Nicholas' Bargain Ch. 03byredsoles©
I apologize for the delay for those who have been waiting; wrote pages and pages but scrapped it all as I didn't like the direction of the plot so starting over has been time consuming (and university starting up hasn't helped!). It hasn't been possible to complete the story in this part without causing further delay but it's not my intention for this to be a long, continuous story so it will be wrapped up soon.
Thanks for the patience and hope you enjoy.
On queue, Amelia burst into the room and Nicolas eyed her coolly. He had been waiting for her entrance, had heard her hurrying thoughts; thoughts of disbelief, of confusion, of denial...and heartbreak.
"Amelia," Cole staggered to his feet and stood scant inches from her but made no move to touch her. Instead, he watched in impotent misery as she charged into the centre of the room and seized Lara by the shoulders.
"I give you permission to stay for the festivities, but not to touch my possession. Let her go," Nicholas said calmly but Amelia only increased her hold, her expression defiant. Just as quickly she stumbled back with a cry, waving her hands before her and blowing on them urgently, feeling as though she had just plunged them into a piping hot oven.
Panting harshly, Amelia declared, "You will not -- you shall not have her," her look was direct though her bearing was of someone dazed and feverish.
"Anything else?" Nicholas asked in bored tones but went on without pause. "If you are to condemn anyone here, let it be the man who sired you -- the both of you -- for his hands were not tied. He was not forced to proceed with any of this; indeed, he could well have spared your sister's life. As it was, he proved too selfish and too cowardly to face the punishments of not complying with me. Now that he has given his word, it is done." His tones were delivered with authority and finality.
Lara looked across at the man who had sired her and in that moment knew she could not disbelieve Nicholas for the older man's hanging head, shrouded shoulders and inability to meet her eye marked him as guilty as clearly as any brand would.
She shook her head then and almost laughed as her eyes flickered and finally stopped on Nicholas. She had avoided glancing his way feeling, not fear, but something else. Betrayal, her mind suggested bitterly and she dismissed the emotion with feverish rejection. She must surely be mad not to be fearful and shocked about this disturbing turn events but instead, wounded!
"Do you know," she mused, pinning him with an unblinking stare, almost as if unconsciously speaking aloud, "I thought when I was summoned here that you were going to ask for my hand in marriage... I tell you, this I wouldn't ever have envisioned. But now it's almost as though...as though I knew but chose to remain in ignorance..." she frowned in wonder. "You had me from the start. You lured me in well-- the pastor always said in his sermons that evil beings seek gratification by playing with their victims."
"Not once did I use my lure on you," Nicholas shook his head, slowly. "You came to me of your own freewill each time. I myself do not understand it... for I lured you nowhere. You simply followed," by the end, his tone was almost marvelling.
"Liar!" launching her body across the small distance that separated them, Lara clawed her fingernails down the Demon's handsome face. He did not stop her, only held her but the embrace was light. Finally pushing out of his hands as awareness chased away the fog that had entered her mind, which he allowed her to do without demur, Lara panted hard as she looked upon her handiwork.
Yet rather than survey his face with the satisfaction she had hoped, she felt something twist inside her at the evidence of her violence. Digging her fingernails into her palms, she forced herself from giving into the compelling urge to run her palms over his face in an attempt to smooth the damage away.
Distantly, she heard Cole calling out to her, telling her -- begging her - not to dare more but the man was silenced when Nicholas held up a hand, his eyes still pinned on Lara.
"No one has ever dared," he uttered simply, handling his torn face in bemusement and then he laughed. "But I should have known. You have well and truly put your mark upon me, girl, have you not?" he looked at her with something close to fascination as if it were she who were the anomaly in the room.
"Please," a hoarse voice broke into the tense silence. "Please -- I implore of you -- leave her be. I will give you anything you desire if you will just let her be and spare her life."
Nicholas turned to Lord Hampton, eyeing his pleading expression with disgust - and suddenly, he felt something snap within him as fury blinded all reason. His usually cool and tempered control was no more for he only felt a burning anger and unsteadiness within himself which had little to do with the old man; the anger was at himself...the unsteadiness about someone else entirely.
