A Bid for Independence
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by Karla Hocker
Category: Romance RITA Award Finalist
Description: Cherry Sinclair had to come to London, not to enter the whirl of the social Season, but to fulfill her dream of becoming a successful concert pianist. Though she eschewed the ton, Cherry found herself embroiled in social difficulties from the moment she reached town...but how was she to know that her very first audition would take place in a house of ill-repute? And why was the mistress of the dashing Duke of Belcourt, the beautiful Lady Aberlaine, doing her best to sully Cherry's name? And most maddening of all, why was the duke himself always there--with his devastating smile and obliging offers of help--every time Cherry committed a blunder?
eBook Publisher: Hard Shell Word Factory, 2000
eBookwise Release Date: August 2004
30 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [385 KB]
Reading time: 239-335 min.
"A Bid for Independence starts boldly and doesn't disappoint. Hocker brings to life the color and detail of the cobbled streets of London. Anyone who loves Regencies will find this book appealing. 4-1/2 Stars!"--Word Museum
"Fans of the Regency period will love A Bid for Independence, as it has all the historical flavor of this era. The dialogue and characterization are wonderfully true to the period. Cherry is a strong and determined heroine and readers will adore her. The cast of secondary characters is a delight and adds a subtle touch of humor to this exciting tale. Ms. Hocker does an excellent job portraying the hero as a rake and libertine who is so drawn to the heroine that he questions whether love is a true emotion. An inspiring, sensual story, which will keep readers beautifully entertained for a few hours, and long after the exciting conclusion, they will remember this wonderful couple."--Romance Communications
Cherry Sinclair came to an abrupt halt, the tap-tapping of her heeled half-boots lingering as a brief echo on the cobbles behind her. Here, finally, she'd found some evidence of the gaslights which were said to illuminate London as though it was daytime. This, of course, was sadly exaggerated, but the glow of the lamp enabled her to decipher the lettering on the street signs affixed to the corner building: HAYMARKET and CHARLES II STREET. Not that this information was of any appreciable help to her -- she had not bothered during her short stay to study the geography of the sprawling city.
She fought to still the pounding of her heart and calm her painfully ragged breaths after her headlong flight through unknown, ill-lit streets and alleys. This was not the time to give in to fear. She'd always shown pluck before, had always been one to throw her heart over the fence and follow courageously, and now she must find her way to Berkeley Square. With a smidgeon of luck on her side, she might slip up to her room with Lord and Lady Bolwood none the wiser of her narrow escape -- else her stay in London would certainly be curtailed.
A shiver ran through her slender body, and she hugged her arms tightly to her chest. Her dimity morning gown was no protection against the chill of the dark March night. What rotten luck, she thought, that I had to abandon my beautiful new cloak. But uppermost in her mind was the need for urgency. She was terrified that someone from that dreadful house she had just escaped might be in pursuit of her.
Yet, Cherry hesitated to approach the brighter-lit streets. There, too, lay danger from the bucks and blades, the dandies and Corinthians on the lookout for a likely "bit o' muslin." She also noticed several females whose painted faces and provocative stances attested to their profession, but she knew she must brazen past the ogling strollers to find a hackney and must persuade one of the jarveys to drive her to Berkeley Square on her promise that he would receive payment at Bolwood House.
With a toss of her saucy curls she put up her chin, squared her slender shoulders, and started walking. When she reached St. James's Street she slowed and peered hesitantly about her. Even she had heard of the famous clubs, Brooks's, Boodle's, and White's, in St. James's. A lady should never be seen in this exclusively male domain. Yet, there, a short distance down the street, beckoned a propitious line of coaches near a large, bow-fronted window.
With an air of specific purpose Cherry lengthened her stride. Too late now to turn back. The sooner she disappeared inside a hackney and hid behind the tattered curtains and grime-streaked glass panels of the vehicle, the sooner she would be safe. She sidestepped two aspiring young dandies set on making her acquaintance and ignored all greetings and calls from various members of the opposite sex.
Cherry had almost arrived at her destination when the door of White's Club burst open and a group of five young men spilled out, enveloping her in their midst. They were all gentlemen of the first stare, she noticed at a glance, one in the bright dress uniform of the Hussars, the other four Corinthians from the tops of their carelessly brushed locks to the tips of their lacquered evening shoes. Their elegant dark coats fitted snugly over broad shoulders, and light-colored pantaloons showed off muscular thighs and calves.
