Portrait of a Lady – Victoria Vale

The Honourable Mr. Benedict Sterling glanced about the elegantly appointed drawing room, which he occupied with his guests, his eyes heavy-lidded from drink. ‘Honourable’; the title never ceased to bring a sardonic grin to his lips with the ridiculousness of it. There was nothing ‘honourable’ about him, despite the viscountcy he stood poised to inherit and the opulence of the townhouse surrounding him. His lack of scruples and disdain for all things proper had been achieved by design, not chance. His image of a dissolute rakehell had been cultivated from years of acting the rogue in front of anyone who mattered. Lightly touching the tip of the stiletto he held in one hand against the pad of his forefinger on the other, he glared at the portrait of Viscount Sterling hanging over the mantle. His father stared down at him, blue eyes portraying the one thing Benedict had always believed to be true about the man: he possessed no heart, no soul. Perhaps that was why he’d persisted in trying to crush Benedict time and time again. The joke is on you, old man, he thought, chuckling aloud. When the viscount finally had the grace to die, his least favorite son would inherit and there was nothing the old fool could do about it. Closing one eye and grasping the tip of the blade with his thumb and forefinger, he took aim and let the weapon fly. It landed right between the viscount’s eyes, leaving yet another notch in the portrait among hundreds of others. Target practice was the only reason he kept the painting displayed so prominently. A chorus of drunken cheers went up from the men strewn about the room in various states of rumpled déshabillé.

His four friends had accompanied him home after an evening of debauchery. Dinner, drinks, and gambling at Boodle’s had been followed by a late arrival at the Theatre Royal—just in time to shoulder their way to seats in the pit, where they’d guffawed over the farcical pantomime. Upon leaving the theater, they’d been overtaken by the Haymarket strumpets, displaying their wares with indecent bodices and skirts lifted to display slender ankles and shapely calves. Benedict had been quite foxed by then and could only remember snatches of what had occurred from there. Somehow, five men and seven women had stuffed themselves into three hired hacks, which had barreled through the crowded city streets to convey them to Benedict’s home in Berkeley Square. There had been a footrace down one of the paths snaking through the park at the center of the square, with the strumpets cheering them on. Before long, they’d stumbled over the threshold of his home and made their way into this drawing room, where a veritable orgy had taken place. Brandy had flowed, cigars had been lit, and the whores had set about earning their coin. His father’s spies were everywhere—even within Benedict’s household, and nothing would please him more than word of what had taken place here getting back to the viscount. “I say, Benny, good throw,” mumbled David from where he slouched in an armchair with a woman on each knee.

“You can’t be nearly as drunk as I s’posed.” He glowered at the other man, whose limpid blue eyes offered a sharp contrast to his olive skin and dark hair—inherited from his Greek mother. David always wore an indolent smile and was often accused of not taking anything too seriously. “I’ve told you several times to stop calling me Benny,” Benedict groused, reaching for the crystal decanter on the side table at his elbow. “And I am as drunk as you supposed, but even so, I possess better aim than you.” “Some of us aspire to…different sorts of accomplishments,” David murmured, turning his head to nibble on one of his whores’ necks. She giggled and squirmed in his lap, trading glances with the one occupying his other knee. Not to be ignored or outdone, the second whore leaned in and latched onto her friend’s neck, helping David work her into a writhing, panting state of arousal. “That was impressive,” purred the painted doxy draped over Benedict, her legs stretched across the love seat. She ran slender fingers through his pale blond hair, and he fought the urge to bat her hand away.

Her rouged face and garish get-up did nothing for him, nor did the seductive glances she kept sending his way. The others had been too busy with their own whores earlier in the evening to notice he hadn’t bothered to sample her. He’d let her touch him and fawn over him, but had done little to encourage her. “What happened to your head?” she asked, tracing one finger along the scar marring his left temple. The thin line had long since healed, but being reminded of its presence sent twinges of phantom pain through his entire being. Taking a long swig from the decanter, he washed the bitter taste from his mouth with the rich flavor of the finest brandy money could buy. Spirits, depravity, excess, and revenge brought the sort of satisfaction he couldn’t get anywhere else. It made it easy to be gracious as he pushed the memories aside and gave the whore tracing the line of his jaw a tight smile. “When I was a little boy, I was fond of climbing trees. Once, as I was making my way up a gigantic elm, trying to slip between two limbs growing close together, I became trapped.

