Valor of Love (Scandalous Scions Book 2), page 9
“Wonder about what?” Elisa asked.
“I do wonder whether the company is appropriate.”
“Appropriate, Gloria?” Elisa said, deliberately using her given name.
Lady Laceby stiffened, her shoulders squaring. “I took measure of the guests that were invited to the ball and I have monitored the invitations my daughter has received. Commoners, upper class with no titles, even peerage of lesser rank…there does not seem to be any filtering of her affairs.”
Ahhh… Elisa put her cup down before she crushed the porcelain between her fingers and sat back. “She is your daughter, Lady Laceby. If you wish to limit the company she keeps, we are bound to accede to your wishes. However, society is not what is was in your day, or mine. The ton is more tolerant of movement within the ranks and to be truthful, fresh blood invigorates the peerage.”
Lady Laceby’s nostrils flared. “I feared you were one of those people,” she said, her voice bodiless. “I told my husband that when he first approached Farleigh about taking the children. I said that the stain on your reputation would bring ruin upon my children.”
“Ruin?” Elisa repeated, stunned at this sudden attack.
“My daughter’s bloodline goes back eleven generations. There are kings in her lineage. My father was a duke. I should be satisfied with a…a…baron as her husband?”
“Oh, I think you could set your sights far wider than that,” Elisa said, her temper flaring. “What about a baronet? Or a simple knight of the realm? Perhaps a commoner may take an interest in her.”
Lady Laceby choked and got to her feet. “You are cruel in your teasing, Lady Elisa. You do not understand the delicate position my daughter is in. She must marry well. I have made Patricia understand her obligations to her family.”
“A mere Marquess would not be suitable for her?” Elisa asked, thinking of Will and his inheritance. “An Earl, perhaps?” For Natasha’s Cian was taking up his inheritance now, too. “An alliance with this family would be welcomed, I know. It would formalize Sharla’s place among us.”
“Your family?” Lady Laceby said, her tone withering. “I think not,” she added.
Elisa held still, her heart pattering, letting the shock slide through her and depart. For the sake of Jack and Sharla, she swallowed her temper and held back the acid response to Lady Laceby’s disdain. Instead, she gave the woman a small smile. “Shall we draw up a list of suitable candidates that meet your criteria? I have a small sheet of notepaper here that will do.” She motioned toward the lap secretary, which was sitting upon the table next to her.
Lady Laceby did not recognize that sarcasm, either. It was a tiny balm upon the wound the woman had delivered.
* * * * *
Being invited to the Duke of Salcombe’s annual summer dinner was considered to be a great honor, especially for a commoner. Ben reminded himself of that over and over as he sat through the seven courses with gritted teeth and partook of rather more champagne than food.
The coldness of the wine didn’t help cool his thoughts or ease his body.
The long table held forty guests and one of them was Sharla. She sat fifteen seats closer to the Duke than he, the commoner, and she was on the Duke’s right. Ben could see her clearly from where he sat with his collar digging into his chin. Her hair gleamed in the candlelight, glowing with a life of its own. It was curled and pinned up, with cream roses tucked into it. The gown she wore was dark green velvet. Cream lace wrapped her shoulders. The lace and her bare shoulders seemed to blend into each other for her skin was as flawless in color as the lace.
Since her coming out ball, Ben had found himself thinking of Sharla more than once. He had dismissed her confession of interest as a girlish thing—something a new debutante would say to snare the attention of any bachelor she came across. Wasn’t collecting hearts and counting them up part of a woman’s first season?
He had seen Sharla frequently since then. They were both members of society and often attended the same functions and parties. Sometimes she even smiled at him. If they were within speaking distance, she would greet him and chat for a moment, although she did not say anything inappropriate.
His flat rejection had been accepted then. Ben should have been relieved by that. Romantic entanglements with a woman of rank could be a disaster for him.
