About the book
"I loving you is playing with fire, then I shall burn..."
Lady Lucretia Uleaven, daughter of the Duke of Bellton, has everything she could have ever asked for. Apart from the one thing she wishes for the most: the identity of the boy who saved her from a terrible fire all those years ago. But she is determined to find him at all costs.
Ever since his disfigurement, Stephen McDonald, Earl of Lambridge, has been more of a shadow amongst London's elite. More commonly known as Captain MacDonald, he avoids public events, so when the Duke of Bellton sends him a ball invitation, he almost refuses. Almost.
The love that blooms between Lucretia and Stephen seems doomed from the start, for blood that has been spilled cannot easily be forgotten. Stephen can still feel the lick of the flames, see the fire that marked him in Lucretia's eyes. And fire is unforgiving, so are people.
Haverton, near Portsmouth
Lucretia looked out of the window of the milliner’s shop and sighed. Across the street, two boys played kick the can, and she longed for nothing more than to join them in their game.
She glanced at her governess, Mrs. Sherwood, who stood at the counter and engaged in civil whiskers with the woman behind the counter. Lucretia bit the inside of her lip and twirled one of her long, blonde curls around her index finger.
She’d say no. She was sure of it. But then again, perhaps…just perhaps…
“Mrs. Sherwood,” she said quietly as she walked up next to the woman. Mrs. Sherwood peered down at her. Lucretia was small for her age. At eleven years old, she was not much taller than her youngest brother, Victor, a year younger than her. Mrs. Sherwood blinked at her out of big, brown eyes.
“Yes, Lady Lucretia?”
“May I go outside?”
A frown appeared on the woman’s stern face.
“Outside? And why, pray, would you wish to go outside? Whatever for? It is unpleasant outside. Much too cold for this time of year.”
Lucretia clasped her hands together behind her back and wiggled one foot back and forth.
“For the air,” she finally said.
Mrs. Sherwood tilted her head to the side and scrutinized her with an intense look. The older woman had been in charge of Lucretia since her mother’s death when Lucretia was only three years old. She was kind but stern and always saw right through her.
She charged past her and peered outside at the boys and their can. Immediately she crossed her arms in front of her chest and shook her head.
“You wish to play with those boys, don’t you?”
She nodded, for there was no sense in denying it, and Lucretia didn’t believe in telling Banbury tales.
The governess sighed deeply.
“Lady Lucretia, you are the daughter of the Duke of Bellton. Surely you understand that you cannot be seen kicking cans with orphan boys.”
“No buts. When I conclude my business here, we will go for a walk. You can take the air then. Besides, your father will soon conclude his visit with the barrister, and then we’re going back to Bellton Hall. You can play kick the can with Victor or David. Now, sit and wait for me.”
The governess turned and went back to the counter, where chatter with the attendant soon commenced. Lucretia didn’t sit down as instructed. Instead, she returned to her place at the window and observed the boys. They weren’t as young as Victor, nor as old as David, who was already six-and-ten and like her eldest brother, Philip, away at Eton most of the time. They were all home right now, for the summer, but none liked to indulge her. She knew David and Philip were envious of her because their father doted on her so much.
Indeed, she didn’t have much company at home, save for Victor, who was too childish to contend with.
Lucretia peeked over her shoulder at the governess. She’d gone further into the back of the shop now and examined several bonnets with the attendant.
Surely, she will not notice if I go out for a little while. I will come right back. I just want to kick the can a little…That’s not a bad thing, is it? She won’t even know I’ve gone. I’ll be that quick.
Determined, she slipped toward the door and very carefully turned the round brass handle. She glanced up at the bell above the door and pulled as gently as she could. She was a slight girl, thin and short, and so didn’t need much space to slip out. She sucked in her stomach, and just as the edge of the door rested against the bell, she pushed herself through the gap in the door.
On the pavement, she exhaled but noted with dismay that one of the pretty Dorset buttons had popped off her sky-blue redingote. She glanced down and saw it on the floor in the shop. She shrugged. There was nothing to be done about it now.
“Oi, don’t ye kick it so hard,” a young voice shouted behind her. She spun and watched as the boys kicked their can down the road and turned into an alley.
“Can I play?” She called out and rushed across the road, narrowly avoiding a carriage that barreled her way. She jumped onto the pavement on the other side of the street, her heart beating at the close call. Through the shop window, she saw Mrs. Sherwood, her back turned to her. Good.
Lucretia jumped to ask them to join the game again but found, to her dismay, that the boys had gone.
