to find he truly was. Last night she had called him a beast and he had not argued. He had felt like a beast, still felt like one this morning. "I should not have been so rough with you last night."
She sniffled, but he thought it was more of an act than any real emotion. He sat his empty glass on the table with a thunk and sighed. Shoulders tight, he made his way to the bed.
He forced a smile and gently wiped the tears from her cheek. “It is all going to be fine.”
She looked up at him, through tear-streaked lashes, in what he was sure was a well-practiced move. He sat beside her, the bed creaking beneath his weight. She rocked against him as the mattress dipped, a bare breast pressing against his arm. She looked up at him, her lips curved in invitation.
His stomach rolled, concern worming its way through him. He kissed along the soft lines of her lips and ran his hand beneath the silken wrap that was draped across her naked shoulders.
He pressed her onto the bed kissing along her jawline and down her neck, her skin breaking into gooseflesh as his warm breath caressed her. He slipped the silk away a little at a time following his trailing hands with kisses. He stopped at an erect nipple. He expected an arch to greet him, a moan to encourage him. But he got neither.
In fact, he got nothing.
Her normally energetic lovemaking was gone and in its place was a lifeless enthusiasm. Motionless beneath him on the large feather bed, her earlier expressions replaced with one of bored reluctance, of punishment.
He took a deep breath, the smell of powder and rouge, thick and cloying, was overpowering. He yanked his dressing robe out of the way and positioned himself between her open and waiting thighs. He kissed her, he rubbed her, he pressed all her normal buttons.
She only lay there like a dead horse.
Irritation, spawned by too much brandy and too little sleep, was turning to anger. Her spiteful indifference was only a small part of it. The biggest part was reserved for himself and his rebellious body that had shown 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 over him and sucking him under. He closed his eyes, 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 her emotionless response, or lack thereof, that were causing his malady. He dropped his head against her warm shoulder and groaned.
"Is everything all right? Nothing appears to be happening....I mean, down there." Jacalyn sounded almost happy, gloating.
Pert's head spun, his breath hitching in a throat now filled with sawdust as panic overwhelmed him. He had to get away, from her, from himself, from it all.
He shoved away from her and lunged off of the bed. Suddenly he felt apart from himself, floating above a scene he wished he could believe was just a bad dream, a nightmare from which he would soon awake.
He watched this ghostly version of himself dress rapidly, leaving his white silk shirt unbuttoned and flailing as he rushed around the room. Jacalyn had left the bed and was sputtering words that he could not hear. He was thankful for that much at least. Pert watched himself as he pulled on his boots and grabbed the brandy decanter.
He took a long drink straight from the bottle, fire ripping down his throat and setting his stomach ablaze. He coughed, deep and painful, and suddenly he was once more himself, no longer just a safe bystander watching this nightmare happen to someone else. He turned and fled the townhouse.
He kicked the stable door open, stumbling past the snoozing stable boy, and grabbing his saddle. He marched to his large bay stallion, throwing the stall door open with a bang, as the open-mouthed stable hand stared at him in bleary-eyed shock. Pert swung the saddle at the horse’s back, almost losing both it and his brandy decanter in the process. The horse skittered away and the saddle banged into Pert's shin. He mumbled a curse, but one more toss and the saddle was in place. Holding the decanter tight and taking occasional sips, he managed to cinch the girth. He wobbled and took another drink before swinging his boot for the stirrup. He cursed when his foot thumped heavily back to the ground, the shock of impact trembling up his leg. Banshee turned and snorted.
"Bloody Hell, no one asked you." He grumbled, this time managing to find the stirrup, despite it wavering in and out of focus. He waved off the stable boy who, regaining his senses, had stepped forward to assist him.
Pert tried to mount, but his leg bounced off Banshee’s rump. The horse snorted and skittered away, dragging Pert along by one leg. The young stable hand grabbed the reins holding him steady as Pert finally found his seat.
Pert gave Banshee an irritable kick. The large stallion lunged forward jerking Pert back in the saddle. He grabbed a handful of whipping mane to keep from slamming back to the stable floor. Just what he needed make his night perfect, to have a laughing stable kid help him up.
He took a deep breath, and pain clouded his thoughts, grabbing his temples he nearly unseated himself once again. He shook his head trying to dispel the anger that still tormented him, but the pounding hooves that rattled and clanged across the rough cobblestones did nothing to help his pain or his irritation.
He could see houses from the corner of his eye, he could see street signs, but he could not get his vision to focus on what the names were before they were whipping past him, and soon the blurred images faded to nothing. His fingers relaxed their grip on the reins, and the empty brandy decanter fell from numb fingers and crashed to the cobblestones below. He heard the tinkling explosion, but it was far off, like the distant shot of a hunter. He closed his eyes, wondering absently if the hunter had made the kill, and let 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 loathed 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 frightened and excited him. Let their mayhem take him, he thought. He was of no use to anyone anyway.
