About the book
A blessing and a curse to love thy you mustn’t...
Lady Luciana Alden lives a perfect life.
Raised by doting parents and with a handsome suitor about to ask for her hand, she has everything she ever wanted. Until the day her father announces that she is to marry a stranger.
Gideon Merriweather, the Marquess of Ambergrave, has searched far and wide for a reprieve from his pain. Heartbroken after his parents' unfair death, there is but a single cure: vengeance. Vengeance that starts with marrying Lady Luciana.
While striving to accept their fate, they cannot escape their luxuriating emotions.
An uninvited visitor and an old envelope with an unbroken seal open Luciana's eyes to a lifelong lie, forcing her to make a difficult decision. She must leave Gideon to save them both from a fate worse than death.
“Luci! You’re here at last, and how elegant you look!” Lady Elizabeth cried, holding out her arms to her dearest friend for an embrace. Lady Luciana, daughter of the Earl of Thornshire, hurried to her friend with a smile.
“Thank you, Bette. But I pale in comparison standing so close to you!” Luci said, sighing contentedly. “Your gown is simply beautiful!”
“It was from Aunt Adele. But don’t leave for home tonight before you find me, I brought you back some gossamer and chiffon in the most wonderful shade of yellow. I thought of your dark tresses when I saw it, and knew it would pair perfectly with your brown eyes as well.”
“That is too kind of you to think of me,” Luci cried. “You must let me give you some of the silk Mother ordered as payment. But tell me everything about your journey! And wherever did you manage to find such lovely ribbons?”
Luci only half-listened, having set her friend off on a winding tale of her three months of London adventures, but that was by design. She smiled and nodded and made appropriate responses as Bette told of the excitement of visiting her aunt and purchasing necessary items for the Season. All the while, she scanned the Viscount Ridley’s large, ornate ballroom, her eyes drifting over the sea of well-dressed members of the ton, all turned out in honor of Bette’s return home.
And then she saw him.
At the far end of the room, talking in a cluster of young gentlemen, Bradley Landon, Earl of Stillscar, chanced a look in her direction and smiled in that crooked way that made Luci’s heart falter for a moment. His dark eyes met hers for only a moment, but it was enough. Before anyone could have noticed, he returned to the conversation, brushing his blond hair back slightly and appearing interested in their talk.
“I saw that,” Bette whispered happily in her ear, and a rush of heat flooded Luci’s face. “That’s why I was very adamant with Mother that the Earl simply must be invited to our little party!”
“You are too good to me,” Luci cried, clutching Bette’s hands. “But it will be some trouble to find time to speak with him. After my unfortunate accident last week, Mother and Father insisted the only way I could attend tonight was if they escorted me instead of Christina.”
“Ah, so that’s why I don’t see your old governess lurking at your elbow!” Bette teased, but at the look of reproach on Luci’s face, she blushed.
“You know she is much more than a governess. Besides being so learned as to now be my tutor, she’s more of a confidant than a governess!” Luci argued kindly.
“I’m sorry, Luci, I didn’t mean that to sound unkind. Miss Ross is lovely, and I know she matters a great deal to you.”
“All is forgiven, of course!” Luci said, smiling at her friend once more. “But I cannot fault them. They were so concerned when I fell while riding, both of them stayed by my bedside for two days while the physician pondered whether or not I’d suffered any harm. It mattered not how many times I told them I was fine, they refused to let me up until they felt certain!”
“Even now, I think they are unconvinced. Look,” Bette said, gesturing towards the Countess. “Your mother comes this way.”
“Luci! There you are!” Lady Thornshire said, smiling adoringly at both girls. “Be sure to come sit for a while before you feel faint. Lady Elizabeth, I heard you are newly returned home from seeing your aunt in London. Tell me, how is the Marchioness faring in the city? Were you introduced to anyone?”
As Bette once more launched into her tales of diversion, Luci stopped her and said, “I have already taken enough of Lady Elizabeth’s time. I think I shall go sit for a while. Bette, be sure and tell Mother all about the shops you visited so that she and I might know the best places to go next summer.”
Luci raised her eyebrows slightly, signaling to Bette to make the story rather lengthy. Bette returned her smile and turned Lady Thornshire towards a row of cushioned chairs so that they might speak of London at length.
Luci looked over to the where she had last seen Lord Stillscar but felt a pang of disappointment when he was no longer there. Without being too obvious, she looked about the grand room until her eyes fell on him, standing alone by one of the open doors that led to the gardens. He cocked his head to the side slightly and smiled.
