About the book
She could crush him, break him apart, and he would let her...
When her betrothed tries to make unsavory advances on her, Lady Lydia Goresnarl seeks refuge in the most unlikely of places: the manor of a man she cut ties with years ago.
Confident in his position and himself, Edmund Covendew, Marquess of Netherwater, is no longer fazed by anything. That is until the day the love that shattered him appears on his doorstep, begging for help.
When Lydia's whereabouts reach her father's ears, she must make a choice: stay with the love of her life, or flee and free him from the scandal that follows her. A scandal that just might grip her before she has the chance to save Edmund from a terrible fate.
Lydia slipped through the big wooden front door and looked down the street, heart pounding. It was raining. The rain tapped on the roof and dripped into the path, a slow song that dulled any noise that she might make. For that, she was thankful. Her heart was thudding so loudly she could swear someone could hear its pounding. And the last thing she needed was to be heard.
Please, don’t let the front door creak.
Her palms were wet with perspiration. She gripped the handle, drew it further open and then closed it behind her, hearing the soft creak it always gave. She held her breath. Mr. Rawlinson was awake at this time. If he heard it, she was finished.
She could not risk anyone spotting her.
She didn’t wait around to hear if anyone came. She was outside in the street and it was only a matter of time before somebody spotted her. Tucking a strand of pale hair out of her eyes, she ran down the cobbled road into the darkness.
The rain dripped down onto her hair, trickling down the back of her gown and soaking her body. The shock of just how cold it was took her breath away. Her feet slipped on the soaking cobbles and she cried out, then righted herself. She was frightened—and not just of capture. It was Autumn, the wind icy, and she was sure she might freeze if she didn’t get inside and dry soon.
She peered down the street—narrow and cobbled and bordered by tall, gabled houses. She could see very little—only the outlines of the houses against the velvet darkness of the sky. Kensington was a safer region of London, but even so, she felt scared.
She started to run faster, her boots slipping and sliding on the wet cobblestones. She had only her reticule with her, and a small bag that held one change of clothes. Anything else would be too heavy, and she’d had no time to pack. She clutched the bag close, breath tight in her chest as she ran. She looked around. It was so dark!
“It’s here somewhere…I know it is,” she murmured.
She knew what she was looking for, but she had no idea if she could find it. Hazel eyes wide, she was running down the London street, focused on the barely-discernible outlines of the buildings—pure black against the velvet blue of sky. During the day, she could have found her way anywhere in this part of town—she’d lived here, in Pinelance Manor, since she was a little girl. But now, in the darkness, with not even a single light in a window to guide her, she was lost.
She stopped, fearfully. She was fairly tall, but her body was slight—curvaceous in the right places, but not strongly built. It was hard even to run in this weather—never mind to run fast enough not to be caught.
“Hey there!” a voice shouted. Lydia froze. She could hear a man’s footsteps, and an insistent voice. “Stop, I say!”
She couldn’t have run if she’d wanted to…she felt terrified. If it was him, she was finished. The rain streamed down, pouring down her cheeks and plastering her hair to her face. Her bonnet hung against her back, long ago loosened by the run. She looked down the road, too frightened to move.
“Hey there!” the man shouted again. He was close enough to see her now, and he raised his torch. It showed her a face that was a picture of absolute confusion. It was just the watchman, she noticed, giving an audible sigh of relief.
“Please,” Lydia whispered. “I must go.”
“Sorry, Miss,” the watchman said softly. “I thought you were a thief, when I saw you running. You shouldn’t be out so late alone. Dangerous sorts about this time.” His frown deepened with concern.
“I know,” Lydia said.
Without stopping to give any further explanations, she turned about and ran. Her boots slipped on the cobbles and she heard him shout out in surprise, calling to her. But she wasn’t going to stay there. She had to get out of here fast.
She ran on.
“Please…let this be the right direction,” she panted aloud. She couldn’t run much more. Her feet ached, her ankles burning from running on slippery cobblestones. As a woman alone, she was a target to all manner of criminals on the London streets.
At last, she spotted what she was looking for. A house, tall and majestic, rising out of the narrow street. She had run two or three blocks from her own home—down wide cobbled streets, past topiary bushes and the park…barely noticing the details as she sped along.
She looked up at the house now. Alone of all the houses around it, a lamp was lit outside. It flickered, making merry shapes of shadows on the pale sandstone. She didn’t stop to watch. She was shivering, perspiration and rain both soaking her skin and making her cold. She lifted a fist and hammered on the door.
“Oh, please…hear my knocks,” she whispered. Her fingers had frozen, and she could not knock loudly no matter how hard she tried.
She tapped again. This time, she heard feet. She let out a sigh of relief as the door creaked open just wide enough to permit someone to look out.
“Good evening,” the butler said. He looked at her, stiff with disapproval. She thought he was about to shut the door in her face, and she hastily tucked the tangled hair back from her forehead, stepping into the light.
“Please,” she whispered, desperately. “Help me.”
The butler’s eyes widened. She saw him take a step back, his face a picture of shock. “Oh! Yes, of course,” he said. “Come in. There is a fire in the drawing room still burning. If you go up there, I will attend you.”
“Thank you,” Lydia whispered. “Oh, thank you!”
She followed the butler upstairs. He had recognized her!
Compared to the icy rain outside, it felt hot indoors. Her body relaxed instantly. She didn’t sit on the seat the butler indicated, but went straight to the fireplace, holding her hands to the blaze. She was shivering, water dripping from her clothes and hair, soaking the stone surround of the fireplace. She didn’t even notice. All she cared about was getting warm.
She sat there, hands outstretched to the fire. Her fingers were starting to ache and burn, the skin feeling like it crawled with burning flames. She clenched her jaw, trying to keep from crying out. As the pain reduced, she started to take attention of her surroundings. The drawing room was wallpapered in fashionable white, the furniture padded with dark red velvet. There were slate flagstones around the hearth, and the mantel was tiled with white marble. She was just turning to study the right wall, where a tall clock stood, its face unreadable on account of the darkness, when she heard footsteps in the hallway.
She stiffened, every part of her body tense. Somebody was standing in the hallway, watching her.
Edmund stood in the hallway, rooted to the spot. The shape of a woman crouched on the hearth, her blonde hair tumbling loose around her shoulders, the long curls dripping down her back, water pooling on the stones around her. She was wearing a dark brown cloak, the rich color of the velvet darkened by the firelight and shadow. Her slender form shivered with cold. His eyes widened.
