Authors: Charlotte Featherstone
“Well, then I am convinced that I shall give you a better description, Lizzy. I won’t be long, however.”
Together they rose, and Lucy watched as her cousin escorted Lizzy from the room, grateful for a few minutes of peace to gather her thoughts.
but tiptoed past the duke’s study and entered the room that was designed in the shape of an octagon. With its glass walls and ceiling, Lucy could see the gardens outside from every angle. Inside, the room was filled with a dizzying array of colors and scents, from miniature orange trees, to exotic palms. A water fountain, with its gentle cascade of water upon stones lured her, and she sat down on a rock as she trailed her fingers through the cool water, while capturing a delicate pink water lily in her palm.
Despite the gentle patter of rain against the glass ceiling, and the melancholy sky, the room was bright and uplifting—and smelled like a warm, sunny spring day. With a little sigh, Lucy allowed the quiet to blanket her, and soothe her jangled nerves.
It was the perfect place for contemplation, and she decided that if she were ever fortunate enough to be mistress of her own place, she would build such a room as this.
“You look like a woodland nymph sitting beside an enchanted pool.”
The lily dropped with a little splash, and Lucy found herself gasping in surprise, and jumping up all at once.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you.” Sussex stood against
the wall, his legs crossed as he studied her with his disconcerting gaze.
“I didn’t hear you come in.”
“That’s because I was already here when you arrived.”
Glancing away, she watched the cascade of water stream over the stones, and into the fountain base. “You should have said, should have announced your presence. I…I would have left you to your privacy.”
Shrugging, he glanced away and plucked a brilliant pink lily from its stem. “It is not an unwelcome presence.”
Their gazes met across the room, through the display of flowers and shrubs and gently waving palm fronds.
Waving his hand, he indicated the room. “What do you think? A labor of love that was the pride of the previous duchess.”
“I think it lovely,” she answered truthfully. “If I had a room such as this, very little would tempt me from it.”
He smiled, and Lucy found herself momentarily disarmed by the beauty of that smile—of him.
“Perhaps one shouldn’t be tempted from this room, but tempted in it.”
This did not sound like the duke. It did not look like the duke, either. His cravat was loosened, and his hair was rumpled, as if he had been running his fingers through it. He was still wearing his dark jacket, and silver waistcoat, but she could see the wrinkles in the fine wool, the way it hung not quite as immaculately as it had when she had first seen him.
She had never seen Sussex looking anything less
than immaculately groomed and dressed. Standing before her like this, he was no longer the lofty Duke of Sussex, but just a man. While she took in his dishabille, he studied her. His gaze swept over her, taking in the pink-colored dress, the dusty rose velvet edging that swept the dark floorboards, and up, to her hair, her face. Resisting the urge to run a self-conscious hand along her body and hair, Lucy instead fisted her hands, and hid them in the folds of her full skirts. “
look lovely today. But then, you always do.”
She blinked at the compliment, immediately felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment and discomfort. “Your grace—”
Stiffening, he pushed away from the wall, and began to slowly walk the perimeter of the room. “There is no need for such formality between us, is there?”
“I think it best, do you not? We are not exactly…friends.”
Cocking his head, he studied her. “Ah, you refer to that afternoon between us, then?”
“Have you forgotten our last private meeting?”
His expression turned dark. “I have not.”
“You didn’t tell anyone what you had found. Why not?”
“How do you know I haven’t?”
“Because Isabella would have mentioned it, would have alluded to the fact Black was looking for the man who carried my handkerchief.”
He paused, half turned and looked at her queerly, which made her pause, made her stare back at him. “Does Isabella know all your secrets, then? Have you shared them all?”
Stiffening, she decided to be prudent and stand confidently before the duke. “Not all, but she knows of Thomas. And she’s said nothing of you searching for him, or the fact that you found him carrying my token. She would not betray Black or your order, but she would tell me if she thought you knew something that might damage my reputation.”
“I have no designs to ruin you, Lucy,” he whispered quietly.
“Why didn’t you share what you discovered about me, and this man you claim killed Knighton? Why do you still keep it hidden?” she asked, wondering aloud.
