How had he ended up here? It was a question he was asking himself for the twentieth time in the past five minutes. He had not taken more than two steps into the entrance hall before the assault on his senses left him questioning how this had come to be his evening. How had drinks at his club gone so awry?
The crowd at White's had been particularly loud that evening; no doubt a result of members of Parliament returning to town ahead of next week's opening session. At any other time, such noise and crowding would have been enough to drive the taciturn and less sociable Mr. Darcy back home or to visit his cousin the Colonel if he happened to be in town. But tonight, the last place he wished to be was alone, and since his cousin was still away with his regiment, the crowd at least provided him with the diversion he desperately needed.
Emptying his glass and setting it on the table before him, Mr. Darcy scanned the room, compiling a list of faces he recognized and another of people to be sure to avoid. As his glass was replenished yet again by the attentive staff lingering amongst the crowd, just such an individual from the latter list appeared before him.
"Darcy! How good to see you old man!"
With a sigh and a roll of the eyes, Mr. Darcy watched as the finely dressed gentleman propelled himself, ungracefully and without invitation, into the empty seat at his table. With a barely perceptible nod of the head and voice devoid of any warmth or welcome, he greeted his cousin, "Edward."
Edward Fitzwilliam, eldest son and heir of the Earl of Matlock and cousin to the Darcys, was dressed impeccably as usual. His well-tailored clothes and intricately tied cravat were, as usual, a credit and a testament to the wealth and status of the Matlock earldom. However, on closer inspection, the blood-shot eyes and slight disheveling of his blond curls also attested to his cousin having already spent a good portion of his evening in the drink. Another not uncommon sight where the man was concerned.
"This is an unexpected surprise! I would never imagine you to be so tolerable of a crowd such as this." The slight slurring of Edward's words further confirmed Darcy's suspicions. "Come, what are you drinking? Let us have another." And, with a flourish of his hand, two more drinks appeared at the table.
"I believe you may have already had enough, Edward." His disdain for his cousin's lifestyle evident in his tone.
"Nonsense. You are not fooling anyone, Darcy. I can see you have had more than your usual share this evening."
Surprised, Darcy's head snapped to attention, causing the world to tilt slightly. As his eyes quickly refocused, he was surprised to find his usually imperceptive cousin smirking at him knowingly. Perhaps it takes one drunk to so easily spot another.
"Here, drink up, old man. The night is young."
Edward. That was how this had happened.
Moving quietly through the drawing rooms, Mr. Darcy observed the collection of gentleman and tradesmen alike loitering about, flirting shamelessly with the collection of ladies gathered there for their amusement. It was a sickening sight to behold, and he asked himself for the now twenty-first time what he was doing there. In his eight and twenty years on this earth, he had made a habit of avoiding establishments such as this and had succeeded in avoiding the common temptations and pitfalls that so easily claimed many of his peers. Yet, here he was. The scent of French perfume filling his nostrils while gaudy red walls with their gold threaded papering assaulted his eyes. Loud voices and fake, simpering laughter filled his ears; all combining to cause his already whisky-addled head to swim.
Feeling a tug on his arm, he looked down to find a young girl with brilliant red hair smiling up at him. The plunging neckline on her gown masterfully presented a titillating view of her décolletage while her eyelashes flitted and fluttered in what he was sure was meant to serve as an enticing come-hither. As gracefully as he could, he removed his arm from her grasp, bowed politely and walked away, searching for Edward in the crush.
After a few minutes spent searching the room he was in and the next, he finally spotted his libertine of a cousin flirting shamelessly with a girl who looked as if she was not much older than Mr. Darcy's young sister. Without a second thought, he grabbed Edward by the arm and excused themselves from the young girl's presence.
"Edward, I am leaving. I don't know why I allowed you to convince me to accompany you, but I will most certainly not remain and be party to this… this…" He waved his arm dismissively at his surroundings while his clouded mind tried to find the appropriate word to describe the scene.
"Come now, Darcy. You really do need to shed this noble mien of yours and enjoy the pleasures that life has to offer men of our status." Grabbing his cousin by the shoulder, he guided Mr. Darcy through the doorway and into yet another parlor. This room, however, was not filled with the scenes of debauchery occurring throughout the rest of the house. Instead, it was filled with about twenty or so gentleman, laughing and conversing, many of them speculating about what wonderful creature Madame Amelia would be introducing tonight. It was, in fact, this scintillating event that had drawn his cousin to the Madame Amelia's that evening.
