Gentleman Jim: Chapter Four
Strong arms caught Maggie before she fell to the ground, effortlessly sweeping her up and carrying her to the leather library sofa. A pillow was arranged behind her head, and long masculine fingers untied the ribbons at the neck of her cloak, revealing the modest kerseymere gown she’d worn beneath it.
“Fair exhausted, she is,” Maggie heard Bessie saying as she slowly came around. “Only arrived in London this afternoon and refused to rest, no matter how much the master and Miss Trumble prevailed upon her.”
“She’s ill,” St. Clare said.
“A nip of brandy will set her to rights. If you could spare a glass, your lordship?”
Maggie felt St. Clare rise. She heard the clink of crystal as a decanter was unstopped and a glass was filled. Then, before she knew it, a powerful arm was sliding beneath her shoulders, carefully raising her up. She smelled the familiar fragrance of horses and leather combined with a seductive, purely masculine scent that might have been the viscount’s shaving soap. “Steady now, Mrs. Ives,” he said, placing the edge of the glass to her lips.
“You mustn’t trouble yourself, my lord,” Bessie said. “If you’ll allow me. I was her nurse long before I was her maid.”
“Aye, indeed I was. There’s many who say she wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for my nursing.” The glass was taken from St. Clare, and now wielded in Bessie’s capable hand, pressed again to Maggie’s lips. “Just a swallow, Miss Margaret,” she urged, compelling her to drink it. “A sip won’t harm you.”
St. Clare’s arm tightened reflexively around Maggie’s shoulders. “Miss Margaret?”
“Oh, well, as to that…”
Bessie was saved from explaining by Maggie herself who, after swallowing far more than a sip of the proffered brandy, had not only been revived by it, but had also promptly proceeded to choke. “It burns like the devil,” she gasped, opening her eyes and coughing. Thankfully, the aftereffects of the fiery liquid were short-lived. After a brief moment, she composed herself and, blinking several times, looked up at the figure of Bessie hovering over her.
And then she looked past Bessie, to the face of the gentleman cradling her in his arm.
Her pulse raced.
Lord St. Clare was a dangerously handsome man who, at first glance, put Maggie in mind of Byron’s Corsair. He had well-formed features characterized by a strong, chiseled jaw, lean cheeks, and firmly molded lips that were inclined to curl into a sneer. His thick golden hair looked as if it had been tousled by a cold north wind. And his skin appeared to have been bronzed by the sun of some exotic land.
There was a faintly weathered look about him. A hint of world-weariness. Had he been a sailor, perhaps? An officer in His Majesty’s Navy? Or was his appearance merely the result of years spent traipsing about the continent?
He was undoubtedly aristocratic, Maggie could see that quite plainly. His bearing was that of a gentleman who’d had wealth and privilege since birth. Indeed, it was that precise quality of subtle, patrician arrogance that, when combined with the healthy glow of his skin and the lazy, masculine grace of his body, gave him the look of a man who spent all of his time out of doors—riding, driving, and very likely dueling lesser men to the death just for the fun of it.
Good lord, how could she ever have thought this man was Nicholas Seaton?
He couldn’t be, could he? It was impossible. He was too big. Too strong. Too old. Too highborn. Too…everything.
And yet…St. Clare’s eyes were the same unique shade of stormy gray as Nicholas Seaton’s, and they held within their depths that peculiar mix of humor, bitterness, and anguish that Nicholas’s had had all those years ago at Beasley Park.
And he smelled like Nicholas, too. Not the expensive shaving soap—Nicholas had never had anything half so fine—but the fragrance of horses and leather and that other scent that had so uniquely belonged to him.
Maggie met St. Clare’s eyes, unable to contain the swell of longing within her.
How many years had she wasted waiting for Nicholas Seaton to return to Somerset? Too many to count. He’d been her first love. Her only love. She’d long ago resigned herself to the fact that he was dead. He’d have joined the army. He’d have been killed in the Peninsula or at the Battle of Waterloo. He must be dead. For if he were still alive somewhere in the world, he would have found his way back to her.
“The brandy was not to your liking, I see,” St. Clare said. “Shall I send for a glass of wine? A cup of tea? Pray tell me what you require, Mrs. Ives, and I shall endeavor to supply it.”
Maggie struggled to a sitting position. “I thank you, my lord, but I don’t require anything. I’m much better now. Indeed, if you’ll be so kind as to release me…”
St. Clare waited until she was fully upright before removing his supportive arm. He then drew back, taking a seat in a nearby chair. His gaze never left Maggie’s face. “It is Mrs. Ives, is it not?”
