About the book
His seductive eyes call to her…
There’s not one thing Lady Lydia James desires more than freedom.
Having spent her life imprisoned in her own home, the chance to attend her friend’s ball is the taste of liberty she has been wishing for. Even more so when she meets her own passionate demise at the hands of a handsome stranger.
The warmth inside Nathaniel Gregory, Earl of Granham, has long died. After losing both of his parents, he has closed himself off from the rest of the world. Until an encounter with Lady Lydia ignites the fires of desire in his heart once more.
Lydia and Nathaniel’s plan to spend their lives together sink when it becomes apparent that someone wants them gone. Terrible rumors about an incident from Nathaniel’s past spark outrage. The same fire that brought them together just might tear them apart. By claiming Lydia’s life first...
Escaping the Tower
"Dear Lady Catherine: I regret to inform you that I will be unable to attend the fete celebrating your birthday on 11 March. Words cannot express my sorrow at being kept away from a celebration for such a treasured friend, but I fear that…”
Lydia James’ pen paused, unable to continue. Her gaze turned upward to the immaculate velvet drapery that annoyingly blotted out most of the meager late-winter sunlight that came into her chamber. She furrowed her brow, searching for a sufficiently believable excuse out the window, on the ceiling, nestled in the sparkling recesses of the geode that stood on her writing desk. Finding none, as frequently happened in moments of quiet contemplation, her imagination began unbidden to supply instead all manner of fantastical events.
Perhaps the curse of a malevolent witch could keep me from Catherine’s party, she thought with a smile, or being carried away by wild beasts.
Her reverie was interrupted when she noticed the pool of ink that had flowed from her pen, ruining the paper. Stifling a mild curse, she blotted the spilled ink and drew a fresh sheet of paper from one of the desk drawers. With a mischievous grin spreading across her rosy cheeks, she began once more:
“Dear Lady Catherine: Happy birthday, My Beloved Friend! It is with great sorrow that I inform you that I will not be able to extend my well wishes to you in person, as I have been carried off by a murderous gang of bandits. I write you having been forced into marriage to their Laird, a ferocious and lusty Scotsman more than seven feet tall, and consequently will also not be able to pay my respects to your Father the Marquess later this spring at his annual—”
“M’lady?” came a warm voice from behind her writing desk.
Surprised, Lydia dropped her pen and crumpled up her paper, the ink still wet. “What is it, Anna?” she said a bit more snappishly than she would have liked, embarrassed at having been interrupted in the middle of her fantasy.
The older woman stepped into the grand chamber, her eyes politely cast downward. “His Grace requests your presence at the breakfast table, M’lady.”
Lydia sighed. She knew her father did not enjoy waiting on her, but it was so terribly difficult to predict his moods. It seemed today he would be more social than usual, which meant she needed to be at her best. She rose from her desk at once, tossing her scrap of frivolity into the fireplace as she walked to the washbasin to remove the ink from her fingers.
“Writing trouble, M’lady?” Anna asked warmly.
Lydia flushed with embarrassment. “Just writing a letter telling Lady Catherine that I will not be attending her birthday party. I…spilled a blot of ink on it,” she said as she washed her hands with delicate lavender soap.
Anna tutted gently. “It’s most terrible His Grace won’t allow you to go to such affairs, M’lady.”
Lydia sighed once more, drying her hands and adjusting her mahogany-colored hair in the mirror. “Oh, Anna! I know he means well, but he may as well brick me away in a tower, he’s so restrictive.”
It just isn’t fair! she thought plaintively. Catherine told me that everyone in London will be there. She even said her father agreed to chalking the ballroom floor, just like the Prince Regent did for his Father’s birthday last year! Lydia had little idea what “chalking” could possibly be, but that curiosity only stoked her burning desire to attend the ball.
Then again, Lydia thought glumly, it’s not as though Father let me go to Catherine’s birthday last year. Or any of her other fetes. Or any other social event, for that matter. I may as well just run off to a convent right this instant, for all the excitement I’m allowed.
Her radiant green eyes batted back tears as she inspected her appearance for a moment longer. Though barely twenty years old, she was chagrined to see how full her figure had become, her womanly curves pushing her fashionably plain white morning dress too far forward and outward for her taste. She lifted a delicate hand to her too-rosy cheek, took a deep breath through her pert nose, and released it, collected once more.
“Well,” she said brightly, “time for breakfast with my jailor—Father, I mean.”
The high halls of Remdwin Manor were bright and cheery that chilly late March morning, and a roaring fire blazed away cheerily in the grand fireplace of the Duke’s private dining room. To Lydia, though, the elegant windows may as well have had iron bars across them, and the grounds of their estate the Chateau d’If.
From somewhere deep within her, she summoned a mannerly smile as she greeted her father, who sat at the far end of the table with a platter of fresh bread and smoked fish untouched before him. The dark eyes of Frederick James, the Duke of Remdwin, were fixed on something distant out the window, his face as stony and inscrutable as if it had been carved of marble. The walls of the dining room were covered with elaborate Oriental silk coverings depicting nature scenes in vivid greens and golds. Though the sun shone through onto these silks, suffusing the room in a warm shine, they were outmatched by the shadow the Duke cast over the scene.
“Father, I do apologize for keeping you waiting,” said Lydia as she sat at her usual chair opposite his.
Her father started, seemingly unaware she had entered the room. He took a deep, shuddering breath, his aging but muscular frame relaxing. “Dear Lydia, I was afraid something had happened to you. Please don’t worry me like that.”
“Thank you, Mister Dunlop,” Lydia said softly to the wrinkled servant who wordlessly brought her a plate of fruit and pastries. Though her stomach complained quietly, she refrained from eating as her father still had his eyes fixed on her, a strange smile playing across his face.
