Rogues Always Wear Black – Catherine Mayfair

The times were dark and full of troubles as many men lost land, title, and wealth. Such times brought about the worst in men who were desperate and would do anything to keep from losing everything they owned. Corruption, theft, trickery, and other deeds once deemed repulsive were now commonplace; however, many in the ton turned their heads to those less fortunate than themselves. It was because of these times that Miss Constance Shepherd lived in an unending sense of fear. It was not that her home of Lankster Manor was in trouble, in fact it was thriving if one were to eavesdrop on her stepfather, as she often did. But the man, Lord Phillip Burk, wanted more, and with three stepdaughters deemed worthy brides for their stature and beauty, their hands in marriage were up for bid. Knowing that fact, Constance began to prepare a plan of escape for her and her two sisters, Mary and Emma. Though where they were to go she was unsure, but nonetheless Constance knew they needed to leave – and soon. “Constance,” her stepfather said, interrupting her thoughts. “Lord Fletcher asked you a question. Do not make him wait for a response.” “Yes, father,” Constance said, a title she loathed using with the man. At the age of four and forty, her stepfather had married her mother after her father passed away six years before. Though the man had at first smiled and appeared kind, Constance had never trusted him. Turning her head, her attention went to one Lord Arthur Fletcher, a man nearing the age of sixty.

With gray hair and wrinkles aplenty around his eyes, the gaze of the man did nothing to conceal his lust for her. “Forgive me, Lord Fletcher. What is it you asked?” The old man snorted, rearing back his head in offense. “Your father will escort you to my estate in two days,” he replied and then licked his lips. “I believe you will find my estate to your satisfaction.” “I am sure I will,” Constance said, the words a lie. She hoped her voice did not tremble as her heart did. “I have heard many great things concerning your estate, and of course you. I look forward to exploring my new home.” This seemed to please the old man, who grinned and then took a sip of his brandy.

Constance studied the other two men beside Lord Fletcher on the long couch, who were nearly the same age as Lord Fletcher. Mary was promised to Lord Ernest Montgomery, whose ring of gray hair circled his otherwise balding head, and Emma was promised to Lord Aylmer Oswald with his small beady eyes and a hooked nose that reminded Constance of an owl. She had learned all of this not one hour ago, and it struck fear in her heart. These men were not the only guests at Lankster Manor this evening. In fact, the ballroom was filled with many friends of her stepfather. Her sisters enjoyed themselves there with no idea that their hands had been given away as if they were nothing more than stock to be sold at auction to the highest bidder. “Constance,” Phillip said, his voice stern as always, “go and collect your sisters for me.” For a moment Constance paused, wanting to ask the man how he could do such a thing to the three of them. Had he no soul nor heart? Was the land and money he would receive in exchange for them a deed for which he would want to be known? She could ask the same of the bridegrooms. However, as she eyed the men, she knew none of them cared what others thought.

People were too busy spending their last pounds keeping up their appearances in the ton. A man who lost his land and wealth would be hiding in shame, not condemning the actions of her stepfather. “Are you deaf, woman?” “Sorry, father,” Constance said, standing up and then bowing her head. “I will go and find them now.” The man mumbled something as she walked to the door. Lord Fletcher’s gaze fell on her, his tongue tracing over his lips, making her stomach clench. The thought of those lips on hers made her want to be violently ill. Leaving the drawing room, Constance drew in a deep breath, trying her best to keep her composure. Her heart was heavy with sadness, and her body alight with fear. However, she, as well as her sisters, could never allow that fear to show.

The truth of the matter was, her stepfather was cruel, and if she and her sisters gave any indication of refusal of their upcoming marriages, she had no doubt he would lock them in their rooms until the day they were wed. It was a feat he had done many times before, just one among many other forms of punishment. She touched her jaw as one of those punishments came to mind, but she quickly pushed away the memory. There was no time to dwell on what was already done. Hurrying to the ballroom, the sounds of stringed instruments came to her ears, and she paused at the door. Men laughed as they raised glasses of brandy or wine, the women beside them in the most beautiful of dresses smiling with them. By all appearances, it was a time of celebration, but in Constance’s heart, she thought it a time of mourning. Many if not all of the guests were friends of her stepfather. The last remaining friends of the family were all but driven off since the death of her mother. As she scanned the crowd, her heart swelled when her eyes fell on her sisters.

