Authors: Jenna Petersen
And yet, when she spoke, she always said the same thing.
Wake up, child.
On cue, Simon Crathorne, Duke of Billingham, jolted awake, disoriented and foggy. He stared through the darkness of his chamber, searching as if the mysterious figure would somehow remain in his presence, only this time she would be flesh and bone.
Of course, she was not.
With a curse, he threw back the covers and paced through his chamber to the cloaked window. He yanked the curtains open with violence and winced as bright morning sunshine slapped him in the face.
He glared at the clock on the mantel across the room. It was still early, he had at least an hour before his valet would come to assist in his preparations for the day. And he’d had a late night, drinking a bit too much with his best friend, Rhys Carlisle, the Duke of Waverly, who had come out to the Billingham shire to offer moral support during the dreaded house party that would commence today.
And that was probably why the troubling dream with the faceless woman had come to him yet again. She normally appeared when he was out of sorts, worrying over something. And really, this party was quite important, wasn’t it?
After all, in a few short hours, at least a dozen well-appointed carriages would pull into the drive below and deposit a veritable gaggle of young ladies and their mamas or other chaperones. Before a fortnight of merriment was finished, one of those same ladies might very well be his intended, with the Billingham diamond, worn by every Duchess of Billingham for eleven generations, sparkling on her finger and announcing to the world that the new duke had at last found his bride.
He groaned as he yanked the curtains shut and flopped back onto his bed. If he was already dreaming of the faceless woman, it was going to be a very long party indeed.
Gabby gave a delicate shudder as the two girls stared across the jolting carriage at the empty, glazed-over gaze of their chaperone.
“Yes, she does that,” her friend murmured as she looked away. “It is quite disturbing, is it not? But I promise you, Auntie Isabel is asleep. Even if she wasn’t, she’s stone deaf. We could scream out the entire
Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
and she would never so much as stir.”
Lillian smothered a giggle with her palm. “Do we have a copy of the
at hand to scream out? I would greatly like to expand my vocabulary. Wouldn’t it be delightful if I could march right up to the Duke of Billingham and tell him exactly what I thought of his so-called saintly father in terms that would color his ears blood red?”
Gabby’s forehead wrinkled. “To do such a thing would be a bit obvious, don’t you agree? The entire purpose of your visit is to quietly obtain evidence that the man’s father wasn’t the paragon of virtue the
believes. If you offend the new duke within five minutes of our arrival, you shall be sent packing before teatime, and that won’t get you anywhere.”
Lillian folded her arms and scrunched down lower in her seat. “Well, I suppose you’re right. Leave it to you to consider this logically instead of indulging my fantasies. You know, sometimes I forget that I am the elder of the two of us by four years!”
Gabby laughed. “I have an old soul.”
Lillian stuck out her tongue playfully before she sighed. “I shall skip memorizing vulgarities then and stick to my original plan.”
The lines in her friend’s forehead deepened and her teasing gaiety faded away. “Again, I must mention my lingering concerns about this plan of yours, Lillian.”
Lillian shut her eyes with a groan. She’d heard this sermon a dozen times or more.
Her friend ignored her expression and said, “You do not like to hear it, but Billingham is one of the most powerful men in the country. If you cross him…”
Lillian shrugged. “I don’t think Simon Crathorne can do worse to me than his father did to my mother.”
At the same moment, Gabby and she both shivered. Her friend shook her head. “I cannot believe your father would tell you such a thing. It is not for a woman’s ears.”
Lillian blinked back tears. Her father had died just over six months before, and on his deathbed, he had revealed such a secret…such a horrible revelation that every time she thought of it, her blood boiled and her hands shook with the force of her upset and anger.
“He wasn’t telling me, I only overheard him,” she murmured. “He told my brother. He asked Jack to get revenge on the duke for our family. Instead, my brother dissolved into a bottle of whiskey with his pain. Which leaves only
to fulfill my father’s last wishes.”
“Revenge is not a woman’s duty, Lillian,” her friend whispered as she touched her hand. “It’s too ugly and often dangerous, are you certain you cannot leave it be?”