“Hello?” She called out, but there was no reply. Haverton was a sleepy village, a fifteen-minute carriage ride from Bellton Hall, at the edge of Portsmouth. Most inhabitants tended land owned by her father, and during the day, almost nobody populated the dirty street.
They can’t have gone far. I shall rush down the alley and look. If I can’t find anyone, I’ll return to the shop. No harm done.
She picked up the hem of her yellow gown and redingote, and with the other, held on to her bonnet as she rushed down the alley. The houses looked run down, with many of them missing windows. Instead of the glass pane, bits of material hung in the windows, obscuring the view from inside. A nasty scent clung to the air, and Lucretia rumpled her nose.
At the end of the alley, she found herself at a crossroads. To the right was another, darker alley. She swallowed hard as she peered down it. The smell of sewer reeked even stronger here. She shook her head. No. Even if the boys went this way, she’d not follow. She glanced in the other direction and saw a field, and to the right of a narrow path, a house. It didn’t look in any better condition than the rest of the alley, however, in front of a bale of hay, just next to the door of the home, she spotted something of interest.
A large orange and white cat basked in the sunshine.
Lucretia decided that there had to be some purpose for her escaping the shop, and if she couldn’t play, then at the very least she was determined to pet this cat. She’d always wanted a cat, but her father opposed animals in the home. She snuck forth along the path, careful not to startle the cat.
“Kitty… Kitty… May I pet you?” She squatted down, her yellow silk gown dragging in the dirt as she crept forward, but she no longer cared. The cat lay on its side, and its belly pointed toward the sun while it licked itself. Lucretia’s heart was full of adoration for the animal. She inched forward and stretched her fingers toward the cat, who suddenly sat up, arched its back, and hissed.
“No, don’t hiss. I’m a friend. Can’t I pet you?” She lurched forward, but the animal jumped to its feet and dashed away through the grass and into the house. Determined not to be disappointed twice in one day, Lucretia hurried after the feline. The tall grass tickled her ankles through her stockings, but she ignored the uncomfortable feeling.
Her concentration rested entirely on the cat who snuck inside the house by way of an open window. Lucretia stopped and turned her head to the side, examining the building. It didn’t look occupied. No, she was almost sure that nobody lived there.
She bit her bottom lip and approached. Unfortunately, a large piece of wood blocked the front door, further confirming her suspicion that this house stood abandoned. She pushed the piece of wood aside so that it leaned precariously against the wall and then yanked the door open. Quickly, she took off her redingote and draped it over the door handle to retrieve later. With just her silk gown, she would fit through the opening. She was almost through when the sound of silk ripping drove terror into her heart.
Lucretia looked down. A rip as long as her hand ran through the delicate material. The lace overdress, carefully embroidered roses, was ripped. This would set up Mrs. Sherwood’s bristles; there was no doubt about it.
Lucretia sighed when an idea came to her.
Now that I cannot sneak back into the shop without Mrs. Sherwood finding out I went on an adventure, perhaps I can try to catch the little cat and bring her with me. Maybe I can get a pet out of this.
She smiled to herself. Yes, she was already in trouble, so why not try to make the best of it? She snuck into the building and found it, indeed, abandoned. An old bed sat to the right-hand side with a sagging mattress on top. Broken furniture lay overturned in the room, and a smell that reminded her of the alley penetrated her nose. Although, when she inhaled, she noted there was something else in the air. A scent she knew well…
She forged deeper into the house. The sun rays illuminated the space brightly. Straw and dirt littered the floor and what might have been curtains hung over various pieces of furniture.
Meat. The scent she smelled was that of meat cooking over an open fire. During the previous summer, David and Philip had built a fire in the garden and roasted pheasant. The smell reminded her of that. A banging from the next room caught her attention, and she rushed forward.
“Kitty?” She called again, convinced the animal had knocked something down.
“No!” A deep male voice shrieked out as more banging and clattering followed. Lucretia gasped as the figure of a man in rags rushed toward her.
“I ain’t going! I ain’t going back to Newgate! I’d rather die.”
“Who are you?” Lucretia asked in a panic, but the man didn’t stop.
“Get out of my way,” he yelled, the panic evident in his voice. Lucretia stood frozen. She’d never in her life seen a man such as this. Dressed in rags, his dark hair long and dirty, the crazed fear in his bright blue eyes terrified her. She remained in the doorway, startled when the man reached one dirty hand out, grabbed her by the arm, and shoved her out of the way.
“Oh!” She cried out as she flew sideways onto the straw-covered floor. Her shoulder smarted as she lay there, gasping. It took her a moment the gather her senses as her heart beat out of her chest. Who was this man? What was Newgate? She didn’t know. As she looked down at herself, she realized how much trouble she’d be in. Her gown down, her hair in disarray, and her gloves blackened from where the stranger grabbed her.
