About the book
"Prove to me that your desire is as strong as mine…"
Lady Meredith Cluett hides a dark secret.
Blamed for her own mother’s murder, she has lived her life in misery and isolation. When she’s forced to attend a social event, accusing whispers follow her wherever she goes. Fleeing in panic, she comes across her passionate demise; the same Duke that has haunted her dreams for years.
Heath Fillion, the Duke of Catlemore, hates nobles with a passion. So much so that he steals and terrorizes them in hopes of erasing his childhood pain. Until a fateful night leads him straight in the path of the one lady he can’t help but wish to protect. And make her his.
Brought together by a thirst for revenge, the red string of fate binds them together in secrets and in love. Forced to shoulder the punishment for sins they never committed, they race to escape the shadow hunting them: a wolf in sheep’s clothing that holds the key to their past. And their deaths.
“It’s just like you to do this.” The words were not as sharp as they should be, nearly lost in the strong gust of wind that rushed by them. Goose bumps rose on Heath’s skin, but he did not shiver. He only pulled his long coat closer to his body, tucking his hands in as he sent a grin back over his shoulder. He could feel the cold butt of his pistol, and the chill seemed to last a little longer than it should.
“If you know this is just like me, then you should stop complaining,” he said. “It doesn’t paint you in the best light.”
“We’re men in a gang, Heath,” said his close friend, Phillip Gale. “We never practice standing in the light anyhow.”
Heath’s grin widened. It was just like Phillip to mark their surveillance with his complaining, his words always coming out like a hiss. If you didn’t know him well, you would think he was upset at the very world, that everything seemed to bother him. Heath knew that Phillip just liked to hear himself talk.
On a night such as this, Phillip’s rambling took on a whole new level. He stood behind Heath, also tucking his hands inside his coat to ward off the cold, bouncing from one foot to the other. A silvery cloud of air disappeared before his face with every excited breath he took. He was clearly eager to get back into the swing of things.
“When is he going to get here?” Phillip asked, peering over Heath’s shoulder. He was right about one thing. They never made it a habit to stand in the light. The gaslight lamps lining the London roads cast dark shadows in the alleyway where they stood. Where they hid. Waiting.
“If you weren’t planning on being patient, then you should not have come.”
“Say that again, Heath, I dare you.”
Heath only huffed a laugh, not taking Phillip’s threat seriously. Phillip wouldn’t hurt him. He was loyal to Heath and to the rest of the gang. And with the injury he’d just managed to heal from, Heath knew that he would be able to take Phillip down if he ever tried.
From what Heath had heard, the gang’s last robbery had been a tough one. Phillip had let his emotions get the better of him once again. He’d stared down the barrel of a flintlock pistol, not caring whether he got hurt. Apparently, everything had already been going wrong and Phillip had been too angry or too upset, to let the ladies in the carriages leave with their things. When everyone else had wisely made their escape, he had tried to take down the brave gentleman who had dared to face him, and had earned a shot in the leg in the process.
Or, it would have been the leg had the bullet not torn through his muscles and embedded itself in the cobblestone. The gentleman and the ladies had escaped. Phillip had been carried back to their hideout. And their leader had ordered him to rest and heal before even thinking about going back out there.
Heath had been too busy taking care of his other responsibilities, so he hadn’t been there. But when he’d learned of what happened, he could easily imagine how Phillip had taken that order. Had Heath been present, nothing like that would have happened. Sometimes, he wondered if his life would be easier if he could be as cold as Phillip could be.
“This is taking too long.” Phillip was getting antsy. He began pacing, trying not to make his new limp obvious. He hated it, just as much as he hated the many different scars he had on his body. To Phillip, they were a sign of weakness.
Heath loved his scars. They were a reminder. That the world was not truly the beautiful world of poetry, and parties, and the frivolous gossip of the ton. It was filled with pain, scars, and death. He would not forget that. Would not allow himself to.
“Stop your pacing,” he said to Phillip. He kept his eyes on the road, waiting for the right carriage to draw near. “You’re going to draw attention.”
“Oh, yes, as if you aren’t doing that well enough yourself,” Phillip grumbled.
