The Devil You Know
Pocket Star Books, April 2003
|Excerpt from the novel The Devil You Know|
In which Mr. Rutledge Attends a Ball
Leaning over Lord Rannoch’s balustrade, Rutledge looked down into the minstrel’s bay and watched as the violinists drew their bows in perfect synchronization. Cloaked in the gloom above, Rutledge could see and not be seen. He found that oddly pleasing. Life along the shadowy edges of society had always suited him best.
What seemed like a thousand candles burned in the chandeliers which now hung below him, casting eerie, flickering shadows along the gallery. In the ballroom below, the dancers swirled in a rainbow of hues, working through the steps of a country dance. Rutledge stepped back, and made his way along the gallery until he found the passageway Zoë had mentioned. Then he slid behind a marble column, and began his vigil. In a matter of minutes, a flash of ruby silk appeared on the landing, then turned down the darkened corridor.
Rutledge moved as if to step from behind the column, but at the last instant, he froze. He recognized Frederica’s tense, angry whisper, and strained to make out the words.
A masculine voice responded. "But how you can do this to me, Freddie?" the man complained. "I’ve arranged everything! Even Papa has come round."
Rutledge could hear their soft footfalls coming down the last flight of stairs. "Take your hand off my arm," Frederica hissed. "Life is not so simple, Johnny, as you make it out."
Abruptly, the footsteps stopped, mere inches from Rutledge’s hiding place. "Oh, you’re bitter now, but I swear I’ll make you forget that," whispered Johnny Ellows hotly. "I swear it. Just let me kis—"
Rutledge heard a soft, strangled gasp. "Why, how dare you!" Frederica cried.
His every muscle suddenly jolting, Rutledge lunged. Seizing Johnny Ellows’ coat collar in one fist, he jerked the lad off his feet and gave him a shake which rattled his teeth. Slinging his victim aside, Rutledge looked at Frederica. Even in the gloom, he could see her eyes flared wide with alarm.
"Hello, Freddie," he said quietly. "Careful in the dark, love. You never know who you might run into."
But Ellows had staggered to his feet. "See here, Rutledge," he growled, planting one hand on Frederica’s shoulder. "This is none of your concern."
Gently, Rutledge lifted his hand away. "I’m afraid, Johnny-Boy, that I’ve just made it my concern." His voice was lethally soft. "Touch her again without her express request, and the next thing you’ll be touching is the trigger on a dueling pistol. And if those clever Cambridge dons of yours gave you any grasp of ballistics, physics, or the laws of probability, then you’ll be pissing down your leg and praying to your Maker when you do it. Because I don’t miss. Now take that bit of wisdom back to Essex, Mr. Ellows, and stuff it up your priggish Papa’s arse."
Ellows’s face had gone white. Anxiously, he looked from Rutledge to Frederica and back again. Then, muttering a curse under his breath, the young man scuttled away.
Rutledge waited for Frederica’s expression of gratitude, but none came. Instead, she tried to slip away. Rutledge caught her elbow. "Whoa, Freddie." Their bodies were just inches apart. "Going somewhere?"
Her expression froze. "None of your business, Rutledge," she coolly answered. "And I appreciate your help, but I can manage Johnny."
Her indifference was like a slap in the face. On a stab of anger, Rutledge yanked her hard against him. "Can you now, sweetheart?" he growled into her ear. "I’m awfully glad to hear it."
He felt a moment of panic course through her. She tried to wrench away. Ruthlessly, he tightened his grip. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but it wasn’t this. "Let go of my arm!" she snapped. "Why can’t people leave me alone? Why are you even here?"
His anger ratcheted sharply upward. "Perhaps I’ve come to kiss the bride, Freddie."
"Are you and Johnny both run mad?" she hissed. "Get out, before you’re seen."
"How the warmth of your welcome touches me, Freddie." His voice was a cold whisper. "Are you this hospitable to all your invited guests?"
Frederica tried to look disdainful as her eyes swept over Bentley Rutledge. But more than six feet of accursedly handsome and thoroughly outraged male glowered back. And this male would not be so easily dispatched as the last. "You w-were invited?" she stammered. "There must be some mistake."
Rutledge cocked one of his arrogant eyebrows. "Now why is it, Freddie, I begin to wonder if someone forgot to scrape the rough edges off Rannoch’s guest list?" His hand tightened on her elbow. "What a bloody shame. Does that mean I won't be invited to the wedding?"
Frederica’s heart leapt into her throat. "No—I m-mean yes." In the face of his fury, all rational thought was fleeing.
