Valor of Love (Scandalous Scions Book 2), page 17
The crackling of the fire and the boom of ammunition as it shot off was making his head swim and images to crowd into his mind. He gripped his temples hard and growled his frustration. Think, he commanded himself. Lilly’s life depended on it.
He closed his eyes. The last time he had been in this state, she had placed her hand on his cheek. He could still feel the wonderful softness of her flesh and the light scent—roses—that she wore.
His breath slowed.
He kept his eyes closed. “Fire there, pulling us away.” He pointed to the right. “He could steal away in this direction, where no one is looking.” He pointed to his left, then opened his eyes and looked.
The low hill they had crested earlier in the night to reach the camp, sat bathed in ghostly light from the moon that had just risen.
“Of course,” Shore said.
The men were shouting at each other, trying to organize a bucket line, as more explosions and the ping and whizz of bullets setting off by themselves kept them ducking and cursing.
Jasper ran down the line between the tents, peering between them. Blackawton would have pulled her to one side, probably to the edge of the camp farthest from the fire. He would take her back to the hill. Perhaps the same cab and driver was waiting for him somewhere on the other side of the crest.
Jasper just had to find Blackawton before he stole over the hill….
* * * * *
Lilly dug in her heels as much as she was able. She let herself dangle from Blackawton’s arms, hoping the weight of her would force him to drop her. She kicked. She even bit the hand he had over her mouth, only he was wearing leather gloves and she did nothing but earn a slap across the side of her face that numbed everything and made her eye water.
Nothing she did seemed to slow Blackawton. He hauled her up again and folded her over his arm like washing and kept going. They were climbing a long, low slope and the ground ahead of them was lit with silvery brightness.
We should not linger here on the ridge, where we can been seen. Jasper’s voice whispered in her mind.
Lilly kicked and struggled furiously, screaming into the hand over her mouth. She turned her head from side to side to dislodge his grip and beat at his legs, at anything she could reach.
Then she gasped as ideas coupled up in her mind, burgeoning from the education she had just received into the vulnerabilities of a man. She curled up her fist and swung backward, as hard as she could, aiming for the juncture of Blackawton’s thighs.
Her aim was not perfect, yet she hit something soft. Blackawton made a high grunting sound and staggered forward. She was dropped and rolled down the slope they were on.
Blackawton’s hand clamped on the back of her blouse. She heard it tear, yet the fabric held. She was anchored. Blackawton still had her.
He was bent almost double, breathing hard, his other hand pressed to his thighs.
Lilly opened her mouth and screamed.
* * * * *
Jasper swiveled to look toward the crest. “Did you hear that?” he asked Shore, wondering if he had merely imagined it.
“There, sir. Not quite at the top. Two shadows. See them?”
Jasper tried to bring his sight together to focus and see the shadows, only the sounds around him were beating at him, making his temples pound.
Shore pulled out his service revolver and cocked it. “I can take him, sir.”
It was a fair distance, however, Shore was the only officer who had ever outshot Jasper, over distance.
“Watch for Lilly,” Jasper said. He bent over, his hands to his knees, breathing hard, trying to clear the fog in his mind.
Shore took up a sideways stance and leveled the revolver. He took a breath and let it out. At the end of the breath, when his lungs were empty and he was still, he would fire.
The thud of a bullet striking home, then the delayed crack of its passing, sent Jasper staggering, gasping for breath. He made himself turn around. Shore was on the ground, clutching his leg, blood pouring from it.
“The son of a bitch got me,” Shore said, more angry than upset. “Shoot him for me, sir.”
* * * * *
Blackawton pocketed the revolver, then bent and got his arms under hers. “Scream all you want. It won’t do you a bit of good.” He dragged her backward up the hill.
Why not pick her up again? Why not stand and drag her? Why that backward crouch he was using? Lilly tried to see it the way Jasper would. The way any soldier would.
* * * * *
Jasper picked up the revolver. It felt heavy in his hand. His heart was working like an overcharged steam engine. The pulse beating in his head was drowning out everything.
He stood as Shore had done and as he had been trained to shoot, too. One foot forward, the other back. Turn sideways, to make a smaller target for the enemy. Lift the revolver straight up into the air, then bring it slowly, slowly down until the target met the sights, then pull.
You’re the only one who can help her. The thought whispered in his mind. No one else in the camp knew what was happening, nor would they care right now. He was alone.
He shook his head, trying to clear his vision. He could see the two shadows now. They were close to the top of the crest and would slip into full moonlight…now.
Blackawton was behind Lilly. He was using her as a shield.
Cold calmness washed over Jasper, generated by his anger. His vision cleared. Sound fell away.
Distantly, he heard another explosion. It meant nothing. He could hear nothing else. None of the shouting registered. Nor did the roar of the fire or Shore’s labored breathing. It all faded.
He could see Blackawton now, as if he were standing four feet away, not forty yards away. Only, he could not shoot, yet. Lilly was in the way.
* * * * *
Lilly struggled to find her feet, to push herself out of Blackawton’s hands, only the backward motion kept her skirt dragging under her, giving her no solid ground to plant her heel into.
