Chapter 1

Banish the Dragon Chapter 1

Two men met in a small village, too distant to be swallowed up by the ever-expanding city of London. The day, cold and gloomy, mirrored the mood of the two as together they approached the beckoning warmth of the alehouse.  Pushing the heavy wooden door open, the two eyed those already gathered together for their evening pint and a chance to exchange views on the vagaries of life. An inviting fire crackled in the hearth, the flames dancing wildly as a small gust of wind blew across the room at the opening of the portal.
A momentary lull in a myriad of conversations fell over the smoke-filled room as the shorter of the two strangers stepped hesitantly inside, pausing briefly in the doorway. Good-natured glances containing only mild curiosity were directed at the new arrivals, for the villagers were accustomed to travelers halting temporarily in their quiet hamlet. Finding nothing noteworthy about either, the villagers soon returned to the business of enjoying their ale and the camaraderie of their fellow merrymakers.
Lord Talbot, a portly figure of a man, stepped forward into the dimly lit room, brushing fussily at the droplets of rain on his woolen cloak. A ruddy complexion overpowered his thinning ginger-colored hair and wispy moustache. Pale eyes swept the room, seeking a private corner and, upon spying such a nook, haughtily beckoned the daunting figure who waited, unmoving, behind him. He struck out across the room, weaving his way through the closely packed benches and tables until he reached the corner he sought, hoping the whole distasteful business could be conducted without interruption.
Tall and imposing, the second man lingered in the doorway a moment before following his companion. He absently used his hat to brush away the raindrops that still clung to his cloak, revealing a head of blond curls and an arrogant expression on his handsome face, dominated by cold blue eyes. He surveyed his surroundings and, finding nothing untoward, crossed the room, carrying himself with an air of nonchalant grace. Broad shoulders and long legs completed the picture of a man not to be trifled with.
The remoteness of their scarred table discouraged the rowdier patrons from attempting to join their hushed conversation, should any of them have been so inclined, and both men felt safeguarded from anyone imprudent enough to eavesdrop. A nod to the tavern keeper soon had a bottle of wine delivered to their table by a buxom barmaid who, although long past the age of comeliness, still entertained a distant hope of earning a shilling or two from either of the two richly garbed gentlemen. Coins were paid for the bottle and the disappointed barmaid was curtly dismissed as the two fell into earnest conversation, oblivious to the raucous din of the room.
The older of the two peered apprehensively at the younger man, nervously licking his thin, dry lips before speaking.
“Now sir, I have spoken to my wife and she, well, let me just say only that she went into transports of joy when I explained your dilemma.” The blond head nodded slightly but offered no other encouragement. Stuttering nervously, Lord Talbot continued. “I told her only of your urgent need of a wife. I, ah, well, I made no mention of how we came to meet—nor shall I. And I am trusting you, sir, on your word as a gentleman, to return my markers, discretely mind you, once the marriage vows are spoken.”
Having finished speaking, Lord Talbot mopped his damp brow with a wrinkled handkerchief. His face had taken on an even pinker hue than the one he normally exhibited, and through thinning strands of hair, beads of perspiration could be seen, despite the relative coolness of their poorly lit corner. His pudgy fingers toyed nervously with wispy strands of his moustache as he waited on the younger man’s reply.
The blond head, after slight deliberation, wordlessly nodded his agreement. In the dim light, Lord Talbot could barely discern the younger man’s eyes, but as he had already gazed into their icy blue depths in a London gaming room four days prior, he was reluctant to be regarded again in so chilling a manner. Again mopping his brow, he leaned back, satisfied with the precise presentation of his proposal, having rehearsed it repeatedly on the long ride from Marlow Court to the city. He had suffered a sense of panic when at first he couldn’t locate the man but as the day progressed, he had chanced upon the Yankee’s cousin, who had directed him onward, and now here they were and the deal was all but done.
The younger man spoke, quietly but with the assurance that his words would be heeded.
“You do understand my terms, Lord Talbot? The girl must be unencumbered by kin, no matter how distant the connection. I’ll have no long-lost aunt or cousin knocking at my door in either the near or distant future, seeking my financial assistance so they might live out their mundane lives in comfort, with no effort on their part.”
“Yes, yes, my dear sir, I do assure you the girl is an orphan—totally alone in the world.” He cleared his throat nervously, annoyed at the ominous threat the man seemed to exert over him, and continued, “Why, it was only when I returned home these two days past that I learned my Uncle Hector’s widow had died. I arrived just in time to attend the burial and it was lucky I did. My tenants would have held such an affront against me and I need their support if I am to rebuild the fortunes of the estate.” He paused as he gathered his thoughts.