Maggie straightened her skirts around her. Her gown, like all her others, hung loosely on her frame. She feared that whatever illusion her fine cloak had provided had now been dispelled. For all she knew, St. Clare thought her some sort of poor, grasping opportunist in ill-fitting clothes who went about pretending to be a fine lady. “No. It isn’t,” she admitted. “Mrs. Ives is, in fact, the name of my maid.”
Bessie, who had remained near Maggie on the sofa, gave a nod to St. Clare but said nothing.
“I’m Margaret Honeywell of Beasley Park.” Maggie thought she saw a flicker in St. Clare’s gaze, but it was gone before she could interpret it. “I’m at present a guest of Lord and Lady Trumble in Green Street.”
“So, not a Mrs. at all.”
“No, my lord. But as I told your butler, my business with you is most urgent. It concerns your duel. And, as I only arrived in London this afternoon, time was of the essence. I had to contrive a way to call upon you without endangering my reputation. That’s why I’ve come at this hour, and why I didn’t give your butler my true name.”
Maggie hesitated. St. Clare’s expression was completely inscrutable. She couldn’t tell for the life of her if he was one of those odious gentlemen who pokered up as soon as a lady mentioned such topics as duels or gaming hells or the demi-monde. She lifted her chin a notch. “I suppose you won’t even acknowledge that you’re having a duel with Mr. Burton-Smythe.”
He shrugged one broad shoulder. “Why shouldn’t I?”
She blinked. “Oh. Well… That is unexpected. But I must say, it certainly simplifies matters.”
“I see no need to complicate them.”
“Nor do I. However, there are some gentlemen who insist on making everything far more difficult than it need be.”
“A tiresome habit. Tell me, Miss Honeywell, am I right in concluding that you’re somehow affiliated with Mr. Burton-Smythe?”
“Affiliated?” Maggie gave a short laugh. “In a manner of speaking, yes.” She rubbed her forehead with her hand.
“Does your head ache again, Miss Margaret?” Bessie asked, moving toward her.
“What? No. Please don’t make a fuss. I’m perfectly well.” Maggie turned her attention back to St. Clare. She hadn’t thought it possible, but he seemed to be watching her even more intently now. “Yes, my lord. Mr. Burton-Smythe and I are affiliated. He is, in a manner of speaking, my guardian.”
For a fraction of a second, St. Clare’s mask of slightly bored affability dropped, revealing a glitter of outrage. “Your guardian?”
“More precisely, he’s the executor of my father’s will and has control of my property and funds until the date of my marriage. The provisions of the will are such that, if anything were to happen to him, there’s a fair chance I would end up living in penury.”
“Ah. This begins to make sense.”
Maggie took a breath. She’d already fainted into the gentleman’s arms. There was no need to stand on ceremony. “I understand that you’re particularly proficient with a pistol, my lord.”
He shrugged his shoulder again. “I’m a Beresford.”
“I beg your pardon. A Beresford, did you say?”
“I’m John Beresford, Viscount St. Clare. My grandfather is Aldrick Beresford, Earl of Allendale. And yes, Miss Honeywell. The Beresfords are particularly proficient with pistols.”
“Yes, of course. Your family name. Forgive me, I didn’t know.” Maggie dropped her eyes to her hands for a moment before raising them back to St. Clare’s face. “I’ll not beat about the bush, my lord. I’ve come to beg you to call off your duel with Mr. Burton-Smythe.”
St. Clare seemed to consider this. “I assume you’ve already asked the same of Mr. Burton-Smythe?”
“Yes.” She frowned. “For all the good it did me. He’s utterly unreasonable. But you… Well, I don’t know you, my lord, but I have every hope that you’ll take my concerns seriously. If not, the only course left to me is to discover where your duel is to be held and to somehow arrange to appear there at the pivotal moment so that I might throw myself between the two of you.”
He gave her a strange look. “Does that method usually work?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never attempted it when pistols were involved.”
“Do you mean to say that you have attempted it on other occasions?”
“Oh, yes. Before… That is, many years ago. But it was merely fisticuffs. And Fred—Mr. Burton-Smythe, I mean—only ever withdrew from fighting because I had some measure of influence over him then.” She smoothed out a crease in her skirt. “It’s different now. I have no influence at all. Indeed, I’m powerless to stop him doing anything.”