Looking around to ensure that no one might have noticed, Luci nodded briefly. She wound her way through the crowd of people, intent on not going directly to the door, and feeling grateful that they had not yet begun dancing. It still took several minutes to reach the outdoors for every person she passed was obligated to extend some sort of greeting, and she was obligated to reply.
Outside, the glow of dozens of low flames flickered inside their glass lamps, creating a somewhat serene effect over the garden. Luci stopped at the top of the marble steps that led down to where several other pairs of guests walked about, speaking in low voices.
But the Earl was nowhere to be found.
Casting a thin smile and curtseying slightly to two matronly dowagers who’d settled themselves into chairs—no doubt keeping their hawkish eyes on the guests who meandered outside for propriety’s sake—Luci thought to return inside when a hand darted out from behind a shrub and clutched her wrist.
“Oh!” she chirped suddenly, looking to the two women to make sure they hadn’t heard her cry of surprise. Luci turned slightly so that it would not be so obvious to anyone standing nearby that her arm was now concealed behind the greenery.
“Shh, no one must know we’re here!” Bradley said, amused. “It would be far worse should anyone discover that I did this, too.”
Luci stifled a giggle as the Earl pressed a kiss against the back of her gloved hand. Still looking about and pretending as though wedging her arm behind the shrub was a commonplace thing to do, she attempted to keep a plain expression upon her face. Too soon, her merriment got the better of her and the Earl had to emerge from behind an urn in order to avoid being noticed.
“That was rather some silliness, don’t you agree?” she asked, smiling up at him. Bradley only shot her a mischievous look then gestured for her to walk with him.
“I actually thought it was quite devious on my part,” he finally answered. “Like a game of cat and mouse.”
“But which one was I? The cunning cat or the scurrying mouse?” Luci asked innocently. “After all, everywhere I’ve looked this evening, you’re there one moment and gone the next, like a the cleverest of alley cats.”
“You wound me, dear Luci! I am most definitely the mouse! A harmless, timid creature—and dare I say, rather adorable looking—who wishes only to peek out from its home once in a rare while and enjoy a mere morsel of cheese!” Bradley said, twitching his nose and feigning to have delicate paws.
“Then the mouse you shall be,” Luci conceded playfully. “But tell me, why must a mouse such as yourself keep hidden in corners and behind the shrubbery? None of the guests seems to mind your presence the way they would some vermin.”
“Ah, you see, there are a great number of cats at this event, those who would take an instant liking to anything this humble little mouse desires. Should everyone here know how much I admire you and how taken I am with you, they would all pounce and steal you away for themselves!”
Luci ducked her head, smiling shyly despite the dim glow of the lamps that prevented her elation from being too obvious. She was content to walk about the garden for some time, until finally Bradley led the way to a low bench and bade her sit with him.
“Bradley, I am perplexed,” Luci said as they sat down. “Why must our every conversation be shrouded in such mystery? Under the cover of evening or away from the crowds?”
“I only worry for your reputation, Luci,” he explained. “My family has not always been in the best stead among some in the ton, and I would never want to besmirch your own standing. Should you ever agree to be my wife, then I will joyfully shout it from the rooftops without a care as to who might see us speaking at a ball or when you’re out for a ride.”
“But I have already said as much!” Luci protested in earnest. “I have said time and time again that I return your affections ardently! Is that not cause enough?”
The Earl frowned, mulling over her reply. Finally, he said softly, “It is, it is more than enough for me. But I must convince your father of our match. When the time is right, I shall speak to him. But I must first see to some of my affairs so that I do not enter into a marriage contract with any business concerns unresolved. Can you understand that, and be patient for but a while longer?”
Luci looked away, shame at her selfishness burning within her while at the same time, frustration and longing filled her heart. Of course she understood, and absolutely she could be patient. But she longed for the day when the Earl could speak to her father and their arrangement could be affirmed. Then, they would have an entire season of attending events such as these as a betrothed couple, gratefully accepting the well-wishes and congratulations of all who knew them.
Instead, Luci sat in the growing darkness with a man she loved but could not publicly acknowledge, ever aware of how close they sat or how quietly they whispered lest someone take issue and speak ill of them. She was forced to entertain invitations to dance from men who simply did not know that her heart—if not her actual future—was already pledged to another.
“Trust me, my dear, it is a physical torment for me to love you so much and be unable to speak it, to let it be known,” Bradley said. “I am doing my utmost to complete these dealings so that I may be unencumbered, entering into our marriage with free title to my vast holdings. It shall not be much longer, I promise!”
