Chapter 1

Oh Wicked Escort Chapter 1

Lightning flashed across the black sky, heralding the arrival of the storm that had been threatening the city since late afternoon. Bennett Kirkwood impatiently pushed the heavy draperies aside and stared out into the dark wet night. How could he have left himself so open, so vulnerable? Bitter curses fell from his mouth as, frustrated, his fist slammed against the wooden sill of the window. Sighing heavily, he swallowed the bitter wave of despair that threatened to consume him before turning back to meet the anxious faces of his friends, reading concern for him in their eyes. After replenishing their empty glasses with more of the strong amber liquor, a weak smile flitted across his face as he once more sat down, his pride unconvincingly trying to conceal his inner turmoil.

Restlessly running a hand through his black wiry hair, a look of puzzlement crossed his countenance as he once more reviewed the events of the day in his mind. The morning had begun so well…

A note from his closest friend, Braxton Kane, had arrived with the morning post, announcing his return from the West Indies. Without hesitation, Ben had sent off a speedy reply, extending an invitation to join him and the Chambers brothers for the evening at a fashionable gaming house where they could enjoy a few games of chance before returning to Silverwood House for a late supper.

And so, the richly tailored foursome had met, and while the three had gambled moderately, Ben had signed yet another chit to the smirking proprietor. His run of bad luck continued to plague him, as it had for the past few months. Allowing himself to finally be persuaded to leave, the four had made their way back to Ben’s home where a delicious repast of roasted meats, fresh bread, and a bottle of fine wine awaited them. His three companions, aware that their friend had fared poorly earlier in the evening, worked hard to distract him from his woes. Their banter was lively as they reminisced about their shared school days, by unspoken agreement avoiding any serious topics while the servants hovered about.

At last, appetites sated, the small band of revelers retired to the library, a room no servant in Silverwood House would dare enter unless bidden to do so and where an assortment of liquor bottles and sparkling crystal glasses awaited them. Lamps had been lit, casting a warm glow over the room as they collapsed onto the overstuffed sofas and chairs scattered about.

 

Curiosity consuming him, Teddy Chambers, a man who delighted in being the first to know any juicy tidbits of gossip, wriggled in his chair, unable to contain himself any longer.

“Where has that bastard half-brother of yours disappeared to, Braxton?” His fair eyebrows were raised inquiringly. “Despite hushing the scandal somewhat before you sailed, I doubt he’ll have the courage to show his face in these parts ever again.” Conversation faded as discomfited but questioning eyes turned to the one addressed.

The tall, black-clad figure had stiffened, annoyed at the unexpected prying. Grey eyes brooding, Braxton laughed derisively, hoping to disguise his irritation at the reminder of such a family skeleton, a skeleton he would rather keep in a securely locked closet. But, he mused, perhaps I should talk things over with these three, my trusted friends. Who knows, they might even be able to offer some advice, should Patrick dare return to these shores. He shrugged his shoulders almost imperceptibly before speaking, a melancholy frown briefly touching upon his handsome features. As was his habit when agitated, he began to pace about, hands clasped tightly behind his back as his long legs carried him the length and breadth of the room. As he spoke, he retained his affability, but there was a distinct hardening of his eyes.

“I know you’re all aware of my brother’s fascination with cutting up small animals, especially any creature that had the misfortune to become a pet of mine. This went on for years until finally, at his wit’s end, my father felt perhaps a career in medicine was the place for his eldest son. But after serving less than two years as an apprentice at St. Guy’s Medical School right here in London, Patrick withdrew, claiming the instructors were treating him unfairly. By coincidence, Father died within days of my brother’s return. His will named me as administrator of the estate, a fact which infuriated Patrick who was, after all, my senior by a few years. I rarely saw him after that.” Braxton paused to draw a breath, resuming his seat before taking a small sip from the glass before his story continued.

