To Love a Tormented Earl – Bridget Barton

When Maximilian Emery descended the disembarking plank to the London Docks into the fog typical of the city, he knew he had come home. ‘Three years,’ he muttered. A man also leaving the ship jostled him as he passed. London, it seemed, had not changed. Ever lively, full of industry, the docks were just one facet of the soot-tarnished jewel of the English nation. A military company in red coats passed by. Two men yelled at each other beside a mule pulling a cart full of baskets of apples. All around, sailors unloaded trunks and wares from their ships. Max turned and looked for his traveling companion, Royal Navy lieutenant, Thomas Roberts. His ruddy-haired, moustachioed friend, no longer in the service due to a medical dispensation, was just starting the descent on the plank. Trusting him to catch up, Max turned and began looking about for a hackney carriage as the porters deposited his trunk next to him. ‘I say, Emery—’ Roberts began as he neared. Max’s palm shot up. ‘It’s Henry Milton now,’ he replied in a low voice. ‘Of course, I do apologise,’ Roberts said.

‘I shan’t make the mistake again, I guarantee.’ ‘I’ll allow you one slip, old chap. But we must take care.’ Max had chosen ‘Milton’ as a pseudonym as a kind of inside joke. After all, his ‘paradise’ was, in fact, ‘lost.’ However, he was determined to find it again, and once he’d rectified the entire situation, he would lose the false name. Roberts raised a hand and a hackney rolled toward them. ‘There, now,’ he said with satisfaction. The driver hopped down and the gentlemen helped load their trunks aboard the carriage. ‘I am quite pleased to nearly be home, at last,’ Roberts remarked as they took their seats.

He, too, was returning from exile. They had that in common. The fog was beginning to lift, and with it, Max’s spirits. Excitement tingled through him as he gazed out at London. How striking it was to be back after all this time. They would be living in a terraced house on the south side of Portman Square. Roberts had arranged the lease. As they neared the square, the first thing that struck Max was the way the black railings surrounding the central garden stood out against the lingering wisps of fog. Beyond it towered the multi-storeyed neoclassical brick buildings, built fairly recently in the latter years of the previous century. The hackney came to a stop and the gentlemen descended, assisting the driver again at unloading their belongings.

The staff Roberts had employed through an agency appeared and hurried to take over. Max greeted each of them and learned their names. The gentlemen would have a very spare household, with a valet each, a maid-of-all-work, and a cook. Only four names to learn, for which Max was grateful. He had other concerns. As the valets carried in the trunks Max straightened and looked over the square, a sight caught his eye and made him stiffen. An exclamation left his lips: ‘What the devil is she doing here?’ *** Emilia Whitmore was pleased that the fog seemed to be almost gone. It was never a happy experience to have to make one’s way through London when visibility was impaired. ‘We’ve never taken a turn there,’ her companion Alice observed as she gestured out of the landau to the garden at the centre of Portman Square. ‘It looks very pretty.

’ ‘Indeed, we shall have to return,’ Emilia agreed, unwilling to suggest that they stop now. She had an appointment at the dressmakers to keep and she hadn’t the patience to consider pretty gardens until it was done. ‘You do seem troubled,’ Alice observed. Emilia grimaced. ‘I apologise, dear Alice. It’s the expense.’ Alice nodded. ‘But one must have a new ball gown, or appear too impoverished to be considered a worthy bride.’ ‘One must,’ Emilia agreed gloomily. ‘Be easy at least in the knowledge that the gown shall be quite lovely,’ Alice said to reassure Emilia.

‘The shade you chose, that pale pink, will flatter your dark eyes and hair.’ ‘You don’t think it better for a fair lady such as yourself?’ Emilia smiled. ‘Golden curls might better suit such a delicate, light colour.’ ‘I’ve no complaint regarding my evening dress,’ Alice said stoutly. ‘It has served me well and shall continue to do so until I’ve no use for it any longer.’ Emilia gazed at her companion affectionately. Alice was a sensible lady, and a boon as a friend. Alice never required more than Emilia could offer. Then Emilia’s smile faded. ‘Tis simply dreadful to have to spend so much, I must say.

The sale of Mama’s favourite cabinet and what Dassel last paid me will only just cover the expense.’ Alice clicked her tongue. ‘I do wish you would cease associating with that…man.’ ‘Oh, my dear Alice, how I value your counsel,’ Emilia said, sighing. ‘But you well know that my “association” to that man is the only thing keeping our household from simply drowning in debt.’ ‘It isn’t proper. If word gets out…’ ‘‘twas an old argument. Alice’s refusal to be pragmatic was nothing new. Emilia told herself she needn’t let it bother her. ‘Oy! See here!’ The shout came from Abraham, Emilia’s coachman.

Startled, Emilia looked out, trying to determine the source of his distress. *** Easy to see sitting in her landau with its top folded down, Emilia Whitmore was an unmistakable beauty, with her large eyes so dark they looked black in her heart-shaped face, her alabaster skin contrasting with her ebony hair, which only showed with a few curls as she wore a neat bonnet. Spotting her in her carriage gave Max a turn, but he might have headed into the house and forgotten all about it, except for the dog. The dog was likely not a purebred, for its body had the slender curve of a greyhound but its brown coat was that of a curly retriever. Max’s attention was first diverted from Emilia Whitmore to the dog by the uncouth shouting of the dog’s owner, a large, red-faced man in a tradesman’s leather breeches. That he seemed out of place in Portman’s Square was the first clue to his predicament with the dog. What he shouted was another: ‘That’s the last time I go chasing after ye through these streets, y’damned cur!’ Any sympathy Max may have felt for the man evaporated, however, when he raised some sort of stick overhead and the dog yelped and scrambled away… …right into the path of Miss Whitmore’s open carriage. A collision was imminent, promising disaster all around. Unthinking, Max darted after the animal, scooped it up, and nearly toppled over the railing to the central garden in his haste. The landau lurched to a stop.

‘Ho, there, guvnor,’ shouted the coachman. ‘Are you injured?’ Straightening, Max set down the dog, who was now intent on licking his face. ‘Right as rain,’ he said, turning to the man. But his eyes, instead, met Emilia’s. The recognition was instant and undeniable. The colour drained from her face, as though she had seen a ghost. And, in fact, she had. Because three years ago, Max had falsified his own death. But now, he realized, the truth would surely come out.

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