Luci smiled bravely for his sake. “Then I shall hold you to your promise and believe upon it. What is a small matter of time when we shall be happy for the rest of our lives?”
“That’s my brave girl,” he answered, taking her hand and caressing it firmly. “Only think, one day soon we will be the happiest, most wonderful couple in the ton!”
“There you are, my dear!” Bette whispered, catching Luci in the doorway as she reentered the ballroom alone. “I’ve kept your mother occupied for as long as I might, but she moved on to find you. I told her I’d given you leave to lie down in my chambers, away from the party, and that I would fetch you at once.”
“You’re a saint! I don’t deserve you as my friend!” Luci replied gratefully.
“Of course you do, you goose. Now tell me everything about Lord Stillscar before you go find your mother!” Bette waited expectantly, her eyes wide as Luci informed her of their devotion to one another.
“Oh, it is so romantic!” Bette cried. “I shall never hope to find love such as yours, not so long as my father is plotting a ‘prosperous’ match for me! I shall be fortunate if my future husband is not already senile and walks with a cane!”
Luci hid her titters behind her fan as Bette imitated the carriage of an elderly man, only to straighten upright when she spied an ancient marquess looking at her. Both girls were flooded with shame lest he think their ridicule was intended for him. He harrumphed loudly and turned away, leaving them to fall into gales of laughter once he left.
“But tell me sincerely, Luci,” Bette said, serious once more. “Do you truly love Lord Stillscar?”
Luci pondered the question for only a moment, reminded by the fluttering of her heart of her answer. “I do, dear Bette! I’ve never met another who is so interesting, so enchanting to listen to, so genuine in his nature!”
“And I suppose it hurts nothing that he is so devilishly handsome?” Bette teased. “However do you manage to keep your hands from reaching for a lock of his hair when you two speak?”
“Bette!” Luci answered, shocked at the question. “I would never!”
“Well, I don’t know that I wouldn’t in your position!” her friend said, laughing once again. “Come, there’s to be dancing now. You must be seen lest people talk.”
“I don’t know that I feel up to it, not when the one person I long to dance with all evening is within my very grasp but still so far beyond my reach!” For a moment, Luci looked as though she might cry.
“Come now, none of that. I’ll see to it that the Earl just happens to ask you to dance before the evening is over, I promise!” Bette said, taking Luci’s hand and pulling her towards the great room.
True to her word, not long after only her third dance, the Earl of Stillscar bowed slightly and extended his hand, his intensely blue eyes belying all traces of familiarity. He spoke formally when requesting to dance with Lady Luci, and she fairly blushed at the way some of the other girls stared after them.
Luci fought to contain her frayed nerves as the music swelled. Standing so near to Bradley in full view of everyone, she was certain her true feelings were on full display. For his part, he made great pretense of looking only politely interested in his partner, avoiding any untoward display that would have set the ton talking.
“This is madness,” Luci thought miserably. “This is worse than not seeing him at all, to see him and dance with him and stand so close yet be unable to acknowledge how much of my heart he commands!”
When the music mercifully ended, the other pairs broke out in polite applause. Luci, however, stood transfixed by the deep, longing stare with which the Earl pinned her back. Taking her gloved hand in his and merely bowing over it, he looked up long enough to whisper, “That shall be the last time I publicly pretend that you don’t mean the world to me.”
Gideon Cross, Marquess of Ambergrave, looked out the upstairs window at the sprawling glens surrounding his estate. He expected to be filled with a torrent of memories, some pleasant but others straight from his nightmares. Some of the thoughts that wound their way through his mind were of his adoring parents, doting on him as they took outings or rode horses or played at boules, his mother always finding a way to let him win.
Those recollections were fleeting, though, cruelly supplanted by the recall of the night he learned his parents had died. The flames that engulfed the main house had moved quickly that night, but the fire had not been the cause of their demise.
Gideon had been the one to cause their deaths.
“My Lord, will you be overseeing the remainder of the builder’s plans today?” his butler, Derwall, asked politely. Gideon was slightly startled, having forgotten that he had not been alone in the room.
“Oh, yes. I’d forgotten he was coming this way today. Please send word that I’ll meet with him by ten o’clock,” he replied somewhat absently.
“Very good, My Lord,” Derwall answered.
A housemaid entered the small study to stoke the fire, and Gideon stiffened. Derwall, ever indispensable, waved her back and shook his head sharply.
“It’s all right, Derwall,” Gideon said quietly. “It will have to happen sometime, it might as well be today. We can’t go all winter chilling ourselves to the bone and catching our death of grippe.”
