Once Upon a Time in Bath – Cheryl Bolen

Ellie Macintosh was apprehensive about meeting with Henry Wolf today. A nastier piece of work had never darkened the door of Mrs. Starr’s gambling establishment, where Ellie had served as a hostess for the past three years. When Mr. Wolf had first approached Ellie about meeting with him after work the previous night, she had most persistently turned him down. She still vividly recalled the bruises on poor, foolish Sally Smythe when that unfortunate hostess had the misfortune of meeting the wicked man after work one night. Besides, Ellie wasn’t that kind of girl. She dealt the Vingt-et-Un pasteboards night after night, but she never mingled with the patrons outside of Mrs. Starr’s. And of all the men who frequented the gaming parlor, none was more repugnant to her than Henry Wolf. One seeing him for the first time would admire the well-dressed man who was possessed of large physique and even larger fortune. It wasn’t until one came face to face with him that one realized something was off. It wasn’t his extraordinarily white skin contrasting with his raven-black hair that struck a discordant note. Nor was it his pale green almost translucent eyes. She could not articulate why this man with an outwardly inoffensive appearance brought to mind a fox salivating at the hen house before ripping into his prey.

Her resolve not to meet with him crumbled when he told her she could name a public place in which to meet with him in the light of day—and such a meeting could make her a hundred quid richer. A hundred quid! It took her more than half a year of working six nights a week to earn that much money. The least she could do was listen to what the man had to say. She suspected he might have designs on her. Along with the other hostesses—all hired for their beauty—she was accustomed to being admired by the patrons. One thing was for certain. There wasn’t enough money in all of England to induce her to become this lecherous man’s fancy piece. She would rather grovel for crumbs in a debtor’s prison. At noon, she saw him making his way across Sydney Gardens toward her. Her heartbeat drummed.

If Beelzebub inhabited Bath, she fancied he would be possessed of pitch-black hair with pale green eyes set in a strikingly white, white face. Like Henry Wolf’s. She shuddered. “Ah, Miss Macintosh, you have done me the goodness of meeting with me here today,” he said by way of greeting her. Careful not to offer her hand as she did not want to touch this sinister man, she merely nodded. She began to have an even worse feeling about this meeting. Why had she come? He wouldn’t be requesting this tête-à-tête were his proposal noble. “What is it I must do for the hundred guineas?” she asked. “All I am asking is that you cheat.” Why would he want her to cheat? Henry Wolf was a very rich man already.

Her chest rose and fell. “I ’ave no idea how to go about cheating.” “Oh, but I think you do. That’s why I selected you, Ellie. You’ve been at Mrs. Starr’s longer than any of the other girls. I know Mrs. Starr has shown you how to mark certain cards. I’m only asking that you use your considerable expertise to help me.” Her eyes widened.

“But you’re a wealthy man, Mr. Wolf. I could lose me job for ’elping you.” “But you wouldn’t be helping me to win, Ellie. You’d be helping another man to lose.” She swallowed. Perhaps she wouldn’t lose her job for that. If a man lost, Mrs. Starr would just become richer. And happier.

Still, it was a wicked thing to do. Her eyes met his. At the sight of those chilling eyes, she looked back down. “Is there a particular man you want me to cheat?” “Indeed there is. I mean to destroy Lord Appleton.” She gasped. “Lord Appleton! But he’s so nice . everyone admires him. He’s a great favorite.” A look of sheer evil crossed his face, and his voice was guttural when he spoke.

“I will make it two hundred if you put a little potion in his drink.” “I am not going to poison Lord Appleton!” “I’m not asking you to. The potion won’t hurt him. It will merely cloud his judgment, making it easier for you to see that he loses. I mean to ruin him.” Even though she was sickened by repulsion toward this man, she managed a defiant look. “And if I don’t?” “I will ensure that Mrs. Starr throws you out on the street. What else are you fit for, Ellie?” Tears welled in her eyes as she shook her head. He pressed a fistful of coins into her hands.

Then he gave her one more thing. A ladies’ ring. Ornately scrolled silver enclosed its large blue stone. “Lift the stone, Ellie,” he commanded. The stone lifted on a tiny hinge, and a small amount of dark liquid sloshed inside its hidden receptacle. “You should be able to slip a few of those drops into Appleton’s brandy without anyone seeing you.” Now she knew how Judas must have felt. Chapter 1 Forrester Timothy Appleton, recently elevated to Viscount Appleton, looked up at his closest friend through bleary eyes. “What the devil’s so bloody important that you summoned me . ” Sir Elvin drew a deep breath, “before noon on a Sunday morning?” “You must prevent me from blowing my brains out.

