Excerpt: Lord Lightning

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EXCERPT from Lord Lightning

[Eliza Farrell, a gently raised lady down on her luck, has deeply offended a notorious libertine, Lord Hartwood, by giving his mistress astrological counsel that has convinced her to leave him. To add to her sins, she told his ex-mistress that despite the wretched reputation—his shocking behavior has led society to nickname him “Lord Lightning—Lord Hartwood’s astrological chart reveals that he is a man who was born to love. Now, she stands alone on the street, broke and without any idea of what to do next.]

     But just as she stepped out onto the pavement, she felt a strong, gloved hand come from behind her and grasp her by the arm. It pulled her toward the large closed carriage emblazoned with a crest that waited some dozen yards down the alley. She struggled to free herself and was about to cry out for assistance when a cultivated voice growled into her ear, “Do not attempt to resist me, my pretty one. If you do as I bid, I will not harm you.”
     She recognized the voice—and she recognized the sense of drama. It was Lord Hartwood.
     As he drew her toward the carriage, a liveried postillion glided toward it and opened the door smoothly, allowing her captor to shove her inside. Then the elegant lord clambered in, taking a seat at the far end of the deeply upholstered bench as the coach door shut with a well-oiled click. He signaled to the coachman with a single rap on the compartment’s roof and the carriage began to move.
     She was being abducted! She knew she should be alarmed. But as she breathed in the aroma of well-oiled leather and the subtler scent of the varnished burled maple paneling that surrounded her, it was not alarm she felt, but relief. For a few moments longer she could postpone facing the fact that she had nowhere to live, no one to turn to, and four pence ha’penny with which to plan her future. It was even possible that despite his cynical pose, Lord Hartwood had been so impressed by her earlier reading of his character that he wished to know more. Had she found a patron after all—one capable of showering her with the golden guineas needed to stave off disaster?
     But one look at her abductor dispelled that notion. A sneer darkened his eyes and narrowed the sensuous lips that in other circumstances might have been described as inviting. His eyes drilled into hers, and suddenly she knew why they called him Lord Lightning. His eyes raked up and down her slender figure, lingering on the bodice of her dress as if with his gaze alone he could divest her of that garment. Eliza shrank away from him, sliding toward the other end of the bench and raised one hand protectively in front of her chest.
     “Lord Hartwood—” she began, but he cut her words short.
     “Did your fortune-telling tricks not warn you to beware of a man with fair hair? Were you not cautioned to make no short journeys? Or do you read the stars only for those you attempt to bilk?”
     “What do you mean?”
     “You will address me as ‘Your Lordship,’” he admonished her. “And you will remember at all times the respect owed to my rank. What’s your name, young woman?”
     “Miss Farrell, Your Lordship.”
     “Well then, Miss Farrell, you’ve greatly displeased me with your damnable interference in my life. Now that you are completely in my power, I’ll make sure you don’t play such tricks again. Would you like to consult the stars to find out what I have planned for you? Will your almanac teach you how to escape me?”
     His vehemence caused his snuffbox to slip from his pocket and roll onto the floor, but he did not stop to pick it up. “But of course, you wouldn’t consult the stars to learn your own fate,” he taunted. “You’re a fraud, some scullery maid looking for easy money—no, you speak too well to be a scullery maid—a lady’s maid perhaps. But whoever you are, I’ve had enough of your meddling.”
     At these words, something in Eliza snapped. The nerve of the man. Calling her a jumped up lady’s maid? She who was a direct descendent of England’s finest astrologer!
     “I am no fraud,” she retorted. “I was trained in the practice of astrology by my Aunt Celestina who studied with her father, who was William Lilly’s great-grandson. Your insults can mean nothing to me.”
     “Surely,” Lord Hartwood responded in an unpleasant tone, “though my insults may mean nothing, you must fear for your safety at my hands.” And with that, he reached out one languid hand and caressed her thigh. A shock ran through her body. No man had ever touched her in such a brazen way. She twisted her neck sharply, pulling away from him. The man was impossible. It was time to put an end to his nonsense.
     “Your Lordship,” she snapped, “I, too, have read the novels of Mr. Richardson, which you have apparently confused with real life. Had you not caused me so much distress just now in the theater, I might find your posturing amusing. But though you may have the reputation of a Lovelace, I am no Clarissa. I am a woman of some nine-and-twenty years, quite past my prime, with my living to be earned, no thanks to you. And you have caused me quite enough trouble for one day.”
     “Surely,” Lord Hartwood said, his hard look now replaced by something very akin to amusement, “though not Clarissa, you must owe me a little bit of terror. After all, I do have you in my power.”
     “Oh don’t be silly,” Eliza countered. “We read Miss Austen now, not Mr. Richardson, and the ladies in our modern novels only run off with bounders when they fall prey to their devastating charm—not because some man drags them off in a closed carriage.”
