Disclaimer: This is an unedited content. As much as the author tries to post only clean content, it might contain typos, grammatical or punctuation errors.
Trigger warning: Some chapters of this Serial Novel might include adult content, strong language, violence and other disturbing materials. Reader discretion is advised.
Blake heard a clink of metal as he tried to move his hands. Right, he was shackled. He almost forgot. His head lolled forward as it was too heavy for his neck to hold upright. He opened his eyelids and saw his bare chest covered in dirt and blood, with slash marks and burns all over his flesh. His breeches were likewise torn and frayed. At least they were still keeping him modest. He heard a menacing snort and raised his head.
“Passed out again, mate?” said the man in front of him.
He was a big man, over six feet tall, broad shouldered and with fists like sledgehammers. His long hair was dirty and covered with blood, probably Blake’s, his clothing filthy and disarranged. He was holding a small hammer and a tall, dirty, rusty nail in his hands.
“I need you awake,” he growled between his brown, crooked teeth. “So you can tell me what you know about them shadows. Otherwise—” He looked appreciatively at his nail and rotated it between his fingers. A not too subtle gesture meant to convey exactly what would happen to Blake if he didn’t divulge the information the bandit wanted from him. The bandit shrugged his enormous shoulders, bringing the nail and a hammer into the thin line of light cracking through the veiled window, making the instruments glint ominously.
Blake felt sweat running down his forehead and the back of his neck. The sight of that rusty nail alone would make Blake blab all the secret in the World, even if he hadn’t already endured hours of torture. The trouble was, Blake had no idea what the foul smelling ruffian wanted from him. He was prattling on about some covert group of criminals called The Shadows. Blathering on about how nobody knew who their leader was and where they were based. And somehow he thought that Blake had answers to these questions. Well, Blake hadn’t.
He tried pleading ignorance. He tried professing innocence, denying any knowledge of The Shadows and anything related to them, but it did no good. In fact, it only made things worse, since his captor enjoyed making him cry and beg. The nail and hammer were only the latest additions to other cruel implements the thug used on Blake’s body. Besides that, he was starved and showered exclusively with ice-cold water.
Blake quickly learned that keeping silent was the only way to lessen the abuse inflicted by his tormentor. That knowledge, however, didn’t prevent his limbs from trembling and his throat from making small, pathetic mewling sounds in terror. He shut his eyes tightly, so he wouldn’t see his knees shaking in trepidation.
“You not speaking again,” the thug continued his monologue. “Which means only one thing.”
He advanced on Blake, kneeled in front of him, and Blake felt the nail being placed right below his kneecap. Blake tried to pull his leg away with a whimper, but he was shackled to the floor by the ankle and the movement only caused him pain. He gritted his teeth and started breathing frantically in panic.
“The Shadows, mate.”
Blake opened his eyes and saw the thug looking up at him. Then he suggestively placed a hammer to the bud of the nail and lifted his eyebrows.
“No?” The thug lifted the hammer, preparing for the swing, not taking his eyes off Blake.
Blake awakened from his sleep with a start. Cold sweat was running from his forehead and temples and down his face. He was breathing heavily, as if he ran for miles. His hand automatically moved and caressed his numb knee. He looked around the dark room. The sounds of the waves crashing against the outer walls were soothing on his raw nerves. He was lying on the floor, his limbs swaying intact with the ship. It was just a dream. He was safe.
Blake ran his hand against his sweaty forehead, then scrubbed his palm down his face. As he moved his hand even lower, he encountered the old chain around his neck. He tugged on it until he reached a small locket pendant. He opened the locket and peered into its contents. Blake couldn’t see well in an almost complete darkness, but he didn’t have to. He knew what he’d find there. A portrait of a beautiful young lady, his wife.
If it were light enough, he’d see her innocent face staring directly at him. He’d see her golden locks collected at the top of her head in a neat chignon, her lush mouth in a sensual pout. She didn’t mean the pose to be seductive, but it was seductive nonetheless. Blake closed the locket and held it protectively in his tight fist, clutching it to his chest. He’d be back soon. He’d be reunited with his beautiful Annalise and everything would be all right once again.
Annalise sat on the bed in her white chemise, staring into the fire. The flames danced in the hearth, licking at the walls, crackling softly and bathing the room with a faint glow. A light smile played about her lips. It was the day of her betrothal ball. The second one in her lifetime and, she hoped, the last. She shivered a little thinking about it and shook her head.
“Are you cold, My Lady?” called out her lady’s maid, Ruth. “Here, we better clothe you quick.” The maid handed Annalise her stockings and she diligently put them on. The white silk was cool against her warm skin, but the sensation was not unpleasant. She took the garter from her maid’s hands, wrapped it at her thigh and tied it in a knot.
Ruth had dressed her to her first betrothal ball too. She was also the one who readied her for her wedding day and wedding night. Annalise remembered her first betrothal ball and how excited she was that day. Hopping as if on clouds, happy, starry-eyed, young and oh, so naïve. She shook her head from the memories. This time would be different. At the very least, she knew what waited for her on her wedding night. And she knew the man she was marrying this time. Or so she hoped.