"Told you she'd be worth our notice, Marcus. A prime article, if ever I saw one. You owe me a monkey." The speaker, a blond giant with a boyish grin and a mischievous twinkle in his eye, held out his hand.
His friend only shook his dark head as though to clear it of wine fumes. In his early thirties, tall, of well-proportioned build, he was the most strikingly handsome man Cherry had ever seen.
"Not yet, Harry," he drawled. "I'm not completely cast away, and I've the distinct impression that we've made a grave mistake."
He studied the beautiful young girl before him, appreciating the graceful carriage of her body and the creamy oval of her face with its high cheekbones, determined chin, and tantalizing red lips. Although her rich, guinea-golden curls were disheveled, and her simple gown was rumpled and slightly torn, the poise and quiet dignity radiating from her warned him that this was no ordinary demirep. She was obviously out of her depth in this environment and not a little frightened, but she bravely stood up to his scrutiny.
"What, Marcus, lost your gumption?" mocked the officer. "Never known you to be timid before."
"I say, let Benny have a go at her then," suggested a third.
Cherry's large, slate-gray eyes widened in apprehension, but she made no sound. Instinctively she turned to the tall, dark-haired man as though his presence afforded her protection. She took brief note of the stranger's attractive if somewhat cynical smile. However, her full attention was riveted on his most startling feature: penetrating eyes of such a clear, light blue that they appeared like chips off a glacier in bold contrast to his bronzed skin.
He bowed. When he spoke again, it was without a trace of the formerly affected drawl in his deep, vibrant voice. "Ma'am, may I be of assistance? I am Belcourt, at your service -- though a bit foxed, I'm afraid. And these are my friends...Harry Blythe, Lord Bennington known as Benny, the Earl of Dexter, and Major Redmyn. Pray excuse their manners. Unfortunately, they cannot hold their liquor as they should."
In turn, his friends executed somewhat unsteady bows and regarded her somberly, meeting her probing look without a trace of embarrassment. They seemed harmless enough now and willing to help. But no, she could not accept aid from strangers, even if one of them had performed the introductions, quite as if they'd met in a drawing room rather than St. James's in the dead of night. Her strict upbringing rebelled against such unorthodox procedure.
"Thank you, gentlemen. You are very kind, but I shall do splendidly on my own. If you will just let me pass, I can be on my way to that hackney." She inclined her head in dismissal, and miraculously they parted. Cherry slipped through the gap and approached the first coach, accompanied by their muttering, even a muffled oath or two. But soon, with a feeling of intense relief, she heard their footsteps proceed in the opposite direction.
The sleepy coachman clambered off his perch. "Where to, missy?" He grumbled when he heard the address. Berkeley Square was but a stone's throw away, hardly worth the effort of rousing his tired nags. He took a closer look at his prospective passenger -- no cloak, no muff, no reticule.
"Well now, missy, ye're not thinkin' of hoaxin' a poor ol' man, are ye? Where is yer money? That'll be a shillin'." He stretched out a gnarled hand toward her.
"You will be paid by Lord Bolwood in Berkeley Square," Cherry declared imperiously, fixing him with a haughty stare. She turned to climb into the hackney, but was pulled back roughly.
"Oh no ye don't. I don't deliver doxies without me fare in advance."
The old man, in spite of his wizened appearance, was surprisingly strong. She prepared to plead with him, to explain her circumstances, when a shout from across the street froze her blood.
"Hold on! Grab her! That's Madame Fellini's new gal."
A dark figure was coming closer. With horror Cherry recognized the huge man called Blake from the brothel who had brutally dragged her upstairs and locked her in. She clutched at the jarvey in despair.
"Please, you must help me get away! They tricked me. For goodness' sake, take me to Berkeley Square!"
"Can't, miss." The old man had the grace to look ashamed. "I daren't go agin Madame and her bully."
Blake grinned wolfishly. "Madame's mighty keen on gettin' you back, my little diamond. She's waitin' to teach you a lesson or two." His huge hands, covered with a thick matting of black hair, reached for her like evil vultures.
