HOW TO TRAIN YOUR BARON
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“With pleasure drugged, he almost longed for woe, And e’en for change of scene
would seek the shades below.” Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Lord Byron
She’d only ever seen a pen and ink likeness of the man, but there was no mistaking him. The wild hair, the blithe smirk, the awed parting of the crowd as he passed through the ballroom, leaving his name whispered in his wake. Byron. Lady Elsinore Cosgrove stood on tiptoe to get a better look as he finished his single circuit of the room and turned down the grand house’s main hallway. Most likely making his way to the card room…or else to an assignation. How very romantic.
In a maneuver she’d reserved for the direst of situations, Elsinore grasped two of the pearl buttons on her satin evening gloves and wrenched them free. “Oh, dear,” she exclaimed, attempting to sound devastated. “Look, Mama.” She held the buttons for her mother and older sisters to see. “My gloves are falling apart.”
“Good gracious.” Her mother frowned at the offending pearls. “I see I’ll have to have a word with the glover for passing off shabby goods. Take yourself to the ladies’ retiring room and find a seamstress with a needle to let. Quickly now,” she ordered. “You’re to dance the next set with the marquess.”
Elsinore looked over to spy her mother eyeing an ancient marquess. The man was as old as her father and twice as round. One by one, her sisters all nodded their silent approval and Elsinore cringed inwardly. She’d known when the season started that her days as an unmarried woman were numbered. Tonight’s taste of liberty might be her last. She had better make it count.
As they married, Elsinore witnessed her older sisters change from semi-intelligent, articulate human beings into demure and proper matrons. Each had squandered the paltry freedoms marriage offered in exchange for domestication. They now reminded her of the automatons she’d seen at an exhibition in Spring Gardens a few years ago. Mechanical beings endlessly repeating lifelike tasks with great precision, yet without a glimmer of emotion. She would not let it happen to her.
“I’ll hurry.” Elsinore turned and ducked behind a potted palm to make her escape before one of her sisters thought to accompany her. Weaving her way across the room, dodging dancers and ignoring a summoning wave from the hosts’ daughter and her dearest friend, Libby, Elsinore plowed forward. She would make amends for the social cut and the grief her mother would heap upon the poor glover tomorrow. Elsinore could let nothing stop her from completing tonight’s mission.
Folded small within her reticule, the frontispiece of Byron’s newest work, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” lay as a secret treasure. Her plans for it made it more than a mere token sheet of paper. She was going to meet the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” genius poet. Not officially, of course. Her mother would never allow such an introduction. The man was terrifically disreputable.
Still, she would walk up to the man with confident steps and introduce herself as an admirer. Should he favor her with conversation, she would tell him that she likened Harold’s journey to her own. She, too, found herself weary of a life filled with naught but society and pleasure-seeking. Then, she would present him with the page and request he sign it.
That he may refuse her was worth the risk. For, if she succeeded, no marriage-minded lord would fail to take her boldness into account. With this one daring act, she would weed out the most stuffy and hard-nosed of this year’s pack of eligibles. She had but this one season to narrow the field down to those men looking not for a meek, obedient wife but a woman who considered herself more than just an ornament upon a man’s arm to be trotted out on formal occasions and then left to languish alone with naught but her needlework for company.
By the time she cleared the ballroom and made the hallway, Byron was nowhere to be seen. Still, she reasoned, with all the rooms opening off a long corridor, all she had to do was get a peek into every room. How difficult could it be for one as determined as she?
She opened the first door to her right and boldly stepped inside to find…nothing. It was a perfectly ordinary morning room. A long serving table had been laid with silver trays in anticipation of the midnight supper that was still hours away, but no Byron. With a small sigh, she closed the door and made her way to the next room. With her mother and the fat marquess waiting, her entire life was now set to the ticking of a clock.