The gentleman had been sitting at the table at White's for nearly two hours before the crowd began to thin. Curious as to what could draw so many men away at such an early hour, Mr. Darcy voiced his observation to his cousin.
"Oh, I am sure they are all on their way to Madame Amelia's. That actually is my destination as well," Edward stated before downing the rest of his drink and attempting to rise to his feet. "I say, Darcy, you should join us! Oh, do not look at me like so. You never allow yourself to enjoy any of the pleasures life has to offer but yet you sit in judgment of those of us who do. Why do you not, for once in your life, allow yourself some basic pleasure?" Once again, Edward attempted to rise from his seat and finally succeeded in getting himself, though unsteadily, on his feet.
As Mr. Darcy opened his mouth to issue his retort, Edward silenced him with a wave of his hand. "If it is disease you are worried about, you need not. In fact, Madame Amelia has been advertising all week a new girl whose innocence will be auctioned off tonight. Oh, do not look so repulsed! It is the way of the world, Darcy, whether you like it or not. Someone will bed that fine young filly tonight, so why shouldn't it be you?"
Shocked into silence, Mr. Darcy tried to process all that he had heard. Repulsed did not even begin to describe what he felt at such a notion. An unbidden image of a horse auction immediately came to mind, further offending his sensibilities.
"And if your high moral standards will not allow you to act as such, there are many lovely young women who are clean and healthy and happy to take a handsome, wealthy man into their bed." At that point, Edward had reached over to grab his cousin by the arm and pull him to his feet. Before Mr. Darcy had time to fully understand what he was allowing himself to be dragged into, they were halfway across town.
The din in the room continued to rise as several more gentlemen entered, following closely by a curvy woman of medium height. Draped in a dress of deep purple silk and black lace with her bountiful mass of blonde curls piled upon her head, she glided about the room, greeting each of the men assembled. Finally making her way to them, she executed a flawless curtsey and smiled warmly at Edward.
"My Lord, how lovely to see you here this evening!"
"Madame Amelia, it is, as always, a pleasure. One I have been eagerly anticipating since I heard the news."
As she smiled becomingly in response, her eyes shifted to Mr. Darcy. "And you, sir. You are welcome as well… although I am quite certain I have not had the pleasure of making your acquaintance." She held out her hand as she introduced herself.
Unsure of how to respond, Mr. Darcy allowed his years of training in proper etiquette to guide him in bowing over the lady's hand. Although, he did not return the honor of sharing his name with her.
"Oh, there is no need to introduce yourself. I am certainly well aware of who you are, sir," she smirked. "I hope that what we have tonight will be to your liking. If it is not, I'm sure we can find something to satisfy the refined tastes of a gentleman such as yourself. Please do not hesitate to share with me any way in which I can make your evening more enjoyable." With another knowing smile, she curtsied again and moved across the room to begin her presentation.
"Good evening, gentlemen," she announced and then waited as the room quieted and all eyes turned towards her. "And it is indeed a wonderful evening. I'm sure you will all be quite taken with the latest, and may I say, loveliest addition to our humble home." Again, she paused as many men in the audience chuckled at her jest. "She is a handsome young girl, not long out of the school room. Although being gentle born, she has a fiery spirit that I am sure many of you will find to your liking. However, only one of you will be so fortunate to win the honor tonight of ushering her fully into womanhood."
Again, she waited patiently as the murmurs amongst the crowd died down. Once she was sure she had their undivided attention, she turned to signal the footman standing beside a screen in the far corner of the room. On her command, he reached behind the screen to take the arm of the young woman hidden from view. With a great flourish, the young maiden was ushered to a box standing in the front of the room and instructed to stand upon it to offer everyone a better view. Several laughs and exclamations of pleasure rose from the admirers. Everyone was indeed quiet pleased with Madame Amelia's offering and began reaching into their pockets for their money. "We will begin the bidding at ten pounds."
One gentleman, however, was most seriously displeased at what he beheld, and with a quiet gasp, whispered, "Elizabeth!"