The Viscount’s Sinister Past – Roselyn Francis

Anthony Shepherd’s dark blue eyes scanned the brilliant candle-lit ballroom, he stifled a yawn and shifted his posture to appear alert and interested. A group of ladies walked by chattering excitedly, clearly enjoying themselves, and clearly in awe. Anthony did suppose the glittering, crystal-studded chandeliers, and the fountains of champagne pouring out an endless stream of bubbly golden drink, were rather impressive, but he wasn’t in the mood to appreciate any of it. The truth was the Devonshire Ball was the last place he wanted to be. Society events had never held any interest for him. In his carefree days as a rogue he had avoided them like the plague, especially when the season was in full swing. But now, with circumstances being what they were, he had no choice but to attend. Over the last year he had learned just how lucrative balls and dinner parties could be. He had already been approached by two ladies; at this rate, his week would be booked up before the end of the night. But for the first time since starting down this path, he found himself questioning whether this was worth it. The money was certainly good and easy, there was no doubt about that. God, it was easy. Large sums of money for a few hours of work. At times it was even quite pleasurable, and he certainly needed the money. By his calculations if he continued in this line of work for another two years, he would be able to pay off all his debt and make enough money to be truly respectable again.

So why was he suddenly starting to feel more than a little uneasy with this arrangement? Resisting the urge to yawn yet again, he tried to distract himself by looking around the ballroom for familiar faces. Quite a few ladies of his acquaintance were in attendance tonight, but that was to be expected. Lady Devonshire was famed for throwing extravagant and lavish parties, and her Annual Black and White Ball was the last big event of the season. Nobody wanted to miss out on these legendary events and anyone worth their salt in the ton was sure to attend. There was nothing quite as disgraceful as not receiving a coveted invite. Anthony himself had been more than a little surprised to find himself invited this year, given everything. But Lady Devonshire had been a close friend of his mother’s and had always had a soft spot for Anthony. Across the room he caught the eye of his best friend and cousin, Lord Charles Lever. He had just finished dancing with a lady and was walking her back to her chaperone when he sensed Anthony’s eyes on him. Charles turned to give Anthony a quick nod before turning his attention back to his partner.

Although Anthony couldn’t place her, the lady’s face looked vaguely familiar and was quite lovely. Charles looked quite taken with his partner, and Anthony made a mental note to tease his friend about it later. For a brief moment, as he watched Charles talking with the young lady, a wave of envy washed over him. What must it feel like to converse with, or woo, a girl without the sins of your past hanging over you? As his gaze swept around the ballroom yet again, he saw a few women he did not know looking his way, tittering, and exchanging knowing glances. It was clear they were talking about him. He balled his hands into fists and tried not to get upset. He should be used to this by now, the whispers that inevitably followed him around. Usually, he was able to shake it off, but tonight he couldn’t. One of the women smiled at him, while the other two eyed him appreciatively. With a cool nod their way, Anthony looked away.

A shiver of discomfort ran down his spine. Watching the couples on the dance floor, he wondered if he should be dancing as well. The polite thing to do would be to ask a lady to dance. In fact, Lady Devonshire had made it a point to tell him so earlier, but he could not be bothered to be polite just now. Downing a glass of wine, he grabbed from a passing waiter, he decided what he needed was some fresh air. The ballroom, with its whirling bodies, loud music, and hundreds of candles, was starting to feel hot and suffocating. With long strides he walked swiftly across the ballroom, expertly dodging the plaintive, hopeful eyes of a few plain looking ladies begging to be danced with. Anthony shuddered as he imagined the wagging tongues and gossip that would ensue if he was seen dancing or engaging in conversation with any of these young, naïve debutantes. Anthony strived to live his life with some basic principles, one of which was to never be caught in the company of a virgin. Once upon a time, Lord Anthony Shepherd, the young Viscount Surrey had been the catch of the season.

