Charles Henry Edward Lambert rarely dreamed of his old life, but he did so now as his current life continued to slip away. His dream took him back to Wilfred and Lady Constance and their children Charles and Marianne, lived in a stately manor called Somerset House. Under the reign of King George II, England existed in a state of peace and even prosperity, its residents living a relatively calm and carefree existence.
A good friend of the Lamberts, Lord Hazelton, had just returned from the continent, bringing with him a traveling companion named Countess Elena Solieri, a widow from Rome. The Lamberts welcomed the couple at Somerset, their stay indeterminate. Charles found Countess Solieri not only beautiful and elegant but engaging and intriguing. She had a certain air about her, romantic and mysterious, that prompted Charles to know more about her. Besides the stylish clothes she wore, Elena always appeared stunning, her blond tresses done up in soft curls, her face powdered discreetly, and her golden brown eyes highlighted by long lashes.
During stolen moments together—a walk in the gardens or an after-dinner encounter in the drawing room—Elena told him of her past. She had been born in Naples, the daughter of an Italian statesman and diplomat assigned to London. She had been educated at a school for young ladies near Cambridge, hence her command of English and Latin. Later she studied at the international academy in Paris where she learned French, German and Spanish. Because of her father’s contacts, Elena met many important people, including Luciano Solieri, an Italian nobleman, whom she married.
As the Conte and Contessa Solieri, she and her husband lived in an elegant villa in Roma. It was a happy marriage of four years but produced no children. When her husband died unexpectedly, she began to travel, France, Switzerland, Spain, Austria, and Prussia.
At a Crimean resort in Yalta, Elena met Lord Hazelton and they agreed to travel together, often portraying themselves as brother and sister to allay anyone’s curiosity about their relationship, or worse disproval and censorship. Although Lord Hazelton was ten years older than the lovely twenty-three-year-old Elena, the ruse still worked.
“People on the continent,” she told Charles one afternoon as they walked through Lady Lambert’s rose garden, “are much more open to relationships outside of marriage. They believe men and women can be friends as well as intellectual equals. But in this country, such relationships are considered taboo and immoral.”
“I agree to a point,” Charles deferred with a wry smile, “but some of us prescribe to a liberal attitude. We’re called libertines and believe that as consenting adults, we should be able to enjoy whatever we please without censor.” In fact, Charles Lambert, the fifth Earl of Bellmore, wholly endorsed liberal attitudes and desires, which often got him in trouble, including expulsion from Cambridge University.
With a winsome smile, Elena proclaimed, “I’m very glad to hear it! In fact, I’m happy to find someone who believes as I do. At least I will not have to play the hypocrite around you. But what about your sister? Is she as demure and innocent as she appears?”
Charles nodded thoughtfully. “Very much so, although I find Marianne’s innocence quite refreshing in a world where, too often, corruption and depravity exist. I hope she never loses sight of her excellent qualities. Perhaps I’m jaded and hypocritical, but I still believe in modesty and virtue in some women.”
“Oh?” Elena wrinkled her brow.
His smile broadened to a clever grin. “I said some women, not all women. Although I admire modest women, I also admire those who pursue their desires freely and openly, and don’t care a wit about what society says and thinks.”
Laughing lightly, she slipped her arm through his. “You and I will get along quite well, Sir Lambert.”
“All right, Charles, and I’m simply Elena. I despise those who use their titles to put on airs, demand things and expect others to kowtow to them.”
“Amen to that, lovely lady.”
During most evenings, the Lamberts and their guests gathered in the drawing room. Usually the elder Sir Lambert and Lord Hazelton played a game of chess while Charles looked on with a snifter of brandy. Lady Lambert tended to her embroidery while Marianne played the harpsichord, often accompanied by Elena Solieri who proved to be an accomplished musician in her own right. Sometimes, Elena played the harpsichord while Marianne sang sweet ballads of love, honor and patriotism. Marianne possessed a lovely soprano voice, and even Elena could sing quite well in a lusty alto-soprano timber.
