Authors: Sharon Louise
Tags: #regency romance, #romantic suspense, #short story, #duke, #nobility, #aristocracy, #murder, #London, #Almack's, #wealthy
“No, Your Grace,” she said, schooling her face. Serene. Soft.
His grip dug deeper.
She gasped at the pain, stifling the cry that rose in her throat, the muffled cry reaching her lips with a whimper.
His smile grew. “Perhaps that gave you pain.”
“N-no, Your Grace,” she said.
‘Never contradict him,’ her mother had said. ‘He is a duke, and a duke must be obeyed.’
His hand on her back pushed her hard against him.
The flounces of her skirt brushed his ankles, her breasts crushed to his chest and straining against her modest neckline. “I look forward to bedding you,” he said, and she gasped again at his impropriety, her skin heating with a furious flush.
She lowered her eyes. She was the impoverished daughter of a deceased, impoverished earl, the daughter who’d made a solemn vow to her father.
He was the wealthy duke who would keep her mother from penury.
Her grip on her reticule tightened, the tiny paper packet of poison still hidden deep inside her handkerchief inside the small satin bag, the vial she’d given Derrick filled with the smelling salts her mother insisted she carry.
When, when? Eliza’s mind wondered, whirling as fast as the dancers around them. When—at her hand—would she watch the duke die?
Derrick slipped from the storeroom minutes after Eliza had departed, bitterness at all the duke had taken from him burning in his throat, bitterness and a triumph he held in close check
Too soon to count a victory here. He understood too well the danger of that. But the thought of denouncing the Duke of Belville, to accuse him, with proof, of treason, to regain Derrick’s own and his family’s reputation and honor, after these two years, was triumph too great to not savor.
He would do it here, tonight, among men of honor, not the duke’s cronies. Men of honor, who would hear Derrick’s words, peruse his proof.
Clear his name.
Clear his family’s name.
It had seemed at the time a good notion. Threaten the duke with a solid, sleek knife as sharp as the one Belville had figuratively thrust into Derrick’s back when His Grace had ruined him. Use the solid, sleek knife to hold Belville’s attention while Derrick ruined the duke in front of the
He hadn’t counted on Eliza.
He passed through the refreshments room into the ballroom.
On the dance floor, the Duke of Belville pulled Lady Eliza against his groin.
With an oath, Derrick pushed forward through the crowd.
The duke’s head bent toward Eliza’s, his breath with the faintest of brandy scent and hot. His lips neared hers.
Her heart raced, her feet moving to the music with an instinct trained into her, her gaze searching for an escape from the crowded dance floor, couples twirling around them, the music loud in the air. Would he shame her with a kiss in front of them all? Seal his ownership of her by ruining her in the eyes of other men?
Behind him, Derrick pushed through the crowd, murder in his features.
The duke laughed, inches from her face. “My dear Lady Eliza, even I would not—
” he cried out. His hand dropped from her waist. Raised over his shoulder and clapped against his back. A loud groan broke from his throat, and he slumped hard against her.
The hand he’d clapped on his back fell forward and down, limp and brushing her primrose skirt, leaving a trail of red. His feet stumbled. His chest bore down harder on hers.
His weight too much for her to bear, she tumbled backwards, losing her footing, falling with a scream to the floor.
His body landed on hers, squeezing out her air, and frantic to breathe, she pushed at his chest.
Blood trickled from his mouth, dripping onto her cheek. Blood flowed down the side of his elegant coat, onto her dress and gloves.
The chest she shoved at didn’t breathe. No heart beat.
Eliza had her miracle. His Grace the Duke of Belville was dead.
The crowd pressed around Eliza, a scream, then another, filling the air, skirts rustling by her head, men’s voices exclaiming, the scents of lavender and starch and blood overwhelming her senses.
Horror at the duke’s blood mingled with relief she and her mother were saved.
The Earl of Atterhill rolled the duke off of her. His countess knelt at Eliza’s side and helped her to sit, then wiped at Eliza’s cheek with a white silk handkerchief, Eliza tugging off her stained gloves with trembling,
plucking fingers, her stunned eyes searching for Derrick.
