On A Long Ago Night
(from Avon, May 2000)
"Was it something I said?"
James Marbury was well aware of having just been insulted, but for his father's sake, he chose to lighten the moment with a joke.
"Hardly, James." His father put a long-fingered, aristocrat's hand on his arm. His right arm, James noticed; his sword arm. Edward Marbury, Viscount of Brislay looked beyond the little woman who had put herself between them and the tall, proud creature everyone was watching walk away. "I believe the lady of the house must be suddenly indisposed."
That was clearly nonsense, but James nodded his agreement. The Cut Direct, he believed it was called, had just been issued to him by the hostess of the ball. He almost laughed, as he was used to a direct cut hurting a great deal more than his pride. "It is not so serious, sir," he said with quiet reassurance, "if there is no blood involved." He received an understanding smile in response. It was good to see how the deep lines around the viscount's mouth and eyes transformed when he showed pleasure.
James was furious with the woman who had dared insult his father, but had learned long ago when not to let his true feelings show. In fact, the scars on his back twinged a little beneath the fine linen and wool clothing, reminding him of the days when keeping his feelings masked was necessary to staying alive. I might have liked her, he thought. Now, of course, she was his enemy. He wondered if he should make an effort to show her how dangerous a thing it was to be his enemy. He did not recall her face, for he had been caught by the sight of her flame red hair. I have a weakness for red haired women.
It was that weakness that drew him on, as much as his temper, and more than any need for revenge. "Excuse me," he said politely, after he kissed the hand of a handsome older woman who looked him over boldly and told him to call her Lady Kate. He knew it was not wise, but could not help but follow the very tall red haired woman.
James stalked her as carefully as a hunting cat through the crowded rooms. Heads turned to follow his progress. Many had seen the duke's daughter's behavior and word of it spread in a wave all through the party to those who had not. The wave moved ahead of him, but he ignored everything but his chosen prey. He spotted her standing before a huge portrait of a horse, being watched warily by a group of hired musicians. She was in their way, he thought, and too arrogant and thoughtless to care. James approached with caution, and a smile that spoke clearly to anyone who cared to note it that he was intent on conquest. The whispers about propriety would change to speculations of seduction soon enough. He had nothing to lose, but the haughty, disdainful woman would have to live with what she had started.
What the devil is the matter with me? What have I done to that poor young man? Honoria thought as she discovered she'd come to a halt in front of the place where the musicians were set up to play for the ball. She returned to her senses with an abrupt rush of mortification that had nothing to do with being talked about. Her temples throbbed with sudden pain, but she resisted the impulse to rub them. She never showed weakness - except for a few moments ago when she'd let fear of scandal cause her to act like a fool. The truth was the scandal she feared had nothing to do with anyone named Marbury. She stared at a spot on the wall where she knew a painting of her grandfather's favorite hunting horse hung as her thoughts whirled around her. She lived daily with being a fool, but such unkindness was not usually part of her normal behavior. She'd been cruel to a man who'd had the misfortune of being born out of wedlock - hardly something a Pyne should take offense at.
She would have like to blame her unconscionable behavior on her father for his scheming, or Lady Kate for her bluntness. She wanted to cry to them that they were being unfair and unkind, but they were being nothing of the sort. They did not and could not know the truth. Her reasons were her secrets to keep, that they ate her alive was only for her to know. Sometimes, such as a few moments ago, she simply went briefly mad from the pressure of living with it all. She did think that if Lady Kate hadn't mentioned the man, that with one exception, Honoria loathed above all others, she might have handled meeting the Honorable James Marbury with a certain aplomb.
Wait a moment The footman had announced Marbury by a title that would belong to the Viscount of Brislay's heir. She could not recall ever having heard that her father's friend was married, but he would not be likely to name a bastard his heir. Whatever gossip Lady Kate was privy to must be wrong. Honoria realized she should not have paid attention to her cousin's tattling.
"Oh, no." She sighed and rubbed her temples once more. "My behavior was not only utterly reprehensible, it was groundless," she whispered, needing to confess it, if only to grandfather's horse. "And where did this peculiar habit of talking to paintings come from this evening?" She was aware of a violinist eyeing her warily as she spoke, and prepared to back up and get out of the musicians way.
When she stepped back it was into a solid, living wall. Before she could whirl around, a voice whispered in her ear, "Perhaps you're afraid to speak to a real, living man."
Honoria lifted her head defiantly. "I'm not afraid of you," she announced to the man who wasn't there as his finger slowly traced down the side of her throat. Her pulse raced in the wake of that invisible touch.
"Perhaps you'll learn to be." His other hand touched her waist. She was drawn subtly, slowly, ever closer against him.
She was trembling and her knees had gone weak, but she attributed this reaction to the fact that she had gone completely mad. She refused to faint when a large, warm hand came to rest on her shoulder, but it was a near thing. The room whirled around her, her already faded view of her surroundings worsened as darkness threatened on the edge of her vision. A sound like the buzzing of angry bees filled her ears.
His hands were not touching her, of course, nor did she really feel the warm solid body she knew too well for her own good pressed against her back. This was some sort of fever dream, a hallucination. Her blood heated from the imagined contact, but the warmth could only be caused by illness. Perhaps she was sick in bed, fighting for her life with a high fever and her presence at the ball was a nightmare brought on by illness. The notion that she was infected with some sickness was a reassuring one. She longed for it to be true, but then, she was mad or she would not be hearing his voice. She had never in all these years imagined hearing his voice. Remembered it, of course - every deceptive or cruel word. But never before had he come into her dreams and told her anything new. He had always stayed safely in her past before. Well, not safely. Nothing about him was safe, not even the memories.
"Turn around and look at me."
She shook her head, which did nothing to help the dizziness. "Go away. I don't want you here. Leave me alone, you bastard."
"My parents are married, senorita duquesa."
Of course. They'd had this conversation before.
"My parents were married," he insisted. "So you should not call me that." He paced back and forth before her, his large presence filling the small but opulent bedroom. He wore a heavy brocade robe of scarlet and black with nothing on beneath it. It was loosely tied so that it showed of his broad chest and the occasional flash of strong, sturdy thigh as he moved. She curled her bare legs beneath her on the end of the bed and watched as he restlessly crossed from one side of the Oriental rug to the other several times. A flame flickered behind the colored glass shade of the lamp on the table beside where she sat, throwing rainbows among the shadows on the wall, and on her naked skin. The breeze that came in through the latticed window brought the scent of jasmine from the garden and of the sea beyond the walls of the city. "Mamacita has a ring with a jewel in it," he went on. "A ruby. She wears it around her neck because it is not safe to wear jewels where we lived. I pray she still has it," he added.
"I was referring to your character, not your birthright," she said now, as she had said then, and turned around to face the thing she feared. "Hello, Diego," she said, and slapped the Honorable James Marbury in the face with all the strength that was in her.
She did not wait for his or anyone else's reaction. She picked up her heavy skirts and ran toward a side door and out of the room.
Copyright © 2000 by Susan Sizemore