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Here we go with the first of our #HistoricalHeroes finalists, Phoebe Randerson's 'Eye of the Beholder'.
Chapter One: The Eye of the Beholder
It was clear that some things about polite society never changed. Megan did her best to smile at the friend she had not seen since her own ignominious departure from the beautiful world, and listened to the on dit of the moment.
‘They say he is quite hideously deformed, has a heart of ice and he murdered his first wife,’ Jennifer said with relish.
Megan tried not to roll her eyes. ‘Who is this? I am sure they exaggerate,’ she said as Jennifer linked her arm through hers to stroll around the magnificent gardens of Aston Hall.
‘No, truly, they say he is quite dreadful, and he is looking for a wife! A wife… can you imagine?’ Jennifer shuddered delicately.
Megan stifled a sigh. ‘Who is looking for a wife?’
‘Markham,’ Jennifer said with no small amount of excitement and was clearly waiting for an equally excited response. ‘Viscount Markham,’ she added with a nudge.
‘Ah,’ nodded Megan. ‘Viscount Markham; have you met him?’ she asked. Jennifer shook her head. ‘No, but he has been the subject of much speculation ever since Sophie Clarkson told us that he would be attending the party at Aston Hall, and would be looking for a wife,’ she said. ‘I simply cannot wait to see him.’ Jennifer hugged Megan’s arm and giggled, ‘and looking for a wife. I mean, who on earth would marry him?’
‘Who indeed?’ Megan said.
‘Are you looking to remarry my dear?’ Jennifer asked.
‘I think perhaps I am,’ Megan managed, as though it was the simplest, most natural thing. The truth was that she was absolutely desperate. She dared not admit this to anyone, and just thinking about the reasons why made her chest hurt and her breath catch. If she did not escape soon…
‘Well you would not want to marry Markham, I’m sure,’ she said with a laugh.
Megan just smiled. ‘It would be unlikely,’ she said as they walked. ‘I am looking for a very ordinary man. I suspect a viscount would be above my touch.’ Any man would do, she added silently, even a hideously deformed Viscount.
‘Well, I hope you find him my dear, it must be tiresome living with your brother and his new wife.’ Jennifer said. The gravel crunched beneath their feet.
‘A little,’ she said and forced another smile. It had been tiresome for a little while, but tiresome she would be happy with, tiresome she could manage. To say she needed to marry quickly was an understatement of gargantuan proportions. Megan tried to focus on what Jennifer was saying about her husband, and nod in the appropriate places whilst mentally running through the guest list for possible candidates. Looking over the throng milling around the gardens she realised with resignation that most of the unmarried women present were planning exactly the same thing, only they were young, beautiful, unencumbered and untainted by scandal.
There were quite a few people out strolling in the gardens before the preparation for the evening’s activities began, so she surveyed them quietly as Jennifer chattered. Beautiful young women flirted with handsome young gentlemen and she realised that she had quite forgotten how to flirt. Some of the men were too young for her to consider, or too old for her to want to consider, or in possession of a title and fortune sufficient enough for them to be seeking a beautiful young bride with a fortune to add to their own. As they round the corner the Duke of Aston strolled confidently across the lawns in the direction of a cluster of men. Their host was probably the most stunningly handsome man she had ever seen in her entire life; extremely tall, shining blonde hair and a physique to make a lady swoon. He was also, rumour had it, on the lookout for an heiress, as his own pockets were sadly to let. She looked at the gentlemen who had claimed his attention, she recalled them having been introduced on her arrival. Mr Radlett was of more average height, but outrageously good looking with dark brown hair. His looks were marred somewhat by a dreadful scar that stretched from his temple to his jaw on one side of his face and a limp. The Earl of Westlake joined them and she had to smile. He was a very large man. Tall, broad and with longish blonde hair he looked more like a Norseman than an aristocratic gentleman. She had instantly liked Westlake, and the air of barely civilised masculinity that seemed to surround him, but he was an Earl, and despite his reputation as an out and out rake, wealthy, of an exceptionally good family and well beyond her touch. A third gentleman had joined them and she seemed to recall his name was Mr Wallace, tall again, but a little hard looking. She recalled someone had told her that all of them had served in the army and fought against Napoleon, Markham included, and she assumed that was where Radlett had acquired his scars. She drew her shawl around her a little tighter. The competition for husbands was indeed fierce and the prey wary. She needed to proceed with caution.
