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The Rose of Shiraz
©Copyright 2005 by
Edited by Kate Cuthbert
Cover Art by Sable Grey
No part of this book
may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or
mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information and
storage retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright
THE ROSE OF SHIRAZ
“What a magnificent pair of breasts.”
Uttered in Jack Devereaux’s suave tones, the words were still as shocking as a slap in the face, and Rose Carson recoiled, her clenched hands pressed protectively to the bodice of her pink satin evening dress. Her fingertips brushed the silver crescent moon pendant she always wore, as though seeking protection from a talisman. Jack Devereaux leaned over her, a sardonic smile on his thin lips. Close. Too close. She could feel the heat of his breath on her exposed flesh. She tried not to flinch back, tried to meet the mocking dark eyes as they leered into hers. She saw no compassion or sympathy there, not even straightforward desire, only a vicious lust to torment, to conquer. Devereaux’s face filled her vision: the aquiline nose, the sharp cheekbones, the stripe of unruly black hair that fell across his high forehead. He was so close to her now that she felt sure he meant to press his lips to hers – to insult her. Cornered as she was, and half a head smaller than Devereaux, she had no way to escape. Rose simply closed her eyes, as though to shut him out. Awaiting the horrid pressure of his mouth on hers, instead she suddenly heard his ironic laughter and, opening her eyes, she saw that he was lounging against the wall, regarding her with a malicious smile. In the alcove next to where he stood was a white alabaster statue of the goddess Venus, which he was idly caressing with his long fingers. His hand strayed deliberately to the statue’s naked breast, which he stroked appraisingly.
“Magnificent,” he repeated. Then he made an affected little pretence of noticing the expression on Rose’s face.
“Why, Miss Carson,” he said mockingly, “Did I think I was referring to you?” He pushed himself away from the wall and loomed over her once more. His hand touched her shoulder, very lightly.
“Since you force me to make the comparison…” he began, taking the opportunity to fix his gaze on the low-cut neckline of Rose’s gown.
He never finished the sentence; Rose ducked and slipped under his arm in a flash. Twisting adroitly out of his reach, she made for the sweeping staircase, her face flushed to the roots of her hair with shame and anger. Devereaux’s cruel laughter filled her ears as she lifted the hem of her dress and ran up the staircase as fast as her pink satin evening slippers would allow. She did not slacken her pace until she had reached the sanctuary of her own rooms, where she slammed the door shut behind her and turned the key in the lock. Then she stood there panting, regarding the panels of the closed door fiercely as though she expected Jack Devereaux to burst through them at any moment.
“Why, Miss Rose, whatever is the matter?” exclaimed a voice.
Rose turned and saw her maid, Maria, was sitting in a high-backed chair close to the fire, a heap of mending on her lap. A choked exclamation escaped Rose’s lips, but she was unable to find words to explain herself. She flung herself into an armchair, put her head in her hands, and burst into passionate sobs.
“Oh, Miss.” Maria’s voice sounded reproachful. Rose heard her get up and cross the room. A moment later, she felt Maria’s gentle hand on her shoulder and looked up. Maria was offering her a glass of wine. Rose regarded her, her sapphire-blue eyes dimmed with tears, and shook her head.
“Go on, Miss,” insisted Maria. “It will make you feel better.” The maid stood over Rose as she sipped the wine, as though watching a wilful child take its medicine. At last Maria said, “Was it Mr. Jack again?”
Rose nodded dumbly. She could not bring herself to describe what had taken place; after all, he had not actually kissed her, in the end, had he? But she had felt so sure he meant to insult her. She could not put into words the horrible feelings Devereaux aroused in her, the terror and disgust, the helplessness…
“A fine guardian for a young lady.” Maria said indignantly. “With respect, Miss Rose, I don’t know what your father, God rest him, was thinking of.”
“You forget yourself, Maria,” said Rose, flaring up at the criticism of her father. She put down the wine glass and glared at the other woman. “Jack Devereaux’s father was my father’s best friend. And besides,” she went on, her voice breaking, “Father was a good man, a gentleman. He didn’t see the evil in Jack Devereaux. Why should he, when he was always so kind and honourable himself?”
“I’m sorry, Miss,” said Maria, chastened.
Rose shook her head, tears running down her cheeks. “Father, father,” she moaned, “Why did you have to leave me?” She dug her slender fingers into her dark hair, disturbing the elaborate coils of her evening coiffure, so that a silver-headed pin tumbled unnoticed into her lap.