“And then, of course, the scandal.” He stood, his powerful, well-muscled body returning to restless pacing about the room, his distress obvious. “As you have already pointed out, Teddy, I…somehow I was able to hush it up before it became common knowledge throughout London that he had slashed a prostitute’s throat, one who somehow and against all odds survived the brutal attack. With the able assistance of my solicitor, I convinced the magistrate that Patrick would leave the country, never to return. And since his victim had no one to speak up and protest on her behalf, Patrick was released into my custody. We set out immediately for the West Indies, which is where I had planned to leave him, hoping to never hear of or from him ever again.”

“But it seems Patrick had his own plans, jumping ship before we reached our destination. I haven’t heard from him since that time, and God willing, I never will. I set out to remove him from England, and at least I have accomplished that.”

Recalling the humiliation visited upon their friend, the others raised their glasses in silent commiseration, praying that the matter was indeed at an end.

Hoping to lift the pall that had descended onto the cozy little group, Braxton’s deep-timbered voice broke into his companions’ thoughts, congratulating the two brothers on their respective marriages some months ago.

“And both of you now married—two brothers wed to two sisters! I am most sorely vexed at missing your nuptials. I can only imagine the trials to which you are subjecting your brides. But tell me, my friends, do your ladies not object to your spending the evening in the company of two bachelors, worrying perhaps that we might lead you astray?”

Teddy, the younger of the two brothers by a little more than a year, flushed as he looked across the room at Braxton. His blond hair hung in dull limp strands around his pale face, his slight frame in direct contrast to his brother’s robust build.

“Of course, gentlemen, I can speak only for myself, but in truth, she wouldn’t dare. My Miranda knows her place and recognizes who is master.” His pale cheeks colored fiercely at this empty boast, hoping none of them discovered that his wife had extracted the promise of a new gown in exchange for his night of freedom. The fire crackled in the hearth, breaking the stillness that followed this avowal of mastery over one’s spouse.

Julius, his great mop of brown hair spilling onto his forehead, glanced sideways at his brother, wondering how the young whelp thought he fooled anyone with such posturing. His own marriage to Minerva Penrod was nothing short of a disaster, and he didn’t care a fig who knew it.

“Truth be told, Braxton, Minerva was quite happy to see the back of me, even if it is just for a few hours. That most fearsome, nay, loathsome of guests, my mother-in-law, the despicable Letitia Penrod, has been staying with us since our vows were spoken and is, I might add, quite the most malicious gossip and vainest woman I have ever met. I’ve dropped great hints in my brother’s ear that it might perhaps be his turn to take in the Widow Penrod, but my words must have been too subtle as the old harridan continues to haunt Shelton Hall.”

Turning his troubled face away from the gathering, he stared into the fire before continuing. “I never imagined that when I agreed Minerva’s mother could ‘visit’, it would be a never-ending occurrence.”

He turned his eyes upon their host. “Let my unhappy experience guide you, Ben. If Miss St. Martin’s father makes any noise, however faint, about moving in, you must stand firm.”

At this piece of unsolicited advice, all eyes fell once more on their host, who scowled at his friend’s words. “I’m afraid your counsel, Julius, though welcome, comes too late.”

“As they only have each other, my intended does indeed expect her father to make his home with us. At first, I too thought she meant it to be a temporary situation, but unfortunately that does not seem to be the case.” He ran his fingers impatiently through his wiry black hair once more.

“Do not misunderstand me, gentlemen. I’m not in love with the girl, at least not yet, but I believe I could very easily be.” He gave them a bleak, tight-lipped smile, causing them to wonder what troubled him.

Thinking to distract his friend from the melancholy that seemed to threaten him, Braxton refilled his glass. “Ben, your Miss St. Martin seems to be a veritable paragon of virtues. I’m half in love with her myself, and I’ve yet to meet her.” His words amused the others and, as he had hoped, the sadness that seemed to fill the room began to lift.

As Braxton finished speaking, a grinning Julius raised his glass, proposing a toast to their friend’s good health and fortune. As the glasses were emptied, he glanced at Braxton.

“You must join us for dinner tomorrow evening, old boy. Teddy’s Miranda and my Minerva are simply aching for a chance to form their own opinion of the delightful Miss St. Martin…and I must confess to some curiosity myself.” He paused, lost in thought for a moment but then continued.