She had not far to search. He stood opposite them, the duke at his feet, His Grace’s body on its side, His Grace’s blood pooling on the parquet floor, Derrick’s face hard and cold.
Lady Prysden stepped from behind him and pointed at Eliza.
“You killed him,” she said in an awful, fierce, hushed tone.
Accusing stares lashed at Eliza from the circle forming around her, Eliza, the duke, Derrick, and the Atterhills in the center. “Her ladyship was dancing with him,” a man said, then another, a mad hum of voices rushing through the crowd.
“And where would her ladyship conceal such a knife?” Derrick called out.
The voices hushed. All eyes fixed on Eliza.
Flushed, Eliza gripped the reticule she had dropped and rose to her feet.
She was dancing with him,
” Lady Prysden demanded.
“Then she is the least suspect,” Derrick said. “How could she thrust a knife in His Grace’s back while he held her in his arms?” He stepped over the dead duke and raised Eliza’s bare forearm, his gloved touch hot against the shivers running cold through her body. “Where would she conceal such a weapon that she could unsheathe it and wield it with such deadly intent? Surely not in this gown. Not in this trifle of a reticule.”
A rustle of satin pushed its way through the crowd. Eliza’s mother reached the inner circle, her face paling at the sight of His dead Grace, and put her arm around the back of Eliza’s waist in a protective grip. “This is not fit for my daughter to witness,” she said, tugging Eliza toward the crowd behind them, Eliza resisting, loathe to leave Derrick.
“Your daughter will witness the deed she has done,” Lady Prysden said.
Mama’s cold stare sent ice to the other woman, then she turned with Eliza toward the front door, stepping as she turned between Eliza and Derrick’s unmoving figure, her gaze faltering as she saw who stood at her side.
” Lady Goodfield said.
Eliza pushed between them, clutching her reticule, her face deathly white. “
Mama,” she said.
Lady Goodfield stared.
He’d come to renounce the duke. The time was now.
“Thank you,” Eliza’s soft voice murmured in a low tone only he could hear as she turned to him, and he realized she thought he was her savior. ‘You dare?’ she’d said, and he’d answered ‘Yes,’ and he wished it
been his knife, his thrust, that had done the deed.
“’Twas not I,” he murmured back. “I thought perhaps it was you.”
She looked at him in horror, but he remembered the fearless, daredevil child she’d been. He’d seen the anguish tonight in her blue eyes.
A woman rushed to Lady Goodfield’s side—who stared at Derrick, then the duke—the woman in an elegant, burgundy gown befitting a matron of forty-plus years, a young lady Eliza’s age and dressed in modest blue at her side.
Derrick’s mouth went dry. His heart jumped into his throat. He hadn’t expected his family to be here this night.
The Trulingtons were in disgrace. Because of him.
“Derrick?” his mother said in a queer, suffocated voice, her childhood friend Lady Jersey—a leader of the
—rushing up behind her.
He froze. His mind said ‘run.’ His body wouldn’t move. Anguish twisted in his heart. This was not how he’d wanted this to go. This was not how he’d wanted to return. He needed to clear his name, clear his family’s name, before he’d be fit to grace their presence.
What they must have suffered because of him.
What they would suffer if he were caught here before his honor was restored.
” the whispers began, spreading swiftly through the ballroom. “
And mingled among the two words was a new one. “
Three men, the Earl of Walson and his two sons, cronies of the Duke of Belville, moved forward, anger and vengeance on their faces.
But Derrick would have his own vengeance first. “The true traitor is the Duke of Belville,” he called out over the crowd.
An offended gasp swept the
Derrick pulled a folded sheaf of papers from his waistcoat, leaving the knife sheathed. For now. He held the papers in the air. “I have proof. In the duke’s own hand.”
“You lie,” the Earl of Walson said. His sons shoved Eliza roughly aside and grabbed Derrick’s arms, the elder son reaching for the papers.
Derrick kicked him in the groin, sending him sprawling to the floor. Punched the younger son in the gut and shoved him down to his brother, the rage of years of prison, of the disgrace to his family, rushing through him. “The Duke of Belville sold information to the French. The deed he accused me of was at his own hand, never mine. These papers” —he waved them in the air again— “Prove what I say.”
