About the book
"Let me paint your lips with the stars..."
Determined and stubborn, Lady Elizabeth Parsons has one goal in life: find the man who left her craving more. Worried that her tireless searching might leave her a spinster, her father pressures her into accepting a betrothal. Now forced to marry a man she doesn’t love, she must choose between duty and passion…
William Hervey, Duke of Brandon, has been away from home for most of his life. When he returns, he never thought he’d find Elizabeth again. Or how he’d find her: scarred and shunned.
Torn between love and duty, passion and desire awaken amidst a scandalous affair. Yet every intimate encounter comes with a profound sense of fear. Fear of heartbreak and of being stripped of life itself...
She didn’t know how many times she’d come here in the past few years. Perhaps today would make the hundredth time, or perhaps the thousandth if she counted those dreams she had. Every time she arrived, it all looked the same. The same blue sky, slowly turning to night, with a few misty clouds drifting across the broad expanse. The same grassy stretch ahead of her before it ended at the bank of the river. The same gnarly roots of the large yew tree in the distance. It was a rather small park, inconsequential when compared to others such as Hyde Park in London. But this place, nestled in the countryside, held a special place in her heart.
Elizabeth came to a stop, lifting her gaze to the sky. It never seemed to rain here. Every day was as sunny as the day she’d first come here as a child, a girl of barely ten years filled with such excitement to play around the yew tree. She would often come along with a friend of hers, under the watchful and amused eyes of their parents, and for the hours that ensued, they were lost in the world of play.
Now, at two-and-twenty years, she’d long since lost that childlike fervor. Elizabeth didn’t care about running towards the gentle river in the distance, nor climbing the twisted limbs of the tree. Those memories didn’t even bring a smile to her face anymore.
“My Lady?” Elizabeth turned her head slightly to the side at the sound of her lady’s maid. Gemma was an older woman who had been by Elizabeth’s side since Elizabeth was in her youth. “Perhaps we should take our leave soon. Lord Gillet did say there will be guests who you have to meet.”
Ah, yes. Those specials guests, one of whom was a gentleman hoping to have her hand in marriage, were the last people Elizabeth wanted to see.
“I suppose,” she murmured noncommittally, sighing. But she didn’t turn around. Instead, she ventured closer to the tree, letting her wistful memories wash over her as she ran a finger over the simple gold ring he’d given her before he’d disappeared.
Take this, Beth, as a symbol of my love for you. It is a promise to our future, a future that we will have together. When we are older, I will officially ask for your hand in marriage.
It had been so long since she’d seen his face, so long since she’d spoken to him. One year had passed since she’d last seen him and Elizabeth had spent her days in the countryside longing for the day he would return to her, clinging to those words. With every day that went by, with her memories of their time together following her constantly, her determination grew. She told herself they would see each other again, that nothing would stop her from finding him, even if she had to search across the seas.
Nothing would come in the way of them one day being able to stand before this tree together once again. And then would she ask why he’d left so suddenly in the first place.
Without a word, without a letter, he’d simply disappeared. The last time she’d seen him was one week after the death of his mother, at the funeral. Elizabeth had still been struggling to handle the death of her own mother six months before but she’d pushed her grief aside to console him. She couldn’t forget the look on his face as he watched his mother’s coffin lower into the ground. There had been no tears, no anguish. Only hard anger.
She didn’t see him again after that and Elizabeth spent the ensuing six months trying to inquire about his whereabouts. Her visits were unhelpful and none of his other friends knew what had happened. His disappearance had only added to her own distress and so when her father told her they would leave London and reside at their countryside manor, she had little choice but to accept.
I care not about those guests when I still haven’t found you.
The tears that were never far sprang to her eyes. Elizabeth reached a hand out to touch the bark of the tree. “Where are you, William?”
As if in response to her question, a sudden gust of wind came from the left, tugging wildly at her gown. Elizabeth curled her hand into a fist, letting it drop to her side, as she tried to hold back her sobs. She was tired of crying. But she was tired of failing, too.
She wandered to the side, away from the river, still running her hand on the rough bark. This side of the tree was wetter, usually blocked from the sunlight, and so she normally stayed away. But, for some reason, she went there today and she didn’t bother to ask herself why. Then, something caught her eye. A white slip of…something, drifting in the wind. It seemed to be tethered to the tree.
“My Lady,” came Gemma’s urgent voice again, but Elizabeth ignored it. Curiosity nipped at her now, an unnamed force pulling her towards the white cloth. Drawing closer, Elizabeth saw that it was a handkerchief.
Her heart began to race. Elizabeth rushed closer, not caring that her slippers were sinking slightly into muddy earth. She reached onto her toes to pull the handkerchief free and turned it over. It was dingy, dirt fringing the edges, but there was no denying the initials embroidered into the corner. W.H.
“Oh…” The tears came rushing back as Elizabeth nearly sank to her knees. Her hand trembled as she touched it gingerly, as if she would be able to feel him despite how long it had been. How had she not seen this before?
All those times she’d come to this spot to think about him, to lose herself in the memories of their childhood, she’d never seen this. In those hundreds of visits, this handkerchief had been waiting for her to find.
“Lady Elizabeth!” Gemma cried out in alarm. Her warm body was by hers in a second, keeping her from crumbling. “We should return home, My Lady.”
