1826, London, England
“Are you all right, ma’am? May I help you?”
Lady Lucinda Haymore flinched as the tall soldier came toward her, his hand outstretched and his voice full of concern. She clutched the torn muslin of her bodice against her bosom, and wondered desperately how much he could see of her in the dark shadows of the garden.
“I’m fine, sir, please …” She struggled to force any more words out and stared blindly at the elaborate gold buttons of his dress uniform. “I’m afraid I slipped and fell on the steps and have ripped my gown.”
He paused, and she realized that he had positioned his body to shield her from the bright lights of the house and the other guests at the ball.
“If you do not require my help, may I fetch someone for you, then?”
His question was softly spoken, as if he feared she might flee.
“Could you find Miss Emily Ross for me?”
“Indeed I can. I have a slight acquaintance with her.” He hesitated. “But first, may I suggest you sit down? You look as if you might swoon.”
Even as he spoke, the ground tilted alarmingly, and Lucinda started to sway. Before her knees gave way, the soldier caught her by the elbows and deftly maneuvered her backward to a stone bench framed by climbing roses. Even as she shrank from his direct gaze, she managed to get a fleeting impression of his face. His eyes were deep set and a very light gray, his cheekbones impossibly high, and his hair quite white, despite his apparent youth.
She could only pray he didn’t recognize her. No unmarried lady should be loitering in the gardens without a chaperone. Somehow she doubted he was a gossip. He just didn’t seem to be the type; all his concern was centered on her, rather than making a grand fuss and alerting others to her plight. He released her and moved back, as if he sensed his presence made her uneasy.
“I’ll fetch Miss Ross for you.”
“Thank you,” Lucinda whispered, and he was gone, disappearing toward the lights of the ballroom and the sounds of the orchestra playing a waltz. She licked her lips and tasted her own blood, and the brutal sting of rejection. How could she have been so foolish as to believe Jeremy loved her? He’d hurt her and called her a tease. Had she encouraged him as he had claimed? Did she really deserve what he had done to her?
Panic engulfed her and she started to shiver. It became increasingly difficult to breathe and she struggled to pull in air. Suddenly the white-haired stranger was there again, crouched down in front of her. He took her clenched fist in his hand and slowly stroked her fingers. She noticed his accent was slightly foreign.
“It’s all right. Miss Ross is coming. I took the liberty of hiring a hackney cab, which will be waiting for you at the bottom of the garden.”
“I’m glad I was able to be of service.”
With that, he moved away, and Lucinda saw Emily behind him and reached blindly for her hand.
“I told my aunt I was coming home with you, and I told your mother the opposite, so I think we are safe to leave,” Emily murmured.
Emily’s grip tightened. “Lucinda, what happened?”
She shook her head. “I can’t accompany you home, Emily. Where else can we go?”
Emily frowned. “I’ll take you to my stepmother’s. You’ll be safe there. Can you walk?”
“I’ll have to.” Lucinda struggled to her feet.
“Oh, my goodness, Lucinda,” Emily whispered. “There is blood on your gown.”
“I fell. Just help me leave this place.” Lucinda grabbed hold of Emily’s arm and started toward the bottom of the garden. She could only hope that Jeremy had returned to the ball and would not see how low he had brought her. She would never let him see that, never. With Emily’s help, she managed to climb into the cab and leaned heavily against the side. Her whole body hurt, especially between her legs, where he had … She pushed that thought away and forced her eyes open.
It seemed only a moment before Emily was opening the door of the cab and calling for someone named Ambrose to help her. Lucinda gasped as an unknown man carefully picked her up and carried her into the large mansion. Emily ran ahead, issuing instructions as she led the way up the stairs to a large, well-appointed bedchamber. The man gently deposited Lucinda on the bed and went to light some of the candles and the fire.
Lucinda curled up into a tight ball and closed her eyes, shutting out Emily and everything that had happened to her. It was impossible not to remember. She started to shake again.
A cool hand touched her forehead, and she reluctantly focused on her unknown visitor.
“I’m Helene, Emily’s stepmother. Everyone else has left, including Emily. Will you let me help you?”
Lucinda stared into the beautiful face of Madame Helene Delornay, one of London’s most notorious women, and saw only compassion and understanding in her clear blue eyes.
Helene smiled. “I know this is difficult for you, my dear, but I need to see how badly he hurt you.”
“No one hurt me. I slipped on the steps and …”
Helene gently placed her finger over Lucinda’s mouth. “You can tell everyone else whatever tale you want, but I know what has happened to you, and I want to help you.”
