Lady Harriet Bloomswater read the name on the card and handed it back to the footman. Miss Imogene Galahad had advised her not to have anything to do with the man, but she was bored. It was all very well for the beautiful Miss Imogene to refuse pretty male callers, but Lady Harriet was rarely so blessed. “Tell Mr Smirke I am at home.” One part of Lady Harriet wanted to face the demon that had tried to blackmail her into his bed. Another part wondered; if she’d known the identity of her adversary would she have chosen to take that carriage ride herself?
Harriet stood as the pretty blonde man stepped into the room holding his right arm carefully folded against his chest, his hand tucked into his coat. Harriet’s initial reaction was to feel sad that Miss Imogene had, had to shoot such a pretty man, but as he came close she looked into cold black eyes and shivered in fear. She was suddenly relieved she hadn’t had to take that carriage ride. She curtseyed and waved him to a seat next to her, wryly noting a number of curious eyes turned towards her from her mother’s large group of callers on the other side of the room. “Good morning Mr Smirke, I heard you took a bullet. I’m glad to see you’re feeling better.”
Harriet’s half hearted words made Smirke sneer as he went through the motions of being polite. “Good morning Lady Harriet, thank you for seeing me.”
“Please have a seat Mr Smirke; would you care for some tea?”
“No thank you, I’ve eaten.” Smirke carefully lowered himself onto the sofa next to the wary young woman. She was looking at him like she’d opened a wardrobe and found a large black spider. “I suppose you feel suitably superior for eluding my web Lady Harriet? I nearly had you, but I wouldn’t mate with you now if you broke into my house in the dead of night, tied me to my bed and jumped on me naked! You lost your chance to worship my beauty and now you’ll tell me the name of the poxy fiend you hired to shoot me or I’ll publish your passion for Lord Harley with a few creative additions of my own.”
Lady Harriet’s face flushed deep red and then drained of colour. “Really Mr Smirke, as if I’d break into someone’s house like a thief! Publish my foolishness and I’ll turn you into a social pariah. I’ll publicly declare you a fiend and tell the world of your twisted web. Think how it’ll hurt your sweet Mamma!”
Smirke paled with fury. Having his family’s social standing threatened was an affective blow, “Tell me who helped you or I swear I’ll destroy you and your family with my last breath.”
“There’s no need to be vindictive Mr Smirke. I mentioned my distress to Miss Imogene Galahad and she offered to…to find someone to help me.”
“Miss Imogene Galahad, the cousin of Lord St. Valentine?”
“Yes, she’s quite clever at solving unpleasant problems.” Smirke’s head spun with the improbability of two Galahads being accidentally involved.
“Thank you for your cooperation Lady Harriet. As you rot an old maid I hope it galls you that I was once in the mood to make you my wife, but your poxy father rejected my honourable offer out of hand. Good day Lady Harriet, I hope you die an early painful death.”
Harriet stood with her guest, her lips twisted in revulsion. “I’m glad Papa rejected your offer; I’d rather be thrown to the lions than bed you!”
Smirke’s black icy eyes hooded over as he learned towards his host, “Might I suggest Lady Harriet that you avoid visiting the menagerie or any travelling circus in future. Wishes have a way of coming true!” Smirke performed the minimum example of a bow and escaped the Bloomswater residence feeling relieved he’d escaped with his freedom. Being legally tied to the passably pretty Harriet had become tantamount to being hung drawn and quartered.
Smirke had never before called on the Galahads. The beautiful Miss Imogene was well known for her pitiful dowry and an overprotective father with delusions of snagging a rich Lord for his only child. The year of Miss Imogene’s debut, Smirke’s mother had introduced him to the young lady at a ball forcing him to ask her to dance. The pleasure of manhandling a beautiful woman was quashed by the young lady’s irritating chirpy conversation on the most handsome men in attendance. The list had been thorough except for one name. His insistent hints to be included on the list had earned him nothing but a confused smile. She was a stupid woman with no taste. He hoped to end the interview and walk away with the desired information within five minutes.
He entered the large salon to the twangs of Mrs Galahad’s harp, relieved and disheartened to find the only other person in the room was Miss Galahad sitting alone on a sofa eating a box of chocolates. She smiled and waved him near putting him on guard. She was twenty and unengaged. She was probably starting to feel desperate for a husband. It was rather strange that she hadn’t bagged a rich husband. She was a brown haired Renaissance Madonna. Some rich fool should have already wed her, but clearly all the rich fools were otherwise engaged. Perhaps the whispers of a secret scandal in her past were true. It was one more reason to make the interview as short as possible and escape with his freedom.
Smirke’s attempt at a smile came out as a sneering grimace, “Good afternoon Miss Imogene.”