Elizabeth didn’t have the strength to do anything but go along with Gemma as she was steered away from the tree towards the waiting carriage. She clutched the handkerchief to her chest with a shaky hand, tears dripping from her chin. She had to find him. She must.
Someone stepped into her path. Elizabeth wouldn’t have thought anything of it had Gemma not gasped. It was a man with a scruffy beard and beady eyes. His clothes were scraps of brown fabric patched together, a few new holes poked through the shoulders. Greasy hair hung over his forehead, hiding the top of a thick, puffy scar that ran around the side of his face to touch his chin. The orange glow of the setting sun seemed to make the grease on his face shine.
Gemma shifted her body before Elizabeth, her hand trembling. “You stay away,” she warned in a strong voice.
Elizabeth frowned, a twinge of fear lighting her insides. Gemma was not the type to react so strongly to someone just because of how they looked.
Then, she saw it. He held a dagger between them, his hand shaking. She swallowed, her heart beginning to race.
“There ain’t no need to make this difficult for ya’, lass,” he said gruffly. “Give me everythin’ ya got.”
“There is nothing for you here.” Gemma’s words drew the man’s attention to her. Slimy fear clung to the back of Elizabeth’s throat when the man ran his gaze up and down Gemma’s body.
“Bold of ya, maid,” he spat. Gemma stiffened when he turned the knife to her but she didn’t move, keeping herself standing partially in front of Elizabeth. “But if ya know what’s best for ya, keep quiet.”
“And if you know what is best for you, thief, you will go along your way.”
“Gemma…” Elizabeth’s body was frozen, her words stuck in her throat. She couldn’t believe Gemma’s bravery, couldn’t believe that all she could do was stand behind this older lady for protection. Her father had always prided her timidness, saying it was the mark of a true English lady. Right now, Elizabeth couldn’t fathom why.
The man chuckled, clearly not intimidated by Gemma. He lifted his beady eyes back to Elizabeth. “I’m givin’ ya one last chance to hand over your valuables, lady.”
“I…” Elizabeth didn’t know what to say, her breathing labored. She glanced desperately behind the man but it was clear the coachman hadn’t noticed something was wrong yet. Elizabeth thought of crying out for help, but she could hardly catch a proper breath.
Gemma put herself in front of Elizabeth. “You had best leave right now, scoundrel,” she warned.
The man smirked. “Scoundrel? Aye, you can call me a scoundrel all you want when you stand next to someone who has it all. Surely you don’t think you’re any better than I am? Don’t fool yourself, slave. If she tosses you aside tomorrow, you’ll be in the same position as me. Now,” in a second, his anger surged as he jabbed the dagger towards them, “give me all your valuables! I don’t have any time to waste!”
His shouting got the attention of the coachman. Elizabeth tried not to breathe in relief when she spotted the scrawny, elderly man jumping down to the ground. She swallowed, putting a shaking hand on Gemma’s shoulder as she stepped out from behind her.
“Gemma, it’s fine,” Elizabeth murmured. She tried to keep her voice steady as she spoke—a miraculous feat. “There is no need to put our lives in danger for material things.”
“My Lady…” Gemma seemed reluctant to move from before Elizabeth. The maid still had an arm outstretched, her eyes not leaving the thief for a moment. But it was clear she knew she stood no chance against him.
Elizabeth tried to pull her shoulders back, to bolster her courage. It helped a little but her insides still melted in fear when she looked the thief in eye. “My reticule is in the carriage. It will have all that you’ll need.”
The thief spat to the side and wiped his thin lips. “Is that so?” And then, without warning, he shoved Gemma aside.
Elizabeth squealed in fright, watching as Gemma hit the ground hard. Before she had the chance to even think about running, the man grabbed her roughly by her upper arm. He used the hand holding his dagger to snap the necklace from her throat. Her collarbone lit up with pain, a shocking wave of numbness racing down her arm. Elizabeth grasped her shoulder, her heart sinking when she felt blood quickly soaking through her gown.
“Ah, this will do nicely,” he mused aloud. Elizabeth was shaking, her throat clogged with her fear. The coachman was running towards them now, finally noticing that something was wrong. And Gemma…Gemma was moaning in pain.
The thief was still studying her. Elizabeth wanted to tell him to leave, to be brave, to do something! But she could only stand there like a trembling leaf and watch as he searched for something else to take. His eyes lit up once again and Elizabeth stiffened. Before she could hope to do anything, he reached for her again, taking her hand this time. But he did not reach for the handkerchief. Instead, he tried to take the simple gold band around her finger.
“My, my,” he drawled. Behind him, the coachman tripped over his feet and tumbled to the ground. Despair descended within her. “Would ya’ look at this? A mighty fine piece, if I do say so myself.”
“You cannot have it,” Elizabeth declared. She tried to wrench her hand away from him but failed. Desperation coated her fear. She couldn’t let him take this piece of William she’d been carrying with her all this time. He’d given her this ring only a few months before he’d disappeared. This terrible man could not have it.
The thief sneered derisively at her before he reached for her enclosed fist and forced it in front of her. “Open ya’ hand or I’m cuttin’ it open myself.”
Elizabeth bit her lip, shaking her head. It was foolish she knew, but she kept her fist closed as tightly as she could. It was the only connection she had to William, a reminder to her to never give up searching for him.
“My Lady…” Gemma tried to sit up, cradling a hand to her chest. “Please, just give it to him.”
Elizabeth shook her head desperately. “I can’t!” she sobbed.