Inside Aston Hall, the object of all the speculation slipped into the library of his oldest and closest friend and closed the door on a sigh, well aware of the furious gossip. He headed for the tantalus and poured himself a very stiff drink. He knew he should make an appearance outside, but he was sure that Aston would not begrudge him something to dull the experience. The sheer volume of guests was overwhelming, but the knowledge that most of them were simply here waiting for a glimpse of him was the outside of enough. It seemed that word had spread that he sought a wife and he knew that if he went out and the entire gathering ogled him, then recoiled in horror at the sight of him, he might well become violent and live up to his reputation. His perpetual scowl intensified as he sat Aston’s favourite chair and put the glass on the table at his elbow. He needed a wife. There was no escaping the reality of the situation. He needed an heir because there was absolutely no way on God’s green earth he would ever allow his cousin to inherit. His skin tightened and his fists curled at the very thought, but his preferred method of selection would have been through a third party. This would have absolved him of any contact, any society and any real effort. He did not care what she was like; his only stipulation was that she did not recoil from him in horror at the prospect of the marriage bed and had no ridiculous notions of romance and love.
How in God's name his grandmother and sister had managed to persuade him to attend this wretched party he did not know. He raised the glass to his lips, but before he could drink his peace was rudely interrupted by the thunder of feet, a terrified shriek and a resounding crash. Markham jerked and spilled drops of his brandy over the back of his hand. He licked the drops as he went to the door to locate the cause of the interruption. In the hall he found a small boy crumpled amongst the rucked folds of an expensive rug, dripping blood over it from a head wound. It looked as though he had fallen foul of the polished wood and ended up with his head smacking into the solid chest that stood outside the library. The crash had been a rather attractive Sevres bowl that he was fairly certain Aston had bought on his Grand Tour. It now lay in shards on said polished floor. The child looked up at him, one hand trying to stem the flow of blood whilst scrabbling with his heels to push himself out of reach. The naked fear in his eyes arrested his movement.
'Are you alright?' Markham asked with what he felt was commendable calm given the wreckage of the Duke’s possessions. The boy offered no response so he extended a hand to offer him assistance to regain his feet but was taken aback when the child cowered against the chest, eyes wide with horror and gasped, 'no, oh please sir, no I’m sorry…. sorry…’ He held one arm across his face but before Markham could adjust to this unexpected turn of events a feminine voice halted his movements.
'What are you doing?' He looked up to see a young dark haired woman bearing down on him eyes wide and shocked. 'Do not touch him.'
Startled, he stood back whilst the woman attempted to gather the child to her chest, smoothing her fingers through his dark locks. The boy squirmed and tried to avoid her hand. 'Are you all right my love? What happened? What did he do to you?'
'Excuse me...' Markham began, but she clutched the child to her again. The boy pushed at her.
'You sir, are a monster,' she said, her eyes burning into his; they were very blue eyes framed by dark lashes, but at her words he felt a familiar rigidity claim him. If he had a guinea for each time he had been thus labelled…
'I assure you, madam, I meant him no harm. I suspect he fell against the chest.'
The woman appeared to gather her composure enough to take in the rug, the broken bowl and the dent in the boy’s head. She looked at the boy, whose eyes were so like her own. 'Toby?'
'Sorry,' the boy whispered, 'I fell.' She sighed and pulled the boy’s hand away from the wound on his head.
'Do you have a handkerchief?' The boy shook his head. Markham reached into his own pocket and shook out the large linen square and dangled it in front of her, noting her small sigh as she accepted it. Pressing the material against the wound, she took his hand and pressed it against the handkerchief. ‘Wait for me upstairs,’ she said.
The boy scrabbled to his feet, and cast a glance at him. 'Sorry, sir,' he muttered, and fled.
Megan watched him go as long as she could and then was forced to face the tall, exceedingly forbidding gentleman she had shouted at. Swallowing, she allowed her eyes to travel from glossy black boots up long muscular legs, narrow hips and an impressive chest. Her gaze halted at his shoulders though when she realised that one was misshapen, not squared, as they should be; the left was slightly raised. She had a horrid sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Her eyes inched upwards past the snowy white of a perfectly tied cravat to take in a hard, unsmiling mouth, even harder cold grey eyes beneath dark slashing brows, which now were drawn together in a thunderous scowl, topped with mahogany waving hair. She cleared her throat.
'I suspect I owe you an apology, sir,' she began taking a step back at the leashed anger that fairly pulsed from him. Her mouth went a little dry and she wanted to press a hand to her chest.
'I suspect you do madam. However, it is not necessary. If you would excuse me?' He turned and she could not help but notice that his left shoulder was indeed misshapen. Oh lord. Was he the elusive Viscount… the one that was allegedly hideously deformed? If so, she had just called the man a monster. Her heart sank to her toes.
'Sir,' she called on impulse moving towards him. He turned and alarm flared briefly in his eyes before he banished it. 'I apologise for my words,' she began. 'When I saw you...'
'I know what you saw,' he interrupted harshly, 'and you said nothing that has not already been said.'
Megan's eyes widened the guilt replaced by annoyance. 'I accused you of being a monster because I thought you were hurting my brother, not because of your…’ she gestured vaguely, awkwardly, with one hand. ‘Physique,' she said honestly. He stared at her.
