Once Dishonored – Mary Jo Putney

Lucas Mandeville hesitated at the entrance to the ballroom and thought of cannonballs crushing masts and setting sails ablaze. Bellowing sailors and hand-to-hand combat with pistols and cutlasses. In his Royal Navy days, he’d fought his share of sea battles with the French, had almost died in one. And he’d rather be on a burning deck than in this ballroom. But he’d made a private pledge to do his best to reestablish himself in the world he’d been born into despite the number of people who would give him the cut direct, or worse. He cast his mind back to his one youthful season in London, when he was an eager young midshipman. He’d enjoyed the balls and dancing and flirting with pretty girls. Surely he could do that again. Lucas arranged his face into a calm he didn’t feel and stepped into the ballroom. His hosts, Lord and Lady Clanton, greeted him. The lady offered him a friendly smile. Her husband’s expression tightened but he didn’t spit in Lucas’s face. He managed a civil nod and said, “Foxton,” though he didn’t offer his hand. Probably his wife had told him to behave because Lucas had a title, a substantial fortune, and the Clantons had two unmarried daughters. Lucas greeted his hosts politely, then joined the throng.

He’d attended some social occasions with his cousins Simon and Suzanne Duval, but those had been smaller groups whose guests were carefully chosen to be tolerant of Lucas. The people he’d met at those events were the sort who accepted that between the absolutes of white and black there could be many shades of gray. Lucas inhabited that gray territory. He greeted several people he’d met at Duval House and they returned his greetings amiably. So far, so good. He eyed the dancers, his foot tapping. His dancing had been very rusty, but Suzanne had given him lessons before hosting a small dining and dancing party where he could practice. His missteps had been laughingly forgiven by his partners. By the end of the evening, he was able to hold his own on the dance floor. Now it was time to put his regained skills into practice.

He asked a married woman he’d met at his cousins’ home to dance. She accepted and they both enjoyed it. Then another dance with another woman he’d met at the Duvals’. The long dance ended and his partner thanked him with a smile before returning to her husband. He was looking around for another partner when a collective gasp of shock rippled across the ballroom. He turned and saw a woman in black stride through the crowd. Her raised head and erect posture made him think of queens. Cleopatra facing the ruler of the Roman Empire. Elizabeth the Great rallying her troops against the might of the Spanish Armada. Mary Queen of Scots advancing to the scaffold.

Dead silence fell and the music faltered and stopped. Then the whispering began. “How dare that female show her face here!” a woman hissed. “A divorcée! An adulteress!” “They say Lady Denshire lay with four of her husband’s friends,” another woman whispered avidly. The first voice said, “Only three. My husband was there when they testified in court!” “Scandalous!” another woman said with fascinated horror. “An utter disgrace!” The whispering continued as the guests melted away, leaving the woman in black alone in the middle of the dance floor. The dim lighting showed that Lady Denshire was graceful with dark chestnut hair and her head raised high. In the lift of her chin, Lucas saw pride, anger, defiance, and terror. She was a female version of himself, in fact, and he saw her posture change as defiance was assaulted by fear and humiliation.

She slowly turned, her gaze sweeping over the retreating guests as if looking for a friendly face. She was beautiful and haunted and desperately alone. On impulse, he crossed the empty ballroom and smiled at the woman in black. “I’m Foxton, Lady Denshire. Though we haven’t been formally introduced, will you join me for a waltz?” On that last word he shot a commanding glance at the musicians. The leader nodded in relief to have some direction and the quartet struck up a waltz. She froze, looking like a deer ready to take flight. “Why do you want to dance with me? I am a pariah.” “I’m something of a pariah myself,” he said peaceably, “and I was not put on this earth to cast stones.” He extended his hand again.

“Waltz with me.” CHAPTER 2 Kendra looked into the man’s eyes and saw only kindness. She took his hand, desperately grateful that he was offering support in a whirlpool of condemnation. As they began to waltz, she felt the warmth of his grip through her kidskin gloves and realized that her hands were ice cold. Whatever had possessed her to come to this ball? Because she wanted justice, but she would not find it here. She concentrated on the steps of the waltz, not needing the further humiliation of stumbling over her partner’s feet. “I just realized that we have been formally introduced,” Foxton said. “Many years ago. I was Lucas Mandeville and unless my eyes deceive me, you were Kendra Douglas then.” She raised her gaze and really looked at her partner.

Blond hair, strong, regular features, and the expression of a haunted saint. It took time to recognize that this man had once been a lively young midshipman she’d flirted with in her first season. He looked like a man who had traveled long, hard roads between then and now. Or rather sailed stormy seas since he’d been a Royal Navy officer. “The last time we danced together was the night before you left for Plymouth to join your ship.” He nodded. “You wore a very pretty gown with a lot of blue embroidery that made your eyes look like sapphires.” She’d forgotten that herself. Mr. Mandeville had been too young and too excited by his new career to be husband material, but she’d liked him and wished him well.