Her mother and sisters had vowed to find her a husband before the end of the year. As much as she might dread their intrusion, she wasn’t ignorant of the conventions of husband hunting. Her sisters, based on the ton’s seemingly endless vault of on-dits, would funnel information on eligible gentlemen to her mother. In turn, her mother would make discreet inquiries of the other matrons, using whatever means mothers with single daughters used, and pass along a few names to her father. Father, being a duke held in high regard, would make sure the man had a suitable annual income and belonged to all the right clubs. A clear favorite would be chosen, with matrimony soon to follow. All she had to do was stand in St. George’s and mumble “I do so promise” at the appropriate time.
The war office should be so efficient. Think of all the English lives that could be saved if all this effort was instead put forth in defense of the crown. France would be won in a single season, and the Americas in a fortnight. Battle-worn soldiers and spies alike would turn to custard at the thought of being interrogated by a determined mama.
The door to the next room was slightly ajar and abuzz with male voices. Ah, the card room. She stepped through the opening with anticipation. A blue haze of smoke assaulted her senses, and she squinted to see to the back of the room. No Byron. But her perusal hadn’t gone unnoticed.
“Need a perch, ladybird?” The young lordling sitting nearest the door pushed back his chair and patted his knee.
The nerve! Her mother’s poor fashion sense was common knowledge among the ladies of the ton. Tonight, her attempt to make Elsinore appear young, virtuous, and imminently marriageable had resulted in a gown fashioned for a tarty schoolgirl. Unless standing perfectly still and employing only small measured breaths, Elsinore overflowed the bodice in a manner no fichu could sufficiently conceal. She tugged the fabric back into place and was about to deliver a set-down the oaf would not soon forget when the man sitting next to him reached over and thumped the cheeky fellow on the back of the head.
“Don’t be daft, Mercer. That’s Wallingford’s youngest.”
The chastised lordling’s mocking smile faded, and he began to stammer out an apology. “So terribly…”
Elsinore stepped back into the corridor before he could finish. The man’s comment confirmed what she already knew. As a woman, the world provided her with only three opportunities—spinster, wife, or demirep. Her life would be defined by the men in it, be it father, husband, or rake. Her thoughts and desires mattered not a whit unless a man gave her leave to have them. Even worse, her own actions would be dictated by the man who controlled her.
Tonight, she would take matters into her own hands.
Presenting herself as being more than just “Wallingford’s youngest” would serve to weed out those gentlemen who wanted nothing more than a docile, unimaginative spouse. The marquess her mother had her eye on would never allow his wife to attend something as scandalous as a poetry reading by Byron himself. Elsinore would bet her pin money on it.
The next three rooms were a lady’s parlor, a library, and a music room. All quiet and still, if one chose to ignore the giggling couple hiding behind the pianoforte. She backed out of the room, closing the door quietly behind her. Their passion taunted her while her days as an unmarried woman dwindled. Unless she took immediate action, there would be no stolen kisses for her, no breathless promises in darkened rooms. Her life would be as dull and predictable as so many others of her acquaintance. A life full of teas, suppers, musicales, country parties, and insufferable boredom.
There was but one room left to check. If Byron was not within, she would need to come up with another plan. She could not fail; her life depended upon it. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open. And…nothing. Byron had evaporated into the night without a trace.
The flicker of candlelight, bright against shiny metal caught her eye, and she took another cautious step into the room. There, in the corner, on a stout table next to a black leather settee, stood a three-foot-tall model of the infamous French guillotine. The polished brass fittings shone a warm gold against the dark mahogany frame. The hoisted blade winked silver in the dimly lit room.
She’d heard the stories of the French sending their nobility to be relieved of their heads one by one until they were all dead. A shudder crept down her spine when she realized that as a duke, her own father would have been made a victim of the “public razor,” as it was so cheekily referred to in the news sheets. She lowered herself onto the settee, unable to take her eyes off the death machine. It was deceptively elegant for such an awful thing.
She stripped off her damaged glove and dared to reach out and touch the metal, leaving one small perfect fingerprint on the side of the metal blade. Emboldened when the entire business didn’t come crashing down, Elsinore studied the gears and pulleys with renewed interest. It was so curiously horrible.
Brushing her fingertips against the smooth polished wood, she couldn’t help but to think of the many noblemen whose last breath on earth was gasped on the apparatus. Her father would have accepted his fate like the true gentleman he was. She could imagine him giving a brief but moving speech, the crowds cheering in his support. He would tell the family to be strong and allow for no tears. Her mother would, regardless, scream like a banshee.