What a cake I made of myself. Oh, the trouble I will see when I return home. Papa will be incensed and Mrs. Sherwood…. Who was this man? Why was he so upset at seeing me? Was he one of those people Philip always speaks of? The homeless?
Yes, that’s what it had to be. This man was homeless and made this abandoned house his home. Perhaps he’d thought Lucretia a member of the Bow Street Runners upon hearing her? No, that made no sense. She was but a child. But then again, the man didn’t seem well and—
“Fire?” Lucretia jumped up. She’d been so horrified by her experience that she’d not noticed the source of the earlier commotion. The smell she’d noticed earlier was indeed that of meat cooking. The fellow somehow fashioned a fire in the corner of the room, on top of a barrel. The barrel, she realized now, was the source of the noise as he’d tossed it over in his panic. And now, the straw beneath it was on fire.
Lucretia clambered to her feet, her breathing quickened. She watched as the flames grew larger and more prominent with the ample fuel of straw and broken furniture to feed it. Then, she pushed herself off the wall and ran back into the other room, where the front door would provide her escape.
She was halfway across the room when her heart sank. The door was closed.
“No, no!” She dashed toward it and pushed with all of her might but found it would not budge.
The wood! The piece of wood she’d pushed aside earlier must have fallen over and pinched the door shut again. Panic rose inside her, and she hammered on the door.
“Please, sir. You locked me in. I know you didn’t mean to but let me out. Please! There’s a fire. Please!” She hammered and hammered against the door but to no avail. Nobody came. Meanwhile, the smoke rose behind her and soon filled the back room. She raced back there but saw there was no getting past the smoke and flames.
Just then, she heard a soft meow and searched the room for the cat.
“There! She’s showing me the way out.” She watched as the cat jumped on a barrel and flew out of the window. Lucretia followed, but as she tried to climb on the barrel, it toppled over, and she landed flat on her back.
Defeated, she remained where she was as the flames danced in the next room. This was the hour of her death. It was upon her. She shivered, rolled on her side, and with her knees to her chest, closed her eyes.
“I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. Mama, please help me. Be my guardian angel and help me….” She whispered the words over and over again as tears rolled down her rosy cheeks.
She’d resigned herself to her fate when out of the darkness of the thick smoke, she heard a deep, male voice.
“This is not the day, not for you.” A pair of arms swooped under her and pulled her to her feet. Then, she no longer felt the straw under her, and it was as though she floated. The window the cat had escaped through came closer, and she was hurled forward and out into the fresh air.
“Run, child. Run!” the deep voice said.
A loud creaking sounded, and then a rumble shook the earth beneath her. She stood and stared at the window, waiting for the young man who’d saved her to exit—but he didn’t. Suddenly the entire structure crumbled, and the last thing she saw were the young man’s hands as they disappeared into the smoke and flames.
Her heart beat so hard she thought it might come out of her chest entirely. In the distance, she heard shouts and men appeared from the village. They’d save the young man; she was sure of it. Yes, there was no use staying here, they’d rescue him. Surely. She hurried away but stopped in the alley, just as farmers and villagers descended upon the shell of the house. With a start, she realized she’d left her redingote on the doorknob, but it was too late to go back for it. The front portion of the structure had already collapsed, and her garment would be in flames.
She had to get back to the village and explain herself to her governess—somehow. But, as she ran, all she could think about were the hands of the young man who’d saved her, disappearing in the fire.
She understood this image would haunt her for the rest of her life, and she’d never be the same again.
Portsmouth, May 1816
Stephen McDonald charged down the stairs and toward the breakfast room of his home, Lambridge Manor. His long, dark-blond hair bounced off his shoulders as he made a sharp turn at the bottom of the stairs. He passed the large mirror in the hall, an object cherished by his mother but despised by him. She’d decorated the entire house while he served aboard a ship, and thus he didn’t want to tell her how much he disliked it. It was, to his mother, a sign of their great wealth, for not everyone could afford a mirror such as this.
For an instant, he was tempted to stop and look at himself but then shook his head. There was no need. He knew his visage all too well. Half of his once handsome face was a ruined wasteland of thick scars, as was much of his upper body. Only his bright blue eyes and smooth forehead escaped the horrible accident he’d found himself in years ago.
He’d spent hours upon hours looking at himself, he’d studied every inch of his appearance. He knew exactly where on his face his old, smooth skin could still be found, hidden under the folds of leathery and ragged casing. There was no need for mirrors. Not anymore.
