Lex waited until she was banished to the drawing-room with the pecans to make her move. Whilst the gentleman gathered for port and cigars, she lingered by the doorway just long enough to catch Benjamin's eye, casually letting her gaze slide from him to the garden and back. The message was subtle yet she was reassured by the puzzlement dawning in his eyes, he understood her veiled meaning. She felt dark eyes fixated on her and became aware she had dithered too long, her papa was also watching her with obvious suspicion.
"The drawing-room is to your right, Miss Hunt," Julian reminded her icily.
"I am more inclined to partake of the port ," she retorted good-naturedly, not entirely lying.
The gentleman laughed, including Julian. He clearly thought the reason for her delay was merely her horror at having to endure such tedious company and idle chatter, both he and her papa knew her dislike of such mundane traditions, neither saw the underlying motive in store. She smiled and went to join the ladies, not even sparing an idle glance at Mr Moore. He knew what she wanted. The rest was up to him.
As suspected slipping away from her entrappers had been altogether too easy. Lex had merely ignored Annette's incessant chatter and veiled insults, sat alone for a few minutes and then proclaimed she felt faint and needed some air. Annette , who was simply delighted to have the last word and preoccupied with her audience , deluded herself that she had gotten the better of her and Lex was obviously dashing off to go cry in the garden.
Proof if any were needed that vanity clearly overtakes reason, although in her case I am not sure there is any to overtake.
At present, Lex waited in the garden. The air was balmy and pleasant, despite the light breeze. A few leaves fell off the sad old oak like stray tears cascading to the ground, to Lex it was as if they were in mourning.
Perhaps they are weeping for me.
She shivered, the summer air carrying a sudden deceptive bite. She wrapped her arms around herself , imagining it was a fluffy blanket and thoughts beckoned of home, silly carefree days roaming around the moors or woods, getting a chill and listening to the thunder and rain , wanting to once again venture out and dance in it but her papa firmly wrapping her up instead and serving hot coca from the stove, whilst her mama railed and raved. She allowed a small smile at that, for a time when things had been simple, for safety, love and yes even for her mama. After all, it was not her fault her daughter had turned out quite so odd. Annette and girls like her were commonplace, it truly was a stroke of awful luck she had not been cut from the same cloth. She knew all her mama wanted was another Annette and despite Lex's own buried resentment she knew she had done the best she could, yet it was hard to fake feeling where there was none to be had, to care for something you secretly viewed with fear and disdain, oh yes, indeed, if anything Lex knew this almost too well.
Julian was trying to mould her into the perfect figurine, smooth out all her blemishes and display her on his mantelpiece the way one might a stag's head, a symbol of power, dominance and clear masculinity .He felt he had to prove something and those with something to prove were clearly lacking in her opinion. Once he had asserted his complete control he would quickly grow bored, accepting numerous mistresses to amuse himself with , while she …..what? Cooked, cleaned and fed little Julian's ? Her entire life sacrificed for a whim of amusement. Now she really did feel queer. She would not shy away from all fault though, if she had listened to her papa none of this would have come to pass.
Even a life with Benjie would have been preferable to this.
Which is why he is going to help me.
He still held clear feelings for her and she knew he was a fair and honest man, should she explain the situation with Julian, maybe even embellish the details a little, he would assist her any way he could. She just wished he would get here in time.
I know he understood me, what if Julian has detained him?
What if Annette tattles about my hasty escape after dinner?
The gentlemen were preoccupied with cards when I slipped out to come to the garden but what if one of them notices I'm gone?
Even the wind seemed like a spy, ready to report on her very whereabouts. She rubbed her arms to fend off the sudden chill, wisps of black curls framing her face and escaping from her hat.
The sound of leaves crunching underfoot caused her inner musings to come to a halt. She immediately whirled to identify the cause of the trespassing sound and startled grey eyes met puzzled blue.
"Benjamin," she let out breathlessly, unbelievably relieved.
"Miss Hunt," he returned coolly, his lip curling in amusement.
She laughed slightly, feeling incredibly silly. Of course it is Benjie. You summoned him remember? Julian has you shaken, that is all. This is good. You can play this to your advantage. "You startled me," she explained, still feeling foolish. "What detained you?"