“It was not important.”
“You led me to believe it was when you returned the handkerchief to me.”
“I am still investigating the matter. When I am confident I know everything there is, I shall confide in Black and Alynwick. You may be assured of my discretion, I will not name you.”
“Your investigation will not lead you to the man you think I am connected to. Thomas would not kill another.”
“He carried your handkerchief. You agreed the man I chased bore a resemblance to the man you believed had died. Tell me, Lucy, how does one suddenly become re-animated?”
“If you think to tease me, your grace, about my interest in the occult, then you can be assured I do not find your barbs amusing. I allow that the similarities in their appearance is strange, but I am sure once I have a chance to speak with Thomas, it will all be revealed,
and we will learn that the man you hunt, is someone else entirely.”
“You play a very dangerous game, believing in a man who has allowed you to believe him dead and gone.”
Lucy was aware the moment the energy in the room changed to something dark and dangerous—and barely contained. That energy, she realized, emanated from the duke, the man who was always in control, always proper. But he was no longer.
“Tell me, then, have you seen him? Has he visited you, written to you? Have you met clandestinely, an assignation at a ball, or the theater?”
He was being purposely rude—and hurtful. Stiffening her spine, Lucy tried to make herself appear taller—and stronger. “What business is it of yours, if we have met?”
He glared at her, and she noticed how a muscle in his angular jaw twitched. “I have every right to know—his existence, his presence, his every movement is
“If that is so, then you must already know the answer to your impertinent questioning. You are, after all, a Brethren Guardian.”
“Just answer the question!” he growled dangerously. “Has he come to you?”
“Your line of questioning shocks me, your grace. It tells me that you have had limited success in running your quarry to ground, and you seek answers about him through me.”
He laughed despairingly, the mirth not quite reaching his eyes. “I seek many things from you, Lucy, but
answers to any questions about your past liaison with a murdering bastard are not among them.”
She flinched at his tone, at the unfounded statement that Thomas could have caused a man’s death. “You wrongfully accuse him! And I shall not hand him over to you until I know the truth.”
“Please do not trouble yourself. I prefer the chase, the
if you wish to discuss it in such terms. Why should I wish to have him deposited on my doorstep? It would only deprive me of the pleasure of running him to the ground and skewering him like the reptile I believe him to be.”
Fisting her hands at her sides, she fought for control. “You are so gravely wrong about him, and I shall not stand by and allow it.”
He shrugged, cocked his head to the side. “How will you stop me?”
“By any means necessary.”
“Such steadfast loyalty,” he murmured. “One wonders what he did to deserve it.”
“That is none of your concern.”
“You are, of course, correct. It is not my concern, but it is a question that I cannot help myself from asking. I am always left wondering how he accomplished it, when I have been so unfortunate as to inspire in you nothing more than glares, and looks of disgust. He seduces you and leaves you alone, to bear whatever consequences might have arisen from your liaison—and he is awarded with your protection. I compliment you on your beauty, and wish to offer you an honest courtship, and you glare at me as though I were a rat nibbling on your hem.”
Thomas had promised her everything the duke hadn’t. Angrily, she tossed out the first thing that came to mind. “He was at least sincere in his compliments.”
His dark brow arched, his eyes darkening dangerously. “And I am not?”
“You are determined to press your suit, to further the plan you and my father have so coldly undertaken together. I believe you capable of saying anything if it suited your purposes.”
“You find me mercenary, then? The villain to his hero?”
“I do not find you anything, other than completely wrong for a choice in husband.”
“You’ve cast your lot with the wrong side, love,” he said, his voice softening, whispering evocatively with his upper-class accent. “I mean to destroy him—utterly.”
“So, you have decided, in your own words, to ‘run him to ground’ because I hold an affection for him, and none for you.” He flinched. Almost imperceptibly, but she saw it, and the way he recovered with remarkable speed. “That is really the issue in play, isn’t it? You’ve taken offence to the knowledge that I have, in the past, cared for someone—”
“Cared, not loved?” he asked, his gaze acute—watching.
