Her Virtuous Viscount – Scarlett Scott

A BROKEN NOSE—HEALED, crooked. A diamond-and-emerald betrothal ring—returned to him by the lady he once loved. A bruised and battered heart—mercilessly abused. Wasted years in pursuit of a woman who would never care for him the way he cared for her— never to be regained. That was all Tom, Viscount Sidmouth, had left from his disastrous attempt to win Nell, Lady Needham, from the husband she had sworn she no longer loved. The abridged version of their tragedy was that Nell still loved Needham, and the two of them were likely shagging like rabbits in the country. Meanwhile, he was stuck here, in London, staring at the shadows on the ceiling and listening to the din of vice coming from his neighbor’s home. What a pathetic arse he was. The hour was late, and Tom ought to be sleeping. Indeed, he would have been asleep by now, were it not for the noise emanating from the townhome next door to his. Raucous laughter was spilling from the windows. Music, too. His bedchamber faced the damned ballroom of his inconsiderate new neighbor. Never, in all the years he had spent the Season in London had such a seemingly inconsequential fact of architecture mattered. Not until gouty old Lord Allesford had declared the London air a plague to his lungs.

He had recently packed up his entire household and moved all to Nottinghamshire, leasing his handsome Grosvenor Square home to a disreputable baggage just arrived from the country. A widow, he had learned from the dowager Lady Sterling, who insisted upon calling on him every Wednesday for tea. Tom rather thought she fancied him, though she was of an age with Grandmère. A widow who had been throwing parties and causing mayhem ever since she had arrived with her ridiculous barking dog a fortnight ago. Yes, even her mutt caused disturbances, which was fitting. There had not been a single quiet moment since her arrival. Tom despised her. He despised her more than he loathed himself, and that was rather saying a lot. Very well. Since he could not sleep, he may as well get soused.

Drinking himself to oblivion was one of his few pleasures in life. He had told himself he would not touch a drop, but then Lady Endless Parties next door had done her damnedest to make certain her latest dissolute fête was as loud as possible. Rising from the bed where he had been miserably tossing about in an effort to get some rest—a practice which had been compounded by the unmerciful, stifling heat of the evening—he sighed and donned a banyan. It was deuced hot in Town, even by late July’s standards. He was sweltering. A nice drink of claret ought to help. Or port. Or whisky. Really, anything that would soften the sharp edges of his mind and drown the pain, at least for a few hours. Make him forget.

Enable him to fall into his bed and sleep despite the heat and the agonizing realization Nell was lost to him for good coupled with the laughing and the squeals and the bloody horrible cacophony coming from Lady Wild Widow’s latest revelry. Without bothering to take a candle or a lamp—the darkness suited him—he made his way downstairs to his study. He found his whisky and settled upon that, taking up the whole damned bottle. It was deuced stifling in his study as well. Drawn to the promise of the cool night air, he made his way to the doors on the opposite end of the room, which led to the small Somerton House gardens. Clutching his bottle, he made his way outdoors. His bare feet traveled over the gravel path, taking him to his favorite bench just beneath the fountain of Aphrodite. It had been where he proposed to Nell and slid his ring on her finger. A promise. Promises were meant to be broken.

All of them. He settled himself on the bench, cursing Nell, cursing himself. Took a deep pull of whisky from the bottle. It burned. All the way down. Tom swallowed it wrong and grappled with the real possibility he was going to cast up his accounts. He sputtered, coughing some of it up onto the gravel at his feet. Bloody hell, he was even rubbish at getting inebriated. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. No need for manners, was there? No need for anything, really.

His nose ached, as if to taunt him. The damned thing—once straight as an arrow— had fused crooked, and it still throbbed on occasion. A parting gift from Nell’s husband. As it turned out, it was Tom’s only parting gift from his time with the woman he loved. Still loved. That was the way of the heart. It did not cease feeling merely because the love consuming it was unrequited. Of course it didn’t. That would be far too easy. Otherwise, the poets would have nothing to write about, would they? Himself included, for he had a journal in his chamber laden with the mawkish frustrations of a man who would never find his own happiness.

Tom drank again. This time, he coughed up nary a drop. At least something was finally going in his favor. The promise of being sotted was more alluring than slumber. A raucous cackle from next door—presumably through an open window—underscored his grim musings. That was when he heard the panting. Good God, what a time for an overzealous couple from the party next door to spill into the gardens for a frantic fuck. Should he listen? Give them their privacy and return to the dark confines of the townhome he had imagined Nell presiding over as his wife on so many occasions? The last thought rather made his decision for him. Confronting the ghosts of his recent, hideous routing was far safer from the garden bench, a convenient bottle of spirits in hand. A sudden rustling seemed to be coming from the massive rosebushes in the neighboring garden.

Who the devil wanted to toss up a lady’s skirts in the midst of thorns? It seemed improbable. Untenable at best. Tom’s eyes had adjusted to the moonlight by now, and he could make out the glossy leaves and fat pink blossoms shaking. There was a bit of sniffing, unless he was mistaken, and a pathetic cry that sounded quite inhuman. Indeed, it sounded as if it had been made by a creature of some sort. A…canine? That would certainly explain the panting. In truth, Tom was relieved no gentleman had been the source of the noise. How utterly mortifying. He took another lengthy draught of his whisky and waited for oblivion. All that reached him was more pathetic whining.

He was certain the creature in question was a dog now, and he was also equally sure the poor fellow was in distress. The rosebushes—once Lady Allesford’s crowning horticultural achievement —shook some more. A slight yip sounded, then a cry. Tom sighed. The poor devil was likely caught up in the roses. He flicked a glance toward the former Allesford townhome. Music, laughter, chattering, and clinking. No aid appeared to be forthcoming for the pup. Another sad little cry broke open the night. “Devil take it,” Tom growled.