The demon's enticing whispers teased him, flitting about in the rushing wind. Their voices were nonsensical, but he knew what they were 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 cobblestones. Suddenly they 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 into his hands, but the pain was far away, 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 to ignore it, but he could almost feel the darkness that pursued him and he urged his mount to greater speeds. He was afraid to look behind him, knowing he would see the pale moonlight glinting off the beady eyes of the bats those wings belonged to.
He leaned into the rushing wind, fear and confusion crashed together and tore at his sanity. He tried to focus on the wind, tried, unsuccessfully, to drive away his demons. He pushed the horse faster, but nothing calmed the storm that raged inside him.
He squinted into the darkness, but the night held no calming peace, no safe haven in which he could find solace. What there was in that quiet made his innards tighten. The image of Jacalyn's beautiful face jumped out of the darkness accusingly. He teetered, letting out a dark curse as he clenched the pommel, barely staying upright.
He blinked heavily into the wind to dislodge this drunken, guild-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 reaching branches were all that surrounded him.
Banshee thundered on and in Pert’s drunken state the thought of slowing did not cross his mind. An old and gnarled oak sprang up in his path. He wrenched on the reins, Banshee fighting to keep his head.
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’s hooves scrambled for purchase, the reaching tips of the branches sliding across Pert's chest and snagging on his shirt as they came to a jarring stop.
This tree had, on many a night, unseated the careless and the drunken. Tonight Pert was both and he thanked the heavens he had not been knocked senseless by the familiar tree.
He decided he had not drunk nearly enough to soothe his frayed nerves. But now he knew where he was. A smile touched his lips, he knew who could help him. The endearing talents of Lady Joanna Torsdale would make his night pleasurable.
He turned 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 the number of times she had been 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 question where the money had come from. Pert had his suspicions, but Pert 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 begun to run it.
As if Pert's thoughts had conjured the blessed vision, a soft lantern glow appeared in the distance luring him forward. Relief surged through him. "I should have just come her 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 man 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. only leaned into her warmth, inhaling 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 shoulder.
She chuckled. "You already look 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 you got any worse."
"And one would think that a friend would not bedevil me while I am clearly not in 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 or her drink. Pert had changed all that.
He scoffed. He had never understood why he was one of the elite, one of the trendsetters. 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 touched his heart, he had been devastated when Michael had died. He had stood by Joanna's side and their shared grief had made them close.
Annoyed at society's 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 and 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."
"Most every night, though you would know that if ever deemed to come and see me anymore." Her voice was teasing, but the hurt hidden beneath it pulled at his heart.
He kissed her upturned forehead. "You are correct, and for that I am sorry." 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 onto 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 was reluctant to ask, he had no desire for her to leave his side.
"They will not miss me," she said with a laugh. Her fingers wrapped delicately around his wrist. He sighed deeply at the warmth of her small hand.
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 with 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, or how to fix it.
"What is it that ails you tonight, my love?" 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 glass of courage. He fought to get his thoughts in order, but it was useless, they kept wandering back to the mistresses that had come and gone from his life. Each one more beautiful than the last, his mistresses held less and less appeal to him.
His joy in their company seemed to fade quickly. 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 he had taken 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 question then." Her chiding words pulled him from his depressing reverie. "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 smiled, realizing how much he had missed his dear friend. She was beautiful, her long pale blonde hair spilling around a soft white face and tumbling down her shoulders well past her trim waist. It cascaded over the soft curves of her hips and disappeared beneath the table.
Warm fingers grasped his chin and 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 and bitter, but he did not know how to fix that either. He took a long swill of the brandy and tried to ignore this panic. He refilled his glass before turning back to her. Her pained expression tore at him. "You know I did not mean that."
Her smile was sad as she reached across the table and grasped his cold fingers. "I know. I just want what is best for you."
He leaned over and softly kissed the dropped corner of her frown. "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 into a soft laugh and she shook her head. “You are impossible.”
"Are you ever going to remarry?"
Her eyes widened in surprise and her smile faded. "I do not plan to remarry, ever...besides, it is not safe for the man I marry. I am cursed and it is better for me to keep my distance."
"You are not cursed and you cannot just remain unmarried. You loved being married, and you are too full of love and spirit not to share it with someone."
"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, are changing the subject."
"I tried." He smiled at his self-proclaimed little sister. 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.
"But since you have changed the subject, let us run with it. Will you marry soon?"
He snorted bitter laughter. She jumped and placed a hand over her heart frowning in displeasure. "That, my lord, is a bad attitude to have."
"I will never marry." He pulled another long drink and sighed. With the way his body was failing to respond he had a bad feeling that marriage was the least of his worries. He could barely pretend passion for a woman for a time or two rolling through the sheets, how could he ever manage to 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."
"I know." He dropped his gaze to his empty glass, but he didn't fill it.
"Do you really?"
He refused to answer, afraid of what would come out of his mouth if he opened it.
"Please do not wait months to come to see me the next time." Not waiting for a response she kissed him gently on the temple 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 looking at the women rushing across the room from lap to lap he changed his mind.
There was a full bottle in the 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 to the door, his horse and what he hoped was salvation.
Copyright © 2023 Dawn Chandler - All Rights Reserved.