I do not
How to explain
The beginning of my life was
…Damn. Just start the bloody thing.
My mother declared no good would come of me. As, at the time she’d uttered these fatalistic words I had just caught her tupping the upstairs footboy, I took little notice of her pronouncement.
At Eton, the masters shook their heads and murmured nothing good would come of the Harrison boy. Prescribing to the notion that sparing the rod would spoil the child, the masters made it so my first year I was unable to seat myself without pain.
At first, I wanted to prove them wrong. I tried harder at my studies. I avoided the obvious calamities, and even some of those less obvious. Their disdain, however, remained constant and eventually I saw my attempts as the futile exercise they were. It was remarkably easy to let my studies slide. To actively pursue calamity. I did all of this, and felt a measure of pride when I overheard the masters’ derision.
Eton also opened a host of new ways to live down to the expectations of those around me. In my fifteenth year, I discovered gambling and thus, never again had to apply to my father for an extension of my allowance. Through this new passion I discovered a knack for organisation and, for a small fee, the Harrison Betting Book came into operation. The funds under my care I invested short-term, making a nice little profit on the side and further lessening my dependence upon the man who sired me. By some random happenstance, I featured prominently in numerous entries in the Book. Funny that.
Some lads would complain of their losses, demanding the return of their funds in totality. As this went against every tenet of business I knew, I naturally refused. This in turn led to the hasty procurement of a security service in the form of Henry the stable lad, the boy eager for a bit of extra dosh and the opportunity to pound his betters when they got out of line.
At Cambridge, I discovered women. No. Let me be honest. I discovered sex. It had little to do with the woman in question and everything to do with the pleasure her body afforded me. A birthday extravagance was the first introduction and I fairly drowned in flesh after that. That is, I did until the indiscriminate slake of my body’s urges lost its appeal.
The introduction into society brought new amusements. Being the only son of an Earl, and hence heir to both the coronet and the fortune, I was not in want of female companionship. Though recently sworn off an excess of the pleasures of the flesh, I was not wholly a monk. London offered new opportunities and I was a young man with undiscovered territories before me. I indulged.
The young misses hoping to become my future countess threw themselves at me with alarming regularity. It became a game, playing them off against the other, watching in amusement the lengths to which they, and their mamas, would go to garner my attention. Unfortunately, I made the fatal mistake of taking a passionate embrace a shade too far during some ball I barely recall.
I do remember her, though. Miss Stanhope. Recently down from the country for her second season. Despairing of ever gaining a full dance card, as each event invariably left one spot free. Hoping to see as much of London as possible during her stay, as last season had been a whirl of events, so much so that she hadn’t had the time to do any proper sight seeing and she wanted to visit the timepiece at Greenwich–
I remember Miss Stanhope’s eyes. Ice blue and, at first glance, so cold. It wasn’t until you got closer, until you danced with her, spoke with her, that you knew the ice was false, a thin veneer veiling warmth and laughter.
Her hair was red, deep and fiery. The contrast between the two, the fire and ice of her colouring…It made her memorable. More than memorable. Incomparable.
She had been neglected most of the night, a state I found unbelievable. How was it that such a girl should find herself alone? Could other men not see…well, her? Her lack of suitors did, however, make it easy for me to approach her, and their lack was my gain.
It was ridiculous, how easy it was to convince her to leave the ballroom. How easy to steal a kiss. How easy to forget the world around us. I should have known it wouldn’t last.
She – Miss Stanhope – truly seemed shocked when they came upon us, my hand down her bodice and hers gripping my back. I don’t believe that it had been design, that she’d meant to trap herself an earl, but, from her newly disillusioned eyes, she seemed to think I had meant to ruin her.
After the initial shock had passed, not more than a moment or two, I quite calmly pulled my hand from Miss Stanhope’s chest and, trying not to think on ice-blue eyes and the lie they believed, arranged a mocking smile upon my features, daring the interlopers to comment. Of course they did, demanding I marry the girl. In my extreme youth, I had not yet obtained the experience necessary to deal with indignant societal mamas. I made what was a mild infraction into a complete debacle. And Miss Stanhope still believed I had meant to lead her to ruin.
Of course, I did not lose by the scandal. If anything, my acquaintances praised me and my reputation as a grand seducer was secured at the ripe old age of twenty three. But she…Miss Stanhope lost everything. There would be no trips to Greenwich for her.
