Nicholas' Bargain Ch. 02byredsoles©
Here is the second part of the story – I know the first was a bit all over the place and I wish I hadn't submitted it so quickly but I knew if I spent time contemplating, I would never have the courage to submit... hopefully I can only improve from here. I hope you enjoy it; there will be one more part after this to conclude the story. Thank you for reading!
The story follows on directly from the last part.
The two girls avoided the ballroom as they fled the garden, taking a servant's entrance into the house. They skulled the palatial hallway, the noise from the ballroom a muted hum, before Amelia pulled her cousin through one of the many side doors lining the wall and closed it behind them hurriedly.
"Your mother has been looking for you," Amelia said by way of greeting, but her expression didn't look particularly foreboding at this piece of news. Instead, it hinted at curiosity and speculation about something else entirely.
The first flushes of despair filtered through Lara's sagging body as she vividly recalled what had transpired but a few minutes ago – that 'something else entirely'. Supporting her back against the wooden door, she peered at her cousin through the dark and shadowed room, just about making out her features.
"And what did you say?" she managed to inquire in calm, off-hand tones.
"I relayed that you were feeling a little unwell and had gone to lie down in one the guest rooms – which was half true, you did admit to some disquiet before you disappeared. Well anyway, this seemed to please her a little too much... I have a feeling this was mostly down to her hatred of my red dress since she seemed considerably unconcerned after that.
But enough about that...did you – Lord, please tell me you weren't frolicking with that gorgeous man you were dancing with earlier, Lara?" if Lara were not wallowing in her own guilt and misery, she could have sworn she detected regret in her cousins voice.
"It's nothing to worry about, really. I had a sneaky glass of champagne and it made me a little bold. We only... fondled a little," Lara explained, her tones defensive by the end.
While not something you would run around declaring to the collective ladies of the ton, it was not uncharted territory for a young unmarried female to indulge in flirtation and clandestine caresses at a soiree or ball. The usual haunts for such occurrences were the conservatory or orangey, true, but considering Lara's fumblings had gone a bit beyond the flirtation mark the change of location seemed now a sensible decision. Lara found herself wanting desperately to tell Amelia everything – not the specifics, but of her frantic emotions. After all, this was her cousin she was talking to - her cousin who would neither judge nor condemn. Besides, she was condemning herself enough for the both of them.
"Could you light the gas lamp?" she asked then and heard Amelia fumbling about before the room was shrouded in mellow light and she blinked, taking in the sight before her.
The room was papered in soft pinks and greens and Amelia divulged that this was her mother's personal parlour. Lara was not certain she had seen this room before but then there were so many chambers inside this mini palace that it would take a week's tour to fully appreciate them all. She felt a pang of melancholy then as she realised that she would soon be heading back to the country, away from her cousin and away from London and all of its excitements...which, in all actuality considering her weak will, was probably for the best.
Moving into the room and taking a seat on a plush chair, Lara looked down at her clasped hands as she collected her thoughts but her glance carried over to one of the tall windows and she concentrated on the darkness without, too ashamed to meet her cousin's eyes.
"I - I feel so dirty, Amelia. How could I have taken leave of my senses with that man? Lord knows what I was thinking but he... I can't explain it but when I was with him, nothing else seemed to matter. The things he did – I allowed him to do. I really am a strumpet," she shook her head in self-loathing. "All he had to do was to look at me and I knew I could deny him nothing."
"Did he take your-"
"I'm still very much a maid," Lara interrupted her sternly.
"Well, there you go then," Amelia took a visible exhalation of relief. "You are certainly no strumpet. The only strumpet here, my dear, is I."
"Oh, you know I didn't mean it like that. It's just that I'm not like you - not confident and able to be carefree and follow my feelings. I have always hoped to be but..."
"And nor would you want to be like me," Amelia's tone was almost angry now and it startled Lara. "Look, I know I've gotten up to some shameful shenanigans - things that I should not even know about, let alone indulge in - but you must understand that it all stems from circumstances. If it hadn't been for that cursed accident – and David - I would never dare half what I do now.