“You see, sir, the property was entailed and as the closest male heir, I am now Lord Granville Talbot of Marlow Court.” He smiled weakly before continuing, sensing that the Yankee was unimpressed with either his title or his holdings. “I felt I had to show deference to the villagers on the loss of their beloved lady and to ensure them that the future of her great-niece, even though the girl, who is no kin of mine, was being looked after.” He paused as he poured the last of the wine into his glass. “It was at that precise moment, sir, standing by her grave, that I recalled your conversation from our previous meeting and knew the sound I was hearing was opportunity knocking.” Again he dabbed at the beads of perspiration that had formed on his brow.
“The girl’s parents apparently died of some pestilence years ago in Ireland, leaving their only child an orphan. At that point in time, she had only one relative in the world, her great aunt, Maude, my Uncle Hector’s wife. The girl’s parents had lived in relative obscurity in their crumbling manor, almost penniless and living hand-to-mouth, and what little was left of their estate went toward paying off debts. The village priest, seizing the chance to rid his parish of unwanted baggage, packed the girl off to England posthaste. Hector and Maude, who were childless by the way, cheerfully took her in, raising her as if she were their own beloved daughter.”
The man rambled on, his companion listening absently. “Uncle Hector did not appear to begrudge the addition to his household. Since the death of their only child, a son, these many years past, the two of them have simply rattled aimlessly around the manor, taking little interest in the land or the village until this piece of Irish baggage arrived. In his correspondence with my father, Uncle Hector claimed the girl was just the breath of fresh air he and Lady Maude needed. Although my inheritance was secure, the doddering old fool lived years longer than he should have before departing this world.
“Now, as to her lack of dowry, sir. My uncle was not the wisest of managers and consequently nothing was put aside in the way of coin for the girl’s future. I might be able to manage a small purse but with all the expenses in recent months, it would be very modest indeed. As I’ve already made clear, the girl is no kin of mine and I feel no responsibility for her. Truth be told, Mr. Radcliffe, she’s been a thorn in my side since our arrival at Marlow Court.” Looking up, he hoped he hadn’t spoken too freely, giving the man cause to have second thoughts. Hoping to entice him further, he carried on, “I must admit, sir, the girl is a rare beauty. I suspect this is the reason my wife is so eager to be rid of her.”
He sighed deeply. “Our union has been blessed with both a son and a daughter, making my wife’s worries two-fold. Firstly that our son, who is obviously smitten by the girl, dreams of claiming her for his wife, a disaster not to be borne according to my Hester.” He took a long drink, wiping his mouth fastidiously with an already stained corner of his sleeve before resuming his narrative. “And secondly, as long as such a comely maid resides in our village, no suitor from the surrounding countryside will come seeking our daughter’s hand, for once a man lays eyes on the Irish lass, no dowry would likely be large enough to attract an offer of marriage for our Fiona.”
Admitting such worries to a stranger made Lord Talbot feel disloyal to his family but, knew he’d see the truth of things soon enough when he claimed his bride.
“Rest easy, Lord Talbot. The lack of a dowry is of no concern to me. And if she causes me trouble, well, I believe I am capable of managing my as yet unmet young bride.”
Lord Talbot leaned back, again pulling at strands of his moustache. He pushed the twinge of conscience he was feeling to the back of his mind, refusing to dwell on what fate he might be sentencing an innocent and defenseless girl. No matter, it was none of his concern he silently argued with himself. The girl would travel to the Yankee’s home, far away from England and his own peaceful hearth; at least it would be peaceful once the chit was gone. And she wouldn’t be in need, judging from the quality of the garments this American wore.
Pushing his chair back, the elder of the two stood, swaying ever so slightly, having drained the contents of the bottle almost singlehandedly. “I must be away, sir, if I hope to reach Marlow Court this night.”
“Lord Talbot?” The Yankee stood, dwarfing the rotund figure, forcing him to look up at him, a necessity Lord Talbot had come to despise. “I have business to attend to in the morning and so will leave London sometime in the afternoon. My cousin, Jonathan Radcliffe, will be accompanying me. I would have the marriage vows spoken the following morning, and the three of us will depart immediately after. I realize it will not be the wedding that a young girl dreams of but to do more would be a travesty, do you not agree, milord?”
The shorter man nodded his head in silent agreement.