'Really?' his deep voice now dripped with sarcasm.
'Really,' she replied, standing her ground. 'Do I presume to have the honour of addressing Viscount Markham?' she asked, holding his gaze. He was uncommonly attractive. Not handsome in the general way, but there was a hard intelligence in those cold grey eyes that were currently staring at her with barely leashed fury, but that fierce male presence that was beginning to fascinate her.
'Delighted to make your acquaintance my Lord,' she said holding out a hand. He took her fingers, clearly more from deeply ingrained manners than will.
'Mrs Cavendish,' she said bobbing a small curtsy.
'Delighted,' he murmured, though clearly he wasn't. Something unreadable flared in his grey eyes, and she smiled at him.
'Are you going to join the guests?' she asked him. The frown deepened. 'The entire lawn is positively agog waiting for you to join them.'
Markham could scarce believe his ears. Was she goading him? 'They will have to remain agog,' he said, his voice harsh even to his own ears. He dragged his hand back, alarmed at the flare of heat at her touch. Neither of them wore gloves and the unexpected touch of her naked hand was disturbing. He stared a little longer at curious blue eyes, eyes he noted were fringed with thick dark lashes, and then, thanking heaven she was married, turned on his heel to leave, but she spoke again, and this time he was sure his jaw dropped.
'They are going to be sorely disappointed,' she told him following in his wake. 'They are expecting nothing less than a hideous, murderous freak.' She waved him on when he paused in the doorway and he was so stunned he allowed it. Inside the library she stood before him, smiled up at him. 'As you are clearly not hideous, nor a freak, I am bound to make the presumption that the murderous part is overstated as well?' Megan realised, a little belatedly, that she was rambling on; a tendency she had when nervous. His face was a revelation, mouth open, eyes wide and shocked. 'Oh dear,' she murmured. He looked completely stunned. She had a strong feeling she would not be on Markham’s list of potential matrimonial partners.
'Mrs Cavendish...' he began.
'Forgive me,' she said at the same time and they looked at each other. Moving forward she touched his arm briefly. 'I don't mean to be rude, but you really should dispel some of the myths.' She paused a minute. 'I don't suppose it would harm them to wait, but if you do, you will be the devil incarnate by supper.' She chuckled, more to herself. 'Perhaps you should arrive in a cloak and mask?' She twinkled up at him. 'I am so sorry about the damage to the bowl and rug. Do you think his Grace will be very angry?'
'I’m sure it is of no consequence,' he murmured, almost dizzy from the change of topic. It left him feeling distinctly off balance.
'Thank you,' she managed, offering her hand.
'My pleasure,' he managed, wondering why she was thanking him, but taking her fingers anyway. This time he touched them fleetingly to his mouth and was astounded when he felt an almost irresistible urge to run his tongue over his lips where they had touched her. She gave him an odd little smile and realising that he still held her fingers, released them immediately.
‘I had best go and check there is no lasting damage to Toby’s head,’ she said and he noted her cheeks were a little flushed. ‘Perhaps I shall see you tonight?’
‘Perhaps,’ he allowed and that smile appeared again.
‘If you don’t the gossips will simply explode,’ she said. Before he could reply she laughed, dipped a curtsey and swept away down the corridor.
Markham refilled his glass, took a long satisfying drink, and replayed the encounter with the dashing Mrs Cavendish. After another, he allowed the smile he had ruthlessly suppressed to play across his lips. The woman actually made him want to laugh. He knew that his arrival was much awaited and that his intention to seek a bride had set the on dits a twitter. Given that he had shunned polite society for too long, people would be nauseatingly curious. After Elizabeth’s death he had withdrawn completely from society, and his time in the army meant he had been absent for too long. He threw the rest of the drink down his neck and headed for his chambers, pondering the remarkably forthright way in which she had spoken. He felt distinctly relieved she was a married woman. Safely inside his chamber he considered the possibility of not attending the ball. His own home was less than an hour away; it would be the work of a moment to abandon the whole enterprise. He could cry off with… stopping himself he flopped onto the bed cursing himself for a coward. If he put his mind to it and selected someone from the event he could marry, have done with the socialising and retreat. He settled his hands over his midriff and closed his eyes. He knew women often found his face acceptable, but the fact of the matter was that he lived in a society that demanded total perfection of form. He flexed the shoulder that was thrown into peculiar relief by the curvature of his spine and sighed. He had long since accepted he was far from perfect.
Follow Phoebe Randerson on Twitter @PhoebeRanderson
Read the other finalists here: Tora Williams, The Welsh King's Spy and Faye Delacour, Like a Musketeer
When you’ve read all 3 chapters, pick your favourite, and send an email by midnight this Thursday, 17th July to Historical.Heroes@hqnuk.co.uk with your favourite in the subject header. The public’s choice will then be declared Tournament Champion on Twitter and Facebook on Friday, 18th July!