Lady Violet Meacham, Duchess of Blackmyre, yawned behind her gloved hand, though she made no effort to hide her boredom from her companion. “Why did I allow you to drag me to Vauxhall’s again?”
“For the scenery.” Lady Dottham, known affectionately as Dottie, winked at the young gentlemen promenading about the gardens. “Hasn’t Her Majesty ordered us all to marry as quickly as possible?”
“Oh, Dottie,” Violet sighed, shaking her head. “Surely you don’t expect to find anything interesting enough to bed here.”
Dottie feigned a stuffy arrogance. “But these are the finest blooded young lads in all of Britannia, Your Grace. If you can’t find an interesting prospect for marriage here, than where do you propose to look?”
Violet made the mistake of allowing her gaze to meet the eyes of one of the young men hovering a polite distance away. His friends whispered and laughed, encouraging him to approach and beg an introduction. She ran her gaze down his young body, attractively dressed in the hottest fashions of Londonium. His buckskins were spotless and so tight it looked as though his modiste had sewed him into the trousers. His package was a nice size. Not too large, nor too small.
His manner was eager and dutifully shy, whether he was truly an innocent submissive debutante or merely feigning the role to gain her eye, she didn’t care to hazard a guess. His features were fine and elegant, beautiful while still being masculine, his eyes wide and sparkling with the dare of approaching one of the richest and most eligible catches in Town. Even her own mother’s curse on her deathbed and whispers of Blackmyre’s darkest urges couldn’t keep them away from the lure of her money.
Despite his youth, he bore a strong, square jaw and wide shoulders that promised an impressive manly stature in a few more years. It was his eyes that held her fancy, though. Like warm, rich chocolate and framed with thick lashes untouched by modern cosmetics, his eyes shone with an inner light that called to her mistress side.
He scurried to her side and took her hand in both of his to press his mouth to her knuckles. “Forgive my rudeness, Your Grace. I am overcome by your presence and beauty.”
Barely, she suppressed the urge to laugh. With the stark scar twisting the left side of her face, few would call her a beauty, though she’d certainly been a diamond in her prime before war had taken its toll. Thankfully she’d worn gloves this evening, or she’d have had to endure his sloppy affection on her bare skin.
“Blackmyre, may I introduce this young man to you?”
The amusement in Dottie’s voice made Violet grit her teeth, but her friend ignored the fierce glare.
Again throwing custom and manners to the wind, he introduced himself, tripping over the words. “Garrett Wellesley of House Wellington, Your Grace. It’s an honor to meet you at last.”
Surprised, Violet allowed him to keep her hand, wrapping her own fingers around his to keep him now that her curiosity was piqued. “Wellington let you out alone, did she? I’m surprised you’re so honored to meet me, young man, when your grandmother has so many vile things to say about my House.”
He hesitated only a moment, intelligence glinting in his dark eyes that attracted her more than his pretty clothes and virile young body. “She has indeed, Your Grace. Yet the honor is mine.”
Ah, a young rebel, then. No doubt a finely educated bluestocking who’d take the first opportunity to lecture her on men’s rights and how the Queen should be deposed immediately. For a moment, she actually allowed herself to consider courting this young man. It’d be amusing to see how quickly Wellington could pop a vein in her forehead once she realized her precious grandson had fallen into the Black Duchess’s clutches.
She allowed herself the pleasure of a small test. Incrementally, she tightened her fingers, watching his face. His eyes narrowed, his nostrils flared, and his tongue slipped between his perfect white teeth to nervously moisten his lips. Most importantly, he didn’t pull away. He even gripped her hand back as tightly, indicating at least an initial show of spirit.
This could be interesting. Plus I would have the chance to get back at Wellington…
“Your Grace.” A man wearing her livery dropped to his knee beside her, head bowed. “There’s an urgent situation that needs your immediate attention.”
“Very well. Please excuse me, Mr. Wellesley. It was a pleasure to meet you.”
The purr of her voice made his cheeks flood with crimson. Stammering and bowing, he backed away to rejoin his friends. If nothing else, word would get back to Wellington about the near miss. Surely the old hag wouldn’t let her precious grandson out to romp about Londonium without an escort next time.