Handsome, young, and fabulously wealthy, hordes of young ladies had tried to win his heart season after season. But Anthony could not be caught. Marriage held no interest for him, and he had preferred instead to engage in flirtations with beautiful, experienced women, frittering away his wealth and time on indulging their lavish tastes and having a good time. Now with all his money gone and his reputation in tatters, he knew better than to get involved with an innocent. He had nothing to offer a girl from a good home. Nothing except a noble title. A fat lot of good that would do when he didn’t know where his next meal would come from. The only thing he had left, aside from his title, were his looks. Everyone agreed the Viscount Surrey was incredibly attractive. He exuded an intriguing mix of raw sexuality and boyish charm that women simply could not resist.

But there were too many whispers, too much innuendo, and virginal ladies and their mammas no longer chased after him as the most eligible bachelor of the season. Sometimes he wondered how much people knew, how much of the whispers spread in ballrooms contained the truth. He supposed it was only a matter of time before it all came out. He was standing a few feet away from the enormous patio windows, which led out into Lady Devonshire’s famous rose garden, when he felt a warm body surreptitiously brush up against him and a note was thrust into his hand. By the time he turned around, whoever had passed him the note was already walking away. Judging by the overly generous curves of her body and the strands of silver threaded through the dark hair, Anthony gauged her to be an older lady in her fifties. Stepping into the garden, Anthony found a quiet, deserted corner and opened the note. Left wing of the 3 rd floor, the door at the end of the hall. 10 minutes. Will pay double.

The handwriting was not familiar to him. He wondered who had referred her. Clearly she was a woman of means, as his services did not come cheap. And she was willing to pay double his usual fee! He blew out a puff of hot air and ran a hand through his dark brown hair. This is what he had wanted. This was the very reason he had chosen to attend the ball, so why did he feel so dejected? “Why the long face?” He started at the voice behind him. Turning around, he found Charles looking at him in concern. “What’s wrong?” Anthony shrugged. “Nothing, just needed to get some air.” “Something’s wrong, what is it?” Charles knew Anthony better than anyone in the world.

And he was the only one privy to his deepest, darkest secrets. Instead of replying, Anthony handed the note to Charles, who read it in silence. “Your heart isn’t in it?” Charles guessed accurately, giving the note back to his cousin. “Yes. No… I don’t know.” Anthony folded the note back up into a tiny square and tucked it neatly away inside his jacket. Being familiar with the layout of the house, he knew exactly which bedroom she would be waiting in. It was a guest room in a rarely travelled wing of the third floor. He vaguely remembered the servants telling a story about the wing being designed in a particularly discreet manner for guests who wished to carry out affairs. Anthony himself had frequented that bedroom on several occasions, for both business and pleasure.

“I just needed to clear my head. It feels too hot in there,” Anthony told his friend. “Let’s walk. I could use a break from all the dancing.” The note sitting in his pocket like a heavy weight, Anthony followed Charles deeper into the garden. They walked in silence, wandering down the twisting pathways cleverly laid out so visitors could admire the flowers without trampling on anything. They were so far from the house now they could barely hear the music. The cool night air felt refreshing, and Anthony took in a deep breath. He had never been one to appreciate nature, his preferred amusements came in the form of drinks, women and games at Whitby’s, the upscale gentleman’s club frequented by men in the ton. Yet tonight, he found himself suddenly appreciating the delicate fragrance of the exotic flowers, the feel of the grass beneath his feet, the curve of the moon, the twinkle of the stars.

What was wrong with him? he wondered, why was he behaving like a sniveling pansy? Just turn around and get it done Anthony, do what you came here to do. But his body refused to obey the silent command. What was going on with him? Why was he feeling so restless and wary? The clock was ticking, and he knew he should be making his way upstairs right now. Instead he found himself thinking back to that awful day fifteen months ago when Mr. Brown, his solicitor had informed him his latest business venture had failed and he had lost everything. Every time he thought back to that day, he felt sick to his stomach. It still shocked him, the suddenness with which his whole life had turned upside down. “You should just stop,” Charles said suddenly, breaking the silence. “How can I? The only thing I have left is the estate and running the estate costs money. If I start defaulting on that, I’m going to lose the last thing I have left.