“Very good, My Lord,” Derwall said once again, gesturing for the maid to come forward to start the fire. “Though there will be plenty of time each day once you are otherwise engaged, if that suits you. I have just had the chimney sweeps ‘round to ensure all are cleared and ready, just to be certain.”
“Thank you, I’d forgotten to do that,” Gideon admitted sheepishly.
“It is no trouble, My Lord. Though you will have to be the one to keep your appointment with the physician. As much as I would gladly take your place, I fear it will not keep you in good stead,” Derwall said lightly.
Gideon laughed. “No, I should say not. I have cancelled the engagement twice now, haven’t I?”
“I fear it may be closer to four times,” Derwall corrected. “Shall I send word once again?”
“Yes, thank you. And this time, do not permit me to abandon the meeting. No matter what excuse I may give, please see to it that I am home and meet with him,” Gideon explained, finally turning to look at the butler so that he might see how serious he was. “Even to the point of forgetting your station, do or say whatever you must to see to it.”
“I say, My Lord, hopefully it will not come to that. I value my place in your household and would never wish to compromise it,” the butler said, looking somewhat aghast.
“Then let’s both pray it does not come to that, shall we?” Gideon asked, attempting to be humorous but only furthering his dark mood.
“If I may, what is the cause of your aversion? I have been with you a great many years, and at times have even had to serve as your valet. Unless I am terribly mistaken, your injuries are not so grave that you should have cause to fear the physician’s assessment.”
Gideon didn’t answer, long enough that he worried the butler might mistake his silence for reprimand. He forced himself to smile good-naturedly and nodded.
“You’re right, Derwall. You almost always are, and it’s only one of the reasons I value your service here. I shall see the physician as soon as he is available,” Gideon replied.
He turned away once more and continued looking outside, intentionally avoiding thinking about his medical care by turning his thoughts to the house. The necessary repairs had taken place immediately after the fire, but only to rebuild what structure had been destroyed. Now, these many years later, it was up to Gideon to restore the long-empty house to its once-grand appearance, starting with the builder who’d been contracted to come that very day.
It’s what his parents would have wanted, and he was filled with a sense of shame that he’d let it remain neglected all this time. If he hoped to make peace with their deaths and reclaim the place they’d held for him in the peerage, reopening the stately but beautiful Ashworth Hall at Ambergrave was his first task.
Beyond that, rebuilding the stables and stocking them with fine breeds was a must, especially if Gideon intended on calling or being seen about the ton. While envisioning that task actually served to lift his spirits somewhat, it would also mean hiring stable hands and a stablemaster, though. He was aware that he needed to bring on more household staff, as an estate of this size was far too much for his meager employees to handle. While Derwall had been with him for some time, he could not burden the man with everything that had to be done.
Remembering the staff of more than a hundred who coddled him and doted on him as a boy, Gideon calculated that he needed no less than a valet, a driver and footmen, several more housemaids, and at least one other cook to assist Mrs.—what was her name again?
“Derwall, who is the woman you hired for the kitchen—” Gideon started to say, but then he saw that he was alone in the room. “Very well, I’ll have to learn her name later on.”
He supposed at some point he would have to host some sort of affair, hopefully a small and unassuming one, in order to let the word spread that Ashworth Hall was once again inhabited. He despised attending any sort of well-appointed ball, though his years in business had often required it of him; the thought of actually playing the jovial host made his nerves alight.
“That’s it then, there’s no getting around it,” Gideon muttered absently, a sinking feeling coming over him and making his sour mood even more hopeless. “That’s what I need more than cooks and maids and stable hands.”
There was only one other thing he would need to do in order to reenter the regional society and bring Ashworth Hall back to its former glory: find a suitable wife.
“Arise, my young charge!” Christina called out in a chipper voice, flinging open the curtains with gusto and flooding Luci’s chambers with sunlight. Luci groaned, reaching for a downy pillow to pull over her eyes. “Oh no, you don’t. Young ladies who stay out at balls until late into the night must awaken early the next morn so that they do not become accustomed to laziness and sloth.”
“It is not slothful to require adequate sleep!” Luci protested, but her words were muffled to the point of being mistaken for agreement.
“In any event, your mother requests you to take your breakfast with her, then your parents are both going out and would like you to ride with them. We’ll have to see to your drawing lessons later this afternoon,” the governess replied with a pleasant warning. “After all, nous ne devons pas arrêter d'apprendre parce que notre gaieté nous gêne.”
“I haven’t neglected my learning! Besides,” Luci answered back, sitting upright and letting her hair fall in her face, “Ich habe wichtigere Dinge gefunden, um meine Zeit zu beschäftigen.”