"By the way, Freddie, what was that date?" he gritted. "I’d like to get you penciled into my social calendar—assuming I can wedge the happy nuptials in between my rampant bacchanalia and my debauching of virgins."
"Bentley, please!" Too late, Frederica realized she sounded desperate. "I cannot be seen talking to you. Don’t you realize that?"
His hard, sour smile taunted her. "Now, that’s a strange one, Freddie. I mean, we’re such old friends. And you were more than cordial last time we ran into one another."
"I don’t understand," she whispered. "Why are you doing this?
His eyes glittered maliciously. "Well, now, I’m not perfectly sure, Freddie. Perhaps I don’t have anything better to do than waste an evening with people who are over-dressed, over-fed, and overly self-important. Or perhaps I’m just trying to understand how a woman can make such passionate love with me one day, then marry someone else the next. Yes, by Jove! I think that was it."
Frederica turned her face from his. "Please just go, Bentley. What we did was a dreadful mistake."
"By God, it was no mistake!" he growled. "We did it quite deliberately."
"Please." Her voice trembled. "I’m begging you. Don’t make trouble."
"Then answer me, damn it!" He seized her chin and jerked her eyes back into his. "Tell me, how could a woman do that—do it twice, actually—then turn around and announce her betrothal to someone I never heard of? Perhaps you could explain? And if you can, why, I’ll leave on your next breath."
She tried to shove him away. "Take your hands off me. I mean now. I am free to marry where I please."
"Are you—?" He stood over her, lean, tall, and deeply dangerous; not a man to be trifled with. "Tell me, Freddie," he whispered silkily. "Does that old flame realize he’s getting damaged goods? And does he know who had you first?"
A spike of rage seized hold of her then. Unthinkingly, Frederica drew back and slapped him hard across the face.
"Why, you vicious little hellcat," he growled, snaring her other hand in his.
"Let go of me, you pig. Next I shall scream."
There was a slight, scornful curl to his mouth. "Go ahead, Freddie love. Scream. Have the whole bloody lot of ’em up here. I’ve nothing to lose, and I’ll give them plenty to gossip about."
She looked at him hard, and swallowed. He meant it. Oh, he really did.
He sensed her uncertainty. "Just tell me, Freddie," he growled, pulling her back to him. "Why are you marrying someone else? Tell me why."
This time, she heard the strange little catch in his voice. And that telling phrase—someone else. Frederica tried to reason. What was he thinking? What did he want? Did she owe him an explanation? He clearly wasn’t leaving without one, and she just wasn’t up for a fight.
"I must do what my family thinks best," she said vaguely. "That is a woman’s lot in life, Rutledge. Others decide what is best for us, and then we do it."
Fleetingly, something which looked like grief twisted his beautiful face. "Oh, Freddie," he said softly. "That does not sound like you. You are far too stubborn for that."
Suddenly, she could bear it no longer. "Yes, and what has my stubbornness gained me?" she exploded, fighting down her tears. "Nothing but trouble, that’s what. And do not lie, Bentley, and say that you’re jealous, for we both know it isn’t so. You didn’t really want me all those weeks ago, and you don’t want me now. I accept the blame for what happened. I was stupid, and now I am sorry. But I don’t know the rules of this game you seem to wish to play. I don’t know what I am supposed to do. And I certainly don’t know why you would care."
Her tirade ended on a quavering note. In the ballroom below, the music, too, melted into silence, and for a long moment Bentley simply stared down at her, his gaze burning white-hot with an emotion she did not understand. Yet something in it touched her; almost broke her heart.
And then, just as a strangled sob escaped her throat, Bentley caught her firmly by both shoulders. For a moment, it was as if he sought to hold something back; some raging emotion, a physical blow, she hardly knew what. And then, she felt a tear slither down her cheek, and he snapped, shoving her hard against the marble column and covering her mouth with his.
For a moment, Frederica could not think, could not even breathe. She tried to twist her head. Tried to shove the heels of her hands against his shoulders. But his mouth was unyielding, his touch desperate. His hands slid from her elbows to her shoulders, the broad palms searing the skin laid bare by her evening gown. He forced his tongue into her mouth, and somehow, Frederica came fully against him. Then he was cradling her face in his hands, imprisoning her between his palms, stilling her mouth to his. Tonight, there was nothing of the lighthearted rogue in his kiss. Instead, a raw, unfettered emotion seemed to drive him. A gasping hunger. An untamed need.
Fleetingly, he tore his mouth away. "Don’t cry, Freddie," he rasped. "Oh, God, please don’t."
