Spain, May 1813
Will this bloody war ever end?
Wearing a muddy, red-coated uniform soaked with stinking, indescribable stains, wet and totally exhausted, Lieutenant Griffith Spencer stumbled into a large tent erected for unattached officers. He threw down a heavy knapsack, a leather belt holding a pistol, and a short sword in its scabbard onto an empty cot.
God, I’m so damnably tired of it, he thought, removing his hat and raking callused fingers through his close-cropped hair.
Around him, disheveled, weary men snored in odd positions, asleep in rows of army cots lined up in military precision. He saw others sitting in camp chairs at rickety tables playing cards or dice to break the monotony while waiting for the next call to battle. Griff had been directed to one of the larger, twenty-man tents sheltering men cut off from their beleaguered, decimated units. Like the others, he sought refuge in a regiment that stalled after being mired in the Spanish mud. Officers in this particular tent looked to be a mixture of reserve troops—Portugese, Italian, Spanish, and, it seemed, one Englishman—him. Spain, with its bad weather, had been a primary stumbling block, halting the English army’s march towards the Pyrenees and France. Four days of rain, with more to come, bogged down the regiment. There was little to keep minds and bodies active after the rest stop.
Griff sat and pulled off his boots then rolled onto a narrow army cot, one of few available. Eyes shut, he dragged a bent elbow over his forehead and painfully sucked in a long mouthful of foul tasting, damp air. His raspy breathing finally quieted during the next few moments. Slowly, he relaxed, his tired muscles easing deeper onto the unpadded cot until Griff slid into much-needed slumber.
As evening approached a few men in the tent didn’t bother to answer the mess call. Too weary to eat, instead the new arrivals grabbed a better opportunity to drug themselves with sleep. Griffith Spencer was one of them. The tent again grew noisy after those who eaten had returned. A few loud, snarling arguments flared, but soon simmered down when dice games and cards began again.
Griff finally came awake from his dulled stupor. He lay on the cot, unmoving for long moments, breathing slow and low, and going back in his mind how he had arrived where he was. His horse had been badly injured, and he had had to shoot the animal. He had walked with stragglers until he caught up with the main body of the regiment. Now, he wiped his eyes, his blurred vision clearing as he looked around.
He released an audible groan. Tired of the endless fighting ranging across the scarred landscape of Spain with Wellington’s army, he had slogged through endless red mud, torrid heat, stinging bugs, and bad food. All the while, bullets and cannonballs rained down at him from the well-equipped French soldiers. He was bone-weary and disillusioned. Buying his way into the King’s army four years ago seemed one way of doing penance for his earlier libertine, amoral, and licentious behavior. He yearned for the youthful flush of honor and pride that he lost after following in his decadent father’s footsteps. His mother had instilled those beliefs in him as a child, but she was long dead. Exiled by his family and with no end of war in sight, Griffith Spencer longed desperately for peace, England, and home.
Griff sat up and rubbed sleep from his red-rimmed eyes. Casting a second look around, he came more fully awake. He noticed the men in the tent wore a variety of uniforms, and he heard different languages being spoken. It seemed he was the only soldier wearing the King’s regimentals in this particular tent. Feeling the urge to pee, he yawned, rose to his full height, and stretched his cramped muscles. He was over six feet tall and lean, with light hair and gray eyes.
As a boy, Griff had recognized his father as a wastrel—a drunkard, a gambler, a libertine—a man who never truly cared for him or Griff’s saintly mother. Unforgiving, and perhaps to punish himself for carrying his father’s tainted genes, Griff followed in Boswell Spencer’s footsteps during his early manhood.
Later, sickened by his own libidinous and debauched escapades, an urge for penance took him. Griff joined King George’s army and said a final farewell to his father and everything he stood for. At age six and twenty, close to four years later, he still felt a certain loyalty to King and Crown, so he hung on, hating the months he spent in Spain.
When he straightened up, he watched three Spanish officers sitting and passing a bottle amongst them. One of them rose then, wearing a knowing leer and roughly shoved a reluctant, sleepy-eyed young boy in front of him through the tent flap’s opening.