He pressed on, leaving the dreaded mirror behind, and slipped into his seat in the breakfast room. The Morning Gazette lay ready on the table beside his plate and he sighed at the headline.
Riots at Ely and Littleport continue. 1st Royal Dragoons dispatched.
“A disgrace,” he muttered as he pointed at the teapot and waited for the footman, Henry, to pour his cup.
“I take it you speak of the riots? And knowing you, dear cousin, you are in favor of them?” His cousin, George Spencer, Viscount Barney, entered with a smile. George, owner of a grand estate in Kent, had of late resided with Stephen and his mother, while his home underwent desperately needed repairs after an unfortunate flood.
George took the seat beside Stephen and glanced at the paper while spreading his napkin on his lap.
“Of course I am. It is no surprise these people are upset. They have no employment, and the price of grain is so high it is unattainable. What else is left for them?”
His cousin shook his head. His black hair hung into his face and grazed his dark-green eyes as he reached for a hot roll.
“Perhaps if they educated themselves, or perhaps moved where there is work available. Anyhow, I say it is any man’s responsibility to care for themselves and their family. Why should we, the aristocracy, pay for their failure?”
A fire roared in Stephen’s stomach, for he despised little more than to hear that his own family held such terrible views.
“We are the ones in charge of this country. It is our responsibility to look after others that require assistance. ‘In a country well-governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of.’ Have you never heard that quote?”
“Shall I guess?” George asked. “Is it our dear Lord Byron? Has he found his voice now that he’s fled England and his debts and scandals?”
Stephen’s nostrils flared. He’d conversed with Lord Byron on more than one occasion and found him an intelligent, if impulsive and hot-tempered, man. His downfall struck Stephen deeply as it was always regrettable to lose one of the few voices in the House of Lords that spoke for the poor.
“It is not Lord Byron, no. It is by Confucius.”
George rolled his eyes while applying copious amounts of butter to his roll, followed by a large dollop of marmalade.
“Well, if a man who stuck his spoon on the wall thousands of years ago says so, then I suppose we must all listen.”
“Simply because something was said a long time ago doesn’t mean it holds no value now.”
George shook his head. “Your years at sea did not harden you, eh wot?”
Stephen smiled. Even though his cousin meant it as a thinly veiled insult, Stephen took it as a compliment. “I suppose serving with so many men from various parts of the country and different backgrounds made me aware of the struggles the lower classes contend with.”
Behind them, the sound of light footsteps on the marble floor announced the arrival of his mother, the Dowager Lady Dawes. She sauntered into the room wearing a beautiful rose-colored satin gown with a lace overdress embroidered with flowers. Around her shoulders clung a white silk shawl and she wore a turban so heavily adorned with assorted feathers and flowers, Stephen marveled at the fact she was able to hold her head upright.
She stopped and kissed him lightly on the cheek, greeted George with a nod, and then slipped into her seat. Her rose-colored gloves stood out against the stark white of the table cloth, and when she smiled, he noted the unnatural shade of her lips, thanks to her newest passion—lip salve.
“What are the two of you quarreling about?” she inquired, while motioning for the teapot.
“We are not quarreling, Aunt Olivia. His lordship has just given me a lecture on the trial and tribulations the commoner must endure and our duty to them.”
His mother sighed deeply. “It is fortunate that Lord Byron has departed these shores, lest you become even more like him.”
Stephen knew it would do no good to defend the man, and he didn’t have any fight in him anyhow.
It matters little what I tell them of my beliefs. They will never agree. One day they will see the commoner rising and we, the ones who presume to know what is best for every man, woman, and child in the country, will have to answer for our actions. But until then, they shall remain committed to the way our life has always been.
“I would not consider that a bad thing. Although I shall never write poetry as he does,” Stephen jested, to ease the general atmosphere in the room.
Beside him, George took a large bite of his roll and pointed at the paper, now quietly resting on the table.
“I see your servants do you right and iron your paper. My man has gotten in the habit of bringing the paper as is. My fingers are always stained with ink. One might be led to believe I was a coal miner, not a Viscount.”
Stephen shrugged as behind him Henry appeared with a steaming bowl of oatmeal.
“Thank you, Henry,” Stephen said, and reached for the honey pot.
“I do not know how you can eat this every day of the week. You are not aboard ship now, Stephen. Enjoy yourself. Have a hot roll, or some honey bread?” his mother said as she blinked at his breakfast of choice.
Stephen shook his head. “I do not wish to come out of the habit of eating oatmeal. Aboard ship I had it every single morning, and I will continue to do so. After all, once I get another commission, I shall have to eat it again.”