When I was lying in bed for months and months, listening to the physician telling the parents that that my left leg would have to be removed, I honestly believed that it would happen and that I would be bed-ridden and have my livelihood ruptured from then on. The thing was, Lara, I had also been so painfully self-aware before the accident – you might think you are a little reticent and timid but for me, it was painful self-awareness. I was...scared of life, I suppose you could say but in vast contrast to that I had always been hot blooded and often thought that I would die a virgin, so shy of men and of the idea of marriage was I. And then when things changed with the accident, it shifted things in my mind."
"I never realised," Lara shook her head.
A self depreciating smile replaced Amelia's straight mouth. "Well, I can't play the poor little rich girl until the very last page. It's true, mother and father have always let me get away with murder and I don't think that helped but still, I would have gone to my husband a maid had it not been for David entering my life just as the leg healed.
Everything was all too much; the freedom of mobility after over two years being bed-ridden and the joy of simple pleasures that I thought would be denied to me from then on that I suppose I simply decided to follow my heart and I guess you could say, lived to suffer from the lesson."
"Do you still think of him?" Lara rested her head against the back of the chair, the atmosphere in the room soft and languid. The parlour felt so cosy and secluded that one would hardly guess there was a lively ball taking place within the same residence. Or a handsome, overwhelming man walking about who had been scant seconds from taking her virginity.
Seating herself on the floor by Lara's legs, Amelia sighed pensively. "Yes, but not in a lovesick way. Lord, I was naïve. I really believed that David wanted to marry me and make a home, otherwise I'd never have given him my virtue, Lara," at the last part, her cousins eyes were imploring.
"And then of course Garret came along shortly after David departed and helped me to forget," her cousin grinned now.
"You are terrible," Lara shook her head.
"A wanton woman!" her cousin rejoined, before sobering. "So, are you saying that you've dipped your toe in the waters of pre-marital liaisons and decided it is not for you?"
"That is correct," Lara confirmed decisively. "I know this will sound strange – but I truly did not feel myself when I was with him...I don't think it was the champagne, either. All of my concerns seemed to vanish. It was almost as if my will was ripped from me."
Amelia snorted, making light of her uneasiness but Lara hadn't been speaking fancifully.
"Well that's men for you - I'd best keep one eye on you from now on, after all we want at least one female from this family going untouched to the marriage bed. But who was the gentleman? I know he's acquainted with father in someway and he was certainly a handsome devil, seeming more than taken with you...ah! And here you were yesterday complaining that my Cole was an old man but this gentleman looked to be around thirty years too. You never know, Lara, you might be able to bring him to scratch if you play you cards right – which means withholding your maidenhead, dear," her expression was rebuking.
Lara blushed. "There is no danger of any of that for I'm sure he has already forgotten me by now...and that I shall probably never see him again after tonight anyway."
Shortly after, the two girls rejoined the ball. After all Amelia was the star of the show and had already built up a firm hoard of admirers who would surely be missing her. Lara was both relieved and disappointed not to encounter Nicholas again. This brief respite with Amelia in the parlour had made it seem as though the events in the garden had happened an age ago. Despite herself, Lara found her head craning this way and that throughout the night, hoping to catch a glimpse of that beautiful, raven haired man but met with no success.
No doubt he is with the rest of the men in the gaming room by now, she mused. Or off in some guest room tumbling an old lords' neglected wife. The thought induced momentary jealousy but little regret that it would not be she. It had indeed been a lucky escape and now that her senses were restored, the thought of scandal and its consequences was a real, debilitating thing. Lara would listen to her cousin's advice and would feel only grateful that Amelia had stumbled upon them when she had. But Lara knew that for the rest of her days, she would never forget that blue eyed elusive man. Not for as long as she lived.