“You have a good memory. You were dashing and charming and I was sorry when you departed to join your ship.” “I liked to think of myself as dashing, but mostly I was just young. It was a very long time ago,” he said quietly. “For both of us,” she said, her voice taut. “I gather you’ve inherited your grandfather’s title. Is being a lord enough to keep you from being tarnished by dancing with a scandalous woman like me?” “I may be even more scandalous than you.” He gave her a slow, wry smile. “Shall we tarnish each other ?” She’d liked the young midshipman then, and she liked the haunted lord now. Her tension ebbed, but she had to ask, “Do you know the crimes I have been accused of?” He shrugged.

“I heard some gossipy whispers when you entered the room, but that is rumor, not knowledge.” She was glad he appreciated the difference. “Do you know what it’s like to stand accused and not be able to defend yourself?” “Actually, I do,” he said thoughtfully. “My circumstances were not identical, but there are similarities.” What could have made Lucas Mandeville a pariah? Cheating at cards? Never. Cowardice under fire? She supposed that any man in battle might succumb to terror, especially if young, but it was hard to imagine that of him. Reminding herself that she had barely known him all those years ago and didn’t know him at all now, she decided it was pointless to speculate. Better to relax and enjoy this dance in the arms of a compassionate stranger. The music ended and her partner stepped away from her. “Have you had enough of this ball?” She sighed.

Her anger and defiance had burned out, leaving emptiness. “I have. I’ll find no justice here.” “Justice can be elusive,” he said dryly. “If you’re ready to leave, I’ll escort you to your home.” Her eyes narrowed. “Are you interested in learning just how scandalous I am?” “Not at all.” He smiled a little. “My cousin once told me that I’m an incurable knight errant. You are probably too angry now to want friendship, but you look like you could use an ally or at least a fair-minded listener.

” She turned his words over in her mind. An ally would be welcome, though she wasn’t sure she could trust that much. But a fair-minded listener would be welcome because she had a desperate need to tell her story to someone who might believe her. “You’re right about that, though whether you can be such a person remains to be seen. I’m staying nearby and I don’t need an escort, but you may accompany me if you wish.” “I’m trying to prove that I’m still a gentleman, so I do wish it,” he explained. “Night streets can be dangerous for a woman alone.” The music was starting for another waltz and couples moved onto the dance floor, leaving a wary space around Kendra and her partner. Foxton took her arm and escorted her to the sidelines where their hostess was saying good-bye to other departing guests. Lady Clanton’s mouth tightened when Kendra approached.

“I hadn’t realized you were still on my guest list, Lady Denshire.” Kendra had wondered why she’d received an invitation. “I’m sorry I’ve brought notoriety to your doorstep, Lady Clanton.” The other woman’s face eased into wry humor. “I should probably thank you. Notoriety enhances a social event.” She turned away to speak to another guest. Foxton accompanied her to the vestibule, where an efficient footman produced Kendra’s black cloak and Foxton’s hat. After she donned the cloak, she took her escort’s arm and they descended to street level. He asked, “Where do you live? You said it was nearby.

” “Thorsay House. It’s just off St. James, only three blocks away.” Kendra was surprised by how relaxed she felt on his arm. Was it because they had a prior acquaintance, or because he didn’t judge, leer, or despise her? Perhaps both. Foxton walked like the military officer he’d been: upright, quietly alert to their surroundings, and clearly not an easy victim. She wasn’t afraid of a short walk at night in this part of London, but it was no bad thing to have a capable male escort. “Thorsay,” he said thoughtfully. “Named for the group of Scottish islands between Orkney and Shetland?” “Yes, all three of the archipelagos are more Norse than Celtic, though they’re part of Scotland now. Thorsay House belongs to the laird of the islands, and he allows Thorsayians to use it as a sort of boardinghouse when in London.

My grandmother was from Thorsay, first cousin to the laird. I spent summers there so I qualify as Thorsayian.” The relaxed, accepting nature of Thorsay House had been a sanctuary in the hell her life had become. “I was grateful to be welcomed at the house when I needed a new home.” “You were forced out of your marital home?” Foxton asked quietly. “Yes.” Her voice was stony. That had been the worst day of her life, a raging firestorm whose details blurred in her mind. What she remembered was pain and loss. Neither of them spoke as they walked the short blocks to Thorsay House.

At the bottom of the steps, she paused to pull her key from her reticule. She was going to offer a polite thank-you for Foxton’s escort when he caught her gaze and said soberly, “Your life has been shattered, Kendra Douglas. Rage and grief are inevitable and likely necessary. But at some point you need to step beyond the anger toward your future. What is possible? What matters most to you, and how can you take the first steps toward achieving that?” His words were a blade cutting through her inner turmoil. She drew a deep breath as she thought about what he’d said. Yes, it was time to move forward instead of standing still and burning. “That is the most useful advice I’ve yet received. You’ve implied that your life was also shattered. Did you learn wisdom by handling disaster well?” He smiled with wry self-mockery.