How bravely would she face certain death, Elsinore wondered. Would she say something pithy or patriotic? Or would she be too frightened to speak at all? What would it be like? Curious, she laid her hand on the bed and lowered the wooden collar around her wrist with a loud clack. No, she decided, she’d go silently, still unable to get a word in edgewise between her mother’s caterwauling and her sisters’ collective chatter. The dreaded phrase, “Wallingford’s youngest,” would probably be all that was etched on her gravestone.
Oh, snap out of it, Elsinore. She still needed to find Lord Byron before her mother sent out a search party. Reaching over, Elsinore grasped the sliding collar that held her wrist and lifted. It didn’t budge. She tried again with a little more force, but it still wouldn’t move.
Perhaps there was a hidden clasp on the back she hadn’t noticed earlier. Glancing at the doorway to make sure she wasn’t seen, Elsinore awkwardly climbed to her knees on the settee so she could get a better look on the far side of the guillotine. But there was no lock, no clasp, and no escape.
A frisson of panic danced up her spine. She tugged her remaining glove off with her teeth and tried prying the pieces apart with her bare fingers, but they held fast. She tried pulling, but the wooden collar was just tight enough that she couldn’t force her hand through the opening. Oh, blast. What was she going to do?
Elsinore took a few deep breaths to calm herself. You’re being ridiculous, she told herself. Your hand isn’t stuck; it’s only a parlor trick. Surely no one would leave a functioning guillotine lurking in a sitting room.
Or would they?
With that thought, she braced her free hand against the frame of the guillotine and began tugging in earnest. Minutes later, her wrist rubbed raw and red from the wood, she was no closer to freedom.
She’d have to call for help. The realization sank her formerly high spirits right down to her toes. She’d never hear the end of it. She’d find herself married to a fusty old marquess before she could even have Byron’s autograph or a full season. Elsinore eyed the blade winking in the candlelight. She’d rather lose her hand.
Drawing in a deep breath in anticipation of calling out for a good and hopefully discreet Samaritan in the hallway, she swallowed down her cry for help as a man slipped into the room, pulling the door closed behind him. It wasn’t Byron, but she was willing to consider any assistance she might get.
Their eyes met as he pulled a Spanish cigarillo from his breast pocket, and he held her gaze several seconds longer than was polite. It was a rare thing to have a man look her in the eyes, but his bold appraisal was more intriguing than alarming. She was the first to find her voice, and years of lessons in etiquette and decorum dictated her response. “Please, sir, you must leave the door open. Being here together with it closed would be quite unseemly.”
“Terribly sorry, miss.” Slowly the tobacco disappeared back into his pocket, and he bowed politely. “I do beg your pardon. I did not realize the room was occupied.” He broke their connection only then and turned to leave.
In the few moments it had taken for him to respond, her more pressing predicament shoved decorum aside. “No, wait. Please?”
He turned to her again and took a cautious step closer. “Shall I fetch your mama for you, miss?” His voice was mesmerizing, low-pitched and rich. Coupled with the soft burr of a Scottish accent, it was the auditory equivalent of warm caramel.
In a flicker of the light, she could see, just there, the hidden ginger tones in his otherwise brown hair. Scottish indeed. All he needed was a claymore in one hand and bagpipes in the other. That and a kilt. The thought of the manly specimen before her kitted out in full Highland garb, exposing a bit of what looked to be a strong pair of legs, caused her face to flame with a sudden uncontrollable blush. “Miss? Your mother?”
“Oh, please no. She’ll be furious with me,” she recovered and explained hurriedly.
“Have you been harmed?” he asked, as she saw his eyes travel from her head to her toes and back again.
Her cheeks refused to calm under his intense scrutiny. His gaze made her think thoughts much too mature for her pure white gown. Not for the first time that evening, she wished it fit properly. She reached down and tugged at it the best she could. “No, sir. I fear that my predicament is of my own doing.” With her free hand, Elsinore indicated the object of her distress. “I seem to be quite stuck.”