In mounting terror Cherry backed away. She turned to flee but was caught in an instant. His vicelike fingers dug painfully into her shoulders and pulled her closer until she could smell the foulness of his breath. She fought like a wildcat, kicking and scratching, but to no avail. Blake growled. He half lifted, half shoved her into the hackney. She tumbled awkwardly against the seat, tearing the skirt of her dress even further. He started to climb in after her. Cherry aimed one more ferocious kick at him, then suddenly he disappeared.
Grunts and scuffling noises assailed her ears. Then she heard a cocky, cheerful voice she recognized. "That's it, Marcus...give him a cross-buttock! Well done!"
She held her breath but could hear no more. Cautiously she edged her way to the door and peered out. The man called Marcus stood facing her, his strange, light-blue eyes glinting with satisfaction and some amusement. Blake lay sprawled on the cobbles a few feet away.
The tight control she'd kept on her emotions during the past hours broke. Cherry burst into tears of relief and threw herself into the waiting arms. She was safe.
Gently Marcus stroked the soft golden curls which blew featherlight against his chin and let her cry. His friends crowded around, clamoring to know why that bully was forcing her to Madame Fellini's. Cherry pulled herself out of her secure haven, her creamy complexion suffused with red as she looked up at her rescuer.
"I've messed up your cravat and soaked your coat!"
He chuckled. "You may apologize in a moment, but first things first."
With no apparent effort he hoisted the felled Blake off the ground and into the hackney. Several gold coins passed to the coachman, who touched a finger to his cap and drove off. Marcus turned his attention back to Cherry.
"We overheard that you wish to go to Berkeley Square. Permit us to accompany you there. A short stroll will be just the thing to calm your nerves, and perhaps you'll honor us with your confidence about your predicament. We might be able to help."
Twice within a short time span this stranger had offered his assistance. When she had refused it earlier, she had only tumbled into greater difficulties. Uncertain, Cherry regarded Marcus and his friends, weighing the risk of accepting their escort versus the danger of proceeding on her own through the dark night.
" 'Twould be better to hire one of the hackneys to take the young lady home," proposed the ponderous Lord Dexter. "Shouldn't be with us, you know. Not properly introduced and all that."
"Don't talk fustian, Dexter. Didn't you pay attention when Marcus did the pretty?" demanded Lord Bennington. "Be only too happy to oblige, ma'am," he added and bowed deeply before Cherry.
Harry Blythe ran his fingers through his unruly blond hair and grinned engagingly at her. "You'd much better accept our escort, you know. There's no saying whom you might run into if you persist in walking through the streets alone."
Marcus didn't press her but kept his eyes questioningly on her face. She recognized concern and innate protectiveness in his clear, steady gaze, and the fearful pounding of her heart subsided. This time she would trust them. She would try to explain how it had come about that she'd landed herself so miserably in the basket and could only hope that the fascinating Marcus would believe her. Somehow it had become of the utmost importance to prove that she really was a very respectable young lady.
"Thank you, Mr. Belcourt. I thank all you gentlemen from the bottom of my heart for your timely intervention, and I accept your kind offer with gratitude." She dipped a curtsy and directed a dazzling smile impartially at them all. "I am Charity Sinclair, but my family and friends call me Cherry. My father is Simon Sinclair, rector of Lostwithiel in Cornwall, where I was born and raised. A few weeks ago I came to London to stay with my mother's friends, Lord and Lady Bolwood.
"Welcome to town, Miss Sinclair." Major Redmyn pushed himself forward to bow ceremoniously over her hand. "Very pleased to make your acquaintance. But allow me to bring a very small matter to your attention. You really should address Belcourt here as Your Grace. He's a duke, don't you know."
Before this bit of startling news could throw Cherry into renewed confusion, the duke offered her his arm. "Nonsense, Redmyn. She'll call me Marcus, as I expect to be granted permission to use her own lovely name." He directed a lopsided grin at her and winked. "Not 'Charity,' however. I'm not surprised nobody calls you by that name...it doesn't suit. But 'Cherry' matches the color of your lips admirably. Now let's be on our way. I imagine Lord and Lady Bolwood will be at sixes and sevens to have you missing half the night."
"I doubt it. They probably believe I accepted the advertised position, and if they noticed my absence, they'll think I stayed for my first performance."
