Act 1

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chapter 7

Richard groaned in pain as his body, tossed from the carriage, collided with the cold, hard ground. When the two silent men with Lord Xavier grabbed him by the long dark hair on his head and pulled him to his feet, he muffled another cry of pain.

"Consider this a warning, Richard," Xavior said, his voice deep, the tone of it even more threatening than his words. "Lady Bathory is off limits. I don't want to see you near her again. Understood?"

"No."

Richard refused to bend to the menacing lord's command, though he wasn't sure why. Perhaps it was the glasses of champagne he drank with Lady Bedelia. Or maybe it was because he had been pushed around by the upper class his whole life.

With a simple gesture from Xavior, the two men began beating him. Blood gushed from his temple.

Xavior snapped his fingers. The attackers halted their fists.

"I hope this serves to change your mind. Next time it will be me doing the beating."

The three men left Richard there in the cold and dark forest. He hobbled between the trees. He pressed his coat against his bleeding head, trying in vain to find the main road.

Why didn't he remain silent? Had he done so, he wouldn't be bleeding as he was now.

Understanding failed to enlighten him. What felt like hours, but in reality was only minutes later, he collapsed as his heart no longer pulsed within his chest.

XXXXX

Xavior stared out into the night. He had taken care of much needed business. Richard Maxwell had been warned. The two servants he had hired to assist him with that matter were now on a train, their destination far from England, and a nice sum of money in their pockets. Help was always easy to find when one had the means to sway the minds of the weak and desperate.

XXXXX

Two days after the ball, an extremely bored Lady Bedelia stood in front of the fireplace in the den of her large home. She stared into the flames as the freshly chopped wood gathered by her servant earlier in the day burned brightly. The warmth of the fire chased off the cold draft circling her home; the crackle and pop of the burning embers interrupted the silence of the otherwise peaceful mansion.

With the dinner hour approaching, she called for her personal maid.

"Mildred, what is the cook preparing for tonight's dinner?"

The young maid scurried into the room. Trying not to fidget before her mistress, she cleared her throat nervously. "I'm sorry, my lady, but the kitchen staff is having issues with tonight's meal. It will be some time before it is completed."

Mildred shivered under Bedelia's intense gaze. A sudden knock on the front door saved her from a certain verbal reprimand. An agitated wave from her mistress sent her running to see who the unexpected caller might be. When she opened the heavy door, she found a tall, unfamiliar gentleman on the steps, a silver tray in his hands.

"Is the lady of the house in?" he asked.

Before Mildred could reply, a cold voice shot from behind her. "You're dismissed, Mildred."

With a low curtsy, Mildred scurried away, leaving her mistress alone with the dark, handsome stranger.

Bedelia walked towards the entrance where Xavior stood.

"Good evening." His deep voice sent shivers through her being.

"Good evening, Xavior. Please, come in."

She stepped back to allow him entrance. She stood smiling, eyeing the elegant platter for several moments before finally leading him into the dining room, where he placed it upon the cherry oak table

"This is an unexpected treat," she said as he removed the cover to reveal a delicious meal.

She waved her hand to the servants who were setting the table. They departed silently. The arranged plates and utensils waited neatly on the table. Near the fine china and silver wear was a bottle of 1910 Domaines Barons de Rothschild Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Bedelia poured the wine as Xavier spoke. "Thank you for indulging me. I hope you like quail."

Bedelia nodded as she settled comfortably in her chair. "I do. Tell me, how have you prepared it?"

Xavior served them both an equal portion of the quail, shot and cleaned by his butler earlier in the day.

"I marinated the quail in citrus, and prepared some noodles as a side dish."

The golden brown bird cooked to perfection looked divine. "Sounds delectable. I had no idea, Xavior, that you were such a proficient cook."

He took the seat across from her and waited for her to take her first bite. Her knife cut easily into its marinated flesh. She cut a small piece and lifted it to her mouth. Her eyes closed in delight. A small moan of pleasure escaped her lips as the citrus flavor exploded on her tongue.

