Hidden Hart – Emily Royal

“I’ve been able to save your sight, Major Hart, but there was little I could do for your face. I’m afraid you’ll be scarred for life.” Devon rolled to one side, turning his back on the doctor. Shortly after, he heard a case snap shut, then quick footsteps faded into the distance. The sawbones had recognized Devon’s dismissal. Either that, or he’d wished to remove himself from Devon’s presence as quickly as possible. And why should he not? Judging by the expression on the doctor’s face when he’d removed the bandages, Devon was now a monster, a twisted ogre from picture books designed to frighten small boys. And women. If what the doctor said was true, rather than smile and fall at his feet, they’d scream at the sight of him. A cold lassitude rippled over him. No doubt due to the laudanum the doctor had administered. Waiting for oblivion, he watched the nurses weave their way between the beds, tending to the other patients. In the distance, a form, brighter than the rest, moved about, and he blinked to clear his vision. It was a young woman, accompanied by a primly-dressed matriarch. And they were walking in his direction.

He turned his head as they passed by, but he couldn’t resist catching a glimpse. The young woman stopped and turned, briefly, and their eyes met. They were the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen. A deep, warm brown, mahogany color— the rich, exotic kind from which the most delectable pieces were fashioned. She was an angel. But, delectable as the creature was, she’d likely scream if Devon removed his bandages. A flash of understanding and compassion shone in her expression. It was as if the air had left the room, leaving the two of them—twin souls—staring at each other across a giant chasm. Then her companion issued a sharp word, and she turned and resumed her path out of the ward. Devon’s heart tightened.

Was it the cruelty of Fate that had caused the mere glimpse of a pretty girl to touch his heart, now he was an ogre with no chance of securing any woman’s love? Or was it the drug-induced melancholy that had caused his soul to cry out at the sight of her? But she’d never look twice at a man such as him. A disfigured demon. The coughs and moans of Devon’s fellow inmates swirled in the air, growing in intensity until they became battle cries. He covered his ears, but the cries had entered his mind, as they often did at night. Take my hand, Devon… A voice from the wilderness cut through the screams. Fossett. His faithful friend. The man who’d saved his life when his fellow soldiers had passed him by. The one man who stood by him resolutely, no matter what he did. And Devon had done a lot in the name of self-gratification.

Was he now reaping the rewards of his sins? Would they cheer at his downfall—the husbands he’d cuckolded, and fathers whose daughters he’d ruined? Would they delight in the fact that his one defining feature—his face which had been likened to that of Adonis—was now destroyed? And would his brother Dexter tell him that without his looks, he was a useless as Dexter had always believed him to be? The screams turned to laughter—then the darkness claimed him, and he surrendered to it. *** “What the devil have you been up to now, old chap?” The familiar voice roused Devon from his stupor. He turned his head toward the voice and heard a low curse. “You look like bloody Ramesses the First,” the voice said. Devon opened his eyes and blinked in the morning light. Fossett stood, bold as brass, in the center of Devon’s bedchamber, hands on hips. Unwilling to see the expression on his best friend’s face, Devon focused on the rug at Fossett’s booted feet. “How did you get in?” “Your butler admitted me.” “Bloody Peterson,” Devon snorted. “I told him to admit no one.

Did he say that the monster was on display for your entertainment?” Fossett sighed. “As a matter of fact, he said, and I quote, ‘the master is in need of a friend.’” Any moment, Fossett’s expression would turn into pity. And the last thing Devon wanted was to be pitied. “Who, in the name of damnation, is Bloody Ramesses the First?” Devon asked. “The Egyptian king, whose tomb Signore Belzoni discovered a few years ago.” “So, I look like a corpse?” “Good lord, no!” Fossett laughed. “I only mean that you look as if you’ve been mummified, with half your head covered in bandages. With your interest in the arts, you should be well versed in history. Belzoni’s discovery was in all the papers.

” “Just because I’m fond of poetry doesn’t make me a historian,” Devon said, “or an archaeologist. I’ve seen enough death on the battlefield—we both have—to harbor any interest in dead kings. Poetry and literature are different subjects to ancient history. But you wouldn’t understand that, given that your father had to pay for your Gentleman’s Degree.” “Careful, Dev,” Fossett said. “If you recall, my degree was awarded on the basis of my prowess in Oxford’s fencing arena. I could well show you that the sword is, in fact, mightier than the pen.” Almost as soon as he’d spoken, Fossett grimaced. “Apologies,” he said. “That was a thoughtless thing to say.

” “What, given that my face has been sliced in two?” Devon asked. “It was a broken gin bottle, not a soldier’s sword, that performed the deed.” “Ouch!” Fossett said. “Where did it happen?” “Down by the docks.” Fossett rolled his eyes. “Peterson said something about a lady of ill repute. Did she change her mind and fight you off?” “If you must know, she was being set upon by a gang of men,” Devon said. “I intervened, and one of them got lucky.” “What about the whore?” “She took me to the hospital.” “She didn’t rob you?” Fossett asked.