"Fool," Nicholas snarled then, his lip curling viciously, "Who are you to talk to me - to dictate to me? This is none of your concern -- be gone! You underestimated me when we first made our bargain with your overreaching arrogance thinking I would not come to collect -- and today you think you have bested me by sparing the child you prefer and offering me the bastard -- but now you will learn who holds the power here!" he started toward the cowering man with violence in every step.
"Nicholas-!" the feminine appeal was desperate. "This is between you and I, is it not?" Lara hurried in reasoning tones, sensing the taut violence within him and knowing it meant something terrible.
Though she knew her attempt to placate him was useless, she had to try; for all she knew, this unpredictable creature could turn on her but it was better to attempt it than to stand and watch and do nothing. Despise Lord Hampton she may well do but she did not wish violence on the man...and then, to Lara's dismay, Nicholas stopped short at the sound of her voice and paused. His lithe build appeared to tremble in barely confined fury and Lara was stunned at the result.
"Please," Lara murmured tentatively to his rigid back, "Please let him be."
"You think to manage me?" Nicholas whipped around and watched as the girl's face flinched at his contempt. "You seek to save the man who both fathered and abandoned you -- only to later sacrifice your life for his own ends?" the bitter, mocking words and their truth caused a burning pain within Lara.
Tears fell from her eyes and Nicholas felt his limbs becoming heavy and weighted in response and at that point, he knew. He knew what it was that he was trying to deny -- this internal battle within him that was making him so enraged. Something within him had battled and won against the greedy, selfish, animal side of him -- the side that demanded he snatch Lara to him and disappear into the night with her. He knew and accepted then that he would let her go.
The humans were all braying for attention now, each so noble and so willing to sacrifice his or her life for the sake of his possession it was nauseating. The dull pain that had started earlier in Nicholas's very core seemed to be intensifying. He had no clue what this ache was - had never experienced anything similar in his countless years of existence --and wished now only to return to his own world and to forget he had ever made a deal with Arthur Hampton so as to eliminate any chance of being exposed to Lara.
His mate she may well be but his hands were not tied. Indeed, he could turn and walk away right now and be free from her and her pull. The thought appeared to bring immediate yet momentary relief to his innards and it was this that he clung to as he made his decision. Be gone with them all, he thought harshly, almost desperate to escape now as a disorientating feeling made him dizzy. I need no woman forever tied at my side, no female who thinks she can lead me by the nose to do her bidding.
He had only ever fended for himself and the thought of there being another and one who disturbed his equilibrium so was daunting. The prospect of asking her to be his bride, here and now, now also seemed farcical. For Nicholas could not snatch her against her will and force her to submit...he had the power to do so, but it would be an empty victory. He wanted her to come freely to him and though he could not read her thoughts he was sure that by now what little attraction and pull to him she may have felt had been eradicated by her revulsion of who and what he was.
But neither, he knew, could he accept her as a sacrifice as was his right; to take her soul and thereby sentence her to a death sentence. She was too vital for that. She deserved to live amongst her own kind and indulge in their cloying rituals; to wed and rear children and live an uncomplicated life with a pale faced, limp cocked mortal mate. The thought caused a slash of pain to slice through his brain but he knew it had to be done. He would walk away. At least then, he would not feel this nagging guilt and pain that assailed him at the prospect of slaying her for his own ends or of snatching her and demanding -- forcing -- her to be his mate.
Decision met, he pinned each human with probing eyes. "I have stayed overlong in this sty of a world," he announced, his tones low and brusque, "and my patience is spent with your pandering and damned family theatrics. So I will make clear my intentions. As to you," he turned and faced Cole. "I release you of all further service. You are no longer my slave and your life and soul are now your own. Since I do not intend to return to your world, I no longer have use of your services."
Cole's breath caught harshly in his throat. His expression betrayed a plethora of emotions; he looked overwhelmed, staggered, infinitely grateful -- but also scared though Nicholas spared him little regard for he turned abruptly as he delivered his next dictate.
