Trapped by Scandal
London, October 1795
Lady Hermione Fanshawe drummed her long fingers on the gaming table in one of the private gambling rooms leading off the Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens. Her vivid green eyes held exasperation as she watched Sir Anthony Cardew toss the dice onto the baize-topped table.
“Perish it,” he grumbled as once more he lost his bet. His took a long swallow from his glass of burgundy, and his gaze, narrowed and bloodshot, flicked across to Lady Hermione. “Come, Hero, sweetheart, let me have that pretty bracelet . . . I swear I’ll win it back next throw.” He reached across to take her narrow wrist encircled with the dainty diamond-and-pearl bracelet.
She snatched her hand away. “No, Tony. You’re too drunk to see straight, let alone make a decent wager. You may write your own IOUs.” Pushing back her chair, she stood up amidst a chorus of protests from the men around the table, all convinced her presence was bringing them luck. With a brief gesture of farewell, she picked up her sil
ver eye mask, which she had discarded earlier, and turned from the table, her domino of lustrous emerald-green silk swirling around her as she walked away, ignoring the protests. She paused in the doorway to the central area of the Rotunda to tie the mask once more before venturing out of the private room. This masquerade was a public one, and the brilliantly illuminated gardens beyond the Rotunda were filled with rowdy crowds enjoying the license of anonymity in their masks and dominoes. Not without cause were the public masquerades at Ranelagh and Vauxhall known for their licentiousness.
Hero glanced around the throng gathered for the concert in the Rotunda as she deftly tied the strings of the strip of silver silk behind her head. And her fingers abruptly stilled. She stared through the slits in her mask, her heart banging against her ribs.
It wasn’t possible. Not here.
She stood unmoving, her gaze riveted to the tall, slender figure in the black domino and black velvet mask. She knew every line of that lithe body, and when he moved across the Rotunda, she recognized with a jolt to the pit of her stomach the almost leonine stride, powerful yet soundless, seemingly indolent yet pulsing with energy. His dark chestnut hair was cropped short in the fashionable style, but the single unruly lock she remembered so well still fell across his broad forehead.
She felt suddenly suffocated, grateful for her mask and domino, as she edged through the concertgoers to the fresh night air of the gardens. Why was he here? Frivolous enjoyment was not something one associated with William
Ducasse, Viscount St. Aubery. He could be congenial company, with his ready sense of humor and dry wit, but no one in his company ever failed to realize that he was driven by some much stronger motivation than simple pleasure.
Her heart was still beating uncomfortably fast, and the last words he had spoken to her rang in her ears. In the last twelve months, she had forced herself to forget or at least not to think about him or how they had parted, but all resolution fled the moment she laid eyes on him again.
He hadn’t seen her, and he wouldn’t have recognized her if he had, not dressed as she was. Her step quickened on the gravel path as if she were fleeing some pursuer, but there was no way he would be following her.
However, someone was. The old sixth sense prickled, lifting the fine hairs on her nape. She had been so wrapped up in her thoughts she hadn’t realized how far she had drifted from the illuminated walks and lawns, and somehow she had wandered down one of the many dark, shrub-lined walks that were favorite spots for illicit assignations and any kind of knavery.
A voice called from behind her. “Hey, sweetheart, you could do with some company, I’ll warrant.” The voice was slurred with drink, and a second voice, equally slurred, chimed in, “Stop, sweetheart. ’Tis a chill night. Stay for a kiss to warm you.”
Her heart stopped its frantic beating, and a cool stillness entered her. She had faced worse than two drunken sots on a darkened path at Ranelagh. She called over her shoulder as she took a quick step sideways onto a narrower walk, “I thank you, sirs, but I have no need of company.”
She heard them laugh, close behind her now. And it was not pleasant laughter. Hero stopped on the path and turned to face them. Of course, she presented an inviting target. No lady of breeding would be caught wandering alone in the shadows of Ranelagh. They probably took her for a harlot trolling for custom off the beaten track.
They lurched up to her, laughing, one of them holding an open bottle of champagne. They had discarded their masks and wore their dominoes open to show the fine silk of their knee britches and embroidered coats. A pair of overprivileged sots, Hero decided contemptuously, who thought they could do exactly as they pleased with anyone they deemed fair game, any member of the underclasses.
She had only herself to blame for such a misinterpretation, however. Hero stood facing them on the narrow path. The shrubs on either side were tall and thick enough to prevent either of them from outflanking her.
“Oh, I believe we have a fighter on our hands, Carlton,” the one with the bottle said, hiccuping. He swung the bottle in a sudden vicious swipe towards Hero’s face. She ducked and swiftly brought up her knee as he advanced unsteadily. He doubled over, gasping, but his streaming eyes were filled with malicious intent as he looked up at her. “Get her, Carlton. She needs a lesson from her betters.”
The other hesitated for a moment, and in that moment, the butt of a pistol came down on the back of his head, knocking him senseless to the path. His fellow assailant, slowly straightening from his crouch of pain, was dropped similarly.
“Good evening, Hero. Up to your usual tricks, I see.” William Ducasse slid his silver-mounted pistol into his coat pocket beneath his domino. His tawny gold eyes regarded Hero with a gleam of amusement not unmixed with exasperation. “Why would you invite such discourtesy?”