Poor Father, she thought to herself, her eyes fixed on the table before her though she still felt his gaze on her. He seems so unwell these days. Jailor or not, I must be patient with the poor, frightened man.
At last the silence was broken—as was the bread. “You know, Lydia,” said the Duke as he absentmindedly cut into his food, “that friend of yours? Kirkwood’s daughter, you know, the, ah, Lady Catherine?” Her heart skipped a beat, one which turned out to be several beats, as his sentence remained incomplete for a few moments while he chewed his breakfast thoughtfully.
“Yes?” Lydia asked at last, unable to contain her curiosity.
“Yes,” her father said, clearing his throat and wiping his chin with a napkin. “She, ah, had a birthday ball, you know. Will have, that is.”
Another silence settled over the room, one that threatened to be terminal. Lydia feigned interest in her own breakfast to restrain her racing thoughts.
“I’ve been hearing a great deal of gossip around town, you know, Lydia.”
“About Catherine?” she blurted.
“What? Oh, no, no. About you.”
What could anyone possibly have to say about me? Lydia thought, bewildered. I never go anywhere, nor do I speak with anyone. “Everyone” must be tremendous fabulists indeed!
“Well, not gossip, exactly, but people have been talking,” the Duke continued.
“Forgive me, Father, but I fail to see the distinction.”
The slightest hint of storm clouds gathered over the face of the Duke of Remdwin. “Now, Lydia, hear me out before you interrupt.”
She put her napkin to her mouth, though food still had not yet touched her lips.
Her father opened his mouth to continue, then shut it again. He looked for his words in the air between them, unfortunately finding little more than a few motes of dust. Patience, Lydia, patience, she reminded herself. It was disarming seeing her father in this state, though—was he actually embarrassed?
“You’ll have to understand, for someone in my position…” he tried, then stopped once more. “The Duke of Rexhen was telling me over backgammon that he…well, yes. And Watrough has some son or young cousin or something he’s trying to—”
The Duke waved his hands about, as if to clear the fog from his head, then began one last time: “Although you and I both know that the world has more than its share of cruelties…and, well, the ton possesses greater dangers still, ones that a young woman, even a maid of ten and seven—”
“Father, I’m twenty years old,” she threw into the long gap between his words. She clapped a hand to her mouth, but he seemed to have forgotten his decree against interruption.
“Twenty, yes, quite. The thing is, as some of my peers have reminded me of late: if someone of our station doesn’t allow their daughter to, ah, debut socially, the hazards of not appearing begin to outweigh those cruelties.”
Lydia’s heart began to flutter once more. He isn’t saying…? He couldn’t be!
He leaned forward and fixed her with a playfully accusing smile. “And as you’ve asked me to attend such social functions—many, many times, isn’t that so?”
“Yes, Father.” Lydia’s cheeks reddened once more.
The Duke of Remdwin sighed. “You know, I have been spoiling you by allowing you to have Lady Catherine come to visit from time to time. I had hoped she would be a good influence on you, especially with so few other examples of womanhood here at the Manor. And especially because she was so good to you in the wake of all the…unpleasantness some years ago.”
“She is a good influence, Father!” Lydia objected. One more the Duke scowled and raised a finger to pause her interruption.
Well…it may be stretching the truth to call her a “good influence,” thought Lydia. But the prospect of losing her only friend filled her with such dread that she could hardly help herself.
“As I was saying. Only because Lady Catherine is such a dear friend of yours, and only as you have proven yourself a good and obedient daughter—perhaps the day has come that my Darling Girl should begin to make herself known to society.”
Before she knew what she was doing, Lydia had jumped to her feet and rushed forward to embrace her father. “Oh, thank you, Father!” she sang, her arms draped around the velvet shoulders of his jacket.
The Duke chuckled, then suddenly fell silent. She felt him stiffen under her arms, and she straightened to see a grave, fearful expression on his face. “Now, Lydia, you need to know that there are serious expectations for an adult lady’s behavior. Childish, ah, displays of affection like this must be curtailed. Do you understand?”
Chastened, she bowed her head. “Yes, Father.”
“This is very important, Lydia. Social functions are home to many, many dangers. You must be chaperoned. I will naturally attend the ball with you.”
“Of course, Father.” She fought to keep the smile from returning to her face.
“You will stay by my side at all times, and not sneak off to dance with every rowdy young buck who…well, with any rowdy young bucks.”
“And as you have not yet had your societal debut, you will not be allowed to engage in any wild or raucous cotillions, do you understand?”
Lydia scoffed. “Oh, Father, cotillions have not been in fashion for years.” At least, that’s what Catherine told me. “Lady Catherine will have the floor of her ballroom chalked! It’s frightfully popular.”
The Duke studied his daughter carefully, then sniffed. “Somehow you really have grown into a beautiful young lady right before my eyes, do you know that? You’ve become the very picture of your Mother.”
She moved forward to embrace him once more, then remembered herself and curtsied daintily instead. “Thank you, F—Your Grace.” They shared a tender smile.
Adventure has come for me at last! Lydia thought with glee, nearly skipping as she returned to her seat. Well, perhaps not a true adventure with bandits and gypsies and such, but it’s something, at least!
“No, M’lady, not just yet!”
Lydia tried to steady her breathing, her maid’s fingers tickling and pinching as she adjusted…whatever it was she was adorning her with. I’m sure Catherine doesn’t need someone to teach her how to wear her gown, she grumbled to herself. Anna had suggested Lydia refrain from looking at herself in the mirror until she was completely ready to go. Lydia had laughingly agreed, closing her eyes during the dressing process. But this was taking ages!
March had come at a crawl so slow it seemed almost vindictive, with days dragging by as slow as molasses. Although Lydia was hard-pressed to remember anything that had transpired since her father had agreed to let her attend Catherine’s birthday, come to think of it.
