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"The hardest thing of all for a soldier is to retreat." ~ Duke of Wellington
"The essence of fencing is to give, but by no means to receive." ~ Moliere
May 1815, London
Quincy Telford, Duke of Beloin, knew the importance of discretion. Even a duke's power wasn't absolute and at such delicate times as these a man of discretion was invaluable. That was why, if anyone had looked, the duke would have been found on the doorstep of Robert Bittlesworth this fine summer morning, knocking lightly but politely, without a servant in sight. Even the best servants might not be trusted to be discreet and on this occassion he could not risk any talk of what he was about. The door was opened promptly by a manservant too young and burly to be a proper English butler. Since Quince didn't want to present a card he simply drew himself up in his best ducal attitude and said, "I am here to see Mr. Bittlesworth."
The manservant, seeing the overall look of refinement that the duke regularly cultivated, bowed him into the hallway and asked him to wait a moment while it was seen whether Mr. Bittlesworth might, indeed, be in to receive him. As the hallway was better than the street Quince was content to cool his heels looking at the paintings on display. Hearing footsteps on the stairs he turned expecting to see Bittlesworth but instead saw a vision that made him catch his breath. A young woman was just at the landing, perfectly highlighted in a beam of light from the second story window. Her hair was the deep, warm sable of a mink and had been gathered at the crown to cascade in a riot of curls down her back. She was petite in stature and her figure was a perfect hourglass, emphasized by the low cut red dress that hugged her curves. The dress was Italian in design if he wasn't mistaken. Expensive, no doubt, but worth every penny to any man who was fortunate enough to look upon her. Bittlesworth was a lucky man indeed, and brazen to have his Cyprian given free access to his home. As he stared up at her she glanced down and saw him, stopping with a startled "Oh!" She took the remaining steps at a more stately pace and watching those hips coming toward him he had to admit that he would probably give her free reign of his home, as well.
"Good morning," she said after a moment, obviously entertained that they had stood in the front hall staring at one another longer than was considered appropriate in polite company.
He had to admit that he was well pleased that this wasn't entirely polite company. Taking her hand to bow over he kissed her finger tips and, looking up, enjoyed another quite spectacular angle of her cleavage. For such a tiny thing she had simply acres of creamy white skin to admire, from her teasingly barely covered breasts to her shoulders exposed by the drop sleeves of the gown. "Good morning," he responded in as silky a tone as he could muster. As he straightened he saw that it had the desired effect as she seemed to nearly preen under his attentions. Her eyes were the color of dark sapphires and light danced in them from her good humor.
"You have me at a disadvantage, sir," she said, "as Bobbins has been derelict in his duties again and not announced you."
Still holding her hand and staring down into her beautiful face he came to a impulsive decision. He would have her, at any price. "Whatever Bittlesworth is paying you, I'll double it. Triple it. You'll never want for anything again in your life." The change in her expression was so sudden it was almost shocking. The humor was gone and she was so expressionless as to be carved from stone.
"Pardon me?" she asked.
As Quince searched his mind for what to say to bring back the delightful fairy queen she had been and, better yet, to convince her to leave with him his thoughts were interrupted.
"Your grace, I didn't realize it was you."
The Duke of Beloin released the young woman's hand and turned to see Robert Bittlesworth, who had apparently emerged from some room here on the first floor while Quince hadn't been paying attention. "That's rather the idea, old boy."
Bittlesworth paused and then said, "Quite." He looked from the young woman and then back to the Duke. "I trust my sister hasn't been too tiresome?"
The last time Quince remembered being this lightheaded was when he let his friend Giddy talk him into going three rounds with Gentleman Jackson. Apparently a sharp uppercut from a man nearly twice your size had exactly the same effect as deeply insulting the younger sister of a gentleman that you had hoped could save you. But just as he had borne up under Jackson's pounding as best he could the duke barely faltered in his response now. "She has been delightful." Quince's eyes swung back to the dark-haired beauty who remained expressionless. Holding her gaze he said, "And I trust she can be discreet as well?"
The young woman raised her chin a notch as though accepting his challenge while her brother said, "Of course. Perhaps you would be more comfortable in my study?"
"Indeed," Quince said. Nodding to the young woman he said, "Miss Bittlesworth."
Bowing into a low curtsy she said, "Your grace."