“My dear girl, you must not answer in German if you were addressed in French. It’s very bad form,” Christina teased. “Now hurry. I want to hear all about the ball, and that reminds me, your mother has retained a dance master after seeing the influx of new reels that were enjoyed last night. He will be here today at six o’clock, so we must be finished with lessons by then.”
“All right,” Luci said, sighing. “Though I haven’t had to endure dancing lessons since before I was out in society. He will likely throw a vase and storm out after seeing what little I still remember.”
“You deny yourself credit, Luci. You know you are quite a lovely dancer. Now hurry, your lady mother is waiting.” Christina laid out items for Luci to wear, then added, “I’ll return in a moment to help you dress.”
“Ah, Luci, there you are!” Lady Thornshire called out from her seat by the fire when Luci finally made her way down the hall. “Come join me.”
“Certainly, Mother,” Luci said, entering the small morning room and taking a chair nearby. A servant came forward to bring a small table already piled with delectable dishes, setting it within Luci’s reach. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, not at all, dear. I just wanted to ask you how you enjoyed Lord Ridley’s ball yesterday evening?” Her mother shook her head slightly at the servant and reached to pour her daughter some tea herself. “You appeared to be having a wonderful time.”
“Oh, I did! It was wonderful to see Bette again after such a long time. I hadn’t realized how much her absence pained me until I finally saw her again,” Luci replied, accepting the delicate teacup with thanks.
“Was Lady Elizabeth the only person you saw who brought you such happiness?” her mother asked, smiling and watching her over the rim of her own teacup.
Luci frowned, thinking back through her evening and worrying that she had made some grievous misstep. “What makes you ask that? Did I… did I do something wrong? Was I too forward, or spoke with too many gentlemen?”
“Oh, not at all, my darling!” her mother cried, reaching for Luci’s hand and squeezing it reassuringly. “Quite the contrary, in fact. I was merely wondering if any of the young men in attendance held your fancy.”
“I am so relieved,” Luci answered, falling back against her chair for a moment. “I worried that I had caused any number of tongues to wag, embarrassing both you and Father.”
“Rest assured, daughter, I would never allow that to happen. I would speak to you discreetly to prevent any harm to your reputation,” Lady Thornshire said sweetly. “But as to my question, did you take a liking to any of the young men you danced with?”
Luci wondered how much she should divulge. Was it proper to speak of her feelings for Bradley with her mother, knowing that he had not yet spoken to her father? Would it anger her mother to learn that she and Bradley had first met nearly two months ago at a luncheon, and that they had since seen each other quite regularly while Luci rode about the ton or attended events?
“No, Mother, I don’t know that any one of them stood out in my mind. Of course, they were all pleasant and well-spoken and respectable,” she said, ignoring her governess’ knowing face in the doorway. She returned Christina’s pointed stare for a moment and then replied, “Is there some purpose that causes you to inquire?”
“None really,” Lady Thornshire answered with a brief wave, “only that you are of marriageable age and your father has a significant role in choosing a husband. I, for one, am only concerned for your happiness and your secure future. I care not a whit for who has this title or that fortune. I only care that your husband is the right match for you, and thus wondered if you might already have your eye on someone.”
“My Lady, please forgive my intrusion,” Christina announced suddenly, coming into the cheerful morning room. “But if you are to ride today and Lady Luci is still to have her drawing and dancing lessons, then I must bid her come with me to dress for her ride.”
“Is it so late already?” Lady Thornshire asked, looking to small clock that sat on the mantel. “It hardly feels like the proper hour.”
“Of course, My Lady. But I must also ensure that her gown for this afternoon is pressed and not in need of alterations. It has been some time since she required a dance master, and it would not do to keep him waiting because her gown was not suitable.”
“Oh. I suppose not. All right then, off you go, my dear. Your father and I shall be waiting for you outside within the hour,” Luci’s mother said.
Luci kissed her mother’s cheek and followed Christina only so far as the hallway before turning and demanding, “What was the purpose of that?”
“Of what? Preventing you from informing your mother that you are quite taken with a man who—for some odd reason—has yet to speak to your father about marriage?” Christina whispered. “You will thank me should you ever learn what your mother’s reaction might have been, trust me on this!”
“Is it truly so wrong for a man and a woman to speak to one another within plain sight of plenty who might serve as witnesses and chaperones?” Luci asked, both puzzled and disturbed.