A year younger than Constance, Mary was often mistaken for Constance’s twin. Tonight, she wore a lovely blue gown with silver stitching and puffy sleeves, and with her long blond hair and the clearest of blue eyes, she stood out with her beauty from the other women. Beside her sat Emma, who at eighteen was the quietest of the three. With dark chestnut hair and matching eyes, she exhibited her own beauty, and Constance and Mary adored her. Her green gown had golden birds embroidered on the bodice and beads along the neckline. Constance had promised their mother on her deathbed that she would always look after these two women, and it was within that promise that tonight she would need a plan as desperate as the times. Standing with her sisters was one Lord Duncan Campbell, perhaps one of the last family friends they had. Though she trusted the man greatly and she knew he had his eye on Emma, Constance would not inform him of her plan. If she was to see this through, the fewer people who know of what they would do the better. She signaled to Mary, and the woman nodded before whispering to Emma.

The two stood and said something to Lord Campbell. He gave them a polite nod in reply before bowing to them. “Where have you been?” Mary asked as she followed Constance into the hallway. “What did those men want with father?” Constance looked at both of her sisters. How she wished she did not have to tell them what had transpired. However, they had to know. “You must listen carefully, and, above all, trust me.” Her sisters nodded, and she continued. “I shared with you what I heard last week during the meeting Phillip held, did I not?” “You did,” Emma replied. “Do not tell me we are to be sent away, married to men…” Her voice started to rise in fright, and Constance Reached out and took her hand.

“You must listen,” she repeated. “There is no time to tell you everything save this. You are both expected in the drawing room to meet the men who are to be your husbands. No matter what is said, I want you to agree to everything.” “I do not understand,” Mary said in a choked voice. “Do you mean for us to go along with this travesty?” Constance gave her sister a level gaze. “Just do as I say,” she admonished. “I will explain everything later, but you must not resist any conversation or reject any offer. In fact, make it seem as if you welcome it. That goes for both of you, understand?” Her heart broke seeing the pain in the faces of her sisters, and she quickly gave them each a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“Now, go and join them. You will be safe, I promise.” “Where will you be?” Emma asked. “I have matters I must attend to. Now, hurry. Do not draw Phillip’s ire.” The two young ladies gave a nod, and Constance watched them hurry to the drawing room. She hoped they would be able to keep up the ruse, for everything would fall apart if they did not. Tonight, they would escape under cover of night, but without a destination, Constance could not yet tell her sisters. Not just yet.

Doing so would only cause them to worry further and thus arouse the suspicion of their stepfather, and she could not have that. As she turned, her breath caught in her throat when she almost walked directly into Lord Campbell. “Oh, my,” he said. “You appear frightened. Did I startle you?” “A bit,” Constance said, forcing a small laugh. Had this man heard any of her conversation with her sisters? She prayed not. “Forgive me. I saw you standing out here alone and came to see if everything was all right.” Constance breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Duncan.

All is well.” The man gave a nod, but he glanced past her for a moment. “I am afraid Emma does not enjoy my company.” “It is not that,” Constance replied. “She has been preoccupied and is now speaking with our stepfather.” “I see. I do wish to speak to her more tonight. Will you tell her so?” Constance nodded. “Yes, of course. I’m sure she will be pleased.