The two donned their cloaks and hats, their departure causing as little stir amongst the other patrons as their arrival had. Walking in silence in the misty drizzle toward Lord Talbot’s carriage, the younger man touched the brim of his hat in a curt gesture of farewell before continuing on to the stable where his own horse waited. As the softly falling rain turned into a downpour, Simon Radcliffe huddled at the stable entrance. He allowed his thoughts to wander, not to his as yet unknown bride but to the only woman he would ever love and who even now waited patiently for him to return to her side and a lifetime together with none to say them nay.
                                                                                      
As Simon lingered in the doorway waiting for the deluge to stop, an unbearable wave of longing swept over him as he recalled the last time he had seen Juliana. She had been magnificent that day, furiously pacing the confines of her bedchamber, putting him in mind of some fierce ancient female warrior as she ranted in angry tirades about the unfairness of life, and cursing the unforgiving nature of his grandfather. Her beautiful breasts had bounced with each step taken, her waist curving alluringly inward, full hips tapering into long, shapely legs, satiny skin tempting him to reach out and touch it. Her face was regally, arrogantly beautiful, eyes darkening dangerously. Her unbound flaxen tresses had tumbled carelessly down her back. Her nature was volatile but Simon counted that as part of her charm, knowing he would never be bored by such a woman.
He had watched her hungrily as she strode the length of the room, lace curtains fluttering each time she passed the windows, unconcerned that she hadn’t a stitch on. And after all, who would dare enter Juliana’s chamber uninvited? No visitor certainly, and there were only a handful of slaves left on what had once been a rich, thriving plantation, yet another reason for her to hate Samuel Langtree. Simon mused that if the old man hadn’t been so vindictive over a trifling slur spoken so long ago, real or imagined, Juliana’s father might still be alive and managing a successful plantation. Instead, his heart had failed and she had inherited a small plot of land on which stood the home she been born in but was now rapidly turning into a house desperately in need of skilful carpentry and a coat of paint.
She had paused in her rage and gazed down at him, his nudity casually covered by a white cotton sheet. “Simon, while you continue to knuckle under to that old man, I’ve been planning our future.” She fell onto the bed, calculatingly nuzzling his neck in a way that drove him to distraction, knowing that she needed him to be not only compliant but a willing participant in the undertaking she was about to propose. And it was a plan not without risk. As he hungrily reached for her, she slapped his hand playfully, bouncing off the bed and crossed the room, out of his reach. Speaking sharply, she commanded him to sit up and listen, for if this gambit failed, there would be no hope for a future together. Recognizing the threat in her words, he wrapped the sheet modestly around himself and moved to a small chair, warily nodding for her to continue.
“Your grandfather threatens that, if you don’t immediately set sail for England in search of a bride, a proper English one, not only will you inherit nothing but he will have succeeded in his desire to thwart our wish to wed, for we would both be penniless, a state neither of us could ever be happy with.” She paused, collecting her thoughts before continuing. “Well, what if you follow his decree but change it slightly to suit you? Strike a bargain with him that you will accede to his demands but if the opportunity ever arises for a second marriage, it will be to one of your own choosing, and it will be with his blessing.”
At his puzzled look, she perched on the bed, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “What if you indeed seek out such a bride but with a stipulation that he would know nothing about? Find an orphan, a nobody, with no family whatsoever, and no chance of anyone seeking her out, ever!” She paused, trying to gauge his reaction before continuing, her arm thrown dramatically across her forehead. “Wed her, have it witnessed that you bedded her, and then, as you’re sailing home, tragedy strikes! She’s swept overboard.” Breathless, she stopped speaking, anxiously awaiting his reaction.
Blue eyes widened in astonishment as he considered her scheme. Stunned, he could only gape at her, slack-jawed.
“Juliana,” he whispered, “What you’re proposing is murder!”
Simon, stunned, sat back and crossed his legs, turning his thoughts deeply inward. He wasn’t a religious man but he feared the threat an omnipotent god posed, sitting in judgment on him when he had breathed his last. And surely murder would send him to hell! But looking across the room at Juliana, Simon knew he would find hell right here on earth if he couldn’t spend his life with her.
She rushed to him, crushing her breasts against his naked chest, smothering his protesting lips with hot, feverish kisses. “No, no, my darling Simon, not murder,” she whispered conspiratorially, “consider that this poor waif, alone in the world, would most likely welcome the opportunity to rejoin her parents, who, having sadly departed this world, are awaiting her in the next.”
He paused, weighing her words. “How am I to bring about this chance wave sweeping her overboard? I don’t relish being a victim of shipboard justice.”
