Sebastian Courtenay, Earl of Devon, breathed in the pleasant night air and felt himself relax after a long day. London air was not the same as his beautiful county of Devon. Moreover, this was the time, he felt he could let his hair down as he didn’t have to worry about stopping and chatting with any acquaintances he happened to meet on the street. As such, at that hour the streets were empty. The moon shone down and the stars blinked sleepily from the sky. The world eased away into the darkness after a hard day’s work.
He adored his nightly rambles.
His hat sat low over his forehead while his walking stick clicked every time it hit the pavement. Somewhere a dog howled. Carriages moved at a sedate pace, even the creaks of the wheels sounding hushed. The horses seemed to have their heads bowed in meek submission, instead of snapping at the reins and neighing when the streets were full.
Amidst these nocturnal sounds, unexpectedly, came the shriek of a woman. Sebastian instantly became alert and scanned the area to discern where the noise came from.
“Next time I want more, you hear me?! Or you know what I will do with you, dear sister!”
The word ‘sister’ was spat most spitefully by a man, making Sebastian flinch. His eyes were fixed on the scene now playing before him a few yards away at the door of a modest townhouse. The faint light emanating from a candle inside the house, did not help him ascertain any of the faces. However, he could make out the silhouette of a tall, thin man bent menacingly over a lean woman, who was crying and quivering with fear, begging for him to have mercy. Then, much to Sebastian’s horror and disgust, the man pushed her down harshly and staggered towards the gate at the end of the small garden in front of the house. By then, Sebastian had come towards the house and stood against the wall by the gate. As soon as the man stepped out, he came forward. The man stank of stale liqour which made Sebastian scrunch his nose.
“Move, you wretch!” the man barked.
Sebastian punched the man in the stomach. He doubled over with a groan. Before he had time to compose himself, Sebastian grabbed his collar and glared straight into his eyes, which had gone wide with terror.
“Stay away from the house,” he growled at the filthy brute. “If you ever come back, you will deal with much more than a punch in the stomach. Do I make myself clear?” He voiced the last in a slow angry hiss and the man started trembling.
“Yes! Yes! Now please! Let me go! Let me go!” The cowardly bastard was quaking now.
Sebastian pushed him with vengeance. He stumbled and was about to fall but somehow, regained his balance. Taking support of the wall and staring at Sebastian with fright, he slinked off into the darkness.
Sebastian quickly made his way to the door of the house where the woman was being helped by an elderly woman and an old man, who probably seemed to be the butler and housekeeper. All three regarded him warily with wide fearful eyes.
“Please do not be afraid.” He said as he took off his hat and gave a short bow. “The Earl of Devon, at your service.”
The three exchanged puzzled glances and Sebastian bit back a smile. His eyes roved over the woman who had been attacked to see signs of any injury. But there were, thankfully, none.
“I was passing by when I saw what happened. Are you alright, My Lady?” he said to the lean woman.
For a moment no one spoke but the woman quickly gathered herself and responded. “I …I am quite fine, Sir. I thank you for your help. I…”
Her voice trailed off and she glanced briefly at her companions. Their faces did not betray anything. He decided to take the lead, if they did not.
He continued, “Can we go inside and talk?”
The stout woman gave a slight nudge to her mistress and, then, the three sprang into action. The butler bowed and came forward to take his hat, coat and gloves. The housekeeper and the woman curtsied and led him to a parlour off to the right side. The house was bare and most of it was shrouded in darkness, Sebastian noticed, as he walked to the parlour.
The woman’s shoulder bones stood out from her dull drab brown dress that was clearly not of latest fashion. Her hair was tied in a simple bun on her head. It was thick brown or black, he could not make out in the dim light of the candle that she held as she led him to the parlour. Stray strands hung down to her shoulders as they escaped the pins. The flame quivered as it fell eerily on empty walls. He could make out blank rectangular spaces where once paintings might have hung, leaving behind their mark. The woman led him to a small room furnished comfortably with a sofa, two chairs and a table. The light fell on worn and threadbare furniture. She motioned for him to sit in a chair and perched on the edge of the sofa. She placed the candle on a stand with trembling hands.
“I am sorry to intrude like this, My Lady, but I couldn’t help witnessing what that man did and stopped to provide my assistance. Are you hurt? Should I call for a doctor?”
She shook her head. “I am fine, My Lord. I thank you.”
“I do not mean to pry but he was your brother, wasn’t he?” When she nodded, he said, “I don’t think he will try to bother you again.”
“I wish I could believe that, My Lord, but I know Henry. He will be back,” she said, her eyes on the floor.
“But why would your own brother try to harm you?”
She remained silent for a while. Devon sat patiently waiting for her to start when she was able. She twisted her hands in her lap. Her face was downcast and her shoulders were tense. Finally, she spoke.
“He is my brother, Henry Cotswold. He was here to demand money from me. Henry has taken to gambling and drinking heavily these past couple of years for which he frequently needs funds. He fell into bad company at university and, even after graduation, they have stuck close. My father refuses to give him money. So, he has started demanding the money from me. My husband died a year ago, leaving me this townhouse only and a modest income. It was enough for me to live on but Henry started threatening me for money. I had no other option.”
Her knuckles had turned white with the strain of clasping the folds of her gown and Sebastian’s heart gave a squeeze at the helplessness he heard in her voice.
“Did you not go to your father for help?” he spoke in a quiet voice.
“It is of no use to go to the man who himself arranged my marriage to a man of his age for money. He would not have done anything!” she spoke, her voice laced with brittle humour.
Devon was stunned. It was terrible! A father…..His own daughter….
He knew such things frequently happened in the ton but the pathetic state of the woman in front of him gave rise to a wave of anger at the unfairness of treating women like chattel. To be bargained away for profit!