“I didn’t,” she said shortly, wondering why she hadn’t heard him come up, but then one never heard the Viscount when he didn’t wish it. “I hadn’t realized how far from the Rotunda I’d walked, and those two . . .” Her lip curled as she regarded the senseless bodies on the path at her feet. “They were too drunk to reason with.”
“I’ll grant you that.” He held out his hand across the bodies. “Step over them.”
She put her silk-gloved hand into his and stepped across to stand beside him. “What are you doing here, William?”
“I was minding my own business,” he stated with emphasis. “Until you, my dear girl, made yourself my business.” He looked around the shadowed shrubbery. “Where is your escort . . . you do have an escort, I take it, despite evidence to the contrary?” That golden cat’s gaze was turned once more upon her in an uncomfortable scrutiny.
“I did,” she said crossly. “Right now, he’s losing the family fortune at dice with a brain too addled with drink to comprehend anything.”
“I see.” He bowed gravely, but his mouth curved in the oh-so-familiar smile that made her pulses race again. “Then allow me to escort you to your carriage, Lady Hero.” He offered his arm, but she hesitated, unwilling
to show meek obedience to the man who had always commanded it. There had been a time when no one in their right mind would have questioned his right to command it and to receive it, but that was then, and this was now, in London, on her own home ground, where she was quite capable of managing her own affairs.
“How did you recognize me?” she asked, not moving.
He gave a soft chuckle. “Oh, my dear, I could never fail to know if you were in the same room. I saw you standing in the Rotunda as you were tying your mask. I followed you because, well . . .” He shrugged. “Because I had the not unfamiliar feeling you were going to walk into trouble. Come, now.” He took her hand and drew her up beside him as he turned to walk back towards the lights and the music and the raucous merriment of the crowd.
She made no attempt to disengage her hand now. It would be a futile and undignified effort. “I came with Tony Cardew, and I can’t just take his carriage; he’ll need it.”
“Nonsense. I think Cardew, in all chivalry, should expect to see you home one way or another, and I intend to inform him of that fact.” He added, “I have no idea why you, of all people, would trouble yourself with such a brainless fop.”
“I daresay you don’t,” Hero muttered as they approached the long line of private carriages awaiting their owners’ pleasure. “But Tony can be pleasant company when he’s sober.”
“Can he, indeed?” was the sardonic rejoinder. “I never seem to see him sober.”
So how did William know Tony Cardew? she wondered. How long had he been in London? She had always understood that his visits to London were infrequent and didn’t involve much in the way of social mingling. Yet here he was in the thick of Society. What was his business this time?
It was an interesting, if unsettling, question but not one she could dwell on at present. It was always necessary to be on one’s toes around William, and she couldn’t allow herself to be distracted from giving as good she was getting in this exchange. Later she would have the chance to think clearly enough to look at what might be implied by his presence.
William raised a hand and waved at the carriage bearing the Cardew arms, and the coachman moved out of the line, turning his horses on the wide drive to bring the vehicle up beside them. The footman jumped down to open the door.
“Grosvenor Square,” William instructed the driver as he handed Hero into the carriage. “Sir Anthony will not be leaving for a while yet.”
She sat on the richly cushioned bench and regarded William as he stood in the doorway, one foot resting negligently on the footstep. “You’re not going to make sure I go straight home, then?” she inquired with a provocative smile.
For a moment, he returned her gaze steadily. Then he laughed, shaking his head. “Don’t tempt me, my dear. You may be careless of your reputation, but as you know full well, I am not. Go home, and be good.” He stepped back
and closed the door, watching as the coach moved away down the drive.
William had known he would probably run across Hero while he was in town—his present business meant that he would be moving in the Society circles she would naturally frequent—but he had thought he would be able to treat their inevitable meeting as a casual renewal of a chance acquaintanceship.
And what a foolish hope that was.
She was as lovely as ever, her hair that same rich mélange of burnt caramel shot through with streaks of gold. Her eyes were as brilliantly vivid as they had ever been. He had glimpsed her about town in the last weeks, and he was now used to seeing her in the delicate gowns and the glitter of gems that were her birthright, but she herself, that indomitable, reckless, spirited girl whose courage never failed her, seemed unchanged. She was still taking risks, still walking the edge of scandal. And dear God, he could not pretend to forget what they had been to each other. He had managed once to let her go, to force her away from him, for her sake as much as his own, but the sight of her, the sound of her voice, the touch of her hand, brought back the whole flood of sensation he could not afford to indulge . . . not if he was to stay focused on the only reality that mattered.
He turned back to the Rotunda. Sir Anthony Cardew at least would get the rough edge of his tongue. The man needed to understand he couldn’t bring a lady of Hermione’s standing to a public masquerade and then abandon her. But then, he reminded himself caustically, knowing
Hero, Tony Cardew probably hadn’t had much say in the matter. He gave a fleeting thought to the two young lordlings unconscious in the shrubbery and dismissed them. They’d received their just deserts. For a moment, he wondered how Hero would have dealt with them if he hadn’t appeared when he had.
He didn’t give much for their chances. The reflection brought a reluctant, reminiscent smile to his lips.