As she turned around, lifting dark eyes to his face, he recognized her.
“Lydia!” he said. “What are you doing here at this time of night?”
His heart felt as if someone had slammed it with a fist. Shock mixed with hurt mixed with something else; a slow ache he couldn’t yet fathom. He ran a hand through his dark hair, trying to understand what had just occurred.
He had been sitting in his study, reading something before he went to bed. When he’d heard his butler talking under his breath in the drawing room, he’d gone to ask the man to fetch him a cup of tea. Instead, he found himself staring at a woman who had owned his heart years ago, and who had walked away without a backward glance.
“Lydia…” he said gently.
He couldn’t be angry with her. Not now.
She stood. Her face was stiff with shock, her eyes wide. Edmund felt his heart soften instantly. He could see she was scared—she was looking at him almost without recognition. His mind was suddenly flooded with images—Lydia, running ahead of him, blonde hair loose around her shoulders. Lydia, climbing a tree in the garden while he fretted about her falling, her big grin as bright as the sunshine as she laughed over her shoulder. Lydia’s eyes, staring down at him from the tree-top as he waited underneath, sweating with fear lest someone find out he’d let her climb unaided. Her teasing him for his worry, even though her own voice shook with fear.
“Edmund,” she said. Her voice was toneless. “I had to come. I needed help.” Her voice cracked, and, horrified, Edmund could see she was close to tears. He walked over, without thinking, and took her hand. The pain of almost half a decade rolled away and he led her to a seat, her hand clasping his tightly.
“Come, Lydia,” he said gently. “Come. Sit down. Let me ring for some tea. What happened? You can tell me. You can always tell me.”
She looked up at him, hazel eyes glistening with moisture. She smiled, a small smile. “You can’t let me sit here—my gown is soaked,” she said. Her voice cracked with emotion.
“And so?” he shrugged. “Please, Lydia. Sit. I’ll fetch Mr. Highgate. He is still awake, I think. You must have something warm to eat. You’re freezing.” Her hands were damp as he took one in his fingers, her own fingers like cold talons.
“Thank you,” she said. She collapsed onto the chaise-lounge, her legs suddenly giving way below her. Edmund rang the bell to summon Mr. Highgate, then went to sit immediately by her side.
“Lydia,” he said softly, as she turned away from him, her face turned towards the flames. “Please…talk to me? I know we didn’t part on good terms, but, well…I want to know what scared you. Please, tell me.”
He didn’t know why he felt so strongly. He had thought that, after these years, and after her cruel treatment of him, he would have cared less. But instead, he cared so much. His heart hurt and he waited, breath bated, for her to speak.
After a moment, during which she remained with her back to him, she turned. Wordlessly, she rested her head on his shoulder, tears pouring down her cheeks. Edmund reached out to hold her, as he had so many times before. He wrapped his arms around her and felt his own heart melt with wonder and regret even as her tears soaked the linen of his shirt.
“Shh, then,” he whispered, stroking her back. The velvet was soaking, and he was already wondering if there was anything suitable she could change into. She would freeze if she stayed in these wet clothes. “It’s all well now.”
“Lord Rumsgate?” The butler asked, arriving suddenly. Edmund tensed. The butler wasn’t giving him an odd look, though, and Edmund coughed, awkward at having been found embracing a young lady.
“A pot of tea, please,” he said swiftly. “And whatever warm food you can provide at this time.”
“No, Edmund…” Lydia said gently. “I don’t…”
“You’re freezing,” he said gently. “You need food. Bring it as soon as possible, Mr. Highgate.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
The butler bowed and left the room.
“Edmund,” she said. Her manner had softened considerably since she arrived. Her eyes were thoughtful, the smile that lifted her mouth seeming sad. “I’m sorry.”
“You have no need to be,” Edmund said. His voice was tight with emotion. The hurt from those four-and-a-half years ago welled up inside him, tightening his throat and making his heart ache. She had been cruel, but he could not be angry. He loved her.
He always had.
She might have not known it—she might still not know it. But he had always loved her, even those years ago when she had acted as if his offer to court her meant nothing to her. Her head had been turned by the London diversion and she had not been interested in him then.
He pushed those memories aside and focused on the moment.
The food arrived—soup, some leftovers from the stew, the end of a loaf—and while Lydia ate heartily, despite her protesting she was not hungry, Edmund watched her, his mind flooded with memories.
He had been four-and-ten, she one-and-ten. He recalled her long blonde hair, worn loose where the other girls wore it in ringlets, her hazel eyes alive with spirited humor. He had swiftly adored her. She had become his playmate and companion, and he had fallen in love with her with all the depth and intensity of his young heart. He had turned the pages when she played the pianoforte, searched with increasing fear for her during hide-and-seek, and played tricks on their tutor together.
His mother and father had been firm friends of her parents, and they had spent whole summers together on his family estate of Rumsgate, where her own family estate was a two-hour carriage ride away. They had grown up together, and when he was twenty and she seven-and-ten, he had asked her if he might pay her court.
She had been interested only in the ton and the dazzling brightness of London. As an only child from a cold and critical home, Edmund could understand that the lighthearted companionship and effusive attention of the London crowd had appealed to her. She had refused him.
Edmund sniffed. The pain of that still hurt, even after four-and-a-half years. Now, at five-and-twenty, he had thought he’d put all that behind him. But seeing Lydia had lifted his heart.
He knew now that how he felt for her was something entirely different to anything he felt for anyone.
“Lydia,” he said gently. “You need dry clothes. And someone should send for your father. He can bring the…”
“No!” Lydia sat back, her eyes wide. Her voice was strong, her eyes terrified. “No! Please, Edmund. Please. Nobody must know of my being here. Please. Promise me,” she whispered. “You must promise?”
Edmund shut his eyes. In that instant, he was five-and-ten and she two-and-ten and she was pleading with him not to tell anybody about the jam pie she’d stolen from the kitchens. He recalled the red stains on her lips from the currant jam, her eyes wide and frightened as she asked him.
Please, don’t tell.
He took a breath, opening his eyes. The memory vanished, replaced by her long, oval face, her cheekbones shadowed and her eyes full of pain. The bright, confident young girl he recalled had dark shadows under her eyes and a haunted expression, the lines around her mouth downcast and sad. He coughed.
