The Earl of Diamonds
After spending the morning organizing the regiment for the march to Vittoria, the cool interior of the villa brought relief to the British officers while savoring a few hours of relaxation
"When do you plan on leaving tomorrow?" Captain Lockhart asked, picking up the brandy bottle. He reached across the oak table to refill Major Taggart's glass.
"Whoa . . . hold it steady, Major!" he cried, as the liquor splashed on the table.
"Bloody Hell! Perhaps this should be my last one, Captain," Taggart muttered as he proceeded to blot the spilled liquor with a snowy-white handkerchief.
"Now, what were you saying?" he asked, watching the pristine linen swiftly change to a soggy amber color.
"Time . . . what time tomorrow?" Lockhart repeated, smiling at the normally meticulous officer, now disheveled with his shirt opened at the neck, and dark brown locks falling across his brow.
The Major's alert green eyes were beginning to glaze as he focused on the Captain.
"Oh . . . I'll be leaving this afternoon. I need to meet with Wellington at the new Command Post early tomorrow, so I plan on riding through the night," Taggart sighed wearily, rubbing his forehead to ease the headache.
Glancing out the window at the high midday sun, Lockhart shook his head. "Best to wait for the sun to set. You'll have a long hot trip in this heat!"
"I doubt that I will feel it, or anything, in my condition," Taggart replied, "Do you think our next camp will be as luxurious as this one?" he added, as his eyes wandered over the elaborately furnished parlor of the villa the officers were using as their quarters.
"Most likely we'll be back in a ramshackle spot like we had at our last encampment," Lockhart said wryly.
The five remaining officers were spending their last day at the villa, hoping the brandy will erase the visions of the dead, and screams of the wounded still haunting them. They were not looking forward to going through it all again when they reached Vittoria.
"I say, Major, did you give that beauty in Valencia one of your famous diamond bracelets?" Lieutenant Sanders teased, trying to lighten the mood.
"Ah, but of course!" said Taggart. "And the lady rightly deserved it," he added, smiling reminiscently
"What's this about famous bracelets, Major?" Lieutenant Brady asked curiously. He was the youngest in the group, having joined them at the last campaign.
"By Jove, wait till you hear! Tell him Major," Captain Lockhart laughed. "Do you have one to show him?"
"It so happens I do . . . for I plan to entice another charming señorita after the next victory," he said smugly and winked.
Reaching in his coat pocket he pulled out a velvet pouch, opened it and emptied the content into his hand. Lieutenant Brady leaned closer for a better look. It was a delicate bracelet, with eight flawless, rose-style cut diamonds, entwined in leafy vines of gold. The clasp on the bracelet was heart-shaped with an 'R' scrolled within a leaf pattern. Taggart turned the clasp over, and on the back was engraved '20'.
"It is a stunning piece, Major, but what is the meaning of the R and 20?"
"Now that's why it's famous!" Lieutenant Sanders responded.
Taggart, feeling a little boastful after all the brandy, said arrogantly, "You see my dear fellow, it is quite like branding the little fillies. The 'R' is for Raynhurst. Last year upon the death of my father and brother, I became the Earl of Raynhurst. As you know, I do love the fairer sex, so I created this token of my appreciation for their generous . . . affection. Now mind you, I do not give them out to just any one of my many, many flings." When they burst out laughing, he held up a hand, then continued, "These are for being my very special loves. For those extremely passionate, hot-blooded women who manage to keep my interest . . . and . . . and the next amour is . . ." he paused to focus his bleary eyes on the number on the bracelet clasp, then blithely added, "Number twenty! Of course, they do not know what the number signifies," he shrugged nonchalantly.
The officers laughed as he carelessly dumped the bracelet back into the velvet pouch, missing his pocket twice before succeeding in putting the pouch away.
"So, you've already had nineteen of these great passions, Major?" Lieutenant Brady said in awe, "Bloody hell, it's demmed hard trying to find my first!"
"Don't worry Lieutenant," Captain Lockhart reassured him with a pat on the back. "After our victory march through Paris, I'll show you where to find some of the liveliest and exceedingly amorous mademoiselles."
Colonel Lang shook his head, "Giving diamond bracelets with each love affair will soon break you, Major. Do you think you'll settle down when you get back to England as the Earl of Diamonds . . . uh . . . I mean the Earl of Raynhurst?"
"The Earl of Diamonds! I like that!" laughed Captain Lockhart.
With a few bawdy remarks and laughter they all agreed.
Major Taggart stood and took a mock bow.
"No, Colonel, I will not go broke," he answered, "I am richer than Croesus and I'm not planning on settling down for a very long time. Especially to some milk-and-water miss from the marriage mart. Now if you gentlemen, will excuse me, I will be off to seek my next lady of passion," he quipped, staggering drunkenly toward the door of the villa.