Despite these pleasant and entertaining interludes provided by the ladies, Charles found such evenings quite boring. He craved some excitement in this wasteland of propriety and mores. So whenever possible, he slipped away and went to the pub in Lime Regence where he could drink as much ale as he pleased, play cards or darts, and have a go with the barmaids. His activities hurt no one, in fact, gave him some respite from his up-and-coming life as the earl of the manor who would have to oversee the tenant farmers and marry, at least, a woman of title and means. Love had no place in the narrowed and honorable role he would soon play.
Charles considered the only eligible ladies in the district the Asquith sisters, Henrietta and Daphne. In fact, the Asquiths were neighbors of the Lamberts, although their manor and lands remained fifteen miles apart from the Lambert property. Both Henrietta and Daphne came with sizable dowries, but the money did little to compensate for their rather plain looks and flighty demeanors. Charles found them silly, self-indulgent, gossipy creatures with little or no talent for anything useful. Worse, he would probably have to marry one of them in order to fulfill his ancestral role.
Every year, the Lamberts hosted an autumn ball to celebrate the usually abundant and profitable harvest. All of the nobles and their families from the surrounding estates were invited, including those villagers from Lime Regence who contributed to the sustained welfare of the Lamberts by virtue of their professions, the land purveyor, the vicar, the banker, and the doctor.
Charles had already seduced Dr. Rodney Thwaite’s wife, Beryl, the only lady in the village who possessed the estimable attributes of youth, vivacity and attractiveness. But he grew weary of their clandestine relationship, and decided to broaden his horizons with the two buxom and willing barmaids, Polly and Fanny—that is, until he met Elena Solieri.
Within days of their meeting, Charles discreetly accepted Elena’s invitation to her bed chamber where they commenced to enjoy rather passionate bouts of nightly lovemaking. As a woman of the world, the countess had no inhibitions when it came to sex, and Charles found himself quite “in lust” with her. He would find it hard to look at another woman while Elena remained in the Lambert house, her presence quite alluring to the male inhabitants as well. Even Charles’ father, Sir Wilfred, seemed to revert back to his younger, carefree years as a suitor whenever he encountered Elena, gushing with chivalrous compliments.
It would be no different at the ball where all male eyes would be riveted on the Countess Solieri. If Charles pandered to feminine opinions, he would find that his mother, Lady Constance, considered Elena unprincipled and uncouth, while his sister Marianne found the countess charming and enchanting.
As Charles predicted, Elena stole the hearts of the male guests at the ball and earned the admiration of the female party-goers as well. She wore a stunning gown of wintergreen silk and ivory Venetian lace accentuated with an emerald pendant and matching drop earrings in gold settings. On her elegant wrist she wore a corsage of cream and yellow zinnias with sprays of green salvia. Unlike the other women who wore stiff whalebone hoops beneath their gowns, Elena eschewed the cumbersome panniers and opted for the soft and sweeping line of her gown’s skirt.
Her snub to fashion caused the ladies to whisper disapprovingly amongst themselves, but the men smiled in relief. They had to maneuver around the bothersome hoops as they danced with the women who clung to le couture a la monde, the wider the hoop skirts the better, even if the ladies had to turn sideways to fit through a door frame and come into a room. Every man at the ball had the honor of dancing at least one dance with the countess. Charles—in his newly-tailored suit of pale blue satin—had been lucky enough to snag three dances, two waltzes and a country reel.
For some strange reason, Elena seemed interested in Daphne Asquith who wore a royal-blue gown to highlight her flaming red hair, now piled haphazardly on her head and secured by a silver and sapphire tiara. Daphne’s henna hair, thick and curly, was really her only attractive asset, the rest of her pale, plain and ungainly.