“You are a Captain, surely you can get better fare than that,” George added, a slice of honey bread now in hand.
Stephen stirred honey into the oatmeal as his stomach rumbled. The truth was, after more than fifteen years in the Royal Navy, his stomach handled this simple fare much better than the rich, buttery foods his brethren enjoyed.
“I enjoy it. Besides, I prefer not to set myself apart too much from my men. They mustn’t think they are beneath my touch.”
“Aren’t they?” George asked but not without a twinkle in his eye. Despite their vastly different opinions when it came to status and rank among their fellow Englishmen, the cousins liked one another. Both heirs to their respective titles, and both only sons, they’d grown up together and lent one another support through their darkest days.
Stephen remembered the day so many years ago when he’d awoken to see his cousin’s face peering down at him as he lay in a bed, tended to by the Navy’s finest physicians. George’s hand on his forearm. What a relief it had been to see his face, for unlike his parents, he hadn’t looked at him in horror but with compassion and genuine affection. For that alone, he’d always cherish his cousin.
Fortunately for all members of the party, his cousin turned the subject back to the newspaper. As he picked it up, he drew his eyebrows together.
“Well, it looks like there’s just the thing for you, Stephen. A charitable ball to benefit a variety of societies. Lady Lucretia Ulleavan, daughter of the Duke of Bellton, is to host the first charitable ball benefitting the Foundlings Hospital of Portsmouth, Help for our Aged and Infirm, The Society of the Wounded Mariners, and the Asylum for the Orphaned. Lady Lucretia is the Patroness of the Asylum for the Orphaned, while His Grace, the Duke of Bellton is President of the same. Therefore, a charitable donation is requested in exchange for entry therein.”
He pointed with his thumb to the paper and Stephen glanced at it while his mother dabbed the corners of her mouth with a napkin.
“Faith, of course. We had been invited some weeks ago. Don’t you recall, Stephen? It is on Friday. And of course we will attend.”
Stephen swallowed and stared at his half-eaten oatmeal. He did not enjoy going out in public. But, of course, as a Captain in His Majesty’s Royal Navy, he often had to, but his appearance didn’t easily mortify the men who surrounded him aboard ship.
It wasn’t unusual to find maimed and injured sailors. In the long years of the war, many were wounded in the same manner he was, burned, slashed, cut, or otherwise marked for life. In fact, on his last ship, the HMS Artemis, he’d labored alongside a cook with only one arm and a midshipman with a missing eye. It was Society’s company he struggled with.
No, that’s not true. It isn’t I who struggle with them. It is they who struggle with me. My face is horrifying to them. It doesn’t matter that I am an Earl in my own right and a Captain—one of the youngest in Naval History at that. And it doesn’t matter that I have more wealth amassed than most of them. To them, I am disfigured, a source of nightmares and mortification.
“Stephen?” His mother’s voice drew him out of his thoughts. When he glanced up, he saw her looking at him with large, worried eyes. “You will go with me, will you not? I know you do not enjoy these ventures but…”
“I shall go. I would not if it were a ball, but this is for a good cause. I cannot very well lecture George about charity and the need to look out for those below us in station and then refuse to go to a charitable ball out of vanity.”
George patted him on the shoulder, genuine admiration displayed on his face. “Well said, old chum. And I shall go with you. I would not have you think me entirely uncharitable. A soft heart beats in his chest yet.”
Silence settled over the breakfast table. Stephen sat and stared at the oatmeal when his mother cleared her throat.
“The Society of the Wounded Mariners—is that not the one Matthew Hastings is involved in? The one who aided you in your hour of need?”
Stephen looked up and nodded. “Indeed, that is him. I have not seen him in a very long time, but I owe him a great debt.”
Beside him his cousin shifted in his seat. “Is he the fellow who paid you so many visits when first you woke after you were rescued? The one who encouraged you to go back to the Royal Navy?”
Stephen nodded. After seeing what the wreckage and the fire had done to his face, hands, and large portions of his body, he lost all hope for a future. Surely a man who looked as he did, would not be able to return to the Navy.
He hadn’t thought himself worthy, hadn’t thought of himself as someone who would ever go beyond the midshipmen position he held at the time of the incident. But Matthew Hastings, the man who had founded the Society of the Wounded Mariners after himself receiving a wound that required a partial amputation of his left arm, called on him often in hospital to encourage him.
It was because of Matthew Hastings that Stephen found the will to carry on, to face his fellow sailors once again, and to return aboard ship.
“If it weren’t for Matthew, I would not be Captain McDonald now. I would not even be an Earl. I’d be a retired midshipman, with nothing to show for myself but a noble title, still living in Derbyshire.”