Blackawton’s breath was hot and sour against her face. He was bent almost double as he dragged her backward. No one would see him on the crest, outlined by the moon, if he didn’t stand up.
How to make him stand up?
Lilly hooked her fingers into claws and reached over her shoulder. She scratched at Blackawton’s face, digging her nails in and furrowing through whatever she could reach. She felt flesh give, then an eye socket. She hooked her finger viciously and yanked.
Blackawton dropped her and grabbed at his face with a cry of pain. He straightened, instinctively rearing back away from the source of it.
Lilly heard the bullet hit him. It was a soft sound, a wet sound, that she would never forget.
Blackawton stood, swaying.
A second bullet struck his shoulder, spinning him. He fell. Lilly could feel the tremor in the ground from the impact of his body landing. He rolled once, which turned him onto his back. His sightless eyes stared up at the moon.
A black hole sat between his brows.
It was over.
“Lilly! Lilly!” It was Jasper’s voice.
He climbed the slope in long, ground-swallowing strides. He had a pistol in his hand. He dropped down next to her and let go of the pistol, too.
“You shot him,” Lilly said, amazed.
“You made him make himself a target. I just finished the task.” He took her face in his hands. He was smiling.
“You shot him,” Lilly repeated, bewildered.
“I did. I would do it again, too. Over and over. He had you and he was going to hurt you. Nothing else mattered. Nothing matters, but you.”
He kissed her right there in the moonlight, where any man who cared to look would see them.
Events happened quickly after that. Lilly could not follow every detail, for there were too many of them. Jasper took care of them all.
The army surgeon
Then Jasper emerged and was forced to shake hands with dozens of men, one after another, as they pounded his back. A cart was brought around with a flat bench at the front for the driver. The driver was a private out of uniform.
Jasper lifted Lilly onto the edge of the cart and tucked her skirts out of the way of the wheels. Then he jumped on himself and the cart bumped out of the camp.
“Where are we going?” Lilly asked, as he picked up her hand.
“Back to the cottage, to begin. Then, a carriage and a train to London. We should be back before your family head to Cornwall.”
Her heart leapt. “Home…” she breathed. “Only, what will happen about Blackawton? You shot him, Jasper.”
“Actually, I didn’t. Captain Shore did that. It was a magnificent shot, as he was wounded at the time.”
Jasper squeezed her hand. “We were never here, Lilly. We have been sedately reading in the cottage this whole day and Shelby will swear that is so. Blackawton set fire to the powder stores and the Fusiliers dealt with him. Why he did that is not known for certain, only among the ton a rumor will spread that he was working as a Russian agent and was attempting to weaken the mighty Northumberland Fusiliers and failed.”
“A rumor,” Lilly breathed. “His family will not be able to combat a rumor.”
“Precisely. Blackawton’s reputation will be blackened as it should be, only not in a way that besmirches you or your family, Lilly.”
She rested her head against his shoulder. “You should be honored for what you did.”
“Your head on my shoulder is honor enough,” he said softly.
Her heart leapt.
Jasper said nothing more. For the long journey back to London, he was polite and upright. This time, they travelled in First Class. When he settled her in her seat as a good butler should, he bent and said softly. “I am Thomsett to you from now on, Lilly.”
Her heart lurched. “I don’t want you to be.”
“For now, it must be that way.” He touched her cheek. It was the softest hint of a touch. “Trust me.”
“Always,” she said quickly.
Yet it hurt to watch the butler mask drop over his face and for everyone in First Class to pass their gaze over him as if he wasn’t there.
When the train pulled into St. Pancras station and Jasper stepped out and held the door open for her, Lilly saw a familiar face on the platform. “Will!” she breathed.
Then she saw another…and another… She gasped. Her entire family was here. Everyone—the entire Great Family—was standing on the platform. In the middle of them was her mother and Raymond.
Lilly flew into their arms and held tight. She was crying and so was her mother. Raymond was trying to pull her away so he could hug her, too. The twins and Lisa Grace were tugging at her skirt and she could hear Will’s voice, demanding that he have a turn.
Lilly wiped her cheeks. “Oh, Mother, you would not believe what has happened.”
Raymond dropped his arm about her shoulders. “Thomsett has given us the broad strokes,” he said.
“Jasper!” Lilly gasped and turned to find him.
The only faces she could see were family. Jasper had gone.
* * * * *
Jasper did not return to the big house on Park Lane. No one seemed to know where he had gone. Monroe was promoted to butler on a temporary basis until a more experienced butler could be appointed.
After two weeks of indifference about Jasper’s fate, Lilly confronted Raymond in his office. “No one even cares what has happened to him!” she flared.
Raymond shushed her. “It isn’t seemly to be so upset about a missing butler, Lilly,” he said softly.
Hot words rose to her lips, then she halted, considering him more carefully. “You’ve spoken to him, haven’t you?”
“For now, Lilly, I can’t say that I have or I haven’t. You’ll understand, soon.”