“But then—you’d just saved her life.” He gestured toward Devon’s face. “Isn’t it time you removed the bandages? The wound would heal much better exposed to the fresh air.” “We’re not in the field now,” Devon said. “They’ll have to come off eventually.” “Has Peterson put you up to this?” Fossett had the grace to look uncomfortable. “He has your best interest at heart. As do I.” “Perhaps I’ll wait another day.” “You must face it sooner or later,” Fossett said.

“Here, and now, with a trusted friend, would be better than in solitude.” “I don’t want your pity,” Dev growled. “I can better cope with the ridicule of society or the harsh instructions of my brother. Whereas you—you’re immune to my rudeness.” “I always thought that was something to be admired in a friend.” Fossett was right most of the time. But sometimes kindness brought forth emotions that a man had no right to experience. Or display to others. “Perhaps you’d care to join me in a brandy,” Devon said. “I don’t think I could reveal my face sober.

” “I think you should reveal it now,” Fossett said, his voice insistent. “Before you drink yourself into a stupor.” “Don’t tell me bloody Peterson sent you in here to bully me.” Fossett grinned. “Your butler is a man of excellent perception.” “What did he say about me?” “He said that whether or not a man looked like an ogre was by-the-by, it was his temperament which mattered. And he said your temper these past few days has been enough to frighten all the children of London into having nightmares. Coming from a man who generally seems stoic, who’s served you long enough to understand your disposition, I’d say that was something of a historic statement.” “Then perhaps you could have it etched on my tomb for Signore Belzoni and his gravediggers to unearth.” Fossett folded his arms.

“I’ll not leave here until you rise and face your fate.” Bloody hell! Would Fossett throw those words at him again? The very same words he’d uttered on the battlefield when Devon had lain, bleeding from a gash to the thigh. He’d wanted to remain on the ground and melt into the earth as his life essence pumped away. But Fossett had put paid to that. Surrounded by enemies in the middle of a muddy field, his friend had forced Devon to stand, through sheer force of will, then carried him across the landscape, picking his way over the dead bodies of their fallen comrades. There was no stopping Fossett when he’d set his mind on something. Heaven help any poor girl Fossett set his sights on for marriage. Devon climbed out of bed and reached for his banyan. “Very well, let’s get on with it.” *** “Well? How bad does it look?” Fossett remained silent, but a twitch of his eyebrow told Devon he’d heard the question.

After removing the bandages, he’d studied Devon’s face for what felt like an age. Eventually, he nodded as if he’d been determining what best to say. “I dare say it’ll improve over time.” “Let me see.” Devon gestured to the shaving mirror in Fossett’s hand. “Are you sure?” “You were all for me removing the bandages earlier, Fossett. What’s changed?” “Very well.” Fossett placed the mirror, face down, in Devon’s hand. Devon studied the back of the mirror and ran his forefinger along the grain of the wood, wincing as a splinter pierced his skin. His stomach tightened in anticipation.

But what was the use of nervousness? This particular battle was already lost, and Devon—the vanquished—must confront the outcome. Gritting his teeth, he turned the mirror over. His heart stopped, and he caught his breath at the apparition before him. At first, his mind refused to believe what he saw. He blinked, but the apparition remained. Then he closed his eyes and counted to ten before opening them again. The monster continued to stare at him, horror and disgust in its expression. Devon gritted his teeth, and the beast mirrored the gesture. He turned his head to one side, and the monster followed suit. There was no denying it.

The monster in the reflection was him. The left side of his face was undamaged, but an angry red mark bisected his right cheek. Jagged at the edges, it curled around his cheek, as if the devil himself had etched a sinister smile on his flesh. The wound ended just below the right eye, which was distorted where the skin had been pulled tight. The edge of the wound was punctuated with a series of marks, like tiny red stab wounds, evidence of the doctor’s needlework. But the most grotesque thing of all was the expression in the monster’s eyes. The arrogant confidence—which Devon had witnessed in the mirror every morning of his life—was gone. It had been replaced by raw despair—the look of a man who’d lost all trace of hope. A man who’d lost the will to live. “It’s not as bad as it looks.

And it’ll fade. Every soldier knows that.” Devon closed his eyes to shut out his friend’s voice. “It was always going to be a shock, seeing it for the first time,” Fossett continued. “It’ll get easier with each viewing.” “How the fuck would you know?” Devon growled. He dropped the mirror, taking comfort from the sound of the glass shattering. Mirrors would no longer be welcome in his home. A hand nudged his, and he closed his fingers round the cold, hard edges of a glass. He opened his eyes to see it was half full with a dark, amber liquid.