Kensington was a nice, reliable gentleman. She had known him her entire life, and he’d always been there for her. He was her friend. She knew that after the previous disaster of a marriage, this was exactly what she needed. Somehow it still felt very wrong.
Ruth brought her the stays. Annalise stood and placed her hands on the back of the chair as Ruth helped her into them and started vigorously tightening up the knots at the back. The new gown Annalise had ordered for the ball had a tiny waist, and she needed the stays to be tightened stiffly in order for her to get into it successfully. As Ruth worked her stays, Annalise pondered that she should feel suffocated and out of breath, but the more layers of clothing she put on, the lighter she felt. As if each piece signified the next step in her life, carrying her away from the sordid memories of the past.
Ruth brought the overskirts and Annalise stepped into them, staring blankly into the hearth. She loved Blake, she really did, and perhaps she always would. But she knew that she would have been miserable with him. She was miserable with him. Now she had a chance of a quiet, comfortable life with her good friend.
Only one thing made her pause in the arrangement. She’d have to lie with Kensington in order for her to have children. Annalise grimaced. She wasn’t looking forward to spending her nights with him—with anyone really—although the alternative, the childless future, appealed to her even less. Having babies, raising children, having someone to love would make her life meaningful and fulfilling, wouldn’t it? That was the principal purpose of her existence, after all. To bring about the heirs to her husband’s title. She frowned at the thought.
Ruth brought her the bodice, and Annalise donned it before looking down at her attire. She was wearing a beautiful pink gown with golden embroidered ornaments on the bodice and the edge of her skirts. The sleeves hugged her arms up to her elbows and then flared and ruffled at the ends. She closed her eyes. The icy blue gown she wore for her first betrothal ball flashed before her eyes. She remembered how her eyes shone with happiness in the looking glass. Annalise had to shake her head again. There was no need for these memories invading her tonight. She opened her eyes and forced herself to smile at her own reflection.
“Will that be all, My Lady?” Ruth asked from behind her.
“Yes, Ruth, thank you.” Annalise swallowed, still regarding herself in the looking glass. Her maid curtsied and hurried out of the room. Annalise slowly ventured toward her vanity table. She picked up her white gloves and slowly drew them on. Her fingers trembled as she fastened her gloves over her arms. Tonight, she would officially become the future duchess of Kensington.
Blake stepped off the ship and onto the firm land for the first time in what seemed like forever. His heart rate sped up and his breathing roughened as the heady feeling of joy assailed him. He looked around the moving crowds of people. The shouts from the surrounding passers-by, the sounds of his native accent, even if spoken by common street boys and dirty workers warmed his heart. He nearly dropped to his knees and kissed the ground at that moment. Tears burned at the backs of his eyelids and were threatening to overflow through the corners of his eyes. Blake swallowed and took a steadying breath, managing his emotions. He was home. He was finally back home.
Blake rushed through the crowd, looking for the hackney coaches, unable to hold his smile. He patted his pocket to make sure he hadn’t lost his purse with coins in his excitement and hurried his steps. He seemed to forget all about his numb knee, all about his muscle aches and bruises. All the worries vanished. He shouldered his way out of the docks, not looking back, not even sparing a glance at the ship, at the life he’d never asked for and was finally leaving behind.
Several moments later, he successfully hailed the hackney and sprung inside.
“Payne townhouse,” he shouted to the coachman and thumped the roof of the carriage. The vehicle lurched into motion and Blake rested his head against the seat cushions and closed his eyes. He couldn’t help but grin, taking in the familiar sounds of a rattling carriage and horse hooves, the comforting smells of horses and of carriage’s leather seats. He reached his hand inside his coat pocket and took out his locket. His smile turned gentle as he rubbed the miniature inside the locket with his thumb. Somber blue eyes of his lovely wife were staring at him from the portrait. How was his little wife, he wondered for a millionth time as he looked at her dear face. What had become of her? Did she mourn him still? Was she even still in his townhouse or at one of his estates?
In Blake’s absence, his cousin, Marcus, would have taken hold of the title and his estates. But Blake was sure he would never eject his wife. Although he worried whether she was adequately provided for or not. He hadn’t exactly left his affairs in order when he disappeared. Neither of it mattered anymore, however. He was back and he would find Annalise wherever she was. He would find her, hug her close to his heart and never let her go.
By the time he rolled along the streets of his townhouse, the sun was already setting. Blake could still see the outlines of houses clearly through the carriage window. He held the curtain in one hand while he openly gawked at the familiar street, swallowing back the overwhelming emotions. He knew this place like the back of his hand, perhaps better. Several more houses and—
The carriage slowed down considerably at that moment, moving so slowly, in fact, it might as well have halted. Blake scowled at the wall separating him from the coachman, wondering what could possibly stall their progress. It didn’t matter, Blake thought, he might as well walk the rest of the way. He thumped the roof of the carriage and opened the door without waiting for it to stop.
“Oy,” he yelled to the coachman. “I will disembark here.”