” The Campbell family had been friends to the Shepherd family for years, but it was only over the past year that Duncan’s attraction to Emma began to show. Though Constance would not tell him, Emma did not see him as he did her. The man might be considered handsome – he was a Viscount after all – but Emma had confided in Constance she wished to remain his friend. “I will tell her as soon as she is free.” “Then I shall return to the wondrous party,” he said, a wide grin on his face. “Will you join me?” He offered her his arm, and though she wanted to return to her room and begin preparations, it would appear better if she remained at the party for now. “Yes, of course,” she replied as she placed a hand on his arm. She returned to the ballroom, but her mind went to her sisters. She sent them good thoughts of strength to keep a brave face at the news they were receiving. No matter what the men in the drawing room wished for, come morning, Constance and her sisters would be gone, never to return.

*** An hour had passed since Mary and Emma had entered the drawing room, and Constance could no longer wait for their return. She left the party once more and pressed her ear against the door. The sound of muffled voices followed by male laughter reached her ear. Good, her sisters had heeded her advice. Not wanting to bring about the ire of her stepfather at finding her listening at the door, she knocked twice and then entered the room. What she saw made anger rise inside her. Their stepfather stood beside the cold fireplace with Lord Fletcher while on the long couch sat her sisters, each wearing a look of terror. Lord Montgomery had Mary’s hand in his, and Lord Oswald held that of Emma, but both men wore a look of hunger that made bile rise in Constance’s throat. It took every bit of strength in her to keep from shouting at them. “Why are you not entertaining our guests?” Phillip asked, his voice not masking his disapproval of her entry.

“I have been doing just that, father,” she replied. Her eyes went to her sisters for a moment. “However, many are curious as to the whereabouts of Mary and Emma. I am unsure what to tell them.” She hoped her statement sounded as innocent as she intended. Phillip sighed heavily. “Very well. Emma, Mary, return to the party. Lord Montgomery and Lord Oswald will join you.” Constance’s heart sank.

She did not want her sisters to be forced to endure the company of the two vile man any longer than necessary, but she could do little to stop it. At least they would be in the presence of the other guests and thus unable to manhandle the young women. As the four left the room, she gave a small nod, hoping the gesture would assure her sisters that all was fine. When they were gone, she turned and curtsied. “I shall leave you two gentlemen and return to my responsibilities.” She turned to leave, but her stepfather called out to her. “Wait. Lord Fletcher wishes to speak to you for a few moments.” Constance’s heart skipped a beat as her stepfather walked toward the door and Lord Fletcher grinned. “Father, I do not think it proper to be left alone in the room with him.

It will not appear right.” The man smirked. “Do as you are told!” Fear went through her as her stepfather moved past her and left her alone with the older man. “Come here to me,” Lord Fletcher said, his voice raspy. “A woman as beautiful as you should not be admired from so far away.” With her stomach knotting, Constance walked toward the man, his eyes moving over her as a dog about to devour scraps of meat. When she stopped in front of him, he reached out and touched her hair, causing her to tremble in fear. “To have a bride such as you will be wonderful. I will be the envy of every man in town. I do hope you appreciate the amount I paid for your hand.

” Constance nodded, and he touched her cheek with the back of his hand. Her breath caught in her throat and she thought she might faint from fear. “You will find me to be fair as long as you obey me. Your father has told me of the rebellion you and your sisters possess, and I will not tolerate it for one moment. Do you understand?” “Yes, my lord,” Constance said. Rebellion? They had never shown the man an ounce of rebellion! He placed his hands around her waist, and every instinct wanted her to run far away at that moment. “My son passed away many years ago,” he said, moving in closer to her, his breath reeking of brandy. “Now, however, I will have new heirs. In fact, I foresee many.” The thought of what he wished from her caused her heart to clench and her stomach to roll.

Then, much to her disgust, he kissed her. It took all her strength not to push the man away, and when he was done, his grin was far wider. “Now, let us return to the party. There are many I wish to introduce to my fiancée.” “I would like that,” Constance said, only half lying. Leaving the room was something she most definitely would like. They left the room, and she thought about her sisters, knowing they too were enduring the same fate. Paraded around as new purchases, their innocence weeks away from being taken. When she had overheard the previous week the bartering for the hands of her and her sisters, it had frightened her even more than when she had learned of the death of her mother. Now, what she had feared was coming to fruition.