“My Lady!” came the coachman’s shout from behind the thief.
Gritting his teeth, the thief pulled her fingers back and dragged the ring off, tugging harshly on her finger as she did. Without thinking, driven by her desperation, Elizabeth grabbed hold of his wrist before he could move away. He grimaced and swipe at her arm with his dagger. Elizabeth didn’t let go, even as the pain seemed to shock her entire body.
The coachman came to the rescue, but as Elizabeth expected, he could do nothing against this thief. He tried to grab him from behind and the thief whirled on him with a punch that sent the coachman sailing to the ground, his skinny limbs sprawling. Elizabeth winced, knowing the old coachman would not handle such a fall well. But she was grateful for the coachman’s actions, because it made the thief drop the ring.
The fear was forgotten. All she could think was to run. To grab the ring lying among the grass and run.
I can’t let him have it. I can’t.
A hand grabbed her from behind and then pain exploded in her side. Elizabeth lost her strength in an instant, sapped out by the blood that now coated her gown. She couldn’t hold on to anything any longer, couldn’t keep herself standing. As she sank to the ground, she looked up to see that he now held the bloody handkerchief in his hand, wiping angrily at his hands with it.
“I hope this was worth all this trouble you’ve caused me,” he growled, lifting the ring up to his eye level. “Or else I might just come back for you. Maybe I’ll cut into your pretty face the next time.”
“No…” She couldn’t feel anything anymore. Calm settled over her body even as she reached out to him with blood fingers. “You can…have anything else. Just not that…”
But the thief no longer looked interested in sticking around. He spat to the side, gave her one last disgusted look, and he walked off in the direction of the carriage, no doubt to fetch the reticule she’d mentioned. He sauntered with all the ease in the world as if he hadn’t wounded two servants and a lady and was now leaving them behind to deal with the aftermath.
Elizabeth tried to memorize the way he walked. She tried to keep in mind the slope of his face and the wicked eyes and the disheveled beard. As Gemma and the coachman crowded her, as their worried questions milled around her head, Elizabeth tried to keep in mind the face of the man who had stolen a piece of William from her.
But, as she slipped into the darkness, she promised herself that she would not allow him to steal her hope.
“Would you like for me to arrange your hair in your usual style, Lady Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth lifted her gaze to meet Patience’s eyes. They were in their usual tender state. However, their brown color shimmered with a twinge of worry. Elizabeth contemplated forcing a smile onto her face to ease Patience’s mind, but she knew the girl would only see through it. So she shook her head, saying, “It does not matter to me what style I wear tonight.”
Patience sighed under her breath before she began running her deft fingers through Elizabeth’s blonde hair. Silky, silver-blonde strands tumbled out of her hold, falling down to Elizabeth’s shoulders before it was picked back up again. Patience often did that before she began styling her hair and Elizabeth liked the way her fingers felt on her scalp.
“I had hoped that you would be excited about today,” Patience said.
Elizabeth met her eyes again. “You tend to hope for useless things, Patience.”
“Yes, I suppose you are correct,” Patience agreed with a sigh. “I had hoped you would break your fast this morning, but you stubbornly remained in your bed without caring to come out from under the covers. I had hoped you would at least open the windows to let in a bit of fresh air but you only stared blankly at the ceiling as if you have lost all your will to go on.”
Elizabeth wasn’t in much of a mood to appreciate Patience’s worry. “Oh, how dramatic.”
“I do not think I am the one being dramatic,” Patience went on. Now, she was twisting Elizabeth’s hair to the top of her head, picking up pins from the vanity table. Patience was only twenty years old and yet she spoke as if she had all the wisdom of a woman who’d seen the world. It didn’t help that her russet hair—that would often slip from her chignon—softened her features and made her seem much younger than she actually was.
“I think,” Patience went on, “It does you no good to wallow.”
“Heavens,” Elizabeth murmured. “I did not think I would be subject to such nagging from someone who did not give birth to me.”
At that, Patience laughed. She had a penchant for diving headfirst into each emotion she felt without remorse. Within seconds, Patience could switch from annoyance, to happiness, to anger, to despair. It was what had drawn Elizabeth to her in the first place, when she’d first been assigned as Elizabeth’s lady’s maid two years ago following Gemma’s retirement. Gemma had left to care for her grandchildren and the current maid had filled the role gloriously.
“Are you not pleased to have such a woman as myself caring for you?” Patience sighed, putting her hands on her hips, shaking her head as if to say, “What am I to do with you?”
Elizabeth had the strength to smile this time. “Yes, I could not hope for anything better.”
She nodded decisively. “I am happy to hear that. Now, will you cheer up for the rest of the evening?”
Looking at her through the looking glass, Elizabeth widened her smile, the falseness of it practically blinding. Patience only shook her head again, more serious this time.
“You cannot blame me feeling this way, Patience,” Elizabeth sighed. It was all she could do not to declare she was ill and crawl back into her bed. “Not today of all days…”
Patience nodded, her eyes growing tender once again. “I understand.”
No one could truly understand, Elizabeth knew. Patience hadn’t been there that day. Gemma had still been her lady’s maid, and even though she’d stayed by her side after the ordeal, even Gemma couldn’t begin to grasp how Elizabeth’s heart had been broken all over again when she’d lost that ring.
