England, 1817 Edward, Earl Turner’s, face lit up with the knowledge that he had managed to give them all a sound thrashing. He grinned broadly, throwing down his cards in a deliberately provocative manner. “I think you will find, gentleman, that this is a winning hand and, subsequently, you are all substantially out of pocket!” He waited for his winnings, seeing the disgruntled looks from the men around him, but giving them not the slightest bit of attention. Luck was always on his side, and they should have known better than to play against him. Lord Turner led a charmed life. Being exceedingly wealthy, he took little interest in his estate, letting his steward run everything and only requesting his accounts once a year. He filled his time with drinking, cards, friends, and women. He had one particular lady, a Miss Cynthia Melrose, whom he was courting, but he had no intention of marrying her whatsoever. With no parents to disapprove or moan about his need to provide an heir, he was enjoying life to its fullest. “Come now, gentlemen, why the long faces?” he sneered, laughing as some of them produced vowels, handing them to him with a murmur of complaint. “You are substantially wealthier than many of us here,” a young man said, white with anger. “Why do you need more capital?” “If you did not want to lose, then you should not have sat at the table,” Turner responded, rounding on the gentleman. “Have you not heard of me?” He got to his feet, spreading his arms in a mock spectacle. “I am Edward Turner, an earl with more wealth than almost any man here.” He gestured around White’s, his voice attracting the attention of many of the other patrons.
“I like to gamble, and it seems that Lady Luck is always a friend of mine but never a friend of those who play against me. I have taken money from practically everyone here!” He laughed as he said the words, White’s now in complete silence as they watched this spectacle. There was not a single smile on anyone’s face. “If you play against me, you are bound to lose,” he said, turning back to the young gentleman. “So, do not play your hand unless you are willing to take the consequences,” he finished with a deadly whisper. Snatching the vowels from the young man’s hand, he sauntered out of White’s, leaving it entirely silent. * * * The ballroom was filled with light and laughter, making Turner’s enjoyment of the evening grow all the more. The liquor flowed freely, and with the knowledge that he had a good deal of money in his pockets, Edward danced and laughed and drank and behaved just as he pleased. When Cynthia came to speak to him, begging him to dance with her, he simply laughed in her face and told her plainly that she would never be anything more than a passing entertainment for him. He had kissed her soft cheek in full view of everyone and had bid her farewell.
No, he had no intentions of marrying her, and she was a fool to think that he would ever give himself wholly to anyone. Later that night, when Lord Turner had just fallen asleep, a blaze began to rip through his house. His servants, who cared nothing for him, escaped the furnace with barely a single injury, whereas Lord Turner was forced to struggle through smoke and heat before finally making it to safety. Pain exploded along the side of his face, his shoulder, and his arm. With no one to ask for help, he struggled to find water, the smoke choking his throat and his eyes stinging with pain. Eventually, he managed to dunk his face and arms in the freezing rainwater collected in an old barrel. From that day on, his life would never be the same again. 1 “He is here.” White’s fell silent as Lord Turner entered the club. After almost five years in seclusion, no one knew why Edward Turner had started entering into society once more.
Although White’s could hardly be called “society”, he had turned up almost every evening for the last three weeks, and whilst he had played cards, he never gambled, and he remained almost silent throughout. His luck had remained with him—for he rarely lost. Gentlemen could not understand why the fellow did not gamble as he had once done, but no one dared to ask him. His appearance and his dark, brooding silence pushed even the bravest of gentlemen away. Should he win at cards, he would simply put his cards down onto the table, spreading them out for all to see, before leaving again, almost as mysteriously as he had come. Men chose to meet with him at the tables for the sheer notoriety of playing with Edward Turner. Winning or losing did not matter, so long as they could say that they had played against him and got a good look at the once handsome lord. Even to this day, nobody knew who had set the fire—or if they did, they refused to say. That fire had been the turning point in Lord Turner’s life, burning into his flesh and leaving him scarred. He had retreated to his country seat to recover from his wounds, both physical and mental.
His scarred face was the topic of many discussions, with many wondering how the man would recover from such a fall from grace. The once egotistical young man, full of his own superiority and power, had been transformed into a serious, stony-faced gentleman, who allowed no trace of humor to ever cross his features. His skin was puckered along one side of his face, with some twisted scarring to his neck. One of his arms was badly scarred, although he never allowed the pain he experienced daily to show. Lord Turner never made mention of his injuries, and it would have been beyond inappropriate for any gentleman to mention it. Still, amongst society, he was a highly discussed member of the ton, with a desperation rising between all the young ladies to be the first to glimpse him. So far he had traversed only to White’s, although the invitations to balls and gatherings had been aplenty. Eager mamas and excited daughters talked amongst themselves about the mysterious Lord Turner and when he would make his first appearance. * * * Edward stared straight ahead as his friend tied his cravat. “Will I do, Johnston?” “You will,” the man replied, a certain gravitas to his voice.
Edward tried to smile, noticing Stephen grimace as he stepped back, surveying Edward with a somewhat critical eye. Stephen, Viscount Johnston, was his one and only friend, the only person to ever visit him in his country estate after the fire. He had not allowed him entry at first, but Stephen’s persistence had paid off. Eventually, Edward had let him in, and they had become firm friends ever since. Stephen had never mentioned Edward’s injuries, treating him as though nothing had ever happened. It was a relief to Edward, who had been growing to hate the pitying looks and fearful glances of his staff. “What made you come to visit me, Johnston?” Edward asked suddenly, as Stephen stepped back to admire his handiwork. “When?” “That first day. The day you came to my estate.” Stephen shrugged, smiling a little.