Griff knew that some Spanish officers brought young boys with them to cater to a soldier during warfare. They acted as squires, much as they would for medieval knights. The youths survived on scraps from the dark-eyed, swarthy, aristocratic Spanish grandees who treated them like dirt. A youngster slept on the ground on a pallet next to his master’s cot. When given an order, the boy might be severely cuffed or worse for disobedience if he didn’t move quickly enough to suit.
Griff thought little about it as he rummaged through a pocket of his jacket for a half-smoked cheroot. He would blow a cloud, take a respite from the foul stink of sweat rampant inside the tent, and relieve himself. He followed the pair outside.
Raking fingers through his rumpled hair again, he stood quietly checking the area near the canvas shelter. Several dozen tents filled the open, flat space surrounded by a thick stand of trees. A range of gray mountains loomed in the distance beyond the encampment and was partially hidden by floating wisps of threatening clouds. The regiment had been stymied for hours. Unabated, light rain continued to haunt the army’s forward momentum. Water dribbled under the open collar of Griff’s jacket and ran down his spine. He pulled the lapels together with one hand and stuck the stub of the cheroot between clenched teeth. His dirty, stiff, leather boots squished in the red Spanish mud as he headed for the bushes and a few moments of privacy.
Undoing his breeches, Griff pulled out his cock and sprayed the bushes in front of him. Just then he heard a plaintive cry and noisy thrashing somewhere beyond him in the dim twilight. He shook the last drop of piss off his pecker and listened hard. Another piercing yelp, louder this time and sounding painful, was followed by several Spanish curses and a deep, angry growl.
Griff was no hero, but a young boy being beaten or whipped unmercifully, aroused his ire. He crashed through the thick bushes ahead of him with his breeches’ flap still unfastened.
What he saw sickened him.
The burly officer from Griff’s tent was punishing the youngster. He held him bent over and gripped his scrawny flanks. Griff watched as the Spaniard thrust his thick cock between the boy’s spread buttocks, again and again, buggering him, shoving his rigid dick into the boy’s bloody asshole to relieve his own perverted sexual satisfaction. The boy whimpered. His trousers lay in a puddle around his ankles in the mud.
Unable to help himself, Griff grabbed the Spanish officer’s beefy shoulders. The movement yanked the man’s bloody penis out of the lad’s anus. Griff’s gorge rose as he saw the boy’s skinny legs dripping with rivulets of blood, staining the fabric of his tattered trousers.
The Spaniard roared with indignation and fought to loosen Griff’s restraining hold. He stumbled away from his youthful target, yanking on his drooping breeches to fasten them. Griff pursued the man, spun him around, and landed a punch on his aristocratic nose. The man’s angry yowl, laced with Spanish epithets, echoed through the woods. Blood spurted from his nostrils and drenched his lips and chin. The Spaniard, his cheeks painted carmine by temper and gore, lunged forward and plowed into Griff’s midsection, his extra weight shoving the Englishman to the ground. Griff landed on his back with his breath knocked out of him.
The swarthy officer was two stone heavier and several inches taller than Griff. He reached around and picked up a length of broken branch from the ground, swinging it hard at Griff, who managed to dodge out of range. Within minutes, two of the Spaniard’s cohorts heard the disturbance and joined the melee. One man jumped on Griff’s back while another smashed his face with a heavy fist. Holding Griff’s arms pinned behind his back, the men took turns pulverizing his countenance and body until he hung limp, barely conscious in the grasp of the third Spaniard.
Meanwhile, the sobbing youngster pulled up his pants, took off into the bushes, and disappeared.
Half dragging, half carrying Griff, the three officers delivered him to the regimental command post. He was groggy and breathing hard. His face was bloody and badly bruised; one eye was swollen shut. His ribs hurt like hell. His breeches’ flap hung open, smeared with blood, probably from his broken nose. The Spaniards swore Griff had buggered the unwilling lad mercilessly, pointing to his breeches and the ripe stain of fresh blood. The three contended it was their religious duty to punish Griff for his wicked perversion.