As I struggled to free myself, I was scratched by one of the branches. It stung like the devil and bled as if I’d been shot. My mother swooned in a dead faint when I turned up in the drawing room with blood trickling down the side of my face and staining my hair.” “Oh, you poor love,” the whore crooned, leaning in to press her lips against the scar. “Bollocks!” called a slurred voice from the other side of the room. Benedict glanced up to find Dominick pointing an accusing finger at him from where he sat on the floor, his back propped against a settee with a half-empty glass in hand. Dark-brown hair fell over his forehead into flashing green eyes, a few days’ worth of stubble sprinkling his sharp jaw. Between his spread legs lay one of the Haymarket whores, her gown hitched up around her knees to display her bare legs and fallen off one shoulder to reveal a plump breast. “Don’t believe a word he says, love. He must have been asked about that scar a hundred times, and he has told a different story about its origin with each utterance.

Lies, I tell you…all lies!” Benedict lifted an eyebrow in challenge. “It stands to reason that out of a hundred stories, one of them must be true.” “Which is it then?” Dominick prodded, one hand idly fondling the naked breast of his companion. “The tree branch…the highwayman attack…the dark alley brawl off Drury Lane?” “Not my fault you are too dense to have puzzled it out by now,” Benedict said with a dry snort. “Perhaps the tree branch story is the right one,” Dominick mused. “And the rest are only concocted in a scheme to make yourself seem more interesting than you actually are.” Benedict balled his free hand into a fist and raised it with a meaningful look at Dominick. “Need I remind you how I got these?” Despite the menacing tone to his voice and the notching of thin, white scars crisscrossing his knuckles—a testament to the many pugilist matches he’d fought in and won—Dominick merely chuckled. Of course, they both knew Benedict would never follow through on the threat. Of all the men here, he and Nick had been friends the longest.

He knew Benedict never struck anyone without provocation. When he did, though, he struck with purpose and power, a skill that had earned him quite a reputation at Gentleman Jackson’s before he’d started seeking out tougher competition in secret bare-knuckle brawls. “The stories of Ben’s scar are purposely vague for a reason,” offered Hugh from where he lounged on a sofa with one of the whores sleeping upon his chest. “The truth is whatever you want it to be, because in the end it does not matter where the scar came from. Your questions about it only pushes him to spin yarn after yarn until you’re left in a tangle.” It wasn’t so philosophical as all that, but Benedict did not bother to correct Hugh—an artist with paint smudges staining his fingernails whom one could always count upon to over-think matters. Wavy, black hair fell about his head in a tumble, his dark eyes glazed from too much brandy and too little sleep. When he wasn’t reveling with their set, he spent hours painting, drawing, sculpting…putting into practice what he learned in his sessions at the Royal Academy. “It isn’t that, Hugh,” David quipped, tearing his rapt gaze away from the whores in his lap, who’d begun kissing and pawing at one another. “The answer is simple, really.

Benedict is an ass…end of story.” “What do you think, Aubrey?” Hugh asked, flitting his gaze to their fifth and final companion. Aubrey sat near the hearth in an armchair matching David’s, his dark-as-night skin gleaming in the light of the fire. His companion for the night knelt on the floor between his knees, her head rested upon his thigh. Tall and broad-shouldered, his whisky-brown eyes darted to Hugh, a smirk curving his full lips. “I agree with David’s assessment. Ben is an ass.” The men erupted into laughter, the sound filling the room and mingling with the tinkling giggles of the whores. Staring up at the portrait of the viscount, Benedict sneered. The man would have foamed at the mouth if he knew Benedict was tarnishing the family’s town residence by filling it with Haymarket strumpets and the sorts of friends he would designate as beneath him.