A deep, fiery blush stained her cheeks when the five men turned as one to cast incredulous looks at her. "Then you are one of Madame's new charmers who are to pose for the tableau," exclaimed the major, and Lord Bennington muttered under his breath, "What a take-in!"
Hastily Cherry disclaimed and proceeded with the difficult task of explaining how her sorry plight had come about, while they continued on their slow walk toward Berkeley Square.
"It was the advertisement in the Gazette, yousee. It appeared yesterday and again today. An accomplished female pianist was wanted to perform in a renowned club."
"Why on earth would the Fellini want a pianist?" demanded Harry Blythe. "I should think most of her clientele want to escape that sort of humdrum entertainment when they come to her establishment."
The duke frowned reprovingly at Harry, and Cherry continued, a bit hesitant at first, but more determined than before to prove her innocence of wrongdoing. "I wouldn't know of her reasons, but applicants were asked to present themselves at the Clarendon at two o'clock for an audition. A very elegant lady who called herself Baroness Schonbeck and two well-dressed gentlemen whose names were not mentioned conducted the interviews. They had me play the pianoforte for an hour -- perhaps longer -- I did not pay very much attention to time. When they told me I had impressed them greatly and asked me to accompany the baroness to the club to see the facilities for myself, I felt proud and happy, and eagerly rode with the lady in her coach."
"Cherry," interrupted the duke, "do you mean to tell me it is with Lady Bolwood's sanction that you sauntered all over town, unaccompanied even by a maid?"
"Well, not exactly," she said falteringly. "Lady Bolwood knew of the appointment at the Clarendon and sent a maid with me. But there were several applicants for the post, and it looked like a long wait. I told Betsy to go home."
"Probably at the baroness's suggestion," he supplied dryly.
"Yes. She did look so very respectable, you know. I had no qualms at all about dismissing Betsy."
"When we reached the club, I realized it was not the fashionable neighborhood I had expected, yet the building we entered looked impressive, inside and out. The decor and furnishings were elaborate and rich, if a little vulgar. I was shown the pianoforte, a beautiful Broadwood, then Baroness Schonbeck requested I change into one of their evening gowns, as this would be required each night for my performance. A maid led me to a dressing room where at least two dozen garments were stored. Those were the most daringly cut, indecent gowns I've ever laid eyes upon, and all of them were completely transparent."
A hysterical giggle, which sounded more like a hiccough, escaped Cherry's suddenly parched throat.
Marcus watched her with compassion. "If you'd rather not continue, we understand. Perhaps it would be better if we delivered you into Lady Bolwood's care as quickly as possible. She must be worried out of her wits by now, and you look utterly exhausted. Your story can wait."
"No, it is almost finished," she interposed hastily. Again she had the urgent need to explain the situation fully, but she had to clasp Marcus's arm harder to steady herself as the impact of the danger she had escaped threatened to overwhelm her. "Besides, Lord and Lady Bolwood planned to be out late. I don't suppose they asked for me on their return from Lord Castlereagh's dinner, and by tomorrow they'll have forgotten all about it. They are very busy, you know."
Cherry paused for a moment, lost in thought, then squared her shoulders and resumed the painful recital. "When I refused to change into one of those robes, the maid called the baroness. She informed me that I was in a bagnio which she owned and ran under the name Madame Fellini; that since I was there, I might as well give up being missish and join her girls; if I were clever as well as talented, I could become all the crack."
"An understatement, if ever I heard one," Lord Bennington muttered under his breath. "You'd be the toast of the town."
Cherry took no notice and continued with an outward show of calm she was far from possessing. "I only laughed at the baroness, which infuriated her, and started to leave, but that man Blake grabbed me and forced me upstairs and locked me in a tiny garret room." She drew a deep breath and slanted a quick glance at the duke.
His face was set in grim lines, and anger blazed from his eyes. "Fiends! Did they hurt you, Cherry?"
"No, he only threatened to drug me if I did not cooperate. When, several hours later, he appeared with a glass of wine, I pretended to drink, then spat the wine in his face. "
Cheers went up from all but Marcus. Harry Blythe praised, "Knew you were a right 'un. Pluck to the backbone! And then what? Did you draw his cork?"