None of the high-ranked English officers who were part of the current command knew Griff. Fighting was not condoned, although punishment was never heavy because of it. Being accused as a devil’s catamite by the highly religious, Roman Catholic Spanish who were Britain’s allies, meant some punishment was levied and believed well deserved. Therefore, Griff was given a choice: stand before a tribunal or leave with a dishonorable discharge with no return on his commission fee as well. Griff agreed to leave in disgrace. Almost penniless, he made his way back to England.
Surrey, England May 1813
Lady Dulcina Trayhern loved to walk, and on fair days, she was seen traipsing across the estate’s fields swinging a stout walking stick, a large, black dog at her side. She spent hours in placid, unexciting endeavors, stopping now and then to visit a tenant, to chat, or to bring the gardener and his family a treat if Cook made extra. Or she simply wandered aimlessly over the nearby, rolling, Surrey countryside. It was her dearest wish to be outside rather than sitting by a fire or working on “ladylike” occupations like petit point.
Dulcie looked forward to her upcoming majority in November this year. It meant she might claim adulthood in every sense of the word, direct her own destiny, whatever it might be. She would no longer be under the cat’s paw of her stepmother, her deceased father’s wife.
The countess resided in London and rarely visited Bonne Vista. For that Dulcie was thankful. She and the earl’s second wife had discovered no grounds for fondness between them. Therefore, Dulcie was content to do without a parent until she grew old and gray—out of sight and out of mind of the haughty and self-centered countess.
Having returned from a morning outing with Simon, Dulcie was enjoying a quiet, sun-filled hour, seated on a bench in the manor’s rear garden, the dog dozing beside her, when Sommers, the Trayhern’s elderly butler, delivered a disturbing missive.
Dulcie was both surprised and disgruntled to receive a letter from the Countess of Eberley. Her stepmother had written her no more than once or twice since the earl’s demise two years ago when Dulcie was almost nineteen.
The Earl of Eberley had stuck his spoon in the wall during a visit to his club in St. James. Dulcie had been devastated by his loss even though she hadn’t seen much of him after he abruptly married a second time. She had dyed her clothes and wore unremitting black for months afterward. Only this spring was she coming out of mourning and donned stark grey or dull brown shades.
All that while, Dulcie hoped the countess had forgotten all about her. But, no, the morning post arrived from the woman she most heartily disliked.
“Dulcina, dear,” Dulcie read in Agina’s spidery handwriting. “It is time you came to London for a Season. I have been lax by not asking you much sooner, but I wish you to do so now. After all, it is time you sought a husband, and I will find you someone suitable…”
“I don’t want or need a husband,” Dulcie muttered to herself. “I’m quite happy the way I am, thank you.”
She certainly didn’t want her stepmother picking out one for her. Although, knowing Agina, she would probably choose a pox-marked, ancient dodderer, someone with gobs of coin. Dulcie knew when she first met her stepmother, that the woman was obsessed about wealth.
No, Dulcie vowed silently. I won’t marry at all. I don’t want a husband—not even a suitable one.
“…as soon as you arrive, dear Dulcina, which I hope will be the next day or so,” the countess’s letter continued.
Drat, the witch wants me to come to London right away. She didn’t offer me any reprieve or excuse. No way can I wiggle out of it.
Dulcie shook her head in worrisome dismay.
Botheration! The countess never once called me ‘dear’ all the years I’ve known her except for the first week when Father brought her home to meet me when they were already married.
“…I’m sure you will be as busy as a bee in a hive in London. Take my word on it,” the countess wrote. “The Season is about to begin. I sincerely hope you will comport yourself like a lady and not a country hoyden. And please, bring along some attire with style so that you attract a likely suitor,” the letter continued. “You’ll be surprised at what I’m planning for you, my dear. I do hope you enjoy trying new and different things.”
Agina had signed herself, “Your fond stepmother.”