“There, there, Miss,” said Maria, patting her shoulder. Suddenly she recollected something, perhaps hoping to distract her mistress from thoughts of the unpleasant scene she had just suffered. “I should have told you before, Miss Rose; there was a gentleman caller for you this evening, just after you left for Mrs. Weston’s.”
“For me?” said Rose, sounding dubious. She was not expecting anyone to call upon her; in fact her circle of acquaintance in London was small, and she could think of very few gentlemen who would call upon her uninvited. Surely none of Jack Devereaux’s depraved drinking companions would dare to insult her by paying his addresses to her? She shuddered at the very idea.
“Yes, Miss,” said Maria. “A military man, I should say he was. He asked for you, but when he found you were out, he didn’t want to stop. He left you his card and a letter.”
“A military man?” repeated Rose eagerly. She sat up, her tears forgotten. “Did he say why – I mean, did he have news – oh, show me the letter and the card, as quick as you can!”
When Maria handed the items to her, Rose nearly snatched them out of her hands.
“It must be news – it must be news of Stephen!” she cried. She did not notice how Maria’s face fell at the name.
“I hope so, I’m sure, Miss,” said the maid, but she did not sound optimistic.
Rose glanced first at the card. “Captain Henry Connolly,” she read. She looked up at Maria, a tremulous smile on her lips. “So he is a soldier,” she cried. “He must have news – he must!” With trembling fingers, she ripped open the envelope which accompanied the card and pulled out a single sheet of thin writing-paper, closely filled with a handwriting she recognised. She turned the paper over to read the signature. It was a little ragged, as though whoever had wielded the pen had been stressed or ill, but she knew it at once: Stephen Carson. Her beloved older brother. Turning the sheet back over, she examined it in vain for a date or address. Finding none, she read aloud:
I send you these lines to let you know that I am alive and well. I pray that you and our father are also continuing in good health. I wish that I could see you, and spend an afternoon walking in the garden together and talking with you. It seems like eternity since I saw green fields and flowers. Here everything is dry and brown for much of the year, and few have the time to cultivate flowers for their own sake. My dearest sister, you will understand that I can tell you little of my life here, in case the message should fall into the wrong hands. I hope to put this letter into the hands of someone whom I shall only name C; he intends to travel back to London within a few months. If you see him personally, he will tell you where I am, and bring you more news than I can set down upon paper.
God bless you, my dear Rose;
Your loving brother,
“Someone named C!” exclaimed Rose. “It must be Captain Connolly!” She raised the thin sheet of paper to her lips and kissed it. Then she sighed. “Poor Stephen – he wishes our father good health. If he only knew. But perhaps it is better so.”
“Not for you, Miss, if I may venture to say so,” said Maria. “Stuck here with Mr. Jack Devereaux. If Mr. Stephen knew about it, I bet he’d be back here like a shot.”
Rose put a slender hand up to her temple and smoothed back her dark hair. “I’m not sure he would,” she murmured. “I’m not sure he could come back – even for that.” She thought for a moment. “We must try to see Captain Connolly, Maria. I must know everything he can tell me about Stephen.” Rose examined Captain Connolly’s card again. “There’s an address here, a club near Pall Mall. I shall send a boy round in the morning with a note.” At last she arose from her chair. “And now – sleep. Unhook me, would you, Maria?” Rose turned to present the back of the pink satin dress to her maid. “I am so tired – so very, very tired.”
Early the following morning, Maria despatched a boy with a note in Rose’s elegant flowing handwriting to the Captain’s club. Rose was up and dressed as early as she could; she always took her breakfast at the earliest possible hour, in order to avoid sharing the table with Jack Devereaux. The sight of his saturnine face leering at her over the fine linen and English porcelain was enough to kill any appetite she might have. This morning, as she sat alone sipping her tea, she could not help glancing repeatedly at the gilded clock on the mantelpiece. The hands seemed to creep so slowly around the dial. When would she receive a reply from Captain Connolly? She hoped it would arrive before Devereaux came downstairs; he would be bound to make some coarse remark about billet-doux, or, worse still, insist upon reading the note. If Captain Connolly should commit to paper some unwise remark about Stephen’s not returning in the near future, Jack Devereaux would no doubt use it to increase his hold over her. The little clock chimed nine, and then nine-thirty. Later, when she sat in the adjoining room pretending to read a novel, she heard it chime ten. It seemed the Captain was not an early riser. Or had he perhaps left already for foreign climes on some secret business of her Majesty’s? That was how it had been with Stephen; when the call had come, the time had been short before her beloved brother had to leave.
