A Duel of Hearts

Holland Rae

 

Chapter 1

Cumbria, England

18 March 1797

WHEN Lady Mary Elizabeth Anne Paramour had been very young, her nanny had read her fairytales. From the very first, Lady Mary had soaked in tales of knights and dragons and quests, and the whole wonderful world of fantastical romance. She’d grown into her young womanhood, and while the words beautiful, kind, and lovely had all been whispered in the great ballrooms of the English aristocracy, Lady Mary had never let go of her childhood fascination with true love, knights in shining armor, and princesses to be rescued by their heart’s mate.

Surely, growing up with her mother, she’d never voiced these particular fantasies aloud. Countess Helena Eleanor Blanche Paramour would not have taken lightly to the notion of fairies and mermaids and true love, and most especially not in regards to her only daughter. The countess herself had met Mary’s father only three times before the day of their wedding, which had been the talk of the tonne, naturally, and she made a point of reminding Mary, as often as possible, that one can be a dutiful and loving wife to a man without having to ever get to know him. As it stood, Count Jonathan Paramour and his wife were rarely seen together in public or in private, and to the best of Mary’s knowledge that had suited them both just fine.

But that simply wasn’t the kind of marriage she wanted for herself, regardless of her mother’s insistence on the matter. Countess Helena had preached many things to Mary throughout her life, nearly of them relating back to themes of piety, conservative values, and the ability to retain an impeccable reputation. And for nearly twenty-three years Mary had abided by those rules of her mother’s home to the very best of her ability. She never spoke out of turn, never got involved in illicit relations with the local farmers’ sons, and never once voiced the opinion that she might like to perhaps marry for love. Countess Helena would have sent her away had those impetuous words ever manifested outside of Mary’s own mind.

That wasn’t to say that Lady Mary Elizabeth Anne Paramour was entirely well-mannered all of the time. Rather, she was particularly well-versed in playing the attentive and perfectly bred daughter of a countess, and utterly fantastic at pretending she wasn’t.

Though her fascination with fairytales had started young, she had only grown into them as she aged. By the time she was old enough to understand that life didn’t happen such as the stories had said it, Mary had also learned that there were some elements that could be practiced, if one only knew how.

His name had been Jean-Paul San Martin, and he was known as one of the greatest swordfighters that the continent had ever produced—a birthday gift for her eldest brother, Malcolm. She had been barely older than twelve, and she had watched them duel, watched the dance of feet and fingers and knowing eyes, as Jean-Paul taught Malcolm with all the finesse that Mary had known she’d never be privy to. Eventually, Lady Helena had learned of her escapades, and even the view through the fencing room keyhole had been blocked from her.

But luck, though Mary often considered the possibility of white magic, even if she had never voiced the thought aloud, had been on her side. Some weeks into Jean-Paul’s residency at the estate, she’d stumbled upon him and a scullery maid in the first floor hall closet. Knowing her mother’s sense of propriety as she did, even at that age, Mary had promised to keep the man’s secret—for a price.

It was a small act of rebellion, in the grand manner of things, but it kept Mary’s head clear, and allowed her the vaguest hint of individuality, which was more than could be said for most of the women who frequented the society parties of which her mother was so fond.

None of that, however, explained exactly what she was doing on the doorstep of the most debauched kin of royalty known to the tonne. Truly, Helena would have herself heart palpitations at the very mention of the man’s name—Lord Nathaniel Arlington. He was beyond infamous, beyond scandalous. By name, Lord Arlington and his raucous, depraved house parties were likely more myth than fact, but she would find out the truth on that matter soon enough. If she managed to keep her courage about her long enough to get through the front door.

At that exact moment a young butler opened said door. He didn’t seem the least bit fazed by her lack of formal invitation or earlier notice, and simply welcomed her into the house, introducing himself as Harker before taking her riding coat. She handed it to him, pleased to finally be out of the carriage and hopeful, so desperately hopeful, for a friendly ear.

“I am Lady Mary Elizabeth,” she began, cutting herself off before revealing her family name, not that it would have likely made much of a difference. “I’ve been informed that Lady Amalie Bronwyn is currently residing here.”

Harker nodded. “Shall I inform the lady of your arrival?” he asked.

Mary nodded, afraid that much more speech would result in the tears she’d hadn’t let fall all throughout the carriage ride, and all throughout the last days.

“Very well, then,” Harker told her, performing his proper butler’s duty of not commenting upon the glassy sheen she knew was in her eyes. “I’ll show you to your chambers, and have the lady called for.”

Mary had been in her chambers no longer than five minutes when the door burst open and a brilliant rush of blonde hair came running into the room.