Now the glorious day had come, and when Lydia arose in the morning she realized that her impatience had been replaced with a bizarre trepidation. It was as though her stomach was attempting to gnaw a hole through her abdomen and run off into the hills.
What am I so afraid of? Lydia wondered, not for the first time. All it is a party at Catherine’s house! She’s been over here a hundred times to visit at Father’s or my invitation, after all. How different could Kirkwood Hall be? Surely it will just be a grand ball with hundreds of people I don’t know and dances I’ve only studied in books and handsome young men looking to dance and…oh my, what have I—
Lydia’s eyes fluttered open. Before her stood a glamorous young woman in a shimmering white gown, like Galatea standing in a column of angelic light. Twinkling from all corners of her fillet-Greek hairstyle that topped her head fashionably were shining blue jewels, so many that she looked like a constellation stepped down from the astral firmament. The only flaw she could detect in the woman’s radiant form was that her mouth seemed to be hanging open in shock.
It was only when Lydia recognized her mother’s emerald bracelet on the woman’s bare porcelain-colored arm that she realized who she was looking at.
“Is…am I…?” she stammered.
“Yes, M’lady!” Anna said, so pleased she began to tear up.
Lydia stared at this vision for another minute, then collected herself. She turned to Anna, her eyes glinting.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” she laughed. “Adventure awaits!”
A Dance with Chalk
The grounds of Kirkwood Hall danced by the window of the carriage, lit up all in orange by the dramatic sunset. Lydia fancied the tall, manicured pine trees grown in perfect rows to be tall, dashing gentlemen arrayed for a quadrille, bowing her head to each partner as they passed it by.
“Is the ride too bumpy for you, Lydia?” her father asked with a cough. Then he continued without waiting for her to respond, “I’d better tell Lucas to slow down so you don’t get dizzy from all the jostling.”
“Father, I’m fine, thank you.” She urged herself to restrain her imagination, at least for a little while. As necessary as it might be to preserve her sanity in the cold, barren Remdwin Manor, for once reality had more to offer her, and she would be foolish to daydream through her first real party.
At last the carriage lurched to a stop in front of the grandeur of Kirkwood Hall. Lydia felt her eyes drink in every glorious sight before her as though she had been stranded on Mister Defoe’s famous desert island. Though she had heard Catherine describe her home many times, she had never seen such a sight as this!
The great green Kirkwood courtyard had been festooned in flowers of every imaginable color—brilliant blue orchids, roses of purple and yellow and orange, chrysanthemums exploding in amber, delicate fuchsias, and alien blossoms in hues Lydia was sure she had never seen in any book. The squat stone estate of the Marquess of Kirkwood was in fact smaller than Remdwin, as befitted their families’ respective stations, but in her eyes it loomed larger and grander than any castle.
She was dimly aware of taking her father’s arm and walking toward the door. Somewhere there was a vast, echoing hubbub like nothing she had heard at home, one which grew louder as they stepped over the cobblestones to the mansion.
As the footman led them inside, Lydia stared wide-eyed at the splendor inside, which was nearly as colorful and lively as the decorations in front. It was so much warmer in here, so much brighter! Liveried servants scuttled about with gleaming silver trays of sweetmeats and crystal glasses, unseen by the far more spectacularly clad guests, who chatted and gestured and bowed and gestured to one another elegantly. The sweet strains of music floated through the air, which was heavy with warmth and the electricity of human contact. Adorning the walls were paintings of happy families and hunting scenes and fabulous decorations she could scarcely describe.
“His Grace, the Duke of Remdwin, Frederick James!” bellowed one of the servants as they walked through the door into the ballroom. “His daughter, the Lady Lydia James!” Hundreds of eyes turned toward them, and Lydia felt a lump grow in her throat.
There were just so many people! More people than she could ever remember having seen in her life—hundreds? So many of them were chatting and drinking and laughing with one another…although from the moment they entered, every one of them seemed to have at least one eye turned toward her, she realized with a tingle. All of them stood around a polished wooden floor covered with arcane designs and intricate white arabesques. Everything was so bursting with impossibly vivid life that Lydia was sure she would die right there from all the beauty before her.
Is that the “chalking” Catherine mentioned, on the floor? It’s so beautiful, I must take a closer look! But oh, where could that delicious smell be coming from? And is that Catherine I see over in the corner? I simply must give her my birthday wishes! The room was so full of possibility; she didn’t know what she wanted to do first.
“Hm, seems Kirkwood hasn’t served dinner yet,” her father groused. “Well, we should make our introductions. Come along.” Gracelessly, he pulled his daughter by the hand. Her heart sank as she saw his aim was the half-asleep Duke of Rexhen, standing gloomily among the old codgers in the corner.
Remembering her father’s instructions, Lydia tried so hard not to fidget or let her eyes wander, curtsying and greeting the harrumphing chorus of grandfathers as she had been taught. Truly, she struggled mightily not to do as her instincts told her and run wild across the ballroom floor, scoffing canapés like a madwoman and speaking with dashing young men and reveling in the beauty that surrounded her.
Her obedience was facilitated by her father’s iron grip on her arm. Each time she saw an old acquaintance and moved to greet them, she was pulled back as a fish on a line. The Duke of Remdwin shook his head sharply whenever she suggested she might speak to someone outside the circle of codgers. Even taking a half-step to one side to accept a glass of wine from a servant earned her a stern look and a sore forearm.
She looked longingly toward the door, pondering what other beauties were hidden in the rest of this wonderful house. Each time she saw an old acquaintance, grown so much more glamorous and adult since last she had seen them, the Duke gave a thunderous growl of disapproval, and Lydia could do little more than wave timidly from a distance.