"Your husband to be," he answered, rather bluntly, "along with a few glasses of port , Hazard and Whist. After losing I told the others I was "in need of some air" which as I'm sure you can imagine incurred some great jesting and amusement. I can not stay long before suspicion is aroused and both our absences are discovered, so I suggest you quit playing games and tell me what it is you could possibly wish to tell me in the freezing cold that you could not at dinner."
Lex was knocked for six. The man standing before her, impatient, rude and cold was a mere stranger. This was not the Benjie she had grown up with, the man who had tried to court her so pleasantly and respectfully nor the quiet man seated before her at dinner. That Benjamin she had held affection and admiration for, he was the one who would have helped her, this one was useless to her.
"I am sorry, Mr Moore," she bit out icily, "I appear to have confused you with someone else. I have no desire to take up any more of your precious time, or cause you to get a chill, so why don't you run back inside . I'd hate to ruin your reputation or make you look like a fool in front of your friends, who are by the way such honourable gentleman."
She went to barge past him but Benjamin grabbed her elbow and yanked her forcefully back . "Indeed,Sir Julian must be an extremely honourable gentleman , he won your fair heart so easily did he not? What would he say about our late night rendezvous? I shan't imagine he would approve. I know you were never one for tradition, Miss Hunt, but this is pushing the limits of decency even for you."
He had not let go of her arm and it was starting to throb. She strained against his grip, stung at how brutish he had become.
To think I actually thought him the better man. He is no different from Julian.
Her feet still hurt badly from the previous night and putting her weight on them , standing around, and now straining like this was doing little to ease her discomfort. The scratches on her arms and legs from her confrontation were hidden by her dress yet her whole body pulsed with pain and adrenaline despite how drained she was , she was overwrought and felt her emotions bubbling to the surface.
She lashed out with her free hand and slapped him squarely in the face. His head whipped back but he did not release her arm. "Let me go, I have enough bruises."
Her words seemed to reach him. He immediately let her go and even though his cheek bared her angry imprint, he was composed. "What do you mean?"
She hesitated. This had been the plan after all, had it not? Appeal to his sympathy, swallow her pride and beg him to help her, whisk her far away from the evil tyrant with tears, heartrending stories and promises she never intended to fulfill. To play him like a harp. The problem now was she was not so sure he had a heart she could play with, any affection he once held for her appeared to be as dead as the corpses at Fairfield , the graveyard she used to so frequently play in.
"It is of as little importance to you as I am," she made to go past him but he blocked her, his light eyes eclipsing dangerously.
"I have cast great danger and dishonour on myself by meeting you here unchaperoned, I am in no mood for infantile games. We are not children anymore so if it would please you to free your tongue and give reason to your meaning hurry up and do so before I tell your husband of your treachery. "
She felt a bubbling in her stomach, like a pot about to boil and overflow. She was so enraged she felt ready to burst.
"Kindly do so," she boldly challenged, "yet do not delude yourself you would come out mud free. Julian is not my husband nor will he ever be and if death is the only escape so be it. I had hoped to find a better way of freeing myself," she inspected him with disgust, "but now I see I was foolish to hang on to sentimental dreams of reminiscence , like you say we are children no longer and it is time I let go of idealistic juvenile feelings , such things are suited towards babes and dreamers."
He invaded her personal space in an instant, if she leaned or moved forward, their bodies would touch and meld into one. He held her gaze yet his eyes were anxious and dancing with a tango of emotions. If she looked into them long enough she could even convince herself one of those was concern. He spoke levelly but his voice strained with desperately concealed emotion. "Fitting then, you are a child if ever I saw one. One thing I always admired about you was your ability to speak your mind, no matter the cost, yet now you speak in cryptic riddles. What do you mean by saying he will never be your husband? Why do you constantly talk of death and escape? I thought you wanted this."
It is concern, she realised, struggling to hide her wave of happiness and relief. He does care, after all. He cares too much, that's what has been the problem. He is sick with jealously. My plan is not lost after all! Now she knew what to do. This part was easy.