“It is indeed a good afternoon now that you are here Mr Smirke! I was starting to lose hope that you’d ever come to visit. Is not this the most delicious piece of music? It’s my mother’s own variation on a variation of Mozart’s Magic Flute. She’s one of the best harpists in the country. It sounds rather inharmonious the first few times you hear it, but you’ll get used to it.” Smirke watched with envy as the family cat slunk from the room as seemingly random notes twanged the air. He couldn’t hear any magic in the ghastly noise. If he needed another reason not to marry the woman at his side he was listening to it.
After two minutes Smirke abandoned all pretence of musical interest and hesitantly slid closer to Imogene on the sofa, but he had to wait. He was momentarily forgotten as she fondled several chocolate truffles in the box on her lap before choosing one and popping it into her mouth. Smirke listened in disgust as the young lady moaned in delight as she loudly savoured the chocolate. It was several eternal annoying minutes before she remembered the man at her side and beamed him a welcoming smile.
“You’re very pretty Mr Smirke. Has anyone ever thought you were a woman dressed in a man’s clothing?” The question plucked a life long tender nerve. There were few things he hated more than being thought a female in male attire.
“I don’t look anything like a woman!”
Imogene lowered her voice and leaned closer as she licked her lips coating them with chocolate, “Have you ever tried on a woman’s dress? Just to see what you’d look like?”
Smirke’s black eyes were as frozen as the lowest level of hell, “No! I’ve come…”
“I’ll wager a shilling you’d be prettier than my cousin Hattie! Your shoulders aren’t too wide and you have a very trim waist. Though come to think of it, Hattie wouldn’t be a faire comparison…not since she disfigured herself trying to curl her hair.”
“Miss Galahad, I’ve come to…”
“Ask me an important question?” Her expectant expression turned Smirke’s stomach to ice. “I’m afraid I can’t give you an answer before I know how much you’re worth…they say you’re worth three thousand…”
“Never mind my purse; I’ve come to acquire some important information.”
“Really? What sort of impertinent information do you wish to acquire Mr. Smirke? Did you wish to discover if I’m…unattached?” Smirke’s face contorted in disgust as Imogene opened her mouth in a wide smile, displaying teeth and tongue coated in brown goo. “My dowry’s only ten thousand pounds, though if you’re a wagering man my father will insist it remains in trust until you die and I…”
“I don’t care what you’re worth!”
“That’s very sweet of you Mr. Smirke. Most men would insist their bride came with a larger purse. I think you manlier by the minute!” Smirke gritted his teeth and swayed back as a chocolate covered smile lunged at him.
“I understand Lady Harriet Bloomswater asked you for some help.”
“Did she? Oh yes, I remember. She was in a bit of a quandary. The Prince was holding a special ball and she had nothing to wear. Can you believe her ill luck? A doctor told Lady Harriet’s dressmaker that sea bathing would cure her rheumatism. I suppose in a way you could say he was right. They fear the worst, but I prefer to imagine that the Navy plucked her out of the sea…”
“That is not what I want to know!”
“What do you want to know Mr. Smirke? I hope you’re not going to ask me to solve any mathematical problems because I’ve never been any good at…”
“She asked you to help her solve a delicate problem!”
“Oh! That problem! Really Mr. Smirke, if you need to know about Lady Harriet’s monthly curse I suggest you wait until after you’ve married her, assuming of course that you’d even consider marrying her when you could have me.” Miss Imogene’s wide smile brought to mind pearls set in mud. “I suppose she’s really quite almost sort of pretty when you get to know her. I can’t believe she’d want me to discuss her curse, it’s such a personal subject.” Smirke’s cheeks felt branded by a red hot poker, his eyes wide with horror at the unmentionable subject.
“Not that kind of delicate problem you imbecile!”
“Well…” The young woman popped another chocolate in her mouth and visibly chewed creating more goo. Smirke slowly overcame the impulse to gallop from the room as he forcibly swallowed his embarrassment. “…I think it rather uncouth to call the woman you’re wooing an imbecile. Perhaps you’re the imbecile for showing an interest in me?”
“I’m not showing an interest in you, you half-wit. I want you to tell me the name of the man you hired to help Lady Imogene find her blackmailer!”
“Blackmailer?” The young lady’s eyes lit up. “Oh, that delicate problem! Yes, I remember now, but that’s so boring I’d much rather talk about you. Father says I’m the most beautiful maiden ever born. It’s a pity you’re not as beautiful and manly as my cousin St. Valentine. But peasants can’t be too choosy. You’ll have to do, but I’ll have to ask you to drop your breeches for my Father before I accept your hand. I just couldn’t wed you without proof you have the proper…er…male parts.” Imogene’s wide smile revealed chocolate covered teeth as she leaned forward to whisper. “I’ll be an attentive wife; I won’t ever let you out of my sight!” Smirke shuddered with horror and retreated further from the gooey chocolate covered teeth.
“Marry a Galahad; I’d rather marry my horse!”
“I don’t believe that’s legal…”
“Just tell me the name of the man you asked to help Lady Harriet before I lose my temper!” Afternoon sunlight glinted off chilly black marble orbs glaring out of a mask of disgust.
