The woman on the balcony had been a candle’s light in the night. She had flickered bright against the abyss of the night; darkening everything else the longer you stared at her. The lamps indoors and outside had cast shadows compared to her bright brilliance. Embarrassment flooded The Duke of Portland as he realized how he had been drawn to her like a moth to a flame. He was grown man for pities sake he knew how odious an infatuation could be. He ought to have known how to recognize and eradicate it. He hadn’t though, though. He stood there like a fool gawking at her and now he replayed that look she gave the sky and the way she had seductively closed her eyes and suck in the crisp night air.
‘A fool, a fool! you fool,’ the duke thought to himself over and over try to shirk some of his irritation. He told himself he was angry for falling into the temptresses trap. He railed in his mind that she was an improper trollop and guarded his heart with hate to try and dispel his fascination with the woman, whoever she was. However, even after deciding she was a loathsome woman, the woman’s wide-eyed gaze would pop up in his memories. His thoughts would then turn to worry. He worried about evoking a negative reaction from that woman. He wanted her happy for some reason and he wanted to be the object of her affections. He made a mental to apologize to her for his lack of impropriety at the ball. With that solution in place his mind seemed to ease a bit.
The duke thought his heart had settled finally, but thoughts of her surfaced again, this time tainted with worry. The mysterious letters and the threats the woman had implied still lingered. He had met with his supposed wife, Anna Druce, before stumbling upon his angle in yellow. The woman had threatened to go to the papers if he did not claim her son and elevate him to the status her deserved. Having never met the woman before then and having no recollection of siring a son he had declined. He would have to deal with the mess before approaching the lady in yellow. He did not want to embroil the young woman into scandal.
The silent war waging in him finally surfaced to reality, “Damn it to hell,” He cursed abruptly, making his clerk jump in alarm. He looked out the window and gave a dismissive hand gesture at the clerk, “leave me for now! We will finish this tomorrow.”
The clerk had already been on the way to the exit long before his master’s dismissal. He had heard of the duke’s mood swings and he feared being burned to death like the stable boys had, or at least that is what he had heard from talk in the village. The Clerk did not want to stay and find out.
The clerk was almost safely to the door when the duke snapped his fingers, “Miss Auckland is what Sir Charles had called her.” He said almost seeming to talk to himself. The clerk felt like he was in a bad dream, where his mind knew he needed to go faster but his body was stuck going slow.
“Mr. Andrews, what do you know of the Auckland family?” The clerk turned to see the duke bent over his desk bracing his bulky strong frame on the tips of his fingers. A wicked demonic glint shown in the duke’s eyes. The clerk gulped sure, then, that he was trapped in a bad dream for the duke looked positively demonic dressed in a black and inquiring after innocent souls.
Andrews scoured his mind wondering why his master wanted such information so he would know how to present it best to the duke, “Um,” Andrews squeaked, “They are a proper family, with no scandal, but they are of low ranking and little in the way of fortune.” He paused when he saw the shadows in the duke’s face darken even further, “I, I,” Andrews stammered trying to think of what else he might know, “I believe they have a daughter, who was introduced to society a few seasons ago.”
The Duke’s head snapped at that bit of information, “What is her name?”
“I am not sure, My Lord,” the man wheezed.
“hum,” The duke purred. Darkness imitated from him as he plopped back into his chair to brood. He was almost lost to his thoughts, but his clerk retreat interrupted him. Before his clerk could scurry away he bellowed out, “Mr. Andrews, find out where she will be next.”
That evening the duke dressed down to a commoner’s attire so that he could go into the Bull’s head pub on the wharf without standing out. He had a shipment to check up on and he did not want to go as himself. He liked to sneak about and find out what was going on in his absence.
He sat in the corner, a bolder hat covering his brow and casting his features in shadow. He watched the captain of his cargo ship from under the brim. The captain was doing nothing to alarm the duke. When the captain was finally taken by his cups and incoherently slurring, the duke made his retreat.
He paid the barmaid and slipped out towards the wharf. He headed towards his ship docked not too far from the pub. It was almost invisible between the darkness of the night and the fog coming off the river. The vessel bumped and creaked like it was its very own ghost and the duke had to suck in a fortifying breath to steady himself. He was no coward, but ominous dark nights like the one he was in had never led him to anything good. All the same he wanted to see how well the captain had left the vessel manned. He did want to keep a negligent drunk in his employ, nor did he want to see any of his wares pilfered.
