Caversham's Bride


Genoa, Italy, December 1818

     The footsteps following her were not her imagination. Lia quickly glanced over her shoulder, but saw no one behind her as she wound her way down the narrow side street which led to her destination. The cold, light mist that had fallen all evening now became a slow, steady rain. She pulled her black woolen cloak tighter around her, but the chill she felt came more from within. Lia halted, and heard the footsteps also stop. Every nerve in her body tensed, and the baby-fine hairs sprinkling her arms stood on end. Quickening her pace, she resumed her trek toward the chemist’s shop, praying she’d find help there.
     Why didn’t she question being sent on this errand? She should have seen for herself if Julianna was really as sick as her aunt said. She knew her cousin was plagued by painful monthly courses, but to her knowledge, no one had ever died from their monthly flux. Tonight, as she was getting ready for bed, her aunt entered her room and told her that her cousin was in need of a large vial of laudanum to help her through the week ahead. The woman then orders her to go out and get it.
     Now Lia wished she had thought about the foolishness of going on such an errand alone, and at this time of night. If she had, she would have refused.
     The footsteps behind her moved faster. The heavy thud of large boots on the pavement told Lia her pursuer was a man.
     Picking up her skirt, she ran. Another hundred yards or so and she would reach Signore DelPonte’s. Her aunt assured her he would still be there. If not, dear God, what would she do? She knew the chemist resided above his place of business. But, would he hear her if she pounded on his door?
     A cat scurried out from a recessed doorway. Lia nimbly jumped over it and continued running. The man chasing her tripped over the animal and fell. The creature’s loud screech pierced the deathly quiet, sending a flurry of curses erupting into the damp night. A cold shiver raced up her spine when she realized her pursuer continued his chase.
     Her heart pounded out her every step as she rounded the corner and saw no lights in Signore DelPonte’s shop. Lia ran past it now looking for a place, any place, to hide. Her stalker quickly closed the distance between them. Crossing the narrow street, she dashed into an alleyway, hoping to lose him.
     A dead end!
     Turning back to the street, she crashed into her follower, the impact knocking her to the ground. Dim moonlight revealed a brawny man, his dark-bearded and scarred face grimaced while his dirty hands reached out to grab her. With every ounce of energy she had, Lia pushed him enough to throw him off balance. She scrambled along on her hands and feet until she recovered her footing to continue her flight.
     Suddenly, Lia was yanked backward, choked by her own cloak. As she reached for the clasp to release it, the man grabbed her arm and jerked it behind her. The burning pain in her shoulder brought tears to her eyes and she screamed. She screamed as loud and as long as she could–until something hard crashed down onto her head, rendering her mute for a moment. Even so, still she fought for her freedom, kicking back with her right foot, hoping to reach the man’s leg or knee.
     “Che testa dura,” her gravelly-voiced attacker said. Lia screamed again, just before he hit her on the head once more. This time his blow sent her tumbling into oblivion.

     Voices. One of them familiar. Lia stirred and tried to raise herself, but the intense pain throbbing in her skull prevented her. Forcing the fog from her head, she concentrated on the muted sounds she heard through the scratchy produce sack enveloping her. She lay on a cart of some kind, most likely a farmer’s cart, as the hay beneath her reeked of the pungent aroma of green olives.
     Nearby, a donkey brayed, and the voices drew nearer. A man and a woman. Lia sensed their presence beside the cart. Someone poked her in the ribs with a hard, pointed object. White-hot pain shot through her entire body, but she didn’t move or make a sound lest they hurt her worse. Again she was jabbed, and this time she bit her lip to keep from crying out.
     “So far, so good.” The woman chuckled. “If she isn’t dead yet, finish her off. Then take the body and toss it into the sea. Remember, weight the bag so it won’t be found.”
     Ottavia! Her aunt’s housekeeper. The despicable old woman spoke of her dead body so casually, without a bit of remorse or care. Her aunt was behind this. She should have known.
     “Sì, signora,” the male voice answered. 
     The cart rocked beneath Lia as the man took his seat on the bench. She heard the clink of coins as Ottavia counted them out.
     “This is what we agreed to, is it not?”
     “,” the man answered.
     “In a few months come back for another one. La Contessa wants them all out of her house.”
