Nicholas' Bargain Ch. 04byredsoles©
Next part will follow swiftly, hard to wrap it up in one go! Better late than never? (I hope.)
'How curious – you always took such pride in your appearance.' Nicholas waited patiently, but not for a reply.
Seated on a hard wooden chair next to the only window in the room, he eyed the thin figure standing in the doorway. The scent of stale body odour and alcohol hung in the air and large dust motes floated visibly. Not hiding his disgust for his surroundings, Nicholas curled his lip in distain, his derisive eyes not missing a thing.
'I knew you'd come. One day. Eventually,' the slightly slurred tones stated with a dismal finality after a brief silence.
'Did you now?' the words were said dispassionately as Nicholas eyed the man who at last closed the door behind him and walked the few shaky steps towards him in the narrow box room. Weak moonlight highlighted his guest's gaunt features. He wouldn't have known the man before him, so changed had he become. 'You amuse me, for paying you a visit was at the very end of my list of things to do.'
Sighing at the fidgety movements and the dazed look in the man's eyes, Nicholas relented a little and said, 'You needn't be so anxious for I'm not here to do you harm. I told you before your life was safe and I keep my word.'
Cole stared at the Demon in wariness. He had returned from the pub ready to fall into bed and forget the day and night that had just passed as he did every night, and as he did so every afternoon, curse the fact that today he woke. And even though a part of him had always feared the Demon's return, the reality was shattering. He wasn't ready to go just yet and the belated realization made him feel even more pathetic, if that was possible.
'Tell me, why are you killing yourself?'
Cole's mouth worked hard for an answer to the unexpected question. It was said with such flatness, such a lack of emotion, that the truth of the words was a physical pain in his chest.
'Come, man,' Nicholas approached and landed a heavy hand on Cole's crumpled, linen clad shoulder. 'You had much to live for,' he said, finding the attempt at civility difficult.
'Forgive me - master,' Cole lurched away with a violent action, his shoulder feeling as if tiny pins were scoring it from the Demon's hold. 'But why is it any concern of yours?'
'You're certainly not a concern,' Nicholas arched a black brow, taking a measured step back, the better to observe the mortal with. That and to avoid the rank stench of sour beer coming from his mouth. In truth, Nicholas was quite humoured by the change before him. From sober servant to belligerent drunk, the Cole Morely of mere years ago with his stiff upper lip and stoic façade was long gone.
'You see, I've always been fond of the more loyal of my subjects and it must be said that you were the most diligent slaves. True, you let pleasure overrule you but you reined it in at the end.'
Cole stumbled past the well-spoken, well-dressed creature, feeling weak with fatigue and sickness of mind. Settling numbly onto the small bed in the equally as small room he rented, he closed his eyes tightly.
'Do you truly wish to die?'
Refusing to open his eyes, Cole grabbed his head with hard fingers but found no relief in the self-inflicted pain of the grip and moaned slightly as the Demon continued, his words sounding vague and somewhat melodious and sleep-inducing to his ears,
'If so, I can offer you a better fate when the time comes - agree to my terms and-'
'No!' Cole jerked upright as the Demon's words registered to his sluggish mind. 'No! I'll accept my fate...I'll accept...what I deserve. I shall never bargain again....never.'
Nicholas sneered at that. So very noble. Here he offered the man a life of immortality – the same man whose life was coming to a short, self-inflicted end – and yet he refused. Shaking his head in wonderment at the ever bemusing stupidity of mortals, Nicholas decided to try a different tact.
'Your daughter appears well. In terms of health, that is. Otherwise, she's a little worse for wear. With your monthly cheques having ceased, the financial situation leaves much to be desired. Your brother tries, of course, but old habits are hard to break and he was always so weak when it came to-'
Cole wiped the sweat from his forehead and uttered, like a litany, 'Abbey...Abbey-'
'Come, now,' Nicholas cajoled, his eyes gleaming at the man's distress. It had worked far too smoothly. 'You didn't sacrifice yourself for your brother and child for nothing, surely? They rely on you. They always will. With you gone, why-'
'Stop it!' Cole cried, his voice wretched.
'You'll die soon. You've abused your body too much,' Nicholas gestured carelessly at the empty bottles of spirits and beer littering the small space. 'And then they'll have nothing. And your efforts will have been for nothing. These are only facts I state.'