Oh, this is even worse than if I’d simply stayed at home! she thought. Being deprived the pleasures and intrigues of life is somehow so much harder when they’re right in front of my face! Once more her imagination began to wander, her father’s conversation with some half-dead Earl melting into thoughts of monsters and dashing princes on horseback.
It was just when she overheard the subject of her potential for matrimony to a loutish nephew of one of the codgers that she heard a sweet voice cry “Lady Lydia!” from behind her.
She turned to see the smiling face of Lady Catherine, her carrot-orange hair arranged in tight curls cascading to her shoulders. Catherine was a vision in a voluminous blue ball gown bedecked with ribbons and winking gemstones—hardly the fashion these days, or so Lydia had thought! Then again, there was little about Catherine that was conventional or understated.
“Cath…er, Lady Catherine!” Lydia exclaimed. Her hands dropped to her sides awkwardly as she remembered her father’s words and realized an embrace might be inappropriate. She needn’t have worried, though, as Catherine grabbed her hands and clutched them tightly, a beatific smile on her round face.
“Oh, my dear Lady Lydia, you really did come to my party after all!”
“I wouldn’t have dared miss it!” she giggled. Then, at a loud sound of throat-clearing behind her, Lydia regained her composure with some disappointment. “Lady Catherine, you of course remember my Father, His Grace, the Duke of Remdwin.”
Catherine gave a practiced curtsy to the Duke, her smile barely interrupted. “Your Grace.” He returned her courtesy with a much more pained smile.
Her eyes alighted on Lydia’s once more, and she emitted a giggle unbefitting a grown woman of five-and-twenty. “Lydia, I am so very cross with you, you know! How dare you keep me waiting so long? The festivities started in mid-morning!”
Lydia smiled, reassured at the familiarity of her good friend’s typically outrageous behavior. She was glad at least someone here seemed to be actually enjoying herself.
“Why,” she continued behind a raised hand, a conspiratorial twinkle in her eye, “Cousin Worthington has already had so much wine he’s gone off for a jolly nap in the shrubbery!” Lydia stifled a laugh, feeling her father’s disapproving glare beginning to burn a hole in the back of her dress.
Catherine must have noticed as well, but she continued impishly. “And you remember Lady Newton, the one who carried on so horridly with that Frenchman last summer?”
“Well, she brought a different Frenchman with her today, and one of my maids tells me she saw a rather prominent ring on her finger!”
“Yes! And without a proper engagement or banns, even. I’ve even heard they had to appeal for a special license from the Archbishop because they’d been caught in his chambers in the most frightful—”
“If you’ll excuse us, Lady Catherine,” said the Duke, grabbing Lydia by the arm once more, his eyes more frightened than angry. She gave her father a hurt look, but he ignored it. He began to lead her away.
“Oh, no, Your Grace,” Catherine continued, inserting herself in front of them with a cheeky gesture. “This is a special day, both for myself and for my friend! After all, the artists we hired came all this way from Italy to chalk the floor. It simply mustn’t be missed!” The Duke sputtered with frustration.
“Actually, I was rather hoping to see the rest of the—” said Lydia.
“Lady Catherine, the dancing is not scheduled to begin for another hour,” a nearby servant said in a low voice.
“Oh, pooh, it’s my birthday, we’ll dance when I want to,” Catherine snapped. “Make the announcement and let’s begin immediately. You’ll see, Lady Lydia, we’ll dance the chalk right off this floor. What fun!” And then, with a flourish, Catherine stalked away across the hall like a hurricane, greeting friends and barking orders.
Before Lydia could blink, she was already receiving countermanding orders—her father took her by the shoulders and giving her a most serious glare. “Lydia, under no circumstances are you to engage in any dancing now. We have not even greeted our host the Marquess of Kirkwood, and the very thought of being made to dance with some young upstart who hasn’t even introduced himself—”
From behind them came a loud thump! and a clamor of gasps and gruff voices. Someone cried out, “My god, Rexhen has fainted!”
Her father gasped, releasing Lydia and rushing to the cluster of people that had gathered by the wall. “My Word, Rexhen!” he cursed. “Lydia, fetch the Marquess, dash it!”
I should stay, she thought, closing her eyes to summon her self-control, Father may need my help. There’s still so much I need to do, formalities that need to be followed.
On the other hand…
Picking up her skirt with a pale hand, she was mildly surprised to find herself scurrying out of the room without so much as a sideways glance. Surely no one would be paying attention to her among all the commotion.
“Nathaniel, do try to look like you’re having a good time, won’t you?” Edward snapped. “This is Lady Catherine’s birthday, not her funeral.”
“At least a funeral provides some benefit for the living, Uncle,” Nathaniel muttered, taking an unenthusiastic sip of wine. “And funerals are not so noisy as this. Most of the time, anyway.”
“Nathaniel!” sighed Edward Lymington, Marquess of Watrough. “As the Earl of Granham, it is your duty to attend such festivities. You must be seen by superiors such as the Marquess of Kirkwood as a loyal friend to their families, or your absence will surely be noted.”
From their strategic vantage point by the tall front windows, the early-spring sunshine at their back, Nathaniel took in his view of the festivities…such as they were. Old men stood by the wall as they drank themselves ever closer to the grave, while the usual collections of bumpkins and scalawags bowed and scraped and tried desperately to impress whoever they guessed might be more prestigious or monied. All the bumpkins and scalawags, that is, except the ones who were leaving a trail of spittle behind them in pursuit of any halfway eligible lady who had the misfortune of crossing their path. As usual, Lady Catherine was cutting a path of destruction across the floor, which had had some kind of arcane symbols scribbled across it. Surely one of the local fashions from Paris or Vienna or wherever. Or one of the house children had gotten into the chalk, perhaps.