The following day
The rented townhouse in Piccadilly was thoroughly ordinary. It comprised wholly of sturdy brown stone, which just about summed up her family; economical to the hilt. Lara could not help but compare it to Amelia's residence with all of its luxurious splendour and hated herself for her uncharitable thoughts but the problem was that she had always harboured grand delusions and had always struggled to school them. For as long as she could remember, she had frequently procrastinated about herself in another setting and life, living in wonderful luxury and contentedness but without the cynical and shallow edge that was true for most wealthy debutantes. Unlike her reasonably wealthy but frugal parents, the stuffiness of her life suffocated her.
Her father's stern tones caught her attention then and she abandoned her frivolous thoughts, focusing on her breakfast.
"It was all a farce; do you realise how much Hampton spent on that French chef alone?" her father declared to the room which further consisted of her mother and two older brothers who she had not seen for at least year, them being older and married by now with families and duties of their own.
"Yes, well my sister has always been extravagant," her mother rejoined in disapproving tones. "She always had to have the very best of everything."
"Did Aunt Cecilia tell you of her plans tomorrow, mama?" Lara said quickly now, hoping to put an end to the negative atmosphere.
Her mother nodded once, before stirring her tea for a long moment and Lara crossed her fingers, hoping that her parents would not put a damper on the day. "She mentioned that she was taking you and Amelia to the Connaught Hotel for tea and asked me to come along. I am afraid, however, that I shall have to sit it out but I am sure it will be a tranquil, pleasant afternoon for the three of you," her mother concluded. Tranquil and pleasant meaning dull and inoffensive to her mother - the recipe for a fine day.
If there was one thing her mother was not fond of, it was of traipsing around London and she avoided venturing into the city at all costs. She was therefore grateful in one large respect when it came to her sister's - the Countess of Haverton – full and energized lifestyle; she had plenty of connections to see to it that Lara was introduced to people of fine-repute and good standing. She herself did not have the patience for putting on airs and graces when it came to conversing with the ton so was more than happy to leave it to her younger sibling who had always been the personable one of the two.
Lara had been on enough excursions with her aunt to know, however, that tomorrow's activities would comprise of tea at the Connaught for five minutes followed by a full day of shopping at countless bazaars and eating wonderful food like raspberry Ice's at Melvin's Sweet Shop on The Strand. Her toes curled under the table in anticipation, eager for tomorrow to arrive.
After breakfast, Lara took to her room and was diligently reading 'The essential handbook on female etiquette and deportment' before a knock on the door announced her flustered looking mother.
"There was a caller for you," her mothers look mirrored her own surprise.
Lara had only ever received one male caller - a duty caller and family friend – and that had been shortly after her own come-out a few years ago. She had long ceased to feel envious of all of the popular debutantes who received hoards of attentive men with invitations to Hyde park or the theatre or with various gifts of chocolate truffles and pink roses.
"Who is it?" her heart lurched painfully as she pushed a particular face away as it vied for attention. Of course it could not be he. Most likely he had already forgotten and dismissed her as nothing more than a silly tease.
"A Lord Armel – he was very polite and unaffected, I must say. He and your father were talking about architecture over a spot of tea," the last was said with a bemused look from her mother, for it was difficult to gain her father's good opinion long enough to settle into a particular topic of conversation.
"It must be Tim – or Tom - from Amelia's ball," Lara lifted her shoulders, a thread of disappointment creeping into her voice. After all, her Nicholas – she blushed at the propriety thought – did not appear to be the sort who would enjoy talking about something as staid as architecture.
"Do I look presentable?" Lara closed the book then and stood to face her mother.
"Oh, he didn't request an audience – he simply asked your fathers permission to accompany you to the theatre this evening which I thought was very agreeable of him but it is that which troubles me for I do not fancy the task of accompanying you. You know how I hate dark, crowded spaces. You shall have to take Katie to chaperone you," she said, referring to Lara's surly maid.
Well, at least the theatre should be a diverting experience so that even if her male companion turned out to be dull she could always feign severe captivation with the performance on stage. On that positive thought, she determined to look forward to the unexpected change to her otherwise monotonous day.