“Leave it be?” Lillian snapped before she shot a glance at Aunt Isabel. But Gabby was right, the older woman had not so much as stirred despite the spirited conversation taking place six inches away from her.
“I cannot leave it be!” Lillian continued. “Five years ago, Roger Crathorne, the Duke of Billingham, found my mother alone at a party and he…he…” She could hardly say it. “He raped her. Within a month, she had killed herself, driven to suicide rather than live with the shame of what he had done to her. Since that night, I have lost everything I held dear. My mother, my father, now my brother. Not to mention that people whisper of the rumors surrounding her death. Because of it,
family is looked down upon and my own chances at a decent match are limited, at best.”
Gabby frowned, but Lillian did not allow her to interrupt.
“All this occurs while Roger Crathorne’s memory is exalted. Why, only two weeks ago I overheard someone malign my family and in almost the same
she spoke of how wonderful a man the late Duke of Billingham was. How can I leave that be? How can I let that stand?”
“Your father did,” Gabby argued. “He had five years to take revenge and he didn’t.”
Lillian shook her head as she thought of her father. After her mother’s death he had disappeared into his grief. He had hardly been able to get up in the morning, let alone turn his thoughts to vengeance.
“My father regretted his weakness every day!” Lillian said as she thought of his deathbed words once more. “He told my brother so and begged him to find revenge before the duke died.”
“Then let your brother do it,” Gabby begged, grabbing her hands.
“I have waited months for him to do so, but you know my brother. He is too like my father, he would rather drown his sorrow in a bottle than avenge it. But those were my father’s requests, and that is what my mother deserves. So I am here and I intend to do as he asked, even if it wasn’t me he asked it of.”
Gabby held her stare for a long moment and then nodded. “I do understand. It must be horrible to hear people go on and on about how wonderful the duke was when you know the truth. I hear they are going to erect a statue to him for all his good works.”
Lillian clenched her jaw. “You see.
is exactly why this must be done even though he is dead. I will not have one more Season pass where that man is lauded a saint.”
“I understand,” her friend whispered.
Lillian nodded, but her conscience pricked nonetheless. “In truth, it is more
I worry about. After all, if I am successful in proving that the great and glorious Roger Crathorne died not a saint, but as a hideous liar and sinner, then I will, as you say, make powerful enemies. If you had any designs on finding a match amongst the duke or his friends—”
Gabby lifted a hand to cut her off. “I’ve told you more than once, I could never want a man whose family was responsible for so much of your pain.”
Lillian squeezed her friend’s fingers and ended the subject by turning to look out the window as the lush green countryside rolled by. As much as she appreciated her friend’s loyalty, Lillian was one of the very few people who understood the true financial straits of Gabby’s family. Her friend would have to marry well, so Lillian had to keep the Watsenvale name clear of wherever her ultimate plans took her.
think you’ll find some kind of proof that the late duke did the sort of things your family accused him of?” Gabby asked, drawing Lillian’s attention back to her. “The
will turn on its heroes like vipers, it’s true, but not without strong proof.”
“I know.” Lillian rested her head against the leather seat behind her, suddenly tired, and she had not even begun her quest. “The bastard…”
She trailed off to cast a quick glance at Gabby’s aunt Isabel, but though her eyes remained eerily open, a low snore escaped her lips.
“The bastard was so well-liked, he had so many people fooled that it will take a great deal to make them see him for what he truly was. But if I could find enough evidence, I think I could convince them. Even if they would not hear it from me, then the papers would print the truth. They couldn’t ignore that.”
Gabby swallowed hard. “The papers? They will most definitely require solid proof of something wicked to print it and risk the ire of the Billingham family.”
Lillian nodded. “Yes. Since the man spent almost every moment he was not in London at this particular country estate, I think it is as good a place as any to find his Achilles’ heel.”
Gabby arched a brow. “Not to mention that it is the
Billingham home you have been invited to.”
Lillian gazed outside a second time. It was not an unkindly meant comment, but it did remind her of her place in the world. “You are correct. I’m not exactly being invited to balls by dukes, but perhaps luck will be on my side.”