“Though I feel it only fair to warn you that once the Widow Penrod and her daughters realize they have a bachelor in their midst, well, it’s really only a matter of time before they start parading any and all unmarried women of their acquaintance before you.”

Braxton threw back his head and let out a great burst of laughter. “My friend, let me assure you that many a lady has been tempted to play matchmaker, but I have always managed to avoid any serious entanglements. I am content with my bachelorhood and plan to remain so, at least for the present.”

It was at that moment a firm knock resounded on the door. Bennett, irritated with the interruption, barked a command to enter. The door opened just enough to admit Mrs. Dixon, housekeeper of Silverwood House. Her prim manner was marked by small, piercing eyes, which quickly surveyed the state of the room and the men occupying it, coming to rest on the bottles whose contents were much depleted. Her short, round figure stiffened in censure, and with thin lips pressed tightly together, she wordlessly registered her disapproval.

When she spoke, her words were clipped as she addressed her employer. “Your pardon, sir, but there’s a Mr. Mordock Peckworthy asking to see you on what he claims to be a matter of great urgency.”

Puzzled glances passed between the four, their curiosity instantly aroused. They all remembered the unlikeable Peckworthy as a boy, for he had also attended school with them, though it was doubtful that his memories of their shared school years were recalled with the same degree of fondness as their own.

Mordock Peckworthy had been a thin, gangly boy with a shock of ginger-colored hair who, on his arrival at school, immediately became a target for pranksters, chief of whom had been Bennett Kirkwood. They had been in their final year when word of the sudden death of his father reached the young Peckworthy. He had left school that very day, never to return. The only news that had reached the ears of the foursome concerning their former schoolmate was that, being an only child, he had inherited an enormous fortune, becoming one of England’s richest men. And now here he was, just outside the door, demanding entrance into their company. Intrigued, Bennett Kirkwood directed the housekeeper to show him in.

Mordock Peckworthy strode confidently into the room, the once nervous and stuttering schoolboy gone, replaced by a tall, cadaverous man, copper hair thinning and slightly faded. He conveyed an air of authority, one who was accustomed to receiving instant and unquestioning obedience. A finely woven black cloak was draped casually over one arm, a beaver hat clasped loosely between long, tapered fingers. The rich fabric of his jacket and trousers bore silent witness to great wealth, although he displayed no sense of style and wore his clothes awkwardly. A black mourning band contrasted starkly against the pale grey sleeve of his jacket. His eyes were dark and unfathomable as he bowed his head curtly to the four.

A second man followed him quietly into the room, his nondescript coat stretched across a squat but well-muscled body. Dark-complexioned with thick black eyebrows, the stranger conveyed a menacing air as he quickly scrutinized not only the inhabitants but the four corners of the room also. Crossing to the window just beyond the cozy circle of friends, he peered out into the inky black wetness of the night. His profile was strong and rigid, giving the other occupants of the room the impression of a wild animal, ready to spring should even a hint of danger to his master be perceived.

“Gentlemen, do forgive me for intruding, but I’ve had to wait some time to find all of you gathered together and, shall we say, away from inquisitive eyes.” There was no hint of the boyhood stutter as the taller of the two new arrivals spoke, drawing attention back to himself, his expression a mask of stone.

Their collective curiosity was now piqued beyond imagination but with it came wariness and an unaccustomed feeling of disquiet. The four glanced about the dimly lit room, drawing little reassurance from its comfortable familiarity.

Bennett Kirkwood, suddenly remembering his obligation as host, indicated the bottles of liquor, his eyebrows raised inquiringly.

“Just a small sherry, Kirkwood.” Answering his host’s unspoken question, he shook his head. “Nothing for Leopold. He never imbibes while on duty.”

Assertively, he positioned his chair so he faced his seemingly mesmerized audience, glancing at all of them before sinking down into the chair’s upholstered depths. Taking a small sip of his drink, he studied the four, his eyes sharp and assessing. The ticking of a clock suddenly seemed to echo loudly within the four walls of the room, the storm outside having passed from deafening rolls of thunder to a soft whisper of rain against the windowpanes.