“Sadly, my dear, yes.” Christina sighed and looked sympathetic. “I know of the affection you have for Lord Stillscar. After all, I’m your chaperone for most of your outings and have seen how he happens to be in the vicinity whenever you go out. But the very fact that he has been speaking to you illicitly could be reason enough for your father to reject him outright.”
“What? Why would Father do such a thing if the Earl holds me in such high esteem that he goes to these lengths to see me?”
“Simply for not having followed all the proper protocols, I’m afraid.” Christina linked her arm through Luci’s and led her towards her chambers. “Where matters of men and marriage are concerned, all must be done by the book—at least on the outside of things—in order to prevent scandal.”
“Good day, Lord Thornshire,” the undersecretary said, brushing off several clerks who had appeared to take the Earl’s coat and hat in favor of tending to the man himself. “I trust you had a pleasant journey to the harbor today.”
“Yes, yes. Not a trouble in sight,” Lord Thornshire replied, scrutinizing the man’s face. He certainly seemed familiar, but the Earl was unable to place him.
The official cleared his throat and leaned closer to say, “Reginald Davids, My Lord. We were introduced at Lord Ridley’s ball celebrating his daughter last week.”
“Ah yes, Davids,” Lord Thornshire replied, relieved to remember him now. “My apologies, my mind is clumsier than my feet these days, especially when I have important business matters to see to.”
“Of course, My Lord. Shall we sit and begin addressing the matters? Or do you require some refreshment first?” The official indicated a small tea cart that was laden with a few items, but the Earl shook his head.
“No, no. It will only delay things and I have a lengthy ride home this evening. Let’s get to it, then! You sent word that you needed to meet in order to discuss my exports. How are my affairs holding up?” Lord Thornshire sat down and stretched his legs out before him, settling in to discuss the good news of his investments.
“Well, I’m terribly distressed that I must be the bearer of unfortunate news,” Davids said, making a pretense of searching his desk for sheaves of papers. “But there is a matter of your business partner.”
“Yes, a silent partner. I make the investments, he fronts the funds, and the both of us are rather wealthy!” the Earl said, smiling. “It’s the ideal working partnership.”
“I’m afraid that your partnership has hit a most unfortunate snag, My Lord. It seems your partner has not been privy to the latest investments and therefore has withdrawn his support. He sold his stocks in your company some time ago, and—”
“What?! When?” the older man roared, half-rising from his chair. ‘Why wasn’t I notified of this?”
“I’m sorry, My Lord, this was nearly a year ago. We assumed you consulted with your partner on matters such as these on a routine basis,” the official said, blinking his sharp blue eyes in astonishment.
“Of course I don’t consult with the man, he’s a silent partner, contracted through mutual business acquaintances, for good reason. I don’t even know his name, let alone have frequent chats over mutton and ale!” the Earl explained indignantly.
“I see, that is most unusual.” Davids looked as upset as the Earl by this news. “But we are not in the habit of informing anyone when investors make a business decision, especially one of that astounding sum.”
Davids rifled around his desktop once more in order to avoid looking the Earl in the eye. Lord Thornshire fell back against his chair and exhaled sharply.
“Well, get on with it! What is the damage?” he demanded, but Davids seemed reluctant to answer. Finally, he could stall no longer.
“The latest venture, shipping to and from the Caribbean Seas, is completely undone,” he answered quietly. “The shares of that company are now worthless. Then there is the original shipping line to the former colonies, begun over a decade ago. Business is still quite prosperous there, but unfortunately, you borrowed against that company to purchase your controlling stake in the Caribbean company.”
“So what are you saying?”
“Your latest venture is completely shuttered, and your former company is now bankrupt to cover the debts incurred when you lost your business,” Davids answered, finally looking the Earl in the eye. He leaned forward and clasped his hands in front of him. “So you see why this is now a matter for the Crown, and I had to summon you here today?”
“No, I still cannot fathom it!” Lord Thornshire answered in disbelief. “What has happened?”
“His Majesty has seized the assets of your Delaware Bay Company to cover the losses. There is still a rather large debt that remains unpaid, but you’ll have six months to reassess your businesses and properties in order to fulfill that obligation.” Davids smiled as though this should come as some sort of relief, but Lord Thornshire only stared blankly as though he hadn’t heard him properly.
“What is the total loss?” he whispered, his eyes roving the small, dark office until they settled on a brass and mahogany spyglass, aimed out the window at the harbor.
“The Caribbean Company losses totaled more than eighty thousand pounds. When your partner sold his shares, it filled the market and lowered the value. Then without his funds involved and without you making payments in the interim, your profits from the Delaware business began covering the debt.”