Xavior took great pleasure in her delight.

"You flatter me, dear lady. I felt I needed a delicious meal to accompany my apology for my rude behavior the other day. I don't know what came over me."

The embarrassed, guilty look on his face did not fool her.

She arranged her napkin on her lap. "Your need to possess caused you to display your assumed dominance over me. I forgive you because it is in man's nature to try to dominate those they see as weak."

His deep, dark eyes met hers, and held them. "I don't see you as weak." A moment passed before he spoke again. "And since you were unable to attend my previous dinner party...this is the only way I could cook for you."

Bedelia reached for her glass, her cold blue eyes still meeting his. "What other reason brought you to my home, Xavior?"

He inhaled the aroma of his wine. "I wish to know what you hide beneath the cold and heartless facade you wear."

Finally breaking their gaze, Bedelia cut into the tender meat. "You wish to see beneath my exterior, yet you refuse to reveal what lies beneath the mask you wear. Your assumption of my fake "facade" couldn't be more wrong. I hide nothing. What you see is who I am."

Xavior stirred the dark wine in his glass. "What is it that I'm hiding, Bedelia?"

She sipped at her wine before replying. "If you don't know, how do you expect me to know?" Xavior huffed in annoyance. She continued. "Do you really wish to know me?"

He dropped his utensils. "Yes."

She rose from her chair and walked towards the exit. "Perfect. Let us adjourn to the living room where we will be able to play this game far more comfortably."

Once they had settled in the formal room, Bedelia observed Xavior by the glow of the fire from her seat across from him.

"The point of the game is to answer each question asked truthfully. The game ends when either player answers untruthfully."

Xavior smiled; the glow of the fire creating a sinister look.

"Ladies first."

"Where were you before coming to England?"

"New York, managing my estate. Why do you despise men?"

Bedelia pursed her lips at the question. "This is a man's world, in the palm of every man lies their freedom. Men are free to do as they please. Marry if and when they want. Women are chained from the day they escape their mother's womb. Their desires are watered down, dreams and passions extinguished. In essence, where a man's wings are free to spread and grow, ours are clipped. We are attached to the men who claim us as their property. In the land of men we have no say. Tell me, did you tire of the scenery in New York, or were the walls closing in on you?"

"The walls were coming closer. There was an accident with a particular servant. You despise men, yet you don't mind the pleasure of their company. Why is that?"

Bedelia chuckled. Xavier was playing the game well.

"I take my pleasure from whoever catches my interest. Male or female. Now tell me why you are so...shall we say, interested, in Henri Maxwell?"

"He is a smart man and he has many of the qualities I want in a friend. I've met many people in my life, but none quite like him. And certainly, none like you. Who was the first man to hurt you?"

"When I turned seventeen a wealthy doctor asked for my hand in marriage. He was forty years my senior and well-loved within the community. Behind closed doors he was a sadistic man with the knowledge of how to inflict pain without leaving visible marks. It's odd for a man of your mind frame to seek friendship with someone so different from you. You have hatred for the poor and rich alike. Why is that?"

"A city filled with peasants were influenced by two wealthy patrons. Both classes led to the death of my mother and sister. Tell me more of your first marriage."

"I spent my free time in his library, reading every single book. I learned a great deal about medicine and the workings of the mind. He was a sick man, both physically and mentally. It was easy and tempting to mess with his medications, but it was not I who gave him an early death. I was an observer. Did you seek revenge on those responsible for your family?"

"Yes. When my father died I returned and destroyed those involved. The wealthy involved lost daughters, money, industries, and their good names. The poor lost whatever few material items they possessed in a fire. The origin of the fire is still unknown by the authorities. What happened to your husband?"

"Before he married me, he had tortured the maid when they were both young. She loathed him. I could have stopped her from switching the medication...I could have helped him. There are two instincts we feel when seeing a wounded creature. Some wish to help it, others wish to crush it. You suffered a lot as a child, Xavior. What was the most excruciating memory of your childhood?"