” Appleton eyed the pistol on the table beside the bed from which he had not yet extracted himself. Elvin’s gaze shifted from the pearl-handled pistol to his disheveled friend. “Why, pray tell, would you be wanting to kill yourself?” “Because ever since the death of my brother, I’ve shown myself to be unworthy of his title, and now I’ve ruined my family.” “How could you possibly have ruined your family?” Appleton’s eyes watered. “Quite easily. Last night at Mrs. Starr’s I gambled away every farthing to my name . ” His voice splintered as if he were about to break down like a woman. “I even wagered and lost this house. Killing myself would be less painful than knowing I’ve failed my sisters.

” Sir Elvin said not a word, but calmly crossed the chamber to the bedside table. He removed the pistol, then collapsed into a chair facing his friend’s bed, shaking his head in a most forlorn fashion. “Colossal catastrophe. Bloody colossal.” Neither man spoke for a moment. Appleton felt even worse. By requesting Elvin’s presence here this morning, he’d hoped for a glimmer of encouragement. Finally his friend spoke. “And you’ve got three more sisters to launch? And dower. Have you nothing left?” Not the encouraging words he’d hoped to hear.

Appleton slowly shook his head. “I don’t understand. You enjoy gaming as much as the next fellow, but you’ve never lost your head before—even after you inherited and had rather plump pockets. It ain’t your personality to be totally without reason.” “It must have been the drink.” “It’s not as if you can’t hold your spirits. Why, you’ve always been able to remain upright when the rest of us were sprawled under the table.” “I don’t know what came over me last night. I must have been a pathetic toss pot. Got no memory of it.

I remember sitting down at Ellie’s table. ” Elvin wiggled his brows. “Ellie’s a fetching little thing.” Appleton nodded. “The next thing I remember is waking up here when Bertram brought me a message.” He drew a deep breath. “You will never guess who the message was from.” His face pensive, Sir Elvin raised a brow. “Penguin.” “What did that blighter Henry Wolf want from you?” “It seems he’s in possession of my IOUs.

” Appleton shook his head in a most forlorn fashion. “That was how I learned of my ruin.” Sir Elvin’s brows scrunched together. “Are you sure about the house? You lost it, too?” Appleton could retch at the thought, but there was nothing left to empty. “According to Penguin’s note.” “I should have been there.” Sir Elvin frowned. “Fact is, I promised my sister I’d accompany her to one of those beastly musicals last night. So sorry, old fellow. I feel like I’ve let you down.

” A light tap sounded at the chamber door, and the Appleton butler stepped into the room. “A Mr. Wolf to see you, my lord.” The two friends exchanged distasteful glances. “Have him wait in the library, then send Digby up to make me presentable.” “He’s probably here to gloat over your misfortune. He’s always hated all of us—you, George, Blanks, me and my twin—because we had bonds of friendship, and he had no friends whatsoever.” “Nothing’s changed in that respect. Even with all his money, Penguin couldn’t buy a friend.” Appleton winced as he rose from the bed.

“He’s got even more reason to hate me.” Sir Elvin’s eyes narrowed. “Why?” “I gave him the cut direct.” “When was this? Why haven’t I heard about it?” “It happened in London. At Almack’s. He’d spent the better part of the night watching Annie, and when he walked toward me and my sisters, I knew he meant to ask for an introduction.” “Course you couldn’t introduce your sister to a man like Wolf!” “Exactly. That’s why I had to give him the cut direct. Turned my back to him.” “Good for you! I wouldn’t let him within ten feet of my sisters.

Not after that business in Windsor.” * * * A clean shave, freshly starched cravat, and finely tailored clothing could do little to compensate for Appleton’s bloodshot eyes, throbbing head, or his oppressive melancholy as he and Sir Elvin strode into the walnut-paneled library half an hour later. The emerald velvet draperies had been opened to reveal a day as gloomy as he felt. When Henry Wolf rose to greet him, Appleton would have cast up the contents of his stomach— had he not already done so these past several hours until not a drop remained. Wolf’s thick black mane and caterpillar eyebrows contrasting with pasty white skin accounted for the nickname Penguin. Appleton’s good manners had prevented him from actually addressing the fellow in such a disparaging way. Still, there was no love lost between the two. Though Appleton prided himself on his courtliness, it was impossible for him to be civil to Henry Wolf now. Appleton had only to recall how the foul creature had ruthlessly stolen the innocence of a young Windsor maiden when they were Etonians. The Wolf family fortune had insulated him from any penalties for his wrongdoings, but Appleton and his friends had long memories, a disgust of abusing maidens—and a disdain for evading justice.