"I confess, I have always wanted to attend the theatre," Katie surprised Lara by announcing that evening on the carriage ride to the Lyceum theatre. "It shall certainly be a treat and then your mother informed me that this gentleman who is to accompany you is of a sober disposition and a very agreeable man. I think it should be a very pleasant evening."
And so they departed the carriage some minutes later as they approached Wellington Street and were met by their tall, dark host and Lara could hardly believe it was him; could hardly believe that this was the man who had chatted so robustly with her father about architecture. Though in truth, what did she know of the man to predict his likes and dislikes? She only knew that he was a passionate, beautiful, knee-weakening sort with a very skilful tongue.
Grateful that Nicholas – Lord Armel – and Katie had turned their attention from her so that they could not speculate over her suddenly heated face, the three of them made their way to their seats and a tinkling giggle caught Lara's attention. She looked ahead to two girls being herded by a sour face older lady, their attention riveted on Nicholas.
Joining the small queue near the entrance into the theatre hall, Lara couldn't help but shoot frowning looks at the obviously infatuated girls before her. She herself looked to her side then to gaze upon the object of their mutual affection and admitted that she was no better than they.
Dressed in black save for his snowy white skirt and emerald green cravat, Nicholas bore the feminine notice with polite disinterest. He turned to catch Lara's gaze on him then, and his finely carved mouth moulded into a handsome, crooked smile. Under the lights of the theatre, his black hair had a blue tinge and Lara knew a strong desire to brush the soft strands between her fingers.
Nicholas subjected the girl to an equally as evaluating analysis as he walked behind her and her maid up to his private box. The theatre was shrouded in low lightning and his gaze settled on her tempting nape plainly visible with her dark caught up in a high knot, much like it had been at the ball yesterday. Her profile, he noted impartially, was exquisite but in all truth her features were slightly off-canter with her bowed but slightly too wide lips and her almond shaped that flicked up slightly in a mildly feline way, their green irises once again reminding him of the emerald fires in his own world.
Once in Nicholas' private box, the man ushered Katie into the seat to the left before settling Lara in middle with himself at her side, set a polite and respectable distance away. The lights soon dimmed as the show began and Lara looked around the shadowed theatre, perched high in the enclosed box, feeling quite cut off and secluded from the rest of its patrons.
"Do you mind if I set myself forward?" Katie inquired then, her eyes still riveted on the stage. "The binoculars are splendid of course, but my eyesight had always been a little muzzy and I would surely benefit from the closeness."
She soon moved to within an inch of the edge of the box, her gloved hands clasped over the railing as she eagerly ate up the performance and Nicholas caused Lara to start as he leaned in and murmured into her ear;
"You seemed surprised to see me when you arrived. You were expecting someone else, I think. I hope I didn't disappoint you," his voice was teasing.
"I had hoped it would be you," she whispered, blushing at her honesty but it was dark and almost secretive up here and the atmosphere made her feel bolder.
With his close presence, Lara was sure she could feel Nicholas' body heat. And then there was his smell...she took a delicate inhalation and her eyes fluttered closed for a brief moment. It was delicious: woody yet almost sweet but still thoroughly masculine, if a scent could be described as such.
She glanced to her lower right then and gave into what had tempted her in her peripheral; Nicholas' large hand lay palm upwards between them and with no hesitancy but quite a bit of urgency, Lara placed her own within it and in the darkness and the shadows of the theatre they linked fingers. Lara felt her heart take on a sluggish pulse then to join the gentle throbbing between her legs.
"Who are you?" she implored of this mysterious man.
Having tried and failed to concentrate on the performance, she turned to look at him and in the darkened box and low lighting of the theatre, his face was all shadows and dips and hollows. In a smooth movement, he leaned close toward her but as he was so much taller, his lips hovered scant inches above her forehead and he brushed them lightly over a tousled wave of hair and was sure she had felt the flick of a tongue. She shivered.
"It is drafty in here, is it not?" he noted conversationally, before moving away and loosing her hand and she felt bereft at the separation.
Just then, Katie turned around with sheer reluctance and inquired over Lara. The woman's eyes barely settled on her before moving back to the stage and back again.