“Are you quite sure? I don’t think I would notice if I weren’t here.”
Edward rolled his eyes. “And besides that…well, blast it, Nathaniel, I was hoping you might sincerely enjoy yourself,” the older man said, inspecting a bit of dust on his nephew’s cream-colored silk cravat. Edward put a comforting hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “I just hate to see you so lonely and isolated all your days! Granham Manor was built to have the warmth of a family in it, and—”
Nathaniel shot his uncle a vicious look, his bright gray eyes flashing. “It did have a family in it, Uncle. Or have you already forgotten what happened to your brother and your sister-in-law?”
Edward met Nathaniel’s gaze evenly. Silence passed between them like a cloud, then just as suddenly it had blown away.
“I apologize, Uncle,” he sighed. “I know your intentions are benevolent. I would just rather spend an evening at home with a book—or virtually any other activity I can imagine—than standing around and watching a gang of young fools fall over one another trying to win favor with anyone higher up the social ladder. Or listening to Lady Catherine gossip for another minute.”
“I can’t say I blame you there, Lad, but we’re here now, so we may as well make the most of it.”
As if on cue, one of the less interesting viscounts wandered by, a drink in hand and at least four in his belly. Nathaniel summoned what little sincerity he had left to greet the gray, oily man appropriately—and this was drained entirely as the viscount was trailed by a retinue of baronets and minor knights who, hoping to curry some favor with him, mimicked his greeting of the Marquess and Earl even more enthusiastically.
Mother, Father, Nathaniel prayed internally, not for the first time, I wish it could have been I who was taken by influenza, in your place.
Edward clapped him on the back, spilling a bit of wine in the process. “Come on, Lad, the dancing is to begin shortly! Wouldn’t you enjoy spending a bit of time with one of the young ladies of the current social scene?”
“Come now, Nathaniel, what’s wrong with passing a few pleasant hours with an amiable companion, hmm?”
“Nothing, Uncle, except the young ladies of this particular setting provide less thrilling conversation than my horse.”
“What about Lady Stonebridge? I saw you speaking with her last Christmas, didn’t I? Or the Baroness Chatham? She’s eligible, and she’s recently been left a sizable inheritance, I understand.”
Nathaniel scanned the room, located the good Baroness talking to their host and gave a wry smile. “I do not want to appear overly choosey, Uncle, but Lady Stonebridge is engaged to be married, and Baroness Chatham is five-and-sixty years old.”
Edward grimaced. “Fair point, my boy.”
The whole room, in fact, was filled with familiar faces, and not in a pleasant way. Nathaniel had humored his uncle before, but found the ladies of Lady Catherine’s set were an exceptionally dull and distasteful lot. For half a moment, through the crowd, he thought he spied a strange young woman in white chatting with their hostess, but in a blink she disappeared behind Lady Catherine’s ridiculous coiffure.
The tall, brooding young man sipped his wine and loosed a low sigh. I cannot bear another minute of this tedium. If I have to hear any more attempts at merry making, I may well be sick.
Suddenly, from somewhere on the far side of the room arose a ruckus. Lady Catherine began flapping about the room once more, shouting something-or-other to the party-goers, who feigned fun in a way that made Nathaniel even queasier. At the same moment, a minor crowd began to assemble around something in the codgers’ corner. “I wonder if the Duke of Rexhen has fainted again?” Edward mused as he took another sip of wine.
“It sounds as though he could use some air,” Nathaniel muttered. “I’ll just run outside and fetch some for him, shall I?” Without waiting for a reply, he set down his long-empty glass and strode across the ballroom floor for the door.
Just a moment of quiet, that’s all I need, he told himself, stepping past Rexhen’s unconscious form and the crowd of surrounding sycophants. All he left behind was a slightly bemused uncle and a trail of white, chalky footprints. Whatever Kirkwood keeps in this dismal estate, at least it can’t be less interesting than this.
At first, Lord Kirkwood seemed bound and determined to prove Nathaniel wrong: as he wandered about the interior rooms of the manor, each room seemed duller and less imaginatively decorated than the last. Quiet though it was, his thoughts returned to a dark place, spurring a moment of melancholy that threatened to become deadly. Returning to his uncle’s side and feigning a sudden illness or attack of nerves seemed to be the only means of escape left to him, before he expired of boredom, despair, or a combination of the two.
Until, that is…
On walking through a door into yet another unremarkable corridor bedecked with unremarkable ornamentation, Nathaniel was surprised to see a female form facing the far wall—and a remarkably striking female form at that!
Though he could only see her from behind, his eyes were caught by a hundred minute details, even at twenty yards away: a pale, half-sheer white dress, one quite like a dozen others he had seen that day, revealed a curvaceous form quite unlike the skinny, boyish women who usually attended Lady Catherine. The young lady’s arms were bare save for an emerald bracelet, and her milky white skin looked so delicate and soft, Nathaniel couldn’t help but imagine feeling the smooth touch of such a creature on his own hand.
Who on Earth is that? Nathaniel asked himself, his guard dropping along with his jaw.
Suddenly the heavenly vision turned toward him, revealing a face equally lovely, her rosebud lips parted in a gasp, her face shining like the sun, framed by the shimmering stars of her jewelry. With a sinking feeling of having frightened away a glorious and rare bird, Nathaniel realized she had heard the squeak of his shoe on the marble floor—he must have been walking toward her without even realizing it.
“Who on Earth are you?” she spoke.
Things of Beauty
Stupid girl! Lydia chastised herself. What kind of thing is that to say to a gentleman, even one who skulks about like a thief in the night?
Forcing her face to contort into something approximating a demure smile, Lydia pulled at the corners of her dress and gave a quick curtsy. “I do beg your pardon, My Lord, but you startled me. I hadn’t noticed that you were…are you following me?”