“I thought you’d welcome a brandy,” Fossett said. Ah—so now it was acceptable to get roaring drunk. “Not even all the brandy in France would make up for this.” Devon gestured toward his face. He gave a cold laugh. “I suppose my womanizing days are over. That’ll delight most of the regiment.” Fossett cleared his throat, his usual sign of discomfort. They both knew that the rest of the regiment regarded Devon with little favor. He’d used his piratical good looks to charm his way into the beds of too many soldiers’ wives—and, in some cases, their daughters.

Most likely, they’d all say he got his just desserts. He drained the glass, then held it up. “Another, if you please.” “Steady on, old chap.” “Just give me a bloody refill!” Fossett complied. “Hadn’t the doctor warned you what to expect?” Fossett asked. Devon sighed. “Yes, he had. I thought I was prepared for my reflection. But I wasn’t.

I suppose it’s like the death of an elderly relative.” “How so?” “It’s something one expects,” Devon said, “but when faced with the inevitable, any remaining vestiges of denial are shattered.” “Denial of what?” “That I’m grotesque. That there’s nothing left to live for, now.” Fossett sat beside Devon and took his hand. “Chin up, old boy. There’s plenty to live for.” Devon snatched his hand away. “Like what? I went through life trading on my looks, reveling in the admiration of every woman who threw herself in my path.” “You did more than seduce women, Hart.

” Devon gave a bitter laugh. “Both you and I know, Fossett, that I’m a terrible soldier. How many times did I nearly get myself—and you, for that matter—killed? I’m alive because of you. You’re alive in spite of me. You should have left me on that bloody field.” “You have much to live for,” Fossett said. “A major in the Thirteenth will always garner respect.” Fossett’s voice had softened, but the last thing Devon wanted was to be bloody-well pitied. “Spare me your compassion, Fossett,” he said. “We both know my commission was purchased, not earned.

Perhaps I should sell it. Find some other social climber desperate to purchase a rank to please his overbearing brother.” He gestured toward his face. “Perhaps my one consolation is that Dexter will now leave me alone.” “I’m sure your brother will want to help you,” Fossett said. “Then you don’t know him,” Devon growled. “He only purchased my commission because he believed I wasn’t good enough to be his business partner.” “I always thought you appreciated his assistance.” “I resented it,” Devon said. “It wasn’t done out of love, but out of his desire to elevate our social position.

He always said I lacked the skills to distinguish myself in business or in the House. A commission was the easiest way he could rid himself of the burden of worrying about whether I’d disgrace the family name.” “It can’t have been easy for him,” Fossett said, “looking after you and your sisters after your parents died. You must admit he’s done well. And a self-made man who lifted his family out of poverty is always to be admired.” Devon drained his glass and set it aside. “It wasn’t easy for the rest of us,” he said, “having a brother so driven by the need to increase his social standing that he didn’t bother to ask what we wanted. Soldiering at least meant I could be rid of him. But I could never be free. By buying my commission, he made me beholden to him and placed me under obligation to be forever grateful.

” “Aren’t you?” Devon shook his head. “A gesture can only be considered truly generous if it’s performed with no expectation of gratitude, or return, but out of the simple desire to help another. Dexter expects gratitude, and therefore, by definition, does not deserve it. There’s only one man in this world who deserves my gratitude.” “Who?” “You, Fossett.” Devon said. “You risked your life to save mine.” “I did what any fellow soldier would do.” “No,” Devon said. “Anyone else would have left me rotting in that damn ditch.

Devon the debaucher. Devon the devil. They’d have applauded it as my warranted entry into hell. But you, my friend. You saved my life. I’ll be forever in your debt.” “Then do as I ask and return to the regiment with me,” Fossett said. “Once you’ve healed, of course.” Devon shook his head. “How can I? Unless you think I’ll use my face as a weapon to frighten the enemy.

” He rose and crossed the floor to the bookcase and pulled out a volume of poetry. “Perhaps I’ll resume my studies,” he said. “Literature, after all, has always been my passion, even if it didn’t suit Dexter’s ambitions.” Fossett nodded encouragement. “An excellent idea. You’ve always had a talent with words. Think of all those pretty speeches of yours—those lines of verse, which had women flocking to your bed.” “No amount of pretty verse would induce a woman to open her eyes, let alone her thighs, at the sight of me now,” Devon said. “I daresay even the doxies would charge at least an extra sixpence once they’ve seen my face.” “Do you mean to tell your brother what’s happened?” Fossett asked.

“Good God, no,” Devon said. “Dexter’s the last man I wish to see.” “He’ll want to know.” “Dex only wants me to climb the social ladder,” Devon said. “Perhaps, now I’m a monster, I can be free.”

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