All her anger vanished. “Did he…ask after me?”
“If he had, I would not tell you that, either,” Raymond said gently. “You should concentrate on your return to society, Lilly. Go on. There is only one ball left this season. Make the most of it.”
The Glorious Twelfth was upon them, with the end of the season ball at Lady Asenath’s. Natasha had been fussing over having a ball gown made for Lilly as soon as possible—one to fit her smaller waist and that bared her arms and shoulders. “I want people to see you,” Natasha told Lilly, who lacked her mother’s enthusiasm. “Now, you can live the life you deserve.”
Lilly bit her lip. “I don’t deserve this. Any of it.”
Natasha looked at her puzzled, the page of the dress catalogue held in the air between her fingers. “Why would you say that?”
“You know why,” Lilly said, dropping her gaze.
“Lillian Mary Williams, you look at me,” Natasha said sharply.
Lilly made herself look at her mother.
“Is this what you have been telling yourself for seven years? That it is your fault your father died?”
“It is my fault!” Lilly cried. “I don’t even know how you can stand to be in the same room with me!”
Natasha cupped her face. “I can stand it because you are my daughter and I love you. Your father died doing what he thought was the most important work in the world. He died protecting those he loved. It was an honorable death and if he had a choice, he would have chosen that he die doing exactly that. I know this, because he told me many times, when I fretted about his travels, which he did to support the family. If he were here, he would tell you exactly what I have just said.” Natasha smiled. “Then he would yell at you for being foolish and insist you pick out the prettiest dress in the catalogue just to please him.” She wiped Lilly’s cheeks. “Now come and help me pick out the prettiest dress you can find. Honor your father and what he did for you.”
Lilly let her mother draw her back to the table and the small mountain of catalogs that sat upon it.
Even though she thought she was merely going through the motions of attending the last ball of the season, Lilly found her interest in all things sociable stirring. She didn’t want it to. She didn’t want to be interested in gowns and dancing and fans and furbelows, only it had been so long since she dared wear anything other than the plainest gowns and fashion had changed. Hoops were wider than ever and waists even smaller. Décolletages were shockingly low.
Three days before the ball, at breakfast that morning, Raymond made an oddly muffled sound from behind his paper. He folded it up carefully, so the section he had been reading was on the top and handed it to Natasha. He was smiling.
“Why? What is it that makes you look that way?” Cian said sharply.
“Your mother first,” Raymond said and went back to buttering his toast.
Natasha’s smile was warm and wide.
“What is it?” Cian demanded, holding out his hand for the paper. As the oldest son, he was entitled to see it next.
“Lilly,” her mother said, holding the folded paper out to her.
Natasha pushed it into her hands.
Lilly put her knife down and turned the wad of newsprint around.
Son of Danish Archduke inherits Yorkshire estate.
Major Jasper Anson Dominik Thomsett (Rtrd) of the 5th (Northumberland Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot, recipient of the Victoria Cross for gallantry in the face of the enemy and illegitimate but acknowledged son of the late Archduke Dominik Erhard of Denmark, has been bequeathed Northallerton, the largest estate in Yorkshire. The anticipated income from Northallerton runs upward of….
“Oh lord, she’s turned white,” Cian said. “Catch her, Monroe.”
“I’m alright,” Lilly whispered as Monroe held her shoulders stea
* * * * *
The ballroom was the only one large enough in London to hold the number of attendees to this, the last gathering of the season.
Lilly smoothed down the satin of her ballgown nervously.
“You look wonderful, darling daughter,” Natasha told her. “It is not a color I would have chosen, yet your instincts were correct, after all. What is that color anyway?”
“The catalogue called it fawn. I call it teak,” Lilly said.
“It almost exactly matches your hair,” Cian said. “Very striking, I must say. Oh, look, there is Will and Jack.” He waved and strode away.
As everyone was still arriving at the ball, the music had not yet begun. Instead, with each new arrival, a wave of murmurs would pass around the room. If it was a particularly important personage, the whispers would increase in volume. Lilly stopped looking after the third time, for she had forgotten many of the people she had once known and would have to learn who everyone was all over again.
When the room fell silent, though, Lilly was forced to turn to see who could engender such shock among the ton.
Jasper stood in the entrance way, looking around the room with interest.
Lilly gripped her mother’s arm. “How can he be here. Like…that?”
“How can who be? You are referring to the new owner of the Northallerton estate in Yorkshire? He is a man of influence now. I’m sure the ton will be seeing a lot more of him,” Natasha said. She didn’t speak loudly yet her voice carried because of the silence.
“Everyone will know. They’ll know he was a butler. They’ll be cruel. Oh, Mother!” Lilly whispered quickly.
“No one sees butlers, my dear,” Natasha said quietly. “They hand them their coats and hats and they ask for a brandy yet they don’t see them, not the way you did.”
Lilly’s heart skipped a beat. Jasper was wearing a suit every bit as good as any other gentleman in the room. His unruly curls were smoothed down. His gloves were white.
Every maiden in the room was fluttering and turning to put themselves on best display.
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