“Are you saying I’m handsome, Phillip?” Heath asked dryly. The wind persisted and the cold was drawing an annoying shiver close. “How kind of you.”
“As if you haven’t heard that enough yourself. How many times have those groveling ladies in those fancy balls told you how they would love to be married to you?”
“Watch it, Phillip. Your jealousy is showing.”
Phillip snorted. He looked over Heath’s shoulder again and then stalked away. “I could never be jealous of you and those stupid balls.”
“Not me.” For the first time since they’d arrived, Heath took his eyes off the road and looked back at his friend, giving him a nasty grin. “The ladies. It is no secret that you fancy me.”
Phillip’s response to that was to kick Heath in the back of his knee. It didn’t really hurt, but it did make him crumple a bit. He straightened, chuckling.
Phillip would always bring up Heath’s situation, one that was odd for someone like him. He would poke fun at Heath for the most part, but Heath knew that there was an underlying anger hidden in Phillip’s words. He didn’t let it bother him tonight, just as he wouldn’t let it bother him any other night. Heath had long ago promised himself that nothing would get under his skin, that nothing would have the chance to break him.
His gaze remained on the road, watching as carriages came and went, never the one they were waiting for. He didn’t want to think about his title.
That person is not me. That is only a mask I wear.
To become the true him, he stood here, waiting and plotting.
The leader of their gang had sent him and Phillip alone because they were the best duo. Even though they had a tendency to bicker like children, mostly on Phillip’s part, their plans rarely ever failed. Heath had a feeling that, had he been there that night, Phillip would not have been injured.
“What’s wrong with you?” Phillip shoved him as he asked the question. Heath didn’t look back at him.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re quiet. You’re never quiet. Normally, you would be talking my ear off.”
“I think you might have gotten our roles confused.”
“Something is wrong with you.” Phillip shoved him again, as if that would get the answer out him. “Tell me what it is. Because if you cause this to go wrong for us then I’m not going to let you forget it.”
“When have I ever caused anything to go wrong?” he asked with just a touch of arrogance. But it was true. He’d never botched a robbery before.
Phillip snorted. “I’m sure if you give me some time, I can think of one instance.”
“Take all the time you need.” And then he saw the carriage and that wicked grin spread across his face. “Or, on second thought, you might want to save the thinking for later.”
Phillip was quick to peer over his shoulder. “Is that him?”
“In the flesh.”
“Finally. Now, the show can truly begin.” Heath could hear the elation in this voice.
They didn’t move, not right away. But Heath’s finger stroked the pistol he had hidden within the folds of his coat, watching the horses pull the extravagant carriage up to the entrance of the theater.
The show would truly begin, but not in the manner that the Duke of Hensworth thought. Heath had already spotted the Duke’s bold crest on the carriage as it arrived, knowing that he would be inside. Just earlier today, the Duke had told Heath of his plans to visit Drury Lane Theatre and Heath had taken that information to the rest of his gang.
He didn’t know the Duke well, but he knew he was a strapping man who was nearing his fortieth year and was quite skill at fencing. As such, he would prove to be a challenge and that was all Heath needed tonight. A challenge. Something to take his mind off the things that had been following him all day.
He watched as the Duke exited his carriage and patted his hair. The Duchess of Hensworth had come along with him and together, they made a lovely pair, with bright smiles and excited eyes. Heath felt a tremor of his own excitement knowing that he would be the one to wipe that happiness from their faces.
“Wait,” he said, knowing that Phillip was ready to get going. He heard his friend spit at the ground behind him. Somehow, he’d managed to make it sound impatient, but was happy he said nothing.
Phillip watched as the pair engaged in conversation with the Earl of Rentley, who Heath had also known would be attending. “Go,” he whispered and Phillip was gone.
He watched Phillip’s figure dart across the road, always staying within the shadows. Despite his just-healed injury, he moved swiftly, without delay. He was standing by the carriage within moments and Heath saw a flash of light when Phillip withdrew his knife and held it up to the coachman.
Just as he wanted, the coachman made a strangled cry for help which drew the attention of the Duke of Hensworth and his wife. Heath stepped out from the corner.