“Hire a sailor to do the actual deed, my love. I’m sure that, once aboard, you’ll soon find at least one such creature, a man willing to do anything for a coin or two.”
With her plan laid out before him, she was suddenly unsure that she could bend him to her will and so she had lured him back to her bed and soon, in the throes of his passion, he had eagerly agreed to all she desired. And now here he was, in England and on his way to fulfilling the first part of Juliana’s plan. Shaking his head in wonder that he ever agreed to be a party to such an undertaking, he mounted his horse, ignoring the rain that continued to fall as he made his way back to his room.
                                                                                    
The clock had just struck the hour when the carriage door creaked open and Lord Talbot sleepily ascended. The heavy door of the manor swung open as he tiredly mounted the steps and the formidable figure of his wife stepped out, holding a candle to light the way. “Well, Granville, what news?” Her tone was harsh and demanding. “Were you able to find the Yankee? Has an agreement been reached?”
Motioning toward the driver who continued to stand within earshot, he shook his head warningly. “Not now, my dear. Let us retire to our chamber where we will be assured privacy and I promise to recount all details of my journey. And have some food sent up, for I am much famished. Why, if you can believe it, I haven’t eaten since I set out this morning.” This last was spoken with some degree of surprise for Lord Talbot never willingly missed a meal.
A hovering servant was dispatched to fetch whatever was readily available from the kitchen while the couple silently climbed the wide, curving staircase. If Granville Talbot cut a comical figure with his lack of height, balding head atop a portly frame and mottled complexion testifying to his fondness for liquor, his wife was the complete opposite. Hers’ was a figure of epic proportions, taller than her husband by several inches and large framed, her bosom enormous but restrained beneath her gown, hips wide and swaying. Unsightly frizzled brown hair, streaked generously with grey, was pulled back into a tight knot; small close-set dark eyes peered suspiciously out at the world and its inhabitants, her face an unbecoming shade of pink, wearing a perpetually dissatisfied look. Thin lips seemed always to be pursed in an expression of contempt for those beneath her socially and, it was gossiped around the servants’ dining table, that since her arrival at Marlow Court, not one of them had received a kind word or witnessed even the most fleeting of smiles across her countenance, unless such a happening was directed at either of her children.
The two entered their bedchamber with few words exchanged between them. Lord Talbot strode to the fireplace and laid another log on the dying embers, chasing the bone-chilling dampness from the chamber. Lady Talbot crossed the room and drew the heavy draperies across the windows, shutting out the gloomy night. A hesitant knock signaled the arrival of the much-anticipated meal and, with a nod from her mistress, the servant set the laden tray on a small table and hastily departed.
With the closing of the door, the tirade began. Lady Talbot paced the confines of the room as she unrelentingly peppered her husband with questions while he tucked into a chunk of roast beef. Tearing hungrily into the meat, he impatiently motioned to a chair opposite his.
“Hester, do sit down!” he snapped. “You weary me with your ceaseless treading about the room and never-ending questions. I’ll tell you everything but I beg of you, let me eat.”
Taken aback by his sharp tone, she sat down heavily, harrumphing her displeasure but daring to say no more at present. Clasping her hands tightly together lest they reveal the impatience she was suffering, she sipped occasionally from the wine he had poured her as she waited for his appetite to be appeased. Eventually, he pushed his empty plate away and sat back, replete, his wine close to hand. He recited the events of the day as well as he could recall, and the two contemplated the anticipated outcome.
Suddenly Lady Hester shot out of her chair. Shifting impatiently, she fixed her flashing eyes on the drooping lids of her husband’s. “The girl! We must see to the girl now, without delay!”
Stunned, her husband raised his tired eyes questioningly at the virago to whom he was wed. “Why must we do anything? The Yankee said he wasn’t leaving the city until sometime tomorrow afternoon...and the girl knows nothing of our plan.” Folding his arms, he continued to sit contentedly before the fire, unwilling to stir from his cozy nest.
“You fool,” she spat out caustically, “Have you forgotten the uncanny ability of the servants to know exactly what is happening in any great household before an announcement is ever made? How long before one of them learns of our little plan and decides to enlighten her?” Casting a last withering glare at her husband whose eyes were now closed in sleep, she stormed from the room. Calling loudly for her cloak and her trusted manservant Larkin, she clattered thunderously down the stairs. Both were waiting by the time she had gained the bottom of the staircase.