What a faradiddle that is. Agina is no more fond of me than a man in the moon, Dulcie thought, folding the single sheet into a square and shoving the crackling foolscap into a pocket of her dull-colored gown.
Dulcie stood up and clucked to Simon. She left the garden, anxiety rioting through her brain in leaps and bounds. The complacent dog trotted beside her as she strode toward the open parkland at the rear of the house. Agitation clogged her throat. “Who wants to go to London?” she muttered, hearing her own complaint. “Oh, blast it and snails tails, why do I have to go?”
“Ooee, yer in a bit of a snit, now, ain’t ye, Miz Dulcie.” The gardener’s son looked up from where he knelt weeding a patch of tender, sprouting daffodils. Denny Walls straightened up to a rail thin, six feet and grinned at Dulcie as she started past him.
Dulcie was so overset she didn’t notice him hidden behind a large bush. She stopped abruptly and said, “You would be, too, Denny, if you were ordered to go to London.”
The thought of staying with her stepmother, even for a few months, was dreadfully unappealing to Dulcie. And she certainly had no wish to parade herself before any suitors in order to snare a husband she didn’t want. One glance in a mirror several years ago had convinced Dulcie she wasn’t attractive enough for a man to dwell on her looks in fawning adoration. She was plain, and she accepted it. Neither did she try to pretty up her appearance. She tied her mousy, brown tresses skinned back from her face, either in a single braid hanging down her back or a thick bun lying on her nape. Any clothes she purchased on her half-yearly shopping trips into Pinkley-on-Barrow, the nearest market town, were chosen for warmth or serviceability rather than to catch a man’s eye.
“London, is it?” Denny asked. “Now, there’s rare bit o’news, indeed.” He moved a few steps closer to Dulcie and examined her expression. “Wot’s yer reason fer not wantin’ to go, Miz Dulcie?”
“My stepmother’s command, for one, Denny.”
“Ah, that one. The second countess.” He ducked his head, wiping a nasty smirk off his lips.
“I simply wish to stay where I am, that’s all, Denny, and…”
“Well, now. ‘Twere it me, I’d give me eyeteeth to get a gander at the glorious sights to be seen in London.”
“Never mind that. It’s worse. She wants me to have a come-out, a London Season,” Dulcie grumbled, wrinkles pinching her smooth brow.
“Is that so terrible? All them fancy parties and what else you’ll be attendin’. Why…”
“Denny, you don’t understand. What she really wants is for me to find a husband while I’m in London.”
“Ahh.” He nodded in agreement, rubbing a soiled hand over a lightly stubbled chin. “Yer nigh as old as me, Miz Dulcie. Mebbe ‘tis time ye chose a good man to take care of ye.”
“You’re here to take care of me, aren’t you, Denny?”
“O’course, Miz Dulcie. Ye know that. But me Pap’s after me, too. ‘Tis time I got me a wife and family, he sez.”
Dulcie’s heartbeat slowed. She and Denny had been childhood friends, even though he was nothing more than the gardener’s son. It was a bit of a jolt to learn that he was seriously considering marriage.
“Then, I suppose I must do what she says, Denny.” Dulcie twisted her capable fingers into knots. “If I don’t, my stepmother will show up posthaste, demanding why I didn’t obey her expressed wishes. She’ll force me to go to London anyway.”
“Aye. I expect yer right, seeing as I remember ye never took a liking to the countess. She has an accursed way about her, ‘tis true. Why, Ben, the earl’s old groom, was let go fer not movin’ fast enough to suit yer ladyship when she called for her favorite mount to be saddled.”
“Well, I’ll not let her bully me, Denny. She is my father’s widow, and I suppose I owe her some respect, but I’m almost one and twenty, or I will be come November.”