Violet followed her man outside. Dottie tagged along, still chuckling to herself. “You made quite an impression on that young fool, Blackmyre. I hope his dear grandmamma doesn’t suffer an aneurysm as soon as she hears about his little coup tonight.”
“Hmm, the Queen would never forgive me if the newly appointed Field Marshal dropped dead.”
“Indeed.” Dottie laughed. “The Season would certainly be ruined. Majel would have to stop the parties long enough to find a new House desperate enough to accept the task of defeating Francia when so many others have failed. I’m surprised she hasn’t asked you to fill in, with your formidable reputation.”
Violet didn’t respond. In fact, Queen Majel had invited her to accept that very position before she’d extended it to Wellington. Where Wellington thought taking the helm of the army meant dressing up in a uniform while she continued to attend the same whirl of parties all Season, Violet would have actually relished the opportunity to command the troops to war.
However, her health had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. Even walking rapidly after her servant toward the stables was enough to make her heart beat too quickly with a telltale constriction in her lungs. Her breathing was painfully short and her reconstructed knee ached like the devil. She might be able to get about well enough on the bum leg, but she couldn’t defeat consumption.
Besides, to everyone’s great surprise, Wellington hadn’t been doing that badly. Though how she’d managed to take Vimeiro while neck deep in the Season, Violet couldn’t guess.
Forcing herself to slow down, she asked, “What’s the emergency, Cole?”
“I interrupted something I wasn’t supposed to see, Your Grace.” He glanced back at her, touching his throat and ducking his head. A few weeks ago, her collar would have lain on his throat, making such a gesture the perfect signal to convey the gravity of the situation. “I couldn’t help myself. I heard a commotion and once I saw him, I couldn’t leave him.”
Cole knew more about her secret inclinations than most, because he’d been on the receiving end more often than not. If he hadn’t been able to leave… “Dottie, perhaps you’d better return to the party.”
“I’m not leaving, Violet.” The use of her given name carried a solemn weight of their long friendship, although Dottie didn’t know half the things that Cole had already seen at her hand. “I’m your friend regardless of what secrets you carry, and you might need my help.”
“Very well,” Violet answered gruffly, but linked her arm with her friend’s gratefully. “Just remember that I warned you.”
“I put him in here.” Cole paused outside the last stall in the far corner of the stable. “Forgive me, Your Grace, but I took him without permission. They’ll know I’m your man and someone will come to collect the expense. I’m afraid we busted up the place rather badly.”
“No matter, Cole.” At her voice, something thudded against the heavy stall door. “You know I trust your judgment. Tell me what happened before I see him.”
“’Twas awful, Your Grace,” Cole whispered. Head down, he stared at his trembling hands. “He was screaming with fury and pain, enraged like a beast. They had him in a cage and kept poking him, stirring him up more and more. If he could have gotten free, he would have killed them. He’s that bad, Your Grace. I couldn’t leave him like that.”
Dread tightened her throat. “Who, Cole? Who did this?”
“I don’t know. The ladies weren’t known to me.”
So they weren’t part of Violet’s small, private circle who knew her proclivities and indulged in the same kind of play.
“He’s magnificent, Your Grace. Huge, powerful, a beast of flesh, and so damned defiant. Proud. Even with what they’d done to him, he was still fighting, still determined to break free. He’d have killed them all.”
Her heart quickened desperately. Cole had expressed interest in bringing a man into their relationship, but they hadn’t found the right man to suit them. Then she’d been forced to free him. A rough, wild stallion would certainly appeal to them both. Greatly.
The last thing I need in this condition is a challenge. “Let me see him, then. But if he’s that far gone, Cole, I don’t know what I can do for him.”
“You can help him. I know it.” Cole cracked open the door. “Shh, now, big fella. It’s me, your friend Cole, remember? I’ve brought some help. Nobody’s going to hurt you. I give you my word.”
Violet held herself very still, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkened interior of the stall. Straw rustled and something thumped against the wood again. A low growl came from the opposite corner, a raw animal sound of pain and hatred.
Cole turned up the lantern.