     Blessed Virgin in heaven. The men were coming back for her brother and their old nurse, too!
     “We’ll gladly take care of it for you,” said another voice. “For a price, of course.”
     Another man. There were two of them. God, her head hurt. Lia had thought she might at least have a chance fighting off one kidnapper. Her odds stood far slimmer with two, but she wasn’t going to die without a fight. And now, she needed to rescue her brother and Maura as well.
     The cart swayed again, as the second man climbed up on the seat. She heard the reins slap against an animal’s back and the cart jolted forward. After a few minutes, the two men began to talk. Lia listened intently.
     “You know, she’s got a decent enough face, and her body ain’t none too bad either.” One of the men spat. “I’m thinking we sell her to Najjar and make ten-fold the money that old witch paid us.”
     “Who is he?”
     “Some Arab trader that collects women and sells them over there as slaves. If they’re virgins, they get sold straight to a harem of some sultan.”
     “It’d be a shame to let sta bellezza go to waste as a slave. Let’s have a tumble or two while we got her.”
     “Didn’t you hear what I said?” The first man shouted. “She’s pretty, and if she’s a virgin she goes straight to a harem.”
     “So? What’s that do for us?”
     The second man didn’t sound too bright, Lia thought. Even she knew what this meant. They weren’t going to kill her. She still had a chance to escape, to save Luchino and Maura.
     “So? They pay double or better for a virgin!”
     “How do we know she is one?”
     “Just a hunch,” the first voice said. “You weren’t there when I caught her. Sta puttanesca fought me like a wild animal. She couldn’t have known I was out to kill her. No, she was protecting her virtù. I’m sure of it.”
     The second man was silent a moment. “You might be right. How much would this Arab pay for one such as her?”
     “Well, it’s been a while since I had unused goods to sell, but that one brought two thousand lire. I’m thinking with this one’s background and looks, she’d bring three to four thousand easy.”
     Lia heard the second man whistle at the amount. How dare they consider her no more than cattle? Angry though she was, she didn’t have long to think about it. She had to figure out a way to escape before they met with this Najjar person. Her chances for success were greater now, because the men currently holding her sounded as though they were a pair of bumbling idiots. Large, but dimwits nonetheless.
     She worked the leather strap binding her wrists until it was loose enough to pull one hand free. After rubbing the life back into her hands, she tested the knot at the top of the canvas sack. This one was tighter than the other. More difficult, but not impossible. Lia squeezed a finger through the opening. Then another and another, until she hooked the rope with a finger.
     She waited a moment to make sure no one paid attention to her, then pulled the ends of the rope through the top of the sack and began loosening the knot.
     Lia felt the cart leave the smoother, brick-paved road of the city for the softer, rutted dirt road leading into the countryside. This was her chance to escape. As soon as they were well away from the sounds of town, she moved cautiously toward the back of the cart. Each time the cart bounced over a rut, she scooted back a little further so it would appear the sack was being jostled about.
     As she expected, the rear of the cart had no rail to prevent her from falling off the back. Bracing herself for the drop to the ground, she rolled off the edge. The fall itself wasn’t too bad, and she was fortunate to land on squishy mud. Still, it knocked the wind from her.
     Lia waited a moment before making a move to open the sack. She wanted to be sure the cart continued traveling down the path and the two men were far enough away for her to get a head start.
     Pushing her way out of the sack, she looked down the path for the cart. A sliver of moon in the sky gave her just enough light to make out the back end of the cart and its two passengers some thirty yards away. With her black dress and cloak, it would be easy for her to slip into the trees and disappear. Lia reached over to grab the sack to take with her so as not to leave a trace of where she disappeared. 
     Then she heard a voice cry, “She’s fallen off the back, and is running for the woods!”
     “Get her, you big oaf,” the first man shouted. “Don’t let her get away. That one’s going to make us rich.”
     Dropping the sack, Lia ran into the heavy brush along the road. Winter-dried vines clawed at the exposed skin of her face and hands, tearing at her clothes. The thorny brush pulled at her cloak as she continued her way into the woods. Working the clasp at her neck, she let the cloak fall away, hoping to move faster without it.
     A clearing ahead looked to be a farmer’s pasture. She lunged forward. If she could reach it, she could lift her skirts and run.