His mind unwittingly flitted to an image of his past. The tears, the sadness, the position of being at the mercy of someone…
Without thinking, he stretched out his hand and placed it over hers in a comforting gesture.
“I promise you that Henry will never lay a hand on you. Ever again.”
She raised wide eyes to his. He nodded at her and squeezed her hand. She looked into his eyes and must have read the honesty in them, for she relaxed a little.
“Now, first things first, may I have the honour of an introduction, My Lady?” he said, in a lighter tone.
She gave a small smile and wiped her eyes.
“I am Lady Helena Downe, My Lord. I am the widow of the late Viscount Downe.”
He smiled and took her right hand from her lap and bowed over it. She smiled at his gesture and Devon’s heart warmed at the sight.
“Pleased to meet you, My Lady. There is no greater pleasure than rescuing a fair maiden such as yourself. I can now safely brag amongst my friends that I am, indeed, a brave knight at having achieved such a feat.”
She laughed and Sebastian’s heart gave a slight jump at the melodious sound.
“I believe a handkerchief as a favour might lend more credence to your story, My Lord. May I offer you one?”
Sebastian raised his brow a fraction and smiled. “Your favour would, indeed, help me prove my chivalry.”
Sobering a little, Sebastian continued, “Though, I don’t think Lord Henry will come here again, I think you should leave here for a while. Is there someone you can go to? A friend? A relative?”
“No, My Lord. I lived all my life with my father, barely stepping foot outside the house. No relatives ever came to visit. I never had a come-out also. Hence, there are no friends I have in the ton as well. My father married me off as soon as I turned eighteen. This townhouse is all I have. I have been giving whatever little I could to Henry. I sold many things around the house when he threatened me. But, as you can see, I have nothing left to sell. Even the staff was let go as I could not pay their wages. Higgins and Martha are the only ones left. Since I live alone, there is no need for extra staff. We… manage between ourselves.”
Devon’s eyes took in the state of her hands as she spoke and noticed the roughened state they were in. His resolve doubled as he pondered on how to help Lady Helena out of this dilemma.
“I only wish for your safety, Lady Helena. I don’t want you to come to harm. If you don’t mind, I can send you to my estate. You will be safe there and Henry would never think of looking for you there.”
“No, My Lord. I can’t do that! That would not look good at all. People would think…I mean…I don’t think it is a good idea.”
She bit her lower lip and lowered her gaze.
Sebastian knit his brows. He knew exactly what she was thinking but surely, personal safety would have to take precedence here. It was not like he could ravish her while she was at his estate and he was in London.
Ravish? Where had that thought come from?
He tamped down the thought and said, “You can’t stay here, that’s for certain. We need to come up with a place where you can stay. I request you to come to my townhouse tonight. Tomorrow we can try and find the solution to this. I think that is reasonable enough. You should have no objection.”
Helena twisted her hands in her lap. Devon could feel the thoughts churning in her mind. She was not easy to convince, that was for sure. He wondered what had brought her to such a state that even the help of a stranger, one who had just rescued her from her brutal brother, was making her shuffle her feet in indecision.
At last, she nodded.
“I think that would be best. But only for tonight. I don’t wish to be…”
“I know, Lady Helena. I did not expect you to,” Devon interrupted her. “My first concern is to keep you safe. We will discuss all possible solutions tomorrow. I will respect whatever decision you make.”
Sebastian let out a breath. He had been preparing to present further arguments, in case she did not.
“I will send a carriage for you. In the meantime, you can pack your things.”
“My Lord, I have a request”, she said as he got up, “Higgins and Martha will also come with me.”
“But of course! I would be happy to offer them positions in my household. In fact, Higgins might even wish to retire, at this age. I would be happy to provide him a settlement so he may buy a cottage and retire from service.”
Helena gaped at him, clearly surprised.
“My Lord, that is too generous! I could not ask it of you!”
Sebastian waved his hand and said, “It is nothing, I assure you. He should not be working at this age. Martha can easily join my staff or I can find her a position on one of my estates.”
Helena did not say anything for a while, thinking something. Sebastian wondered what was running through her mind. Her next words took him completely aback.
“My Lord, I truly appreciate your generosity and help. But I do want to impose on you like this,” she stopped him with her hand when he opened his mouth to reassure her, “I am willing to take up your offer on one condition. I will also take up a position in your household. I will not be an idle house-guest under your roof.”
Shocked at her announcement, Sebastian immediately straightened and said in his most commanding tone, “That is out of the question, Lady Helena! I would never even dream of making a lady such as yourself work as a servant in my household! You will stay as my guest.”
“Then, I must refuse your help, My Lord. I would never dream of imposing on you after you so gallantly saved me from the clutches of my brother. I will forever be in your debt but this is not acceptable to me. I wish to repay you for your generosity, at least in part, though I cannot ever hope to do that fully. I would not be able to do that as a guest in your house. Besides, people will inadvertently draw the wrong conclusions were I to move in under the same roof as you. You must see that, My Lord. My dignity demands this. I beg you.”
Sebastian looked at lady Helena’s steadfast gaze and marvelled at her strength and integrity. Never in his life had he met a woman who would willingly have done such a thing. Something inside his chest moved at the sight of the woman standing tall in front of him. His mind raced, trying to come up with one reason why her ridiculous suggestion could not be implemented, but none came to mind. At last, he acquiesced.
“All right, My Lady. You leave me no choice. Fine. I will respect your wishes. We will discuss the details tomorrow, if you don’t mind. It is quite late. Tonight, you will be my guest. We will discuss everything tomorrow.”
Helena nodded and Sebastian bowed and took his leave.
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