My existence, such as it was, continued as it ever had. Now deemed a dissolute reprobate, the habits of a lifetime took hold and I lived down to everyone’s expectations. I am not asking for sympathy. My actions were deplorable and I offer no excuses.
For the purposes of this, I will not dwell on that time. I hope you shall never
I will not subject you to
I will only say it is of the utmost surprise I did not suffer financial ruin or physical degradation. It was not because of discrimination on my behalf. I was shockingly indiscriminate.
Eleven years passed. Then, a chance encounter, not more than a moment, and my life was changed.
Hyde Park. A Wednesday afternoon. It was overcast.
I saw you.
You were standing by the side of the path, frowning at your companion. The woman was conversing with a couple, a conversation to which you didn’t appear included, and your gloved hands gripped your parasol in irritation, so much so I thought your knuckles might split the leather. A shockingly green gown clothed your form and a matching bonnet disguised the colour of your hair, though I knew it would be red, fiery and deep.
You turned your head. You saw me.
That was the moment.
Such an insignificant thing to have such an impact. I couldn’t move, could only stare. Your gaze travelled over me and then continued on. My lungs began to work once more and I turned on my heel, leaving before you could see me again. See me and recognise me.
I determined to forget you. Oh, I had the very best of intentions but of course I couldn’t stop thinking about you. Of course I had to know. And so, I undertook to discover what had happened, after that night. I told myself I was simply curious, that I always found what happened to the women I…sported with. But even as I lied, I knew you were different.
Miss Sofia Stanhope, of the ice blue eyes. Miss Sofia Stanhope, the silly debutante with the silly dream of visiting Greenwich. Miss Sofia Stanhope, who had brought about my fall
No. I brought about my fall. No other. Not you. Never you.
Reliable sources informed me your parents had married you off to some insignificant aristo in the wake of the scandal, some distant Viennese relative of your mother’s. After an extended honeymoon tour, you settled in Vienna and from there the account grew thin. When your parents decided to do away with you, they did it well, did they not?
I engineered a situation which might produce a meeting though I knew it was most like to end badly. Your mother, though obviously possessed of a disgust of me, could not refuse the insistence of a peer of the realm, and thus, I was invited to the first ball. You didn’t notice me and I was content just to watch you.
The next ball, you saw me.
My heart turned to lead at your expression, but it did not stop me from forcing an introduction. You were polite but dismissive. However, convention dictated that you could not refuse a dance if your card was not full…and yours always had that one last space.
Some lucky happenstance engineered that a waltz would be our dance. It felt…good to hold you in my arms. I even
There are no words to describe.
You, of course, took the opportunity to hurl some well-placed barbs. It seemed the past years had brewed in you quite a resentment toward me. I didn’t blame you. How could I? I did enjoy you invectives however. You were very creative. I think my favourite was when you compared me to a pestilent camel four days without water. I wish I spoke German. The insults you hurled in your husband’s tongue sounded deliciously vulgar.
After the dance, I returned you to your friends, all of whom gaped unattractively. I, however, determined to behave with the utmost propriety and merely bowed over your hand, murmuring my pleasure at the dance.
I resolved then and there not to bugger this up. Every action of mine would be above reproach. You should never again have to bow your head in shame.
It was so much easier in theory than in practice. Laughable they were, my attempts at courtship. Having never respectably undertaken such a thing before, I was at a loss how to go about it. I don’t blame you for disregarding me, returning every gift I sent, most without note or comment. At first my gifts were trite, meaningless rubbish, roses and chocolates that you must have received in spades.
I doubled my efforts, trying to tailor each gift to you alone. A pamphlet on the sights of London gained me no ground, neither the Viennese pastries I had ordered to your door. Though I knew it too personal, too extravagant, I could not turn from the replica timepiece in Greenwich. I was not surprised when you returned it. I was surprised, however, by the note that came with it. In the note, you implored me to leave you be, that I was gaining no ground by this barrage of gifts.
I considered your words. I did. I just…I couldn’t let you go. Not again.
That night, the night of the fireworks in Vauxhall Gardens, I was at my wit’s end. Bloody hell, what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t stop. I had pursued you that evening, tried to get you to talk to me, and you had wavered. I knew you had. Just for a moment, I teased a fraction of a smile, a slight warmth in your eyes. But just as quickly it was gone and you sent me away.
I was going to leave. I was going to return to my town house and leave you be. For that night, at least. So it was an accident I stumbled across you. Across you and Harrough.