How was he supposed to harden his heart to the plight of a pathetic-sounding dog who was likely ensnared in a thicket of roses? All the more reason to detest the dog’s cruel mistress, who was no doubt dallying, dancing, and drinking to her heart’s content within, not sparing a thought for her poor mutt. Fortunately for the creature, Tom also knew the location of the hidden gate adjoining his small garden to the former Allesford garden. Just behind a row of hedges, the lock broken on both sides. Lord knew the coquette next door would not have bothered to notice or repair the thing. One more sigh, and Tom abandoned his bottle, leaving his whisky to stand as a silent sentinel on the garden bench while he went off to rescue the poor wretch. He hoped some of the whisky would soon begin doing its job. But perhaps the lancing of hundreds of thorns in his flesh would distract him from the hollowness in his heart. Tom made his way down the gravel walk to the hedges, slipped between the prickly holly and the stone wall, and was promptly poked in the eye by a branch. Yes, that was about the way of it for him. Biting back another curse, he felt his way to the bloody gate.

HYACİNTH WAS ON her second bottle of champagne. At least, she thought she was, when she realized her beloved puppy was no longer at her side. “Has anyone seen Adelaide?” she asked the ballroom at large. No one seemed to notice she had spoken. Lady Esterly was kissing a…footman? Lord Villiers had dipped his head to Lady Covington’s throat. Someone—she could not make out the gentleman’s face—was playing a violin, and quite beautifully, too. Had she hired musicians again this evening? Dear me, I do not recall. Her vision was beginning to get fuzzy about the edges. She probably required spectacles even when she had not indulged herself to the point of Bacchanalian bliss. Now that she was thoroughly in her cups, the latent deficiency was proving more pronounced.

However, the room was also beginning to swirl, which was a clear indicator she had overindulged. Southwick had never allowed her to consume a drop of wine with her dinner. Spirits—like everything she had thrown herself into following her arrival in London—were new again to Hyacinth. A joy and a curse, in the true way of life. Freedom. Why would it be any different than captivity had been? Captivity which had only been ended when Southwick had died unexpectedly in his sleep. But none of her ponderous musings helped her to locate her cherished pug. “Adelaide,” she called above the din of the violin and Lady Downe chortling over a sally the Honorable Mr. Buchanan had told her. “Lady?” There was no answering scamper of paws.

No big brown eyes staring up at her from an adorably rounded face, no tongue lolling. Guilt struck her, for Adelaide was notorious for wandering. Indeed, it had been one of Hyacinth’s primary concerns in moving to London from the country. So many servants, so many doors, a busy road filled with carriages, parties laden with revelers—all of them, opportunities for Adelaide to fancy herself going on an adventure and winding up forever lost. But Adelaide could not be lost! Adelaide—Lady—was Hyacinth’s sole comfort, aside from her friendship with Lottie. And even that had been strained by necessity from the time she had spent shackled to Southwick. Lottie was not the sort of lady with whom Hyacinth had been permitted to convene. The result had been a stilted friendship during her marriage, though Lottie had obligingly returned to Hyacinth’s life in full force following her return to Town. There was no telling where her friend had disappeared to now, or with whom. Lottie was a widow just like Hyacinth, and her set was rather…wild.

As was Lottie. Hyacinth’s old bosom bow had changed quite a bit since the days of their mutual comeout. But none of these thoughts solved the mystery of where Lady was. “Adelaide,” she called again, attempting to drown out the dratted violin. “Lady! Has anyone seen my pug?” No one answered her. No one so much as glanced in her direction. At least, she thought none of them did. Spectacles, Hyacinth. Or less champagne. One of the two… Hyacinth left the drawing room.

Down the main hall she went, passing a couple in a desperately passionate embrace that left her feeling flushed and envious all at once. Ah, to experience such tenderness—a man who did not take pleasure in cruelty and control. Not yet, she reminded herself. Her wounds were still too fresh, even with Southwick gone. For now, she was living her life as she wished, directly flouting every one of his edicts. Still lonely as ever. She spied the housekeeper as she neared the small salon which exited to the gardens, adjacent to the servants’ stair. “Mrs. Combes,” she said, relieved, for the woman seemed to always have the answer just as surely as she carried the keys rattling about her august personage. “Have you seen Adelaide? I cannot seem to find her.

” “I am sorry, Lady Southwick,” Mrs. Combes said, “but I have not seen her since I last noted her trotting toward the rear of the house. It is possible one of the chamber maids thought she needed to take a turn in the gardens.” Hyacinth tempered the urge to embrace Mrs. Combes, who knew how to run a household. “I shall have a look about in the gardens.” A sudden onset of weariness hit her. Perhaps it was because she had stopped consuming champagne. Perhaps it was because she was aggrieved with herself for becoming so sotted, she failed to notice what had happened to her beloved Lady. Whatever the reason, Hyacinth found herself dearly longing for quiet.

For no more revelers. She paused. “Mrs. Combes, do you think you could convey to my guests that I have sought my private chambers for the evening and that they ought to move their gaieties elsewhere?” The housekeeper nodded. “Of course, my lady. I would be pleased to tell your guests as much.” Hyacinth had no doubt she would. Mrs. Combes disapproved of the fast set with whom Hyacinth rubbed elbows since her arrival in London. “Thank you, Mrs.

Combes,” she said. “I am off to find Lady.” Still feeling somewhat dizzy—fine, inebriated—Hyacinth made her way to the gardens. Part of her still expected Southwick to appear from some darkened corner, demanding to know where she was going. Icy, iron fingers, disapproving frown, inescapable rage. But she shook herself free of those memories. He could not haunt her from the grave.

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