He pulled his pistol free, made sure his mask was covering most of his face before he stepped closer. As he should, he stayed on the fringes of the light, still bathed in blackness even as he leveled his pistol at the Duke. “Give me everything you have.”
The Duke went still, paling. The Duchess let out a little squeak and she tried to shield herself behind her husband. The Earl was an exciting wild card, one that Heath wasn’t sure would end well for him. The Earl was quite the coward. He might run, he might fall unconscious, or Heath might be able to rob him as well.
“Everything you have!” Heath pressed, cocking the pistol higher. Tears were already streaming down the Duchess’ face. He knew they wouldn’t recognize his voice past the mask, but he kept his words short nonetheless.
“We won’t bend to the likes of you,” the Duke spat.
Heath grinned behind his mask. Perhaps the Duke would have been enough of a challenge for him.
He had his finger on the trigger, willing to pull it if necessary. It didn’t matter that there was a woman present, or that he might take their lives. For now, he needed to escape his reality and this was one of the best ways he knew how.
Memories of the past had been resurfacing all day, memories he’d spent years putting aside. They were the ones he didn’t care to hold on to, the ones that he didn’t need to drive his thirst for revenge. They only reminded him of the person he’d once been. Kind. Caring. Positive. Those words could no longer be used to describe him.
The Earl tried to run. Heath looked sharply at him, but he kept his hand steady, still pointed at the Duke’s forehead. He found bullets to the head to be the most effective.
Suddenly, Phillip was there, trapping the Earl in his arms and throwing him to the ground. He fell into a puddle that had been there for days. Phillip grinned maniacally, levelling his own pistol at the Earl.
“You too,” Phillip told him. “Unless you want to die here in the streets.”
“David just give him everything you have,” the Duchess said in a frantic whisper.
Heath cocked his chin at her. “You, as well, dear. I couldn’t very well part without that emerald necklace around your neck.”
With trembling fingers, she unclasped her necklace and reached out to give it to him. Her husband stopped her, his eyes narrowing. “Take the carriage,” the Duke said. “I know that’s what you really want. Take the carriage and everything I have in it and leave us be.”
“Are you that attached to a necklace?” Phillip asked idly. Heath looked over, amused. It seemed the Earl had done both. Ran and fell unconscious. They could rob him easily enough.
“It was her mother’s and I would appreciate it if it stayed with us.”
Heath and Phillip exchanged looks. Even though they were both wearing masks, Heath knew they were both smiling.
“The necklace,” Heath demanded. “Or I will shoot you.”
The Duchess stifled a sob behind her hand but she tossed the necklace over, bypassing her husband’s hand. It landed at Heath’s feet. He bent to pick it up, knowing what would happen next.
The Duke attacked him. The Duchess screamed. Heath dropped his gun and accidentally kicked it away, longing for a good old-fashioned fist fight. He tussled with the Duke for a few moments before he managed to throw him off, the Duke landing heavily on his back. For all his fencing knowledge, nothing would prepare the Duke for the anger that had been unleashed in Heath, anger he’d been carrying around with him for so many years.
He crawled atop the Duke and pummeled his fist into his face. Once. Twice. And then three times before he was certain the Duke would stay down. Blood coated his knuckles but as he looked down at the man beneath him, Heath knew the injury would be nothing his riches wouldn’t be able to handle.
He got to his feet and retrieved his pistol. Just like the Earl, the Duchess had fallen unconscious and Phillip, who had been holding her still, tossed her aside in disgust. “Women,” he spat.
Heath didn’t say anything. He retrieved the necklace and then went to the carriage. He found the coachman in the street, a gash across his forehead.
“Subtle,” he mumbled to Phillip.
“I didn’t know him but I could tell he was annoying,” Phillip justified. They both climbed behind the horses.
A groan made Heath pause. He looked down at the Duke to see him valiantly trying to roll onto his side. Blood gushed from his nose. “Who…” he rasped. “…are you?”
Heath looked back to the front.
“We’re the Red Fiends,” Phillip sang, already merry from their victory. “Though, I doubt you’ve heard of us. Until next time, Your Grace.”
