Authors: Montgomery Mahaffey
Tags: #romance, #erotica, #fantasy, #Fairy Tales; Folk Tales; Legends & Mythology
He came back to society a new man. People were stunned as they watched him court the Marquis’ daughter. It was rumored that he had seduced the girl shortly after her debut. Once the surprise wore off, his former mistresses snickered with malicious glee. Even his friends couldn’t suppress their mirth. Respectability denatured the Rogue, the spectacle of him as a suitor both pathetic and irresistible. He forbore their ridicule with grace and ignored them with ease. Feeling foolish in the face of indifference, the same ladies and gentlemen awaited official word of their engagement. All had to admit that the Rogue had done very well for himself.
He visited the Marquis and the Debutante every day, arriving in time for dinner and leaving before his host showed signs of fatigue. His manner couldn’t have been more pleasant, but the Rogue never requested an audience with his sweetheart’s father.
With each visit, he intended to ask the Marquis for his blessing. His near fiancée was a love. She was eager to please, had a sensual nature, and her naivety was astonishing. He knew that if she were to be his wife, he could have as many mistresses as he desired and she wouldn’t be the wiser. But he just couldn’t bring himself to propose.
However, the Rogue was still a rogue. Their courtship continued, and as formal as his manners were to the Marquis and the Debutante when he left, he always came back when all the lights were out save one. He climbed the trellis to an open window. There, he would stay until the dark hours of morning. He always hoped to see the vagabond girl when he left and was always disappointed. The memory of his nemesis was with him always.
Finally, the night came when the Rogue was caught. Complacency had dulled his instincts as well as his timing. Winter was giving way to spring and he had become careless, leaving tracks in the mud to the trellis beneath the Debutante’s window. He didn’t notice, nor did he hear the Marquis enter his daughter’s rooms. He became aware only when the Debutante froze, her face going white as she pushed him off. The Rogue turned to the blank face of the Marquis staring at him in bed with his daughter.
“How long has this been going on?” he asked.
The old man’s voice was feeble, looking from the Rogue to his daughter and back to him. The Rogue hesitated, struggling to find a believable lie.
“Since the very beginning,” he said.
“Then you will marry her, of course.”
The Marquis’ mouth quivered and he spoke without looking at them. The Debutante’s weeping echoed through the cavernous chamber.
“At least my father will be happy,” the Rogue thought, and almost laughed aloud.
He saw a future that would crush him. His marriage would be a lifetime sentence of noble comfort with a woman he had little affection for. He saw the mistresses he would take. They would be wives who were as bored with their husbands as he would be with his wife. On occasion, he would seduce a virgin debutante during the early years when he was still young enough, but only the really foolish ones and never the beauties. If he was fortunate, he may meet another woman like the Duchess who had spirit and imagination. But he knew that was unlikely, for he would never be as desirable as he was when he was invincible and had his freedom. As time passed, he knew his mistresses would grow older and less alluring until he succumbed and went to the courtesans. Of course, he would only have the best and most beautiful of the profession. He would be able to afford them.
The Rogue saw the life that would be his and shuddered. His instincts came back and he rolled off the bed. He gathered his clothes before he knew what he was doing and leaped out the window. The silence behind him was eerie, for this was the worst thing he had ever done. He knew he was destroying the Marquis and his daughter as he climbed down the trellis. He knew this would ruin him as well. One gentleman never humiliated another and got away with it. But that thought didn’t stop the Rogue from fleeing across the yard to the trees, throwing his clothes on as he went.
But the Rogue couldn’t escape the shame that his disgrace would bring upon his father. His father had been proud of him for winning the heart of a Marquis’ daughter. There was pain in his heart, but the Rogue kept running, panicked because he couldn’t find his horse.
He heard galloping behind him and stopped. He knew it must be the Marquis coming to challenge him. A duel was the only way for a gentleman to restore his pride after a dishonor like this. The Rogue was relieved. He was younger and faster than the Marquis, and would be preserved through victory. He heard the rhythm of more than one horse, and wondered if the Marquis sent a posse after him. But he couldn’t run anymore and waited.
