Chapter One: Sin Made Flesh
The tavern was not a rough sort, just the place that a certain ignoble breed of noblemen would frequent. Even so, when the two gentlemen entered the establishment, heads were quick to turn.
The men were handsome in a way that only elegant aristocrats could be. It was not their manner of dress that attracted attention, for although the quality of their clothing was exceptional, their garments of worsted wool in shades of deep grey and navy blue and pristine cravats did not mark them dandies. What drew the focus of every inhabitant of that darkened room was the inborn haughtiness both men emanated. They carried themselves as two princes would, with airs of entitlement that set every servant in the barroom to attention.
Both men were tall and slim of build, but broad-shouldered. One had hair the color of ripened chestnuts and rich brown eyes, the other was black-haired, with eyes such a dark and mysterious shade of green they appeared black in the dim light. The gentlemen were seated within seconds, then promptly served by a buxom wench who tossed them a flirtatious smile as she procured their requests before hastening to fill the orders.
“So my friend,” said the first man, a proud gleam in his eyes. “It’s been a year to this day.”
“A day you’ve been dreading,” replied the other gentleman, with an even more superior air. “I know that quite well that you were not looking forward to this.”
The chestnut-haired fellow laughed. “How arrogant are you about winning this contest!”
“Not arrogant, Ravenhill. Confident. The extents of my exploits are no secret, we both know.”
“Yes,” Ravenhill rejoined. “But simply because I’m not one to boast doesn’t mean that I cannot verify my adventures. Let us compare, and you’ll see I’ve earned my winnings this year.”
The black-haired lord’s haughty air did not waver. “That, we have yet to determine.”
The men pulled folded papers out from their coat pockets to spread upon the table. Each looked diligently at the pages, comparing their notes of the past year’s events.
“Ah, yes, Mrs. Cassandra Lethridge. That was quite an escapade for you,” said Ravenhill as he gave a side-long glance to his companion. “A previously faithful and devoted wife whom you convinced to elope to Paris, only for her to return alone in humiliation. Then, of course, you wounded her husband in the subsequent duel.” A brow was raised as if to say: “You only injured him, dear boy, when you should have killed the man.”
“Yes, I know it was only an injury,” responded the black-haired gentleman, “But the poor sap had already been so humiliated! ”
“And that is why you will lose this year’s challenge, Chelmsford. For I had no such compunction when I deflowered the young Miss Anne Fleming. When her aggrieved brother foolishly dared to defend the family honor, I was not so merciful as you.”
“Ravenhill, you did not deflower the lovely Miss Fleming! It’s well known she was but used goods and her brother was a dupe to defend her non-existing honor.”
“How are you so certain that she was not chaste?”
“My dear fellow, don’t be stupid. Who do you think took her in the first place? How ever did she fool you? You must have been three sheets to the wind not to notice.”
“Now Chelmsford, you’ve gone too far. Don’t you think I know a virgin when I have one? I deflowered her all right, but not in the ‘traditional fashion.’”
Chelmsford sputtered on the brandy that had provided for him moments earlier by the buxom serving wench.
“Now that is an accomplishment!” He raised in glass in appreciation. “I’m ashamed I didn’t even try!”
“Now, about Miss Carmilla Danvers…”
“I had her first!”
“Only after I ruined her by taking her out to Hyde Park, unchaperoned, and did not return until nightfall. In society’s eyes, she was as good as deflowered.”
“Ravenhill, even though you quibble semantics, I must say you may have a point.” Chelmsford’s dark green eyes glimmered with wry humor. “Yes, I’ve been too lax this past year. I’ve gotten soft. In the past, I would have had this won by Summer’s end.”
Ravenhill laughed at his friend’s bemusement and patted Chelmsford’s arm. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Even the best racehorse is put out to pasture after a few good years,”
“Yes,” Chelmsford replied sardonically. “To stud.”
Ravenhill laughed even harder at that remark as they went on comparing notes, each one assured that he had ruined more decent women, fought in more duels, and gained more notoriety in the past year than the other. The matter of who had bested whom in order to be declared winner was a serious one indeed.
The men had a carefully established method of ranking their debaucheries. Ladies of the evening and tavern wenches did not count. Only females of breeding and quality mattered in this match. The points were distributed in a fixed manner. One point given to widows and two to unchaste wives; three points allotted to hitherto faithfully married women. A lady such as Miss Danvers, whose reputation had been ruined via subterfuge, was worth two points, but to have actually plucked her chastity was worth five. The duels were classified into three categories: deaths, wounding one’s opponent, and being wounded oneself. They were five points, two points, and negative one point, respectively. Engaging in a duel was a matter of pride between the two lords, and losing to a scorned husband or enraged family member was shameful so could not be awarded any merits. The final category was reserved for ladies so shattered by their ruination, that they would resort to self-harm. Five points were given to suicide attempts and ten points for successful accomplishments.
After several stiff drinks, which were not enough to cause either man the slightest hint of inebriation—for, after all, they were professional imbibers—the statistics thoroughly compared, the points tallied, when Ravenhill and Chelmsford realized they were tied with fifty points apiece.
“A bloody tie!” Justin, Lord Tollemache, the Earl of Chelmsford, said in disgust. He could not believe it. After three consecutive years of defeating Baron Edmund Ravenhill, he’d been unable to best him this time!
“You’re slacking,” Ravenhill crowded. “You’re getting on in age and not as fresh as you used to be. By next year, I expect to beat you soundly.”
“This year’s sport does not end until midnight,” Chelmsford said. “Which by my estimation is more than six hours away.”
“And within six hours do you think you’ll be able to find a pigeon to poach?” Ravenhill shook his head. “No my friend, no loose women as a tiebreaker; it would be too easy for you to pluck one or two of these tavern wenches and complete the deed. If we are to break the tie, it must be with a woman of quality. Not even you are capable of seduction under such short notice.”
“That is a wager you will lose.” Justin Tollemache stretched his long legs out before him, a devilish smile on his face. “My Aunt Betsy is having her first soiree of the season tonight.”
“And she has invited you?” Ravenhill snorted contemptuously. “Not damn likely. She despises you and if you weren’t her only living relative, I daresay she’d never speak to you if she could avoid it.”
“No, she has not extended an invitation to me. Shameful, can you believe that? Even so, I owe her a visit and she is far too polite to throw me out, thus causing a scene. There should be plenty of young beauties to look upon.”
Ravenhill wondered if Lady Betsy Tollemache-Kent would allow either of them into her home, for she was always angry at her nephew for his dissolute ways. Ravenhill was twenty-and-four, Chelmsford but a year older, and already the two were the most notorious rakes in London. If it were not for their titles and extreme wealth, no respectable household would allow them entry. Despite their reprobate ways, they were still perceived as eligible bachelors in many circles.
“Look at you, Edmund, worrying like an old woman. I assure you that I can charm my way into Auntie’s good graces. Scoundrel I may be, but family is family. Besides Norton adores me, and would never deny me entrance,” he said, referring to his aunt’s majordomo.
Edmund met Justin’s vulpine smile with his own. “Why not? It’s high time your reign as the most notorious rakehell in England comes to an end and tonight I will take your place.”
“So we shall see, my friend, so we shall see,” Justin said.
…The story will continue…