Her Scottish savior’s eyes widened, and his mouth fell open as he took another step closer. He looked at her again, shook his head, and looked back to the guillotine. “However did you manage such a thing?”
“It was amazingly simple to do but has proven impossible to undo. I was merely curious as to how it all worked, so I put my hand in it…” Her voice faded as she looked up sheepishly and shrugged her shoulders. “Will you help me, please?”
He considered her request for a few excruciatingly long moments before one side of his mouth quirked up.
Elsinore decided it was an attempt at a friendly smile from a man who clearly didn’t do it often. “Well,” she asked, “will you?”
“Of course. I was just wondering whether it surprised me more that Lord Winchcombe possessed a guillotine, or that some lassie put her hand into it. Did you not consider—”
“I did not intend to sever my own hand, sir,” she interrupted. “I was intrigued and somehow misjudged the mechanics. This bit”—she pointed to the wooden collar— “is intended to move up and down, and yet, it will not. If it had behaved logically, I wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“If the machine had behaved logically, you wouldn’t be in this mess?” he repeated, his face and tone betraying his skepticism. The insolent man was trying not to laugh and just barely succeeding. She threw him one of her mother’s haughtiest looks, and he pretended a polite cough to erase the mirth from his face. “Logically speaking, miss, that bit”—he pointed to the piece in question—“is called a lunette, and it’s behaving exactly as intended. Its purpose is to hold the victim, your wrist, fast in place until after the blade has fallen.”
“After?” Her mouth went dry as she eyed the bright metal edge of the blade. She had to lick her lips to continue speaking. “You mean I can’t just…” Her voice failed as she considered the alternative.
“Or we could just pull it out.” He walked to the back of the room to retrieve the candelabra, moved it closer, and dropped to one knee for a better look. “Stop moving your hand so. Your wrist is beginning to swell, and that will only make things more difficult.” He reached out and steadied her arm, trying his luck at the lunette as he eyed the blade warily. “I’ll summon a footman and see if he can get some grease from the kitchen. With a little lubrication, your hand might pop right off—out. I mean out, of course.”
“Very funny,” Elsinore said, frowning. “My sisters will never let me hear the end of this, you know. If they find out, all of London will know by the end of the week, and I’ll never get a season at all. I’ll have to marry an ancient marquess or live as a spinster.” She took a deep breath and looked into his eyes, becoming lost in them for a moment before continuing. “I don’t want to be the sad, dotty old auntie who’s passed around from relation to relation until she ends up alone in some wretched, smelly cottage with no company but her ten cats and her housekeeper.”
“Ten cats, you say?” He smiled fully now, but it was a warm smile rather than mocking, and she began to believe that maybe, just maybe, everything would turn out as it ought.
“Oh, yes,” she replied. “Dotty old aunties always have cats.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“My great-aunt kept ferrets,” he explained. “They bite.”
“I’ll remember that when the time comes.”
He nodded at that and placed his hands on his hips in a posture of male concentration Elsinore recognized from her father.
“Perhaps we could try some liquid for lubrication?” she asked hopefully. “There’s a decanter of something just over there.” Elsinore turned her head and pointed with her slippered foot to the sideboard. Her effort exposed her ankle, and she scrambled to tuck her feet back under her gown before it tempted him into any ungentlemanly behavior. He was, after all, Scottish. They were rumored to be coarse, weren’t they? Perhaps that was the French, because so far, other than his cheeky humor, he’d been quite the gallant.
He retrieved the decanter and placed it atop the table. “Relax, and I’ll pour a little bit right there.” He pointed to her wrist. “It may sting a bit since your skin is already rubbed raw. There’s nothing I can do about that.”
“I’m sure it will hurt much less than being guillotined.”
With the minutes ticking away, she could imagine her mother and her four sisters desperately combing the ballroom and gardens looking for her and expecting the worst. The last thing she needed was to be found missing a limb. Her mother would scold her for getting blood on Lady Winchcombe’s marble floor, and her sisters would tsk-tsk a chorus of “I told you so” as she bled to death waiting for the family carriage to be brought around. If she managed to return to them soon, with all limbs intact, she’d only have to endure a stern lecture. Or three.
