General Romance | Finished
… I wouldn’t call it a jolly good time, but it’s not as bad as that. There are women, after all, and where there are women, I’m bound to make merry.
– from Michael Stirling to his cousin John, the Earl of Kilmartin, posted from the 52nd Foot Guards during the Napoleonic Wars
In every life there is a turning point. A moment so tremendous, so sharp and clear that one feels as if one’s been hit in the chest, all the breath knocked out, and one knows, absolutely knows without the merest hint of a shadow of a doubt that one’s life will never be the same.
For Michael Stirling, that moment came the first time he laid eyes on Francesca Bridgerton.
After a lifetime of chasing women, of smiling slyly as they chased him, of allowing himself to be caught and then turning the tables until he was the victor, of caressing and kissing and making love to them but never actually allowing his heart to become engaged, he took one look at Francesca Bridgerton and fell so fast and so hard into love it was a wonder he managed to remain standing.
Unfortunately for Michael, however, Francesca’s surname was to remain Bridgerton a mere thirty-six hours longer; the occasion of their meeting was, lamentably, a supper celebrating her imminent wedding to his cousin.
Life was ironic that way, Michael liked to think in his more polite moods.
In his less polite moods, he used a different adjective entirely.
And his moods, since falling in love with his first cousin’s wife, were not often polite.
Oh, he hid it well. It wouldn’t do to be visibly out of sorts. Then some annoyingly perceptive soul might actually take notice, and-God forbid-inquire as to his welfare. And while Michael Stirling held a not unsubstantiated pride in his ability to dissemble and deceive
he had, after all, seduced more women than anyone cared to count, and had somehow managed to do it all without ever once being challenged to a duel
-Well, the sodding truth of it was that he’d never been in love before, and if ever there was a time that a man might lose his ability to maintain a facade under direct questioning, this was probably it.
And so he laughed, and was very merry, and he continued to seduce women, trying not to notice that he tended to close his eyes when he had them in bed, and he stopped going to church entirely, because there seemed no point now in even contemplating prayer for his soul. Besides, the parish church near Kilmartin dated to 1432, and the crumbling stones certainly couldn’t take a direct strike of lightning.
And if God ever wanted to smite a sinner, he couldn’t do better than Michael Stirling.
Michael Stirling, Sinner.
He could see it on a calling card. He’d have had it printed up, even-his was just that sort of black sense of humor-if he weren’t convinced it would kill his mother on the spot.
Rake he might be, but there was no need to torture the woman who’d borne him.
Funny how he’d never seen all those other women as a sin. He still didn’t. They’d all been willing, of course; you couldn’t seduce an unwilling woman, at least not if you took seduction at the true sense of the word and took care not to confuse it with rape. They had to actually want it, and if they didn’t-if Michael sensed even a hint of unease, he turned and walked away. His passions were never so out of control that he couldn’t manage a quick and decisive departure.
And besides, he’d never seduced a virgin, and he’d never slept with a married woman. Oh very well, one ought to remain true to oneself, even while living a lie-he’d slept with married women, plenty of them, but only the ones whose husbands were rotters, and even then, not unless she’d already produced two male offspring; three, if one of the boys seemed a little sickly.A man had to have rules of conduct, after all.
But this… This was beyond the pale. Entirely unacceptable. This was the one transgression
and he’d had many
that was finally going to blacken his soul, or at the very least-and this was assuming he maintained the strength never to act upon his desires-make it a rather deep shade of charcoal. Because this… this-
He coveted his cousin’s wife.
He coveted John’s wife.
John, who, damn it all, was more of a brother to him than one of his own could ever have been. John, whose family had taken him in when his father had died. John, whose father had raised him and taught him to be a man. John, with whom-
Ah, bloody hell. Did he really need to do this to himself? He could spend a sennight cataloguing all the reasons why he was going straight to hell for having chosen John’s wife with whom to fall in love. And none of it was ever going to change one simple fact.
He couldn’t have her.