His voice, when he at last broke the silence, was cool and impersonal. “Well, Julius and Theodore Chambers, you have both married—recently, I believe?”

Teddy bristled at the use of the name he detested but for the moment chose to ignore it. Both brothers, uncomfortable at being singled out, nodded. Julius spoke, more stiffly than he had intended. “Yes, we married four months ago—the Penrod sisters, Minerva and Miranda. Perhaps you’re acquainted with the family?”

With a dismissive shake of his head, the newcomer’s eyes moved on, falling on Braxton Kane.

“And you, Braxton, have just returned from the West Indies. If my information is correct, you have spent these past months disposing of your family’s remaining interests on the other side of the Atlantic.”

Braxton, astonishment written across his handsome features, was momentarily speechless. He looked across at his friend, but Ben could only shrug, staring wordlessly back at him.

Mordock Peckworthy’s look was one of faint amusement as he turned to face his host. He took another small sip of sherry before turning his full attention on Ben, regarding him thoughtfully until the other, his expression stiff and distrustful, shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

“And you, Ben, have recently become affianced to a Miss Claire St. Martin, a young lady who has spent her life in the country under the loving but protective eye of her father, tucked safely away, until very recently, from the wicked ways of London. The nuptials are just a few short weeks from now, if I’m not mistaken?” Nodding in surprise, Ben confirmed the statement.

“And so here we all are, old school chums, reminiscing about bygone days and anticipating a bright future.” He laughed softly but his eyes were filled with contempt as he gazed about him, smugly satisfied at their expressions of unease as their eyes continued to dart back and forth between the two interlopers.

“But perhaps, Ben, before I divulge my reason for calling, you could send that odious creature lurking just beyond the door and whose ear, I fancy, is pressed to the keyhole hoping to hear some juicy tidbit to share with the other servants, for some tea or coffee. For I fear, gentlemen, that you will need all of your wits about you this night.”

As he spoke, and with an almost imperceptible shake of his head which kept the vigilant Leopold standing at his post beside the window, Mordock Peckworthy had noiselessly crossed the room. He pulled the door open to reveal a much embarrassed Mrs. Dixon awkwardly attempting to straighten her rotund frame.

Ben, a look of annoyance on his face, regarded his housekeeper coldly. “A pot of coffee, Mrs. Dixon, and then you can make your way to your bed, for you won’t be needed again this evening.”

An expression of consternation filled her eyes as she spun about, retreating hastily toward the kitchen. As the men awaited her return, they realized the intruder had now become the host, making it clear he had no intention of enlightening them further until the errant servant had delivered the tray. Desultory small talk about the doings of other school friends occupied them until the squeaking wheels of a tea trolley, competing with the rattle of china, alerted them to the housekeeper’s return. After depositing the cumbersome cart within reach of her employer, a much discomfited Mrs. Dixon beat a speedy retreat to her bed.

Waiting for the hot brew to be poured, Mordock Peckworthy impatiently brushed at a tiny thread, which marred the rich fabric of his jacket, until as they all settled back, cups of hot coffee in hand, he cleared his throat and began to unfold his wicked scheme of revenge.

“Gentlemen, before I reveal my reasons for intruding on you, I must have your assurance that what you are about to hear will be held in the strictest of confidence.” His eyes seemed to rest mockingly on Teddy, that lover of gossip, seconds longer than the others. Under such scrutiny, Teddy shifted uncomfortably.

Glancing around the tight circle, each man nodded guardedly as the newcomer’s eyes swept over them. His voice was like an echo from an empty tomb, without inflection, as he continued.

“No doubt you are aware that Ben here, and his father before he departed this world, had legendary quarrels, which were gossiped about by all of London society.” He smiled coldly as Bennett Kirkwood bristled and made as if to rise. “Steady there, Kirkwood, it won’t do to interrupt me, for I am determined to have my say.” Ben, with Braxton’s steadying hand on his shoulder, settled back once more.