She chose to ignore him, and continued on. “This is your way of bullying me, isn’t it, your grace? You have made plans with my father, and both of you assumed that I would comply like an obedient young woman should. But you have made a grave error—both of you. I am not complacent. I will not bow to the dictates of
you or my father. This isn’t at all about your precious Brethren Guardians—this is about bringing me to heel by using my affection for another man.”
“It has everything to do with the Brethren Guardians.”
“And your pride!”
He glared at her. “And what of your pride? You purposely protect someone who callously took your innocence, then left you, only to reappear from God knows where to murder someone—and still you protect him. But only because your pride is hurt because your father arranged to have you courted by a man who would make you a duchess. The audacity,” he mocked, “such a brute your father is, wanting to see you settled and secure—and safe.”
Crimson rose to consume her cheeks, and she forced herself to meet his eyes. “You would make me nothing but miserable!”
“And he will make you happy, then, this furtive lover of yours, who comes and goes as it pleases him, taking what he desires, and leaving you with nothing but heartache and regrets?”
Her chin rose defiantly. “I have no regrets. Besides, you know nothing about him, about the truth of what has happened. He is innocent, I know it. I am a good judge of character, and his is the very best. He would never kill anyone, and he must have had good reason to do what he did. He wanted only my protection, he told me that. I believed him then, and I still do.”
“He won’t have you,” Sussex vowed, his voice nothing but a feral growl. “Of that I can promise you.”
“What shall you do, your grace? Blackmail me? Will
you spare his life if I consent to marry you. Is that what you are trying to say?”
“No. I will spare him nothing.”
“And what then?”
“You’ll be mine. Of that I have no doubt.”
“I cannot believe that. You said we were enemies.”
“No. I said
would be my enemy. Never you, Lucy.”
“It is one in the same, is it not?”
“No, it is not.”
He finished his stroll and came to stand before her. Reaching for her hand, he gently uncurled her fingers, exposing the smooth skin of her palm, then he placed the pink lily he had plucked into her hand. When their gazes met, she noticed the duke’s eyes had warmed. The cool gray was now warm silver, the black pupil bigger, dilated as he stood so tall above her, his face angled down, creating a heated intimacy between them. When he released her hand she exhaled with a sense of relief, only to catch her breath as he cupped her cheeks with his large, warm palms.
“No, it is not the same, far from it. But if you insist that we must be enemies, then I must be honest and inform you that I believe in the old adage, that one must keep his friends close, but his enemies closer. I know what I saw that morning on the rooftop—I saw what he did, and I intend to prove it you, to find him, to hunt him down and make you see him as I saw him, if it’s the last bloody thing I do.”
The tension in the room swiftly shifted from danger, to a mesmerizing intimacy, and Lucy was powerless to brace against the effect. Her voice, when she spoke, was
soft, barely a whisper. “How do you plan to do such a thing, your grace?”
Angling her face up to his, they were now eye to eye, mouth to mouth. She could feel the warmth of his breath—scented, not with tea, but the spicy hint of brandy, brandy he must have imbibed when he went to his study. It had a curious effect on her, making her stomach flutter, and her pulse speed up.
His gaze roved over her face, and when he began to talk, the deep, rich timbre of his voice and the feel of his strong hands wound deeply into her, causing the strangest sensation in her—a feeling of acute need, of recklessness. He was robbing her of thought, of breath, of the very dislike and disdain she had always believed she held for him. He was changing the rules of their little battle, this cat and mouse game they had somehow found themselves playing, and she didn’t like it, couldn’t take the control back to where it needed to be—in her hands.
“How will I accomplish such a thing?” he said, and her lashes fluttered closed as his bottom lip scraped gently up the curve of her chin. “I’ll be everywhere you are. Your very shadow.”
His voice was a whisper now, deeply masculine and erotic. His mouth… Good God, he was making her fall apart, with just a brush of his bottom lip and the warmth of his breath caressing her skin. Behind her closed lids, she could see him, dark hair in disarray, lush mouth parted as his lips covered her skin.