Marriage Made In Shame

By: Sophia James

Chapter One

London—1812

The familiar sense of nothingness engulfed Gabriel Hughes, the fourth Earl of Wesley, taking all breath and warmth with it as he sat with a glass of fine brandy and a half-smoked cheroot.

Willing women dressed as sprites, nymphs and naiads lounged around him, the white of their scanty togas falling away from generous and naked breasts. A dozen other men had already chosen their succour for the night and had gone one by one to the chambers fanning out from the central courtyard. But here the lights were dimmed and the smoke from dying candles curled up towards the ceiling. The Temple of Aphrodite was a place of consenting lust and well-paid liaisons. It was also filled to the brim.

‘I should very much like to show you my charms in bed, monsieur,’ the beautiful blonde next to him whispered in a French accent overlaid with a heavy, east London twang. ‘I have heard your name mentioned many times before and it is said that you have a great prowess in that department.’

Had... The word echoed in Gabriel’s mind and reverberated as a shot would around a steel chamber. Downing the last of the brandy, he hoped strong alcohol might coax out feelings he had long since forgotten. Memory. How he hated it. His heartbeat quickened as he swallowed down disquiet, the hollow ache of expectation not something he wanted to feel.

‘I am Athena, my lord.’

‘The sister of Dionysus?’

She looked puzzled by his words as she flicked the straps from milky white shoulders and the warm bounty of her bosom nudged against his arm as she leant forward. ‘I do not know this sister of Diana, my lord, but I can be yours tonight. I can pleasure you well if this be your favour.’

He hadn’t expected her to know anything of the Greek gods, but still disappointment bloomed—a woman of beauty and little else. Her tongue ran around pouting lips, wetting them and urging response, dilated pupils alluding to some opiate, a whore without shame or limit and one whom life had probably disappointed. Feeling some sense of kinship, Gabriel smiled.

‘You are generous, Athena, but I cannot take you up on your offer.’

Already the demons were arching, coming closer, and when her fingers darted out to cup his groin, he almost jumped. ‘And why is that, monsieur? The Temple of Aphrodite is the place where dreams are realised.’

Or nightmares, he thought, the past rushing in through the ether.

Screams as the fire had taken hold; the stinging surprise of burning flesh and then darkness numbing pain. The last time he had felt whole.

Gabriel hated it when these flashbacks came, unbidden, terrifying. So sudden that he had no defence against them. Standing, he hoped that Athena did not see the tremble in his fingers as he replaced his empty glass on the low-slung table. Run, his body urged even as he walked slowly across the room, past the excesses of sex, passion and craving. He hated the way he could not quite ingest the cold night air once outside as the roiling nausea in his stomach quickened and rose.

He nearly bumped into the Honourable Frank Barnsley and another man as Gabriel strode out into the gardens and he looked away, the sweat on his upper lip building. He knew he had only a matter of minutes to hide all that would come next.

There were trees to his left, thick and green, and he made for them with as much decorum as he could manage. Then he was hidden, bending, no longer quite there. It was getting worse. He was falling apart by degrees, the smell of heavy perfumes, the full and naked flesh, the tug of sex and punch of lust. All equated with another time, another place. Intense guilt surfaced, panic on the edges. His heart thumped and fear surged, the sensation of falling so great he simply sat down and placed his arms around the solid trunk of a young sapling. A touchstone. The only stable thing in his moving dizzy world.

Leaning over to one side, he threw up once and then twice more, gulping in air and trying to understand.

His life. His shame.

Coming tonight to the Temple of Aphrodite and expecting a healing had been a monumental mistake. He needed to lie down in dark and quiet. Aloneness cloaked dread as tears began to well.

* * *

‘I do not wish to marry anyone, Uncle.’ Miss Adelaide Ashfield thought her voice sounded shrill, even to her own ears, and tried to moderate the tone. ‘I am more than happy here at Northbridge and the largesse that is my inheritance can be evenly divided between your children, or their children when I die.’

Alec Ashfield, the fifth Viscount of Penbury, merely laughed. ‘You are young, my dear, and that is no way to be talking. Besides, my offspring have as much as they are ever likely to need and if your father and mother were still in the land of the living, bless their poor departed souls, they would be castigating me for your belated entry into proper society.’

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