Gabby flinched as if she realized her statement had cut, but then she nodded. “I’m sure it shall be. You will find what you need here, I know it. And I’ll do anything in my power to assist you.”
Lillian grasped her friend’s hand and squeezed it gently. If there was one good truth that remained in her world, it was that Gabriela was the best and most loyal friend she had ever had.
When Lillian’s father died and her younger brother went wild, it had been Gabby who had convinced her father to allow Lillian to stay with their family and take part in the Season as her guest. It had been Gabby who had somehow managed to get herself included in the new Duke of Billingham’s house party. And it had been Gabby who had written in the guise of her father to the duchess, asking that Lillian be included as well. All because her friend knew how desperately Lillian wanted to right the wrong done to her family.
The carriage slid to a stop and there were a few voices outside. At that moment, Aunt Isabel snorted awake, sitting up from her slightly cockeyed position and giving the two girls a flighty smile before she peeked out the curtain on the window beside her.
“Ah, we are here at last! They are opening the gate for us,” Aunt Isabel said, her voice still thick with sleep.
No sooner had the words been spoken than the carriage began to move and they entered the main estate area where the Billingham dukes had kept a home for eleven generations. Twelve, now, Lillian supposed. After all, there was a new duke.
Rumor had it that father and son had been quite close, so the son was probably as corrupt and false as his father before him. At least Lillian assumed so. If he was not, it would certainly make her quest all the more uncomfortable.
Such an odd situation, to be hoping one’s host was a scoundrel.
She straightened up as the carriage wound its way down the road leading to the main house. Now was the time to pull herself together and prepare for every contingency. The man she was about to meet could never guess that she had come to his country party not as a guest, but as the harbinger of his doom. Or at least of the end of his late father’s highly respected name.
No, she would have to be sweet and empty and forgettable, but never cold or bitter. Then the new duke would put his focus on the other poor women he intended to court and forget about her, leaving her to conduct her search in peace.
The carriage pulled to a stop, and instantly there was a hustle and bustle of activity as footmen rattled down from their seats. The door was pulled open and Aunt Isabel stepped out first, calling her greeting to seemingly no one in particular. Gabby followed after a brief but meaningful glance in Lillian’s direction.
Once her friend was gone, Lillian drew in a final breath of strength and took the gloved fingers that were offered by the servant outside. Stepping down, she made to join Aunt Isabel and Gabby. But as she moved around a footman to begin this charade, she came to a sudden stop. The two women were not alone. They had been joined by a man.
And not just any man, but possibly the most beautiful man she had ever seen in her twenty-seven years on this earth. He was tall, probably a head and a half taller than she was, with broad shoulders that fit perfectly into his impeccably tailored waistcoat and jacket. He had thick, black hair that was just a touch too long and curled over his forehead in little tendrils that she had the strangest urge to smooth back. He had a firmly defined jaw and full lips that, when she looked at them, gave her an odd little thrill low in her stomach.
But it wasn’t those things that made everything else around her fade away. No, those were features any handsome man might possess. The attribute that stood out above all others on his uncommonly beautiful face was his eyes.
She had never seen a man with eyes the color of jade. Pale and bright, filled with intelligence and humor and just a touch of suppressed mischief. The best part was that those eyes were locked with hers in a stare so intense that she felt hot even though the late spring breeze still had a lovely coolness to it.
“And this is my niece’s traveling companion and friend, Miss Lillian Mayhew,” Aunt Isabel said, the only one oblivious to the impact of this meeting. Certainly Gabby was staring back and forth between the two of them, her face pale and lips thin.
Lillian stepped forward, trying to remember to breathe, trying to remember herself at all.
“Good afternoon,” she whispered, glad that her voice did not tremble and betray how much this stranger had moved her with just a fleeting glance.
He reached out and took her hand lightly in his. He wore gloves, as did she, but the warmth and strength of his fingers still radiated through the two layers of fabric.
“Good afternoon, Miss Mayhew. Welcome to my home. I am Simon Crathorne”—Lillian sucked in a breath, her smile actually rolling off her face like a waterfall as he completed the sentence—“the Duke of Billingham.”