Heath didn’t wait for the Duke to say any more. They took off into the night, Phillip’s laughter echoing in the wind around them. Heath tried his best to pull his smile to the fore.
Meredith had been sitting in the same spot for hours. She didn’t know how much time passed. She didn’t realize that it had truly been hours rather than minutes until someone entered the room and closed the door a little louder than needed. She jolted and then blinked, noticing suddenly that the sun was not so high in the sky anymore. It was drifting down toward the horizon, the faintest splash of pink and orange bathing the earth below it.
Whoever had just entered approached slowly, tentatively. All of a sudden, Meredith no longer saw the oncoming sunset, nor could she feel that gentle breeze that was colder than it had been when she’d first sat down at the window. She was listening to the gentle footsteps behind her, and she folded her fingers together, trying to mask her rising nervousness.
The footsteps stopped. Her heart thudded. There was no telling who was behind her. It was likely her father, or perhaps Jenny. But what if it wasn’t? What if it was the butler, Stanley, coming to tell her something? Or one of her father’s friends who visited from time to time? Or perhaps a maid who hadn’t even noticed she was sitting there when she entered because of who quite she’d been—
Relief flooded her at the sound of her father’s voice. Meredith turned to look at his face, noticing the usual worried crease of his brow. He was standing a few steps away from the chaise she sat on.
She said nothing, only faced him. Her rapidly beating heart began to calm. She looked up expectantly at him.
Lord William Cluett, the Earl of Pebblebrook, was a wiry thin man. Meredith was happy to look at him at times, to see how differently he looked from her. From their dark brown hair, to the heavy lidded green eyes, to their small mouths.
The Earl chose to sit on a sofa a short distance away from Meredith’s chaise. He placed his hands on his knees, slowly, keeping his eyes on Meredith. “There is a matter I would like to speak to you about.”
Again, she said nothing. She saw no reason to speak.
“You are a beautiful lady. And the very last thing I want is for you to waste your days away sitting by the window and staring at the sky.” He glanced out the window as he said that, as if wondering if there was something she had been staring at. There wasn’t. Meredith remembered sitting by the window to enjoy the cool breeze and her mind wandered so much that she hadn’t realized so much time had passed.
“Father?” Her voice was but a squeak. The sound almost felt foreign to her own ears. She hadn’t said anything all day, she realized. “Are you all right?”
“Certainly, Meredith,” the Earl said with a sigh, his shoulder’s sagging. “It is you I worry for.”
Meredith bit her lip. The Earl tensed.
She didn’t know what he would say but she knew she wouldn’t like it. He was looking at her as if she were a scared animal, as if he needed only make one false move and she would go bolting out the door. But that was impossible. He was her father; she would never run from him. If it were someone else, however…
“It is fine, Father,” she said tenderly. “You may say it.”
He swallowed. Clearly, he was not convinced. “Tonight, there will be a ball hosted by the Countess of Millson. We shall both be attending.”
Meredith sucked in a sharp breath. She saw her father tense for a moment, but then she didn’t see anything. The room seemed to blur a bit as a wave of anxiety came over her. She clutched her dress, remembering to breath.
“I know you do not fancy balls, Meredith,” he said, his voice stronger now. As if he was forging ahead, having already dealt the worst blow. “But you must remember that you have a reputation you need to uphold. Attending this ball will put you in the eyes of the ton again, it will save you from being labeled a recluse. And perhaps we may be approached by a prospective suitor.”
That only stole her breath. She could hardly fathom the thought of attending a ball, surrounded by so many people. To be married to someone as well?
“Meredith.” Suddenly, her father was by her side. She felt his large hands on his arms, holding her gently, the way she preferred to be held if she ever needed to be. With as little embrace as possible. “I understand that you are afraid. But I have already told Lady Millson that we will both be in attendance. I think you will feel a little better if you go to your bedchamber and think of what you should wear.”
On the contrary, that would only make it more difficult for her to breathe. But Meredith didn’t think her father would understand. He never truly understood, though she knew he always tried to. No one could understand why she had drawn into herself like this, why it was so difficult of her to crawl her way out.