When Charles broached the subject of Daphne, the countess gave him a wistful, almost faraway look. “She reminds me of someone I knew a long, long time ago; although I’ve observed that Miss Asquith has not the grace and beauty of my old friend.”
“I quite agree.” Hooking his arm around Elena’s waist and taking her hand, Charles waltzed her out to the rear terrace so he could have a moment alone with her.
Along the low stone wall, a series of torches had been placed in holders affixed to the stone statuettes, thus providing some outdoor lighting and a bit of romantic ambiance. Charles whisked Elena into the shadows.
“Darling!” he began, pulling her into his arms. “It has been sheer torture watching you dance with those old, fat and boring fools.”
Elena laughed playfully. “Oh, Charles, you’re not jealous, are you?”
“If I say I am, will you think me shallow and possessive?”
“Not at all.”
“Good.” He took her mouth in a quick but possessive kiss, his fingers caressing the undercarriage of her breasts, raised and tightened within her lace-trimmed bodice to discreetly reveal the cleft of her bosom.
She had dusted her breast bone with shimmering powder, her perfume of bergamot and vetiver. For one maddening moment, he wanted to wretch the combs out of her hair and tear away the lacey bodice bib so that her hair would tumble down and caress the nipples of her exposed breasts. Perhaps, if he took her to the woods beyond the gardens, they could indulge in a luscious fuck.
For September, the weather remained remarkably pleasant, even in the evenings. In fact, many of the guests who had become hot and sweaty while dancing in the stuffy ballroom had come out to seek the refreshing night air. Now Charles heard snatches of conversation and light laughter as people mingled and walked along the garden paths, some venturing further to the wooded area where he had hoped to take his lover.
Pulling out of his embrace, Elena stepped back, her gaze and expression free of any ardor. “I want to walk a bit. Will you fetch me a cup of punch in the meantime? When you return, you should find me close to the gardens. From there...well, we shall see.” Her eyes offered a quick provocative flicker.
“Of course, my darling,” Charles agreed, always eager to please her. “I’ll be right back.”
The Lamberts provided their guests with a generous spread, carved ham, roast beef and duck, various salads, breads and desserts. Guests also had a choice of mulled wine with spices or a citrus and berry punch. Of course, heartier drinks such as whiskey and brandy could be had in the study where Sir Wilfred now held court with his cronies.
As he poured punch into a small glass cup, Charles observed his mother, Lady Constance, talking to some of the other matrons, her daughter by her side. His mother looked regal in a gown of champagne satin while his sister, Marianne, looked so sweet and pretty in pink chiffon. She possessed a heart-shaped face with delicate features, her body slender, her skin like fine porcelain, and her hair, with its soft ripples, a becoming shade of honey brown. Next to the other worldly-wise women, Marianne appeared like a lovely angelic vision. A host of eligible men had asked her to dance and she had obliged, although Charles knew she did so out of politeness rather than enjoyment.
Marianne seemed to hold no interest in the local oafs, even those who would inherit land and titles. With such a husband and her own dowry, she would become a lady with prestige. Perhaps Charles could do more to encourage Marianne’s interest in at least one eligible suitor, even if none who sought her hand appeared remotely attractive and intelligent. At the age of nineteen, Marianne should have been married by now; and if she kept up this indifference she would soon be labeled an old maid, forced to live a dull, cloistered life with their parents.
With the punch cup in hand, Charles returned to the patio and walked down the three stone steps to the garden area in search of Elena. Suddenly he heard a scream and then spied Henrietta Asquith running toward the house as best as she could in her unwieldy hoop skirt, the pale yellow gown over it torn at the hem and the edges of her sleeves bloody. “Help, help!” she cried. “My sister! Dead, murdered!”
Tossing the punch cup on the grass, Charles ran in the direction from where Henrietta had come from, beyond the gardens. Thankfully a large, luminous harvest moon helped to guide him to the paths ahead, two that circumvented the gardens, and another that went on toward the lawn and woods. He took the wood path and found a knot of people gathered round a cluster of oleander bushes. One of the male guests held a torch over the area of interest so everyone could see clearly.