“Of course, Lydia,” he said haltingly. “I promise.”
He knew the instant he’d said it that he was risking a great deal. And how exactly was he supposed to hide her, anyway? The servants were bound to talk. Short of swearing them to secrecy, there was nothing he could do. And he could expect at least one visitor every day…it was the end of the London Season, and he tried to have as many visitors as possible, as befitted a young Marquess. How was he supposed to hide from them the fact that he had a young noblewoman in his house?
“Thank you.” Her voice cracked. Edmund, afraid she would cry again, took her hand. She wasn’t looking at him, but into the darkness. She cleared her throat. “I had to get away,” she whispered.
Edmund tensed. What had happened? He knew that her parents—Lord and Lady Pinelance—were not kind. But he had never thought that something so bad would happen that she would have to run away. He wished she could tell him.
“Lydia,” he said gently. “If you can, please tell me.”
He thought she hadn’t heard. After a long moment, she coughed. “Soon,” she said. “I will tell you. I wish not to think of it now.”
Edmund nodded. “Yes. Of course.”
She had finished eating. She was shivering again, this time the shudders visible as she tried to sit still. Edmund tensed.
“You need to get into warm clothes,” he said, standing to summon the butler. “And I will have someone make up a bed in the guest suite.” He was already trying to think, trying to fathom where on Earth they were going to get ladies’ clothing for her in this house in the middle of the night.
“I should go, yes,” she said. It was clearly a battle to get words out, her jaw clenched to stop it shaking. Edmund went to rest a hand on her shoulder. She tensed and he withdrew it, feeling hurt. She smiled at him.
“Thank you, Edmund,” she said softly. “I will talk in the morning. We will try and make arrangements. Now, I will retire to bed.”
“Of course. Mr. Highgate will direct you to your chambers,” Edmund said, gesturing at Mr. Highgate, who had returned and was waiting in the doorway. He looked exhausted, and Edmund felt a little guilty at keeping the fellow awake at this time of night. He thought it must be well past midnight. The butler bowed.
“You sent for me, My Lord?”
“Yes. Please conduct Lady Lydia to the guest chamber. And have a fire made up in there—it’s freezing. And take her a clean nightshirt,” he said swiftly. He still had no idea what they would do about clothes. He would have to have a think in the morning.
“Yes, My Lord. Please, My Lady, follow me,” the butler said. He was an older man—around sixty, Edmund guessed—and he was extremely professional, for which Edmund was grateful. He had shown not even the vaguest surprise at finding a lady in the drawing room at almost one o’ clock in the morning. Edmund waited as he led her out and up the stairs.
When alone, Edmund went over to the big seat and sat down, legs relaxing as he stared into the fire. It was late and he felt cold. He was also confused.
Why had Lydia come here?
He ran his hands through his dark hair, blue eyes shut as he thought. He could not understand it. She was clearly terrified—that much was clear. The merest mention of her father had raised rank terror in her. He could remember they had never been close. He tried to recall her father. His own memories were not clear. Mostly, he’d been bleary-eyed and quiet. His own father had said that the Earl was fond of a drop too much. Other than that, Edmund knew little of him.
“She will tell me,” he said confidently. He wasn’t sure he felt that confident. She had seemed withdrawn, reluctant to speak of it even to him. But he believed in their closeness. She had been his friend, first and foremost, when they were children, and he hers.
He stood, and drawing his coat close about him, walked up the stairs towards his bedchamber. He was confident she would tell him tomorrow.
Lydia woke. The first thing she noticed was that she was warm. That felt good. She opened her eyes, trying to recall where she was. For a moment, she thought she was in her bedroom in Pinelance Manor and she felt tension clench her stomach, her back stiff with fear. Then she realized that the window was on her right, not behind her, and she was looking at the fireplace rather than having it on her left. She remembered where she was.
She slipped out of bed. Her feet hit the wooden floor and she felt an initial shock of cold. She drew the long nightshirt around her, looking down at it. It was one of Edmund’s own, she thought—the linen stiff and the length of it barely reaching to her knees. She felt a small smile raise her lips.
The memories of the night tugged at her heart, filling her with thoughts that were too complex to analyze. She felt relief, above all. Gratitude, too—overwhelmingly so. She could not have been certain of his welcome, and he had let her stay, and she was grateful for that. Other feelings crowded in, too—sweet and bittersweet and too complex to name. It was confusing and she pushed them all aside for later. Focus on the everyday needs, she told herself firmly…after all, she had a lot of those, and no certainty of any of them being met.
“I need something to wear.”
She reached for her small bag, which contained a single gown. It was a cream-colored muslin day-gown, decorated with lace and with a tiny tear on the bodice, near the neck. It was old, but it had been the first one she could grab out of her wardrobe in a desperate race to escape. She shook it out. It was a little wet—the bag she’d had it in had let some rain soak through a little. But it would have to do.
Getting dressed, she thought with a wry grin, was going to be a bit of a challenge.
Opening the buttons of the gown was easy. They were down the back, about ten or fifteen of them in a row from the bottom of her spine to her neck. Putting it on was easy, too, though she wore only a shift underneath and abandoned the idea of stays. There was no way she could fasten the long laces as they should be. Buttoning the gown up was hard.
“Oh…if only my arms could reach higher…”
She felt her shoulders start to ache as she tried to fasten up the last of the buttons, her arms twisting back to their maximum reach to go to the back of her neck. She fastened them and leaned against the chair, gasping.
“Right. That was tricky. Now for the hair.”
She had brought a small comb in her reticule. She pulled the drawstring—the velvet fabric had stiffened a little as it dried out from the rain, and the drawstring was stiff to pull. After retrieving the comb, she set about fixing her hair. It was dry, and its natural wave had come out from the rain, making it rebellious as usual. She sighed, settled on bunching it all up into a bun that, while not particularly neat, kept it up. She regarded her efforts, head on one side, thoughtfully.
“Not exactly what I could wear in the street.”
She looked away. The last thing Lydia wanted to be doing was receiving visitors, in any case. Just the thought of it brought back all her fear.
She had been visiting the Earl of Sageley when her father had been called away. Leaving her alone with the coarse, brutish man had been the cruelest thing he could have done. She still wondered—though she could barely admit it even to herself—if he had done it on purpose. A scandal would have forced her to wed the Earl.
