About the book
“Will you ever tell me? What happened all those years ago?”
The last thing Lady Juliet Drew saw was fire and the face of a boy she barely knew. Blind since she was nine years old, she has learned to navigate her life as best she can without getting in the way. But when a man seeks to take advantage of her helplessness, she doesn’t expect to be once again saved by the same man…
Benedict Andrews, Duke of Tilbridge is a sensible man. He had to be, ever since the fire that claimed his father’s life and left him horribly scarred. He is surprised to learn how fragile that sensibility really is, since one rumor is enough for him to throw caution to the wind. Just because the girl he remembers between the flames needs him…
A marriage of convenience is far from ideal and the walls around Benedict’s heart only serve to make matters worse. When the ghosts of their shared past come back to haunt them, will their fragile peace make it unscathed? Is it really enough to try when years of resentment finally come crashing down?
“Oh,” nine-year-old Juliet Haskett whispered under her breath as she laid on her stomach at the top of the grand staircase leading out to the stunning ballroom below.
As the eldest daughter of the Marquess of Huddington, she knew very well that she wasn’t supposed to be anywhere other than her bed in the nursery. However, she couldn’t resist the opportunity to sneak out and see more of the home where she had been invited alongside her family.
She and her family had arrived at Pennlily Manor just that morning to be guests at the home of the renowned Duke of Tilbridge for a house party that would extend for two weeks.
Two weeks in a beautiful house. How lovely!
“We shouldn’t be here,” murmured a small voice at her elbow.
Turning her head, Juliet pushed back her white-blonde hair to look at her little sister. Emily was three years younger. While they looked similar, with light hair and big blue eyes, they were very different people. Emily liked to follow the rules, and Juliet preferred to have fun.
“We won’t do anything,” she reassured her sister. “I just want to look around. Besides, you didn’t need to accompany me. You could have stayed in bed.”
“But then I would have wondered where you went,” Emily said with a scowl.
Hearing footsteps, Juliet put a finger to her lips. “Shh!”
I should not have let her come. She’s hardly six, and she cannot keep her voice down for anything. Perhaps I should have let the nursemaid catch us after all. Instead, now Nancy will be looking towards the kitchen away from us, leaving me stuck with her.
But no matter how she wished to change her mind, Juliet knew that she couldn’t change it now. If she went back, then they would stay put for the night.
The footsteps continued to pass by them from behind the door beside them. All one had to do was crack the heavy door open to find her lying there in a very unladylike manner. She held her breath as they passed by, hoping she wouldn’t be caught.
She knew that her games and sneaking around were activities that she could get away with most of the time. Her parents doted on their two girls, and Nancy was much more lenient than their last nursemaid, Gertrude.
But that was only for when they were at home at Tipperary Park and during daylight hours.
“I expect the two of you to be on your very best behavior,” she recalled her father telling her sternly in the carriage when they approached the large cast-iron gates. “These are friends whom we respect. When you are here, you are acting in the name of Huddington. And a Huddington is honorable, poised, and wise.”
The memory made her wince. She was usually a better listener. She could be honorable, poised, and wise most of the time.
Except this was their first house party, and she’d never been to any place quite so fine. She wanted to see it all. Her parents had mentioned there would be a ball for the adults in two days, and it had made Juliet terribly envious, so much that she could hardly eat during her early supper.
“Juliet,” Emily whined in her ear. “Can we go now?”
Huffing, she glanced at her sister and nodded. She then paused to take one last look at the lovely ballroom. It was beautiful. The wood lining the walls was a dark color with a blue-green wallpaper beside the doorways. Three chandeliers hovered overhead though only a few of the candles on the walls were lit. Judging from how some chairs had been pulled out, the room was getting cleaned between the other chores for the household staff.
Juliet sighed and shook her head before rising to her feet. Someday she would be permitted in a place this grand. Everyone would welcome her with open arms and eagerly watch her dance and charm her suitors.
But it was time she retired for the night, and she well knew it. Holding back a yawn, Juliet climbed onto her feet to make her way over to the door. Before she dared step out, she put an ear against the wood to listen.
“Is anyone there?” Emily asked as she came over to do the same thing.
“Shh,” Juliet scolded before nodded. “It’s quiet. Let’s go.”