Dottie gasped. “Dear Lord, a man! I thought…” Her words stumbled into silence, as though her brain couldn’t even comprehend what she saw.
Even for Violet, the scene was bad. The poor man had been whipped and beaten so often that his body was a mass of bruises and welts. Even crouched in the corner, he was huge. His broad shoulders and heavily muscled arms looked like they belonged to a blacksmith. Still growling that low, vicious warning, he rose to his full height and her gaze went up and up. He had to be nearly seven feet tall. A veritable giant.
“The way your man was talking, I thought they’d trapped a bear or something. A man. God, Violet, what kind of person does this to a living, thinking human being?”
Me. Violet swallowed hard but she didn’t dare turn her gaze away for a single moment. Any sign of weakness or hesitation from her now, and he’d be gone. He’d be on her so quickly that Cole wouldn’t have a chance to unsheathe his lazor before the man snapped her neck like a twig.
“It’s all right now,” Cole soothed, his voice the singsong chant he often used on frightened horses. “She’s the mistress I told you about. She’s come to help you.”
Calmly, she laced her fingers together at her waist and simply looked at the man, letting him look upon her likewise. “Dottie, I think you should wait outside.”
“I’m not leaving you. Violet, have some sense. He’ll kill you in a heartbeat.”
“No, he won’t.” She smiled at him serenely, ignoring the snarl that rattled from his chest. “I’m not going to touch him. I’m not getting any closer than this. I respect his space and his warning. He’s not ready for a woman’s touch, even if all I want to do is help him. Cole, do you know his name?”
“No, Your Grace. If he can still speak after all the torture he’s endured, he refuses.”
“Dottie, be a dear and fetch that bucket I saw outside the door. We need some water to wash away the blood.” Grumbling beneath her breath about fools, Dottie passed the bucket to her. Violet set the bucket in front of her on the stall floor and backed away. “Cole, take off your shirt and use it to clean him off as gently as possible. We may have to sedate him if he requires stitches.”
Cole did as she ordered, still talking in that low, gentle voice that was almost a lullaby. With sure and gentle hands, he washed the other man’s upper body, stretching up to reach the top of his shoulders and his back. The man glared at Violet, his eyes black with malice, but he allowed the care and stood quietly under the other man’s touch. At least he was sure and steady beneath knowledgeable hands. Someone had handled him like this before, so his experience hadn’t been all fear and pain.
She knew firsthand the soothing, therapeutic strength in Cole’s hands. Muscle by muscle, the man relaxed under the thorough massage and Cole managed to slip the horse blanket off the man’s groin.
He hissed in pain, his muscles tightening, fists clenched at his sides. Violet closed her eyes a moment to try and make sense of what she’d seen while still giving him at least some privacy. A cruel trap enclosed his entire groin, tight wires digging into the tender flesh, and weights dangling between his thighs. Every time he moved, the agony must be unbearable. And if he became aroused…
She shuddered and forced her eyes open. Engorged and trapped by his own desire, his cock was swollen and so purple that she feared he might actually lose it. They’d tormented him not just with pain, but with desire, too, knowing the agony it would cause him. He’d been mutilating his own flesh, and yet powerless to stop it. No wonder he was lost in a killing haze.
“Get that abomination off him.” Cole flinched at the brittle, cold tone of her voice. “If he can release, let him, whatever it takes. But he might be in too much pain to even get the slightest relief until the swelling goes down.”
“Yes’m.” Cole bobbed his head but kept his gaze down, his shoulders low and submissive. He knew that tone of voice all too well. “May I have permission to stay with him until he can be moved?”
“Yes. Do anything you can to help him. I’ll send someone with more supplies and food as soon as I return home, and I’ll make arrangements with our host so that no one bothers you at least for a few hours. Do you think you can get him to Blackmyre by dawn?”
Cole gently worked the metal loose and tossed it aside with a clatter. Freed, the man’s erection rose hard and painfully huge. Cole’s singsong voice went sultry as he wiped the man’s bloody thighs with his shirt. “I’ll do my best, Your Grace.”
Keeping her head up and her manner as slow and regal as possible, Violet stepped outside the stall and firmly latched the door. The low murmur of Cole’s voice echoed through the stall, and the ragged groan from the man, whether in ecstasy or pain she didn’t know. Likely both.