An accident. Bloody hell. I could have passed you so easily. If that bastard had…If he had hurt you-
I would have destroyed him.
You were pale and you were shaking and I don’t think you even realised you were crying. I didn’t know what to do. You were so…And I…God, I should have ended Harrough for doing that to you.
Wrapping my arms around you, hoping that would do something, I found myself crooning soothing noises, nonsense words, but it seemed to comfort you and you burrowed deeper into me, you hands clenching the lapels of my jacket. I feathered my lips over your hair, your temples, and that seemed to help. The tension in your frame lessened.
Cupping your face, I wiped away the tracks of your tears with my thumbs and your hands came up to clasp my wrists but you didn’t pull me away. You didn’t pull away. Quietly, I asked if you wanted to return to your parents, but you shook your head, your hands still curled around my wrists.
The frustration of cloth was between us but I was loath to remove my gloves, to take my hands from you lest you push me away, lest this strange closeness disappear. Finally you looked at me, ice-blue eyes wet, and it was a struggle to not go after Harrough. It was a struggle but not for any reason on this earth would I leave you alone to settle my selfish wants.
You took a breath. Another. Reluctantly, I made to release you, to remove my offensive hands from your person, but you wouldn’t let me. You clung tight to my wrists and you looked at me.
My heart sped. My blood thickened. God, what kind of man was I, to want you at a time such as this? I wanted to put my hands where his had been, smooth the feel of him from your skin. I wanted my lips to banish the memory of his.
And I wanted you, just because it was you.
Your gaze dropped to my mouth and it was a struggle. It was a Goddamn struggle. I recited Milton. Remembered statistics from the Betting Book. Anything to rid myself of the imagined invitation in your eyes.
But then, you stood on tiptoe and placed your lips against mine.
Shock was my first reaction. After months of rejection, now this? At first tentative, you quickly lost your reserve…and I lost myself. You explored my mouth, your tongue tempting mine, teasing my lips, flicking my teeth, enticing me to do the same. Blood thrummed in my ears and I held you close.
It was the best damn kiss of my life.
When it was over, you pulled back. Studied me. I started to speak, but you stopped me, your thumb over my lips. Instead, I watched you as you watched me, as you searched my face. Then, your hand cupped my cheek.
And you smiled.
Ironic, was it not, that the second downfall happened in precisely the same manner as the first. Two months we had. Only two months. Bloody hell, I was working up the nerve to court you proper, to announce my intentions to your father rather than clandestine meetings at balls and recitals. Two bloody months.
On that night, I’d coaxed you into the gardens at the Llywellyn’s ball with the bait of stargazing. You smiled wickedly, knowing I was much more interested in earthier bodies, but you gave me your hand as you had every time for all of those two months.
To be fair, we did begin with celestial observation. You pointed out Orion and Venus and I pretended interest, nuzzling your neck and doing my utmost to distract you. Laughing, you protested but you kissed me anyway.
Your mouth was devouring mine, my hand at your waist, yours in my hair. You heard them first. You stiffened and I-Lackwit that I am, I didn’t notice. You had to pinch me to get me to lift my head and, when I did, there, in a grotesque re-enactment of the events of nearly twelve years past, were the disapproving stares of three of the biggest gossips in London.
My stomach sinking, I stared at them, feeling your stiff body in my embrace. However, those twelve years, besides separating me from you, also afforded me the experience to deal with the situation. Preventing you from fleeing, I folded you to my side and stared at them.
They tried to intimidate but I would not let them ruin you. Not again. They bleeted about how this scandal would set London on its ear but I told them, quite simply, they had seen nothing. My tone, and the steel in my eye, convinced them that indeed nothing had occurred and they left with nary a sound between them.
I turned to you. I raised my hand to your cheek but you flinched from me. You flinched.
You then asked, calmly, if this is what you could expect. If, always, there would be scandal.
What could I say? Tell me, Sofie, what could I say?
You left me. You turned and you left. How could I defend my past, when it was indefensible. My life had always been a scandal. We had begun with scandal. How was I to change this? I was trying, though. I tried every day. I tried so fucking hard and you left me. You left. I-
I knew I would not see you again. I stayed at home, saw no one, went nowhere. After a month of such behaviour, I even disgusted myself.