Five years. It had been five years since then. Five years of being fine on the surface, while always feeling as if something was missing from her life. Five years of watching herself become a spinster. Five years of her continuing search for William and always falling short. That day had brought such hope and such pain in one fell swoop. And to this moment, Elizabeth could not forgive herself for how timidly she’d handled everything.
Had she stood up for herself, had she been bold and brave like Gemma, perhaps that man would not have dared to rob her.
Patience had only been here for two of those years. They’d grown so close in that time that Elizabeth knew Patience only wished for her ultimate happiness. But no one would understand how she’d lost a piece of herself that day.
“If it is any consolation to you, Lady Elizabeth,” came Patience’s voice through her growing sorrow, “you look absolutely beautiful.”
Elizabeth smiled, her unconscious reaction to such a compliment even though she didn’t feel it. Taken at face value, she might have some charm to her appearance. But underneath the sleeves and the shawls she constantly wore were thick, puffy scars that marred whatever beauty remained. The scars seemed to have cut straight to her core, to have stolen the last bit of herself she had left. Day by day, and especially when the phantom pain flared, she was reminded of how foolish, useless, and broken she was.
So, she would always wear gloves to hide the scratches on her knuckles, wrist, and the scar on her upper arm. She would always wear a shawl to keep the scar on her left collarbone from showing. And though her gown hid the one on her side, it was a constant reminder of that terrible day. Her father’s best physicians could not have prevented the scarring no matter what they did, simply because of how her skin reacted. Instead of fading to a thin white line as they’d expected, they had flared and grown.
Every time Elizabeth thought about it, her gut twisted. It was partly the reason why she did not want to think about marriage, because she couldn’t imagine showing such insecurities any other soul.
To change the topic, Elizabeth said, “I wonder what he is like.”
Patience frowned a little. Her wariness was understandably considering Elizabeth had not been very happy about returning to London for the Season in the first place.
“You do?” Patience asked incredulously, watching Elizabeth come to a stand.
She didn’t, but talking about it helped her forget that fateful day. “I have never met him, you know,” she went on, as she approached the door of her bedchamber, Patience on her heels. “Do you think he will be handsome?”
“I am unsure.” Patience still sounded a bit wary. Elizabeth had spent the past few days so dreading this dinner that to hear her talk about it now was certainly unusual. “Considering the speed at which everything happened, I would not be surprised if that hadn’t been taken into account during the arrangements.”
“I hope that he is,” Elizabeth lied. She didn’t care, but delving into this conversation might make her forget about the scars. At least, for a while. “It might make this entire ordeal easier to deal with.”
Patience hung her head dramatically. “Why do I doubt your words?”
“Because you know me better than anyone else in this house,” Elizabeth responded without hesitation. That was the truth.
Patience took her hand. In that moment, their respective statuses fell away. They were no longer a lady and her maid but a friend caring for another. “I understand the position you are in, but it does not mean this gentleman is the one you are meant to be with.”
After so many years, my true love has yet to appear so who then am I meant to be with?
“Then shall I say that to my betrothed tonight?” Elizabeth asked, but her jest fell flat. “Shall I let him know that my heart has belonged to another nearly all my life?”
“Not unless you are hoping for your father to collapse from shock,” Patience teased. Elizabeth giggled at that.
Patience always knew how to make her feel better. Since she’d received the news of her forced betrothal, only a month after returning to London, Elizabeth had been quite depressed. She knew her father only wanted to ensure she would be taken care of once he was gone, especially considering her dowry and inheritance was not very substantial and a decent match would certainly aid in Elizabeth’s future comfort. But Patience had stayed by her side, encouraging her to continue her search on one front while making sure she did not alarm her father on the other.
“Only one evening,” Patience said again, returning her hand to her side as they continued down the hall. “Then, you can express your concerns to Lord Gillet once again.”
“I doubt that will do much to change anything.” Her father lived in constant regret that he’d sat by and allowed Elizabeth to become a spinster, which was what had driven him to make this decision in the first place. No amount of arguing had changed his mind before today, so she doubted it would do much afterwards.
But Elizabeth liked to cling to hope. It was what kept her going all these years. So she did so now, continuing along to the parlor.
Patience left her side when they arrived at the parlor, to be replaced by the butler, Andrew. He opened the door for her, stepped to the side, and allowed her to enter. Elizabeth saw her father first, smiling brightly at the person to his left. Then, the large ornately decorated parlor came into full view—the sideboard crowded by gentlemen already indulging in pre-dinner drinks, the ladies Elizabeth did not care to know, who were already whispering about her—and…her betrothed.
“Ah, there she is,” came her father, Harold Parsons, the Earl of Gillet. He swept a large hand to Elizabeth as she approached the cream-colored armchair where her father sat. Though she’d prefer not to, Elizabeth curtsied appropriately to a few of the guests nearby, her eyes barely meeting any of theirs. As pleasantries were exchanged, conversation struck up once again and the room was filled with chatter.
“My Lord,” Lord Gillet said to the man sitting next to him, his voice tinged with excitement. Her father shared Elizabeth’s silvery blond hair and brown eyes, though they were far more expressive than hers. He’d always been one to be taken by his eagerness, a happy-go-lucky sort that usually put Elizabeth in a good mood. Tonight, it did not. “I am pleased to introduce to you my daughter, Lady Elizabeth. Elizabeth, please greet your betrothed, James, the Earl of Horenwall.”
