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Marriage Made In Shame

By:Sophia James

Marriage Made In Shame (The Penniless Lords Book 2) - Sophia James

Chapter One

London—1812

The familiar sense of nothingness engulfed Gabriel Hughes, the fourth Earl of Wesley, taking all breath and warmth with it as he sat with a glass of fine brandy and a half-smoked cheroot.

Willing women dressed as sprites, nymphs and naiads lounged around him, the white of their scanty togas falling away from generous and naked breasts. A dozen other men had already chosen their succour for the night and had gone one by one to the chambers fanning out from the central courtyard. But here the lights were dimmed and the smoke from dying candles curled up towards the ceiling. The Temple of Aphrodite was a place of consenting lust and well-paid liaisons. It was also filled to the brim.

‘I should very much like to show you my charms in bed, monsieur,’ the beautiful blonde next to him whispered in a French accent overlaid with a heavy, east London twang. ‘I have heard your name mentioned many times before and it is said that you have a great prowess in that department.’

Had... The word echoed in Gabriel’s mind and reverberated as a shot would around a steel chamber. Downing the last of the brandy, he hoped strong alcohol might coax out feelings he had long since forgotten. Memory. How he hated it. His heartbeat quickened as he swallowed down disquiet, the hollow ache of expectation not something he wanted to feel.

‘I am Athena, my lord.’

‘The sister of Dionysus?’

She looked puzzled by his words as she flicked the straps from milky white shoulders and the warm bounty of her bosom nudged against his arm as she leant forward. ‘I do not know this sister of Diana, my lord, but I can be yours tonight. I can pleasure you well if this be your favour.’

He hadn’t expected her to know anything of the Greek gods, but still disappointment bloomed—a woman of beauty and little else. Her tongue ran around pouting lips, wetting them and urging response, dilated pupils alluding to some opiate, a whore without shame or limit and one whom life had probably disappointed. Feeling some sense of kinship, Gabriel smiled.

‘You are generous, Athena, but I cannot take you up on your offer.’

Already the demons were arching, coming closer, and when her fingers darted out to cup his groin, he almost jumped. ‘And why is that, monsieur? The Temple of Aphrodite is the place where dreams are realised.’

Or nightmares, he thought, the past rushing in through the ether.

Screams as the fire had taken hold; the stinging surprise of burning flesh and then darkness numbing pain. The last time he had felt whole.

Gabriel hated it when these flashbacks came, unbidden, terrifying. So sudden that he had no defence against them. Standing, he hoped that Athena did not see the tremble in his fingers as he replaced his empty glass on the low-slung table. Run, his body urged even as he walked slowly across the room, past the excesses of sex, passion and craving. He hated the way he could not quite ingest the cold night air once outside as the roiling nausea in his stomach quickened and rose.

He nearly bumped into the Honourable Frank Barnsley and another man as Gabriel strode out into the gardens and he looked away, the sweat on his upper lip building. He knew he had only a matter of minutes to hide all that would come next.

There were trees to his left, thick and green, and he made for them with as much decorum as he could manage. Then he was hidden, bending, no longer quite there. It was getting worse. He was falling apart by degrees, the smell of heavy perfumes, the full and naked flesh, the tug of sex and punch of lust. All equated with another time, another place. Intense guilt surfaced, panic on the edges. His heart thumped and fear surged, the sensation of falling so great he simply sat down and placed his arms around the solid trunk of a young sapling. A touchstone. The only stable thing in his moving dizzy world.

Leaning over to one side, he threw up once and then twice more, gulping in air and trying to understand.

His life. His shame.

Coming tonight to the Temple of Aphrodite and expecting a healing had been a monumental mistake. He needed to lie down in dark and quiet. Aloneness cloaked dread as tears began to well.

* * *

‘I do not wish to marry anyone, Uncle.’ Miss Adelaide Ashfield thought her voice sounded shrill, even to her own ears, and tried to moderate the tone. ‘I am more than happy here at Northbridge and the largesse that is my inheritance can be evenly divided between your children, or their children when I die.’