” “Now that you’re less in debt, maybe you can do something else,” Charles added, trying to sound hopeful. “I’m hardly qualified to do anything,” Anthony said bitterly. Raised as a member of the peerage, Anthony had received an enviable education but had no profession, which was hardly his fault, members of the peerage were not meant to work; it was not the thing to do. For the first time in his life, Anthony was forced to take stock of who he was and what he could contribute to society. It was a very short list. His business ventures had failed, his estate was struggling, and he had no skills to speak off—besides the ones he was currently using to claw his way out of debt. Charles didn’t bother arguing the point. The second son of an Earl, Charles knew and understood Anthony’s limitations. But Charles had been fortunate enough that his father had hired him to run the family estate. The job provided him with a steady income, and he hoped in time to be able to purchase some property of his own.

“I wish I could help somehow, but…” Charles’s voice drifted off. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for Anthony, but with his own limited resources, he wasn’t in a great position to help him financially. Anthony held up a hand to cut him off. “You’ve done more than enough. And you’re right, I should stop.” “Do you ever regret taking Lord Bolton up on his offer?” The question gave Anthony pause. He didn’t often like to think back on that life-changing night at Whitby’s, when an old friend had approached him with a slightly awkward proposition regarding a widow and a purse he had been unable to resist. Did he regret it now? Lord Bolton’s offer had served him well, it had been the beginning of his new line of work, there was no denying that. It had gotten him out of his immediate mess and provided him with a little breathing room. But it hadn’t been enough to get him out of his financial mess permanently.

He would need a lot more money to get back on his feet again. The idea of doing this for years, with no end in sight, was disheartening and sickening. “I don’t regret it, no.” he replied finally. “But I’m worried about the truth coming out. Already there are so many whispers. It’s only a matter of time before everyone figures it out. I’ve never cared about my reputation before, you know that.” The two cousins shared a quick grin over that, thinking back to their countless escapades and conquests. “But this seems… it just doesn’t seem right anymore.

I want children one day, and I don’t want them to be ashamed of their father,” he concluded. “Then why not simply marry?” Charles suggested. “And who would marry me? I’m a penniless viscount.” “Marry an American. I hear girls there are desperate for British titles, and lord knows they have the money to buy them.” “An American? I don’t know if I’m that desperate yet,” Anthony said dryly. The only American girl he had met had been utterly atrocious, and he shuddered at the idea of being saddled for life with a loudmouthed, generously portioned, vulgar woman. Charles, who had also had the misfortune of meeting Miss Evans at a ball the year before, laughed and shook his head. “I don’t think all American ladies are like Miss Evans,” Charles chuckled. “Can’t take that chance,” Anthony said.

“No, if I ever marry, she will definitely have to be English. Anyways, I think we should head back,” he said with a decisive nod of his head. “You’ve made up your mind then?” “Yes. It was just a moment of weakness, I am better now. Thank you for talking it through with me.” “Of course. But you know,” Charles added, “just remember you do have other options.” Anthony did not bother to contradict him this time and instead asked him about the lady he was dancing with as they began to make their way back towards the house. “You seemed quite interested.” “Oh? Not at all.

Just doing my duty. I was going to head out soon, should I wait for you or send the carriage back?” Charles changed the subject. Anthony smiled. To his ears, Charles had sounded vague and evasive. There was something going on here, but now was not the time to delve into it. “Don’t wait for me. Don’t send the carriage back either.” He lightly punched Charles on the shoulder as they parted ways. “Alright then cousin, have a good night.” With a wave, Anthony took a left turn, which led him towards a back entrance to the house.

He was not in the mood to go through the ballroom again. The back entrance led directly to a set of stairs, but as soon as he got to the third floor, he froze. Something was holding him back from turning towards the bedroom, but why? He wasn’t doing anything he hadn’t already done a hundred times before. Tonight should be no different. But it was. I don’t want to do this anymore. The realization hit him like a ton of bricks, and as soon as he admitted it to himself, the heavy weight he had been carrying on his chest all evening seemed to ease and lift. Somehow, he knew this was a defining moment for him. What he chose to do next would shape the rest of his life. He could make his way down the hallway and into the bedroom, or he could leave.

Right now. Right this very minute and never look back. For a moment, he thought about the money he would be losing and how difficult it would be to start all over again. But the idea of continuing this life for even one more night left him feeling sick to his stomach. So, what could he do? Then in a moment of absolute and total clarity, he knew exactly what he could do. What he wanted to do.

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