The blackness of the night seemed to suck up all but those eerie noises coming from his ship, which was good for his intelligence gathering. He melted into the shadows, something he had become well practiced in after his years of gathering intelligence for her majesty’s royal army. He then matched his heavy foot falls with the boats knocking on the docks.
In all of his trapesing he saw not a soul as he made it to the top deck of his ship. He had inspected every inch of the deck before a deep snore pierced the air making him jump. He looked around at first not understanding what the noise was. The snore rang out again. The duke took a lamp from the captains door and waved it about looking for the culprit. He found the feet of the sleeping dangling from the lookout nest in the rigging.
The duke pursed his lips and rolled his eyes. ‘Idiots,’ he thought as wondered how he would start the letter he was going to be leaving on the captain’s desk. He was about to go below deck and see how cozy the rest of the crew was when a figure appeared on the gangplank. It looked to be a scrawny young boy with canvas bag. The duke looked around frantically. He did not want to be scene or interact with anyone unless he had to. He preferred to keep thing impersonal when doing business.
The boy seeing him had slowed and tired to back away. Too late the duke had been seen and he was now curious, so he gave up his spying, “Boy? State your business.”
The boy squeaked and turned. He went from walking backwards to running forwards and away from the duke. The duke sucked in a breath. Something was up and nights like those attracted such sinisterness. He made chase for the boy and caught up to him in only a few strikes.
The pack the boy was carrying had ripped tripping up the boys legs causing him to splatter across the cobblestones. The boys hat fell off and cascades of silky auburn hair spilled out. The duke gasped realizing it was no boy. He instantly wondered disapprovingly if the crew were bringing hookers onto his ship. The mix of women’s and men’s clothing in the bag only led to confuse him more.
He picked the girl up by the shoulders and gave her a sake, “What is the meaning of this?” he scowled at her.
Tears pricked her big brown eyes. He was looking at her now in the light and there was something familiar about her. She sucked in breath to stanch a wail. There was nothing she could say to get herself out of whatever trouble was about to befall her. There was no decorous way to explain the situation and she figured it would not bode well for her to tell the man she was trying to sneak on a ship and become a stowaway.
The mood peaked out from the clouds above illuminating her captors face. Dawning drew across her face and without thinking she said, “Lord John?”
The sternness lapsed from his face a moment as he was taken by astonishment. “Lady Auckland!? What are you doing here?” before she had time to answer everything clicked into place. Her clothes we mixed because she planned on stowing away. Anger and worry for her caught him up and he shook her again, “Do you have any idea how dangerous it is out here? This is no place for a lady!” He bellowed.
Tears threatened her eyes again, but she said nothing on the subject. It infuriated him and also enforced his want to protect her. “I will have to take you home lady,” He was instantly lost in thought on how to get her back home without compromising her. The last thing he needed was 2 scandals on his hands. He had thought her lovely yes, but marriage was not something he wished to engage her in yet. He also did not want to bring her into his fold till he had taken care of Miss Anna Druce.
The woman’s cheeks heated, and she tore away from him, still trying to flee. Miss Auckland was embarrassed at being caught and she did not want to go home. She did not want to explain it to the gentleman either. He caught her before she could even get up to a run and held her at her waist.
In a deep gravely voice he cooed, “This is rather improper Lady Auckaland.”
Her stomach did flips as his blood boiled in want, but both tried to remain aloof to their impending attraction and opted for reason. Defeated Lady Auckaland slumped, “Then let go over me Lord John. I promise to go home, and I hope that we may never speak of this again.”
“Lady, this neighborhood is dangerous, and I would prefer to deliver you back to safety and as far keeping this a secret I think your family should know about your galivanting.” He lectured.
It was unfair Lady Auckaland thought as she was reduced to pleading, “Please sir,” she begged and bargained, “I will go with you willingly, but please I beg you do not tell my family.”
She looked so beautiful to the duke, and he found himself to his surprise saying, “and what will you give me for your silence?”
She shook her head. She had nothing to give, “What do you want?” she whispered feebly.
The Duke was swept up by the opportunity, “A kiss,” he found himself saying without thought.
Auckaland’s eyes widened as she weighed her options and the duke worried he had crossed a line. He was about to take it back and swear his silence for free when she arched up on tippy toes and pecked his cheek.