"You," he pinned Lord Hampton with a disgusted though mildly pitying look. "Well, your guilt will eat at you until you're sick with it," he lifted his shoulders, "and that is punishment enough, I'll warrant. We will meet again in the next life but as for the here and now, you may rest easy in the knowledge that I will not trouble you again with my presence. Your soul, too, is your own so consider our bargain met."
Just as stiffly Nicholas turned to Lara but his bearing was slower this time, almost weary. "And you," the silence following this was a long one for Nicholas struggled with that internal battle once more as he tried to school his roaring emotions. He pinned the girl with an unfaltering, narrow stare, chin lifted.
The shadows of the dying day attached themselves to the planes and hollows of his face until only his luminous eyes were visible as he uttered in clear, commanding tones, "I release you of all further claim; your life is once again your own."
"You mean -- you're letting her go?" it was Lord Hampton who spoke into the stunned silence some moments later and for a while the only reply with the hiss and flicker of the flames in the fireplace.
Nicholas arched a sardonic brow. "That is so -- as I do not wish to lay sight on any limb of your family tree again, I concluded that the easiest option was to be rid of you all. Call if a magnanimous gesture of good will on my part, if you will," a twisted smile moulded his handsome lips at that.
Nicholas looked about the darkened study then; at the gaping, pale faces and the unappealing furnishings, his face distasteful. "Indeed, I've been too long in this world and God willing," a brow arched sardonically, "I will never return again."
At that, he affected a stiff bow and exited the room on a swivel of his polished, booted feet displaying an arrogance and confidence at vast odds with his internal mood. He left behind him a silent, bemused silence as, for the first time in his existence he made the most selfless decision by relinquishing his only chance at a love hitherto of no importance to him.
One year later
"Yes, I think I shall do," Lara turned and Amelia started slightly as if she had been rudely awakened from a heavy dream. Her eyes widened somewhat as she became aware of her surroundings - and the sight before her.
Giving Lara a hesitant once over, she said in murmuring tones, "Don't you think - I mean, perhaps it would be more advisable if you wore a less risqué gown." She did not wish to rock the boat. But it seemed as though her life these days was confined to a rickety boat suspended on violent, angry seas with no sign of dry land in sight so the gesture was quite futile.
"Oh, don't be so stuffy," Lara complained and Amelia half expected the girl to wag a chiding finger in front of her nose. "You know, it wouldn't do you any harm to make an effort. You have so many lovely gowns that have yet to see the light of day -- what about the cerise pink with the seed pearls for tonight?" she suggested then, striding over to Amelia's large, ornate wardrobe.
It was late afternoon and the sun was still high up. It was July, it was London. And it was hectic. The season was in full swing and tonight, all of the upper classes' finest would be descending upon Almack's assembly hall in their silks and chiffons for a night of dancing and husband hunting.
Such an auspicious occasion required careful planning if one was to successfully snare said mate. Lara's form of planning was by way of a pale blue gown with a deep neckline indecently but fashionably displaying much of her bosom. The skirts of the gown were full and heavy and only a simple necklace with a single diamond decorated and completed the look. She frowned, however, as her eyes travelled up to and paused her coiffure.
"Do you think I should call your maid back to fashion a more eccentric style?" she inquired and Amelia paused in her task of clearing up the flood of discarded gowns Lara had absently strewn about her bedroom as she had dressed for tonight's soiree.
"No, you must leave it; the look becomes you," she replied truthfully, for Lara needed little adornment and intricacy to shine. With her hair swept from her face and fashioned high above her head, her nape was plainly visible and it leant her appearance a vulnerable look - which was ironic considering there was nothing remotely vulnerable about the girl with her shining confidence and ability to charm an armchair.
"Very well, I'll trust your judgment -- oh, did you hear? Samantha Haybrook is said to be attending Almack's tonight. At least that's what Gabby told me at the Winchester's Ball last week. What a farce! So much for an exclusive membership," Lara huffed distastefully.
"Samantha is very sweet," Amelia defended uselessly and listened in a total lack of surprise as Lara meticulously criticised the girl's appearance, demeanour and 'appallingly tragic lack of style.'