St. Clare watched her awhile longer, and then, in a gentler tone than he’d used thus far, said, “Rest easy, Miss Honeywell. Much as he may deserve it, I don’t intend to kill Mr. Burton-Smythe at dawn. It’s a capital offense, you know, and having spent the better part of my life on the continent, I have no immediate desire to return there.”
Hope surged in Maggie’s breast. “You’ll call off the duel?”
“Ah. No. That, I’m afraid, I cannot do. But I give you my word of honor that Mr. Burton-Smythe will not die at my hand.”
Maggie had a poor opinion of a gentleman’s word of honor. Even so, she knew better than to call it into question. A gentleman could be quite touchy on the subject. She supposed that St. Clare’s assurances would have to satisfy her. “Thank you, my lord. I’m very much obliged to you.”
“Indeed you are,” he murmured. “One might even say that you’re in my debt.”
Bessie gave a sharp intake of breath.
Maggie cast a fleeting glance in her maid’s direction before turning her attention back to the viscount. “In your debt? For sparing Mr. Burton-Smythe, do you mean? But you said you had no intention of killing him in the first place.”
“So I did. And at the moment, that’s very true. At dawn, however…” He shrugged. “Who’s to say? Your Mr. Burton-Smythe can be devilish provoking.”
“Of that I’m well aware, but I don’t see how—”
“There’s a good chance he’ll say something to annoy me.”
Her brows drew together. “He very well might.”
“And when he does, the impulse to put a bullet in his brain may be too great to resist.”
Maggie heard another gasp from Bessie. And no wonder. A gentleman shouldn’t speak of duels at all in the presence of a lady, let alone be so lost to decency as to mention firing a bullet into someone’s brain.
Perhaps St. Clare was trying to put her out of countenance?
If so, he was in for a disappointment. As a girl, Maggie had frequently heard her father threatening to blow this or that person’s brains out, or to tear them limb from limb. Indeed, she recalled making similar threats a time or two herself. The Honeywells were known for their bluster.
“If he offends you in some way, can you not simply ignore him?” she asked. “It’s what I try to do.”
St. Clare leaned back in his leather chair and crossed his legs. The firelight reflected in the mirror-polished finish of his Hessians and glittered in the golden threads of his hair. He was the picture of an aristocratic gentleman at his ease.
Maggie wasn’t fooled one bit.
His light-colored pantaloons clung to long, powerfully made legs, and his dark blue coat appeared to have been molded to his broad shoulders. The elegant sprawl he affected was an illusion. St. Clare was no more relaxed that a lion waiting to spring upon its prey.
“In other circumstances,” he replied, “perhaps I could. But during an affair of honor a man’s blood is running high. Even the most placid sort of gentleman often finds himself unable to refrain from violence when a pistol is in his hand. And I am not a placid sort of gentleman. In truth, I have a bit of a temper.”
“As do I, my lord. What does that signify? Unless… Are you saying that your conduct at dawn hinges on whether or not Mr. Burton-Smythe can refrain from irritating you?” She was incredulous. “If that is so, then he’s as good as dead. I have come here for nothing.”
“Not necessarily. I believe, with the right inducement, I may be able to restrain myself.”
“It strikes me, Miss Honeywell, that if I’m to do this great favor for you, the least you might do in return is to grant me a forfeit of some kind.”
Bessie gave a puff of indignation. “Miss Margaret,” she warned under her breath.
“It’s all right, Bessie,” Maggie said, still looking at St. Clare. If he hadn’t reminded her so much of Nicholas Seaton, she might have been insulted. As it was, she could only be intrigued. “What sort of forfeit?”
“You’ve asked me to spare a man’s life. A man whom I dislike excessively. The comparable forfeit for such a service would be great indeed. Far greater than anything a gentleman would ever ask of a lady. I propose instead, three more moderately sized forfeits to be collected at the time of my choosing.”
“Miss Margaret!” Bessie hissed.
“Hush, Bessie. I ask again, my lord, what sort of forfeits?”
St. Clare gave her a crooked smile. “I don’t know yet, but it will be nothing untoward, I assure you.”
The sight of St. Clare’s smile was like a lightning bolt straight through Maggie’s heart. For a moment she couldn’t breathe. She’d seen that same crooked smile thousands of times before. It worked on her in a powerful way. St. Clare wasn’t Nicholas Seaton, she knew it, but to once again be the recipient of that smile and that stormy gray gaze, Maggie thought she would agree to practically anything in the world. “All right, then. I accept your terms.”
Excerpt from Gentleman Jim copyright © Mimi Matthews, 2020.
Reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part, by any means, is forbidden without written permission from the author.