At the announcement, the finality and truth of the words, Cole felt hopeless desperation claw at him. So it would happen. He truly would sleep and never wake - and soon. Just as he had hoped without truly knowing what it would mean. Abbey. How could he have forgotten about Abbey? How could he have allowed guilt, shame and despair to cleanly obliterate everything else?
'Facts,' he concentrated as he replied, trying to keep his mind clear, 'but you've not sought me out to tell me about the facts of my impending death. What do you want of me?'
'Well, think of it as a favour, if you will...'
'Favour?' Cole gave a short bark of laughter at that and glanced up at the Demon who stood in exactly the same place with exactly the same expression. Cole shivered.
'I want you to makes things right. With Hampton's youngest. And I want you to bring her to me.'
Nicholas grunted at that, looking repulsed at the suggestion. 'Fool. Not her.'
'But, you-' Cole shook his head sharply, 'if you always keep your word - you said that Lara was free, you gave-'
Eyes widening in feigned affront, Nicholas interrupted smoothly, 'And so I shall. But you see, it is she who has sent for me. I have merely answered a summons for my presence. You of all people should know all to well how that works.'
Cutting into Cole's frantic muttering and flickering eyes in an attempt to bring the man to a sense of rationality, Nicholas said smoothly, 'I'm giving you a chance, man. Woo Hampton's youngest, do what you must. Word has it that she's turned into a miserly, unhappy sort since your cutting betrayal. In return, I'll give you life.'
Standing up shakily, Cole pointed an accusing finger at himself. 'And in return I lead Lara to a certain death – she has a name, you know. She's loved by people, she's cared for, she's, she's-'
'Save your poetry for feminine ears,' Nicholas dismissed coolly, barely managing to hide his growing anger at the man's words. 'You'll need it. I'll not ask you again. Give me your answer.'
'But – but why must I attempt to appeal to Amelia? What good what it do for you?' Cole rubbed at his temple in distress.
'And here I always thought of you as an intelligent man.' Nicholas scoffed.
'Lara,' he murmured. 'You want to – to appeal to her. Lure her to you. Show her you're not a monster,' the last was said with bitterness. 'Yes. I remember my lessons well.' He looked away as shameful memories goaded him.
'In so many words,' Nicholas lifted his shoulders in mild agreement, unruffled and sardonic once more, his previous spurt of harshness tempered. 'This fettered room disgusts me, Morely, I'll not stay another moment. You have until Thursday. That gives you three days and you were always very efficient with time-keeping. Hyde Park, I think. I relish the idea of her coming to me so...so boldly,' Nicholas gave a quick, wide, smile at that. 'Until then. Friend.'
'What time?' Cole finally found himself asking in self-loathing after what seemed like an age. But as he looked up it was to find himself alone.
'Is it Miles? It's Miles, isn't it? That was so unlike him to talk to you so bitingly...but I suppose weeks of being snubbed-'
'Amelia, it's not Miles. It's the lack of sleep. The season can't end soon enough.'
Somewhat startled at the response, Amelia was silent for a moment. They were currently sitting in the day room, forced inside by the torrential rain. So far this morning, Lara had received three gentleman callers, Miles Grantly being the last. After that particular meeting, Amelia had instructed a maid to inform future callers that Lara would not be receiving them. She had anticipated a scathing comment from Lara for her high-handedness but rather, the girl had seemed relieved.
And now here they sat, Lara so still and distant that it perturbed - usually it was she who offered half-hearted responses to an enthused and impatient Lara.
'I know – why don't we go to Piccadilly when the rain lets up? We can go for lemon ices at-'
'Please, Amelia. If you don't mind, I think I'd rather be alone for the rest of the afternoon. Perhaps I'll have a little nap.'
'But you never nap.'
'Mmm. I find myself rather tired. Didn't I say so? Exhausted, even.'
Rising slowly, Lara bestowed a vague smile on her seated companion before departing on an equally as slow dread.
Amelia blinked as the door closed behind Lara in a whisper of pale yellow chiffon. Something wasn't right. Perhaps Miles really had hurt her feelings? That in itself would be a feat considering how biting and cool Lara could be.
Roused from her thoughts by a patient scratching on the door indicating an inquiring maid, Amelia gave an appropriate response and listened to the approaching Margaret with half an ear.
'- shall I send him on in here or perhaps the-'
'Margaret,' Amelia frowned in mild chastisement. 'I thought I informed that there were to be no callers today?'