Lord Horenwall was a vision. He had a smooth, pretty face, unshaven and clean. His blond hair was worn Brutus-style, his eyes a sparkling brown. She could even see small freckles on his cheeks, which only made him seem warm and approachable. Not to mention the fact that he was quite tall, with a slender stature. He bowed, giving her an easy smile. “It is a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Lady Elizabeth.”
“The pleasure is mine, My Lord,” Elizabeth said with a graceful curtsy. After that, she finally sank onto the chaise lounge, folding her hands in her lap. She was in no mood for drinking tonight and only wanted this to be over with.
“At long last,” the Earl boomed with a broad grin, “you two meet. I’d feared it would not happen until much closer to the wedding date.”
Since the day her father had told her of his acceptance of Lord Horenwall’s proposal, she’d been dreading this day. Apparently, Lord Horenwall had taken notice of her at a small soiree her father had forced her to attend a few weeks prior, when the Viscount had finally put his foot down about her lacking approach to her unmarried state. Elizabeth hadn’t danced with a single person that evening, so she’d been surprised to learn of the fact that she had not only been given a proposal, but it had been accepted on her behalf before she even had a chance to learn the name of this gentleman.
“You must forgive me, My Lord,” Lord Horenwall spoke up. He had quite a nice voice but Elizabeth didn’t care. She tried not to play with the ends of her gloves too much. “Had I not been hindered by other inescapable matters, I would have visited much earlier.”
“It is nothing to apologize for, My Lord,” her father said. “A busy man is a good man, after all. It eases my heart to know my dear Elizabeth will be in good hands.”
Elizabeth paused for a moment, eyes flickering up to see her father sipping happily on his brandy. Her father had a tendency to say the first thing that came to his mind, which she’d always found rather refreshing. A part of her wished Lord Horenwall would not appreciate the insinuation he’d just made.
This night needs to be over.
She was already weary of it, and if she didn’t stop herself, she might end up saying something she might regret.
Only a few hours, Elizabeth. You can do this.
But the Earl laughed. “Then you have no cause for worry, My Lord. I assure you that she will be. And I must say, I am quite pleased to be in the presence of such beauty.”
Elizabeth dutifully smiled at him. “You flatter me, My Lord.”
“How can I not?” Lord Horenwall went on. “Your beauty truly knows no bounds. I had heard as much but it is far greater than I could have ever expected.”
“Is that all you have heard, My Lord?” Elizabeth asked before she could stop herself. She saw when her father looked sharply at her and she instantly regretted the words.
Lord Horenwall’s dark blond brows dipped into a frown. “I am afraid I do not understand the question.”
Elizabeth shook her head, her smile false against her teeth. “Oh, pardon me. Since it has been a while since I’d been out amongst the ton, I am only curious to know if I have been the subject of any recent gossip. Now that I hear my question aloud, I realized how foolish it is.”
“I have been telling Elizabeth that it might be a nice change of pace if she were to attend more balls this Season,” her father picked up easily. “But she tells me she is only comfortable in much smaller gatherings.”
Her father shot her a discreet look she recognized quickly. It was clear he didn’t appreciate her mention of recent gossip, which had been surrounding her marriage-less state as of late. He wanted no mention of her coming spinsterhood nor her age, nothing that might make the Earl rethink this betrothal. “She is, however, quite reserved.”
“Is that so?” Lord Horenwall seemed unaware of the direction the conversation had nearly gone in. “Then what do you say we all attend Lady Trenchton’s ball? I will be by your side, My Lady, so you do not have to worry about being alone. Not to mention that I am quite sought after by the ladies this Season, so it will certainly make you the subject of envy. Is that not what every lady wants?”
That is quite funny because I want the very opposite. But she didn’t dare to say those words aloud.
“Oh, no, that is quite all right, My Lord,” Elizabeth protested weakly but he was already shaking his head.
“I insist. Lady Trenchton is quite famous for her themed balls, though I do not yet know what the theme will be this year. I encourage you and Lord Gillet to attend for I am sure you will both enjoy yourselves. Perhaps others will see how much better you shine when you are by my side.”
Elizabeth couldn’t tell if he was jesting. Surely, he had to be but…
She knew, without having to look at her father, that he was already considering the invitation. Another protest lay on the tip of her tongue, but what was the use? Ever since he’d announced that she would soon be married, Lord Gillet had been quite stubborn in changing his mind. Like a bull, he was charging in headfirst and Elizabeth didn’t think she had the strength to stop him.
She could hardly blame him, however. For many years he stood by, hoping she would take the initiative. She’d neglected to tell him that she was saving herself for someone else because she knew he would not understand. While he’d known William when they were younger, too many years had passed and Elizabeth was clearly the only one who still clung to the past.
So, Lord Gillet nodded his head, approved loudly, and Elizabeth concentrated on eating. Even though it was in her nature to be kind, and she knew that Lord Horenwall was not to blame for this, she couldn’t bring herself to speak anymore. She let her father take the reins, to make the Earl comfortable while Elizabeth tried not to be rude.
For the rest of the night, she couldn’t stop the sadness and dread that pooled in the pit of her stomach. And she couldn’t stop thinking about William, wishing she could find him at long last.
The next few days were spent with Elizabeth in a focused state. It came upon her the night of the dinner party, when she’d returned to her bedchamber to retire for the night. She’d laid in bed thinking about the past, about the scars that marred her body, about the ring she’d lost, and the man whom she was meant to marry. Instead of growing sad under the weight of it all, Elizabeth grew more determined to find William.