He jumped out of the carriage without waiting for the step to be lowered and threw several coins to the coachman. He tipped his hat and glanced ahead. Now that he was out on the street, he saw why the carriage was moving at the snail pace. There was a traffic jam. Several more carriages waited on the street while passengers descended from their vehicles and entered the house down the street. There was a ball, he thought, judging by the crowd. Blake smirked. He wasn’t looking forward to socializing or encountering crowds of people. Not just crowds. He didn’t want to see anyone, except for his lovely wife, although he couldn’t help but rejoice at the familiar view of aristocrats attending a social event.
He moved slowly toward his own townhouse, looking around at the richly dressed lords and ladies as they passed him in the expensive carriages. He probably looked like a beggar, he thought wryly as he caught some disgruntled looks. In his sailor’s outfit, he did not look like an earl at all. At the moment, however, he didn’t care. Let them gawk all they want. Nothing could dim the happiness of finally being back home. Blake smiled as he moved along the street.
Several moments later, however, his amusement faded as he realized that all the richly dressed lords and ladies were mounting the steps to his townhouse. It seemed like his wife was having a party. The thought sent an unpleasant pang through his heart. He’d been away for longer than a year, and it was natural that she’d be out of mourning. But a ball? Blake closed his eyes and cringed at the uncharitable thought. He couldn’t as well expect her to stop living. He’d been away for 14 months 17 days and—he looked at the watch—ten hours after all. His knee started aching suddenly as the weariness of his long journey finally started setting in, but he shook himself. The journey wasn’t over yet. He needed to hold on for a little while longer. Then he would see his wife. She was just beyond those doors. He was sure.
He gathered his strength and sprinted up the steps, only to be stopped by a young footman at the door.
“Invitation only, sir,” the young man said.
“I don’t require an invitation to my own damn house,” Blake growled. He didn’t recognize the servant, and the fact irritated him even more.
The next moment he heard a familiar voice call from behind the footman, “Is there something amiss, Rogers?”
“I believe you are mistaken, sir. This is Lord Payne’s townhouse.” The young buck continued addressing Blake.
Blake raised a brow in irritation, but before he could chastise the footman, his old butler appeared from behind the footman’s shoulder. His eyes widened, and he opened his mouth in astonishment. The servant had never shown as much emotion as he did now, and Blake found himself grinning at the old man.
“Crane,” he said, and walked closer to him. “Explain to the young pup who the master of the house is.” He gestured to the footman who detained him at the door. Blake walked past the astonished butler and patted him on his back as he did so. “Glad to see you, Crane,” he said and slunk inside.
The crush inside the townhouse was unbearable. The smell of sweaty bodies throwing Blake’s mind back to the times he spent on the ship, cleaning the docks side by side with other sailors. But then other smells penetrated his senses: the female perfumes, the flowers, the burning of the candle wax. He heard the rustling of ladies’ skirts, the light chatter and feminine laughter. Blake looked around, feasting his eyes on the beautiful vision. He hadn’t seen anything as wonderful for over a year. He stepped further inside and encountered sideways gazes directed toward him.
He looked down at his clothing and frowned. It wouldn’t do to show up in the ballroom looking like that. He was in a shabby tunic, covered by a dark brown quilted coat and no waistcoat. His breeches were worn down and abraded at the knees, his boots scratched up and muddy. No, he couldn’t show up in the ballroom, in front of half the ton looking like he was some beggar from St. Giles. He was the master of the house.
Blake turned toward the stairs. He was about to ascend the steps to his room in search of his old and comfortable clothing, when the music stopped abruptly and he heard a male voice calling for people’s attention. Blake halted with one foot atop the first step of the stairwell. Something was going on in his house. He turned slightly and strained to hear what the gentleman was saying.
“It is with immense pleasure that I announce my betrothal to Annalise, the dowager countess of Payne!”
The exclamations of delight and clapping followed, muffled by the roaring of rushing blood inside Blake’s head. He couldn’t have heard that right, he was sure. Blake stumbled away from the stairs and sauntered toward the French doors. He didn’t realize how he made it into the ballroom. He hadn’t noticed how he shouldered his way past the crowd. The only thing that registered in his mind was what he saw the moment he finally made it into the circle of people. The Duke of Kensington was standing in the middle of the ballroom, kissing Annalise’s hand. Kissing Blake’s wife.
The ringing in Blake’s ears intensified, and his heart rate accelerated even more. The duke finally turned his head toward the cheering crowd and raised their linked hands. An action was meant to emphasize their bond and introduce Annalise as his new betrothed.
Blake’s legs moved on their own accord as he stepped further inside the circle. He heard hushed whispers and gasps around him, but he only had his eyes for his wife. She stood demurely by the duke’s side, her eyes downcast, her hand still in the duke’s grasp. She finally raised her head and her gaze met his.
“Annalise,” he said and saw as her eyes widened and her lips parted in an inaudible gasp.
The blood violently rushing through his head muted all the sounds of the ballroom and his vision blurred in front of him. Next thing Blake knew, his knees hit the hardwood floors as he fell. He threw his arms out in an attempt to catch himself, but refused to take his eyes off his wife. The last thing he saw was Annalise’s worried face as she crushed to her knees in front of him. The next moment everything went black.
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