“As soon as it’s nice and slippery,” he explained, in a voice she decided would be perfect for poetry readings,
“we’ll both give it a good tug and free you up, right as rain.”
He smiled again, and she noticed how much it changed his face. What might have been taken for stern and taciturn transformed to handsome and debonair with a simple curve of his lips.
“Thank you for pretending this isn’t ridiculous.” She studied his face intently as she spoke. He was a handsome man, in a rugged sort of way, and entirely masculine. In the candlelight, his eyes shone a rich hazel green against a sunbronzed complexion. His long, straight nose suited him, as did his wide, expressive mouth. She guessed him to be thirty or so, certainly no more than ten years her senior. He was at least half the age and weight of the marquess.
“Will you be attending any other events in town this season?” Elsinore surprised herself with the bold question.
A crease of concern formed across his brow. “I don’t know yet. Why do you ask?”
His manner changed so abruptly that she stumbled about for a proper response. “No reason. I… Just making conversation.”
His response to that was a hard stare and a frown.
Just as she began to worry he meant to abandon her, he reached down and removed his left shoe and wedged it beneath the blade. “Just in case, ye ken,” he said. “Ready?” At her nod, he began to pour.
“Oh, that hurts!” She began to squirm as the alcohol burned a ring of pain around her wrist.
“I told you it would. Hold still, and it will stop soon enough.” He quickly splashed on another dose and gently moved her hand this way and that. “Should be slick enough to have a go at it now.”
“Please hurry.” Her voice cracked. “It hurts.”
“Relax a bit if you can,” he said. “And this should all be over soon.”
“I don’t think it will fit.”
A full-fledged grin escaped him upon hearing her protest. “Trust me,” he said with a wink and a trace of a chuckle. “It’s all in the maneuvering.”
The sound of laughter drifted in from the hallway, reminding Elsinore that she needed to return to her quest as quickly as possible. “Mind the time.”
He braced one foot against the table and grasped the death machine in one hand and her arm with the other. She whimpered again in anticipation of the pain. “Pull,” he ordered.
Elsinore obeyed. In the moment that her hand slipped free, the table shifted, the guillotine wobbled loudly, the blade fell with a decisive swack, the decanter tipped, and a generous splash of ruddy port hit her full in the face. As she sputtered and gasped, his stocking-clad foot slipped on the now wet floor, and she saw him begin to tilt. Blindly reaching out, she managed to grab a handful of his coat just as he toppled over.
But she had underestimated both his size and the precariousness of her perch on the settee and found herself following him down to the floor as her gown glided against the leather upholstery with barely a whisper of resistance. In a final, frantic effort to right herself, Elsinore kicked out with her feet but was rewarded with nothing more than the sound of tearing fabric as the heel of her dancing slipper caught in her hem.
“Ooof!” The breath left her body as she landed on top of him.
His hopefully thick skull bounced hard against the floor with a sickening thud, and she opened one eye in time to see him blink slowly as he struggled to remain lucid. As she pushed herself up to a sitting position, a loud shriek cut through the air, and Elsinore turned to face this new intrusion. The door that they had most properly left ajar was now wide open. Astonished faces stared back at her, eyes wide, mouths hanging open—and there, in the back, was the tall and unmistakable silhouette of her father parting the crowd like Moses through the Red Sea.
“Daingead,” she heard the man beneath her mutter.
Confusing as the situation was, her brain quickly processed several truths. Her dress was ruined. She was soaked with wine. She was lying on the floor with a strange man.
An odd memory floated to the surface of her consciousness—she was six and playing outside in the garden at sunset. The governess had given her a glass jar to catch faeries in, and she was looking under flower petals where she’d been told they liked to hide. Her brother laughed at her and explained there was no such thing as faeries. Shocked, she confronted the governess with her newfound knowledge. The woman explained to her that once you stopped believing in faeries, nothing is ever the same again.
Elsinore looked back down at the man beneath her. Nothing would ever be the same again. So she did the only thing any girl with intelligence would do.
She leaned down and kissed him.