Valor of Love (Scandalous Scions Book 2), page 15
When it was gone, she was limp and her heart thudded in her temples. Her breath was ragged.
Jasper was watching her, a small smile on his lips.
“I had…no idea,” she whispered shakily.
“I’m glad you didn’t. I’m glad I could show you.”
Lilly turned on her side and stroked her hand over his chest. “This doesn’t have to be the end of it, does it?”
“Not if you don’t want it to be.” He glanced down at his cock, which was jutting thickly once more.
“Good,” she said, reaching for him and making him hiss. “I’m beginning to understand the depth of my ignorance. I have much to learn.”
* * * * *
They didn’t move from the room for the rest of the day and that night. Lilly dozed sometimes, when her depleted body needed the restorative. She would wake to find Jasper curled around her, his body hot against her back or side, his arm over her and heavy with sleep, too.
Both of them slept deeply, undisturbed by nightmares, although their sleep was broken when the other stroked them or nuzzled them into wakefulness, when they would turn to each other and start again.
Shelby would only tolerate so much impropriety. Lilly knew she would strain that tolerance if she remained in Jasper’s bed longer than she had, so when the first of the morning light showed through the lace curtains, she reluctantly dressed as Jasper watched.
She wound her hair up into the simple coil she had been using and pushed the clips into it to hold it in place, then came over to his side.
He got to his feet and pulled her against him and kissed her temple.
“I must go,” she whispered.
She found herself stroking his back, feeling the curve there and enjoying the touch of his skin against her fingers.
Jasper caught her hand in his and kissed her fingers, his eyes on her face. “Go,” he told her. “No more risks. Not for me.”
Lilly made herself step back away from him. Then over to the door. It was easier, after that, to pull the door open, shut it behind her and creep away.
* * * * *
Dalehouse’s monthly journeys to York to indulge in his first love were always clothed in misdirection and lies. Not even his wife, bless her heart, knew exactly what he did on his business excursions.
This month, the journey coincided with the house party, so Dalehouse left Darnell to host the younger guests with their hunting parties and exuberances and promised Rosemary he would be back by tomorrow. He had watched the hall grow smaller through the back window of his coach with something approaching relief. Glee built in his chest.
There was no relief and no glee in his heart now. He stared at the cards on the table in front of him with dismay. He had been so certain of the hand. It was one of the strongest a man could be dealt, with only one other hand able to beat it.
Dalehouse looked over at the five cards his gambling guest had laid down in front of the considerable pile of markers he’d collected over the length of the evening. Sweat prickled under Dalehouse’s arms and gathered at his temples. “I can’t meet the wager,” he breathed, nausea roiling through him. He’d been so sure he’d win.
The other members of the club drew back in horror. Unsecured gambling was abhorred in the club. To be unable to pay a debt by the end of the night, with cash or some sort of arrangement agreeable to all parties, was to risk expulsion from the club and a smeared reputation among the members…in other words, social ruin.
If Dalehouse was ruined, his son would never find a suitable wife to sire an heir…the title would be lost to the family and all the lands and holdings with it.
His guest glanced around at the other four players at the table. “I wonder, gentlemen, would you mind giving us the room for a moment?”
Relieved the matter would be hashed out behind closed doors, the four of them got to their feet, picked up their cigars and their glasses and left. The door clicked shut and the tiny sound made Dalehouse cringe.
He looked at Blackawton and swallowed.
“You’ve been a naughty man, gambling with money you didn’t have,” Blackawton said. He blew cigar smoke in a thin stream from the corner of his mouth.
How could Dalehouse explain how wrong this hand had gone? It wasn’t possible, in his experience, for two such top hands to be dealt in one round. It was unheard of. Yet it had happened despite the odds.
“Perhaps we could come to some arrangement,” Dalehouse said weakly. “My estate brings in a steady monthly income. A portion of that—”
“I don’t want your money,” Blackawton replied in his rich, deep voice.
Dalehouse blinked. “You don’t?”
Blackawton stubbed out the cigar. “Earlier this evening, you spoke about a Cambridge friend. Marblethorpe. You know him well?”
“Not at all,” Dalehouse said, with a sinking sensation in his middle. “Not since Cambridge.”
“Then you don’t know his family at all. His step-daughter, perhaps?”
“Lady Lillian? No.” Dalehouse reached for the brandy snifter then pulled his hand back. He had drunk far too much of it tonight. What had he been thinking? Although the glass just seemed to refill itself every time he turned away….
“You don’t know her, yet you know her name.” Blackawton sat back. “Do you perhaps know where she is?”
Dalehouse wiped his brow, his heart thudding sickly. “No,” he said weakly.
Blackawton didn’t move. “Understand me, Dalehouse. If you do not meet this debt you owe me, I will ruin you. I can see from the sheen of your brow you already understand how dire your situation is. I am offering you a simple way out of your contretemps. Tell me where I may find Lady Lillian and I will step out there and tell the club that you settled your debts honorably.”
Dalehouse clutched his head and moaned.