Cozeen!” she heard Amalie shout before she wrapped her thin arms around Mary and gave her a surprisingly strong embrace. “How are you doing? Why are you here? Oh my goodness, oh my goodness.” Her natural French accent was heavily enhanced with her excitement, and she wrapped her arms around Mary’s middle once more before finally settling down on the bed, patting the space beside her.

“I did something terrible, Amalie,” Mary told her cousin slowly. “You…” She paused. “You’re the only one who would understand.”

Amalie had been born in Paris, the second daughter of Mary’s cousin, on her father’s side. She was beautiful and lovely and sang like a lark, and her father had paraded her before every suitor in the land. She had been lured in by one of said suitors, and her reputation had been smirched, burned, and utterly destroyed. Even in France, it remained unacceptable to be found half-undressed on the hostess’ pianoforte, the head of a marquis buried somewhere under your many skirts. Somewhere in Amalie’s story she had befriended Lord Arlington, and when her blackened reputation ensured she was no longer fit for the life of a lady, she had made her home at the Dacre Estate. None of this seemed to be of any bother to her.

“I can’t go home now,” Mary told her cousin. “I’ve…” She paused. How to put into words the madcap story of all that had passed over the last two days? “I was set to be married,” she blurted out. “This morning.” It was the first time she was saying the words aloud, and her mouth went dry, and her eyes grew hot.

Amalie’s expression of love did not waiver, but she looked at her cousin with seriousness in her eyes.

“Did you run away?” she asked, her sweet, continental accent rolling over the foreign sounds. “Does the countess know you’re here?”

Mary let out a small laugh, but it quickly turned into something else, and soon tears were falling freely. “Lord Constance truly wasn’t so bad,” she said miserably. “It’s just that I couldn’t stand the thought of marrying a man for whom I didn’t care in the slightest. Mother’s always saying you can be a dutiful wife, and leave emotions out of the matter. But I knew I simply couldn’t do it.”

Amalie took her cousin’s hand and stroked it gently. “Shall I call for some tea?” she asked, and Mary nodded. “Tell me everything,” she continued.

So Mary told the tale of how she’d begged three footmen to rent a carriage from a wealthy local merchant, then sneak her trunk off to it two days prior. Then she’d recounted how she’d snuck out before dawn, how they’d stayed at an inn some days’ travel from home, and how she’d come looking for the one person she knew wouldn’t send her back to the sweaty arms of Lord Constance.

Amalie didn’t interrupt once, except to pour the tea when it arrived, and when Mary finally finished her tale she felt a weight lift off her shoulders, as if she’d suddenly put down the world she had been carrying. It felt so completely wonderful to know that someone was on her side.

“You’re going to stay here as long as you like,” Amalie said. “I’ll have one of my girls come to help you until we can find you a proper maid.” She looked at her cousin, and Mary saw complete honesty in her eyes. “I don’t know what you’ve heard of Lord Arlington’s estate, Marie,” she said, using the French nickname she’d given Mary when they were children, “but this is a good home. You will be safe here.” And those words, for the moment, were all Mary needed to hear.

* * * *

True to her word, Amalie sent up one of her maids, then utterly insisted that Mary join them for dinner. She was feeling as though she were trapped in a dream, some strange, altered-body experience, where she could bear witness to the events unfolding around her, but as though they were happening to a stranger, rather than herself. She, well-bred, perfectly mannered, never-a-peep Mary Elizabeth Anne Paramour, had run away from home, left a would-be earl all but at the altar, and arrived uninvited to a house so notorious that brothel workers supposedly blushed at the name. At least, that was what Mary had heard—she didn’t know any brothel workers.

She didn’t really want to come to dinner either. But her mother’s impossibly good manners rattled within her. And far more than politeness, she was certain that she didn’t want to sit in her room by herself all evening. It was what she had done at the inn the previous night, and it had been hours of pacing, guilt, and regret. No, it would be better to make an appearance of sorts at the dinner table than to wallow.

So she allowed Amalie’s maid Lucille to dress her in an elegant silver gown with a modest bustline and a smattering of lace. She had brought some of her more daring gowns with her, but that was relative. Perhaps she’d ask to borrow some of Amalie’s, since it was likely that her version of daring was quite tame in this den of iniquity.

Her cousin met her at the bottom of the stairs, and the women walked toward the main dining room together. Now that Mary had a clearer head than when she arrived, she was able to fully take in the decor of this so-called infamous estate. Truly, she had been blithely ignorant, before arriving, that there were so many naked statues in the world, outside of Greece, though she was beginning to recognize an image here or there, owing to Jean-Paul’s interest in the more intimate history of art through the ages.

The sheer, overt sexuality was beginning to edge her into worry, however. She tried to calm her racing mind, imaging herself preparing for a duel the way Jean-Paul had taught her, but it did little to still the thoughts now occupying her mind. She was in the house of Lord Arlington, debaucher, lecher, absolute Lord of Sin—and she was about to enter the fray.