"Adios, Major. Give our regard to the lucky number twenty!" Captain Lockhart called after him.
"You better hang on tight to your horse, or you won't stay on long enough to find the chit!" Lieutenant Sanders laughed.
Mounting his horse, he thought dazedly, I guess I should stop the drinking and debauchery, but this war makes me so damned mad! Too much blood and death . . . seeing so many friends die in pain. Who knows, my time may be next . . . just like my brother.
Major Stephen Taggart brother, Gilbert, died in a hunting accident a year ago, and two days after his brother's death, his father died of a heart attack. Ironically, to protect his heir, his father kept Gilbert out of the war. Father would turn over in his grave knowing his worthless son, Stephen, is now the new Earl . . . I'd not be surprised that's what caused his heart attack!
Stephen had never wanted the title or to be married. Being only three and twenty, war had been his way of life for the past five years. He would like to spend some time as a bachelor, and think about marriage after he turned thirty. Although he has a reputation as a womanizer, which he knew he deserved, he just did not have the incentive to change. Not one woman has ever satisfied all his needs, and he doubts they ever would.
Envisioning all his amours in England and Europe, accidently meeting and comparing the bracelets, brought a smile to his face as he turned his horse toward the road north.
Holding her close, he passionately whispered, "My dearest love, now that I have found you, no one shall ever part us again."
Closing the book and holding it to her breast, the romantic seventeen-year-old, Elise Areant sighed, "Will I ever find a love like that?" Laying the book on the table, Elise rose from the sofa and went to her Grandfather's room to see if he had finished packing for his trip.
Standing in the bedroom doorway, she watched as he sorted through a large leather jewelry case with velvet-lined compartments, selecting pieces to take with him. His head was bent over his task in concentration, and Elise noticed how his black wavy hair was streaked with white. Even at the age of three score and seven, he was still a handsome man.
He glanced up at her as he added another piece to the velvet pouch, and said wearily, "Your grandmother had such excellent taste in jewelry design, and it was such a pleasure to indulge her. Between your grandmother and your mother, they certainly collected a fortune in jewels over the years! I had hoped to be able to save all of these for you, but it will be necessary to sell a few more pieces to replenish our funds to have on hand."
Elise stepped forward and gave him a hug. "I know Grandpapa. You are doing your best for us, and you mean more to me than any jewels!" then laughingly she added,
"Wherever would I wear them?"
"One day I had hoped to see you at a magnificent ball, dressed in silk, wearing diamonds, and surrounded by admiring suitors," he said smiling at her. Noticing the wistful look in her eyes, he reached into one of the compartments, and removed a small velvet box.
"I know that someday you will have many suitors from whom you will choose that special one, and I may not be around when you do, so I want you to have this now. It is your Grandmother's betrothal ring. Since the fourteenth century, this ring has been handed down to the first son in the Areant family, to give to his bride. Your parents did not live long enough to have a son, and it should go to you as you are the last of our lineage."
Elise's hand trembled as she opened the box. It held a delicate well-worn filigreed gold ring sprinkled with tiny rubies. Running a finger across its smooth surface, Elise romantically imagined how many brides over the centuries received the ring from their loved one, and wondered how they felt at the time of their betrothal.
Watching her, he said, "I know it's not as dazzling as the other gems, and I'm sure most of the Areant men indulged their bride with more elaborate pieces after the wedding . . . as I did mine."
"Ooh Grandpapa, it is beautiful! I do not doubt that all the past brides had thought so too. It is this kind of romantic and sentimental gesture that ladies appreciate. I know that I would," Elise sighed, and put the ring back in the box.
"Well, I hope you find that romantic man who will appreciate giving you this ring at your wedding . . . if not, you can always save it for your first son to give to his bride," he said, knowing that this will give her some kind of future to at least dream about in these uncertain times. He put the velvet pouch of jewels in his carrying case and put the leather box back under the floor boards beneath the oval rug.
"Do you really think Napoleon will be defeated soon? I do not remember a time when we were not at war," Elise asked, her thoughts were along the same line as his.
"I feel it is certain . . . at least in Spain. The Spanish guerrilla attacks, along with the British army, have weakened the French troops and they are in retreat. So I suspect it won't be long, possibly within a few months that Napoleon will be driven out of Spain. Even so, we are still in serious danger and we must be prepared to make it out of here safely."
Philip Areant was still worried about making this trip to Madrid, but he had no choice, he had to make arrangements to get out of the country. Being a French aristocrat, and a Professor at the University of Paris, he was still pursued by the French government. Especially since Napoleon uncovered his political intrigues at the University.