She leaned against the wall for a moment and closed her eyes, concentrating on calming her breathing again before a coughing attack gave away her secret illness. In her mind, she saw the tall, proud man again, his eyes bleeding death and rage while his monstrous erection rose up in defiance. A challenge indeed. She’d never beheld such a fiercely proud man with the inclination of pony play. He was truly a wild stallion, and potentially as dangerous. Would his desire be as ferocious?
I hope so.
Dottie wrapped her hand around Violet’s arm, drawing a soft moan from her.
“So that’s what you’ve been hiding from me.”
Violet opened her eyes and searched her friend’s face, but Dottie’s carefully schooled features didn’t reveal her thoughts. They’d known each other since their schooldays at Eton, and nothing had ever broken their friendship. Not even when Violet had done her worst to gain the black reputation of her House’s namesake. Losing her now would be a blow from which she might not recover, especially with her days already numbered.
Pushing that sobering thought away, Violet forced a lighthearted laugh and slipped into the practiced lazy saunter of the privileged upper class. “That’s my great secret, yes. The Duchess of Blackmyre occasionally finds herself rescuing poor mistreated creatures, but I’m considered the vile blackheart of the ton.”
“That’s not what I meant. God, Violet, what was that? In all seriousness, I need to know.”
Violet let the fake mask of Polite Society slip away to reveal the harder, colder mistress that Cole knew all too well. “There are some of us who like to subdue our partners before we take them to bed. In fact, some of our partners like to be trained and handled like fine horseflesh.”
“Like your man Cole,” Dottie dared, her eyebrows arching.
“Yes. He’s been my pony more than once.”
Dottie’s lip twitched. “Pony?”
“That’s the general term for people who like to be treated like horseflesh by their master or mistress,” Violet replied stiffly. “I assure you, I’ve never done anything to him that he wasn’t perfectly eager to receive, nothing like that poor man has suffered.”
“And you know people who do this? Regularly? Both the…master…and the…er…pony?”
“Yes.” Violet clamped her mouth shut, refusing to offer any entreaties or explanations. She’d tried to deny the darkness inside her way too long, afraid of the condemnation of her friends, the same as her mother. With Cole, she’d finally embraced her truest self. She’d found something that she not only enjoyed, she excelled at, damn it. She was a damned fine mistress and had even competed in the ring. Granted, it was a small community of people and the title meant nothing whatsoever to anyone but them, but it was the first time anyone had ever accepted the truth about her without a single reservation.
Dottie squeezed her arm harder. “And you didn’t tell me?” She made a noise that Violet hadn’t heard since their schoolgirl days giggling about the first boy they’d caught for a kiss in the barn. “Oh, Vi, I’m positively titillated. I can’t stand that you never told me!”
Violet blinked and tried to keep the silly grin from spreading on her face, but it was a losing effort. “Oh, Dottie, I never thought you’d care to learn about the pony games. It never even occurred to me.”
“Because you’re…so…normal.” And I’m so abnormal. She didn’t say that aloud, but it must be written in the agonized sorrow on her face that had been present since her mother’s death. It’s too late for me to ever win her approval. She’ll never forgive me for having the audacity to be born, let alone taking after my father’s perversion.
“You’re the bloody Duchess of Blackmyre, easily one of the top five most powerful ladies in the known civilized universe,” Dottie said in a low, fierce voice. “If anyone dare say a derogatory word about you they’ll be meeting me at dawn.”
Violet patted her friend’s hand soothingly. “No duels, dearest. You know Queen Majel’s opinion about such frivolous acts of honor. Besides, I’m only Duchess at her whim. She refused to hear the Dowager’s plea to disown me since there were no other living heirs to Blackmyre. Whatever cruel acts can be laid at Queen Majel’s feet, I owe her. When dear Mama died, all of Blackmyre could have returned to the Crown instead of coming to me. In all honesty, I’m rather shocked each morning when I’m still alive, let alone Duchess of Blackmyre.”
“Pish posh, the Queen’s lucky to have you as Duchess. Now about these ponies…”