“Now, where was I? Oh yes, those quarrels—the elder Kirkwood considered his son a reckless spendthrift and womanizer, a profligate of the first order, one who would soon squander the fortune he and his forebears had so carefully amassed over the years. So certain was he in fact, that the old man tied up the entire estate until the day his son reaches the ripe old age of thirty years, which unfortunately is still some three years from now. I believe the senior Kirkwood’s reasoning was that by that time his son would hopefully be married and raising a family, a responsibility, which would encourage a more steady hand. At present, the cost of running both Silverwood House in London and his country estate, Bindley Park, including a monthly allowance for our friend here, is paid through a trust, which is controlled by the family’s bankers and one other.

Ben felt himself flush as his friends turned to him, silently willing him to refute what they had just learned. Restlessly, he crossed to the fireplace, stirring up the embers before adding another log. Looking up, he saw all eyes were on him. He sighed with exasperation. He gave the intruder a glacial stare.

“See here, Peckworthy, what exactly do you hope to gain by revealing details of my personal fortune, or lack of it, to my friends and to your creature who continues to skulk about in the shadows?”

Mordock Peckworthy, his voice stern with no vestige of sympathy in its harshness, barked out an order. “Sit down, sir. All will be revealed, but it will be done as I dictate, with no assistance from you. And don’t fret about Leopold gossiping—he’s been a mute since the day of his unfortunate birth.” Ben, nodding gloomily, regained his chair.

The intruder crossed his legs as he gazed about the room. “The long and the short of things, gentlemen, is that our friend here has found this stipend—this allowance—simply not enough. He has left notes in various gaming houses throughout the city, plus other sundry debts such as his tailor, whose patience, I might add, is wearing thin. The cheeky fellow has had the audacity to threaten Mr. Kirkwood with debtors’ prison.”

As the others stirred uncomfortably, unwilling witnesses to their friend’s public humiliation, a derisive snort of laughter rang out.

“Unfortunately, gentlemen, your friend, laboring under the mistaken belief that the family possessed great riches, proposed marriage to Miss Claire St. Martin shortly after her arrival in London. It had been rumored the St. Martin family, when they fled France during ‘The Terror’ all those many years ago, was somehow able to smuggle their wealth out of that country. But sadly this fortune, which Bennett thought would be the solution to his financial woes, was only ever a modest one and is now all but depleted.”

Leaning forward in his chair, he continued his narrative in a cold voice. “In turn, Pierre St. Martin thought he was securing a rich husband for his daughter. A few months ago, he was forced to sell what little property he had left to satisfy his creditors. The wily old fox did manage to tuck away just enough from those who hounded him to outfit his daughter in the hopes of launching her into London society, optimistically confident of finding a rich husband. Bennett and Claire met, and a marriage now looms on their horizon. If only the old man hadn’t been so ill—his doctor doubts he’ll see the end of the year. No matter. If he had been a healthier man, he might have exercised caution and at least visited Silverwood House. As I have already said, he was, before falling ill, a wily old fox. He would have immediately noticed the missing paintings, don’t you agree?”

At these words, both of the Chambers brothers and Braxton Kane glanced around, observing for the first time the empty spaces on the walls where paintings had once hung, before turning their attention back to Peckworthy.

“No doubt you’re asking yourselves why the engagement couldn’t be broken. Think about it, gentlemen. There is the enchanting Miss St. Martin, who seems in a very short time to have cast a spell over most of London society, and who, some love-smitten swains have already declared, is the most beautiful woman in the realm. She is everything a man could want in a wife—beauty without equal, charming, kind, intelligent—I could go on but I won’t, or you’ll think I too am besotted with the girl. Suffice it to say that were Mr. Kirkwood to abandon her to the penury that awaits her on her father’s death…well, I can only assume that those who rule London society would likely cut him cold, something he simply would not be able to tolerate. As you are all no doubt aware, while it is acceptable to marry for money, you must not be blatantly flagrant about it. And so they are both caught, like flies in a web.”

He remained motionless, savoring the moment before pacing the narrow confines of the room, his eyebrows knotted in a deep frown. A muscle quivered in his jaw as he met the eyes of his reluctant audience.

“No doubt you have been wondering how I came to be so well informed about all of your lives. Well, gentlemen, for the past year I have had my agents gathering as much information as they could, especially about you, Ben.”