“How do you know?” Lucinda whispered.
“Because it happened to me.” Helene sat back. “Now, let’s get you out of that gown and into bed.”
She talked gently to Lucinda while she helped her remove her torn gown and undergarments, brought her warm water to wash with, and ignored the flow of tears Lucinda seemed unable to stop.
When she was finally tucked in under the covers, Helene sat next to her on the bed.
“Thank you,” Lucinda whispered.
Helene took her hand. “It was the least I could do.” She paused. “Now, do you want to tell me what happened?”
“All I know is that I am quite ruined.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
Lucinda blinked. “I’m no longer a virgin. What man would have me now?”
“A man who loves you and understands that what happened was not your fault.”
“But it was my fault. I went into the gardens with him alone, I let him kiss me, I begged him to kiss me.”
“You also asked him to force himself on you?”
“No, I couldn’t stop him, he was stronger than me and …”
“Exactly, so you can hardly take the blame for what happened, can you?” Helene patted her hand. “The fault is his. I assume he imagines you will be forced to marry him now.”
Lucinda stared at Helene. “I didn’t think of that.” She swallowed hard. “He said we needed to keep our love secret because my family would never consider him good enough.”
Helene snorted. “He sounds like a dyed-in-the-wool fortune hunter to me. What is his name?”
Lucinda pulled her hand away. “I can’t tell you that. I don’t want to have to see him ever again.”
“Well, that is unfortunate, because I suspect he’ll be trying to blackmail his way into marrying you fairly shortly.”
Lucinda sat up. “But I wouldn’t marry him if he was the last man on earth!”
“I’m glad to hear you say that.” Helene hesitated. “But it might not be as easy to avoid his trap as you think. You might be carrying his child. Does that change your opinion as to the necessity of marrying him?”
Lucinda gulped as an even more nightmarish vision of her future unrolled before her. “Surely not?”
“I’m sorry, my dear, but sometimes it takes only a second for a man to impregnate a woman,” Helene continued carefully.
“I will not marry him.”
“Then let us pray that you have not conceived. The consequences for a woman who bears an illegitimate child are harsh.” Helene’s smile was forced. “I know from Emily that you are much loved by your parents. I’m sure they would do their best to conceal your condition and reintroduce you into society after the event.”
Lucinda wrapped her arms around her knees and buried her face in the covers. Her despair was now edged with anger. If she refused to marry her seducer, she alone would bear the disgust of society, while Jeremy wouldn’t suffer at all. It simply wasn’t fair.
Eventually she looked up at Madame Helene, who waited quietly beside her.
“Thank you for everything.”
Helene shrugged. “I have done very little. I wish I could do more. If you would just tell me the name of this vile man, I could have him banned from good society in a trice.”
“That is very kind of you, Madame, but I’d rather not add to the scandal. I doubt he would relinquish his position easily, and my name and my family’s reputation would be damaged forever.”
“And, as your father is now the Duke of Ashmolton, I understand you all too well, my dear.” Helene stood up. “But, if you change your mind, please let me know. I have more influence than you might imagine.”
“I’d prefer to deal with this myself.” Lucinda took a deep, steadying breath. “I need to think about what I want to do.”
Helene hesitated by the door. “Are you sure there isn’t another nice young man who might marry you instead?”
Lucinda felt close to tears again. “How could I marry anyone without telling him the truth? And what kind of man would agree to take me on those terms?”
“A man who loves you,” Helene said gently. “But you are right to take your time. Don’t rush into anything unless you absolutely have no choice. In my experience, an unhappy marriage is a far more terrible prison than an illegitimate child.”
Lucinda looked at Helene. “Emily told me you were a remarkable woman, and now I understand why. I’m so glad she brought me here tonight.”
“Emily is a treasure,” Helene replied. “I only tried to offer you what was not offered to me—a chance to realize that you were not at fault, and a place to rest before you have to make some difficult decisions. Now go to sleep. I will send Emily to you in the morning, and I promise I will not tell her anything.”
Lucinda slid down between the sheets and closed her eyes. Sleep seemed impossible, but she found herself drifting off anyway. Would any of her partners have noticed that she hadn’t turned up for her dances with them? Would Paul be worried about her? She swallowed down a sudden wash of panic. If anyone could understand her plight, surely it would be Paul….
Paul St. Clare prowled the edge of the ballroom, avoiding the bright smiles and come-hither looks of the latest crop of debutantes. Where on earth had Lucky gone? She was supposed to be dancing the waltz with him, and then he was taking her into supper. It was the only reason he was attending this benighted event after all.