He swallowed hard. "I was present when they burned my home down with my mother and sister inside. What instinct did you follow?"

"I watched him wither in agony, pleading for death. I stayed by his side like a devoted wife should. Did you blame your absent father for their deaths?"

"Yes. Did you observe in your other marriages?"

"No. Do you still hear their screams?"

"No. Did you kill your husbands?"

"The game is over. You failed to answer my question."

"I answered your question."

"You did, but not truthfully. It's strange no one has connected you to any of the crimes you have committed. You're a horrible liar."

Xavior frowned, his curiosity far from sated.

"You are dangerous, Xavior."

Bedelia was positive he was responsible for the beating of the stable boy and the disappearances of a few of the poor. Richard, the illegitimate son of a wealthy bank owner, had gone missing. The last time he was seen was at the ball, where he had left in her carriage. Xavior was possessive by nature. It wasn't difficult to believe he might somehow be responsible.

"As are you, Bedelia."

Bedelia stared into the fire. "Now that you have the information you desire, what do intend to do with it?"

Xavior's eyes twinkled. "I'm not sure. What do you plan to do with the conclusion you have drawn of me?"

"Nothing."

XXXXX

On his way home, Xavior contemplated the information he had learned. Bedelia wasn't responsible for the death of her husband, not entirely. The woman was far from innocent, but...

He was certain Henri wouldn't hesitate to imprison her if he gave him this information, but Bedelia had also gained critical information on him. She said she would do nothing, but he couldn't trust her. She was now a threat. He would have to kill her.

The beast balked at the idea of killing someone so like himself. He couldn't bear to lose Henri, nor could he allow Bedelia to walk free. Something would have to be done.

XXXXX

Bedelia stared out the window of her bedroom the next morning. It was lovely day for a ride.

She grabbed her crop as she headed out the front door. Not looking up, she crashed into a firm chest. Before she tumbled to the ground, strong arms wrapped around her waist. She looked up into the eyes of none other than Xavior Romier. They were close, her hands on his chest. If he bent down just a bit their lips would touch.

"You must be careful, Bedelia."

He pulled her closer to him, invading her personal space even more.

She refused to show any stir of emotion, but she couldn't deny the affect his proximity had on her. She wrapped her arms around his neck, deciding to go along with his game.

"I'm always careful. Now tell me, to what do I owe this pleasurable visit?"

Her memorizing scent distracted him momentarily. "I wanted to accompany you on your morning ride."

He reluctantly allowed Bedelia to pull free from his embrace as she replied. "How kind of you to offer, but I don't wish to pull you away from your business. I'm fine going on my own."

"Nothing would give me more pleasure than to accompany you. I wish to protect you from any dangers you may encounter."

Bedelia tilted her head. "I have told you no in the kindest way possible, yet you insist on accompanying me."

"I am tenacious that way."

"Why are you so tenacious?"

"I feel protective of you. You accept me and do not judge me. I want to do the same for you."

She smiled faintly. "It is not my place to judge, Xavior. If you insist... I accept your offer, but I don't need nor want your protection."

Echo neighed as the stable boy brought him to his mistress. Bedelia thanked him and took the reins from his hand.

Xavior stepped forward and intervened before the strapping stable boy could help Bedelia mount her horse.

Rolling her eyes at his possessive move, she accepted his assistance. His large hand lingered on her thigh for a moment too long.

Using her crop, she smacked it against his hand. He smirked as he mounted his white stallion waiting nearby.

"I hope you ride as smooth as you talk." Echo galloped away as Bedelia finished her statement.

Xavior smiled and urged his own horse after her.

XXXXX

Weeks later, Henri and Xavior sat before each other in Henri's small office at the police department.

Henri stared at Xavior anxiously. "Did you discover anything new about Bedelia?"

"She rides horses very well."