If he had understood, the very thought of having her attend this ball would never have crossed his mind. Meredith didn’t think she could bear the thought of attending.
She nodded at him as she stood and said nothing as she left. Tears blurred her eyes but they never fell. The only good thing that had come out of her new weakened state was the ability to keep her tears from streaking past her cheeks. If they ever did, there would be no stopping them.
Blindly, she made her way to her bedchamber just as her father had suggested. But she didn’t go there to pick out her gown for the evening. She wished to lie in her bed and ponder the fate that would await her tonight if she were to attend.
She hadn’t expected to see Jenny already there. Jenny Davies, her lady’s maid, straightened at Meredith’s entrance and the moment she spotted the tears shimmering in Meredith’s eyes, she rushed over.
“What happened?” she demanded to know.
Meredith shook her head. She brushed past Jenny and went straight toward the doors that led out to her balcony. She enjoyed the breeze, the colder the better. It calmed her.
Jenny followed her. Tendrils of her orange hair was pulled free from its chignon by the wind, bringing a flush to her pale skin. She came to Meredith’s side, not hiding her worried gaze.
“You’re crying,” she pointed. “Usually, that means something bad has happened.”
Meredith gazed out before her. Thankfully, her room faced the gardens and her balcony hovered near the rose garden her mother had loved so much. The smell calmed her. “Father wishes for me to attend a ball tonight.”
“Oh.” Jenny understood. She knew Meredith’s pain and she was aware that the last thing Meredith wanted was to come face to face with the result of that pain. “Have you told him you do not wish to attend?”
Meredith shook her head.
“I suppose he would already know that,” Jenny mused aloud. She sighed, casting her gaze past the gardens. “Perhaps it is a good thing.”
“Pardon?” Meredith gasped in disbelief. “Good?”
Jenny nodded. Her eyes were the most dazzling shade of brown in the setting sun. “You have not left the manor in years, Meredith.”
“I go to the gardens.”
“That hardly counts and I’m certain you know it.” From the corner of her eye, Meredith saw Jenny reach her hand out, then retract it. Jenny was a very warm person, who shared her emotions with her body. With a hug, a touch on the hand.
“I cannot go.” Meredith shook her head vehemently, her voice barely above a whisper. She was already seeing it. Leaving her safe haven and facing the ton—it was one of her worst nightmares come true.
“You can.” Meredith knew Jenny wanted to take her hands but was holding back. “You’re stronger than you think, Meredith. And I doubt it will be as terrible as you think. Perhaps no one will even notice you’re there.”
Any other lady would not pray for such a thing, not the way Meredith did. She shook her head again, turning away from the railing and walking back into her bedchamber. “I cannot. I will speak to Father about this and tell him that I will not attend.”
“Only one ball, Meredith,” Jenny called from behind. Her voiced was tinged with desperation. “Only one ball and then you can tell your father that you do not wish to attend any other.”
Meredith paused. Her father had said he only wanted to protect her image, to change it from a recluse. Certainly, all it would take is to attend one ball?
She went over to the vanity table, hesitating to look. When she raised her eyes to the mirror, she saw her mother and her heart wrenched. She resembled her so much—the same golden hair, the round, brown eyes, the heart-shaped lips. Her beautiful, spirited mother who had lived for adventure, who’d had her life taken from her right before Meredith’s eyes.
When she looked at herself in the mirror, she did not only see her mother, but she saw her death as well. She saw the terror and she heard the screams and she saw her mother’s eyes drift closed, never to open again. When she looked at herself in the mirror, Meredith saw the girl she’d once been, much like her mother. Someone who had been adventurous, out-spoken, and energetic. In her now tortured eyes, the past was the only thing she could see.
“Very well,” she said, so low that she wondered if Jenny heard her. “I’ll attend the ball.”
Meredith wanted nothing more than to jump from the carriage and run.
Lady Millson’s ball was much too loud and much too full with people. Meredith had not even entered yet and she was already tensing in trepidation. She tried to channel all those negative feelings to a central point, her fingertips. She pushed her fingers against it each other, scratched at the tips with her nails. It kept her from biting her lip.