Quince doubted that he had escaped so easily after such an insult but beggars couldn't be choosers so he let Robert Bittlesworth lead the way to a small but well-appointed study so that he could explain his issue to the hero of the Home Office.
Sabre, or as she was more formally known Sabrina Bittlesworth, stood quite still in the hallway for a few minutes after Robert and his guest had left. She had heard of having your blood run cold before but had never experienced it herself. Until today. Until this supposed duke had mistaken her for some sort of... some trollop. When Bobbins returned to the front hall she proceeded with her original plan to call on her friend Jack who as of earlier this spring was now Jacqueline Wolfe, Countess of Harrington. As she rather precisely put on her gloves, bonnet, and pelisse she thought that's what one's oldest and dearest friends were for, someone to take comfort in when the day wasn't going quite as planned and Jack would certainly be comforting. Looking down the hallway toward Robert's study Sabre wondered when her other oldest, dearest friend Georgiana would come home from Scotland. Rather than comfort George would just sneak down the hallway and poison the dratted duke's tea. Or at least threaten to, and that would be heartening. With a final tug to tighten her bonnet strings Sabre sailed out the front door of her brother's house and into the waiting carriage.
Having shut the door Bittlesworth wasted no time on pleasantries. "How can I help you, sir?"
"You've gathered this isn't a social call?"
Bittlesworth remained silent at that, waiting politely.
Quince realized he was glancing around the room and being in general more awkward than was his usual mien. Taking a deep breath he consciously forced himself to relax. "I'm being blackmailed."
"I see," Bittlesworth said. "Brandy?"
"That would be lovely," Quince agreed. Bittlesworth indicated a comfortable set of matching leather chairs near the fireplace and Quince settled in while the drinks were prepared. Shortly Bittlesworth settled next to him, handing him the glass of sweet liquor.
"Sir, you can tell me as much or as little as you're comfortable saying and I will help you in any way that I can."
It was then that Quince became clear on why Bittlesworth was so valued in his position. Sitting there polite, attentive and giving the impression that no matter the trouble that he was the man to solve it combined that with the fact that he was set to inherit a viscountancy, and therefore implicitly trustworthy to any lord of the empire, was enough to give anyone in Quince's position a profound sense of relief. He found himself relaxing more naturally into the chair. "Well, as you might imagine, it started with my father..."
Sabre marched on the front door of the Harrington townhouse but was deprived of giving the door a solid rap by the butler Dibbs opening it before she had even gained the last step. The austere butler bowed her in, gathered her bonnet, gloves, and pelisse, then silently led her to Jack's morning room. With Jack in the morning room that meant her husband Gideon was probably already at his office. The Harringtons had only been in Town for a week and it seemed to Sabre that Gideon was always at the office, sunrise to long after dark. The fact that her best friend was still misty-eyed over the new husband that was obviously ignoring her struck Sabre as ridiculous.
"Miss Bittlesworth," Dibbs announced in a quiet tone, then withdrew from the room. Jack rose from her settle with a delighted smile that faded rapidly. The countess was gowned in a pale green muslin that set off her dark golden hair well, and the empire waist served to make her appear even taller than she was. Since she towered over Sabre by a good seven inches it wasn't an effect that the darker-haired girl appreciated.
"Oh my," the countess said. "Who did what and what are we going to do with them?"
Sabre held the sides of her skirt out, like a fashion plate. "How do you like my dress?"
Jack smiled carefully, "I like it quite a lot. Just as much as I did when we looked at all your new dresses the day after I came to London."
Sabre turned once and then settled the skirts again, twitching them into place. "Then you wouldn't look at me and perhaps offer to make me your private whore?"
"Oh." Jack's expression sobered considerably. "Well, now we have the what I assume what we're going to do with them will be horrible indeed. So who was it?"
Sabre stalked over to a tiny damask chair and sat. She fingered the red silk of her skirts as she smoothed them out. "I don't know."
"Well that's certainly-"
Jack's voice was interrupted by the door clicking open again as the countess's young companion Emmy Hobbes stepped in. No more than eleven the young Miss Hobbes was Jack's current project. "Miss Bittlesworth," the girl said, dropping a passable curtsy.
"Emmy," Sabre said with a polite nod.
Jack sighed. "Emmy, I'm afraid that today is not a social call. Sabre and I will need some privacy."