"I mean, really -- how does her mother expect her to catch a husband looking like that?" Lara lifted her shoulders in genuine appeal, before turning once more to the mirror. "One has to look one's best," she reasoned to her reflection, "if one wishes to catch and hold a man's eye."
"And I am sure you will catch and hold many this night," Amelia sighed wearily but Lara hardly allowed the girl to finish speaking long enough to notice -- or comment on -- her apathy.
And thus followed the rest of the afternoon and early evening until it came time to leave for the assembly rooms...another pointless, draining night with pointless conversation and pointless introductions, Amelia despaired. She was of half a mind to plead a headache and escape the charade but judging by Lara's determined mood, it would prove a pointless appeal. And so, Amelia exited her townhouse some hours later joined by her mother and Lara as they made their way to another evening of inspecting the current offers available on the marriage mart. A painful night indeed.
"May I get you another glass of punch?-"
"-May I be granted the honour of escorting you to the refreshment room?"
"Might I be permitted a dance this evening?"
Lara focused on one voice and glanced at the attractive face to her right. "Miles," she smiled, a little tautly. "I've already informed you that my dance card is full-"
"Yes, but you said that last week, too - and I was sure to inquire for a dance as soon as you arrived tonight so as to make it a reality."
Lara eyed the man with mild distaste. He was behaving with incredible desperation and she was far from impressed. Besides, he was only the son of a Baron -- and a second son, at that. Indeed, he may well be one of the handsomest men in the room but little good that would prove when he would inherit virtually nothing.
"Next time, perhaps," she allowed politely, before turning away and listening to the avowals of the attentive, dark haired man by her side. Simon or Stanley, she believed but her attention was once more caught but this time by firm, high -- feminine -- tones.
"Gentleman, do you mind if I have a word with my cousin? I promise I shall not keep her long," and with that announcement, Amelia thrust her hands between the barricade of suited men and pulled her cousin away from her throng of admirers.
"Finally you rescued me-- it was beginning to wear a bit thin," Lara shook her head as she accompanied Amelia to the refreshment room. "Well, how are you finding the evening? Has your dance card been filled yet?"
"Why are you ignoring Miles?"
Lara pressed her lips together, her light mood souring at Amelia's serious, unyielding expression. "I was hardly ignoring him-"
"You practically shooed him away -- I don't understand you, Lara; you're here for the season for a purpose - were those not your own words? That you wish to find a husband before you become too long in the tooth?"
"I'm four and twenty -- It's already too late for that as I'm practically a crone," Lara said bitterly. "I should have wed years ago," she pinned Amelia with an unrelenting look and the girl flinched.
"Your mother had her reasons for not wanting-"
Lara scoffed. "Mother?" she dropped her voice? "I dearly hope you are not referring to Elizabeth Castle, the staid and proper matron who is currently holed away in the suffocating countryside nursing her wounded pride and mortal shame at my paternity as we speak. For we all know she is not my mother. Indeed," she bit out, "my mother is nothing more than a dried up whore!"
Taking a steadying breath, Amelia looked both ways but they had gone quite unheard for though Lara was enraged, she had been sure to deliver her biting words in low tones, ever following decorum.
Her heart pounding in anxiety-- an ailment that had started a little over a year ago now and one which she mortally despised -- Amelia attempted to tone down the mood, hating confrontation of any sort and hating the bitter change that the past year had cast over Lara. For she did not know this stranger standing so brazenly dressed before her nor did she know this bitter cut of her tongue...nor the determined, vengeful light constantly reflected in her eyes.
"I just don't understand," Amelia murmured, "why you are being so inattentive and cool to the man considering he has courted you for weeks on end; he is genuine, good humoured and kind hearted. And handsome. Then there is the fact that he is deeply in love with you. Surely he would make a fine prospect for a husband?"
"In the first place it is lust, not love. I may be a fool in many ways but I know enough by now to judge that," Lara derided. "And in the second - do you know what his yearly allowance is?" she inquired with heavily arched brows. "A mere six hundred a year! I shall not settle, I tell you; there are rumours that the Duke of Hartford is attending tonight as well as the Marques of Westerham - you don't think I'd have wasted this gown on Miles Grantly, do you?"