|A Woman of Virtue
Sonnet Books, March 2001
|Excerpt from the novel A Woman of Virtue|
In which Lord Delacourt Attends a Funeral
Following the graveside prayers, Cecilia lingered just long enough to slip the priest a generous donation to cover the cost of Mary’s burial, then with Lord Delacourt still at her side, she walked out of the graveyard’s cold shadows and into the brilliance of day. It seemed somehow inappropriate that the sun shone so brightly on such a dreadful afternoon. She only hoped that poor Mary had found such a light at the end of her journey.
Standing pensively by the wrought iron gate, she looked down the length of Bunhill Row to see that almost everyone had already vanished. Somehow, Delacourt had already managed to send for her carriage which had been left behind at Finsbury Square. It now awaited her in the street beyond.
Gently, he urged her along the footpath, and without waiting for her footman, he opened the door himself. The creaking of the door hinges brought her back to reality, and to the truth of just who it was standing at her elbow.
As her skirts brushed past him, Delacourt turned to look at her, his expression inscrutable. "You will return straightaway to Marylebone, will you not, Lady Walrafen?" he asked forcefully, as if he did not mean to accompany her.
Cecilia drew her cloak a little nearer and looked up—quite far up—to stare at him. How had she managed to forget how incredibly tall the viscount was? "No, I fear I cannot," she finally responded. "I must go back down to Pennington Street. I have things yet to do."
Lord Delacourt looked displeased. "You have taken a nasty blow to the head, ma'am, and suffered a most trying afternoon," he firmly asserted. "You would be well advised to rest."
Cecilia mounted the steps into her carriage. "But you have left your equipage at the mission," she returned, settling herself on to the seat. She looked back at him with an exasperated sigh. "Oh, look here, Delacourt—you may as well get in. I mean to go, whether you like it or not."
With a grim expression, Delacourt hauled himself up. "You seem to possess an extraordinary fondness for that particular expression. Indeed, you mean to do a great many things which are ill-advised."
Cecilia made no answer, and merely stared into the depths of the carriage. She was acutely aware that her anger had irrationally surged forth again, but she felt powerless to stop it. Really, what was her problem? His manner was no more high-handed than that of any other man of her acquaintance, and yet, she seemed unable to ignore Delacourt as she did them. He seemed too large, too close. In his proximity, her heartbeat skipped and her temperature climbed, and Cecilia found herself wishing to punish him for it.
Abruptly, Delacourt wrapped the brass knob of his stick impatiently against the roof. "Walk on!" he commanded, and the vehicle lurched into motion.
She snapped her gaze back to his. "I'll thank you not to order my coachman about, if you please."
Delacourt lifted his brows haughtily. "You wished to return to Pennington Street, I believe," he coldly returned. "To do that, someone must give the command."
"Then do it in a more civil tone."
Delacourt ripped off his very elegant hat and tossed it onto the bench. "You really do mean to quarrel, do you not, Cecilia? You really must insist upon it."
Cecilia jerked loose the frog which closed her cloak. "I did not invite you to accompany me here, Delacourt," she said, shoving the cloak off her shoulders with a sharp, impatient motions. "That was your decision."
"And what choice did you leave me, madam? You were clearly unwell. And I think my reputation has suffered enough at your hands—"
"Your reputation?" she interjected.
Coldly, Delacourt cut her off. "And I will not be thought less than a gentlemen for permitting a woman to go haring back along a cesspit like Whitechapel whilst injured and unaccompanied."
"My maid would have come, had you not done so!"
"But you failed to mention that, did you not?" His voice was low and rough. "Indeed, Cecilia, I sometimes think you wish to torment me quite deliberately."
Cecilia drew back into the shadows so that he could not see the color which flamed in her cheeks. Good heavens, why must she be cursed with such a complexion? And with such a companion! He made her acutely uncomfortable. "I did not give you leave to use my Christian name," she answered in a cold, quiet voice.
Delacourt slid forward on the carriage seat and leaned very intently forward, right into her face. "Oh, but you must have, my dear," he said, his voice lethally soft. "Recollect, if you will, that to all the world, we were once betrothed. A love-match, it was said, until you came to your senses and saw me for the blackguard that I am."
Smoothly, Delacourt lifted his long, elegant fingers and brushed them ever so lightly around the turn of her jaw, skimming her flesh like silk.
The caress was brief, but not quite gentle. And though he sat cloaked in shadows, Cecilia could see the wicked green light which flared in his eyes. Delacourt’s mouth was a hard line, the skin drawn tight across the lean lines of his face.
Cecilia shuddered, a bone deep tremor of lust and loathing and confusion. "Just leave me alone, Delacourt," she whispered.
Delacourt saw right through her. "Why should I? Why should I leave you alone, Cecilia, when I could do things to you that no decent man ought? I could make you scream and scratch and claw at me like a madwoman. If I wished too. That’s what you think, isn’t it?"
"I said leave me alone."
But he would not be silenced so easily. "Remember, Cecilia?" he whispered silkily. "Remember the first time I kissed you? Put my tongue deep into your mouth? I remember. Oh, yes. For I still have the scar down the back of my neck to prove it."
She could almost smell the surge of antagonism, deeper than anything she might have expected from him. And why? In the years since their sham betrothal, Delacourt had never shown her anything but cool disdain.
Alarmed by his proximity, she drew further into her corner. With a look of disgust, he moved his hand again, apparently intending to retrieve his hat. But in the shifting light, she foolishly mistook the motion. "Do not touch me again!" she hissed, recoiling.
The intensity in Delacourt’s expression flared, then suddenly burned down to simple disdain. "Not if you were the last woman on earth," he whispered, his eyes narrow. "I’d sooner cut it off and pickle it in a cask of ha’penny gin than offer it to you again."
Suddenly, the carriage lurched hard to the right, making the turn onto Bishopsgate. Unprepared, Cecilia was tossed gracelessly against the wall, almost losing her bonnet. Grabbing at the door with one hand, she threw up the other to grasp her hat, somehow managing to whack the lump on her head.
"Ouch!" she yelped. With the bonnet slid over one eye, she must have looked ridiculous. Delacourt's mouth twitched suspiciously, and pressing one knuckle to his sinful lips, he cut his eyes toward the window.
A sharp retort sprang to her mouth but she bit it back. The coach lurched again, sending light and shadow flickering across Delacourt's face. "Ah, Cecilia," he remarked in a silky voice. "You are stuck with me, my dear."
"Not for long," vowed Cecilia, jerking her gaze from his.
"For three whole months," he whispered, grinning at her. "Three . . . long . . . months."
Darkly, Cecilia turned a challenging gaze upon him. "Then I wish you joy of it, you arrogant devil. Perhaps we will find it improving upon your character."
And then Delacourt did the strangest thing. He threw back his head and laughed. He laughed with a rich, unrestrained resonance she'd never dreamed he possessed.
And he continued laughing—to himself, like some sort of Bedlamite—all the way down Bishopsgate, all along Houndsditch, and into the environs of the dockyards.