It was a heavy door that required both of them to push on to make it out. Once they were out in the hall, Juliet took her sister’s hand. Emily gave her a squeeze before obediently following her back down the way they had come.
They had just reached their room when Emily squealed and turned to her. “Oh no! My bunny. Juliet, I left Baby Edgar.”
Baby Edgar was the name of the soft felt rabbit that Emily had been given on her birthday two years back. It was very worn out and had lost a beaded eye, but no one could convince Emily to leave him be. She slept with him every night and carried him around as frequently as she could persuade Nancy to let her.
And, Juliet realized, Baby Edgar was left behind in the ballroom.
She huffed. “Emily…”
Standing in her nightdress, her little sister’s chin wobbled. Tears were already welling up in her eyes as she sniffled. “I was so nervous I forgot to pick him back up! Juliet, I must have him. I’ve never slept without him. Please, please, please, I need him.”
“Fine,” Juliet said crossly. “Get back into bed, and I shall retrieve him. I won’t take you out a second time so you can lose anything else. I’ll be fast,” she added when her sister looked at her doubtfully.
Leaving her sister in the dark nursery, Juliet scampered back out into the hall. She still wore a night robe over her nightdress though she suddenly realized she had little need of it. No one would see her, and it was warm. Very warm, almost like someone had lit all the fireplaces.
She crossed one hallway and started down the stairs.
Voices could be heard down below. Though she couldn’t hear what was being said, no one sounded pleased. She paused, clinging to the railing in the hopes no one would catch her out and about.
Were they looking for her? She wished she could be sure, but she wasn’t about to ask. After waiting a moment, Juliet decided that there must be some sort of commotion going on that didn’t involve her. It was best, then, that she kept moving on.
She made her way to the next landing and hurried further along where the candlelight was bright enough to see. When she nearly ran into a footman crossing one hall, she found another path to take though it was longer. Though she was very good at sneaking around, the place was still very unfamiliar. The thought of getting lost for good sent a shiver down her spine.
Then she saw them, the doors to the ballroom.
“Thank the Lord,” Juliet murmured, echoing the way her mother spoke about every little matter.
It was only when she reached the doors that she realized she might not be able to open them. They were magnificently carved and much bigger than herself. She frowned and tried pushing.
I need to get that silly bunny. Come on, I don’t really need Emily’s help for this, certainly.
She huffed and pushed, her feet sliding about in her slippers. Kicking them off, Juliet tried to get a better grip on the hardwood floor. That seemed to do the trick. She managed to push the door open just enough to wiggle through and step inside.
The bunny was right there. She bent down and picked it up, jerking up when she heard something crash. A gasp escaped her lips as she stared in dismay at the light before her. A dull roar had been growing from beneath her that she had not realized until now. The heat, too, had grown.
Everything was explained by the fire consuming the beautiful ballroom below.
A fire. I’ve never seen anything so big. The ballroom will be gone in moments.
Juliet couldn’t bring herself to move. The flames reminded her of the monsters that Gertrude used to threaten her would come for her in her sleep when she did naughty things. They waved their arms and moved forward to eat her.
Her feet wouldn’t move. Instead, she gazed around in disbelief as she clutched Baby Edgar to her chest. It was moving so quickly. She hadn’t thought moving between three floors took very long, but she knew she could be distracted easily.
But she couldn’t let that happen now. Half the floor was gone. The walls were glowing bright; what remained of the wallpaper was curling and falling downward. She blinked hard in the bright light but couldn’t bring herself to look away.
Not until she heard a crash.
Jumping, she watched as one of the great pillars to her right fell beside the smaller one. Sweat began trickling down her neck, tickling her skin.
Hearing a crackling overhead, Juliet looked up to see the flames right above her. She wondered where the fire was spreading to have consumed so much so quickly. She gulped and started to inch back just as the ceiling started crumbling.
“Ahh!” Juliet screamed loudly in pain, falling back against the doors when something hot fell on her. She was blinded as she scrambled to brush the burning rubble off her face.
Never before had she felt something like this. Though she managed to get the rubble off her, the pain remained. Her vision blurred as she began to sob in fear and agony. No longer the brave little girl who enjoyed going where she wasn’t supposed to be, Juliet reached out desperately for the heavy doors from where she had come in.
She couldn’t see clearly now. Juliet couldn’t tell if the ceiling was still falling apart or where the flames were. All she knew was that it was hot, and she needed someone to save her.