I rose from my bed and pulled back the drapes, squinting at the harsh afternoon sunlight for the first time in weeks. Calling for a bath, I set about making myself presentable for company once more. Always I took my own toilette and, while shaving the month-old beard from my face, I noticed the change. Eyes locked on my reflection, I washed the soap off my face, turned my head this way and that.
My jawline had smoothed, the skin stretched taut over the bone. The pouches under my eyes had disappeared, and, for the first time in…I cannot remember how long, I looked well. Healthy. A little pale but only from lack of fresh air.
Examining my body, I discovered my stomach had reduced in girth, the heaviness about my shoulders gone. Previous to this, I’d displayed a general fleshiness that I did not remember from my youth but now I looked to have lost that softening of flesh, so much so the delineation of muscles could be easily discerned.
In addition to my appearance, my health in general had improved. No longer did the burning pain that had lodged itself below my ribs trouble me and I noticed none of the lethargy that had plagued me for years.
As the week wore on, I saw other changes, all for the better. My staff, always sullen, pleasantly greeted me as I passed. Alcohol no longer permeated the rooms and clothing survived past a single wear. I also found myself possessed of an excess of energy and became, quite to everyone’s astonishment, a fixture at the duelling club of whose membership, thus far, I’d neglected to partake. I actually became quite good at fencing. Who knew I was athletic?
The only thing that marred my new-found sobriety was the absolute boredom with which I was faced. When one’s time is not taken up with drinking and fuc uh, entertaining women until the wee hours of the morning, when instead one rises with the sun instead of it marking the end of one’s night, well, I found myself with a surplus of time.
At first, I attempted estate work but my stewards, used to neglect of mammoth proportions since my father’s death, had all matters well in hand. Indeed, I was loath to upset a system that clearly worked.
And so, I looked for ways to fill the hours between waking and sleeping. I looked into philanthropy, and discovered I had not the temperament for dealing with imbecilic board members and their convoluted ways of administering to the less fortunate. I found it easier and quicker to set up my own fund, appoint a few worthy people and let them handle it.
All too soon, I found myself at a loss again. A chance encounter with an old school chum pointed me in the direction of the ’Change and it was here that I found the means to keep myself occupied day after day. It was not much different from the betting book I had maintained at Eton, except now it was on a much grander scale. Once I felt confident of the system, I discretely enquired of acquaintances if they required assistance with their own investments. Soon I had a nice little group of investors to manage and a way to keep my days occupied.
But there was one final test.
I dressed myself carefully that night, in no way fooling myself as to my true reason for such precision. I knew I was delaying the moment I actually had to leave the safety of the house. Terror gripped me, the fear that I would revert to old habits, that everything I had gained over these last months would be lost.
I needed to do it, though. I needed to know if I was truly that weak.
I entered the gaming house. A thick miasma of smoke hung heavy in the air, burning my lungs. It was the same as always. The same patrons. The same dealers. The same whores. The play was deep, and many were well into their cups, but I was not tempted to join them. Indeed, I had no desire
That is a lie. I did want to join them.
I remembered the bliss of a life hazed by alcohol. I remembered the freedom from memory, the freedom of doing as I pleased with no care for consequence. I looked at the whores in their cheap finery and remembered losing myself in a bought embrace. I remembered freedom from pain, from the knowledge that I had hurt you. From the knowledge that you didn’t want me.
Taking a whiskey from a travelling waiter, I ignored the look of surprise at my theft and raised the glass, fully intending to down the contents in one swallow.
I couldn’t do it. Carefully, I placed the glass down, and then I left.
All the way home, I could not shake the image of my jaw in the mirror. The incredible energy I had when I woke when I bounded from bed. I would not go back. I refused to.
It was while digesting this astounding revelation that I made another. I didn’t need you. Do not read this wrong. I wanted you desperately, and my life would be so much richer if I could share it with you, but I didn’t need you.
I could transform myself, because I wanted to. True that you were the catalyst but also true that I liked this new life I had somehow created. I liked that I no longer had constant sick headaches from consuming too much brandy. I liked the respect my servants afforded me, the smiles I had won from them. I liked that dissipation was no longer my companion, that I’d not shot at someone in over five months nor had the sickly sweet scent of cheap perfume permeating my clothing. I was fitter, healthier, than I could ever remember being, and my mind was clear and being put to good use.
Somehow, I had created a life of respectability…and no one had ever expected that.
I saw you at the Hendersons’ musical last week. You were laughing. You’d done something to your hair. And you looked so goddamn beautiful.