Appleton crossed the small chamber and came face to face with the visitor, who was the same height as he. “You wished to see me?” Wolf reached into his well-cut black jacket and withdrew a handful of IOUs from Mrs. Starr’s. “Yes. I purchased these from the proprietress of Bath’s finest gaming establishment. I believe one of them is for the ownership of the very house in which we now stand.” His malevolent pale green eyes repulsed Appleton. How in the devil was Appleton to get these back when he’d lost everything? Had Wolf come here solely to take pleasure in his misery? “I did not know you had a fancy to live in my house and displace not only me but also my three unmarried sisters.” “My good man, you misjudge me. I’ve come to help you.

In fact, I should like to give all these back to you. It would be as if last night never happened.” Henry Wolf was incapable of helping anyone except himself. He would push his own mother off a bridge if she prevented his passage. “I never took you for the benevolent sort, old fellow.” “Ah, but you have something I want.” Of course. Appleton’s eyes widened. He failed to see what he could possibly have that Henry Wolf would want. “I am perfectly willing to hear you out, but I think you must be mistaken.

” Wolf moved toward the fire. His shiny black Hessians abutted the gleaming brass fender surrounding the hearth. “Would you care to sit?” Appleton asked. “Can I offer you Madera?” “Nothing to drink, but I will sit.” Wolf sat on one end of the emerald sofa that faced the fire and Elvin at the other end. Appleton seated himself in a large, armchair near the fire and faced the man he loathed. The notion that there might be some way to reclaim this house lifted Appleton’s spirits, but he knew Wolf could not be trusted. What game was he playing? Appleton tried to think of things that he might be asked to do, services which might need to be performed in exchange for the return of the IOUs. Perhaps this friendless man merely wanted an introduction into the Bath society where Appleton and his friends mingled so easily. For such a reward, Appleton could put aside his dislike of Wolf and take him to the Upper Assembly Rooms.

Just as long as he kept away from Appleton’s sisters. Appleton heaved a sigh. “So. what can I do in order to regain ownership of our house?” He was careful to say our instead of my. He knew Wolf hated him. Perhaps Appleton’s sisters’ plight might elicit a more sympathetic ear. “I should like the hand of your sister Annie in marriage.” Elvin gasped. Appleton felt as if a saber plunged into him as he leapt to his feet and drilled Wolf with hatred in his eyes. “Never!” A slow, sadistic smile on his chalk white face, Wolf rose from the sofa.

“You have four weeks in which to decide if you’ll accept me for your sister’s husband or lose everything except that pile in remote Shropshire, where I assure you, those sisters of yours will die old maids.” Appleton would rather them die old maids than be united to the devil himself. Wolf stalked toward the door. “Do I have four weeks in which to buy back my debts from you?” Wolf turned. “I know you have no more money, and none of your friends can get their hands on that much in four weeks.” Appleton nodded. “That’s true. It’s a million to one, but last night proved I’m a gambler.” “Very well. You’ve got four weeks.

With one caveat.” Appleton lifted a brow. “I will demand an introduction to Annie.” It was a moment before Appleton could answer. “One dance and one dance only Tuesday night at the Upper Assembly Rooms.” He would make sure Annie, his favorite sister, was well apprised of Henry Wolf’s ineligibility. But he’d not tell her about the bizarre proposal. Annie was just tender hearted enough to try to sacrifice herself for her brother. * * * Even though Sir Elvin Steffington was his closest friend—and only other friend who was still a bachelor—Appleton still got Elvin mixed up with his twin, Melvin. If they had not appeared to be identical duplicates of one another, the brothers would never have been taken for twins, owing to the vast differences in their personalities.