“Help me! Please!” Juliet cried out desperately, her voice breaking.
Her hands found the handle for the door. Banging on it, she managed to run into the doorknob. She grappled with it as she gasped for air, trying to open it on her own. But she couldn’t seem to do it.
Just when Juliet feared she would give up, she felt the door give way. She stumbled into the other door with her shoulder. Tentatively leaning forward, she squinted to try and see who had helped her.
“Come here,” said a voice. The figure was slightly taller than herself and sounded like a boy. “You have to get out of here at once. Let’s go! We’re all leaving.”
She reached out, her chin wobbling. “Please, help me. I think I burned my eyes.”
A hand wrapped around her own. There was darkness in the hall, but light came from the ballroom. With all the shadows, Juliet could just make out the slight figure of the Duke’s son. They had met upon her arrival. Yes, it was him, she decided. He had curly black hair tied at the base of his neck and a narrow chin like his father. He was a little older than herself at nearly fourteen.
What was his name again? Benedict, that’s what it was. A big name for a little boy, my father said. He’s off to Eton soon.
“I’ll help you, but we have to go now,” he informed her sternly.
Though she began to reach out to him, she snatched her hand back with a cold realization. “Edgar! I need Baby Edgar. I dropped him. He’s a little bunny. Please, can you get him for me?”
“What?” He started to groan before catching himself. Moving forward, he crouched at her feet. “He’s… there he is! Now we need to go.”
Allowing him to drag her into the hall, she could hear more voices shouting now. Footsteps sounded everywhere. Holding tightly to the stuffed bunny, she rubbed her eyes before hissing in pain. Until she could find Nancy, she would need to wait to have her vision clear up.
“Come on, faster,” Benedict charged her. He wrapped a hand around her wrist when they reached the end of the hall. “I know a shortcut; let’s go.”
“Where is everyone?” She stammered when he guided her down a darker hallway where the voices of everyone seemed to be growing fainter.
He breathed hard and loudly as he ran beside her. It made her think of her father’s horse after he went riding in the mornings, but she decided not to say anything about it.
“I bet they’re already out,” Benedict told her. “My valet ran out before I did. He hardly stayed to wake me, you know. You’re lucky I came out the way I did since I saw your slippers.”
Right, she was barefoot. She had forgotten about that. Juliet became terribly aware of it now as they reached a round staircase and started down. The steps were hot. She flinched but couldn’t stop with Benedict’s hand wrapped tightly around her. The further they went, the hotter everything became.
“Where are we going?” Juliet asked tremulously. “It’s hot. Very hot!”
“Trust me. We’ve only got about ten steps to go. The fire is there too, but I think we can get out through the gardens. We’re close to the exit right over there,” Benedict was saying. But before he could say more, the ground gave way.
The two of them screamed. As they fell, still holding hands, Juliet promised to never sneak out again if she could only survive this terrible fire.
Every time Juliet entered a new ballroom, she was reminded of that terrible night fifteen years ago.
But she was the only one. She hardly knew whether to consider it a curse or a blessing. Making her way quietly down the steps since she had just been announced alongside her family, she didn’t have to see a thing to feel everyone’s stares.
I shouldn’t have come. I knew I shouldn’t have come. How did I let Emily convince me that this ball would be worth my while?
She was not only considered an old maid by the debutants at four and twenty years of age, but she was also considered rather useless. Few would want a blind wife. There was always the fear that it could somehow be passed onto the eventual children.
Her grip tightened on her father’s arm when the man started to turn. Though she had wanted to be on her mother’s other side, he had tugged her over to him just before they were announced.
“Careful,” he muttered when she brushed shoulders with something.
How can I be careful if you won’t tell me what to look out for, Father?
It was too stiff to be a person, so she supposed it must have been a wall or piece of furniture. Probably a lamp since her father was off to find her a quiet corner to sit in for the rest of the event. Though she had attended only a few balls through the years, she knew the routine well. She would be announced and then led to a corner where her family could ignore her or help her alternately.
Staring ahead with her useless eyes, Juliet reminded herself to keep her spine straight and chin up.
Everyone knew about her and the fire. It had been a horrendous event, claiming eight lives. One had been the duke himself who had died from wounds sustained when he ran back in to search for his son.