Except that now she had put cold distance between them, Ben questioned his own wisdom. The Great Family would not object to an alliance, he was sure of it. None of them were hypocrites. If he pressed the issue, then they would support him.
He pushed his roast beef away and picked up his champagne glass and studied Sharla again. It might be interesting to explore the possibilities, at least. She had grown into a lovely woman. He could barely recall the girl with the short hems and muddy boots that had tried to beat him at croquet every year, year after year, at the Great Family Gathering in Cornwall. He did remember her relentless determination.
Now, though, Sharla did not seem to see him at all. Either she had truly not noticed he was there, or she was avoiding meeting his gaze and acknowledging him, even with a quick smile, before turning back to speak to the gilt-buttoned lieutenant sitting on her left.
When the dinner was over and the women rose to their feet, Ben took the opportunity to slip out of his seat and hurry out the nearest door. The Duke’s dining room was at the center of a maze of corridors and hallways and it was possible to circle right around the outside of it. Ben hurried through the connecting rooms and reached the other side just as the women were filing into the parlor, their fans waving vigorously as they chatted.
Ben caught Sharla’s elbow and tugged her gently to one side.
Her blue eyes met his. “What are you doing, Ben?” she demanded, folding her fan with a snap.
“And good evening to you, Lady Sharla.”
“If you insist,” she said coolly.
Ben spread his hands. “Maybe I was wrong.”
“Wrong about what?” She glanced over her shoulder to where the ladies were gathering in the parlor, picking out chairs and accepting drinks from the tray-carrying footmen. The Duchess was easing herself into the big chair in the corner, where she could watch everyone.
“Perhaps we could…I was thinking…” Lord, why was this so difficult? He had wooed dozens and dozens of ladies over the years. He had perfected the exchanges, to the point where he barely thought about it anymore. Now he was tripping over his own words.
Sharla’s attention came back to him. Her brows drew closer together. “Ben, whatever are you trying to say?”
Ben resorted to the simplest, most straight forward and basic question, the one every new bachelor used. “May I call upon you, Lady Sharla?”
Her lips parted and her eyes widened. Just for a moment, he saw something like pleasure in her eyes. More than that. Whatever it was, it made his heart leap.
Then the hurt appeared.
His leaping heart slammed against his chest as he recognized her pain. “Sharla?” he breathed. How had he hurt her?
Sharla twisted her fan in her satin gloves. “I am afraid, Mister Hedley, that I must deny your request. It would be most inappropriate and I am insulted you thought you might even ask. Please do not speak to me again.”
As she walked gracefully toward the parlor, her fan waving gently, Ben watched her go, barely able to pull together a coherent thought. He rubbed his chest, right over his heart.
It felt as though a horse had kicked him there.
* * * * *
After nearly two weeks in Yorkshire, Lilly could discern one rolling dale from another. When she had first arrived, everything had looked like everything else. Gorse, heather, cold wind, driving rain and the dirty sheep that seemed to throng on every acre of moorland.
Being able to recognize one crooked stone fence from another was a vast improvement upon the bewildering vistas she had first studied. In those first days, she would have got lost if not for Thomsett’s soft guidance.
He walked behind
After days of the ridiculous arrangement, on the fourth day as she was donning her bonnet and coat and gloves, she saw Thomsett reaching for his heavy overcoat and snapped: “There is no need for you to come with me, surely?”
Thomsett showed no reaction. “Yes, there is need,” he said quietly.
“I am in danger of being attacked by sheep?”
To that, he didn’t reply. Angry, she had stalked off onto the moors, where the wind whipped her hems and her cheeks and the cold tried to eat into her bones.
Her frustration was not purely with Thomsett. The other man she wanted scream at was Raymond, for arranging her removal from London without consulting her.
Lilly admitted her churlishness was quite ridiculous given the circumstances. However, she was still angry. It seemed to linger in her chest, bubbling up and subsiding throughout the days, every time she came face to face with how different her life had become. It had changed completely and she had been given no choice in the matter.