“So you’re saying…” Lord Thornshire whispered, his shoulders sagging and his hands falling to the arms of the chair uselessly, “…that I’m ruined.”
Davids did not speak for a few moments, allowing the Earl to recover from the news. Finally, he spoke up enough to say, “No, not entirely. Not if you can cover the amount that is owed to the Crown.”
“And how much is that?” the older man asked, sounding hopeful for the first time since receiving the news.
“Once the Crown profits from the sale of your ships and other equipment, takes possession and auctions your buildings in both of the American ports and your home-side properties at port here, and then receives payment for the final shipments that are already underway, that leaves you only owing…” Davids paused to scribble on a piece of foolscap with the nub of a well-worn lead. “…fifty thousand pounds.”
Lord Thornshire clutched at his chest so suddenly that Davids called to a clerk to bring a pitcher of water. The Earl stammered to himself like a madman for a few moments, then asked miserably, “Fift… fifty thousand pounds? Where am I to get fifty thousand pounds when my partner has abandoned me and the King now owns every nail of my ships? Everything I’ve worked for is gone!”
“Forgive me, My Lord, but do you not possess any properties, estates, other holdings you might sell?” Davids asked, but he shrunk back from the vicious look of rage the Earl cast towards him.
“Sell my home? Turn my wife and daughter out on the streets? See my beautiful child, the only one of three to survive to adulthood, cast out and working as a governess for only the price of her room and board? Then what, she may die alone and starving as an old woman having had no wages and pension to speak of? Is that what you’re suggesting I do?” Lord Thornshire demanded, rising up from his chair with renewed vigor, spurred on by his anger at the situation.
“I beg your pardon, My Lord, that was not my intention at all,” Davids answered humbly. “I am terribly sorry for this entire situation, but I have my orders. I’ve presented you with the bills for your debts, and I wish you every measure of good luck in someday recovering your fortune.”
Davids rose and bowed slightly, sufficiently dismissing the Earl. He nodded to a clerk who appeared with the older man’s hat and coat, signifying that he was to leave at once.
Edgar Alden, Earl of Thornshire, looked down at the coat and hat and seemed almost to not recognize them. They were the fine cloth and stylish cut of a man who had great wealth, but now, he was almost loath to touch them. He almost feared he would be called an imposter for putting them on and walking the streets back to his carriage—his fine, hand-carved carriage—that would carry him home.
Home. The Earl scoffed at the thought of his estate, and for a moment both Davids and the clerk watched him warily in case he prove mad. His laughter turned to a single, silent, choking sob, though, when he thought of his daughter at that home. She no doubt waited for him to return, having begged him only that morning not to be gone too long. What would she think of him now when she learned that he had been a fool in business?
She must never know! The Earl grimly took his effects and left the small office. I will do whatever I must to see that my failure does not bring scandal and ruin on her prospects!
“Lady Luciana! We must hurry if we wish to be home before nightfall,” Christina said, chiding Luci gently. “We’ve made countless rounds of the Carriage Drive and already stopped to speak to three households. How much longer shall we stall?”
“We’re not stalling,” Luci replied absently, still watching the road ahead of them. “I just have no wish to sit in that stifling house and sew at my needlepoint, not when we can be out in the fresh air and seeing who else has come out for the afternoon.”
“It’s the ‘who else’ I’m fearful of,” the governess answered, looking sideways at her charge.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Luci asked, turning to look at Christina, but her governess did not answer. Instead, another voice called out, diverting their attention.
“Lady Luciana!” Bradley called out from the adjacent Rotten Row. “What a wonderful happenstance, I feared I would not know anyone out riding today!” Bradley said, pulling his stallion up alongside their phaeton. He tipped his hat politely. “Lady Luciana. Miss Ross, as always.”
“Good to see you as well, Lord Stillscar,” Christina answered for them, “though I cannot help but believe it is more than fate that contrived to bring us all out together today.” She looked at Luci, and added, “Wouldn’t you agree?”
“No, I don’t agree,” Luci replied with a smile. “I rather think it’s astounding how even the Fates wish for us to have a pleasant afternoon with wonderful company.”
Bradley grinned at Luci’s obvious disagreement with her chaperone, but Christina only rolled her eyes.
“Lord Stillscar,” Luci said, turning her attention to him, “I find that I’ve ridden all afternoon, though. I’m very nearly sluggish from the passage. I think I should benefit from a walk to the Serpentine if you would care to join us.”
“Of course. I’ll be along after I engage a boy to tend my horse.” Bradley turned and rode a short distance away and dismounted, handing off the reins to one of the many street children who gladly accepted a coin to watch a gentleman’s horse.