While the other guests had survived well enough, her family and the duke’s were changed forever. The young boy who had saved her was left with scars of his own and the new role as a peer of a realm while mourning an unprecedented loss. Her family had made it out safely, losing only her sight and her mother’s favorite maid.
Fifteen years had given Juliet enough time to heal and adjust to her blindness. She liked being at home and in the gardens at their country estate, avoiding busy London when she had the chance.
“Just one more season,” her mother had asked of her. “It would be so lovely to have the family together once more. I won’t ask you to attend every event. Just a few if that. It can be nice and quiet and some lovely family time. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
It was difficult to turn down her family’s wishes, especially her mother’s. She had avoided London for two seasons and agreed to come once again for her sister. The young woman was one and twenty now and by all accounts quite beautiful. There had been two proposals her first season nearly five years ago; they had not been ideal, and now the family was hoping for one last chance with someone else.
This may have been her mother’s wish for her to come with the family for the season, but Juliet had a feeling that Emily didn’t feel the same way.
“Why are you coming?” Emily had demanded when they had piled into the carriage to begin their journey. It seemed she hadn’t taken note of the packages that had come for Juliet and how she had been included in the preparations for the season. “Mother! If I’m going to marry this season, I need to do so with as few problems as possible. Not that you’re a problem, Juliet, but you’re… you know. Mother, please. How am I to find someone now? The ton acts as though any injury, including hers, is contagious. Now no one will come near me!”
Her father led her to a cushion that Juliet sat down on. He mumbled something about drinks and then walked away. There was no telling when he might return.
Deciding not to hold onto hope, she shifted slightly to get comfortable. It was going to be a long night of listening to people and ignoring their stares. Already she could smell a variety of perfume and a new waltz had begun on the dance floor.
Most likely, her father would find himself a drink and then go to the cards room. Her mother would seek out the few people who still spoke to their family since most had created distance after that terrible accident. It was hard to tell if her mother would find her or wander around the rooms in search of someone new to speak with.
And then Emily… Juliet wasn’t quite sure. She refused to be attached to her parents or sister as chaperones, choosing to make new friends with those who didn’t know any better about their family. Then she would hope to dance, seeking every opportunity to connect with a gentleman.
I hope this season is indeed the one for Emily. She wants it so terribly and deserves to become a wife. Having a blind sister truly should not create such a hindrance.
If anything, she supposed the large dowries that her father had bestowed upon them would be helpful. He added to them every year, hoping that they would receive some sort of attention.
The idea made her snort. Who would want to give her attention? It wasn’t as though she could offer it to anyone else.
“Pardon me, my lady.” An unfamiliar voice broke through her thoughts. “I’ve just learned that you are Lady Juliet Haskett. However, I don’t believe that could possibly be true. You’re much too beautiful.”
She tilted her head up to listen. Whoever it was had to be speaking right to her. But it didn’t seem particularly possible. No one approached her at balls.
I don’t even know if I should be standing or sitting for this. What does a lady do?
Scrambling for ideas, she slowly nodded. He knew her name and so was not mistaken. “That would be me though I can hardly imagine what people are saying about me. But I’m afraid I am at quite a disadvantage, good sir. I am blind and cannot begin to guess who you might be. Have we been introduced?”
A low chuckle sounded closer this time. “I must apologize for my forwardness, my lady. I’m the Honorable James Letteringfield of North Cheshire.”
Juliet considered the maps she had memorized long ago to place where he belonged along with his family’s name. A baron’s son, then. He came from the rural lands far north above London compared to her family’s southern properties. His family had to be small, or she would have recognized the name.
Grasping the arm of her chair, she carefully stood without tripping on the hem of her dress. She put out her hand with a prayer it was close to where he stood. “A pleasure, my lord. What brings you to this side of the ballroom?”
He took her by the hand and steered her slightly left. Saying nothing of her flush, he pressed his lips to her gloved hand before saying, “Who else but you, of course? I wondered if perchance there was a miracle that might assist me tonight for a dance. Unless your dance card is full?”
A soft laugh escaped her lips before she could help herself.
“Full?” Then she caught herself before she could say anything more. “I have space yet. But I must inform you I limit my dances to only the most structured to ensure I cannot fail my dance partners. Shall I save you the next Cotillion?”
“I would be most delighted. And we are in luck, for that is the next set. Here, won’t you accompany me around the ballroom until then? I assure you; I am most graceful and will not fail you,” he added.