Whoever the man was, he seemed as surprised as she was. Is this one of Catherine’s friends she’s told me about? He’s certainly not bad to look at…in which case, surely Catherine has already courted and rejected him by now.
As he stumbled for words, she gave him a brief but thorough examination. He is rather handsome, actually, isn’t he? He was tall, with broad shoulders and a muscular build that were barely concealed by his expensive-looking fitted black jacket. His raven-black hair was rough cut and thick, with a few errant locks that hung down over his eyes, deftly accented by a close-trimmed black beard. His grey eyes were the color of smoke, and had a dynamic energy hiding in them like embers. From the lines on his face he appeared to be a bit older than Lydia, and had the look of someone who usually wore a frown, making his raised brow and wide eyes seem charmingly out of character.
A strange feeling stirred in Lydia’s abdomen, something between anticipation and hunger—was this the “butterflies in the stomach” sensation she had read about in her books so often? Her heart beat an insistent tattoo that seemed to be picking up speed.
At last the man seemed to come to his senses. He gave a deep bow and stammered, “I do apologize, My Lady. I…had not meant to surprise you. I was…I hadn’t expected to see anyone here.”
Lydia furrowed her brow and cocked her head slightly. “Are you a friend of Lady Catherine’s as well, then?”
“Yes, ah, indeed,” said Nathaniel. “I came to attend her birthday party, but…well, I—”
“Oh, yes, so did I!” Lydia chirped. So this man was a friend of Catherine’s, as she had guessed. Though that in itself is not necessarily a glowing recommendation of his character—
“Of course. A most…ah, intriguing social event, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes, isn’t it absolutely wonderful?” Lydia found herself asking, breathless with excitement. “All those beautiful gowns and elegant men and women! I’d never seen anything like it! And the music—that was that one of Mister Mozart’s works the musicians were playing, wasn’t it? Oh, and have you ever seen anything like the magnificent chalk arabesques drawn on the floor? And to think they’re only there until the dancing begins, and everyone will erase them with their feet, I think? How much more beautiful that makes them, that they are so impermanent!”
Nathaniel wore a dazed smile as he watched her speak on about the sights and sounds of the party that he had found so deathly dull. It was mesmerizing, the way her body shook with excitement as she recalled each tiny detail that had escaped his notice. She was entirely unlike any lady he had ever seen, so unselfconscious and glamorous and full of life—she was more like a fairy queen than a real person.
Though it seemed he could easily listen to her speak for hours, at some point in her oration he asked, “If you so enjoyed the party, then why are you not still inside the hall? Why are you all alone here in the corridor, instead?”
She closed her mouth abruptly, blushing. Nathaniel, to his dismay, felt his cheeks reddening as well at having interrupted. The pause was filled with the distant echoes of dancing and laughter, but neither could hear anything but the silence between them and the blood rushing in their ears.
Lydia sniffed and averted her gaze. What is that strange smell? she wondered, her mind racing to rescue her thoughts from lingering on her embarrassment.
With a start, Lydia realized she had never been this close to a man outside her own household. Is that what men smell like? Musky, earthy, but not unpleasant. She sniffed again, enjoying the strange yet pleasant dizziness the odor seemed to provoke, but this time the man noticed, his eyes locking on hers. Embarrassed all over again, she cast her eyes to the floor, which was at least marginally less likely to be a source of further shame.
Looking at the floor—which, she noted absently, was also fascinatingly pretty in its own right—Lydia spoke in a low voice. “I…am not used to such affairs. I needed a bit of time to myself, which was hard to find in such a crowded room.”
Nathaniel smiled at this.
What a wonderful smile he wears! thought Lydia. It looks as though he hasn’t smiled in a long time.
“Such a coincidence!” he said. “I am used to such affairs, yet I am here for precisely the same reason.”
“Actually, to be honest, the problem lies more with my Father than my social sensibilities,” Lydia continued, meeting his smile with her own. “With him hanging on my every word—as well as my arm! I fear I’ve been unable to so much as converse with a friend without his restrictive supervision. I was finally so frustrated and exhausted by his surveillance that I just had to excuse myself to explore this fabulous house!”
His smile saddened. “That is indeed a pity, My Lady. Though I cannot say I have had the same experience, I too know what it feels like to have a relation try to control how I conduct myself.”
“I know he is merely protective of my safety, but I do wish he would leave me to live my own life.”
Why am I telling all this to this strange man? she thought with a start. Her father’s words of fear suddenly echoed in her ears. She drew herself up straight, wiping the smile from her face. “Forgive me, Sir, I do not even know who you are, and here I am airing my private grievances to you.”
“Once again, our manners are most atrocious. Lady Catherine would approve, methinks,” Nathaniel smirked. He straightened, then gave a second practiced bow. “Nathaniel Gregory, Earl of Granham. At your service, My Lady, always.”
“Lord Granham,” she said with a curtsy. “Lady Lydia James, daughter of the Duke of Remdwin.”
“Ah!” Nathaniel cried, putting the back of his hand to his forehead and turning away as though he had been struck. His eyes closed, his lower lip quivered compellingly.
Oh dear! What have I said? Lydia thought. Then she saw a playful smile play across his face.
“The daughter of a Duke, and here am I, a most terrible rascal indeed to make such forward conversation with my social better, and without even having been properly introduced,” he said in mock anguish. “I pray your mercy, My Lady, do not tell My Lord the Duke of my trespasses!”
Lydia put a hand to her mouth to stifle her laughter. Assuming an air of mock severity, she gestured regally. “I suppose I shall beg my Father to spare your life, wretch, but only as you are exceedingly comely for a rascal.”
The young man gave a barking laugh that turned into a cough. He covered his face with a handkerchief and averted his gaze to the floor. Is he…blushing?