“Meredith, you will be fine,” came her father’s voice. She didn’t look at him. Of course, he would say such a thing. He only wanted her to feel better and while she appreciated the thought, it didn’t help.
She continued to watch the driveway leading up to Millson House grow shorter and the noise grew louder. The ballroom was next to the gardens, which was the only positive note in all of this. If things grew difficult, she could always escape out there. She could drink in the fresh breeze, the scent of the flowers, and listen to the creatures of the night rather than the music from the ball.
The carriage came to a halt. Meredith’s heart pounded even harder. The door was opened and a footman helped her out. She pulled her hand away from him as quickly as she could.
Her father stayed by the carriage as she was helped out by a footman. Meredith saw flickers of worry in his green eyes and she wanted to give him a smile, to tell him that she would be fine, even if she didn’t quite believe it.
He only wants the best for me. At the very least, I should try to enjoy this night.
Telling herself that didn’t help as much as she hoped, but she steeled all her resolve and walked alongside her father toward the ball.
She was right. The entire ballroom seemed to explode with noise and vigor. The ball was in full swing, chatter warring with the music emanating from the corner of the large ballroom. Each lady added to the explosion of color within the ballroom and Meredith was suddenly happy she’d allowed Jenny to make the decisions regarding her gown for the night.
Over the past few years, her father had made sure to regularly update her wardrobe. It was to little avail. Meredith wore nothing but black and grey, simple dresses that was not very befitting the daughter of an Earl. She cared little about how she looked, but she knew that sort of lackluster attitude would only make her stand out at the ball. She wanted to be the fly on the wall.
So, Jenny had chosen a coral gown, one she claimed made her cheeks look rosier than usual. She’d drawn Meredith’s hair up in intricate curls, leaving tendrils framing her face. Similar hairstyles could be seen as she ventured into the thick of the crowd. Meredith wondered if Jenny had known that would make it easy for her to blend in.
“How are you doing, Meredith?” her father whispered to her.
Terribly. She could hardly breathe. Her eyes were close to swimming with tears and she blinked them away. “I am fine, Father,” she said.
“Good. Now, be strong. Lady Millson approaches.”
The warning gave her little time to prepare. Meredith looked sharply to the left, noting that there was indeed a lady making her way over to them. Meredith took a step back, using her father’s thin frame to shield her from view.
“Lord Pebblebrook!” Lady Millson said loudly. Heavens, why did she have to be loud? She had a bright smile as she greeted Meredith’s father. “It is lovely to see you. I must say, I am quite honored that you and your daughter have chosen to attend my humble ball.”
“There are many ways you can describe this event, My Lady, but humble is certainly not one way of doing so.” Her father had easily slipped into his usually charming self. He swung his arm around and pulled Meredith forward. She felt a sharp stab of betrayal. “I do not think you have met my daughter as yet, have you? This is Lady Meredith.”
“How do you do, Lady Meredith?” Lady Millson said brightly, her eyes filled with interest.
Meredith, to avoid her eyes, curtsied deeply and then took a step behind her father again.
“You must forgive her,” said her father. “She is a bit shy.”
“Oh, I see. Well, I’m certain her shyness will not last throughout the night. If there is anyone you would like to meet, Lady Meredith, do not hesitate to come and see me.”
Meredith didn’t look up to see when she left. Regret coursed through her. She shouldn’t have come here.
“Do not worry, Meredith,” her father said to her. “She is right. It will get easier.”
“How do you know?” Her voice was just a whisper. She looked up to see her father staring down at her mouth, as if he was trying to read her lips. She spoke up. “How do you know it will be better?”
“Because everything is difficult at first. You only need to keep trying at it and over time, you will be able to relax a little.”
Meredith resisted the urge to shake her head again. She couldn’t believe it was that easy. It didn’t seem possible for her to simply go back to normal again, not after all she’d been through.
“Look.” Her father touched her lightly on her arm, then jerked his chin toward the refreshments table. “That is Lord Foxinton and his daughter, Lady Clarissa. I have met her once before, when I visited their abbey. She is very kind. Perhaps you could make friends with her.”