     She heard the curses of the man chasing her as he, too, was scratched by the prickly barbs. Her heart racing, Lia glanced over her shoulder. How close was he? Oh God, too close. And getting closer. She screamed, batting at the vines in her path.
     “No!” she shrieked. She reached the pasture, snatched up her skirts and ran. Ran for her life.
     Her hair had long ago loosened from its coil and now flowed freely down her back, making it too easy for her captor to.... Lia’s head snapped back, the burning in her scalp ripping a scream from her. She fell onto her pursuer as his beefy arms grabbed her about the waist, his other hand, still holding her hair, covered her mouth.
     Struggling and kicking, she fought furiously. The heel of her boot connected with his leg, forcing a string of foul curses from his sour, stinking mouth. He released her in an attempt to readjust his grip, and she pulled away to run, only to be caught by the first man, who’d arrived with more rope and the sack she’d dropped by the road.
     The stinky one, the bigger of the two, held her while the shorter one, obviously the leader, grabbed her dangling, kicking feet and tied them together. He then jerked one arm behind her back while the big smelly one attempted to keep her still as she struggled. The short guy succeeded with one arm, but when he reached forward to get her other one, Lia bit into it hard, drawing blood and more curses from him. She spat the salty filth onto the ground as the big smelly one grasped for her free hand to help his friend. Lia slammed a fist into his face. Instinctively, he reached back to punch her, but was stopped by the short one.
     “Non tocare,” he said, clutching his wounded arm to his chest. “Don’t touch her. If you ruin her looks, we don’t get as much for her.”
     He shoved Lia into his partner’s arms, then turned his fury on her. “Listen you crazy bitch, I could have thrown you in the sea like the lady asked, but I thought I’d give you a chance to live the good life in some cozy harem.”
     Anger seethed from every pore in her body. “You think only of your own purse!” She spat at his dirty, toothless grin. 
     He slapped her. “Another word out of you and you’ll be fish food for sure,” he told her as he tied a gag in her mouth.
     Wrenching her arms nearly from their sockets, he bound her hands behind her back, thrusting her chest forward. Pain ripped through her body, but Lia refused to flinch. She would not shed a tear of fear or pain in front of these men.
     The giant who held her began to pant heavily onto her neck. His wet tongue moved over her skin, and Lia felt bile rise in her throat. His hands came forward to grab her breasts and squeezed. It hurt, but the pain was secondary to the revulsion boiling within her. How dare these filthy animals touch her?
     “You can’t do much to fight us now, can you, Signorina?” One of his hands traveled down to cup her most private place. He tried to raise her skirt but it was tied down around her ankles. He tugged harder, but the first man stopped him.
     “We don’t got time for that. If we hurry we can catch the Arab before he leaves Genoa. I hear he’s waiting on the tide.”
The sack came down around her head and instead of stuffing her whole body in, the smaller man tied it around her waist. “Carry la signorina back.”
     The giant lifted her effortlessly over his shoulder. The pain in her arms was excruciating, but Lia still refused to cry out. She seethed with intense anger as his hands rubbed over her backside and stroked the back of her legs. He tried to pry between her thighs but she gave him a swift, well-placed kick, then grinned under her gag at his curses when she realized she’d hit her mark.
     Satisfaction was only short-lived as he tossed her into the cart like a bag of rocks. Her head hit the back of the bench and she sank into the murky blackness that opened before her, forgetting how uncomfortable she was, forgetting the pain in her body, and even forgetting her plans of escape.


Tangier, Morocco, February 1819

     Marcus Renfield Halden, Ninth Duke of Caversham, stepped off the gangway and onto the pier just before sunset, expecting to be greeted by someone, as arranged, from Hakim’s household. The crowded red-tiled roofs of terra cotta buildings and the smell of spices and leather from Tangier’s port greeted Ren with the familiarity of an old friend. With his ships unloaded and secured, he forwarded his trunk to the palace and arranged for the watch on each vessel.
     He scanned the crowded pier. Hundreds of dockworkers and sailors of all nationalities were transferring cargo to and from the ships docked alongside his, with more resting at anchor in the bay. Everyone seemed to have a purpose or destination. Everyone except the pathetic creature leaning lazily against a building across the wharf, his dirty white turban knocked askew. Ren didn’t know why this particular vagrant stood out in the crowd, certainly this man garbed in a stained, coarse kaftan and worn-through babouches, was not his escort to the palace of Prince Hakim. His friend’s servants were always impeccably groomed.