Unfortunately, since the death of the sixth Duke of Ashmolton, speculation as to the new duke’s potential successor had alighted on Paul, hence the sudden interest of the ladies of the ton. He’d grown up with the vague knowledge that he was in the line of succession, but hadn’t paid his mother’s fervent interest in the subject much heed until the other male heirs had started to die off in increasing numbers.
And now, here he was, the heir apparent to a dukedom he neither wanted nor felt fit to assume. It was always possible that the duke would produce another child, although unlikely, because of his wife’s age. But Paul knew that even beloved wives died, and dukes had been known to make ridiculous second marriages in order to secure the succession. Paul’s own father, the current duke’s second cousin, had only produced one child before he died in penury, leaving his family dependent on the generosity of the Haymores for a home. In truth, Paul considered Lucky’s parents his own, and was very grateful for the care they had given him.
Paul nodded at an army acquaintance, but didn’t stop to chat. All his friends seemed to have acquired younger sisters who were just dying to meet him. In truth, he felt hunted. If he had his way, he’d escape this gossip-ridden, perfumed hell and ride up north to the clear skies and bracing company of his best friend, Gabriel Swanfield. But he couldn’t even do that, could he? Gabriel belonged, heart and soul, to another.
Paul stopped at the end of the ballroom that led out on to the terrace, and wondered if Lucky had gone out into the gardens. He could do with a breath of fresh air himself. He was about to pass through the open windows when he noticed a familiar figure standing on the balcony staring out into the night.
Paul’s stomach gave a peculiar flip. The sight of his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Constantine Delinsky, always stirred his most visceral appetites. Of Russian descent, Delinsky was tall and silver-eyed with prematurely white hair that in no way diminished his beauty. Paul always felt like a stuttering idiot around the man.
Delinsky was looking out into the gardens of the Mallorys’ house with a preoccupied frown. Paul briefly debated whether to disturb him, but the opportunity to speak to someone who wouldn’t care about his newly elevated status was too appealing to resist.
“Good evening, sir.”
Constantine turned and half smiled. “Good evening, Lieutenant St. Clare. I didn’t realize you were here tonight. Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Not particularly,” Paul said. “I find all these people crammed into one space vaguely repellant.”
Again, that slight smile that made Paul want to do whatever he was told. “I can understand why. As a soldier, I always fear an ambush myself.”
“Are you waiting for someone, sir?” Paul asked.
“No, I was just contemplating the coolness of the air outside, and deciding whether I wished to stay for supper or leave before the crush.” Delinsky’s contemplative gaze swept over Paul. “Did you come with Swanfield?”
“Alas, no, sir. Gabriel and his wife are currently up north taking possession of his ancestral home.”
Constantine raised his eyebrows. “Ah, that’s right, I’d forgotten Swanfield had married.”
“I’d like to forget it, but unfortunately the man is so damned content that I find I cannot begrudge him his happiness.”
“Even despite your loss?”
“My loss?” Paul straightened and stared straight into Delinsky’s all-too-knowing eyes.
Delinsky winced. “I beg your pardon, that was damned insensitive of me.”
“Not insensitive at all. What do you mean?”
Delinsky lowered his voice. “I always believed you and Swanfield were connected on an intimate level.”
Paul forced a smile. “There’s no need for delicacy, sir. Gabriel was happy to fuck me when there was no other alternative. He soon realized the error of his ways, or more to the point, I realized the error of mine.”
Delinsky continued to study him and Paul found he couldn’t look away. “Perhaps you had a lucky escape, St. Clare.”
“You think so?”
“Or perhaps the luck is all mine.”
A slow burn of excitement grew in Paul’s gut. “What exactly are you suggesting, sir?”
Constantine straightened. “Would you care to share a brandy with me at my lodgings? I find the party has grown quite tedious.”
Paul wanted to groan. “Unfortunately I accompanied my family to the ball. I feel honor bound to escort them home as well.”
“As you should.” Constantine shrugged, his smile dying. “It is of no matter.”
Paul glanced back at the ballroom and then at the man in front of him. Despite Delinsky’s easy acceptance of Paul’s reason for not leaving with him, Paul desperately wanted to consign his family to hell and follow this man anywhere. Gabriel was lost to him. He needed to move past that hurt and explore new pastures. And when it came down to it, he had always lusted after Constantine Delinsky.
“Perhaps you might furnish me with your address, sir, and I can join you after I’ve dispensed with my duties.”
“It really isn’t that important, St. Clare.”
“Perhaps it isn’t to you, but it is to me,” Paul said softly. “Give me your direction.”