No. Father wouldn’t do that.
She shuddered, the memories coming back. Her fingernails scoured her palms as she made a fist.
Don’t cry. Don’t think about it. Forget about that.
She was safe now. She should focus on that.
She turned away from the looking-glass, noticing the dark rings around her hazel eyes had faded slightly, though her cheeks were still rather thin. Her pale lips seemed paler, though the lips themselves were well-shaped, her cheeks touched with a similar pink.
Not too bad.
She pushed away her concerns about what Edmund might think—aside from gratitude, she was not letting herself feel anything for him, not before she had worked out exactly what she did feel—and tiptoed out into the hallway. It was cold out there and she wished she had brought a shawl. She forgot the cold, simply grateful she had taken the chance to get away.
She smelled food.
Her stomach clenching—she had barely eaten the night before, just the small bowl of stew Edmund had sent for, and even the smell of food made her lightheaded with hunger—she tiptoed down the hallway.
The breakfast room at Cavender House was papered in white flocked wallpaper, except that here, instead of the fashionable cream flower patterns, there were leaves and flowers in pale green and yellow. A fire burned in the grate, the flames spreading sweet warmth. The round table by the window was literally laden with food. Someone had thoughtfully laid out two places. Lydia went around to the one facing the door and sat down.
“Perfect. Just what I need.”
After her fourth slice of toast, plastered with butter and jam, she started feeling a little less shaky. She looked up to hear footsteps in the hallway.
She jumped. Edmund was there. With his dark hair, slightly wavy, freshly-brushed, the color of his eyes being brought out by the deep blue of a velvet jacket he wore, he looked irresistibly handsome. She felt a flutter in her heart and she brutally pushed it aside. She was not going to feel anything for Edmund. She could not do that to him, or to herself. All she needed was a place to stay. She would not put him in danger if she could avoid it. And any attachment she made to him, put him in danger.
“Good morning, Lady Lydia,” he said softly.
She stood, dropping a swift curtsey. She hoped her mouth wasn’t covered in jam, and that her hair hadn’t tumbled out of the style she’d hastily made. “Good morning, My Lord.”
“I trust you slept well,” Edmund said. He was behaving like she was an ordinary guest, not really looking at her, but going to the window to draw back the drapes. Lydia found herself feeling somewhat affronted. How could he act as if this was all normal? As if she was a mere acquaintance; some fellow he’d met once at a party and offered a night’s stay?
“Yes. Thank you, Edmund, I did. And I will be attempting to make plans for myself,” she added, reaching for the teapot and pouring herself a cup.
“It’s raining,” Edmund said. He was looking out of the window, and Lydia thought he hadn’t really heard her. She stifled her annoyance. She had behaved terribly to him—if he chose to ignore her, or ask half-questions about the weather and her thoughts about it, it was his right.
“Yes,” she said. “It is. But that doesn’t seem to get in my way.” She smiled; a wry smile.
Edmund looked concerned. “Yes. I trust you feel well this morning? If you have even the trace of a fever, we must summon someone at once.”
“Thank you, Edmund,” she said gently. “But we can’t do that. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“No,” Edmund agreed. He looked uncomfortable. “But, Lydia…we could trust the physician, I’m quite sure of it…” he trailed off as she shook her head.
“As it happens, I feel well,” she said. She was surprised, but she did. She leaned back. Looking at him, so many memories flooded back to her. When they were children—or little more than children—and hiding in the garden together, waiting for Mr. Stowell, his tutor, to find them. When she was three-and-ten, and he six-and-ten, and they played the pianoforte in the drawing room together; him turning the pages for her, watching her fingers on the keys. A strange feeling twisted her heart at the memory.
“Lydia,” Edmund said gently. He was looking at her, those intense blue eyes filled with concern. He was handsome, Lydia thought with some surprise. His face, which had been softer as a teenager, had hardened into a firm jaw and sculpted cheekbones. His eyes were wide and wide-lidded, and his nose was thin and straight. He was a very handsome fellow.
She pushed the thought away. Whatever she felt for him—whether it was attraction, fondness or just plain irritation—she was not going to let herself think anything. She was here for a few days only, before she could find some solution to her plight.
“What?” she asked, when he was silent. She dabbed at her lips with the napkin. He grinned. Gently, he reached out and touched her face. She tensed, as he dabbed away some jam. He smiled.
“Edmund….” she began awkwardly.
“Jam,” he said gently. He was smiling. “Sorry. I thought I would just help and dab it off a little.”
She felt his eyes meet hers, and instantly she was transported back to their childhood. She recalled how he’d done exactly that, one day when she was two-and-ten and had stolen some.
He was smiling into her gaze, and she wondered, for the merest flash, if he was thinking of that, too. She shrugged.
How likely is that, when you hurt him so badly, so recently? You are lucky he even welcomes you.
She leaned back in her chair, awkwardly.
“Thank you,” she said. She cleared her throat. He was watching her, and the soft smile on his face made her heart melt.
Stop it, Lydia. You are not going to become attached to him. You were cold and thoughtless and he will expect nothing else.
“Sorry,” he said, smiling at her again. “Now…have you tried these?” he gestured to the pastries. Lydia shook her head.
“No. I’m afraid I ate all the toast, though,” she said, cheeks reddening. Edmund grinned. On his face, the grin seemed heart-meltingly handsome. He pulled the bell that hung by the window.
“I’ll send for more. You ate so little yesterday—I was worried for you.”
“Thank you,” she said again. When he sat down, she lifted her gaze to his face. “Thank you so much, Edmund.”
“It’s nothing, truly,” he said. “Now, I was wondering if you need a maidservant?”
“Does it show so badly that I can’t manage?” she asked, gesturing to her hair. He laughed.
“No, My Lady. The style is…nice.” He grinned, brilliantly. Lydia felt the warmth of that smile spread through her body, starting at her toes and making her flush to the roots of her hair. Irritated by her response, she pushed the thought aside, trying for calm.
“Thank you,” she said. “And yes, I would dearly like a maidservant. If you could find a maid who could be persuaded to keep my being in this house a solemn secret, I would appreciate it a great deal.”
Edmund shrugged. “I asked all the servants to swear not to tell anyone,” he said. “I think we have someone on the staff who could help. Maybe not with the hair, though.” He raised a brow.