“There is nothing at all wrong with our home in Derbyshire. I dare say, your sister much enjoyed living at Dawes Hall. And many would give their right arm to have a noble title, but I can understand what you were trying to say. Very well, we shall go to the ball, give a sizable donation upon entry, and then see if we cannot do more to assist.”
His mother finished her tea. “I do recall Mr. Hastings. Poor fellow. Missing his arm. He was kind to you, that I will say, and we ought to repay him. Besides, the ball will be good for you. You’ve been out of a commission for months and have yet to get to know anyone in the Portsmouth area. It is about time you went and re-introduced yourself to Society.”
Stephen forced a smile on his face. His mother loved him, he knew it. She wanted what was best for him, and in her mind, what was best would be to venture into polite society, find a wife and have an heir—just like every other young lord of his age. She wanted him to be who he’d once been. He sighed deeply, knowing that was the one thing he never could be again. The man she thought he would become.
He was drawn out of his thoughts when his mother shuddered and rubbed her arms with her gloved hands.
“Anna, please, would you shut this window? It is frightfully cold. And why isn’t the fireplace lit? Please see to it that it is lit at once.”
She turned back to her plate, then shook her head. “It is not their fault, I suppose. We do not usually light the fire in late May. I dare say this is the coldest summer I can remember.” Without looking up, she reached for a piece of fresh bread and smeared a dollop of butter upon it.
Stephen watched as the maid closed the window, then walked to the fireplace. He pushed the bowl of oatmeal away as his eyes lingered on the young woman. She laid the fire—the fireplace had already been cleaned that morning in case it was needed—and then reached for the tinder box to light it.
Stephen couldn’t take his eyes away from the tinderbox in her hands. In his mind, he already saw the next steps. Anna would open the tinder box, retrieve the piece of flammable linen within, and then strike flint against the steel to create a spark. The spark would ignite the fabric, and then in turn, it would kindle the sulfur-dipped match. Only then would the fireplace light up with yellow and orange flames that danced over the embers.
Stephen swallowed and rapidly tapped his fingertips together as his breathing quickened. He prepared himself for the smell of the sulfur and the sight of the flames while, all the while, his throat constricted.
“Stephen? Perhaps you ought to leave.” His cousin, George, whispered quietly so that Lady Dawes could not hear.
Stephen could not form the words to reply. Instead, his eyes were drawn to the fireplace and the cloth in Anna’s hand. Usually the fires were stoked before he entered any room, candles likewise were always lit without his presence. It was an unspoken rule among the servants that Stephen didn’t wish to be present while fires were lit, not even candles.
Ever since that horrible day so many years ago, Stephen had a terror of fires. He managed well enough when they were already lit upon his entry, but he had great difficulty watching and smelling them in their infancy, for the smell and the growing flames always drew him back. His mother did not know this. He did not want her to think him weak as she already looked at him as though he were a wounded animal most of the time.
Only George knew the actual depth of his horror. And Matthew Hastings, because he’d first discovered this fear many years ago, while recovering from his burns in a hospital in Gosport.
The maid shifted and leaned closer to the fireplace. Stephen was mesmerized by her hands. She held the lit cloth already, in-between her pale fingers. The match came next. His heart beats so hard in his chest he felt the blood racing through his body. A pearl of cold sweat ran down his spine and subconsciously, he pushed back the chair.
Finally, his mother looked up, a frown on her beautiful face.
“Stephen? Surely you’re not finished with your breakfast?”
Stephen shook his head, but he could not take his eyes away from the fireplace where Anna struck the match and the smell of sulfur filled the air. Stephen’s mind could not maintain control of his body any longer. He jumped up and his chair flew backward, creating a loud bang that startled the maid who in turn nearly dropped the match.
The sight of the lit match wobbling in her hand did him in. Stephen raced out of the room and up the stairs. He dashed down the hall and passed the beautiful tapestries, all hand-selected by his mother, and finally reached his chamber. He threw the door shut and flung himself against it, his scarred hands clasped in front of his face.
As sobs of terror overtook him, he slid down the door and onto the floor, unable to chase away the memory. His skin burned again as he thought of it, almost as though he’d never escaped the fire. His nose filled with the vile stench of burning flesh—his.
No, Stephen MacDonald might be a Captain in the Royal Navy, an Earl, and one of the richest men in the country, but inside, he was nothing but the young midshipman who’d tried to save lives and found himself engulfed in flames instead.