It was with an overwhelming sense of relief that she heard the doorbell ring and the sound of footsteps as one of the servants went to open it. A few moments later, she had Captain Connolly’s reply in her hands. She tore open the envelope with trembling fingers and read the few lines of scrawled handwriting. The Captain was departing from London in two days’ time, but would visit her that afternoon to discuss the business in question.
“Thank God,” breathed Rose under her breath. So intently was she concentrating on the note that she did not at first notice the figure of Jack Devereaux, who had swaggered into the sitting-room and was now lounging against the wall, his arms folded and one eyebrow sardonically raised.
“Love letter?” he enquired in a sarcastic voice, which made Rose jump so violently that she almost ripped the note across. She stuffed the sheet of paper into the book she had been reading and closed it with a sharp snap, flushing with embarrassment as she did so. Almost immediately she realised her mistake; Devereaux interpreted her embarrassment as guilt. His angular face twisted into an unpleasant smile. He pushed himself away from the wall and lounged over to where Rose sat, the book clutched tight in her fingers.
“Well, well, well.” He stood over her, his stance arrogant, legs apart and arms folded across his chest. Rose dared not meet his eyes; instead, she concentrated her gaze on a heavy gold signet ring which adorned Devereaux’s right hand.
“So the prim and proper Miss Carson has a lover, does she?” he went on mockingly. .
This time, Rose did meet his gaze. “Certainly not,” she retorted indignantly.
“Then you won’t object to your concerned guardian reading the note, then,” said Devereaux, leering at her openly.
“It’s private,” said Rose. She hesitated. “Stand back, sir. You oppress me.”
This time, Devereaux laughed openly. It was not a pleasant sound. Instead of stepping backwards, he leaned further over Rose, until she was shrinking back in her chair. “I oppress you, do I?” he scoffed. Then his face hardened. “Give me the letter.”
A sudden flare of courage made Rose thrust out an arm as though to hold him off. In her other hand she still held the book containing the letter in a tight grip. “Stand back, sir. I shall not surrender the letter.”
Instantly, Devereaux’s hand closed around her wrist in an iron grasp. With a wrench of his powerful arm, he twisted Rose onto her feet. To her horror, she found his chiselled face, distorted with cruel anger, only inches from her own. His dark glittering eyes stared into her terrified blue ones.
“You will surrender it,” he snarled in her face. “You will surrender anything I ask to me.” With that, he pulled her inexorably to him and clamped his mouth to hers, more like a vampire than an over-passionate lover. Rose could barely breathe for shock. Jack Devereaux’s tongue was exploring her mouth with the sinuous repulsiveness of a snake. She felt as though he were trying to eat her alive. One hand still held her clamped to him, and she could only thank heaven for the thick layers of clothing which separated her body from the vile hardness in his trousers that was becoming more evident with every passing second. The other hand was moving up the waist of her gown, and any moment would be moving over her breast. His breath was like an oven. She writhed and twisted to no avail, and at last, in desperation, she raised the only weapon she had – the novel she had been reading – and struck him smartly across the side of the head, with a retort like a gunshot. The spine of the book had cracked on Jack Devereaux’s skull. With a foul oath, he let her go, and she stepped back from him, panting as though she had been running. Her sapphire eyes flashed with indignation; she was now too outraged to be frightened.
“You have insulted me!” she cried to his face.
Jack Devereaux wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You cursed little vixen, you will regret that blow.”
Rose was trembling with rage. “How dare you call me names? How dare you? When you have behaved in a way that no gentleman ever should. Recollect! I am your ward!”
“And I your guardian,” sneered Devereaux. He laughed savagely. “The guardian of your honour, Miss prim-and-proper Rose Carson! Well, if I am the guardian of your honour you had better let me take care of it in the safest possible way – by surrendering it to me.” He made a movement towards Rose, but this time she was ready for him, and she slipped past him with ease and ran to the door. Perhaps indeed he did not care to try his luck again that day with his ears still ringing from the blow she had struck him. Still his thin lips crooked upwards in a very unpleasant smile as he watched her run from the room; perhaps he would not have her today, but there was always tomorrow, and the day after that, and the week after that. She could not hold him off forever.