Then his long, strong fingers slid into her hair, gently restraining her as he thrust deep, plumbing the depths of her mouth, and leaving her body trembling. Frederica could smell the starch in his cravat, the spice of his cologne, and his simmering male heat. Again and again, he slanted his mouth over hers, raking her skin with the faint bristle of his beard. Frederica was frightened; more frightened now than when he’d taken her virginity. Then, he’d been just devil-may-care Rutledge. But this man was an emotional tempest.
She must have cried out beneath him. Still framing her face in his hands, he lifted his mouth just a fraction, his breath hot and swift on her skin. For an instant, he hovered. And then, as suddenly as it had come, his grip relaxed and the raging storm died.
Only then did Frederica realize she’d been kissing him back; that her hands had slid down his shirtfront, around his waist, and beneath his coat. Her breath, too, was coming in short, urgent gasps. She had to fight the urge to follow his lips with her own.
"God." His whisper was like a prayer. "Oh, God."
Then he dragged her hard against him, his arms binding them chest to chest. For a moment, she gave in, surrendered to the madness, and let herself go limp in his embrace. She could feel the incredible power in his arms. His body thrummed with vitality and strength. And she felt so weak. So tired and so confused. Beneath the silk of his waistcoat, she could hear his heart pounding.
"Now tell me, Frederica," he rasped, his voice unsteady. "Is that what you feel when your fiancé kisses you? Does his touch steal your breath away? Leave you weak in the knees? Tell me yes. Just say it. And I swear to God, I will walk down those stairs and out of your life."
But Frederica was afraid to speak, afraid to trust her own emotions. She was afraid of this; this plunging, dark desire which drew her down into its depths, and promised such sweet, perfect pleasure. She did not want to want Bentley Rutledge. She wanted desperately to forget his perfect pleasures. But her body answered his, and she was suddenly afraid. Afraid she did not possess the experience—perhaps not even the will—to fight it.
Her silence seemed to frustrate him. A little roughly, he set her away, and Frederica slid gratefully from his grasp. Rutledge did not turn to look at her. Instead, he braced one hand high on the marble column and stared down at the spot where her feet had been. Then he drew a breath which shuddered through him. For a long, expectant moment, the silence was broken by nothing but the laughter and gaiety in the ballroom below.
Finally, he spoke, his head still bowed as if he’d been beaten. "Just say it then, Frederica," he rasped. "Just tell me what you want, and have done with me, damn you."
Frederica felt her heart stop. "Have done—?"
Without lifting his hand from the marble, Rutledge slowly swiveled his head until his gaze caught hers. It was a look of torment, and of despair. "I have been trapped in a damned perdition these many weeks, Frederica," he managed. "If you don’t want me—if you absolve me—by God, say so. Set me free of this hellish guilt I’ve been wallowing in."
The phrase rolled off the tongue; awful, ugly words. Was that what he felt? And what was he offering? She had never dreamed he could look so enraged and distraught. It seemed so totally out of character.
Later, Frederica was not sure where she found the courage, if one could call it courage to tell a lie. But somehow, she steeled herself. "I am leaving England, Bentley," she whispered. "I cannot take risks. I need a life that is safe, dull, and ordinary. And that is what I think best for the . . . for all concerned. You have no cause to feel guilty." Her hand reached out, almost of its own volition, and came to rest lightly on his shoulder.
His entire body went rigid at her touch. He looked away, and made a harsh, guttural sound.
"Do not feel guilty, Bentley," she repeated. "You are right in one thing. What I did with you, I did willingly. And what I do next, I do willingly, too. Is that what you needed to hear?"
Rutledge straightened his spine and stared into the murky gloom. Frederica held her breath, and she wasn’t sure why. "Aye, that was it, I guess," he said softly. Then, without so much as a backward glance, he walked rigidly toward the gallery, turned the corner, and disappeared.
For what felt like an eternity, Frederica stood, simply listening to the fall of his footsteps as he moved through gloom toward the gallery. Suddenly, an awful sense of regret seized hold of her. Her stomach went weak, as if with dread. As if she’d just made the worst mistake of her life.
Had she? Good God, surely not? He’d offered her nothing; she’d asked for nothing. That was how it had to be. Even if he wished to try, Bentley Rutledge was not the sort of man who could be a dependable, faithful husband.
But the truth, it seemed, did not stop her. Frederica found herself catching her skirts in one fist, and flying round the corner toward the balustrade. She threw herself against it, caught it hard in her hands, and leaned over so fast her head swam. Desperately, her eyes searched the crowd below. But the supper dance had ended. The ballroom was swiftly emptying. And Rutledge was nowhere to be seen.