She had to stop it! When they arrived at the ballroom, she searched the crowd and was relieved when she found Mary and Emma. They were with their new fiancés, each man eagerly introducing his young soon-to-be bride to the other guests. “Do be sure that you speak of how happy you are concerning our upcoming marriage,” Lord Fletcher whispered. “You do not wish to see me upset.” Constance nodded, and as they approached the first gentleman, she was unsurprised when Lord Fletcher began to boast. From each person thereon, she smiled and exclaimed her good fortune, much to the man’s obvious pleasure, but with each telling, her stomach knotted tighter, and she worried she would faint from the strain. For her entire life, Constance had been brought up to be a lady. According to her mother, she and her sisters were meant to find and marry a man worthy of their heart. However, that time, and her mother’s dreams, were now gone, and though Constance had never lived without servants nor the luxuries of being the daughter of a titled family, she was willing to give it all up for a life free of marriage to men they did not love. *** That night after the last of the party guests had gone, Constance stood in her bedroom addressing her sisters by the light of a single candle.

“You showed great courage this evening,” she said. “I know the fear being with those men must have caused you.” Mary shivered visibly. “Lord Montgomery spoke about me as though I were a new object he acquired at a shop. He holds vile intentions! And all Phillip did was watch!” A tear rolled down her cheek, and she brushed it away as if it embarrassed her. Emma sniffled. “Lord Oswald did the same,” she said, her voice trembling. “I see in his eyes his desire of me, and I refuse to give him my virtue!” “None of us will,” Constance said. “You will be safe from them.” “What did Lord Fletcher say to you?” Mary asked.

“It does not matter,” Constance replied, the memory of the man kissing her making her grimace. “What does matter is my plan for us. Though it’s not the most thought out plan, we shall put it into action.” She sighed as doubt filled her. The truth was, she had no true plan, but she was also terrified of failing her sisters. However, if they were to remain, failure was guaranteed. “Tonight, we shall leave Lankster Manor. Forever.” Mary and Emma gasped, and then Mary said, “This is our home. Mother and father wished for us…” “They are now gone,” Constance interrupted.

“It is my duty to take care of both of you. If you want to remain and marry those vile men, you may. If not, you must listen to what we are to do.” She despised using a harsh tone, but time was precious and she had little patience to coddle them. “We will listen,” Mary whispered. “And do as you say.” Constance gave a quick nod. “Good. I have placed a burlap sack for each of you in your chest of drawers – our carpetbags are much too fine and will give us away. You must pack clothing, valuables, and any other items you wish to bring.

Take only that which you are willing to carry a long way, and remember, whatever you leave behind you must be willing to never see again.” The girls glanced at one another and then nodded. “Phillip is drunk and already asleep. The servants should be finished cleaning up after the party by now, so we will leave within the hour. We will take our horses and never return here again.” Emma began to weep, but Mary asked, “Where are we to go? We have no family, no friends, and those we know would not hesitate to inform Phillip of our presence.” “We may not have anyone,” Constance said with a small smile, “but we have each other. The life ahead will not be easy, and we will face many hardships as we make our way to London, but once we are there, we will rest and decide where are future will take us.” “I have savings,” Emma said as she wiped her eyes. “Money I put away from my allowance about which Phillip does not know.

With that and our jewelry, we should have plenty to pay for our journey and even a bit left over for lodging and food for at least a week.” “I have saved some of my allowance, as well,” Mary piped in. “Whatever you need, you may have. All of it, if necessary.” “We may need it in time,” Constance replied, “but do not worry just yet. I have saved every farthing I could since mother died. Now, we will discuss this later. For now, you must collect your things. Meet me here in one hour, and not a minute later.” As she turned to begin her own packing, Emma caught her arm.

“Thank you for helping us,” she whispered. “Mother and father would be proud.” Constance nodded, a tear threatening to escape her eye as the three embraced. “They wanted us to be happy,” she said, “and that is what we shall be.”

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