“I remember seeing you in White’s a few times; I always thought you were someone I could learn a lot from.” Edward let out a bark of laughter. “Learn from me? Truly?” “Indeed,” Stephen replied, pouring himself a glass of port. “I wanted to know how to have that smooth arrogance that had so many men hating you and so many women eating out of your hand.” Edward studied the fire burning in the grate, not saying a word. That vanity was no more, that self-conceit a thing of the past. It had gained him no friends, won him no trophies. Instead, it had caused him more pain and dragged him to a greater depth than he had ever thought possible. “That ‘smooth arrogance’ is what got me these,” he muttered, gesturing hopelessly at his face. “Not something to be admired, Johnston.
” “Regardless, I wanted to see you,” Stephen continued, shrugging. “It just so happens that we became friends.” “I am grateful for your assistance,” Edward replied sincerely, throwing back the rest of his whiskey. “Although how I shall manage tonight, I am not sure.” “Just ignore them all.” “That is easier said than done, my friend.” Stephen chuckled, the sound echoing down the long hallway as they walked towards the front door and the awaiting carriage. “Just remember that you are something of a curiosity and keep up the aloof appearance that has prompted so much interest.” “Hmph,” came the response. “Come now,” Stephen laughed, getting into the carriage.
“Talk to whomever you want and ignore whomever you want. You will already be the talk of the town regardless of your behavior this evening.” Edward let out a heavy sigh. He had no desire to go anywhere other than White’s, but Stephen was right, he could not hide from the rest of society forever. Besides, the truth was, despite his desire to live alone and without any interaction with society, he had to find a wife, else the title would pass to some gentleman or other of very little consequence. Plus, he was not going to get anywhere hiding in his townhouse or taking money from the many gentlemen who sought him out at White’s. “Besides, which,” Stephen continued, grinning broadly. “There might be some pretty girl that is more than willing to dance with you. This whole matter might be settled in a very short time indeed.” * * * Stephen was wrong.
There was not a single pretty girl willing to catch Edward’s eye. Anyone he might have glanced twice at was either looking at him with slight revulsion or horrified surprise. The entire room had gone deathly silent as he walked in, swiftly followed by a buzz of whispers and quiet comments. He had taken Stephen’s advice and ignored it all, greeting the host and hostess who had been all politeness, even though he had seen the gleam in his hostess’s eye. Her party would be on everyone’s lips for the next week at least, and such popularity would bring many invitations from all kinds of esteemed lords and ladies. “This was not a wise idea, Johnston,” he murmured, as he lifted a glass of champagne from the tray. The footman who held it glanced at him cautiously for a moment, before resuming his stalwart appearance, but Edward was not fooled. Every eye was on him. “Nonsense,” Stephen replied, sauntering through the crowd and ignoring the way they parted before them like the Red Sea. Edward had no choice but to follow, wishing he could seek a dark corner and simply watch the party in peace.
Stephen had other ideas. Edward stood in grim silence, as Stephen introduced him to some of his friends, waiting for the conversations around him to slowly spark to life once more. Slowly, the buzz in the room grew and the orchestra began to strike up their instruments in preparation for the next dance. Edward felt his shoulders relax just a little as couples began to take to the floor. Perhaps he would not be the center of attention for too much longer. “Turner, is it?” said one of the older gentlemen. “I had heard you were back in town.” Edward gave the man a tight smile, taking in the slightly arrogant look about him. “Yes, I am back in town,” he replied quietly. “Still gamble?” Edward’s throat tightened as he clenched his fists surreptitiously.
“No, I do not,” he answered tersely before turning away. He wanted to make it absolutely clear that he was not going to be involving himself in any conversations regarding his past nor his previous habits of gambling. He was different now. His past interests held no comfort for him now. “Seems quite arrogant still, if you ask me,” he heard someone mutter. “Whatever has made him come back to society?” Holding his tongue and stopping the swift retort that begged to leave his lips, Edward walked away, seeking solace in the dark corner of the room. They did not know anything of his life, but yet continued to pass judgment on him. It seemed his appearance meant that he would be a social pariah. He would be invited to events no doubt, but only as a plaything for others to laugh and whisper over. There would be no genuine interest in him —and that was the one thing he sought.
Melting back into the shadows, Edward threw back the rest of his drink before slamming the glass down onto an empty table. “Oh!” Turning swiftly, Edward saw the shock on the young woman’s face as she took in his appearance. His lips thinned. “My apologies,” he muttered. “I did not see you there.” To his very great surprise, she smiled. “I believe that is why we are called wallflowers, sir,” she replied quietly. “No one is meant to notice us.” He did not have a response, aware that, despite his horrific appearance, she still just smiled at him. There had been no gasp of horror, no widening of her eyes as she stared.
In fact, it was as though he were just as any other gentleman there. This was the first time that a lady had given him such a gift since his return to society, and Edward’s heart warmed just a touch. As they had not been introduced, it would not be proper to continue with the conversation, so he contented himself with studying her appearance as she looked out at the dance floor. Her chocolate-colored hair was neatly styled, her grey dress almost silver in the light although it was not the most fashionable. She called herself a wallflower, but Edward did not think she could be anything of the sort. Wallflowers were for plain women, who possessed no charms with which to snare a husband. This creature had a softness about her that was charm enough. For which other young women had shown him the simple kindness of a smile? At that moment, the ball did not seem so terrible after all. Reluctantly, Edward walked away from the corner in search of Johnston, wondering if he might know the lady and be able to introduce them, but when he turned around again, she was gone