Lucretia’s eyes flew open and she gasped for breath. She sat up, hands pressed against her throat and sucked in gulps of cool air. Her hands shook violently as she attempted to place her legs on the floor—she realized they, too, shook with terror. It was like this every single time she dreamed of that awful day.
The day of the fire.
She got up and walked to the mirror above her dresser and examined herself. Her long blonde curls cascaded down her back, and her bright blue eyes showed signs of suppressed tears.
“Lucy?” A sleepy voice called for her from the bed. She turned and spotted her friend Charlotte’s shock of red hair shift under the bedsheets.
“Charlotte, you do not need to wake just yet. It is early still. The sun hasn’t yet risen, nor did the rooster crow.”
“How am I to enjoy my slumber when you make such noise in your sleep? Have you had a terrible dream again? The same one? Of the fire?”
Lucretia swallowed but nodded. There was no use denying it. Since childhood, Charlotte, her best friend, was the only person on the earth who knew the truth about the fire. After retreating from the burning house, Lucretia had tracked back to the milliner’s shop, only to find her frantic governess standing outside in search of her.
She’d lied. She’d told her she went to play kick the can with the boys after all. She’d claimed to have fallen and ripped her beautiful gown while playing and that somehow, she’d taken off her redingote and lost it as well. Mrs. Sherwood’s fury had been frightful, although not as frightful as it would have been had she told the truth. There was punishment, of course, she’d been confined to her chamber for a week with a severe restriction of sweetmeats and her favorite activity—horseback riding.
But it passed. The punishment passed, her father’s disappointment passed, as did her governess’ fury. What didn’t pass were the nightmares. Nightmares she could never share with anyone, until Charlotte came along.
“Lucy, do you not think it might help you if you made a full report to your father about what really happened that day? It might ease your mind. You could find out what happened to the man who saved you.”
Lucretia pulled the footstool out from under the bed and climbed up beside Charlotte again.
“I could never. Not after all of these years. It has been almost twelve years since it happened. I don’t know what could be found out about the man now. I’ve been to the village many times. As you know, I help at their local parish with meals for the poor. Thus, I’ve had occasion to speak to many people there but never found out anything more about the man.”
Charlotte slipped beside her and dangled her legs off the bed.
“At least you know he lived. They found him after the fire—alive.”
Lucretia shrugged. “That I know but nothing more. All of these years I feared someone might realize the little girl he claimed to have saved was me. That they’d find my redingote and put it all together. But they never did.”
“Surely your redingote burnt when the building did,” Charlotte said.
“I know. And yet, the dreams and the worries haunt me still. I’ve often thought that the man was a hero, and I kept him from claiming at least that—the status of a well-respected man, known for his good deed. Papa would have been furious with me for running away as I did and putting myself in danger, but he would have rewarded the man handsomely. And, surely, the man must have been a poor peasant who needed the help.”
She pressed her lips together and tapped her index finger against her full lips.
The past haunts me every day. All of my life I’ve worked to ease my guilty conscious. I’ve forsaken balls and the opera and all manner of amusement a Lady of my station should be involved in. Instead, I’ve devoted myself to charity. Something nobody but Charlotte understands. They think me peculiar for my interest in helping the poor. I know they do. I know Papa wishes I was more like Charlotte, interested in making a good match…But how could I ever lead that life when I betrayed a true hero?
“Lucretia, do not delve in the past so much. It does you no good. There is nothing you can do about the matter now. The man might have long since died a natural death. Besides, you have done so much good in the world, your debt to society is paid. Look at all the good you are going to do just this Friday. A ball for charity!”
Lucretia glanced at her friend and smiled. She was a level-headed young woman and a perfect match for her brother, the ever-practical Victor. The two had been married for over a year. The match was no surprise to anyone as they’d known and doted on one another for years. Having her favorite brother and her best friend married delighted Lucretia as it meant her friend wouldn’t move far away as so many ladies did upon marriage. She valued her friend’s good opinion and took her in her confidence often.
“I know it, you are right. And yet… I feel the work is never done. Do not misunderstand, I do not only engage in charity work to ease my conscious, I truly believe in what I do.”
Charlotte chuckled. “Faith, Lucy. I know it. I know your heart. I’ve known you since we were but two-and-ten, both of us helping the vicar distribute bread to the needy. I know you truly are devoted to your charges and your charities. Everyone knows.” She grinned. “Do you know Victor calls you ‘Saint Lucretia?’”
Lucretia groaned. “I know. David and Philip do as well. They think me strange; you know it.”
“Not Victor. He adores you.”
Lucretia dropped back onto the soft bedding and viewed the canopy above her bed. “When does he return, anyhow? He will be back for the ball, will he not?”