Lydia laughed. “Edmund…if you are suggesting we take the person who washes the dishes and let them loose on my hair, I’m not sure what to say. I know I have made rather a mess of it, but if you think someone totally inexperienced would do better, I’ll be sorely upset.” Her grin belied the word.
Edmund laughed, too. “Lydia…I assure you I wasn’t thinking. I am certain you can do your own hair better than anybody else might. And yes, you raise an important point. We will send out for a maidservant this morning, and pay her enough to hold her tongue.”
“Edmund, that won’t be necessary,” she said. Then she stopped. She had only just noticed that they had completely dispensed with titles, and were calling each other “Lydia” and “Edmund” as they had when they were children. They had done so the previous night, too, she recalled. She had been too weary to notice it then. Now, she blushed.
“Lord Rumsgate, that won’t be necessary,” she finished, firmly making use of his title. She was not—absolutely not—going to start off anything between them. “I do not intend to stay here longer than a few days.” She looked at her plate. She had no idea how she was going to make that occur. She had nowhere else to go—no friend in London she could trust that much. Her heart ached. Above all things, she trusted him.
“As you will, Lady Lydia,” he said gently. “But…where will you go?”
“I don’t know,” Lydia snapped. Why did he have to be like that? All of the strange emotions she’d been feeling were suddenly too much for her, combined with uncertainty about the future, and fear for her situation. She was painfully vulnerable, she realized. All that was between her and her worst fears was his kindness. That was not a comfortable thought.
“Sorry, My Lord,” she said, when she looked up and saw him sitting there, utterly silent. “I didn’t mean to snap. I just, well…it’s complicated, my situation. I have not had time to formulate an adequate plan.” She hoped sounding confident would make her look like she was in a better position. She would not rely on his kindness. Not now.
“Lady Lydia,” he said gently. “You are welcome to stay. I hope you know that you may stay here as long as you wish.”
“Thank you, Lord Rumsgate,” she said softly.
She felt something in her heart melt with his kindness, and when she looked up and saw those blue eyes on her, tender and radiating care and affection, she sobbed. Cruelty was not new to her; indifference was a companion. But care? It could break her like nothing else.
“Sorry, Lord Rumsgate,” she murmured, trying not to cry. “I just…Oh, My Lord…it’s been so horrible. I can’t believe I’m here, that I’m finally…finally safe.”
Suddenly, he was reaching out a hand to her, resting it over hers where it lay between them on the table. She felt his warm fingers cover hers, and sobbed again—all the pain and fear and horror of the last weeks melting afresh.
“Shh,” he said gently. “Shh, My Lady,” he said softly. “It’s fine. You can cry now. You can cry.”
Lydia sobbed. She remembered how he had held her when she cried as a girl, once when she had fallen out of a tree, and once when her father had shouted at her. She had walked into the housekeeper, sending a tray of cups and cake to the floor. He had shouted so loudly she thought the window might shatter. She had hidden in the garden, terrified, and Edmund had found her.
She cried now, just as she had then, letting him hold her hand and speak sweet nonsense, feeling his voice calm her, knowing that he would listen when she talked, no matter how silly her words might seem.
“I ran away from him. From them…” She sniffed, stopping in her narrative as frightening memories came flooding back. That awful man, taking her hand, pressing it to his lips, letting it rest on his chest a moment as he leered at her. She could feel the way he looked at her, making her feel dirty and denigrated. She could smell the whisky on his breath. She fought the urge to escape the room, his touch, her own body that he’d defiled with his eyes.
“It’s all well,” Edmund said gently. “You’re here now.”
“Lord Rumsgate,” she said. “My father wished me to wed someone. A horrible man. Someone who frightened me. Someone I couldn’t bear to be near, couldn’t bear to have touching me, looking at me…” she stopped, feeling her sobs rise in her throat again. Edmund had gone pale. “Edmund, it’s all right,” she said, feeling a little annoyed to see his fist tighten on the table. “I got away from him. I’m here now. I’m safe now. Which is why I cannot go back. And nobody can know I’m here.”
“Yes,” Edmund nodded. “Yes, I understand. Of course, yes.”
Lydia felt relief settle on her. She had half-expected him to condemn her, to blame her for allowing her father to coerce her into such a horrific arrangement—as if, indeed, she could have had any power to stop it happening. But it was only now—having actually told him, and receiving no condemnatory word—that she finally felt safe to speak with him.
“Thank you, Lord Rumsgate,” she said. “Of course, I understand that this cannot be for long, and I will be looking for a solution. I had thought to try and go North, to Scotland,” she said, making the plan up as she went along. “I have a distant relative on the border—my mother’s cousin. He would take me in, if I could reach the land.”
“I see,” Edmund nodded. He looked unconvinced, and Lydia felt quite glad about it. She did not feel particularly convinced about it. Uncle Barton—as he was called—was not well-acquainted with her family, and she had no idea if he would help her, even if she could reach his estate, which was almost as far north as one could possibly go. She looked away.
“My Lord, I know it was wrong of me to come here, and presume on your hospitality,” she said carefully. “I do not intend to misuse your kindness and I will be making preparations to go as soon as I can.”
“I see,” Edmund said again. He sounded cold. Lydia frowned.
Was it really so hard for him to have her here? She swallowed hard, sadness warring with anger. He could at least look at her! Yes, she’d treated him unkindly, but she was in serious danger now. He was looking at the mantel, face stiff. Lydia put her sadness aside, forcing formality into her tone.
“Lord Rumsgate, I will make preparations. In fact, if you can furnish me with pen and paper, I shall write to Uncle Barton right away. I have plenty to occupy myself, and I will keep out of your way. In fact, you will barely know I’m here.”
“I see,” he said for the third time. “Well, I understand that. And I will, of course, ensure that you are cared for however long you stay here. Firstly, I will send out discreetly to find you a maidservant. And then, we must see about some clothes.” He smiled.
Lydia felt her body relax for the first time that day and realized that, despite her misgivings, she was glad to be here. She was happy to take matters one day at a time.
Edmund looked out of the window. He was in the drawing room and he stared out into the street, watching the carriages roll by on the quiet road. He couldn’t think. There was too much on his mind.
The first thing he thought of now that he was alone was what on Earth he would tell Belinda.
“Dash it. This is scandalous.”