In their escape from France, his son and daughter-in-law were killed by the revolutionaries. One of his servants, who had retired in Spain, offered them refuge, and when the servant died a year later, Philip and his granddaughter, Elise, stayed on in the isolated farmhouse. The war escalated to include Portugal and Spain so they remained in seclusion.
By educating Elise himself, and making trips only for necessities, Philip managed to preserve their safety. After being here so many years, even their closest neighbor did not know their real identities.
He gave her a hug and said. "Remember, Luis and Maria are not far away, if you need them." He loaded the pack onto the back of his horse and mounted.
"Do not worry about me, Grandpapa, you know I'll be just fine," she laughed as she gave his horse a pat, and waved before he trotted off.
The sun left a red glow as it set behind the trees, leaving the road in deep shadows. Stephen Taggart holding the reigns loosely, was barely awake in the saddle, when a small animal scurried across his path, and startled his horse. Rearing in fright, the horse threw him off into a rocky embankment and galloped off.
Stunned, Stephen did not move as he lay on his back wondering what had happened. When he tried to get up, a sharp pain shot through his leg. Wincing in his effort to move, he looked down at the cause of the pain.
There was a tear in his uniform and his leg was bleeding heavily. Tearing a strip from his shirttail, he wrapped it around his leg tightly to stem the flow.
Still in a drunken state, he looked around trying to figure out if he was on the right road, and how far he had traveled.
Through the trees he could see a dim light from a window. Getting to his feet he spied a large enough stick to use as a cane. Picking it up, he hobbled in the direction of the light.
Elise put away her sewing basket, and thought about where she and her grandfather would eventually go. She liked this house. It was comfortable and safe. She had been too young at the time, to remember the invasion of their villa in France by the revolutionaries, or her grandfather carrying her away. Her parents would have been proud that he had saved her. Elise looked up at the mirror over the fireplace. Her Grandpapa would always tell her how much she looked like her mother, "Just as beautiful, with her honey-colored hair and violet-blue eyes."
Turning away from the mirror, she thought, I may be pretty, but no one sees me except Grandpapa. He is so afraid someone from France will recognize him and take us back for punishment. Ah well, he probably is right and someday maybe this will all be over and we can live among other people, and see all the things I have read about.
As she picked up the book she had been reading, Elise heard a stumbling noise on the porch. Frightened, she stood quietly listening.
Taggart made his way haltingly to the door and knocked loudly with the stick he was using as a cane. No answer came, so trying again without results, he shouted "Socorro! Estoy herido y necesito ayuda! Help! I have injured myself, and I need help!"
Elise hurried to the window, and peeked out. She saw an English soldier slumped by the door, with his leg tied in a bloody rag. Cautiously Elise opened the door, but his weight against it was too much for her, and she was pushed backward as he fell forward into the room.
"Oh hh . . . my leg" Taggart moaned and bit his lip against the renewed pain in his leg. Looking up, he stared into the eyes of a beautiful girl. He closed his eyes, too drunk to believe what he saw, and opened them again. She was still there.
"Can you get up?" Elise asked anxiously.
"With some help," he said, wincing when he tried to move. Then it dawned on him that she had spoken in English.
"Me entiende? You understand me? You speak English?"
"Yes. Let me help you to the sofa, so I can see how badly you are wounded."
She reached down for his arm, as he maneuvered himself to his feet and slowly made it to the sofa, where he collapsed with a sigh.
Elise hurried to the kitchen to get clean cloths and water. Whether her grandfather would approve a stranger in the house, hurt or not, was put out of her mind, instead it was filled with thoughts of the young man in the other room. This is the first time since she lived here, that she was this close to someone other than her grandfather or their neighbors, Luis and Maria.
She nervously carried the water and set it on a low table beside the sofa. He had his eyes closed and for a moment she looked at him more closely. His hair a sable-brown color, was rumpled and fell across his forehead. He was very handsome, and had chiseled features with a square jaw. She imagined he must be a good soldier, so strong looking, with arm muscles tight against the sleeves of his jacket. She remembered his eyes were green when he had first looked at her. He stirred and moaned. Guiltily, she quickly knelt down beside him, carefully untied the dirty, bloody rag, and pushed the torn uniform pant leg further away from the wound. It was a long gash, but not deep. Gently she cleansed it.
Feeling the warm touch of the water, Stephen opened his eyes, and looked down at the girl cleaning his wound. She was concentrating on her task and unaware of him watching. His eyes roamed her face, and continued on down past her throat, over the gentle curve of flesh showing at the top of the low-rounded neckline of her lavender dress. He watched her long-tapered fingers touching his leg. Suddenly aware that there were no other sounds in the house, he looked around. Across the room, an open archway with a view of a kitchen, and to his right were two opened doors leading to bedrooms. There were no other rooms, and no other person in the house.
"Are you alone?"
"Oh!" Elise jumped at the sound of his voice and dropped the cloth.