Some part of Lydia tingled with pride at this reaction—pride and something akin to hunger. I can see why Catherine so likes to spend her time in the company of men. Each time he smiles I feel that queer sensation deep within me. It feels familiar, as though I have always carried it with me, though I can’t say I have ever felt this way before—at least, not about another person, she realized, remembering furtive candlelit reading sessions with books she dared not open in the daytime. She began to consider how much more she would like to give this man cause to smile at her.
“Well, I…” Nathaniel said, composing himself, “that is, as we have already committed such a sequence of offenses against proper etiquette, perhaps Lady Lydia would be interested in continuing her tour of Kirkwood with me? I daresay there is not too much more to see, especially for the daughter of a Duke, but the gardens are most enchanting.
“And of course,” he added with a roguish wink, “I could not allow My Lady to simply wander about unescorted by a chaperone.”
Yes, yes, yes! The butterflies in her stomach were now turning somersaults.
“I…suppose that should be agreeable enough,” she said as demurely as possible. She reached to take his arm before stopping herself. That would be too forward, surely.
* * *
Though the path to the Kirkwood grounds was a short one, it took Nathaniel and Lydia nearly half an hour of wandering before they were finally outside. Not that Nathaniel minded—every minute he spent with the lady passed by like a second. Though her garment was thin and left much of her skin uncovered, he could feel the warmth from her body. Unable to shake ungentlemanly imaginings of what he might do with his hands if he left them unsupervised, he clasped them behind his back so tightly his fingers began to ache.
One reason for their slow pace was the young woman’s appealing tendency to stop to admire virtually every ornament they passed. Every bookshelf provoked an excited coo and a recommendation of a half-dozen books she had previously read and loved; every painting sparked an awed reverie and a minor monologue about the nature of beauty or family or the arts.
Who is this mysterious woman? he asked himself. How does she find so much wonder in the most commonplace things? Is she of this world, or an angel from above?
As if sensing his question by some magic, she sadly told him there were no such things of beauty at Remdwin. “Or if there are, I have long since wrung every drop of it out of them in my confinement.” He had to pinch himself to prevent his impulse to take her hand or caress her shoulder in comfort.
The other reason they spent so long wandering the corridors of Kirkwood Manor was Nathaniel’s desire to avoid embroiling his companion in any scandal. “Why can’t we simply go through the front door?” Lydia asked, when Nathaniel suggested a more discreet egress. “Surely the simplest route would be the most expeditious.”
“Surely it would, My Lady, except—” Nathaniel smiled, touched by how blissfully unaware she was of how closely they would be watched by the members of London society. He considered how best to inform his new friend of their situation, then hit upon a suitable analogy.
“Lady Lydia, have you had the good fortune to attend a performance of a play?”
At this question Lydia’s form wilted as a flower beneath the burning sun. “No, alas, though I have asked my Father so many times if I could, he has always told me playhouses are no place for young ladies.”
Nathaniel cursed himself for so clumsily harming the feelings of the young woman. “I apologize, it was an inelegant comparison in any case. A private recital, then? A monologue, perhaps, or a piano concert in the parlor of your home?”
“Oh, of course!” she cried—then repeated in a quieter voice after seeing him wince and look about to see if they had been overheard. “Though I’m afraid I’m a complete goose at the piano, and Father won’t hire me a singing instructor, I like to perform recitations when I get the opportunity.”
“You perform?” Nathaniel asked, utterly failing to keep the wonder from his voice.
“Well, a bit,” Lydia replied with an adorable blush. “Last Christmas I read a bit of Spenser’s Fairy Queene, and for my Father’s birthday I recited one of Cordelia’s soliloquys. You know the one: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty / According to my bond; no more nor less.”
She delivered these words so flawlessly from memory, and with such depth of emotion, Nathaniel could do nothing but applaud quietly. His reward for this gesture was Lydia’s dramatic visage melting into a genuine smile of appreciation.
“That was most…expressive!” he laughed. “I’ve always enjoyed Lear most of all Shakespeare’s works. I fear I have quite forgotten why I brought up the subject of acting, but I am finding it exceedingly difficult to care.”
Her blush reddened still further. “Something about why we can’t simply go out the front door?”
“That’s it, thank you. What I meant was, just as the audience is transfixed on the actor during such a performance, so too does the ton watch the every move of its members.”
She furrowed her brow at this. “How do you mean? I know Lady Catherine busies herself with the affairs of her friends, but—”
“It’s not only Lady Catherine, I’m afraid. For the members of London’s high society, nothing is more important than the behavior of their peers. Who is in favor with their betters can depend on such unimportant facts as the color of one’s cravat, or whether one arrives at a ball five minutes early or ten minutes late—”
“Or whom one is seen with when wandering the halls at a ball,” Lydia added somberly.
“Exactly. Our lives are as constrained as that of a specimen under a microscope,” he said with a sad shake of his head. “For all of the opulence with which our class is surrounded, we are no more free than birds in a cage.”
This grim thought cast a pall on their enjoyment of one another’s company…but only for a moment. Nathaniel was all but ready to abandon this escapade for the sake of sparing Lydia’s social standing, but before he could speak a word of it, she had returned to the good humor of a few minutes before.
“Come, then, My Lord! If we are indeed in danger of being found out by prying eyes, then we had best exercise subtlety.” Grinning, she put a finger to her mouth and began to tiptoe toward the door.
This is folly, if not outright madness, Nathaniel thought. Yet he was compelled to follow her lead, so great was his strange desire to pass more time with this wonderful, unearthly creature.
To avoid discovery, then, rather than exit through the front door and risk being seen by their fellow partygoers, they meandered from one room to another in search of a quieter escape. More than once, as they spotted a familiar-looking lord or lady who had gotten lost looking for the necessary, the pair would slip around a corner and press their backs to the wall.