A shadow of annoyance crossed Ben’s face at being singled out. He rose from his chair and faced the man who had so quickly become his adversary, his voice lashing out, demanding an explanation for such behavior.

Peckworthy crossed to where Ben stood and the two, unmovable and unbending, faced each other, almost snarling their hatred of the other. Peckworthy’s voice was heavy with sarcasm, his words cold and exact.

“Sit down! I’m just getting started.” Ben regained his seat with an angry thump, casting a scathing look at the man.

“Do you remember a young girl, Kirkwood, by the name of Elizabeth Manning? Think, man! She was an innocent until she had the misfortune of crossing your path.” His words were loaded with derision. “You robbed her of that innocence with no thought of anything but your own selfish needs.”

As a faint memory niggled its way into Bennett Kirkwood’s brain, his fingers tapped the arm of his chair apprehensively. “I admit knowing the girl, Peckworthy. What of it?”

Mordock Peckworthy’s voice was like an echo from an empty tomb. “Elizabeth, before she fell under your evil spell, had consented to be my wife, Kirkwood. Our families had neighboring estates in the country. I fell in love with her when we were both still children, and I watched her blossom from a sweet, lovable child to a radiant young woman.” He began to stride about the room again, his anguish apparent to all.

“Our marriage had the blessing of both families, although, because she was still so young, her parents asked us to wait a year. We married on her seventeenth birthday. Can you imagine my shock when on our first night spent as man and wife, I discovered that she was not the sweet, pure angel I was in love with, unsullied by any man. When confronted, she tearfully confessed that she had had a dalliance with you.”

“She pleaded with me to forgive her and I…well, I confess that I loved her so much, I assured her it didn’t matter.” His words were harsh and raw with pain.

“But I was wrong!” He paused in his oration, a sudden icy contempt flashing in his eyes as he cast his gaze once more on the man he blamed for his troubles. “It did matter, and she knew it. You were a shadow between us, Kirkwood. I was in torment every time I sought her bed, torturing myself, wondering if she was imagining it was your caress, your kiss.” Sighing, he met the other’s eyes. “I admit it freely, my jealousy was a poison that crept into our marriage and destroyed Elizabeth, my sweet love. With the passing months, she slowly faded, becoming quieter and sadder. But then she rallied when the fates offered her hope of a new beginning.”

“She was with child, my child. But from the beginning, it was a difficult pregnancy and her labor long and hard. Neither my wife nor son survived.” His voice faded to a haunted whisper. “And so you see me here, a mourning band on my arm and ice where my heart once rested.”

Ben’s head shot up in surprise. “You’re blaming me, Peckworthy? I admit to having met her when I was visiting an elderly aunt with my father. And yes, I encouraged her to meet me secretly, but we were both so very young. Believe me when I say that I had no knowledge of her being spoken for, by you or anyone else.”

A snort of disgust sounded from the other as he flew into a rage at the words that dismissed the entire episode as a youthful flirtation. “You ruined both Elizabeth’s and my life, you immoral bastard.”

He raised a clenched fist, prepared to lash out at this most detested of men, but cool reason returned before any blows were struck. Leopold, instantly alert, straightened his misshapen body as much as was possible, ready to defend the man he loyally regarded as his master. The other occupants of the room, prepared to fly to their friend’s rescue, had also risen from their chairs but slowly resumed their seats. Bennett, seeing the threat disappear, moved away, not wanting to provoke violence in either of his unpredictable and thoroughly despicable visitors.

Giving an impatient shrug, he locked his hands behind his neck and his voice, when he at last spoke, was unyielding with no vestige of sympathy in its hardness. “All right, Peckworthy, you are determined to lay the blame for your unhappiness at my door. I accept some of the responsibility but not all.”

He rose and stepped toward the door. “And now, if you’re finished embarrassing me in front of my friends…”

“But I’m not finished, Kirkwood. Indeed, this is only the beginning.” Mordock Peckworthy’s words, though spoken softly, had an ominous, chilling quality.

“I must once again insist that you be seated and let me finish.” Speechless at the man’s gall, Ben resumed his seat.