"I didn't mean to startle you, I just notice there is no one here but us, and was wondering if you live alone," he said, smiling in a friendly way as not to frighten her. She looked too young to be here by herself.
"My Grandpapa lives with me, but he is away and will be back in a day or so," she said nonchalantly.
She finished the cleaning, and with a clean cloth bandaged his leg.
"There, that should keep it from bleeding any further. But, let me look at your head, you have a wound on your left temple."
He reached up with his hand to touch where she indicated a crescent reddish-purple mark.
"Oh, that's a birthmark. It seems to be a family trait, as my father also had one."
"I see," Elise said nodding, surprised at how it added, rather than lessened the attractive features.
"You speak English very well," he said, surprised to find this in a provincial.
"I speak English because I am half English," she laughed, giving him a sparkling smile.
Stephen gave her one of his most flirtatious smiles back. Still in his intoxicated state, he thought he would spend this sudden mishap in a very pleasurable manner. With her grandfather away for a while, Stephen felt sure he could interest her in a little dalliance. Five years of crossing Portugal and Spain has proven to him how affectionate these lonely country girls could be, and so easily susceptible to his charm.
"Would you like something to eat or drink?" Elise asked. Rising to her feet, she leaned over to pick up the pan of water to take to the kitchen.
Stunned at the view she presented when she bent forward, Stephen swallowed as his throat went dry.
When he didn't answer, Elise glanced up and noticed where he was looking. Blushing, she straightened up quickly, before repeating her question. His gaze wandered back to her face, and he smiled roguishly.
"Do you have any brandy or rum? I'm not really hungry, but something to drink might help to take the pain away," he said, as he looked into her eyes. Such a deep shade of violet-blue, and with those long golden eyelashes the contrast is startling, Stephen thought.
"I believe Grandpapa has some brandy," she said, still blushing as she hurried to the kitchen with the pan. Setting it down, and retrieving the liquor bottle from the shelf, Elise took a deep breath to calm her beating heart, and trembling hands. When he looked at her with those green eyes, she felt as if she would swoon.
Elise returned with the brandy and a glass. Hoping to sound calm and more mature before this handsome British officer, she asked how the war was progressing, and where he intend to be stationed next.
"I'm headed northeast to the next line of combat where my troops are camped. We have Boney's men on the run now. It won't be too many more months before I should be going home again." He sat up very carefully, moving his wounded leg to a more comfortable angle, and patted the space next to him for her to sit down.
Elise, having led such an innocent, secluded way of life, was unaware of the impropriety of their situation, or of his inebriation. She poured his brandy and after handing the glass to him, moved to sit where he indicated. All she could think of was how handsome he looked, and wondered about the unusual feelings fluttering in her stomach that caused a warmth through her body.
Stephen finished his drink, and put down the glass. He thought this was going quite well, and she seemed agreeable to his advances. Nonchalantly, he put his arm on the back of the sofa behind her, and proceeded to coax Elise into a friendly conversation to relax her. Stephen watched the candle light cast a glow on her hair, changing it to a dazzling golden honey color. Casually with the hand nearest her, he reached over and twirled one of her curls on his finger while they talked.
After conversing awhile, and answering her eager questions of England, he gave her a captivating smile, and proceeded with his standard line of seduction.
"I have never seen such beautiful eyes before . . . ," as he reached out with his index finger and touched her cheek, then slowly moved it toward her lips, dragging it across her bottom lip, "and a voice like an angel from such luscious lips . . . ," he moved his finger to her chin and tilted her face up to his, leaned forward to kiss her mouth gently,
". . . or tasted anything sweeter," he whispered.
Elise, with wide eyes, sat very still, listening to the words that sounded like the very words in the books she read, and amazed that this handsome man was saying them to her. When he kissed her, she felt it right down to her toes.
Kissing her again, Stephen felt her stiffness ease and her mouth open for further exploration. He then continued with a more passionate kiss while his roaming hands urged her into more desire. The intoxication from the liquor and the passion sent dizzying feelings surging through him, turning his blood to liquid fire. After a few minutes of breathless kissing, he pulled back enough to see her eyes, and from the look he knew she was ready.
"My leg is still aching a bit, do you mind if I lie down a while on a bed and rest it?" he said huskily.
Elise, dazed with all these new emotions running through her, could only nod her head breathlessly, and rising as in a trance, assist him to her bedroom.
Worried about his wounded leg, she wanted to make him comfortable. When she reached for a pillow to prop under his leg, he pulled her down beside him. Neither spoke, as they gazed into each others eye with the built up passion radiating between them.
Mesmerized, Elise did not bother thinking of anything else except
the man who had ignited this curious, burning hunger inside her, as she
leaned toward him to be kissed again.
* * * * *
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