The Earl of Walson moved forward. Pulled the knife from the duke’s back. Advanced on Derrick.
Derrick unsheathed the knife in his waistcoat.
Silence dropped over the
“Concerned the duke might have made mention of you in his letter?” Derrick said in a low tone that nonetheless carried over the quiet ballroom.
“You lie,” the earl said, menace in his tone.
“Enough,” the Marquis of Eastbrooke said, stepping forward, two large men following behind him. “Take him,” he told the two men.
Eliza let out an anguished cry.
Derrick braced himself. The marquis was a man of honor, one who stood outside the Duke of Belville’s circle. Would he listen to the truth?
Would the agony of the past two years be in vain?
The men neared, the Earl of Walson smug with victory.
Eliza flung her arms around Derrick.
The men stopped beside the earl and wrested the knife from his hand.
Derrick’s gaze snapped to the Marquis of Eastbrooke.
Grim-faced, the marquis spoke. “I charge you with treason, Horace Smythe-Jones, Earl of Walson.”
“By what authority?” the earl said, haughty and enraged.
“By authority of the Prince Regent, who this day was told of your treachery.” The marquis looked down at the dead duke. “And of his.”
You have no proof,
” the earl shouted.
“I have proof,” Derrick shouted back, his rage, held so long, breaking free.
“As do we,” a familiar voice called out from the back of the crowd.
Derrick started. A voice that sounded like his childhood friend Ellingham.
But Ellingham was dead, along with their friend Trevor. The three of them had been captured two years ago by the French in the midst of an ill-fated battle and held in a French prison. Until the night three weeks ago when a French royalist spying for the British had come to their cell with two of the duke’s treasonous letters and the means for the men to escape, only Ellingham and Trevor making it out that night with one of the letters, escaping at Derrick’s insistence as he lay in a fevered state, Derrick to follow with the second letter when he’d recovered from the fever that had wracked his weakened body.
But Ellingham and Trevor had not made it to England. Both men, Derrick’s closest friends, were dead, Derrick had concluded upon his return to London. It was the only way the Duke of Belville could have still been at liberty to betray his country.
More deaths to avenge, Derrick had thought.
But like ghosts, solid, substantial ghosts full of blood and vigor, Ellingham and Trevor came forward through the crowd.
Derrick’s heart stopped for an instant. A moment later, joy swept through his veins.
“These men,” the marquis said, “came to me eight days ago with letters written by the duke—letters of treason—and intercepted by themselves and the Viscount Trulington.”
Trulington. Derrick took a hopeful breath.
“And of course” —the marquis reached out and tugged a wax-sealed letter from the earl’s waistcoat— “there is this.”
The Earl of Walson flushed. “You cannot know what that letter says. You cannot know it has anything to do with the duke.”
“On the contrary,” the marquis said. “At the Prince Regent’s orders, I ensured the state secrets in this letter—false ones, I assure you—were made available to the Duke of Belville. Moments before the duke took the dance floor, he was observed handing you the letter.” With his foot, he shoved the duke’s body onto its back with disdain. “He, to his detriment, could not resist selling it to the French.”
Derrick sheathed his knife and pulled Eliza tight into his arms, his heartbeat racing. He was free. No longer dishonored.
Ellingham and Trevor came to his side.
With a shy smile, Eliza stepped away.
The men embraced.
“You live,” Derrick said.
“We all live,” Ellingham said, the exultation in his voice echoing the triumph Derrick felt in his soul.
Trevor clasped Derrick’s shoulder. “There has been many an hour I have regretted leaving you in that prison.”
“You left my son?” Derrick’s mother said from behind them, outraged.
“At my insistence, Mother,” Derrick said, turning to her. “The opportunity was too great. I was too fevered. They pledged to return. Someone had to carry the news of the duke’s treachery.”
Swift strides crossed the parquet. More rustles of satin. Ellingham’s and Trevor’s families, unsure until now of their sons’ fates, hurried to their sides.
Derrick’s family gathered at his. “It is over,” he said, more to himself than the others, his heart full.