Imogene stuffed another chocolate into her mouth, “Do you promise not to tell a soul?”
“Just tell me!”
“If you insist, I was in the confessional confessing my sins…I’m Catholic, you’ll have to be baptised if you haven’t already. I don’t want our children thinking their father is an infidel…”
“What the devil happened in the confessional?”
“Really Mr Smirke, the devil can’t enter the confessional! That would be sacrilegious! As I was saying before you rudely interrupted, I was in the confessional when it occurred to me that God would be the best person to help Lady Harriet. If he can part the Red Sea he can strike dead a nameless wretch trying to ruin young women. Why do you want to know anyway?”
“It’s none of your concern why I wish to know anything. Tell me his name!”
“Are you’re in love with Harriet?”
“No! Just tell me!”
“Are you always this impatient? If you want me to be the mother of your children you’ll have to learn to be vastly more forbearing…”
“You’ll never be the mother of my children!”
“Don’t be silly, I’ll be such a good mother I’ll have enough mothering left over even for you. What was I saying?” Mr Smirke clenched his hand as he painfully restrained the impulse to slap the young woman. “Oh yes…as I was going to tell you before you interrupted. I was in the middle of eating a bag of Mrs. Puck’s Marzipan when the idea just popped into my head. It was the most remarkable thing. I could see the problem being solved and I wouldn’t have to do anything. Mother says I’m the laziest girl ever born. It must have been like one of Joan of Arc’s visions only I wasn’t leading an…
“Just tell me before I…”
“I could tell you if you’d stop interrupting me Mr. Smirke! I wrote Lady Harriet’s problem on a piece of paper, said a prayer and dropped it on Regent Street. In the note I asked if the person who picked up the paper could save a desperate woman or leave it for someone who would. I think it the cleverest idea I’ve ever had!”
“Are you mad?”
“There’s no madness in my family! Well not my immediate family…”
“I don’t care about your wretched family! What were you thinking?”
“I had faith God would help her.”
Smirke rolled his eyes in exasperation, “Was there anyone nearby who might have seen you drop it?”
“There was a short slender man. He was admiring the ribbons on my décolletage. He looked like he had money.”
“Who was he?”
“How should I know? I’d never marry a man who publicly stared at my breasts through an eyeglass. I dropped the letter and didn’t look back. Did Lady Harriet ask you for help too?”
“That’s none of your concern! Did you recognise any men who passed you?”
“I did see Mr. Robert Neilson with a lady on his arm. I wish he’d offer for me. Would you care for a chocolate truffle?” Smirke’s black eyes narrowed as black marble eyes cracked from the chill emanating from his heart. Being found less attractive than Robert Neilson, a man who’d pummelled him black and blue in April stamped an eternal ill opinion of the ghastly Miss Galahad on Smirke’s heart. “What happened to your arm Mr. Smirke? Did you fight in a duel? Was there lots of blood?”
“You are one of the most infuriating, ill-mannered, repulsive women
I’ve ever met!”
“Does this mean you’re not going to offer for me?” Loud snorting noises abruptly turned into painful wails accompanied by gushing tears. Smirke jumped up and escaped, sighing with relief as the front door closed behind him. The nightmare was over, but the identity of Harriet’s Hero was still a mystery. It didn’t occur to him to look up at the drawing room windows. If he had he might have noticed Miss Galahad peering down at him with amused satisfaction.
Pushed into his carriage, Smirke snarled at his footmen. His shoulder ached, his head ached, his stomach ached; he longed for soft feminine hands to lovingly rub away the pain, but purchased hands were never soft or loving. He was a beautiful man who deserved to be worshipped. Remembering Miss Galahad’s chocolaty smile he shuddered with horror. He’d never want a wife or heir bad enough to marry her.
As the carriage jolted forward a strange feeling convulsed his chest. He had an overwhelming feeling he should forget his plans for revenge and leave London immediately for his home in Lincolnshire. He sneered at the feeling. He didn’t want to face the ugly ward left in his care by a bible thumping Vicar. He could only hope the young woman would run away and marry a footpad, but the feeling he should return home was branding his heart. He lightly rubbed around the healing bullet wound and winced as pain flooded his senses refocusing his thoughts on revenge.
It was highly unlikely that two Galahads were accidentally involved. He’d heard tales of a bastard Galahad, a man milliner who apparently enjoyed saving damsels and hitting rogues over the head with his weighted walking stick. He was tired and irritated. He didn’t want to think about Galahads. Smirke cursed his absent cronies to hell and decided impulsively to visit his favourite coffee house. In the morning he’d set off for Bath to visit his brother James. He’d recover his health and then dig up every Galahad ever born. Again the urgent feeling to return home to Lincolnshire rippled Smirke’s aching nerves. It took all his will power to crush the unwanted feelings into submission. He wasn’t going home; home was the last place he wanted to be. He was going to have his revenge if it killed him.
The story continues in my full-length romance, An Unlikely Hero. Click here to read the book.