     Sure that Hakim had simply forgotten him, Ren drew one last puff from his cheroot and tossed the stub into the water. He started to walk, intending to hire a cart to take him to the palace outside Tangier. He hadn’t gone a quarter of a mile when he sensed someone following him. Every instinct in him told him it was the vagabond. With his hand on the pistol beneath his jacket, Ren turned to face his stalker.
     The man’s stooped posture indicated a life of hard work, and Ren was sure the beggar simply wanted coin or food. As the poor wretch drew closer, he noticed the filth on the other man’s hands and face, and the foul odor of his body. He pulled a coin from his pocket, meaning to toss it his way once the other man was near enough.
     With his head bobbing, the man began to speak in an unfamiliar tongue. There was something about the scrounger–he couldn’t quite place it, so he shook off the feeling. Knowing most Arabs in this part of Morocco spoke fluent Spanish, Ren asked if he did.
     His follower shook his head.
     The possibility was remote, he knew, but he tried French.
     Again, the hunched-over man shook his head, his turban falling to the side, threatening to come unwound. Something wasn’t quite right, Ren knew, because a Muslim man’s turban was always wrapped tight. Ren held out his hand with the coin, ready to toss it, when he got a most unusual response from the man.
     “I speak English, Your Grace.” The miscreant stood straight, nearly as tall as he, and his laughing cocoa-brown eyes met Ren’s, his brows arching. “Almost as well as you.”
     Ren’s eyes narrowed, then he recognized the man. He was momentarily stunned, but not completely surprised, by the garb his friend was wearing. He reached out to greet Hakim in an embrace, but the noxious odor made him cringe and step back. Ren held out his hand to shake instead.
     “I know,” Hakim said as they shook hands. “It offends me as well. Let’s go to the palace so I can bathe this stench from my person.”
     “What was the purpose of the disguise? A joke?”
     “When I heard you came alone, I wanted to surprise you. Did your bride not make the voyage with you?”
     “There is no bride,” Ren said tersely. He ignored the topic and continued walking, not wanting to think about, much less talk about, his aborted engagement and his own cousin’s role in the whole nefarious and villainous plot. The pain from the betrayal was still too new, the wound still too fresh. “Have you waited long?”
     “I arrived just after noon prayers.” The Prince fell in alongside Ren. “I take it you will tell me later why you arrived alone?”
     “Maybe. We’ll see if your smell at that time doesn’t irritate my nostrils.”
     Ren and Hakim traveled another half of a mile, leaving the docks and entering the souk market area. Here they blended into the crowd of multinationals, all eager to bargain for the fine Moroccan produce and exquisite handiwork. They reached the booth of a fish vendor where a cart and donkey waited at the rear of the man’s stall. Behind a curtained partition, Hakim pressed a gold coin into the vendor’s hand and thanked him. The man bowed and praised him as though he recognized his prince. Ren looked at Hakim curiously. The two men climbed into the back of the donkey cart, and after it began to move, he explained, “My driver is the brother of a faithful servant. He has helped me before.”
     The cart proceeded slowly through the throngs of pedestrians. The trio watched as a skirmish ahead halted their progress. Hakim said something to his driver, and the man scanned the crowd for a way around the mass of people.
     Then he saw her. Garbed in flowing black robes, her face covered by a sheer gray veil, a woman frantically pushed her way through dense foot traffic. As she neared their cart, Ren saw a bald hulking beast of a man plow his way through the crowd, obviously in pursuit of the veiled female.
     The hunted woman lifted her gaze to Ren. A knot formed in his chest, preventing him from breathing. She possessed the richest emerald-colored eyes he’d ever seen–eyes filled with desperate fear.
     Ren made a move toward her, but Hakim’s hand on his arm stopped him. “It is not wise to interfere in the business of others. She is most likely a run-away slave, and must be dealt with accordingly.”
     “She is in need of our assistance,” Ren argued, as she was captured by the giant. The woman screamed as the beast held her in a vise-like grip, dragging her away.
     “’Tis our way,” Hakim stressed.