"Oh!" the young girl said, backing away. "My apologies, I didn't mean to intrude."
"Not at all," Sabre said, relenting her bad humor over the girl's apparent concern. "You know I adore you. Who couldn't love a child that takes to the sword so quickly? But this is... family business, and likely to be quite boring to you."
Jack nodded. "It's all right. Take a free morning. Perhaps practice your french?"
As Emmy nodded and pulled the door closed behind her Sabre leaned back in the chair. "Luds, Jack, do you even know what a free morning is?"
Jack's brow furrowed. "That's what I would do on my free mornings as a child."
Sabre laughed. "You were never a child. You were once smaller and you knew less, thank God, but a child? No."
"You don't have anything stronger?"
Her friend raised a sardonic brow and Sabre blew out her breath in a huff. "Yes, tea would be lovely."
Jack pulled the bell and then seated herself on the small couch that faced toward the chair Sabre was in. "And?" she prompted.
Sabre sat up straight again. "I need your promise, your vow as a Haberdasher that you will not share this information with anyone."
"Except George, I assume."
"Yes, you may share it among the Haberdashers so if George should finally get herself back from Scotland you can certainly discuss it with her."
"But not with Gideon." Jack said it more as a statement than a question.
"No, not with Gideon." Sabre agreed.
Jack frowned but nodded. "You have my pledge."
Sabre nodded just as a discreet knock announced a maid. The girls didn't speak again until the tea had been settled and Jack was prepared to pour.
"I assume three sugars today?" the countess asked.
Sabre smiled again. This was the comfort that she knew old friends could provide. Someone who knew that stress made her want sweets. Sweets that she regularly avoided since so much as an extra lump of sugar seemed to go straight to her hips. With her tiny stature it took diligence to maintain her figure. "Yes, three sugars today. And that tart if you don't mind."
Jack smirked. "I wouldn't think you would want to be seen consorting with tarts."
Sabre merely snorted. That was the other thing about old friends. They had absolutely no respect.
"So," Jack ventured, after handing Sabre the cup and saucer. "Where did you meet this man? In the street?"
Sabre nibbled at the tart. "I'd rather not say."
"Well, how are we supposed to find him?"
"He's a duke," Sabre ventured.
"Oh. Well. That certainly cuts the list down substantially. Are you sure he's a duke?"
"I have it on the utmost authority."
Jack narrowed her eyes, obviously wanting to question her friend further in a direction that Sabre didn't want to go.
Sabre sipped her tea and said, "Let's start with what we do know. He's a duke, about your height I would say."
"Many men are," Jack said drily.
"Robert's age or a little bit older. Fair haired, almost as light as Charlie's," Sabre said, referring to her second oldest brother, the ever affable and horse-mad Charles Bittlesworth. "And his eyes are green. A very light green, a spring green George would probably call them. You would expect such innocently colored eyes to house a more wholesome soul." Sabre realized that Jack had become suspiciously quiet and looked over at her friend. The countess had one hand clasped over her mouth, eyes wide with horror.
"You know who it is," Sabre accused.
Jack closed her eyes and let the hand fall away. "Oh Quince, what did you do?"
Sabre set down her teacup with a crack and jumped to her feet. "You're telling me that obnoxious toad that propositioned me this morning is the Duke of Beloin?"
Jack nodded, "I think so, yes."
"The same Duke of Beloin you have been raving about non-stop since I came back from Italy? That you have been bragging I will meet at next week's ball?"
Jack shrugged helplessly, "Are you sure you didn't misinterpret what he said?"
Sabre loomed over her seated friend and hissed, "Do you want to know what he said? It was, 'Whatever he's paying you, I'll double it. Triple it. You'll never want for anything again in your life.' Do you think I misinterpreted that Jack? Really?"
Her friend gasped in shock. "That's terrible! I can't believe he would say that."
Sabre stalked off to stare out the window. "Either it was the Duke of Beloin or he has a doppleganger."
"And who was the 'he' that the duke was referring to? I'm confused, Sabre. Did this happen this morning? Where?"
Sabre turned back to her friend. "I've said all I'm going to say on that matter. Thank you for providing the information I needed."
Jack launched to her feet as well. "Sabre, I don't like that look. What are you planning to do?"
Sabre tilted her chin up. "I'm planning to defend my honor."