Wrapping her cloak snugly about her bulk to ward off the damp evening, Lady Talbot gestured imperiously for her servant to follow her as she swept through the doorway. Larkin, a barrel-chested man followed swiftly on short, muscular legs, adjusting his stride so he followed rather than led. The wind gusted about them, nearly lifting Larkin’s stained hat from his head of dark, unkempt hair. Heavy eyebrows hovered above his eyes, merging into one continuous hairy line above a crooked nose and thick lips. Dark eyes glared balefully at the figure ahead of him.
The pair cautiously made their way along the wet, slippery path toward a tiny, dilapidated cottage nestled at the edge of the village. What had once been the gatekeeper’s abode in more prosperous times had become a refuge for the former chatelaine of the manor, Lady Maude and her great-niece Katherine, following Lord Hector’s death. The newly arrived Lord Granville and Lady Hester Talbot had straight away established a new order. There had been much whispering in the village concerning the callous treatment of Lady Maude but Granville Talbot, to escape his wife’s constant badgering, had hastily let it be known that anyone not happy with the way of things could leave his land that very day. The grumbling had gradually stopped but there was no warmth in any greeting extended by the villagers to the new residents of the manor. After all, they reasoned, hadn’t Lady Maude been there and taken care of them all these many years, but they were cautious all the same, unwilling to risk the ire of their new lord or his lady.
Upon reaching the doorway, Lady Talbot, panting breathlessly, motioned for Larkin to announce her presence. The burly servant knocked once and, without invitation entered, startling the three women who sat at the rickety wooden table. His deep voice seemed to rattle the very rafters of the cottage as he announced the arrival of his mistress, who swept imperiously into the room. Ignoring the two middle-aged women whom she recognized as wives of her tenant farmers, she fixed her malevolent gaze on the youngest of the cottage’s occupants, who sat gawking in open-mouthed disbelief at this uninvited and most unexpected caller, especially at this late hour.
Rising from her chair, Katherine Maguire glared challengingly at the unwelcome intruder. Under gracefully curving eyebrows and thick dark lashes, her eyes flashed icy emerald fire as she faced Lady Talbot. A rich cloud of auburn hair framed her face, tumbling carelessly down her slender back. Her facial bones were delicately carved, her nose daintily up-turned, with a creamy peach-tinted complexion, blending with the dusky glow of her cheekbones. Lips were full and lush over small white teeth. So exquisite were her features that one observing her for the first time might be forgiven for failing to notice a chin that promised iron determination.
Her figure was willowy slender, and though she was slightly taller than most of the women in the village, she still lacked inches when facing her nemesis, Lady Hester Talbot. Slim arms bent as if ready to do battle with this most evil of dragons, she raised her chin defiantly, desperately assuming all the dignity she could muster.
“Ah, Katherine, do forgive my impromptu visit but it is most imperative that I speak to you at once.” Her voice, almost a purr, had an ominous quality to it. Turning to Katherine’s guests who continued to stare at the intruders, she motioned for them to depart, a suggestion that did not need repeating as they hastily scrambled for the door, throwing apologetic glances at the girl before fleeing into the black night.
Larkin, stepping aside as they fled the cottage, repositioned himself in front of the door as it closed, folding his thick arms across his chest menacingly. Shifting uncomfortably, he watched as his mistress circled the room, feeling a momentary twinge of sympathy for the lass. He had witnessed many of Lady Talbot’s savage attacks on the undefended and helpless over the years but fear of losing his position had always prevented him from interfering.
Katherine, eyes flashing threateningly, stormed up to her unwanted visitor, heedless of the precariousness of her position. “What do you mean, barging into my home, uninvited, and dismissing my guests who were only here to lend what comfort they could on the loss of my beloved aunt?”
Lady Talbot, looking down at the slight girl who faced her so fearlessly, smirked knowingly, causing a shiver of apprehension to course down Katherine’s spine. “Tush, my girl, don’t bother putting on airs with me.” Her tone was chilling. “I come bearing the most welcome tidings to you—an Irish guttersnipe, someone who has no dowry and absolutely no prospects, and this is your way of thanking me.”
Startled, Katherine’s eyes, still sparkling with barely contained anger, gazed warily at the older woman. “What are you going on about, Lady Talbot?”
“Why, I’m referring to your wedding, of course.” A shocked gasp escaped from the girl, making the older woman gloat in satisfaction. The little chit’s reaction was so much better than anything she had imagined. Almost trembling with glee, her arms swept the room. “Gather what belongings you have, girl, you’re moving back to the manor for the remainder of your time here.”