Alec Ashfield, the fifth Viscount of Penbury, merely laughed. ‘You are young, my dear, and that is no way to be talking. Besides, my offspring have as much as they are ever likely to need and if your father and mother were still in the land of the living, bless their poor departed souls, they would be castigating me for your belated entry into proper society.’

Adelaide shook her head. ‘It was not your fault that Aunt Jean died the month before I was supposed to be presented in London for my first Season or that Aunt Eloise took ill the following summer just before the second.’

‘But your insistence on an overly long mourning period was something I should have discouraged. You have reached the grand old age of three and twenty without ever having stepped a foot into civil society. You are, as such, beyond the age of a great match given that you no longer bear the full flush of youth. If we wait any longer, my love, you will be on the shelf. On the shelf and staying there. A spinster like your beloved great-aunts, watching in on the life of others for ever.’

‘Jean and Eloise were happy, Uncle Alec. They enjoyed their independence.’

‘They were bluestockings, my dear, without any hope of a favoured union  . One had only to look at them to understand that.’

For the first time in an hour Adelaide smiled. Perhaps her aunts had been overly plain, but their brains had been quick and their lives seldom dull.

‘They travelled, Uncle, and they read. They knew things about the body and healing that no other physician did. Books gave them a world far removed from the drudge of responsibility that a married woman is encumbered by.’

‘Drudges like children, like love, like laughter. You cannot know what seventy years in your own company might feel like and loneliness has no balm, I can tell you that right now.’

She looked away. Uncle Alec’s wife, Josephine, had been an invalid for decades, secreted away in her chamber and stitching things for people who had long since lost the need for them.

‘One Season is all I ask of you, Adelaide. One Season to help you understand everything you would be missing should you simply bury yourself here in the backwaters of rural Sherborne.’

Adelaide frowned. Now this was new. He would stipulate a limited time. ‘You would not harry me into a further Season if this one is a failure?’

Alec shook his head. ‘If you have no one offering for you, no one of your choice, that is, then I will feel as if my duty to your parents is done and you can come home. Even if you agree to stay half of the Season I would be happy.’

‘From April till June. Only that?’

‘Early April to late June.’ There was a tone of steel in her uncle’s voice.

‘Very well. Three months. Twelve weeks. Eighty-four days.’

Alec laughed. ‘And not one less. You have to promise me.’

Walking to the window, Adelaide looked out over the lands of Northbridge. She did not want to leave this place. She didn’t want to be out in the glare of a society she had little interest in. She wanted to stay in her gardens and her clinic, helping those about Northbridge with the many and varied complaints of the body. Her world, ordered and understood; the tinctures and ointments, the drying herbs and forest roots. Safe.

‘As I would need gowns and a place to live and a chaperon, it seems like a lot of bother for nothing.’

‘I have thought of all of these things and a relative of mine, Lady Imelda Harcourt, will accompany you.’ As she went to interrupt Alec stopped her. ‘I realise she is a little dour and sometimes more than trying, but she is also a respectable widow with undeniably good contacts amongst the ton. I, too, will endeavour to visit London as much as I am able whilst you are there. Bertram will want to have some hand in it as well, as he has assured me his gambling habits are now well under control.’

Her heart sank further. Not only Lady Harcourt but her cousin, too? What else could go wrong?

However, Uncle Alec was not quite finished. ‘I wasn’t going to mention this, but now seems like the perfect time to bring it up. Mr Richard Williams from Bishop’s Grove has approached me with the hopes that he might be an escort whom you would look favourably upon during your time in town. A further arrow to our bow, so to speak, for we do not want you to be bereft of suitors. One day I am sure you will be thankful for such prudence. Here you are well known, Adelaide, but in London it can be difficult to meet others and a first impression has importance.’

Adelaide was simply struck dumb. She was being saddled with three people who would hardly be good company and her uncle expected her to thank him? It was all she could do to stay in the room and hear him out.

‘Men will know you have a fortune and there are some out there who could be unscrupulous in their promises. Great wealth comes with its own problems, my dear, and you will need to be most careful in your judgement. Pick a suitor who is strong in his own right, a man whose fortune might equal your own. A good man. A solid man. A man of wealth and sense. Stay well away from those who only require a rich wife to allow them back into the gambling halls, or ones whose family estates have been falling around their feet for years.’

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