“Dear God in Heaven!” another one cried in shock. “She’s been severed!”
Charles made his way to the dark form slumped near the bushes. When he peered down and discovered the very pale, dead body of Daphne Asquith he felt his stomach roil. The poor girl’s throat had been slashed clean across, her head tilted slightly back so that the wound appeared like a gaping fish mouth.
“Did anyone see what happened here?” Charles asked as he stumbled back.
A general murmur ensued but no one claimed to be near here when Daphne had been attacked and murdered. Of course, everyone expressed shock and fear. Recently, a convict from the nearby Albemarle Prison had escaped, the man considered a dangerous lunatic.
But Daphne’s murder wasn’t the first killing in the Surrey area. Several of the villagers had met the same fate with their throats slashed, and their murders had created a stupefying mystery. All the victims seemed to have been drained of their blood.
Forcing himself to look at the victim again, Charles observed Daphne’s body. It, too, seemed unusually pale, even for a light-complexioned redhead. Very little blood had seeped out of the wound, a trickle really that slid down the girl’s collar bone and stained the lace décolletage of her gown. A smear of blood appeared along her throat and beneath her jawline, as if someone had wiped blood there. Charles wondered if Henrietta had smeared her sister’s blood accidentally as she peered over the body, staining the sleeves of her gown in the process. Or perhaps Henrietta had done the deed herself, only acting the part of a shocked, hysterical sister. But Charles rather doubted it. Like her dead sister, Henrietta lacked the intelligence and wherewithal to commit a clever murder.
With a sigh, he debated his next move. Charles knew he should return to the house and inform his father, but by now someone had announced the grisly news to the guests inside. The party would end naturally upon this tragic turn of events, and one of the Lambert grooms would be dispatched to ride the thirty miles to the township of Midwich in order to fetch a constable since Lime Regence had no law enforcement personnel. Now Charles’ father had sufficient reason to petition the London police and ask that one of their officers come to Dorset and investigate.
Soon Dr. Rodney Thwaite joined the crowd at the murder scene and crouched over the body for an examination, although it seemed a moot task at this point. When finished, he straightened and shook his head sadly.
“Another murder,” the doctor announced to no one in particular. “Who would do this to a young lady like Miss Asquith? She never hurt anyone. The killer must be a madman, a monster.”
“What should we do with the body?” someone asked.
“Perhaps place a blanket over her and then secure the body in the barn while we await the constable. It seems sacrilegious to leave her like this.” Everyone appeared to agree with the doctor’s suggestion.
Charles, who had been standing next to Rodney Thwaite, nodded solemnly. “I’ll see to it.” He wanted to do something, anything, rather than stand about and look lost and afraid like his parents and many of the guests were probably doing right now.
In all the commotion, he had forgotten about Elena, but hoped she had retired to her bedroom where she would be safe for now. The rest of the night seemed to drag on, but by five o’clock in the morning Charles had enough of sitting and stewing in the drawing room with everyone else. He went up to check on Elena, and found her awake and alert.
She wore a lingerie set, a robe and nightgown of baby-blue organza, her hair down around shoulders and combed in soft waves.
“I’m leaving here, Charles,” she told him flatly. “I wish to winter at my lake house in northern Italy.” A faint shimmer of a smile played on her lips. “If you care to come with me, I’d be happy to accommodate you...and your sister, too, if she so desires.”
Charles would go, of course, but he wondered if they should take Marianne along with them. But why not? Perhaps his sister could meet an eligible Italian count, duke or prince if Elena cared to play matchmaker with her friends and acquaintances of noble birth and rank.
“What about Lord Hazelton?” he queried when he remembered Elena traveling companion. “Will he be going with you as well?”
“No, Lord Hazelton wishes to stay in London and so we have had our parting of the ways, on an amicable note, of course.”