Charlotte jumped out of bed; the floorboards creaked beneath her.
“He departed Sheffield three days ago, thus he ought to be here by Thursday, in time for the ball. I shall miss staying here in your chamber with you. I so love conversing with you until late at night.”
Whenever Victor traveled, Charlotte stayed with Lucretia and her father at Bellton Hall. Even though Charlotte kept her own chamber there, she usually stayed with Lucretia as they loved talking until late at night.
Lucretia sat back up and balanced herself on her elbows. She watched as Charlotte stepped in front of the mirror and brushed her fingers through her long, red curls.
“At least Crawfield Cottage is on the estate, we shall see one another often. But I agree, it is a joy whenever you do stay here at the manor. Sometimes I wish Victor was the heir and not the third son. That way the both of you could reside here all the time and we’d never have to wait for Victor to travel so you could stay here.”
Charlotte looked over her shoulder. “I dare say, Victor is glad he is the third son and not the heir or the spare. This way, he could choose his own profession. He’s much better suited to being a barrister than a Duke. And I say this with all of my love and admiration.”
Lucretia nodded and slid off her bed once more. “It is true. I sometimes feel Philip quite resents being the heir, if for no other reason than Papa is much stricter with him than with myself or Victor. And David as well. They both chose to live so far away from us.”
“His Grace does favor you and Victor, it cannot be denied.”
Lucretia bit her lip as she pondered this. It was true. Her father always gave her and Victor whatever they wanted, while their older brothers were treated with a firmer hand. She knew why this was. Philip had to one day fill their father’s shoes, and if he could not, then David had to.
It was not as though their father was unkind. He treated all of his children with love and gave them authority over their own lives that was almost unheard of among the nobility. They each chose their spouse, regardless of their background or whether the match was beneficial. Mary, a mere Baron’s daughter, would not have been deemed acceptable as the wife of a Duke’s heir, but their father made no objections to Philip’s choice. Nor David’s chosen bride, the daughter of a Baronet.
“You are doing it again. You are deep in thought.”
“I am, Charlotte. But not about the fire. I know I cannot do anything about the past now. I simply thought about how lovely it would be for all of us to be as close as you, Victor, and I. But I know that to Philip and David, I will always be peculiar.”
“That is not true. You are different, that is all. They do
not know what to make of a Lady who doesn’t spend all of her time going into London to visit Almack’s or the theater. Their wives are bright stars on the sky of Society, and they cannot understand why you do not wish to sparkle alongside them. For you certainly could.”
Lucretia sighed and made her way across the cold floor to the bell in the corner. As she rang it for her maid, Teresa, she shrugged.
“I shall have to shine bright at the ball if I want to raise enough for all three societies, as well as the orphanage.”
Charlotte turned and placed both hands on Lucretia’s shoulders. “And you will. You will be the brightest star in the sky and the reticules and wallets shall fly open.”
“I can only hope so,” Lucretia replied.
Charlotte dropped her hands and sighed. “It will be glorious, I know it. His Grace will be ever so proud. And his steward so relieved when he finds you can raise funds on your own and do not have to keep using the estate’s funds.”
Lucretia chuckled. “That, my dear, are the truest words ever spoken.”
And with that, Charlotte slipped out of the door and back to her own chamber across the hall, leaving Lucretia to contemplate her visage in the mirror. Twelve years had passed since that fateful day in Haverton. Twelve years during which she’d grown from a spoiled child that wouldn’t listen to her governess to the Lady who championed more charitable societies than any other. On Friday, she’d host the very first ball aimed to raise funds for three of her favorite charities, as well as the orphanage of which she was patroness.
Would it be enough, she wondered? Enough to ease her guilty conscious? Enough to put the nightmares to rest at last? She sighed as her slender shoulders dropped. She already knew the answer. It would not be. Nothing would ever be enough to drive away the image of the poor man’s hands sliding into the roaring fire.
She knew the only thing that would ever ease her mind would be finding him and apologizing for leaving him behind in that hell. For even though she’d escaped the flames, she’d never truly escaped the horror. It followed her and influenced every decision she made, and it would from now until the end of her days.
Lucretia was about to settled in her chair to wait for Teresa to dress her for the day when from outside, the sound of a horse galloping down the driveway drew her attention. She rushed to the windowsill, pushed her palms upon it and peered down through the open window.
The moment her eyes settled on the rider, she gasped and took a step back, clutching her neck. Down below stood a messenger and his livery filled her at once with dread—it was a messenger from Court. And when a Royal Messenger arrived with such haste, it only ever meant one thing: Terrible, terrible tidings.
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