Lady Clarissa truly did look kind. It surprised Meredith. She’d never simply looked at a person before and assumed that they could not hurt a fly. She was quite pretty too, with white-blond hair and clear eyes Meredith could see from the distance.
“You need only say hello,” her father urged. “She will handle the rest, I’m certain.”
Meredith tightened her lips. She didn’t want to be alone all her life. She didn’t want to stay like this, weighed down by her crippling nervous condition. She wanted to be normal again.
Her father might be right. This might be first step.
“All right,” she said. She summoned all her courage, to take the first step. “I will.”
“That’s my girl.” He patted her lightly on the shoulder, his pride evident in his voice.
Meredith used the sound of that pride to carry her all the way to the refreshments table. She faltered a bit when she saw Lord Foxinton take a few steps away from his daughter, engaging in a conversation with another lord. Then she kept going, not stopping until she was standing by her.
“Good evening,” she said nervously.
Lady Clarissa looked at her, brows lifted. “Good day,” she greeted, her voice tinged with surprise.
Meredith stared at her, knowing that she should say something else but finding it difficult to speak. Finally, she managed it. “My name is Lady Meredith Cluett. The Earl of Pebblebrook is my father.”
“Ah, the Earl of Pebblebook? I have met him. It is wonderful to meet you, Lady Meredith.” Lady Clarissa curtsied and gave her a wide smile.
Meredith didn’t know what to do other than to return the curtsy. She truly did seem kind.
“Are you enjoying the ball so far, Lady Meredith?” Lady Clarissa asked.
“I have…only just arrived.”
“So have I,” she said. “My dance card is full but I am taking a short rest. If I don’t, I will be dancing all night.”
Meredith blinked. Her dance card had no hopes of being full, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t believe she was having a conversation with someone other than her father and Jenny.
“Would you…would you like for me to bring you a drink?” Meredith asked her.
Lady Clarissa looked surprised at that. “Oh, heavens, would you? That is so kind!”
Meredith almost smiled. She turned away, trailing along the long refreshments table towards the drinks. A hint of confidence sparked within her. It had been so long since she’d spoken to someone outside her home, to a real girl. She’d been so afraid, so bogged down by her pain that she hadn’t opened herself up to the thought. She was shaking, but she couldn’t tell if it was a good thing this time.
As she continued along, she heard her name. It gave her pause. Meredith looked up to see a pair of eyes on her before they quickly looked away. Her heart sank.
They’re gossiping about me.
It was a small group of ladies, clearly not bothering to hide that fact. Meredith felt the room close in on her and, on stiff legs, she turned.
As if through some wicked fate, she heard her name again. It drifted from somewhere else, another group of gossiping ladies. They looked much older and they stared openly at her, some with disgust, others with fear.
She heard what they were saying. Suddenly, it was as if she could hear what they were all saying. The whispers swirled around her head, droned in her mind, reinforced the things she’d told herself a thousand times.
They were talking about her trial.
She heard the words murderer and her heart seized with pain. She started walking again, trying to escape it.
But she couldn’t. Murderer. Freak. Killer.
She heard it all. Or perhaps those were words that were rising within her, words she’d tried to suppress. They were all talking about her, all saying the things she refused to think about herself.
Tears blurred her vision. This time, she couldn’t stop them from overflowing.
Lady Clarissa’s voice was distant as she streaked by her. By now, Meredith knew that more people were looking at her. How could they not when she painted such a vision, dressed in red like the killer they thought her to be? She grabbed ahold of her dress, not caring how far she ran, just as long as she could escape it.
Meredith gulped a large breath of fresh air the moment she escaped the ballroom, but she didn’t stop. She heard someone shout, but she kept going, her slippers unprepared for the harsh slap of the driveway. She dashed past the carriages and kept going until she was completely off the manor grounds.
She was heaving, crying and running. How could I have thought they would forget the scandal? The reputation that follows me everywhere I go...
Her father was foolish to think they could repair it. The trauma was not the only thing that could rip her to shreds. The aftermath would, as well. And that was a brand that she would carry with her for the rest of her life.
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