“No, I learned by handling it badly. I’m willing to tell you the whole disgraceful tale if you’re interested.” Her eyes narrowed as she studied him, wanting to see beyond the handsome features to the man’s soul. Once she’d thought herself a good judge of people, but recent years had destroyed that belief. Now she forced herself to lower her defenses and really look. Perhaps she was wrong, but she felt that Lucas Mandeville was a man she could trust, at least a little. “I’d like to hear that disgraceful tale, preferably over a brandy. Will you join me for talk? Only talk.” “Only talk,” he agreed, looking mildly amused at her wariness. She unlocked the door and stepped inside, leaving it open for Lord Foxton to follow.

Thorsay House was quiet at this hour. There were no other guests at the moment, and Mr. and Mrs. Brown, the couple who maintained the house, were in bed by now. A candle was burning on the narrow table in the vestibule. She lifted the candlestick and led the way into a small sitting room on the left. While she lit the lamps, Foxton knelt on the hearth and roused the embers of the coal fire to warmer life. Like a Scot, he didn’t stand on ceremony and wait for someone else to perform mundane tasks. After the fire was burning easily, he stood and gazed around the sitting room. The walls were festooned with Scottish weaponry: arcs of swords and battle axes, daggers and shields, and a range of other implements of death.

He moved to a wheel of dirks and traced his fingertips over the foot-anda-half length of one. “A Highland dirk,” she said. “Very good for close fighting.” He smiled a little and turned back toward her. “Does Thorsay House expect to be invaded by the English?” “If they come, we’re prepared.” The drinks cabinet was locked, but Kendra had paid to have it well stocked so she had one of the keys. It was a matter of moments to pour two glasses of good French brandy. She handed him a glass and settled in the wing chair to the left of the fire. “I’m interested in learning about your errors in dealing with a shattered life. When we met, you were a young midshipman eager to test your mettle against the French and eventually become an admiral.

How did you become tarnished?” He took the other chair, his long, lean body shadowy in the flickering light. Under his well-tailored clothing he looked a little too thin, but whipcord strong. “I was much like an enthusiastic puppy in those days. After I discovered the realities of the Royal Navy, I lost my desire to become an admiral. But I generally liked the life and fighting the French mattered, so I stayed with it. Then my ship was sunk and I was taken captive along with the handful of other survivors. That led to my dishonor.” “Cowardice under fire?” she asked. “I can understand how anyone might succumb to terror in a lethal situation.” He shrugged.

“By then I was a seasoned veteran of sea battles and wounds and had become fatalistic. My unforgivable sin was something else. Are you familiar with how prisoners of war are treated and what a parole is?” She thought a moment. “A paroled prisoner is given freedom of movement around the town where he is imprisoned in return for giving his word of honor as an officer and a gentleman not to escape. Besides living in more comfortable conditions outside the fortress, he may be exchanged for an enemy prisoner of the same rank. A lieutenant for a lieutenant, a captain for a captain.” She bit her lip as she guessed what was coming. “Exactly. A man who breaks his parole and escapes has betrayed his honor. His reputation is tarnished past redemption.

Honorable men give him the cut direct. They may spit in his face. They blackball him from their clubs and certainly do not play cards with him. I escaped and having broken my word, I stand thus dishonored.” Foxton swirled his brandy in the glass “Just as well that I dislike playing cards.” Wanting to understand, she asked, “Did you crave freedom more than honor? Or was the situation more complicated than that?” She hadn’t realized that he was tense until she saw his face ease. “It was indeed complicated.” He took a small sip of brandy. “Like most captured officers, I was first sent to the prisoners’ depot at Verdun. Not particularly enjoyable, but bearable.

Then I was transferred to a smaller depot at Bitche, which has the deserved reputation of being the most hellacious of French military prisons. There I was unfortunate enough to attract the attention of the commander, Colonel Roux, a man known for his cruelty.” When he fell silent again, she asked, “What sort of attention? Were you insolent? Disobedient?” “No more than other young captives. But he singled me out in ever more difficult ways.” Foxton rolled his glass of brandy restlessly between his hands. “He wanted me to cower from him, but I’m not good at cowering. Perhaps I would have fared better if I’d learned how to do that.” “As someone who is bad at cowering myself, I can attest that changing one’s nature is difficult,” she said. “I tend to throw things instead of cowering.” “That does not surprise me,” he said with a brief smile.

His voice became darker. “Roux first granted me parole, then he revoked it and had me thrown into the vilest dungeon in Bitche. He did this again and again over the following months. It was a cat-and-mouse game with him, and the cat held all the power.” She winced, sensing that his experiences had been far more painful than his terse words described. “Did he treat other prisoners that way?” Foxton finished his brandy with one long swallow, then rose and began pacing the room, his unseeing gaze sliding over the weapon displays. “He was abusive in different ways to most prisoners, but he had a special hatred for me.” “Do you know why?”

.

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