He pushed the thought away. His late father had not raised him to be prudish about breaking society’s lesser rules, but still…it was worse than scandalous. He was in danger of breaking a young lady’s heart.
Belinda Astley was the lady he was courting.
This was a fine situation.
He ran his hand wearily through his hair. It was worse. This was terrifying. He had only recently started courting her—about three months ago. But still…it was enough. If Belinda found out about Lydia being in the house—whether he was interested in Lydia in that way or whether he wasn’t—she would have every right to shame him in front of the whole of society.
And I’d deserve it.
He ran a weary hand down his face.
Edmund jumped. His butler had appeared in the room, and was going across to the fireplace to stoke the fire. He waited for Edmund to answer, a calm and expectant expression on his face.
“What is it, Highgate? Am I needed downstairs for something?”
“My Lord…will you take visitors today? Only that young fellow from the shipping company left a card for you, and I thought you might…”
“Oh!” Edmund almost jumped. “Oh, dash it, Highgate! No visitors! We cannot let him in here!” He felt his heart start thudding. All he needed was for Lydia to walk in and he’d be finished. Both of them would be.
If the young man from the shipping company—who was part of an extremely wealthy family—were to spread the word, Edmund could tear up his Almack’s pass and sell the townhouse. He would no longer be part of fashionable London society. He’d have to retire to the countryside and live in disgrace for the rest of his life.
And Lydia, too. It would be worse for her.
Far worse for her. If she was caught unchaperoned in his house, she would be utterly disgraced.
He pushed away the thought. No, they could definitely not have visitors. It would be the end of them both.
“Oh. My Lord…that’s a pity. He’s downstairs in the antechamber. Should I tell him to…”
“What?” Edmund felt his heart almost stop. He put a hand on his chest, feeling as if he would die of apoplexy right then. “Oh, what can we do? You can’t tell him to go, now, I suppose…?”
“I could, My Lord,” the butler shrugged. “Only he’d think it was a little odd, since I told him you were upstairs and he must be able to hear talking from there.”
“Oh! Oh, yes,” Edmund said, then swore. “Highgate, this is a proper mess. What can we do?” He felt absolutely distraught.
“My Lord, if I might suggest something?” Mr. Highgate asked.
“Please, Highgate,” Edmund said at once. “Anything, to get us out of this mess. Lady Lydia must not be seen. You know that.” He had called a meeting of the servants together before breakfast, to inform them that they must keep Lydia’s being here secret. They had all sworn to do so. But he hadn’t thought of explaining what to do should any visitors come.
“Yes, My Lord,” the butler agreed. “I comprehend. In which case, I reckon she can just stay here. In the drawing room. You can receive the visitor downstairs in the dining room or the antechamber or wherever takes your fancy. And she can simply stay here, with the door shut. Why would that not work?” He looked at Edmund expectantly.
“What if she comes out for some urgent reason? What if he goes upstairs?” Edmund demanded. “We can’t very well imprison the guests! We need to think of something else.” He started pacing.
Mr. Highgate shrugged, skeptically. “We don’t have anything else we can do, My Lord. And we don’t have time,” he added. Edmund, noticing Mr. Highgate was listening to something, stilled. There were footsteps downstairs.
“Oh no!” Edmund went pale. “Yes. Quickly! You go downstairs and tell him I’ll be in the dining room directly. And I’ll run up and explain the situation to Lady Lydia.”
“As you wish.”
Edmund turned and ran. The hallway was carpeted, and he was confident Mr. Anholm could not hear his frantic running. He turned to the left and then ran to the guest suite. He knocked on the door. His face flushed red as he waited there, with no reply. He was standing outside Lady Lydia’s bedroom. He stopped his imagination from filling in an image of her dressed only in shift and stays, her pale white skin touched gently by the light. She could very well have undressed in there.
“Edmund?” she said, throwing open the door. “What are you doing here?”
Edmund jumped. “Lydia…please, talk quietly. There’s someone in the house,” he mouthed. He gestured downstairs.
“Oh.” She tensed instantly. “Oh…Edmund. What are we going to do?”
“The best thing to do,” he murmured, “is for you to stay upstairs. Either here, or in the drawing room. Mr. Highgate and I will do our best to keep the guest downstairs. And whatever you do, please don’t do anything that’ll reveal someone is up here. Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“Yes,” Lydia said. She grinned.
Edmund felt a grin cross his face, too. Her hazel eyes were sparkling and suddenly they were children again, having an adventure. He felt his heart thump in his chest and for a moment, he ached to take her hand in his, or to draw it to his lips. He stepped back.
“Well, then,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I have to go. I will come up and tell you when he’s gone. I’ll try and keep him here for no more than one hour. All right? And remember…don’t come down for any reason.”
She grinned, her smile bright. He felt a flush creep across his skin. She was so lovely! Her face was so bright and lively, her hazel eyes tilted at the corners, giving her a look of sweet mischievousness. He felt his heart pound.
“Well, then,” he told himself, walking down the stairs. “I’ll just have to make sure he’s gone in an hour.”
“Lord Rumsgate!” a voice said, startling him. “You are at home! I was starting to think your butler must be wrong, and you’d sneaked out somewhere without telling him.”
“Oh, no,” Edmund grinned, nervously. “Not at all. Why would I do that?” He found himself facing a tall young man with a thin face, handsome blue eyes, and a velvet jacket.
“I don’t know. I just thought either you had, or some other guest had beat me to it.” He raised a brow, grinning. “Good morning, My Lord.”
“Other guest? No, of course not,” Edmund said swiftly. “No, I was just…reading the paper. Mr. Highgate never disturbs me. Is that not so?”
“Oh, yes, My Lord,” Mr. Highgate nodded, his voice hesitant. “I would…wouldn’t dream of disturbing you.”
“Splendid,” Mr. Anholm said. He beamed at them both. “Well then, Lord Rumsgate. I was eager to speak of our new venture. Many men of sense and wealth have invested in our new scheme, and I think that you would be interested to do so, too.”
“Oh…oh, yes,” Edmund nodded, trying to recall what exactly it was. He had met Mr. Anholm at a party, where he was afraid he’d had a little too much brandy. He couldn’t really remember the particulars. He nodded. “It was a very…worthy scheme,” he said haltingly. “Could you remind me of the plan?”
“Of course, Lord Rumsgate,” Mr. Anholm said, smiling. “Shall we go upstairs?”