That was exactly what she set out to do the next day and the day after that. Her father was right in saying that she was reserved but even so, she did not spend much time home. She would travel around London in a carriage, looking out the window in hopes of finally spotting him by a twist of fate.
She knew it was fruitless and foolish. A waste of time. But after last night, Elizabeth couldn’t bring herself to sit around while her search remained unfinished. And with no clues as to where to look for him next, she found herself falling into this terribly monotonous and fruitless search.
Of course, it ended with no results. Like every other day for the past few years, Elizabeth failed to find him. But, though despair was beginning to set in, Elizabeth refused to give in to it. Once he was back in her life, she would not be forced into a marriage to a man she did not know, no matter how kind that man appeared to be.
“What do you think, Lady Elizabeth?”
The voice dragged Elizabeth out of her thoughts and she looked up at Lord Horenwall sitting across from her, who had his brows raised in question. Sitting next to her in the rattling carriage was her father, who would serve as her chaperone for the ball, despite them traveling with the Earl.
“What do I think about what?” she asked. She hadn’t been listening to a word either one of them had been saying since she came into the carriage. Since they’d been going on and on about matters regarding business, she didn’t think she needed to.
Lord Horenwall pointed out the window with a small smile. “The sky. There is a full moon tonight. Do you not think it is quite beautiful?”
Indeed, the night was far brighter than it usually was. She nodded, not particularly caring for the conversation but not the type to be rude. “Yes, My Lord, it is a sight to see.”
“Though, I must say it pales in comparison to your radiance, My Lady.”
Elizabeth smiled because she knew she was supposed to. “I must thank you, though I am undeserving of such compliments,” she said modestly.
“Oh, come now, Elizabeth,” said her father. His usual grin was out in full tonight as he said to the Earl, “She has always been very modest.”
“I find it to be a charming quality,” Lord Horenwall said. “Or perhaps it shows that she is not easily wooed by sweet words.”
Elizabeth didn’t see any reason to respond with anything other than a smile. Lord Horenwall regarded her curiously after that, his own smile playing around his lips. Thankfully, he said nothing else as they pulled up to the line of carriages leading to Trenchton House. She’d learned that the theme for tonight’s ball had been A Midnight’s Garden and so Elizabeth had opted to wear a rose-colored gown, complemented by a fichu that effectively covered the scar on her collarbone. Her sleeves were puffed and so she wore a pair of long gloves.
Her father picked up the conversation once again, engaging Lord Horenwall and relieving Elizabeth of the need to do so herself. It pained her to see her father taking her into consideration through such actions, while simultaneously subjecting her to something she did not want to do. He was an understanding man, but she’d pushed him far past his limits.
Within a few minutes, they arrived at the house and were helped out of the carriage by footmen. Lord Horenwall gave Elizabeth a smile as they set out towards the door and she just barely managed to return it. She didn’t want to be here. Surely, when she stepped into the ballroom, the gossiping would begin.
But she held her chin high as she, Lord Gillet, and Lord Horenwall were led through the front doors towards the ballroom. When they were announced, Elizabeth kept her head straight, not letting her gaze rest on any one person. But she noticed curious eyes watching as she went by. She imagined whispers going up about the seven-and-twenty-year-old lady who had not been seen at a Season’s ball in years. Elizabeth liked to convince herself sometimes that the whispering didn’t bother her, especially since she didn’t know if what they were saying was good or bad, but tonight it was difficult to.
“There is no need to tarry, My Lady,” Lord Horenwall said the moment they came to a stop amongst the masses. “Let us join the dance that is about to begin.”
“A-already?” she blurted out.
Lord Horenwall tilted his head to the side, smiling. “There is no greater time than the present, do you not think?”
He did not wait for her to respond. He took her by the hand and began leading her out towards the other dancing couples. This time, she was most certainly being watched and Elizabeth tried not to lower her eyes to the floor.
Lord Horenwall gathered her close. For a few moments, they moved to the rhythm of the music drifting through the ballroom before he spoke again. “So, My Lady. What, may I ask, changed your mind about tonight’s ball?”
Elizabeth’s mind was far away, wishing that she could return home. It took her a moment to realize he’d spoken. She raised her brows in surprise. “Pardon me?”
“It had appeared to me when last we spoke that you did not fancy the idea of attending. Do not tell me you are smitten with me already?”
Does he jest or does he truly believe that I fancy him?
A moment passed by and Lord Horenwall chuckled, brushing his thumb over the back of her hand. The movement sent a shudder through her body “I am afraid my teasing cannot hit its mark tonight.”
“Oh,” she murmured, her tone slightly disinterested. “Forgive me.”
That made Lord Horenwall chuckle. “The moment has long since passed and now I must recover my pride. But I do hope for a response to my question.”
“As to why I suddenly wished to attend?” Elizabeth was scanning the guests. It was an instinctive reaction. If she was near a group of people, she always had to look to see if William was present. The disappointment she felt seeing that he was not, hardly bothered her anymore. “It is simple, My Lord. I did not have much of a choice.”
“Oh? Pray tell why.”
She lifted a single shoulder. “My father grew enamored with the idea and I did not want to disappoint him.”
It was partly the truth, the other part holding on to the hope that she would find a clue as to William’s whereabouts, as impossible a feat it might be.