"Wanted a life of shackles and chains? You should know better, you did once. It is true I agreed to marry him yet it was not through choice or any sentimental feeling, the only feelings I have for him are repugnance and utter contempt. "
"I do not understand. I admit I found it queer you would sacrifice your independence but I just thought you had found your mate, the one you would risk everything for."
She laughed wildly. " The only thing I have found is my destruction. He stalked me relentlessly, no care for decency , appointed times or chivalry, hid his debauchery behind a façade of amiable mischievousness yet I saw through him when no one else could. The odd few that did pay heed to the whispers surrounding him were too scared or weak to offer help , even my papa who has the bravado of a lion did not come to my aid, so I agreed to marry him to appease him, it was the only way."
The corners of Benjamin's mouth lifted slightly. "Marry him to appease him? That does not sound very like you."
She allowed a small grin in acknowledgement. "Naturally I planned to escape before any nuptials should come to pass, but he found me as I was trying to flee, or rather he hunted me."
"Hunted you?" He had become pale.
"Chased me down with a hunting rifle in the woods and then kidnapped me here. I am staying here unwed, I have no chaperon and I am being held here until he brands me with a ring and enslaves me forever. This whole show tonight was a charade, we are all in his theatre and we are all his puppets. I do not see why he can not woo Annette , they are devious puppet masters and would hopefully destroy each other."
At mention of Annette, her eyes involuntarily darted to the house. Time really was of the essence and it was rapidly running out.
The face that had been so pale now flooded with colour. "He has you imprisoned here?" She could tell he was mortified and truly sickened. "What about your papa?"
"He can not help me now, nobody can. I suppose at least mama will be happy."
Benjamin grabbed her arm, not harshly like before, but tenderly. She could not recall ever being held with such gentleness before, he caressed her arm soothing. "I can not comprehend what you have been through or believe him that truly capable of harm, he is a mere acquaintance and had I known he was this morally corrupt I never would have associated with him. I am so sorry, " he stressed, "yet I do not see what I can do."
Is it not obvious?
Time to set the trap. "You have to help me escape," she wailed, with increased desperation.
He shook his head in confusion. "We both know I cannot do that, you are promised to him. I cannot just run off with some other man's betrothed. I would be bringing as much shame on you and your papa as Sir Julian is doing, you know I could not do that to you both. Your family name would be ruined, your virtue would be ruined-"
"It is already ruined," she fervently stressed, "besides I am not talking about staying with you out-of-wedlock, I am on about doing what young lovers all over are doing. If I am going to be anyone's I am going to be with somebody I love. I am going to be yours."
He took a few shaky steps back. The reaction was not encouraging. "You can not be serious. You are tired and hysterical. We should discuss this no more."
"You wanted me once!" She was upset, this was not going to plan at all. He was meant to be overjoyed. What is wrong with him?
"We were kids then! It's not the same. We have just become reunited, we have not seen each other in years, we do not even know each other anymore. "
"You are wrong, you don't know how wrong. I know you in some ways more than I know myself. You are honest, kind and good and I did not realise how much I missed you until I saw you tonight."
He choked back a bitter laugh. "As I recall you wanted nothing to do with me in terms of a romantic nature back then nor do you now. I am sorry for your situation, Miss Hunt, I truly am but this is wrong. It is not what I want and I will not be your escape route. I am not a fool."
She bit her lip in apprehension, stung he could possibly be rejecting her in such a way. "I was young and foolish back then , I have always had strong feelings for you but I mistook them for friendship when it was so much more. I was scared of how I felt for you, of feeling that way, losing my independence and freedom, but when you left-"
"You never even wrote."
"I could not find the words. I am no good with feelings or dramatic prose, I was confused and I did not know what I was feeling , but I have missed you and when I saw you ….. I have not known happiness like that until tonight."
"I should imagine the desire to escape a dungeon can be very motivating, how extremely fortunate then that I should fall into your lap. Yes, I can see why that might cause feelings of bliss."
He was clearly not buying a word of it.
She changed tactics. "You do not want me, I suppose I can see why. I am damaged goods after all."
"Not yet," she retorted, making it clear he would have no qualms about violating her should the need arise. "He has done many other things."