“I am glad for that.” Taking Elena in his arms, Charles bent his head and brought his mouth close to hers. “At last I shall have you all to myself! I’ve been going mad these past few weeks wanting and waiting to be with you. As I watched you dance last night with all those fat lascivious fools, I had to control myself lest I succumbed to a fit of jealousy. But now, now I refuse to share you with anyone!”
Elena laughed lightly. “Oh, dear, dear, boy! You should know by now that you cannot claim me as your own...not yet anyway. There will be challenges and obstacles ahead, and you must conquer them if you wish to claim me as your one and only love.”
“I will gladly climb mountains naked in the middle of a snowstorm, swim through a tidal wave, wrestle monsters if need be, as long as you deign to allow me to love and worship you.”
This time her laughter held a tinge of cleverness. “I will think about it, my darling Charles. But now we must make plans if we are to leave here by this evening.” Elena tried to push him away, her smile and gestures playful and carefree, but Charles refused to let her go.
“Not just yet, my darling Elena,” he murmured as he tightened his grip and then forced her against him. His mouth crushed hers with need, his body tense and hard with arousal.
At first she tried to fight him off, but when Charles refused to release her, Elena relented and returned his kiss. He slithered her robe down and off her arms, eager to caress her breasts straining against the filmy fabric of her gown. Her mouth and hands worked quickly and deftly, causing an explosion of heat in Charles and making him shudder from the intensity. After the horror of last night, of death and destruction, he could bask now in the light, eager and reckless to live and love under her guidance.
And he gave back, passion for passion, reckless and greedy, ripping her gown down the front and pulling it off in a tirade of passion. He craved her now naked body, the shape and curves of it, and the glorious feel of it as it molded to him and pressed against his erection. He wanted her wild, desperate and aching, to drag her down to the madness with him. No patience or tenderness here, only a crazy urgency, a gnawing that needed to be satisfied.
He stripped off his shirt while she undid the buttons his breeches. As she pulled out his shaft, she stroked him with expert hands until he was breathless and quivering, his heart slamming against his rib cage.
He set the animal free inside of him and pushed her down on the bed. Crazed, careless, he drove into her, hard and deep, shoving up her knees in order to take more, take it all. As his mouth crushed hers, she dug into his shoulders and then scraped down his back with fingers like keen, hot claws, drawing blood in the process. But Charles felt nothing but the urgent, wild need to satisfy his lust.
Gripping his hips, she matched him stroke for frenzied stroke. Fast, faster, until his cry of release came in a desperate sob against her lips and he fell limply against her while choking out her name. He wanted to stay like this forever, with his lover warm and soft beneath him, but his day dream ended abruptly as Elena pushed him away and got up from the bed. She wanted to move quickly, to pack and leave the manor. Did he really, seriously want to go with her? If so, they had to move fast.
With a resounding yes to her offer, Charles made hasty arrangements, doing so on the sly while garnering Marianne’s cooperation and eagerness to leave home as well. If their mother knew of the countess’ plans to take her children away, Lady Constance would do whatever it took to stop the exodus. She would never allow her daughter, so innocent, naïve and inexperienced, to go off into the world and enter into a sordid arrangement with a woman she privately held in contempt.
But no matter what he had to do, Charles would not leave Marianne behind. His love and lust for Elena depended on it. As Elena told him, “Your sister needs to broaden her horizons, to experience and learn, not just in mind but it body. I will be her teacher and mentor, and you will be our loving companion. It will be the three of us—for it must be just the three of us—beginning anew on a pleasurable journey and glorious adventure.”
Thoughts of idyllic and passionate encounters spurred Charles on to secure their passage out of the country. He dreamed of making love to Elena in a boat-gondola on the lake or in the salon and bed chamber of her villa, with tulle curtains ruffling in the breeze, the cool sheets beneath caressing their undulating bodies, and the scent of honeysuckle inspiring them.