     Ren slumped back in the cart, unwilling to offend his good friend’s hospitality by causing a scene. But the terrified look in the woman’s eyes haunted him. Then he thought of a possible solution.
     Vaulting from his seat, Ren pursued the bald giant and the woman he dragged with him. Somewhere in the scuffle she’d lost her head covering and veil, leaving her mahogany tresses to flow behind her. He picked up the material and continued on his mission through the crowded souk. He followed them to an empty warehouse, but neither the woman, or her captor, were in sight.
     Ren pushed at the wooden door and entered the dim, cavernous room. An old man rounded a corner, leaning heavily on a cane, a look of surprise came across his face as Ren stopped directly before him.
     “I am looking for a woman,” Ren stated in Spanish, unsure if the man spoke English.
     “Every man who comes to me is in search of a woman,” the gray-bearded man replied.
     Ren held up the opaque material. “She lost this.”
     The old Arab reached for the cloth, but Ren snatched it back. “Not until I have some answers.”
     “To what questions, señor?”
     “What crime has she committed that she was so cruelly hunted down and dragged away?”
     “She escaped. A woman is a valuable possession to a man such as myself.”
     Ren reached into his coat pocket. “How much for her?” he asked as he took out a bag of coins.
     “If you wish to purchase her, you must do so tonight,” the old man said. He looked over Ren’s appearance before turning from him. “When there are others to bid against you.” The old man ambled toward a curtained alcove, where a guard waited for him. He stopped, turned and leveled his rheumy gaze directly at Ren. “My wares draw men from the upper-most echelons of power. Men who pay the highest prices, for I have the finest selection available.”
     He pounded his cane twice, and a guard came forward. “Now be gone. Return after Isha, our evening prayer, if you are so inclined.”
     Ren stood, shocked at the old man’s curt dismissal of him, then reluctantly left the building. He found Hakim sitting in the cart, a few yards ahead, waiting.
     “It was as I said, was it not?” Hakim asked. 
     Ren nodded, and glanced back toward the door. “I’m returning tonight. Something about her–the pleading and fear in her eyes perhaps. I cannot stand by and do nothing to help her.”
     “And will you purchase the freedom of every other woman up for sale?” Hakim shook his head, holding on to the falling turban  “Most start off this way, you know, not accepting of their fate. But that changes once they are safely ensconced in a harim. They realize what they give up is little in comparison to the luxuries they receive.”
     He listened to Hakim’s words, and tried to interpret his explanations as truth, but was unable to do so. Terrified emerald eyes haunted him.
     Later, as the two men crossed the enormous and ornate palace courtyard, Hakim snapped his fingers and a servant appeared from the shadows. “I hope your accommodations are satisfactory.” He ordered the man to show Ren to his rooms, then turned back to him. “After you rest, a servant will escort you to the dining hall. An old friend of mine, a physician, will join us for dinner.”
     Ren nodded and followed the turbaned servant who led him to his suite. In the center of the enormous room was a massive bed, low to the ground and covered in a mountain of silk pillows in pale blues, rose and silver. Ren instructed the servant to prepare his bath. While he waited, he surveyed the room, which was easily as large as his suite at his main residence, Haldenwood, or at any of his other homes. Fine gauze curtains blew gently from the wall of arches that led to the courtyard beyond. The solitude of that private garden beckoned him.
     He walked outdoors and tried to remember how long it had been since his last visit to Morocco, and this very palace. Three, four years? Surely before his father and stepmother’s death two and a half years ago, and before he ascended his title, when life was far less complicated. Spying a bench, he took a seat in the early evening shade of a large date palm. This time of year, the weather in Tangier was near perfect, though he was sure in the summer months what little shade the tree provided made an enormous difference to one seeking relief from the heat. The top of the high wall around the garden was carved stucco, intricately worked into a delicate pattern similar to the main gate and courtyard, but not quite as grand. In the center of this outdoor haven, a small fountain gurgled with the gentle sound of flowing water, creating a relaxed, almost serene atmosphere.
     The sturdy bench where he sat was crafted of the finest mahogany, and surrounded by blooming plants. The secluded corner provided a magnificent retreat for his weary soul. He hoped that remaining here a few days would revitalize him and help him exorcise the recurrent demons plaguing him of late.