'But, miss,' Margaret's eyes were wide with slight insistence. 'He wishes to see you – and you said-'
Amelia groaned silently. 'Oh, bother. I bet it's Richard. I knew I shouldn't have danced with him last night but mother insisted...' she looked up as she realised the maid still lingered. 'Well, I've nothing else to occupy my time with. And I suppose he was mildly interesting.'
Margaret tittered in amusement at Amelia's teasing smile and left on a quick tread to do her bidding.
Rising quickly, Amelia surveyed her appearance in the gilded mirror above the large fireplace and made a dissatisfied moue at her hair. Well, she would do for the purpose of pretending to be ever so interested whilst internally wishing she could die.
At the sound of the door opening behind her, she turned, smoothing her skirts with a subtle hand.
'Don't send me away.'
At the quick plea, Amelia darted a desperate eye towards the door Margaret had just closed behind her guest and took a steadying breath.
'Well,' she said after a short silence. 'I suppose you'll prove a mildly more interesting companion that Richard Hartley. But do get on with it.'
Cole frowned a little at the proud tilt of Amelia's head. She'd recovered her composure far too quickly for his liking. Perhaps after all...perhaps he really had meant little to her which would mean the demon had lied about her feelings for him. Not that he would ever be so fool enough to trust him.
'Can I – Can we sit?' he gestured vaguely, a cool sweat breaking out over his body at the withdrawal from his daily drink.
'If you wish,' Amelia nodded and approached the light pink chaise, seating herself opposite him.
He cringed at the unguarded look of shock she threw over him as she gained closer inspection.
'You're lucky my father isn't in residence,' she said then in conversational tones. 'He may be mad as hatter these days but I assure you he'd be cognizant enough to ensure that you left a little less able-bodied.' At the man's silence, Amelia added, 'Are you ill, Cole?'
'Yes,' he found himself answering automatically but when he looked up and saw the probing look in her eyes at his admission he added quickly, 'It's a prolonged ailment but it eases daily.'
'Why have you come?' Amelia returned briskly, her eyes slipping away to focus over his shoulder.
'To ask you – no, to explain-'
'And I informed you time and time again throughout your desperate appeals that I was not interested in an explanation.'
Cole nodded at that. 'But I've come again to chance it – you see, I'm going away soon. From London. I wanted to make things right before I left for good.'
'Things will never be right,' Amelia said with cold civility. 'You betrayed me – and my family. You disgust me, Cole. And now you return here to grovel for my time. It's truly pathetic.'
'I disgust myself,' Cole replied without hesitation. 'You will never know – but, I'm getting away from the subject. I must explain to you how I came to know Nicholas-'
'How dare you speak that filth's name in my house!' Amelia rose shakily and as Cole joined her she considered hitting him hard across that still handsome face with the gaudy heavy bronze ornament resting on the lamp table.
'You must hear me out!' Cole chanced a hand on her slim, silk clad arm but cringed as Amelia threw a disgusted look at his transgression. 'I made a bargain with the demon. I bargained off her life to him.'
'Her?' Amelia said sharply, her attention moving from his grasp to his intense regard.
Looking her squarely in the eye for the first time since he had entered the room, Cole nodded and said firmly, 'My daughter.'
'Oh, God! You – you're married? Well, I don't know why I'm surprised but then there you have it! I always was a fool.' Amelia shook her head in self-loathing, sinking into her seat once more and staring hard at Cole's scuffed boots.
'I'm not married,' Cole said quietly. 'Abbey – my daughter...I was young, barely out of university but her mother died in childbirth. I was so careless and when she told me she was with child I – well I sent her away.'
'My father said it was the life of the first born,' Amelia muttered. 'That's why it was Lara the demon wanted and not I – you swine, you bargained with your child's life!' Amelia panted.
'Yes,' Cole swallowed to ease his burning throat. 'Yes, I did. I was desperate,' he looked at her in appeal, desperate for her to see. 'I didn't consider what it would mean. The entire ordeal seems completely unreal as we talk about so casually in the here and now...my brother was dying, Amelia. He and I...we were all each other had. And it was my fault. I neglected him. I managed to gain sponsorship to study, to create a comfortable life for myself and in exchange I discarded Ethan, subjecting him to a life of certain deprivation and worse. When I came to learn he was dying I couldn't accept it ...and then Nicholas offered me a choice. When you're a child you believe so strongly about the creatures hiding in the alley, the evil's that lurk behind dark corners, waiting to demolish you. But then you grow older and you accept that there's nothing behind the corners, that the evil's the church ministers speak of are merely a tool of keeping naïve fools God fearing. How wrong we are to accept so blindly.'