“No!” Edmund said quickly. “I mean, no, Mr. Anholm. Why don’t we stay down here and discuss it? We can go to the dining room. Much warmer there. It faces East, you see.”
“Well, yes,” Mr. Anholm said uncomfortably.
“Also,” Edmund added swiftly, “it has a much bigger table. And I guess that, somewhere during the description, we’ll need a big map.”
“Yes!” Mr. Anholm nodded. “We will. Have you a map? In your study, perhaps?”
“Yes!” Edmund said, fear flooding through him. “I mean, I have just the thing. Highgate?” he called, hoping the butler had followed them out towards the dining room and hadn’t gone back to the pantry downstairs. “Have you a map? Can you fetch down my map from the study, please? The big one?”
“Yes, My Lord,” Mr. Highgate said, appearing just behind them. He must have been in the anteroom all the time. Edmund felt relieved. “I shall fetch it right away.”
“Thank you, Highgate,” Edmund said quickly. “And please, hurry back. My guest will need some refreshment.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
“Oh, Lord Rumsgate, no need for that,” Mr. Anholm said cheerily. “I just had breakfast! No, let’s discuss business straight away.” He followed Edmund into the dining room, where he sat down in one of the high-backed wooden chairs to Edmund’s right. The sunshine was pouring in, and Edmund was grateful to see it. At least he had been accurate in that!
“So,” Edmund asked, sitting down. “What is this venture, exactly?”
“Well,” Mr. Anholm took a deep breath. “It will involve a fleet of five ships, four of which we have already purchased. The plan is to take these ships to French Guiana, where we believe there is an abundance of…”
As he talked, Edmund looked around. He was sweating. He was sure he’d heard a noise in the hallway. Someone was out there! He thought that Lydia might have forgotten, and come downstairs. He heard footsteps coming closer…
“My Lord?” Mr. Anholm said. “What is amiss?”
“What?” Edmund barked. “I mean, why? Did I do something?”
“No, My Lord,” Mr. Anholm frowned. “You just, well…seemed a little distracted.”
“Distracted? Oh, no…not at all,” Edmund said, trying to be calm. “I suppose, well…I might be a little jumpy. You see, I was expecting other visitors. My…um…my uncle and aunt,” he said quickly. “And of course, since they’re older and set in their ways, they can be a little, well…nerve-wracking.” He grinned.
“I see,” Mr. Anholm said. He was smiling, too. “I understand completely. I suppose I ought to give you a summary of the venture, so that you can think it over between my visit and their own?”
“Yes,” Edmund said quickly. “Yes…please do. That would be very amiable.” He heard a stair creak and jumped, thinking that Lydia might have come downstairs. He tensed, trying to appear interested as Mr. Anholm turned to the map again.
“So, as we were saying…the revenue will lose a little due to import taxes, but the total we expect to come away with is…”
Edmund tried to focus, but the numbers failed to make much impact. He was sure he could hear footsteps outside and he was frightened that Lydia had needed to come down for some urgent reason; or that Mr. Anholm might go out, and see her wandering about the house. It would take an awful lot of explanation.
“So, I hope I have put forward a thorough overview,” Mr. Anholm said, with the air of someone who was about to take his leave. “I will leave you to think about the venture, and how much you would care to invest.”
“Thank you, Mr. Anholm. It was a very thorough description, indeed,” Edmund said carefully. “And I will be sure to consider it most carefully. As soon as…my uncle and aunt have left…I will send Highgate to your residence with my answer. Is that convenient?”
“Most convenient,” Mr. Anholm said, standing. He sounded quite satisfied. “It was very nice to speak with you, My Lord. I look forward to hearing from you soon.”
“Thank you. It was good to talk with you, too. I have your card, I think? I will send Highgate over with my answer as soon as possible.”
“Splendid. Now…did I leave my hat somewhere?” Mr. Anholm frowned. “I am sure I must have taken it off at the door. Your butler may have put it somewhere. Shall I fetch him? He must be upstairs,” he said, pointing in the direction of the steps.
“Oh! No…” Edmund exclaimed. “No, not at all, Mr. Anholm. You’re a guest! I don’t expect you to trouble yourself. I shall go!” He was already heading toward the stairs.
“It’s no trouble, I assure you…” Mr. Anholm began, but Edmund was already shouting.
“Highgate? Highgate? Is that you up there? Can you come down quickly? We need you.”
Mr. Anholm was looking at him slightly confusedly, and Edmund was sure that the poor fellow thought him mad. But what could he do? He couldn’t very well let him walk straight into Lydia! He had to ensure nobody ever knew.
“My Lord?” Mr. Highgate said, appearing on the stairs. He was frowning at Edmund, who took a deep breath, trying to look calm. “What happened? Do you need me to do something?”
“Yes, Highgate,” Edmund said, taking another breath and hoping he didn’t look quite as wild as he felt. “I was just wondering if you could help Mr. Anholm find his hat? He says he took it off at the door and he doesn’t know where it was taken.”
“Oh. My Lord, I put it in the cupboard by the door. With the extra coats and shoes. Allow me to fetch it for you. Apologies…it kept sliding off the hat-rack.” He went into the hallway, walking past Edmund who let out a sigh of relief.
“Thank you, Mr. Anholm,” he called from the top step, watching his visitor who saluted with the hat—a handsome navy-blue top-hat with a black band—and then walked into the street, turning to grin up at him.
“I shall see you again soon, Lord Rumsgate. I thank you for a nice morning.”
“I’ll see you soon,” Edmund agreed. He walked back into the house, where Mr. Highgate met him by the door. “Shut it, quick,” Edmund implored. “He’s away.”
“Grand, My Lord,” Mr. Highgate said.
Edmund shut his eyes. He felt exhausted. Every single second had stretched, so that he thought he might never get away from there. It had been a torment! He leaned against the door, legs exhausted.
“Thank you, Highgate. Now, I think we both deserve some tea. And another cup for Lady Lydia, if you please?”
“Yes, My Lord. You did extremely well, if I may say so myself.”
“Thank you, Highgate,” Edmund said. He stood up, finding some reserve of energy. He went over to the stairs. “I’m going to go up to the drawing room. I want to tell our guest that the coast is clear.”
He found the drawing room shut. Tapping on the door, he called through to Lydia. “Good morning? Are you in there? You can come out now. It’s me and he’s gone.”