     The questions about his failed betrothal were inevitable, and he didn’t think he could avoid answering them as easily a second time. So how was he going to mask his anger and pain from his friend? Even now, several months later, whenever he thought of it, bitter bile rose from his knotted gut. Thomas and Margaret had betrayed him in the worst possible way. Because if he was correct in his assessment of events over the past few months, his cousin attempted to kill him to gain his title and fortune. Now he had to protect himself, his family, and all he has. 
     Ren took a deep breath and reentered his room. The servant had finished filling the tub in the adjacent dressing room, and another had laid fresh clothes on the bed. Ren dismissed both servants and prepared himself for the evening ahead, dreading his friend’s interrogation.

     The opulent dining hall was devoid of guests when Ren entered. The servants were still setting out a large bowl of tajine and a platter of couscous, arranging them in the center of the low, round dining table. 
     Hakim soon arrived wearing a jallaba of royal purple silk with threads of silver woven through it, and a jeweled turban that befit his status as a prince of Morocco. Another man accompanied Hakim. Instead of wearing a turban, he wore a yarmulke, and his kaftan was belted at the waist. Draped around his neck were the cords that signified his status as a physician. Hakim’s friend stood slightly taller than he, but was thinner in build, and also had dark brown eyes, except under thick dark brows. Ren nodded at the man, who returned a smile in earnest.
     “Ren,” said Hakim, “I would like you to meet Ismael Ben Sabir, Royal Physician, and very close friend. Ismael, this is Marcus Renfield Halden, Ninth Duke of Caversham. He also holds many other titles, which I cannot remember, and bears wealth equivalent to, if not greater than, the King of England.”
     “It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Your Grace,” said Ismael, his English spoken with a lilting Arabic accent. “I have heard a great deal about you.” He bowed to Ren, then extended his hand.
     “Please, I would be honored to have you call me Ren.” Shaking the newcomer’s hand, Ren continued, “I implore you not to believe all you’ve heard.” He turned a devilish grin on his old friend, Hakim. “Regardless of what he’s told you, Hakim is equally responsible for the scrapes we got into when we were younger.”
     “I believe your words to be true. The same occurred when we were children.”
     “It is amazing, is it not,” Hakim said while inspecting his nails with bored affectation, “how the years seem to mellow one’s life and retard one’s adventures through it?”
     “If this afternoon was any indication, your adventures haven’t been hindered by your age in the least,” Ren replied.
     “Do you know how difficult it is for someone such as myself to leave my prison home? I long to go about among my people without being considered a threat to my brother, the sultan.” Hakim motioned for his two guests to join him at the table. “And I have two other brothers and several nephews before me in succession to the crown! Thank Allah I was born when I was. A mere hundred years ago, I would have been killed when my brother ascended his throne.”
     Ren waited for the prince to be seated and sat on the cushion next to his.
     Hakim bowed his head over the table and gave thanks for their dinner. “Bismillah er-rahman er-rahim.” He translated it for Ren’s benefit, “In the name of God, the clement and merciful.” As custom dictated, Ren waited until the prince broke bread before taking any of his own.
     “Ismael and I were childhood friends,” said Hakim. “His father and his father’s father before him were also royal physicians.” Tearing off a piece of bread, he continued, “Where you and I went to Oxford, Ismael went to Cairo to study medicine. Since his return, we have resumed our friendship.”
     “Hakim tells me that you have been friends since your university days,” said Ismael. “You must have had some good times together. I know Hakim to be one who enjoys life to the fullest.”
     “That he does,”Ren replied laughing. “Many times a bulldog dragged us from a pub when we should have been in our scheduled tutorials.”
     Later, when dinner was done, and the mint tea served, Hakim turned to Ren. “So, tell me why you did not marry? The last letter I received from you said this was to be part of a wedding trip for you and your bride. I did not think you sailed your ships any longer.”
     Ren looked at the empty cup in front of him. If he was to tell his tale, he needed something more substantial than tea. He pointed to his cup. “Do you have anything stronger?”
     Hakim motioned to a servant and ordered him to bring a bottle of his best port and a box of cigars. “My years in England left me with an appreciation for your custom of port and cigars after dinner. But for religious reasons, I reserve this indulgence only for special occasions. My friend, this appears to be one such occasion.”