She did not remember sleeping the night of Blackawton’s attack. She did not remember much at all. Just snatches and moments. Someone bathing her skin, which was cooling and pleasant. Someone holding her ankle down and when she kicked to free it, a murmur in her ear. “You’re bleeding, Lilly darling. Let me tend it.”
The touch of her mother’s hands on her leg, as she tended the deep scrape there—Lilly had not been aware of the wound, although when she thought about those frantic moments in Blackawton’s carriage, she did recall a sharp, hot pain on her shin as she fell out of the carriage. She must have scraped her leg along the edge of the footstep on that side.
There had been more murmurs and comfort that night in the dark room. Lilly was aware of her mother and Elisa and Annalies, too. A man’s voice sounded, soft yet rumbling with authority. Cool hands pressed her, exploring. Then someone made her drink, a concoction that was harsh and dry. After that she remembered nothing.
The next morning, Lilly woke to find all three of them; her mother, Elisa and Ananalies, dozing in chairs around her bed. Natasha had woken as Lilly had. When their eyes met, her mother’s had filled with tears, then the tears spilled down her cheeks.
“Please don’t,” Lilly whispered. “This is all my fault.”
Natasha got up and hugged her tightly. “We’ll fix this,” she said softly. “Somehow, we will fix this.”
A maid had brought breakfast on a tray that had not interested Lilly in the slightest. Natasha had dismissed her and helped Lilly dress, easing her stocking over her wounded leg and even tying her boots for her. “Raymond has arranged for you to leave London at once,” Natasha told her as she dressed. “Thomsett will take you somewhere. Raymond will not tell even me where you are to go. There are to be no letters…oh, I will miss you!”
Lilly gripped a fold of her travelling suit. “No letters, no visitors, either.”
“Elisa and Anna are packing your trunk for you. Not even the staff must know you are leaving. It will be as if you are still in London, only retired in your room and unavailable to everyone.” Her mother wiped her cheeks quickly.
“There will only be Thomsett?” Lilly asked.
“He will arrange a companion for you. A chaperone, so that you are not alone.”
Shortly before she was bundled into the rented cab that waited at the back of the house, Raymond visited. He glanced at Natasha. “If you don’t mind, I would talk to Lilly alone. Just for a moment. You can stand at the door, if you prefer.”
Natasha glanced at Lilly.
“I don’t mind,” Lilly told her.
Natasha stepped out and closed the door softly, as Raymond settled on the bed next to her and picked up her hand. He looked at her. “All these years…now I am beginning to understand what happened to you.”
“I couldn’t tell you, Raymond. I wanted to, only I couldn’t tell anyone. I was too ashamed.”
“And too afraid,” he added. “We’re going to work to make sure you don’t have to be afraid anymore.”
“How?” she asked bluntly. “He’s a Marquess now. His mother is the daughter of a Duke. His father is brother to a king. Our family is great, Raymond, yet even our family cannot take on the might of two royal families and the governments of the countries they run.”
“Nevertheless, we will find a way to restore your life.” His fingers squeezed hers. “Thomsett will travel with you. You can trust Thomsett, Lilly. If you are afraid, or worried, lean on him. He will protect you.”
“Where are you sending me?”
“I won’t say right now. Somewhere safe and unexpected. Somewhere he won’t think to look for you.” He got to his feet. “Goodbye for now, Lilly.”
Thomsett was standing by the hackney cab, waiting for her, when Giles walked her through the staff quarters to the back door of the house, then out to the lane behind the yard.
Thick, early morning fog swirled about wheels of the cab, the horses’ hocks and Thomsett’s knees.
Thomsett wore a long overcoat with the collar turned up and a soft brimmed hat that shadowed his eyes. There was nothing of the family butler about his appearance at all.