The door opened, and he saw Lydia’s face. She was smiling, face bright. Her eyes shone. She was standing with her hand to her lips and he realized she was trying to stifle giggling.
“Oh, Edmund!” she said, shoulders shaking with mirth. “Oh! That was so funny! I couldn’t help myself…I was listening to you. Oh, Edmund! I am sorry to have put you in this position. But it really was amusing, wasn’t it? You sounded horrified!”
Edmund grinned. He was relieved it was over, but now that it was over, he could see how utterly funny it was. He started to laugh.
“Yes, it was,” he agreed.
“Oh, Edmund! When you said…said your relations were coming, I thought…I just wanted to laugh so much! And I couldn’t, because I had to be quiet! Oh, Edmund…it was hilarious!”
Edmund sat down on the big upholstered chair, opposite where she sat on the chaise-lounge, facing the fireplace. They were both laughing so hard that tears dripped down his chin. He couldn’t stop. He felt helpless with laughter.
“Oh…” Lydia said, straightening up. “Oh, that felt good. Oh, Edmund! I haven’t laughed so much since you fell from that bush. It wasn’t really a tree…I don’t know why on Earth you climbed it.”
They both started laughing again. Edmund remembered the day very well. He had tried to climb in one of the trees in the hedge. They were more bushes than trees, he had to admit; and more so then, when he was three-and-ten years old. He had fallen straight through, and nothing had been hurt quite so much as his pride. He’d hoped to impress Lydia, but she had laughed so happily that it more than made up for it. He would have done anything to see that beautiful smile.
“It was funny, wasn’t it?” he sniffed, dabbing at his cheeks with a handkerchief. She reached for it and he passed it to her. Their fingers touched. Last night he had taken her hand, but in the broad daylight, without his mind dull with exhaustion, it felt different. His whole arm sparked as if he’d touched a hot coal.
“Yes,” she murmured, withdrawing her hand. Had she felt it too, he wondered? She touched his handkerchief to her face, and passed it back to him once her tears were dry. He put it in his pocket. He thought that it was especially precious to him, since it held her tears.
“Oh, Lydia,” he said, drawing in a breath. “I haven’t laughed so much in years.”
“Me, neither,” she said. She leaned back against the brown velvet of the chaise-lounge. Her hand rested on the scrollwork armrest, her long slim fingers outstretched.
They both sat silently for a while. It occurred to him—and he thought it occurred to her, too—that for a moment they had been as they were when they were children. Happy, carefree and easy in their trust of one another. Now, as they recalled where they were and all that had happened since that time, they both became a little tense.
“Have you…” Edmund began, wanting to ask her if she had considered what she would do about a maidservant. He had said he would look for one, but he was frankly unsure about how to find somebody appropriate.
“Tea, My Lord. My Lady,” the butler said smoothly. He set a cup down before Lydia first, as was custom, and then Edmund, and then placed the pot of tea on the table between them both. Edmund thanked him, accepted the tray of slices of loaf-cake, and waited for him to depart.
“Edmund,” Lydia spoke, before he could continue talking. “I wanted to say that I do not intend to remain here long.”
“I understand,” Edmund said quickly. “But, Lydia…you must only leave when you are certain you have a safe solution. It sounds like you are in a dangerous situation. I would not wish you to risk yourself.”
“Not a dangerous situation, not exactly…” she trailed off. Her eyes were fearful and Edmund wished again that he could hit whoever had scared her. He felt rage—utterly uncharacteristic—flood through him. He choked it back. Now was not the place or time for his feelings—she needed him to support her, not to go picking fights with people he didn’t know. “My father would force me into this marriage, and I can’t…I cannot do it.”
She took a deep breath. He could see she was close to tears. He tried to take her hand, but she tensed and he let his arm drop to his side, resting on the arm of the upholstered chair. After a long moment, she drew a shaky breath.
“Well, thank you, Edmund,” she said in a formal voice. “I do appreciate you having me here and I would rather not leave until I am sure.”
“There you are, then,” Edmund said firmly. “Now. You need some new clothing, do you not? I suspect you had not much in that bag of yours.”
“Just this.” She indicated the gown.
They looked at each other. Edmund tried not to smile fondly at her. She had always been like that, since they were children. She had never cared about clothing or finery, enjoying the freedom of a comfortable muslin gown—old and torn—with a ribbon holding back unruly blonde hair. Edmund felt his heart fill with memories. He smiled, looking down at the table, mind elsewhere.
“Well, I’ve never been a fine lady,” she said. She sounded a little defiant, as if she expected herself to be one. Edmund smiled.
“You have always been Lydia,” he said. “And that is more than enough for me.”
No sooner had he said it than he regretted it. His heart was laid bare—to himself, to her. He stammered and looked down at his feet.
“Sorry,” he said into the silence. “I meant…”
“Edmund, I took no offence,” she said softly.
They looked at each other across the low, dark wood table. Her eyes were sad, her mouth lifted at the corner in a bittersweet smile. Edmund wanted to take her hand and press it to his lips, or to kiss her cheek. But he couldn’t. It felt like the distance between them was so much bigger than the coffee table, than the length of the room. It was a distance of long years of silence and he had no idea what words would ferry him closer to her. He looked away.
“Well, then,” he said. “I think that we have our plan for today. Somehow, we must contrive to find a maidservant for you. And somehow, we need to get a seamstress here, and swear her to secrecy to make you clothes.” He smiled, gesturing towards the long French windows that looked across towards the road that led to the main shopping area of the town. He loved the many windows in this house, letting pale light fall on the white silky wallpaper.
“Oh!” Lydia clapped delightedly. “I know just such a person! Mrs. Actley. She’ll come to the house. And I’m sure she’ll not tell a soul that I am here…she is a dear friend and I know she would support me.”
“Oh…” Edmund put his head on one side, hesitant. “Well, of course, if you trust her, we shall do that. But she would have to swear to keep the secret.”
“I am sure she will. Well, then!” Lydia said brightly. “I think we have our plans for later. And they seem like very good ones to me.”
“Yes,” Edmund agreed, feeling rather more worried. “They do.”
Her bright laughter followed him out of the room, and tense as he was, Edmund could not help but feel excited. He had always enjoyed their time together when they were children—somehow wherever he was, were Lydia to be there, then it was sure to be something fun.
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