"Nothing so dramatic, I'm afraid," admitted Cherry, who was no stranger to the cant expressions used by young gentlemen. Not for nothing had she enjoyed the companionship of two outspoken brothers. "While he was busy wiping his eyes, I ran downstairs. Several girls were already entertaining gentlemen, and probably their presence saved me because the footmen did not know whether they should grab me or not. I slipped unhindered out into the street. The rest of the story you know, more or less."
They had reached Berkeley Square and stood in front of Lord Bolwood's town house while Cherry was concluding her tale. The duke had his unwavering gaze fixed upon her, his chin jutting, his teeth clenched so that two deep, harsh lines formed along his mouth. He nodded.
"Yes, we know the rest. I am sorry that inadvertently we added to your terror this night. Please forgive us. We will wait to see you safely admitted into the house. Good night, Cherry." He bowed politely and stood waiting for her to go.
A cold hand squeezed her heart. He was so remote, so disdainful. Instead of gaining understanding from this man who had impressed her at first sight, she had laid herself open to his loathing. Her chin came up, and she met his look squarely.
"Good night, Your Grace. Good night, gentlemen. And thank you again for all the help you have rendered me."
Cherry turned and walked up to the door amid their muttered good-nights and assurances of their pleasure in aiding her. She rapped the knocker sharply and was admitted almost instantly by a sleepy footman.
Except for the hall with its gleaming marble-and-gilt decor, the rooms of the ground floor were steeped in darkness. Nobody was waiting anxiously for her return, but then she had not expected it. Lord and Lady Bolwood were wrapped up in their own affairs and paid scant attention to their young guest.
Wearily she accepted a candle from the yawning footman and dragged herself up to her room. It was an elegant yet cozy chamber with pale yellow drapes at the windows and around the four-poster bed. Yet, tonight, the charming features which before had welcomed her so warmly whenever she'd entered failed to cheer her -- the Chinese wallpaper in a delicate design of bamboo bridges, ethereal flowers, and brilliantly colored birds; the writing desk of the Queen Anne period, where she'd intended to inform her parents of her engagement as a pianist; the tiny round table and comfortable chairs by the fireplace; and the thick, foot-hugging Oriental rugs which were scattered throughout the chamber.
Physically exhausted and emotionally drained, she huddled on the bed. Too fatigued to disrobe or to trouble with ablutions, she was content to kick off her boots and pull off her stockings. There was some water in a jug on the small table by her bed. She poured with shaking hands and drank thirstily, then leaned her throbbing head against the pillows and closed her eyes.
Unbidden, the duke's handsome face intruded upon her weary mind. She saw his chiseled features clearly; the straight nose, firm chin, and sensitive mouth; the light-blue eyes and the crisp, dark brown hair falling untidily onto his forehead.
Cherry sighed. She had certainly made a great mess of everything, even alienated the man she would have liked to get to know more intimately. He would not want to see her again. Therefore, she had better stick to declining Lady Bolwood's vague invitations to soirées and dinner parties. It would be too embarrassing if she met Marcus and his friends socially after this disastrous night.
Resolutely she pounded the pillows into a more comfortable shape for her aching head. It was no use crying over spilt milk. She must not dwell on her gullibility, her foolishness in driving with the baroness - - a complete stranger -- to some unknown "club." What terrifying consequences her impetuous actions had almost brought upon her! Her mind reeled, and her skin prickled in horror. Best think about the morrow instead. She would visit Covent Garden and Drury Lane one more time and inquire about a position as a pianist.
How still and quiet it was in this vast house, quite unlike her own dear old timber-framed vicarage which always teemed with industrious Sinclairs and their three servants. The vicarage was filled with the laughter and squabbling of the five siblings and their father's noisy Irish setters bounding in and out. Even at night the rambling old building could not be quiet. It seemed to tremble lightly and sigh. She recalled the intermittent creaking of the timbers and how the stairs would echo footsteps that had passed long ago.
Cherry pulled the quilted coverlet up to her chin to stop the shaking of her cold limbs. If only her sisters were here, sharing the room as they did at home. She remembered how she had crawled into Sara's bed on her last night in the vicarage one long month ago. Then she had been shivering not from cold but from a sudden attack of nerves on the eve of her departure for London. She had been afraid of the victory she had won after a long, wearisome battle with her beloved mother. Her sister Sara had understood and held her close, and they had whispered late into the night, remembering the day she had been called to their father's study.
Copyright © 2000 by Karla Hocker