"For god's sake, Xavior!" He slammed his hands on the hard mahogany desk. "You have been spending time with her. The whole bloody town thinks you're courting her."

"What if I am?"

"You can't be serious." He looked at Xavior as if he had sprouted three heads.

"I'm not getting anywhere with her. If I marry her, I can keep her under close watch."

"You're insane!" Henri rubbed his face. "Marriage?" he scoffed. "I guess if she accepts you I wouldn't have to worry about her so much. That is, of course, providing she even accepts your offer."

"She will marry me, but enough about my upcoming engagement. There is something else troubling you."

"Indeed there is." Henri drooped in his chair. "We found Richard's body last week. He was discovered by three teens in the woods. It appears he died from a head wound and from the cold. Whoever did this is responsible for the disappearances of the other two servants, I just know it. Of course the department does not care because the victims are not of high class. And Richard's father was too busy to be bothered."

Xavior grinned inwardly. Henri saw what others did not. He may have been wrong about key things, but he was sharp. Richard's death was unexpected, but not worrisome. With a little tweak here and there he would truly be perfect. His plan would work perfectly. Marriage to Bedelia would allow him to keep a closer eye on her and he would have the companion he'd long searched for in Henri Maxwell.

XXXXX

Bedelia laughed loudly, clutching her sides. The serious look from the foolish man across from her stilled her laughter.

"Oh dear! You can't possibly be serious? "

Xavior, unwilling to acknowledge it, felt his male pride wilt at her laughter. "I don't see why my proposal has garnered such a response from you."

The woman laughed darkly, the throaty sound lacked the mirth from moments before. So this was his master plan. He didn't plan to turn her into the police, no, he was going to blackmail her into marriage.

"I wish to marry you, Bedelia. To protect you from those who wish to do you harm."

Bedelia gazed at him intently. "You wish to cage me, like all the other men in my life. The gold gilded cage you "offer" is no different from the others."

The sadness and disappointment in her eyes stirred something within him. Shaking the odd emotion, Xavior returned her intense gaze. "You can refuse my offer, Bedelia. But the consequences will be of your own making. I am—"

"Smooth your ruffled feathers, Lord Romier. I accept, but there will be conditions."

Xavior grinned inwardly; he had won. "Name them."

"We will be husband and wife in name, but nothing more. I have no interest in you and, well... I'm sure your interests lie elsewhere."

Xavior hid his disappointment and wounded ego.

Bedelia continued, her voice monotone. "I will not stop whatever dalliances you may partake as long as you don't intervene with mine. Also, since you want a wedding so badly, I'll leave you to the preparations."

She wanted an open marriage; so be it. He cared little...

The beast within him shook his dark head at the obvious lie the man was telling himself.

"Are those are your only conditions?"

When she nodded, he pulled a box from his jacket. The silver ring with a large black diamond glinted in the afternoon light. He slipped the rare and beautiful black diamond on her finger. She looked away as he kissed her hand. Pulling away, she began to speak.

"This is not a condition, you may take it as you wish. I will not be your plaything, Xavior. I'm not a weak female who cannot defend herself. Your words of protection hold no weight with me, save them for Sir Maxwell. You wish to keep your enemies close. What is closer than marriage? Do not attempt to lie to me again. If you're going to kill me I prefer for you to be upfront about it. Forgive me if I'm discourteous, but I find your presence intolerable at the moment. If there is nothing further to be said I suggest you fuck off."

Bedelia gazed out the window waiting for him to depart. When he finally left, her rigid posture slipped. Her cushioned seat held her slumped form.

A rebellious tear slipped from her eye. She wiped at it furiously; he was just another man. She was wrong to think he was different. They desired to possess, to claim. In the time they had spent together she had come to believe he saw her as an equal. How wrong she had been. It seemed she was destined to remain on the ledge surrounded by the shadows of men.

Standing rapidly, she crushed the glass in her hand. The glass cutting her skin gave her clarity.

Her time in the shadows was over. Xavior would not remained unscathed in this proposal.




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