The vagabond girl came out of the trees to the right of him. Then he saw his horse and understood why he heard more than one gait. He couldn’t see her face because it was backlit by the full moon, but her hair shined in its glow. She let go of the reins to his steed, then extended her hand and released one foot from her stirrup.
“You can take your horse, Rogue,” she said, “or you can come with me.”
His heart pounded hard. He glanced at the chocolate coat of his handsome stallion. He thought of the ruin his life would be if he mounted and went home. Then he looked at the palm open to receive him. He tried to imagine the unknown, and excitement tickled his flesh.
He took her hand. Her grip was stronger than his, her palm rough, her fingers calloused, so unlike the milky hands of a lady. She held on to the Rogue while he lifted his foot to the stirrup and swung his leg to sit behind her. Then the girl twisted in her saddle and looked at him.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” she asked.
He nodded and Ella Bandita smiled.
“Don’t say you never had a choice, Rogue.”
She turned around and clicked her tongue. The giant gray stallion took off at a gallop, the speed taking his breath away. Her slender waist was hard as iron, but the Rogue held onto her. He never felt such sweet freedom in his life as he did on that ride.
The inferno had fallen to burning crumbles by the time the Bard brought his story to the end. The room was comfortably warm and the village young were quiet, transfixed by the black silhouette sitting in perfect stillness.
“Life is a funny business,” he said. “One man’s doom is another man’s redemption.”
“The Marquis and his daughter didn’t leave the estate for days, terrified of the certainty of the ruin they would have to face once they left the sanctuary of their house. Instead, society came to them. The Marquis’ closest neighbor and another gentleman came to the house with the Rogue’s steed. They claimed they had found the horse running wild in the trees where they had been hunting.”
“Before the Marquis could say a word, his neighbor offered his condolences over the sorrow to his family, with the Rogue missing for days and the rumors that Ella Bandita had gotten to him. Since it was well known the Rogue was courting his daughter, the neighbor expressed concern for their suffering.”
“How the Marquis must have felt in that moment! He recovered enough to reply that he and his daughter had been very distressed the Rogue hadn’t come to call in the last few days, and that they hoped the rumors were false, as rumors often were.”
“Yet they were proven true when the Rogue was found the next day with the same glazed eyes and slack jaw as her other conquests. He claimed he spent three days and nights with the notorious seductress before she stole his heart.”
The Bard’s voice was smooth and clear, just as it had been at the beginning of his tale. He lit a candle and illuminated his face. His black eyes swept across his young audience before settling on his grandson. He was satisfied to see the boy’s face was slightly pale.
“This was a thrilling tale to be certain, but I hope all of you understand it’s not only cruel, it is foolish to abuse the gift of love.”
The boy met his grandfather’s gaze and nodded. The Bard was relieved to see his grandson understood.
“Follow your heart,” he said. “Remember, it’s the most precious part of you. Follow your heart and you will always do right in life.”
Four years later...
The hunt for Ella Bandita began with the women.
They raged with each new tale about the notorious seductress, these women who spent their lives caring for their beauty and enhancing their manners to appeal to the most desirable men in society. Wives and courtesans worked hard for their pampered lives, fine gowns, and sparkling jewels. Ella Bandita was a spit in the face of their world. Ugly in face and grubby in dress, how could this be a woman no man can resist? How could a vagabond be the Thief of Hearts, a destroyer of indomitable men, making them shadows of their former selves and never to be the same again?
The wrath of the women grew alongside the terror of their men. I’ve never heard of a time when married ladies and harlots of easy living cast their rivalries aside. But they did in order to stand against Ella Bandita. Ironically enough, the man who brought them together was more akin to a courtesan than a Patron. He was an easy conquest, not worth a mention if it weren’t for what happened afterwards.
He was a charmer, the one who set all the women against Ella Bandita.
He lived in the city, having arrived in society through a marriage of convenience. In some ways, the Charmer was blessed amongst fortune hunters. His wife was lovely with her fair hair and creamy skin. Her beauty would have been almost as appealing as her generous dowry had she not been a malcontent. Her dreary accent and petulant nature challenged his polished manners every day, and her company must have grated desperately on his nerves. The Charmer hadn’t been married a year before he pursued a courtesan who was as exciting as his wife was irritating. He must have spent quite a bit of his wife’s fortune, for he stopped at nothing until he gained the favor of the most sought after woman in her profession.