     After dismissing the musicians, the men drank wine and lit up several of Hakim’s best Turkish cigars. In the relaxed atmosphere, Ren opened up to his old friend, and his new friend about the treachery of his own cousin.
     “You know I never liked him,” Hakim said, “and told you as much when we were in school.”
     Ren sighed. “We had been close childhood friends until his mother remarried and moved to Cornwall. His father, my uncle, was never the same after coming home from war and died shortly after his return. Thomas was very young when he found his father dead in his office. I know Thomas went through a difficult time adjusting to Admiral Linley as a stepfather, God knows he was a cruel man,” Ren paused to draw from his cigar, “Thomas didn’t live under the man’s roof but a few months of the year because we were at school. That is, until he quit attending his classes.” He puffed hard on the cigar until it glowed. “I don’t understand. If things were so bad, why not stay with me? I would have shared my bachelor apartment with him.”
     “Perhaps he thought of you as part of the problem,” the physician said.
     Hakim nodded and motioned to a servant to refill his glass. “So what did he do, exactly?”
     Ren gave a sardonic chuckle. “Where do I begin?”
     “Start with the affianced bride,” Hakim said. “Did you love her?”
     “He had to have cared,” replied the physician, “else he’d not be in this mood.”
     “Lady Margaret was a diamond for the past two seasons. Beautiful and well-connected, she would have made a fine duchess.”
     “But you didn’t love her,” Hakim stated.
     “What is love but an an emotion to render a man weak,” Ren replied. “Lady Margaret would have been pleasant enough to create the required heirs upon, and well-educated in the duties of the station. I would have provided very well for her, and after a few years and a few children, she could have gone to the continent and taken a lover or two or whatever.”
     “My friend, that is why you lost her to another. You didn’t love her, and she sensed a lifetime of drudgery, albeit a gilded type of drudgery, with you.”
     “You do not understand our culture,” Ren replied, “for all that you studied in my homeland for five years.”
     “And you, my friend, do not understand women,” Hakim stated, already starting to slur his words. “When you have as many as I do, you learn that to keep peace you must love each one for who she is. Never take her for granted, or compare her to another. Else jealousy sets in and your life is miserable thereafter.”
     “So,” the physician said getting back to Ren’s aborted marriage plans, “the pain you are experiencing obviously does not come from losing the bride. So it must be from losing the relationship with your cousin. Is that right?”
     Ren nodded. “He and I were close as children. By the time you joined our group at school, he’d already begun his downward slide.
     “When he left University prematurely, he began to live a life of debauchery and gambling.” Ren rubbed his forehead in frustration and glanced at Ismael. “It is not as though we didn’t have our fun too,” he turned to Hakim and asked, “is that not right?” Turning back to the physician, he added, “But his was excessive. He’d disappear into the bowels of Town and not surface for weeks, months even. And when he did it was to ask my father for an advance on his allowance.
     “After school I began to sail with my uncle, and didn’t see Thomas for a few years. It was while I was at sea that my father and stepmother died in an accident that many said was suspicious, but there was never any proof of foul play. Their carriage went off the road into a deep ravine.” He cleared his throat, the lump growing somewhat painful with the telling of the tale. “My stepmother was carrying another child. They were both wishing for a second son.”
     Ren thought back to the pain of losing his father and stepmother, it wasn’t something he wanted to ever go through again. Unlike most of his set, he actually loved his father and respected him.
     “All was going fairly well until a few months ago. Thomas sent a note that he needed to speak to me. I invited him to come to Haldenwood, and asked him to stay for the holidays because I was planning to announce my betrothal over Christmas. According to his letter, I expected him to arrive on a Thursday afternoon. He didn’t appear. I thought he was just delayed, and that surely he’d come. Two days later, he’d sill not arrived, and I went out on a stag hunt with a few of the local gentry. Someone shot at me as I rode through a field. I was not hit, but my horse was. I had to finish off my favorite stallion right there.
     “My game-keeper immediately went to where the shot came from, and gave chase. He got a good look at the man as he rode away.”
     “Tell me no,” Hakim whispered.