It seemed quite ridiculous to rise after breakfast, don her bonnet and set out to walk upon the moors. So much had happened since the last time Lilly had strolled the hills that to return to that prosaic reality was difficult.
Only, she understood far too thoroughly the necessity for keeping up appearances. As much as she wanted to find a quiet spot and hug herself while she went over every little detail of the last two days, she could not indulge herself that way.
She had been forced to return to prosaic reality once before, seven years ago. She could do it again.
Jasper appeared by her side as she set off, the walking staff in his hand. Her heart jumped. As Shelby was sitting on the bench absorbing the early morning sunlight while peeling potatoes, Lilly could say nothing. She made herself turn and begin.
Walking fast seemed to help. She kept up the pace, across half-a-dozen valleys, until they reached a stile. The stile. Had she unconsciously directed herself here?
She put her hand on the post, but couldn’t put her foot on the step. Her heart was hammering too hard.
Jasper moved so he could see her face beneath the bonnet. “Is something wrong?”
“We’re here again,” she said. Her lips felt numb.
He touched her chin, his fingers gliding over her flesh. “We are not standing on the horizon for the world to see. This is as good a place to talk as any.”
She looked up at him, startled. “Talk?”
Jasper rested his hand on the stile, just above hers. “Did you think I would simply let you walk away after last night?”
A shadow settled in his eyes. “You believe I would do that?”
“No, of course not!” She pulled her hand away. “You said we couldn’t be together. You sat by the window and made sure I understood why. And I did understand.”
“That was before,” he said shortly. “Now, everything has changed. I don’t know where we go from here. I only know we must find a way, because whatever I am, whatever is left of me, abandoning you is not part of it.”
Lilly covered her face with her ha
“I didn’t change my mind,” he said steadily. “Circumstances have changed.”
“I didn’t…I didn’t come to you to make you do this!” she cried.
He grew still. His eyes narrowed. “Then you did it out of pity?” His voice was low and quiet.
“No! Never! Oh, this is impossible!” She turned away, trembling. “You don’t want me! You shouldn’t want me!”
She heard the soft thud as he rested the walking staff against the stile. “Lilly.” He moved around her once more and lifted her chin. “Look at me. Please.”
She could not stand there with her eyes closed forever. She opened them.
His expression softened. “You persist in judging yourself by a harsher measure than anyone else in the world. Have you not paid enough, Lilly?”
Her vision blurred. “A whole life time of purgatory would never be enough.” Her voice wobbled.
“For a sin that was not yours in the first place?”
“For killing my father!” she cried and choked. “I killed him! That night! Oh my God!” She wept at the agony of speaking it aloud.
She was sinking down to the ground. Jasper was holding her, lowering her there, as her legs failed to hold her up. The memories were rushing at her and she could do nothing to stop them….
* * * * *
After Blackawton had pushed her from the carriage, Lilly stumbled and lurched from one pocket of black shadows to another, avoiding the light and exposure of her shame. She could feel moisture trickling down her legs, marking her downfall. The ache of torn flesh was another reminder.
Somehow, she found her way back to the house on Park Lane. She couldn’t remember all of that journey, only details.
She did remember resting against the heavy front door with its dark blue paint and the golden knocker. All she had to do was turn the handle. She had run out of strength.
She rested her hand against the door. Somewhere on the long journey home, she had lost her glove.
Just turn the handle.
She reached down for the handle and had to push away the torn edges of her ball gown to find it. Another breath. She gripped the brass and turned.
The door fell inward, thrust open by her weight against it. She staggered inside, then sank down onto the tiles. She could go no farther.
Lilly rolled onto her back. The floor was cold.
“Corcoran! Oh my god! Seth! Seth! Come here! Now!”
That was her mother’s voice.
Hands were on her. Touching her. Lifting her up.
“Her dress, my lady.” Corcoran’s wavering voice.
“Pull her cloak around. Cover her up. Seth, oh dear God, Seth!”
“Let me see. Let me see my daughter.” A hand on her face. She knew that scent. “Lilly, my sweet one. Look at me.”
She poured her energy into opening her eyes. Her father bent over her, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deep as the furrow between his brows. “Who did this to ye, darlin’ one?” he murmured. “Tell me.”
“Thorburn,” she breathed. Her throat hurt where Blackawton’s fingers had gripped it. “Alban Thorburn.”
“Blackawton’s spawn,” Seth growled. “I’ll kill the son of a bitch.”
“No, Seth,” her mother said shortly. “You must think it through. Later. First, help me get Lilly up off this floor. We must find a doctor. Someone who won’t talk. Seth…are you listening?”
“Here, let me have her,” Seth said roughly.
Lilly groaned as he scooped her up. He kissed her temple. “I’ve got ye,” he murmured. He carried her upstairs and put her on her bed. Her mother dropped a blanket over her.
“Corcoran, ye be getting a doctor here right quick,” Seth said, fury making his accent thicker. “I’m off to be chatting with the man.”
“No, Seth,” her mother cried, scrambling up off the bed. “You must, please, you must rein in that temper of yours for one moment and think it through. If you make a fuss, if you make this public, then Lilly’s ruin and ours is complete. Think, my darling. Please. Think of Lilly. Think of the shame she will have to live with if this becomes public knowledge and it will if you involve anyone else in it.”