“What are you up to?” Christina asked, her threatening voice nearly a hiss.
“Nothing. It’s only as I said, I should like to go for a walk, that’s all.” She smirked at her governess and directed the driver to stop a short distance ahead.
Luci disembarked from the phaeton and strolled slowly toward the path that followed the Serpentine. Other members of the ton were milling about in twos and threes, and Bradley soon joined Luci on the path that led to the ornate lake. Boats drifted on the water, many rowed by young gentlemen eager to show their prowess to their peers.
Christina scowled but she walked behind, close enough to serve as chaperone but distant enough to afford the pair some privacy. She seemed oblivious to their talk but every so often would snap her head up to decipher some word or phrase that caused her alarm.
For her part, Luci was thrilled that Bradley had gotten her message, sent with a stable boy in exchange for a small sum. Now, with them walking the footpath in full view, her plan was unfolding nicely.
“Bradley, I wondered if you’d forgotten your promise to send word to me this week past. I’ve been taken with such loneliness in the many days since Bette’s affair,” she said, feigning a slight pout.
“I’m so very sorry, my dear,” he answered quietly, nodding at someone who caught his eye across the path. “I’ve been away, finishing some urgent business. But I have wonderful news for you.”
“Oh, you mustn’t tease me,” Luci answered coyly. “There is no news so wonderful as hearing that you would be in the park today and able to join me for my ride.”
“Is that so? Then I shall not tell you my news and spoil your happiness,” Bradley teased, risking an adoring look in her direction. “Anything I have to share of my business must be minor in comparison.”
“No! I was wrong,” Luci cried. “Tell me what wonderful news of your business!”
Bradley laughed out loud, earning a reproving clearing of Christina’s throat. He looked over his shoulder and nodded to the governess, then said softly, “I have completed one of the deals I’ve been working on, and it has put my fortune in rather good stead.”
“Truly?” Luci asked softly, tears of happiness pooling in the corners of her dark brown eyes. “So you’re that much closer to speaking to Father?”
“That I am, my dear,” he assured her. “I cannot envision asking a man of such great esteem as your father to willingly bless and approve a match that is so far beneath his fortune… and your great worth. It shall not be long now, but every day I grow closer to having the sort of standing that I could proudly stand before him and ask for your hand.”
“I’ve no wish to argue with your great announcement, Bradley, but you know that I care not about these things,” she said kindly. “Father has a fortune sufficient for both of us. It is honorable that you wish to ensure that you can support a wife and a family, but I am not in love with a ledger book! I wish to marry the sort of man that you are, in great measure.”
Bradley turned to look at Luci full on, smiling broadly as if to show that he cared not a whit who should see them. For her part, Luci was equal parts overjoyed that his business dealings were nearly finished but also that a great number of people had seen them walking in the park, accompanied by a chaperone no less. It would take only one or two of the right people to begin talking about them, and then Bradley would not have to wait to speak to her father; Father would see to it that Bradley made an offer within the day after escorting her in public.
Too soon, there was no longer an excuse to be away from home. Christina strongly hinted that the hour was growing late, and Bradley said his goodbyes. As soon as the phaeton pulled away from the Carriage Drive, the governess pounced.
“What do you think you were playing at, arranging such a ‘chance’ encounter in full view of the ton?” Christina hissed, trying to keep their driver from overhearing. “Without your parents’ approval, that was a foolhardy thing to do! What shall you do if word gets back to them?”
“That was my very intention,” Luci replied, an aloof look on her face as she placidly looked out at the countryside. “When they hear that I was set upon by an Earl and seen by quite a few of the better families, they’ll take pains to ensure that they seem approving. Father may even insist that Lord Stillscar come to dine.”
“Oh, really? And what is your devious plan should they reject the notion?” Christina pressed. “What if they insist that the bearer of this tidy bit of gossip was mistaken, and that no daughter of theirs would ever venture such a public outing without their knowledge and express approval?”
Luci blanched. That had not occurred to her, not given the way her parents approved of her every whim. What if she had accidentally brought a dark cloud of suspicion on her family? That had not been her intention at all!
“Well, we’ll just have to hope that Lord Stillscar hurries in his business endeavors and asks for my hand before any of the tongues can wag,” Luci said, too elated with her outing to allow any concern to dampen her spirits.
“You’re impossible,” Christina muttered. “The lengths you would go to in order to marry a simple country earl?”
Luci squared her shoulders but glowered slightly at Christina. “You have no idea how far I’m willing to go for the man I love.”
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