An artist, a blackamoor tradesman, a dissolute gambler, a gentry rake from a crumbling estate, and a gambler so heavily in debt the shops had ceased offering him credit until they’d been paid. But these men were his friends, the only people he’d ever been able to depend on…the only ones he liked in a city filled with hypocritical snakes. He raised his decanter in silent toast to them, and to the camaraderie he’d managed to find despite his father’s insistence he was unworthy of anyone’s regard. He wished the viscount did happen to visit while they were all in residence with him. He hoped the rage his father felt at the depths Benedict had reached in order to taint the family name choked him to death. SOMETİME LATER, when the whores had been sent off with filled pockets and the last drop of brandy consumed, the men remained in the drawing room. Strewn about as haphazardly as discarded scraps of clothing, they lay basking in the afterglow of a most magnificent night of revelry. Slouched in his loveseat with one foot propped on a low table, Benedict closed his eyes and waited for sleep to claim him. The room spun far too precariously for him to attempt rising to find his bed, so he would be content to submit to insentience right where he sat. His companions would follow suit, as was their custom following a night of drink and depravity.

Tomorrow afternoon they would stumble—bleary-eyed and suffering the effects of over-imbibing—across the square to Gunter’s, where they would overindulge in confections just as they had with women and spirits. Dominick’s voice broke through the silence, pulling Benedict back from the brink of near sleep. “Well, old chaps…I must say it has been a pleasure, but this might be the last time I am able to spend a night in your company for a while.” Benedict pried one heavy eyelid open and studied his friend, who stared dismally into the fire. “Whas-that?” he mumbled, forcing his other eye open. “Not this again,” David grumbled. “Nick, there is no need for dramatics.” “Except there is,” Dominick insisted. “After years of threatening to stop paying my creditors and cease funding my allowance, my father has cut me off completely. Can you believe it? The old miser won’t give me so much as a ha’penny.

” This came as no surprise to anyone, as Dominick—the third son of an earl—had developed a reputation for lavish spending and a penchant for daring bets made over games of chance. Cards, Hazard, horse races, even the betting books in various gentlemen’s clubs. If there was money to be won or lost, Nick could almost always be found placing his own wager. That he lost more than he won did not seem to deter him. In truth, it only drove him to take more chances and dig himself in deeper, determined that all it would take was one big win. “Surely that does not mean you must cease joining us for our evenings out,” Aubrey cut in, giving Dominick an incredulous look. “It does if it means he’ll start holding his hand out for sovereigns when he can’t afford to pay his whore,” Hugh muttered from where he lay with one arm thrown over his closed eyes. “The devil if I will be the one to front him the blunt. I can scarcely afford to feed myself these days.” “Have you had no recent commissions?” Benedict asked.

Hugh lifted the arm and peered at him with mournful eyes. “Not a single one, and I’ve stretched the profit from my last piece as far as it will go. I’ll be almost as bad off as Nick before long.” Dominick sniffed and raised his aristocratic chin an inch. “Never would I be so bad off as to work for a living. Honestly, Hugh, you’re the son of an earl, too. Have some dignity.” “Fourth son of an earl,” Hugh groused. At the same time Aubrey muttered, “Says the man who doesn’t have a sixpence to scratch with.” Dominick glowered at Aubrey, while David laughed and Benedict studied them all with a thoughtful gaze.

He hadn’t realized it until now, but all five of them had fallen onto financial hardship as of late. Nick might be the worst off, but Hugh’s family had disowned him for his desire to pursue art as a vocation rather than just a hobby. Aubrey was supporting his young niece with a dwindling income from trading in fabrics, so he was barely keeping afloat. David stood poised to inherit a failing estate with none of the benefits of a title or wealth to go with it, and Benedict…well, he’d had more money than he’d known what to do with until a few bad investments had bled him dry. Now, he kept his head above water by winning his bare-knuckle brawls, because he’d be damned if he would go crawling to the viscount to ask for a single shilling. Despite being entitled to an allowance, he’d never asked for one and his father had never offered. “Working for a living is preferable to languishing to death in debtor’s prison,” Aubrey pointed out. “Best you think of some way to secure your own funds, and quickly.” David issued a dry snort. “And just what sort of work could a man like Nick—who’s never even had to tie his own cravat—secure, I ask you?” “There is always the clergy,” Benedict quipped.

“Clergymen are so horridly dull,” Dominick mused. “I’d rather die.” “You could beg your father to purchase a commission for you,” Hugh offered. Dominick cringed. “Those scarlet coats would make me look a fright. Besides, I’m an abominable shot. At the first crack of bayonets, I’m a dead man.” “God’s teeth, you noblemen are so high in the instep,” Aubrey mumbled. “We are talking about the difference between financial security and poverty here.” “If only a gentleman’s options weren’t all as odious as the clergy or the blasted military,” Dominick countered.