She felt her heart flutter. There was no rhyme or reason to why another man would be giving her attention. From what she could recall during her first couple of seasons, men had practically cringed when they had to be in her presence. The few good sports had not been up for the challenge she must have presented. Already this man was different from them all.
“I would be delighted, thank you,” she assured him.
Around the room they went. He was true to his word about trying to help her. While not as clumsy as her father, he made a few minor mistakes along the way that he quickly apologized for. They exchanged simple pleasantries like the weather and such until it was time for the dance.
Though he invited her for conversation while they danced, Juliet had to refuse him. She needed to concentrate on the footwork with the sound of the music. Dancing with a new partner added a level of difficulty that required her attention.
Three mistakes. Only three! That must be my best yet.
“Marvelous, if I do say so myself,” Letteringfield remarked when he guided her off the dance floor. “Shall we enjoy some fresh air outside?”
She hesitated for only a second, trusting they would stay close to the open doors. “Yes, that sounds lovely.”
As they walked, she could sense the eyes of others at the ball watching them. But this time, it was different. She couldn’t help smiling, knowing that she had just shown she didn’t have to be such a leper among them if they would simply give her the opportunity.
Juliet hoped her parents were just as proud. Maybe she wouldn’t disappoint Emily’s chances at a union this season, after all.
A cool breeze brushed against her cheek the moment they stepped outside. It was much more refreshing than the crowded room at their backs. Sniffing carefully, she thought she could smell roses. Still holding onto Letteringfield’s arm, Juliet listened as the sounds of the music began to fade behind them.
“We should stay close,” she counseled while trying to speak tactfully. “I will be greatly missed if I go too far.”
“Certainly,” he assured her. “A short turn in the gardens is all. Shall I describe it to you? There are people everywhere. I believe we have roses to your right and, well, pink flowers to our left. Sweetbriar, perhaps?”
She chuckled, wondering how he could make her feel so at ease. “I would not know better, my lord. I would believe you if you told me they were fir trees.”
Hearing him laugh made her smile. They walked through the gardens as he told her about the flowers. It was easy to put away thoughts of the ballroom they had left behind for several minutes while she listened to him talk.
Once or twice, she could hear people nearby, and it brought her some comfort to know they were not alone. It was difficult to hear the strains of the orchestra, but she told herself that it was only because of the wind.
“Oh, my lady…” he paused them suddenly. Though he left one hand on her arm, he lifted the other to her cheek. She jerked at the close contact. “Pardon, but there is something on your cheek.”
Juliet stilled, her body tensing, when she felt his finger brush her cheek. But was it his hand? She suddenly wasn’t so certain.
The touch seemed to bring her back to the moment and back to reason as she realized she couldn’t hear the music at all now. Was there anyone nearby? Her heart skipped a beat. If they were out of view of the ballroom, then one might think they were having a dalliance, that––
“What is the meaning of this!”
Jumping back at her father’s thunderous voice, she toppled backward into a large hedge. Everything poked her. When she tried to move, she found she was quite stuck with her hair tangled in the leaves.
But no one bothered with her.
“My Lord, I… I’m afraid you have quite caught us,” Letteringfield said with a loud sigh. “There are no excuses for such behavior.”
“You––how––and Juliet!” Her father sputtered.
Juliet struggled against the hedge but paused when she considered what Letteringfield had said. A heavy feeling grew on her chest, weighing her down as she gasped, “Father, oh… We didn’t do anything. I didn’t… I thought we were still close to the ballroom. We––”
“You can’t even see the house from here,” he hissed. “Sir, leave us at once! And come to me in the morning because I do expect you to be an honorable man.”
“Of course,” Letteringfield murmured.
As he walked away, Juliet gaped. “Honorable? Father, you don’t mean…”
The horror of her situation was still right out of her grasp. But she could feel it just enough. She could tell what it was. The weight on her chest grew thick around her as she heard her father come over huffing.
“I do,” he growled, sounding angrier than she had ever known him. “Your reputation is in shambles. Everyone saw you leave more than ten minutes ago with that man. Do you even know who he is? Well, you’ll learn soon enough. You must marry him at once.”
Juliet gave up fighting the hedge since it didn’t particularly matter anymore. She stood there, still, as she tried to understand what had just happened to her.