Benjamin's demeanour had once again changed, he was frantic with worry. "You mentioned bruises , he has struck you?"
"Frequently and often," she easily lied. "Normally places human eyes cannot see. He has devised many games of torture, both mental and physical and amuses himself with me the way one would a sport, make no mistake he intends to break me and once I have served my purpose and provided him with an heir…..well it does not bear thinking about. I need not slit my own throat at all, when one is so eager to do it for me."
Benjamin once again shook his head , blond locks suddenly sweeping across his broad forehead. "Why would he fight so hard for you if he intends what you say?"
"Why do men do what they do? The male mind is a complete mystery to me. All I know is he is a hunter and he has already confessed to me he enjoys the chase and acquiring of "rare" things he can display, I am quite the prize to add to his collection and I have no doubt he shall enjoy regaling everyone with boastful tales of how he managed to woo, claim and finally break me. You know how powerful and feared he is and how people feel about me, I will not be missed."
"Now you are the one who is wrong. Your papa will miss you, and I…" he broke off abruptly, "many people hold you in high regard," he amended. "I will not let him get away with harming you."
She laughed cynically "By the time I disappear there will be nothing you can do nor any tangible proof holding him accountable. I stay here and I am dead, I am already but a ghost. " Benjamin's eyes were watering, she had him. "Still, " she considered, "it was selfish to trouble you with such matters. It is not your concern, the mess is of my own making. Thank you for coming, pass my well wishes onto your papa, he is a good man as are you and wish him a speedy recovery," she smiled warmly. "I will always remember our childhood and I cherish those memories now and hold them close for they will keep me warm and provide light when I am surrounded by cold and darkness. Thank you for everything, Mr Moore, and forgive me for the immaturity of youth."
She cordially pressed her lips against his cheek and was shocked when he grabbed her face and forced her to meet his mouth instead. Soft lips touched hers and he kissed her with a feverish passion that was neither proper nor expected, not that she was complaining. He enclosed his arms around her shoulders, holding her close , and yet still did not release her mouth. Lex never permitted gentleman to kiss her, she had no interest in such matters, yet she had no idea what she had been missing. Finally he released her. She needed air. She took deep, gasping breaths, rendered , for the first time in her life, utterly speechless.
"I am sorry, Miss Hunt, that was deeply unacceptable. Forgive me." He had gone bright red.
He certainly has no need to apologise , she thought wildly yet she was confused. This was unexpected and not part of the plan. She felt shaken.
Clearly mistaking the cause for her tremors, he averted his eyes in shame. "I do not know what came over me ."
Nor do I but I liked it!
What is happening to me? What do I do? It's Benjie!
No matter , focus on the task at hand. I'm overwrought that is all.
"Please do not apologise, Mr Moore, there really is no need. I am glad we were able to say goodbye properly."
His eyes regained focus. "We shall say no such thing."
His words watered the seeds of hope sprouting in her belly, "you mean…"
"I mean I want to be with you. I have always wanted to be with you. I am sorry for tonight, I was stupid, jealous and wanted to hurt you the way you did me, which is why I was so callous before. The truth is not a moment has gone by where I've not thought about you and there is no way I am leaving you here betrothed to that man. I love you, Miss Hunt, and I do not care what it takes or what I have to face, I have no fear of Sir Julian, you will be my wife and I will get you out of this place."
Lex beamed and almost expected a round of applause, instead she heard heavy footsteps. Benjamin heard it the same time she did.
"Am I interrupting something?"
If anyone has taken the time to read this, please review. Thank you so much for all the words of encouragement and constructive critique throughout the years and sticking by me, you have no idea how much it means that people are still reading this story. By the way in regards to Lex's inner musings , being a lady of certain means there would be no way she would actually be cooking, cleaning, and so forth but she's not thinking clearly and is meant to be more reflective of how she perceives Julian's opinion and treatment of her, than an historical inaccuracy.
If anyone knows any good Regency books/websites, feel free to share. Nearly drove the entire Waterstones crazy today and spent about an hour , desperately looking for a decent informative book.
Updating Bitter Blood next and then will be straight back on to this. I promise.