As Giles helped her up into the cab, Thomsett pulled out a pocket watch and consulted it, then called up to the driver; “A bonus if you bring us to St. Pancras before the hour. There is a train we must not miss.”
“Aye, sir,” the driver replied, tugging at his brim. As Thomsett swung himself up into the cab, the driver clicked his tongue to put the horses into motion.
As they pulled away from the house, Lilly looked up at the windows on the second floor, the ones at the end of the landing. All four of them were standing there. Raymond, with his arm around her mother’s shoulders, Elisa and Annalies beside them. As the cab rolled away, Natasha pressed her hand to the window.
Lilly hid her head and let herself weep only a few bitter tears.
Thomsett did not speak. He remained in his corner of the cab, his face half-hidden by the high collar. When they arrived at the station with five minutes to spare before the hour struck, he said shortly; “Stay here for now.” He threw a comment to the driver as he got out and strode into the station.
Lilly listened to chuffs of steam and whistles, calls for departure and the coo of pigeons, her heart strumming. Once again, she was feeling the competing tug of opposing wants. She wanted to be safe, yes, only now she was being yanked out of London she wanted nothing more than to stay here.
She saw Thomsett appear at the entrance to the station. A porter was with him, pushing a trolley. Thomsett paused there, looking around with an indifferent air. He was looking for observers.
Then he hurried over to the cab and tossed a coin to the driver. The porter and he tugged her trunk and a big carpet bag onto the trolley, then Thomsett opened the cab door and held his hand out to her. “Hurry,” he urged.
His urgency removed her objection to taking his hand. She was glad of the assistance, anyway. Her knees and hips still hurt and her shin throbbed painfully.
“This way,” he said, dropping her hand. “We have three minutes to board.”
They moved through the station and onto the platform. The train was hissing and belching steam and doors were being slammed shut in the second class carriages. Lilly turned toward the first class carriage, while Thomsett moved to the right, toward the long second class carriage.
Her heart pounding, Lilly followed him. “Here?” she asked when he opened the door on one of the empty compartments.
“We should not speak now,” he murmured. “Inside, quickly. The train is about to leave.”
The porter heaved her trunk and the carpet bag on to the carriage rack in the compartment. Thomsett moved over to the interior door and slid it shu
The porter stepped out and shut the external door and locked it, just as the train whistled and the station master called “All abooooaaard!”
The train pulled away slowly enough for Lilly to read the destination written in chalk on the board as they passed it.
“York?” she asked.
“To start,” Thomsett said. “It will be a long journey, Lilly. I suggest you make yourself comfortable.”
She stared at him. “The second class compartment…?”
“Blackawton won’t think to look for you here, or even direct his associates to search for you here. That is also why I won’t call you ‘my lady’ anywhere where someone might overhear—not until we reach Dalehouse.”
“That is our destination? Dalehouse? Where is that?”
“On the moors, in northern Yorkshire.”
“It sounds isolated.”
“It is,” he confirmed. His green eyes met hers. “You won’t be alone, though.”
She shivered and shrank down into the corner of her seat, colder than she had been all morning. “Some companion I have never met, yes. Mother told me.”
Thomsett’s eyes narrowed. Then he said, “Yes. A companion.”
The journey was long. As they moved farther away from London, the day grew brighter and the fog lifted. Sunlight emerged.
By the time they reached Port Mulgrave, though, the sun had disappeared behind thick clouds once more. Rain dashed at the windows and the light grew dim even though it was only mid-afternoon.
Once again, Thomsett asked Lilly to wait in the compartment until he returned, then strode off past the tiny station house sitting on the platform. He returned more quickly this time, with a man by his side. The man stepped into the compartment and wrestled down her trunk and the carpet bag and carried both of them away.
Thomsett held the door open for her and Lilly stepped onto the platform, looking around with little curiosity. The rain had reduced to a soft misty drizzle that made everything damp and uncomfortable. She was sore and tired and desperately wanted a cup of tea. She still did not feel hungry, though.
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