One minute, she was a shadow on the wall. Now, she would be London’s newest scandal. Whatever was she going to do?
While Benedict Andrews refused to attend balls, he couldn’t very well stay hidden during his visits to London.
He knew this though he hated it intensely. Perhaps it was for this reason that when he went riding, he chose to ride without a hat or any attempt to hide his disfigured body.
When people looked, he looked back at them until they averted their gazes. It was the best way he thought to ensure they wouldn’t look again. The only problem there was that London was filled with more people every year.
He didn’t understand it. Once there was a time when he could ride through the streets with ease. Now, he had to hope the timing was right, or else he would end up trapped with carriages everywhere and eyes on him from every direction.
Just the thought was enough to make his skin crawl.
Stop being paranoid already. A lot of good that would do. No, just carry on. Perhaps we shall take that detour to Harvest Road as well today to keep the eyes away for a short time.
While Benedict was decidedly not in a hurry, he was eager to have fewer people staring at him. He turned his horse to the right once he had the chance. They moved down the road before finally approaching White’s, where he climbed down and started inside.
“There you are!” Cavendish called to him from the next room over.
Isaac Barnet, the Earl of Blackmore, was Benedict’s best and only friend. His perfectly styled blond hair and bold green eyes made him one of society’s favorite bachelors. He had a slight but tall build with a confident air about him. It was this, Benedict believed, that had helped the man to stay friends with him during those torturous years at Eton.
Such memories sat ill with Benedict still. He had hardly recovered from his injuries before being sent there at his uncle’s request. The man, intelligent but unfriendly, had thought it would be best for him to have the experience and a distraction from his pain and grieving.
It had, in truth, only exacerbated such issues.
But Isaac had been there and continued to stand beside him through the years. They had attended Cambridge and Oxford together, taking two years afterward to journey through uncharted jungles. Such foreign territory would be far more welcome than the wilds of London society.
“I almost thought you wouldn’t be coming,” Isaac said cheerfully as Benedict took his seat.
Motioning to a servant for an early afternoon brandy, Benedict sighed. “It is tradition, is it not? First drink of the season. I suppose I should have been here yesterday, but Mother was in a state.”
His friend nodded and watched as he took his first sip. “Ah, of course. How is she these days?”
That was a trick question if Benedict had ever heard one. Thinking of his mother always twisted his face into a scowl. His mother was a fiercely beautiful and commanding woman. As the dowager duchess, she had allowed his uncle to help manage the disaster that befell their family fifteen years ago, only to throw him out after a couple of months believing she could do much better.
She had, of course, and she knew it. The woman was merciless in the way that she managed the house and their properties. He had taken over the latter several years back, but she had a tendency to stick her nose into everything.
Not that I can blame her. What else is she to do? We are all that each other has since that horrible fire.
A young girl holding a stuffed bunny came to mind for a moment. He blinked, and she was gone.
“She is well enough,” Benedict said at last. “I tried convincing her that it was time she did something for herself. Traveled to Italy, perhaps, or some such destination. But it has been to no avail.”
Nodding, Isaac offered a sympathetic expression. “I can understand. Your mother needs something to do with her time, that’s all. My mother may still have a husband, but she certainly occupies her time with activities. Three committees, I believe, and two clubs. Perhaps we should arrange an introduction after all this time?”
“Perhaps.” While he would gladly concede, he already knew his mother would refuse.
She rarely took visitors. Glancing at his glass, Benedict knew the fault lay with him. Everyone was still curious about him and his scars and that terrible night, a story that no one could get enough of.
They wanted the story but not the people. Society had turned against them when it happened. He remembered how awful his first season had been, how often he had struggled to retain his composure at every event.
Sighing, he shook his head. “Let us speak of different matters. You went to Greece?”
Isaac straightened up. “Aye, and what a place it was!” He eagerly launched into tales of his adventures. Sloshing his drink as he waved his arms about, he made it easy for Benedict to forget the occasional stares of passing gentlemen and to pretend he was still traveling.
Perhaps I’ll go somewhere once again. Someplace where there are few people to stare at the likes of me. Even if they do look, they are not people with whom I must regularly connect and could freely walk away forever. I may not have that itch to travel any longer, but it would be much more pleasant than staying trapped here with everyone else in the season.
It was October. He would have to make it through to spring before leaving London again. Maybe he needed to have something to look forward to.