“Ye want me to do nothing?” Seth shouted.
“No, not nothing. This can’t be left unanswered. Only, we must tread carefully now. Blackawton is the son of royalty, Seth. We can’t gainsay him, not publicly. Not even you, with your rank. Please tell me you will think. Go and speak to Rhys. He will be able to lay it out for you. Let his cooler head guide you.”
Lilly could almost see her father’s thoughtful expression, even though she didn’t have the strength to open her eyes. She lay and listened to her parents breathing hard, making decisions that would shape the future of the family.
“Aye, I can do that,” Seth said at last.
Her mother gave a trembling sigh. “Thank you,” she said softly.
“What would I do without you charting the shoals for me, love of my life?” he growled.
“What would I do without you to carry me through it all?” Natasha whispered.
Lilly heard the soft sound of a kiss.
“I’ll go and see Rhys at once,” Seth said. “There is no way in God’s heaven I can wait until morning.”
“Of course you must go,” her mother said. “Go ahead. I’ll take care of Lilly.”
Lilly felt his lips on her forehead. “I’ll be back, my darlin’ daughter,” he whispered.
The door shut behind him.
Instantly, her mother came to her. “You must put up with my inadequate nursing, sweetheart. We can’t let the maids see. Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Lilly breathed. “I’m so tired.”
“Sleep if you want,” her mother said.
Only, sleep was far, far away. She lay passively as her mother undressed her and tended her wounds, all of them, exclaiming over each one and crying softly. Corcoran alone of the staff was part of the conspiracy. He brought bowl after bowl of hot water, rags, whatever Natasha demanded of him, then silently emptied the pans out, without a murmur of complaint that the work was better suited to the lowest of maids.
At last, the work was done. Natasha rolled Lilly onto a clean sheet and tucked the sheet in, then pulled the covers up over her. “Sleep if you can,” she murmured and kissed her temple.
Lilly reached out blindly for her. “Don’t go,” she begged. “Don’t leave me alone.”
Her mother caught her hand. “Of course not, my dear. Just let me pull the chair over, so I can sit right next to you.”
That was how the rest of the night passed, with her mother holding her hand. Larks were sounding outside the window and her mother turned off the lantern next to her bed, when soft footsteps came up the passage outside her room. A hand tapped at the door.
“Yes?” Natasha called.
The door opened.
“Rhys!” her mother said, alarm in her voice.
The alarm, the note of panic, jerked Lilly from her doze. She pushed herself upright, her entire body protesting.
Rhys stood with his back against the door. His face was pale. Blood showed on his shirt. As Lilly looked at him, his eyes glittered with tears.
She had never seen a man cry before.
“I’m sorry, ‘tasha. I’m sorry…Seth is…he’s dead,” Rhys whispered.
Sound whooshed out of Lilly’s mind, like a whistling wind. Silence for three heart beats. Then a cacophony of sound—screaming, horrible screaming—slammed back into her, sending up sparks that blinded her.
She knew nothing more.
* * * * *
“Rhys did everything he could to control my father,” Lilly whispered, her cheek against Jasper’s shoulder. “Only, no one was ever able to tell my father what to do when he’d made up his mind. My mother convinced him to keep the matter veiled and he did. He dragged Blackawton out of his bed an
“A duel…” Jasper breathed.
“They’re illegal, of course. However, if Blackawton had agreed to it and was killed as a result, then the whole matter would be hushed up by everyone, including his family, who would want the embarrassment washed away.”
His arms tightened around her. “He shot your father, instead.”
“Rhys said Blackawton fired early. My father was still turning. Any earlier and he would have taken the bullet in his back.” Lilly drew a breath that hiccupped. Her eyes were aching from the tears. “Rhys wanted to have him arrested and tried. Blackawton just laughed at him. His family had him on a boat bound for India inside the week.”
Jasper shifted and bent a little so he could see her face. “Lilly, you didn’t kill Seth.”
“I did,” she said woodenly. “I might as well have pulled the trigger myself. It had the same effect. What I did, my foolishness, let Blackawton do what he did, which set my father on the course he took. If not for me, they could have had Blackawton arrested and tried openly, for the world to see. Instead, my father had to deal with him in an underhanded way and that let Blackawton cheat and get away with it.”
“He killed your father, Lilly. It was cold blooded murder, duel be damned. He ignored the rules of engagement, knowing your father would obey them.”
Lilly shuddered and his arms tightened about her once more.
“You don’t want me in your life, Jasper,” she whispered.
Elisa handed Will the long knife as everyone clapped and cheered. Will looked down at the cake and the wobbly writing on it.
Happy birtday, William Wardell.
He cocked his brow at little Annalies. “Did you write the inscription, Lisa Grace?”
Peter, sitting next to her, nudged her and she sat up straighter and nodded, with a proud smile.
“She’s going to be an artist when she grows up,” Peter announced, dropping his arm around his cousin.
Annalies’ smile broadened. “Cut the cake, please!”
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