* * * *
Agina Trayhern, Countess of Eberley, baptized Vagina Boggs, daughter of a seamstress and a ne’er-do-well costermonger, and blessed with extraordinary angelic beauty, was rarely seen at Bonne Vista after she had captivated and married Dulcie’s widowed father. As Dulcie’s father’s new bride, Agina oozed false charm when she was with Dulcie. However, the pair couldn’t warm up to each other. So Agina rarely spoke to her stepdaughter and kept Maxwell Trayhern entertained, not allowing him to spend much time in close company with his daughter. Rather, Agina brought along invited guests and shooed Dulcie to her room whenever they stayed at the earl’s ancestral estate. Either that, or she badgered her besotted husband to travel to Brighton or London to attend the glittering festivities if the Prince Regent was in residence.
Agina was ecstatic when the earl announced they were to live permanently in the London town house, leaving Dulcie alone in the country with Trayhern’s family retainers. Rarely contacting or even seeing her developing stepdaughter, Agina retained her careless attitude.
The new, lovely countess was a born bon vivant, hosting lavish entertainments she wheedled her aristocratic husband to pay for. Both Agina and her constant companion, her lady’s maid, Trent, had knowledge of herbal lore. Together they conspired to dull the earl’s wits so that he turned over his fiscal responsibilities to a handsome, young buck his new wife had hired. In that manner, the countess had gained control of the purse strings and the earl’s fortune.
After they were living in London, Agina had pestered the befogged Maxwell relentlessly until he made her Dulcie’s guardian in his final will. That bit of information was never mentioned to Dulcie. The countess had learned to be shrewd during her earlier years and knew the intricate details regarding the earl’s codicils. Wealth—having it to enjoy now and keeping it later—was the wellspring for Agina’s scheming. But circumstances, and partly because of the earl’s stubbornness, had a way of turning sour for the grasping countess.
Maxwell Trayhern had no male offspring. When he died, the title of Earl of Eberley was passed to a distant, middle-aged, country cousin living in the wilds of Yorkshire. The new earl, however, was not given sufficient property nor income with his bequest to enjoy his prestige. Neither Bonne Vista nor the London property were entailed; nor was Maxwell Trayhern’s personal fortune
Maxwell’s convoluted testament stated that should he stick his spoon in the wall soon, Dulcie would inherit his substantial estate—with the exception of the London town house. Because the countess wanted no part of rustic, country bivalence, Agina was left a life tenancy for Eberley House. Maxwell was of the opinion that while he lived the countess would find a suitable marriage partner for his daughter long before Dulcie turned one and twenty—to a husband who had substantial income. If the earl’s death came prior to Dulcie’s marriage before November twenty-second of 1813, the year of her majority, Agina and her stepdaughter would share the income from Maxwell Trayhern’s holdings.
If Dulcie didn’t marry before that date, the earl’s daughter inherited everything, although Agina would still receive what she deemed only a pittance of several thousand pounds a year for as long as she lived. To the countess’s mind, it was not nearly enough to cover her extravagance.
Agina wasn’t heartbroken at the earl’s early demise. She did manage, however, to paste on a sad countenance whenever she ventured out in the aristocratic world of the ton.
With mourning now out of the way, Agina was worried about losing her beauty. Trent and Agina were intimate lesbian lovers well before Agina’s scheme to leg shackle the earl, but Agina needed constant reminders of her beauty. Therefore, she also maintained a male following of young, lusty lovers to sate her other sexual preference. Agina was generous with her young cicisbeos, plying them with expensive gifts when they satisfied her erotic excesses. All was paid from funds over which only Agina now had control.
* * * *
With no wish to visit London, and no real desire to explore the city’s sights, Dulcie preferred the serenity of the Surrey countryside. Upon receipt of her stepmother’s note, she was forced to visit the Metropolis and reside for a time with the countess.
I can only hope that woman will forget I am living under her roof and ignore me the way she did when she married my father.
Dulcie was determined somehow to wangle her way out of her stepmother’s clutches and return to Bonne Vista, hopefully, without shackling herself to an unwanted husband.
Leaving Denny, whose bright, dark brown eyes followed her everywhere she went, Dulcie bent and patted Simon’s glossy head and strolled back toward the manor. “Come, laddie. I suppose we must pack. Much as I hate to, I fear we are going to London.”
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