     “I am abashed, madam,” replied Lord Hartwood, “to find you do not consider my charm to be devastating.”
     “I have no idea if your charm is devastating or not, for you have favored me only with your bad temper. Though, on reflection, I’d imagine you have charm enough when you choose to use it—at least, you would if you really have the Libra ascendant that’s on the chart I drew up for you.”
     Lord Hartwood lifted one pale eyebrow. “So you truly believe that drivel you spouted to Violet? You actually think you can divine my character with your mystical documents?”
     “There is no need for you to insult my art,” Eliza said firmly. As she spoke, a part of her watched in astonishment as she administered a set down to a man who was, after all, a powerful nobleman. He, too, appeared to be astonished. His deep brown eyes had widened and he was clearly having trouble maintaining the harsh expression the role he had taken on required. He removed his beaver hat with a flourish, revealing a startling mass of pale, tousled curls, and said in an ironic tone, “Accept my apologies, madam. In the future I shall refer to your art only with the greatest respect.”
     “Thank you, Your Lordship. I am glad to hear it. But I am annoyed with you, too. I so badly needed the money Violet had promised me for my help. And I would have earned it, too, were it not for you. It was what I told her about your character that ruined everything.”
     “But what you said was all so complimentary.” The expression of amusement still flickered across Lord Hartwood’s sensual lips. “I found it refreshing to hear myself described in such unfamiliar terms. A kind and thoughtful lover. A man who lives for love. I’m more accustomed to being compared to Byron—though my crimes are mild compared to what he’s accused of.”
     “Of course they are,” Eliza said brusquely. “Lord Byron’s chart is far more afflicted than yours. I’ve studied it.”
     But then she remembered with a pang that the birth time she had for the incestuous poet was accurate, coming as it did from Lord Byron’s mother who had consulted Aunt Celestina for help in governing her unruly son. She had no such certainty about the accuracy of the horoscope she had erected for Lord Hartwood. In fact, it was probably wrong.
     She sighed. “In truth, I have my doubts about the information I was given about your birth. My interpretation would not have seemed so wrong to those who know you if the information you’d given Violet was correct. But if you had deceived her, it would explain why they laughed at the character I gave you.”
     Lord Lightning’s eyebrows rose. “Do you have the effrontery to accuse me of dishon-esty?”
     As anger flooded over her captor’s handsome features once again, Eliza remembered he’d also earned a reputation for being a fearsome duelist. Had she not been a woman she was sure he would have slapped a glove against her face and demanded she meet him at noon in some remote spot where he could put a bullet through her.
     “I accuse you of nothing,” she protested hastily. “But it was dreadful to be held up to ridicule like that when I so badly needed patrons. And I can’t believe I would have so misread your character if the birth information Harriet gave me had been accurate.”
     His lips tight, Lord Hartwood said, “I was born on the twenty-ninth of July in the year ‘85. Exactly as I told Violet. There would be no point in lying. I’m the son of a nobleman. The circumstances of my birth are a matter of public record.”
     “And the time of your birth?”
     “At half past ten in the morning.”
     “How do you know that?”
     He stretched out one long and elegant hand, drawing her attention to the lace peeping out at his cuff and the heavy signet ring he wore on his third finger. “I was born the son of a baron, a possible heir, so these things were noted carefully. And besides, my mother always used to complain that I had interrupted her plans for the morning with my inconvenient appearance in her life.”
     “If that is so, then the date and time I used to construct your horoscope were correct, and my interpretation of your character must be accurate, too, no matter what Violet might have said.” After giving this a moment’s consideration, she continued, “But it is strange that Violet, a woman who has been so intimate with you, should have preferred to hear something to your disadvantage.”
     “Yes, very strange indeed,” Lord Hartwood said, his lips tight.
     “She said you were cold and heartless. But that cannot possibly be true. You were born while Libra was rising in the sky—the sign ruled by Venus, planet of love, and besides, at your birth the Sun was in the sign of Leo which alone would give you a need for love far stronger than that of most other men.”
     “Perhaps Violet could not see those aspects of my nature because she has not your gift of prophecy.” Lord Hartwood said quietly, “Though, of course, there’s another explanation. One you may have overlooked. Perhaps she learned something about my character in the six months she spent living under my protection. Perhaps they taught her that I am, in fact, a cold and heartless man. You would have been well-advised to have paid some slight attention to the unsavory reputation I acquired over the past fifteen years.”
     Then, as if to punctuate his words, Lord Hartwood rapped on the front wall of the carriage, and the coachman whipped the horses into a gallop.
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