“You are a kind daughter, Lady Elizabeth,” Lord Horenwall responded. “It is always heartwarming to see a close relationship between a lady and her father.”
Elizabeth didn’t care to talk about herself any longer. “And you, My Lord? Is the relationship between you and your parents a good one?”
“Yes, we are quite close. I believe they are quite honored to have a son quite like myself.”
Elizabeth looked up at him, preparing herself to laugh until she saw how utterly serious his face was. She didn’t think he was joking this time. Ah, he is hiding quite an ego, isn’t he? Goodness, I loathe this betrothal more and more by the day.
“With good reason,” she stated, hoping it would be left at that.
“I am happy you see it as well, My Lady,” Lord Horenwall gushed. “Why, just the other night…”
Elizabeth resisted the urge to sigh as the Earl delved into a story about his prowess regarding an incident with an overseas diplomat. She didn’t understand it and didn’t care to, knowing that he was only gushing about how great he was. She’d noticed during the dinner party that Lord Horenwall had quite a lot of pride in himself, but his hubris seemed to shine more brilliantly among so many other people.
Not everyone is as insecure as you are, Elizabeth, she told herself. Perhaps you should listen and learn how to gain a bit of confidence.
But doing anything other than smiling gently and nodding along to the Earl’s tale felt far too cumbersome. He asked her a few questions as well, inquiring about her life, and Elizabeth only gave cryptic responses. She wanted this dance to be over.
At long last, the song came to an end and other dancing couples began parting ways. Lord Horenwall kept close to her as they made their way back to where her father stood talking to an elderly Baron.
“Pardon me, My Lord,” Elizabeth breathed, stepping away from Lord Horenwall. She felt stifled by his presence. “I wish to fetch myself something to drink.”
“Allow me to bring it for you, My Lady,” the Earl suggested but she was already shaking her head.
“There is no need. I can do it myself.” To ease his mind, she smiled at him as she began stepping away and then disappeared into the thick of the crowd before he could say another word.
Elizabeth drew in a long breath, releasing it through her nose. Going to the refreshments table would be a short reprieve as Lord Horenwall would undoubtedly find her again. Since the wedding date had already been set a month from now, Elizabeth believed their marriage announcement was already in the papers. And if not, rumors would certainly take care of that when they were seen together for most of the night. He would certainly ask her to dance again before the night ended.
The very thought burdened her and she reached for a glass of lemonade without thinking. She paused by the end of the table, lifted the glass to her lips, and prayed she had the strength to get through the night.
“Have you heard, Lady Blackpole?” came a nosy whisper. “The Duke of Brandon has passed away.”
“Has he?” The responding voice was shocked. “Despite his age, he appeared to be quite the hearty and healthy man, do you not think? How odd that he would pass away so suddenly.”
Slightly curious, Elizabeth glanced over to see who was speaking.
It was two matron ladies standing before her, their heads bent together, each with a glass of Negus in their hand. They didn’t seem to notice that they did not speak as quietly as they should, despite them bringing their heads close to each other’s. The chubbier of the two held a fan in her hand, moving it back and forth as she watched every person that went by with intense curiosity. The other lady did the same, like two hens sizing up every person in attendance to see if they were worthy of being gossiped about.
“Healthy?” snorted the first lady, one who sported wide hips and chubby cheeks. “Do you not recall how he nearly went bankrupt last year spending all that time in the clubs? He had to sell a few of his country estates to stay afloat! I believe he must have had a heart attack when he realized he has lost all his wealth.”
“Yes, Lady Joneshire, you’re right!” Lady Blackpole expressed with a gasp. Unlike her friend, she was rather tall and lanky, her face pinched with distaste. Her maroon gown hung lifelessly off her shoulders, like the drapes hung in the drawing room of Gillet House. “Heavens, it is quite unfortunate that nearly all of London knows his private business. And have you heard the rumors? That he was once the son of the Viscount of Blackworth?”
Elizabeth went rigid. It…couldn’t be…
The Viscount of Blackworth was William’s grandfather. Since…since when had the son of the Viscount become a Duke?
“Of course, I have, though I am not sure I believe it! Wasn’t the Viscount’s son living overseas?”
“Yes, you’re right! Hm, well the Duke has certainly shown he is not one to be responsible. He should not have been so vocal about his troubles with the lightskirts he laid with at night,” Lady Joneshire twittered, chuckling as she drank her wine. She wore a more muted color, a soft blue that would have looked quite nice on her had her features not been twisted with unkindness. Her friend laughed alongside her.
Elizabeth was already moving without thinking, even though she did not know them. It was incredibly inappropriate to cut into a conversation like she was about to do, but she couldn’t let this opportunity pass her. “Pardon me.”
They both turned to the sound of Elizabeth’s voice and neither one of them could conceal their interest when they saw that it was her. Elizabeth instantly knew she had to tread lightly. It was clear these ladies had nothing better to do that to stand around talking badly about others, even the recently deceased. Considering the robbery that had taken place five years ago, and her spinster state, Elizabeth was sure the gossip had reached the ears of those in London by now.
“You are the daughter of Lord Gillet, are you not?” asked Lady Joneshire, her eyes sparkling.
Elizabeth nodded, resting her glass on the table. She tried to conceal her suddenly trembling hands by hiding them behind her. “Yes, I am.” She curtsied. “It is a pleasure.”