Bookish, scholarly Melvin had not discovered women until he was nearing thirty while Sir Elvin abhorred books and was considered by many to be Bath’s resident rake—along with Appleton. Both Steffington twins and their friend Gregory Blankenship, known as Blanks, were ensconced with Appleton in the Blankenship library to discuss Appleton’s seemingly hopeless situation. “It seems the easiest solution is to just let Annie marry the man,” one of the twins said. That’s when Appleton knew without a doubt the speaker was Melvin. Three sets of eyes stared at the younger twin as if he had just escaped from Bedlam. “Do you not remember what Penguin did to that innkeeper’s young daughter in Windsor?” his brother demanded. Melvin screwed up his mouth. “You know I wasn’t interested in petticoats when I was at Eton.” “He could never get his nose out of a book for long enough,” Blanks mumbled. His twin shrugged.

“I would never allow one of our sisters to associate with Henry Wolf, and Appleton feels the same about his sisters.” “The man is unfit to be in the same chamber with respectable ladies,” Appleton said. “I feel beastly that I’m even going to allow Penguin to dance once with Annie, but at least it will be beneath the glow of five huge chandeliers amidst hundreds of spectators.” “And we’ll all be there to offer protection,” Sir Elvin offered. Melvin eyed Appleton. “So if you don’t allow Annie to marry this vile man, you have four weeks in which to raise an exceedingly vast amount of money? Is that correct?” Appleton nodded. “A pity none of us can get our hands on anything near the amount of money you need.” Blanks frowned. “Buying Jonathan’s house took every guinea I could get my hands on.” “But.

” Melvin smiled. “There may be a solution.” Three sets of eyes riveted to the scholarly twin. “You’ve got four weeks in which to woo and wed an heiress.” Appleton harrumphed. “Normally, I would have been opposed to such a plan, but I don’t deserve personal happiness after what I’ve done. I could sacrifice myself for my family. Pity of it, I know no heiresses.” “Actually . ” Blanks’ brows lowered, “just this morning Glee was speaking of some dreadful .

er, unfortunate heiress who’s come to Bath with her ailing father. Glee felt rather sorry for her because she has no friends, and she’s . well she’s rather peculiar. They call her the Cat Lady because she goes nowhere without carrying around a cat.” Elvin brightened. “Yes! I’ve heard of her, too. They say she’s the only child of some vastly wealthy landowner who’s to settle eight hundred a year on her.” Four sets of eyes widened. Such a woman would indeed answer his needs, but at the same time the very notion sickened him. An unfortunate cat woman.

He would wager—though he was never going to wager again—there were other reasons a woman with a vast fortune was still unwed, and he suspected these reasons had much to do with a most unpleasant appearance. Was she fat? Or perhaps her figure resembled a flagpole. He wasn’t certain which he would prefer. He wondered if she stunk. Or could she be possessed of a hideously ugly face? Regardless of her shortcomings, he should put his own feelings aside and be willing to forego his own happiness as penance for his wrongdoing. After all, he was now head of the Appleton family. For the first time in his thirty years, he had others to care for. He must put their needs before his own. “Pray, what is this woman’s name?” Blanks looked perplexed. “Hmmmm.

Her surname is uncommon. I cannot recall it.” Elvin nodded. “There’s a Pank in there, I do believe.” “I believe you’re right!” Blanks said. “Like Pankcrest or something to that effect?” Appleton asked. “Very like that , I’d say.” Elvin eyed Blanks. Blanks screwed up his mouth. “But not quite.

” “I supposed if one were to lolly about the Pump Room day in and day out, one could meet her.” Appleton was resigned to his melancholy fate. “One would know her by the cat she’d be clutching.” “Excellent plan,” Melvin said. “It is to be hoped you’re enamored of felines, old fellow.” Appleton frowned. “I’m a dog person.” “Pity.” * * * “Would you bring me a rug, love,” Westmoreland Pankhurst asked his daughter. “It’s getting colder in this chamber.

” Dorothea stroked the black-and-white cat that curled upon her lap, loudly purring. “The physician said it would do you good to walk more, Papa.” “But my gout’s flaring up today.” Today it was the gout. Yesterday it was his back. The day before it was a throbbing head. Sighing, she lifted the cat and set it on the Turkey carpet. “Here you go, Fur Blossom. Duty calls.” She stood and eyed her silver-haired father, who sat before the fire, one foot propped on a stool three feet from the hearth.

He had begun to remind her of an Oriental potentate who lay about being waited upon. He needed only curly-toed slippers and a turban to complete the picture of total indolence. She took him a thick woolen rug and covered his lower extremities. “Perhaps this will keep your foot from burning. It’s far too close to the fire.” “Be a dear and get me one thing more,” he said. Her eyes narrowed. “Let me guess. A glass of brandy.” “Ah, my daughter is clairvoyant.

.

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