She was known as Adrianna the Beautiful. Dark and fiery with a formidable lust, her appetite for pleasure was insatiable, her salons legendary. Her guests were the handsomest, the wealthiest, the most powerful, and the most brilliant men in the city. She had her pick of lovers from only the best, and she was selective. The Charmer was far beneath her usual choices, but he was witty and his courtship was relentless. He made himself irresistible enough that Adrianna allowed herself to be seduced.
The night the Charmer crossed paths with Ella Bandita, he was with his wife at the opera. They sat in a balcony above the stage. The Charmer’s mistress was also present, escorted by a handsome young prince. To the amusement of Adrianna the Beautiful and the Charmer, she and her escort sat across from he and his wife. Adrianna winked at her lover when neither of their companions was looking. The Charmer smiled and winked back just before his wife turned to him with a complaint. The Charmer was a consummate gallant. His face transformed into a mask of attentive concern as he caressed his wife’s hand and whispered gentle words until she was quiet.
He saw Ella Bandita as soon as he could look away. As was often the case when she was hunting, the Thief of Hearts was staring at the Charmer, drawing his regard down to the common seats where she sat. Their eyes met. The Charmer found her gaze startling and riveting. For a moment, he forgot his wife and his mistress. Then his attention was diverted when the lights faded and the velvet curtains lifted. Once the performance began, he had no mind for intrigue. Opera was one of the few things he cherished.
It was surprising the Charmer even fell under Ella Bandita’s spell. He was a satisfied man. He had a wealthy wife who seemed a Madonna in those blessed moments of silence, a decadent temptress for a mistress, and a life of elegance and leisure. He was enjoying himself, his privilege too fresh to take for granted. Perhaps his wife was especially tiresome that evening, or the sight of Adrianna in a blazing red gown made the reality of what she was painfully apparent.
Maybe he sensed the boredom that would come. When the Charmer caught sight of Ella Bandita during intermission, she had no trouble enticing him with a new game. She met his gaze and grinned. Then she wove her way through groups of ladies and gentlemen, provoking the Charmer with brief glances behind her, eyes glittering when she smiled at him. He followed her, this man who had everything.
He returned to the balcony with his wife and finished the opera with her, but left the house late that night. The next morning, he was found with the witless expression and glazed eyes of her other conquests, muttering just as those who fell before him.
“Eh…eh…la bandita stole my heart.”
A few days later, the most exclusive courtesan in the city waited for the lover who never came. Adrianna had not heard the fate that befell the Charmer, and she was livid he dared not keep their appointment. She never suffered this indignity before. She was as notorious for her temper as she was renowned for her allure, and her fury had reached its peak when another courtesan came with the dreadful news about her favorite. Then the wrath of Adrianna the Beautiful was all for Ella Bandita.
She gathered the women together, making her first visit with her lover’s near widow. They had a long meeting, Adrianna staying for the better part of the day until she made a rival into a friend. The wife and the mistress sacrificed their most precious jewels to start a reward for the capture of the woman who felled the Charmer. Word spread fast. The other wives and courtesans didn’t need much convincing to join them.
This sisterhood seemed incredible at first, but once the women set their grievances aside, it made sense. Deprived of widowhood, the Charmer was committed to an asylum where he would be for the rest of his life and his wife would never be free to marry again. Plenty of ladies shared her fate and courtesans lost some measure of comfort as their lovers were destroyed. Ella Bandita was a genuine threat to them all and she had to be stopped.
The women were confident they would find their hero amongst those hired to use outlaw ways to bring outlaws to justice. Bounty hunters had the freedom to use methods forbidden to lawmen and theirs was a lonesome calling. Since they gained in wages what they lost in respect, these men dreamed of earning enough to buy a modest estate and retire as a Patron. The fortune in their jewels was enough to realize this dream for the man who captured or killed the Thief of Hearts. The price on Ella Bandita was the highest ever for a single fugitive.