I wanted to approach you. I started to. I knew it was folly, but I wanted to talk with you, be with you, have you look at me with pride for all I’d achieved. But I knew I couldn’t. I had lost my chance with you long ago, and no matter how respectable I made myself, it did not atone for the scandal I had caused.
You deserve everything. You deserve the best.
I wish that could be me.
It ended there.
Sofie stared at the page, the thick scrawl of Michael’s writing blurring before her. He had done this for her. This account of his life, this castigation for his sins…He had written it for her. What to say?
She was deathly afraid whatever she did say would be wrong.
“You were not to see it.” She looked from the pages to find Michael staring past her, hands clenching his biceps. In the same harsh tone, he continued. “You should not have been burdened. It’s of the grossest conceit that you might care to read such an account.”
She was silent for a moment. “Then why did you give it to me?”
His gaze flicked to hers, and a torrent of emotion painted his features harsh. “I don’t know,” he burst out. “Damn it, Sofie, I don’t know. I can’t…Sofie, I don’t…” Frustration burned in his eyes. “Goddamnit, I never say the goddamn right thing.”
Her lips quirked. Oh, but they were so similar.
Carefully folding the letter to tuck in her pocket, she rose to her feet. A few short steps and she was before him. The distant sounds of the ball whirled outside the library, but she had no care for others.
Warily, he watched her. Hands gripped tight together to prevent herself from touching him, she searched his face, cataloguing his beloved features, reading the emotion contained below the surface. He was trying to hide, that was plain, but he couldn’t conceal it. How he felt. He never could.
Grief consumed her, that she’d made him so wary. “I’m sorry.”
Pain washed his features grey. “Sorry?”
Her own reproach choked her and she looked from him, hating that she’d turned such a certain man uncertain. “I’m so sorry, Michael. I shouldn’t have doubted you. I shouldn’t have…I shouldn’t have walked away.”
“You’re not sending me away?” The words was almost inaudible.
God, she had done this to him. Stepping closer, she took his hands in hers. She had caused him pain. How were they different? For eleven years, she’d thought herself so righteous, smug in her belief she was somehow better than him, secure in her hate and her rage. That had changed, with the first gift he had sent her. Slowly, he had become integral to her, but she’d allowed old prejudices and past crimes as an excuse to run. To hide from what he made her feel.
No more. She would lie no more.
“I love you,” she said, her gaze never wavering. “It’s always been you.”
The faint sounds of the ball swelled in the silence of the room. His face a blank, he stared down at her. “Are you sure?”
This was it. This was the end. She could no longer run. “Yes.”
Suddenly fierce, his hands bit into hers. “I won’t let you take it back. If you don’t mean it, you better say so now.”
Certainty swept her. This. This was always supposed to happen. She raised a brow, the corner of her mouth lifting. “Michael. You know I don’t say things I don’t mean.”
Joy lit his face, and she caught her breath at the harsh beauty of him. Sweeping her into his arms, he kissed her, over and over. Returning his passion, she ran fingers over his brows, his cheek, down the chords of his neck. The shape of his smile caressed her neck and joy swelled inside her.
“Marry me, Sof.”
Startled, she pulled back. “What?”
“I waited too damn long last time. Marry me.” Almost mulish, defiant somehow, he stared down at her, his expression almost a glare.
A smile tugged her mouth. “Are you sure you don’t want to try an illicit affair first?”
“No.” His tone was final. “Marry me.”
“But an affair would be fun. I’ve never had one before. Just think of all the mischief would could get in to, the drama we could cause. We could set the ton on their ear, and my mother would be so shocked-”
“Sof.” Uncertainty threaded his tone, shadowed his eyes. “Don’t you want to marry me?”
Oh God. Oh God, oh God. “Michael. Michael, of course I do. I’m sorry. I was joking. Poorly. I’m sorry.”
Exhaling, he took her hands in his, his thumbs rubbing over her skin. A half-hearted smile lifted the corner of his mouth. “I’m not quite ready for jests just yet, Sof.”
“I’m sorry. Bloody hell. And you think you say the wrong things.” That startled a laugh out of him. “Michael?”
“Michael. My love.” Her love swelled, too much to contain. But then, it always had. A luminous smile lit his features as he saw her answer reflected in her face. “Yes. Yes, I will marry you.”
©2009 Cassandra Dean
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