Lady Blackpole held her chin high. “It has been some time since we have last seen each other, has it not? Was it at a tea party? Or perhaps a dinner party? I cannot recall. I pray you have been well.”
“I have, My Lady, thank you.” Elizabeth couldn’t fathom when she’d ever met either one of them, but she guessed it must have been a few years ago, when she’d actively participated during Seasons. “May I ask about the man you just mentioned? The Duke of Brandon?”
“Yes?” asked Lady Joneshire. “What of him?”
Her heart was pounding. Her tongue was dry. She was trying to quell her optimistic side by overpowering it with realistic thoughts. “You say he was the son of the Viscount of Blackworth and that he has passed away?” she asked, pleased that her voice was neutral and unassuming.
“Well, I do not know about him being the son of the Viscount,” Lady Joneshire said. “But the Duke of Brandon has certainly passed away.”
Questions popped into her mind all at once. If the Duke of Brandon was truly the son of the Viscount…then that meant William’s father had returned. For so long, William had resented the absence of his father but never had she considered that he might have returned. And had secured himself a better title, as well. Her heart began to race, sensing that she’d just learned a vital clue. She tried to keep this from appearing on her face, instead murmuring, “That is quite saddening to hear.”
“Yes, death is always sad,” Lady Blackpole agreed with a nod, though the way she turned her nose up didn’t suggest any pity. “Living the way he did, however, I am surprised it did not come earlier.”
“The way he did?”
“He was quite the drunkard, Lady Elizabeth,” Lady Joneshire explained with a single shrug. Elizabeth didn’t miss the way she peeked up at her, as if wanting to gauge Elizabeth’s reaction despite her nonchalant answer. Her voice was already lilting with the urge to gossip to someone else. “Why, there is never a time he was not at the clubs wasting his money away on cards and drinking. It is quite disappointing.”
Disappointing, yes. But Elizabeth never truly knew who he was. Ever since she’d known William, his father had always been overseas and William had always been unwilling to speak about him. Thankfully, because their mothers had been friends, seeing each other had been simple enough.
She’d been away from London for so long that it didn’t come as a surprise to her that she hadn’t heard of any of this gossip. Other than the few times she would go to that small park—even after the robbery—Elizabeth had remained mainly indoors with Gemma, then Patience, as company.
Elizabeth tried to keep her tone steady as she asked, “And what of his son?”
“The Marquess of Flayburn?” Lady Joneshire lifted her fan to her face as she rolled her eyes in thought. “I suppose he has now inherited the Dukedom. I wonder if he has what it takes to pick up the pieces his father has left behind?”
“He is well?” Now desperation was bleeding into her voice. Elizabeth took a step closer, eyes filled with urgency.
“William?” Lady Blackpole echoed in surprise. “Ah, I suppose you must have been close with him as well. My, Lady Elizabeth, to think you have always been so well-connected. Here I thought you remained unmarried simply because you could not find the proper connections, but it appears that is not so. I see no reason for you to remain a spinster all your life, I hope you know? You are a pretty enough lady, as well, so that should account for something.”
“Yes, that is right,” Lady Joneshire said, adding to her friend’s pitying tone. They both looked at her as if she was a sad thing who needed help. “Though, I wouldn’t blame you if you lost hope.”
Get back on track!
Elizabeth wanted to scream the words at her. Holding herself back was an impossible feat, especially when her friend added, “Yes, but not everyone is lucky in that regard.”
Elizabeth couldn’t even manage a tight smile. “What of Will—the new Duke? Do you happen to know anything about him?”
“Nothing, other than his title. Quite the enigma, I must say. Though, I suppose when you live on the very outskirts of London, it is easy enough to stay out of the public’s eye.”
The outskirts of London? He moved from where he last lived?
Relief crippled Elizabeth’s legs. She rested a hand on the table, trying to pull herself together, but both Lady Blackpole and Lady Joneshire noticed her sudden pallor.
“Are you all right, My Lady?” Lady Blackpole asked. “Are you unwell?”
“Heavens,” Lady Joneshire gasped. “Surely, you cannot be…” She glanced at Elizabeth’s midsection, eyes wide.
“I am fine.” Elizabeth straightened, met their eyes, and saw their disbelief. She couldn’t believe how inappropriate an insinuation they were making, but she couldn’t very well say anything considering she hadn’t been very polite herself. “I only grew a bit lightheaded for a moment. I think I shall go to the terrace for air. Please, enjoy the rest of the ball.”
She swiveled and walked away before they had the chance to make a comment. Elizabeth didn’t see the people she went by, didn’t see anything but the doors that led out into the gardens. Once the cold air hit her skin, she shivered but she didn’t stop walking until she came to a lonely gazebo.
She sank onto a bench and let out a shuddering breath.
He is alive. He is in London. He is well.
Elizabeth had kept close watch on the obituaries the past few years. She did not like entertaining the idea that he might have passed and consoled herself by reading that somber section of the paper, feeling relief every time she was finished.
She’d also considered the thought that he might have left London, but long trips away from her home were not something she could do very often. Not to mention the fact that the countryside was far too vast for her to have a single idea where to look first.
To think that all this time, he’d been in London. Quite a distance from her, yes, but close all the same.
She let out another breath, a small giggle. Then, she laughed again, lifting her teary eyes to the full moon above.
Are you looking at this moon as well, William? Do you miss me just as badly as I miss you? Don’t worry. Now, I will make sure that I find you.
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