     Now feeling a surprising lack of emotion, Ren nodded. “A few weeks later, as my grandmother was preparing for Lady Margaret’s family to descend upon Haldenwood for the holidays, we receive word that my soon-to-be-bride is very ill and unable to attend. I sent my family physician to see to her, and he returns with a most shocking tale. It seems she miscarried a child that was not mine. And what’s worse, in her fevered delirium, she called out for my cousin.”
     The three men sat in silence for several long minutes, digesting the tale Ren had just relived for them. It felt good to actually speak of it all, knowing the men he told would never betray his trust. He’d not been able to speak of it so thoroughly before, because not long after the incident with Margaret, Ren had left England, without speaking of his emotions to anyone. Including his closest friend, Michael.
     He inhaled deeply from his cigar, and exhaled as he spoke. “If something were to happen to me, Thomas is next in line to inherit.” He raked a hand over his face to wipe away the growing emotion. Once he had that under control, he continued, “I have my grandmother, and sisters, Elise and Sarah, to think of. Now I must see to finding another suitable bride to make a duchess. She must be pleasant to look upon, and accomplished in the skills necessary to do the job.”
     Hakim laughed. “You sound as though you were purchasing a horse or hound. Was there no affection? I desire my wives a great deal, all six of them, as well as the thirty-two other women in my harim.”
     “Even a man of your position should have a wife he desires. Not one that ‘will do,’” said the physician. “Find a woman you desire, take her to wife, then see to creating the heir. That is the order of things.”
     “I have to agree with him there.” Hakim stated. “We are fast approaching thirty years. I’ve known younger men to die of natural causes.” He took another long swig of his wine. “Is there no other suitable female in all of England who is still virtuous?”
     “If there are, they must still be in the schoolroom,” Ren replied sarcastically, exhaling a cloud of smoke. Spontaneous laughter erupted as Hakim re-filled his glass, and then Ren’s, finishing off the bottle.
     “I dread going through all the pretense again to find the proper wife. You know I do not do the social games well.” He lifted his glass, and stared into the contents. “Yet, it seems I must again play the town dandy to find a bride. It tires and bores me.” Pushing back from the table, Ren prepared to rise. “But, ‘tis just one of the necessary evils a man must endure, I suppose, to continue the family line.” Fed up with the topic, Ren turned to the men. “Excuse me, please. I must leave now, if I am to assist a certain green-eyed waif.”
     Ismael looked puzzled and Ren explained.
     Afterward, the physician turned to Hakim. “You know,” he said casually, “if he were Muslim he could buy his way out of his current predicament.”
     Hakim and Ismael exchanged foxed grins, Hakim’s eyes becoming mischievously bright. “Of course! There’s your solution!”
     “That is not an option,” Ren countered flatly.
     “Your options,” Hakim asserted with a flourish of his hand, “are limitless. You are the Duke of Caversham after all. Think anyone would go against you should you legitimize a bastard born of a mistress?” Hakim took a sip of his wine, and made sure Ren understood him before continuing. “I think not, my friend.”
     “Impossible. There are others to consider, my responsibility to my family, my duty to my title, my heritage, and social mores.”
     “The Ren I know would not be concerned with the opinions of others,” Hakim replied.
     “I simply wish to secure the release of a woman I’m sure was illegally procured.” Remembering the desperation on her face, Ren added, “If you had seen the look in her eyes you would agree.” He stood to leave. “She probably has a family at home desirous of her safe return, and I would take her back. If she were one of my sisters, I would hope for the same.”
     Hakim and Ismael stood, intending to accompany him.
     “If you come with me,” Ren lectured, “there will be no such discussion again. I am only about freeing a despairing waif.”
     “I promise to be on my bess behavior, Your Grace,” the prince drawled. A servant filled a large flask with the port as Hakim instructed and handed it to him.
     “You are going to have a hell of a cracked skull tomorrow.” Ren tossed back the remaining contents of his glass.
     “Only because I have not imbibed since your last visit.”
     Ren quirked an eye to Ismael for confirmation, and the physician nodded knowingly.
     “Mayhap your green-eyed runaway will turn out to be a fantasy in the flesh,” Hakim said, linking arms with Ismael, as the two headed from the room. “A woman to stir the loins,” Hakim paused, exchanging a look with the physician, “and possibly the heart.”
     “Oh, I doubt that,” Ren muttered, following the two from the dining hall.