“What else is there besides going into trade?” “I’m in trade,” Aubrey pointed out. “You are not the son of an earl.” “The man has a point,” David offered. “If only we were women. Then there would be the occupations of governess or companion or some such to consider.” Benedict chuckled. “Perhaps we ought to fit you for a gown, though you’ve no tits to fill it with.” “If he had the tits to fill a bodice, he wouldn’t have to become a governess,” Aubrey scoffed. “He’d be able to tempt some man to the altar, and knowing David, he’d be flush as a king.” “Damned right,” David replied with a smirk.

“A lady must have standards, after all.” “We’ve lost sight of the point here,” Hugh chimed in. “Even marriage offers no solution for men in our situations. All the heiresses have set their caps for peers with titles and lands.” David perked up at that. “I have land…or will have it once my father has turned up his toes.” Dominick snorted. “If I were you, I would not go bragging to the debutantes about that impoverished shithole you are poised to inherit. You may as well possess no land at all.” David pulled a face, while Dominick simply laughed.

Still, he offered no protest because they all knew Dominick’s words to be true. “You know, misguided as David might sound, he actually makes a valid point,” Benedict remarked. “Women have an edge over us. All they need do is display their charms and dupe some idiot into caring for them for the rest of their lives.” “Precisely,” Hugh agreed. “And it isn’t only a matter of marriage. The ones with sullied reputations or lacking a dowry may always turn to becoming some man’s chere-amie.” “And make quite a bit of coin in the process,” Dominick added. “Have you heard the latest gossip surrounding Melissa Barrow?” “Baron Gadsden’s mistress?” Benedict asked, wracking his brain for any news he’d heard about the chit. “He kept her in grand style until he died, I know.

Even sprang for that monstrous carriage she moves about Town in.” “Four perfectly matched bays, brass trimmings, and that ridiculous maroon color,” Aubrey said. “You can’t miss it, which I suppose is the point. The man was said to be besotted with her until the day he died, giving in to even her most absurd requests. You cannot fault the woman for taking advantage.” “But did you hear what happened after the baron’s death?” Hugh asked as he sat upright on his sofa. “The settlement he left will keep her ensconced in her townhouse for the rest of her life, with enough left over to open her own milliner’s shop. Her designs are all the rage this Season, and I’ve no doubt she’ll retire to the country in a few years to enjoy what’s left of her life in the style of a princess.” “Deuced lucky female,” Dominick muttered. “And she isn’t the only one, Clare Woodward’s keeper ensures she has her own theater box, and a wardrobe so excessive she’s never seen wearing the same gown twice.

” David gave their friend a knowing smile. “I say, Nick, you sound downright envious. Perhaps you might become some man’s mistress so you can enjoy such a lifestyle. You needn’t work at all, simply reach deep inside yourself and find a taste for your own sex.” Benedict half-expected Dominick to react with the predictable outrage and insist that no depth of poverty could ever drive him to that. But Dominick surprised them all by returning David’s smile and letting out a bark of laughter. “As dire as my situation has become, it may well come to that,” he quipped. “What do you think of Lord Walsingam? If one squints hard enough, he might almost pass for a female.” They exploded into hysterics as Dominick went about picking apart the foppish style of the viscount in question. Benedict often saw the man about Town and had witnessed the ridiculous lengths he reached to make a spectacle of himself.

As the laughter died away to the occasional guffaw and snort, Dominick sighed. “All that being said in jest, it’s still true that all a cunning, enterprising woman need do is spread her thighs to earn herself a king’s ransom. It is really too bad that a desperate man cannot become a courtesan in order to better his financial situation.” Benedict perked up at that, a sudden idea occurring to him like a lightning strike to the brain. It was preposterous; so ridiculous, so unbelievably ingenious he could not believe he hadn’t thought of it before. “What if you could do it?” he offered. “Become a courtesan, I mean?” Dominick furrowed his brow and looked at Benedict as if he thought his friend had gone mad. “Gad, Ben, I was only joking about Lord Walsingam. Desperate or not, I’m no molly.”

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