All this tiptoeing around tickled Lydia immensely, who found the whole affair a most amusing game—“Like schoolchildren sneaking sweets from the kitchen,” she said—and more than once they were almost given away by her stifled giggling.
Though he was worried about the consequences of their being found, Nathaniel couldn’t keep himself from beginning to join in the fun. He could scarcely remember the last time his heart had raced like this, or the last time he had laughed so much. Certainly this excitement was only increased by their close proximity when hiding from prying eyes in one drawing room or another.
For a moment in Lord Kirkwood’s dining chambers, she backed into him innocently, her body pressing against his for an instant that lingered in his mind as the scent of her hair lingered in his nose.
Surely it was innocent, wasn’t it? he wondered with a gulp. The sensation of her full, thick flesh, beaded with sweat beneath her thin gown, remained on his mind like a sweet taste on his tongue. I cannot remember the last time I have found a woman’s form so utterly fascinating. How in the world have I had the good fortune to encounter the daughter of a Duke blessed with such a luscious body as well as a fascinating mind?
At last, they found a servants’ door that led them to the well-tended grounds behind the house. The paths that led through the gardens were dark in this twilight hour, and the pair walked slowly and close together to avoid any shadowy obstacles.
There were not nearly so many flowers here in Lady Kirkwood’s garden as in the front, but that hardly stopped Lydia’s ecstatic celebration of every blossom they passed as they wandered down the hill from the house on the spotless cobblestone path. Nathaniel surprised himself by remembering the common and scientific names of several of the flowers Lydia could not recognize.
“Do you have a garden, then, My Lord?” she asked him brightly. “At…Granham, is it?”
“Indeed. Our grounds are not so grand as these, but they have their charm all the same. I wish I could say I learned about horticulture from doing my own digging in the earth, but it was all required in biology at boarding school. Strange to think that I had to be sent away to learn about what was right under my nose all my childhood.”
“I imagine the Earls of Granham take their studies from only the finest teachers,” she sighed.
Nathaniel swallowed. “Well, I certainly did get a…thorough education, even if at times the lessons focused on survival rather than science or the arts. The other boys could be quite fearsome once the lights went out in the dormitory.”
Lydia tittered at this—clearly she was imagining small boys playing harmless pranks. Nathaniel thought it best not to correct this misconception.
“I always wished I could have gone away to school, myself. It sounded tremendously exciting, with all the ceremony and the other girls to be friends with.”
“Without spoiling what you have envisioned, I must say, there were many days when I wished the reverse for myself,” Nathaniel said softly. “I will not go into detail, but suffice to say I always found school to be rather disruptive to my education.”
She put a finger to her chin and cast her eyes skyward in thought. “I had not considered my advantages. I suppose I have been rather lucky, in a way.”
“Did My Lady not have her own tutors, being the daughter of a Duke?”
“Oh, yes, for a time. Father put a stop to that a few years ago, though, when I was ten-and-six. Said that further education would do me more harm than good. I found myself quite cross with my dear teacher, Missus Miggins, when she agreed with him and packed her bags.” She chuckled once more. “I’m embarrassed to say I put a toad in her shoes that day. You must think me frightfully childish.”
“Youth is hot and bold, age is weak and cold / Youth is wild and age is tame,” he quoted without hesitation.
Lydia’s thin, dark brows arched in surprise. “‘The Passionate Pilgrim!’ My Lord, are you quite sure you aren’t a would-be thespian as well?”
Nathaniel gave a great, barking laugh. “Don’t tell my Uncle, whatever you do!”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, skipping to another blossom further down the path. “What are these beautiful trumpet-shaped white ones? With the yellow in the middle?”
A shadow crept over Nathaniel, chilling his mood. “Those…ah, those are Madonna lilies.” He sat on a nearby wrought-iron bench, abruptly exhausted from their walk.
As soon as she noticed the turn in his demeanor, Lydia looked at him with wide eyes. “Lord Granham,” she said hesitantly, “is something the matter? I hope I haven’t offended, somehow.”
“No, no, of course not. My…Mother’s name was Lily. She used to grow Madonna lilies like these in our garden. Before she and my Father…before—” he said with a sudden sinking feeling of guilt at having poured such sadness into Lydia’s lovely green eyes.
“Before they died. Rather…rather suddenly, of influenza. I was not even permitted to see them in their final days, for fear I might be exposed as well.”
He turned his head away, not wishing to witness her beautiful face marred by the same contemptible look of pity he always got from acquaintances who knew of his unfortunate history. Blast it, I’ve ruined everything, haven’t I?
Nathaniel was immediately removed from his dolor by the sensation of her sitting on the bench beside him—so close, in fact, that he could feel the smooth skin of her thigh brushing against his through her dress. He turned to look at her and had to repress a smile at her utterly charming expression of unguarded sympathy. The moonlight suffused her hair like a halo, enhancing the unearthly beauty of her pale oval-shaped face. She bit her lower lip and played with her hands, her fingers rubbing against one another.
“I am so very sorry. I too know what it is like to lose a parent,” Lydia said quietly.
Would that that could be my hand in hers, he thought.
Before he could talk himself out of doing so, his hand moved to hold her delicate white fingers. She met his gaze. He could swear he could feel both their hearts beating as one.
“Lady Lydia, I do believe you are the most beautiful woman I have ever met.” Nathaniel shocked himself with his words, which flowed unbidden from him like a mountain spring.
“And you…you are so handsome, My Lord,” Lydia replied breathlessly. Lightning crackled between their gazes, and their heads moved closer, their shallow breaths pulling in the warm smell of one another.
And before they could pause to speak, even to think, their lips met in a soft, gentle kiss.
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