'I – I didn't know you had a brother.'
Startled at that particular response, Cole ran quick eyes over Amelia's taut form and continued in cautious tones, wondering if there was a chance she still cared, cared enough to question instead of dismiss and send him away, at least. 'Yes – a twin at that.'
'I had wondered. About you, when we were...' Amelia stopped abruptly, pain coming into her eyes and then his prior suspicions were confirmed and a thrill of pained pleasure ran through him. 'You never spoke of your family.'
'That's because I had no family – Ethan and I were raised in a home for the unfortunates. I was never the well to do man I presented myself as. My youth would sicken you. I did things I'm not proud of in order to survive.'
In strained tones, Amelia asked, 'Where is he now? Your brother? Is he alive?'
'Oh, yes. He's still in Birmingham.'
'And was it worth it, Cole? Your daughter's life for his?'
Breathing harshly at the condemnation on the pure profile presented to him, Cole said, 'I can't answer that. But she lives, Amelia – you see, I couldn't go through with it, not when the Demon came to collect. He waited five years. Five years in which an insignificant child in the womb became a person I had come to care for, who relied on me for her very life when her mother passed. In exchange for my refusal to hand her to him I became his slave. The punishment for breaking our bargain. Your father – well, you know about his transgressions. Except, Nicholas forgo exacting punishment on him as you well know. I was sent here in the guise of your father's lawyer and accountant to observe. To observe you. The commodity so easily bargained off by your father. I didn't know then what I know now, that it was Lara who was his first born. No one did. Your father hid his tracks very well until the very last.'
The truth of the words was a sickening pain in her gut. 'And observe you did all to well.'
In frustration, Cole began, 'Yes, at first. But then I came to know you and-'
At the end of her frayed nerves, Amelia stopped him short. 'I've heard enough. I was nothing more than a convenient whore to you and we both know it! A whore until I could be slaughtered,' unmindful of who might hear what, she continued, inflamed beyond all reason, hurt and sick with it, 'Lord knows I didn't suffer for it in the end. You truly were the best lover I've yet to have and I'll not be so petty as to deny that.'
At her words, Cole's cheekbones developed a red tint and it was a sizable silence before he replied. 'I'm saddened that that's the way you view our time together.'
Amelia reddened somewhat in sympathy to Cole's flushed face but for an all too different reason. He sounded not unlike a stern governess giving her a good chastising and for the briefest moment he was Cole again, her Cole. A little stoic, forever proper and wonderful. But that had all just been an illusion, a fabricated persona to dupe her. As he spoke again, Amelia found she could not meet his eyes.
'I'm saddened because I fell in love with you not long after we were acquainted. Well before we became lovers and before you stopped looking at me as though I was a lowly consideration, well beneath your pretty feet. You were right, of course, to have felt like that. You just never knew how low at that point. But this is the truth: I wouldn't have allowed him to harm you. I would have done anything in my power. I love you still.'
Patently ignoring the words that she would replay continually from this moment onwards, Amelia replied with rejection in her every movement, her very tone. 'So, you came to relieve me of your guilty conscience – so why do you linger? Leave and don't think to return. Next time you do, I'll have you escorted from here via the back entrance.'
Forcefully, Cole took her hand and said, 'No, Amelia. No, not yet. I came for that and to warn you.' he paused at the immediately guarded look that entered Amelia's eyes. 'Keep Lara safe. Take her away from London and – and for God's sake do whatever you have to do to ensure it. Come Thursday, he will be expecting her to meet him. Hyde Park, he said.'
Amelia shook her head slightly. 'You mean to say he - Oh, God, no...' Amelia uttered, her ears ringing so that whatever Cole said in reply, she missed.
'You can't waste a moment; do you understand what I'm telling you? Create whatever sob story you can to win your mother round. Just get yourselves away from London!'
'But, Cole,' Amelia said in bemused tones, not feeling his firm grip and wondering why he was telling her this when the obvious lingered clear in the air. 'There's nowhere we can go where she will be safe.'