“Hm?” He jerked his head around to look back at Isaac.
Sometimes it was annoying to gaze at his friend. All he could hear was the wailing of his mother when he was fourteen years old, lying on a bed thinking he was dying, as his mother mourned the good looks that were gone forever.
Burns healed. But the scars always lingered.
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair as his friend shook his head. “Always distracted. I asked if you went to the Richards’ ball last night?”
Duke Richards was an ostentatious man who never had anything intelligent to say at Parliament. His wife was equally useless, and Benedict supposed they had children but couldn’t name any at the moment.
“A ball this early? That’s preposterous,” Benedict muttered. “Not everyone has arrived for the season yet. Besides, you know I don’t attend balls.”
“Ah, but then you miss out on the gossip. There are the rags, granted, but it is much more interesting to be in the midst of it all rather than having to read about it the next day,” Isaac said pointedly. “The Cavaliers have introduced their youngest daughter, and I must say she is in desperate need of a good kiss.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And an offer?”
Waving a hand in the air, Isaac rolled his eyes. “By someone else, I’m sure. Not that anyone would know. I’m not a scoundrel like Letteringfield.”
The name sounded familiar. Taking a slow drink, Benedict took a moment to orient himself. It came to him slowly as he considered a short older man who gathered his information from gossip rags rather than facts. He had made a fool of himself in Parliament for spouting some nonsensical joke and believing it the truth.
“The son,” Isaac pointed out.
A face came to mind. Round with limp brown hair and a grin that immediately annoyed Benedict.
Yes, they had crossed paths at a card game last season. He had only come in the hopes of starting a new trade route with the Viscount Roncaster. The younger Letteringfield had poorly attempted to cheat and was a spoilsport upon being caught.
If I recall correctly, the man nearly ended up in a duel over that mess.
Now that he had a face to the name, Benedict snorted. “Yes, he is certainly the type to end up in the gossip columns. What has he done this time? Did he get thrown out last night?”
Isaac frowned. “Perhaps he should have been.” Straightening up in his seat, he gave a remarkably serious look as he said, “You know I like a good joke even as I expect refinement from men. No matter what sort of scoundrel I may be, I respect the ton and would not misuse a lady.”
Slowly fixing his seat, so he mirrored his friend, Benedict eyed him warily. The merriment faded. “Did he…?”
“I don’t know. No one quite does. Only that he was caught by the young lady’s father in the gardens. I’ve already heard three men talking about it since I arrived,” Isaac explained before shrugging helplessly. “A woman must be more careful. Father’s a Marquess, so there’s a fair chance the first wedding of the season will be very soon.”
A cold feeling trickled down his spine. “A Marquess? Who was it?”
When Isaac couldn’t remember, Benedict hailed down a passing servant to request a copy of every newspaper and gossip column on hand.
“Why?” his friend inquired. “Why does it matter?”
There was no explanation that he could give. At least, not one that would make sense. Benedict fidgeted in his seat as he waited impatiently for the servant to return. It only took a few minutes though it felt like days.
“Well?” Isaac asked impatiently once he had several folded papers in hand. “Come, you should know this. You take your responsibilities seriously. Marquess of Somerset, perhaps?”
“That would be another earl,” Benedict corrected him. He fumbled with the papers until he finally found one.
It was clearly the right gossip column since there was a poorly drawn caricature of a man and woman entangled in a garden with flowers covering them. The drawing of the woman even had flowers over her eyes, almost as if she were…
Benedict cursed when he saw the name. Though he had met the girl only once, he had never been able to forget her. Their fates were intertwined that terrible night when everything changed. His mother had never allowed him to see her again, but he had whispered her name nearly every night before retiring.
“Lady Juliet Haskett,” he murmured.
It felt as though someone had just punched him. He stared at the paper in dismay as he read the gossip that teased at her affliction, mocking her situation.
A young woman caught in a compromising situation like this only had one option to salvage her reputation and that of her family. It was to marry the man––the rake––who was to blame. Benedict couldn’t prove it, but he knew that it was all Letteringfield’s idea to do this to her.
But he couldn’t let that happen.
“What is it?” Isaac asked. “Benedict, do you know her?”
Benedict shoved the papers off his lap. He didn’t know how to answer that question. Instead, he made an announcement he hardly understood. “I have to marry her.”
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