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Confessions of Love
By Melissa Blue, Gwen Hayes
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Melissa Blue
All rights reserved.
Lindsay Dunsfield cringed as the dull feminine roar emanating from the nursery reached an unprecedented raucousness. Warily she eyeballed an errant silver pin rolling beneath the closed white door. Heaven help us, tonight is sure to be a disaster.
"Miranda, hold still!" Lindsay's mother scolded from the other side of the door.
"I'll hold still if you stop stabbing me with the pins."
"It sounds like a battlefield in there," Claire, Lindsay's younger sister, muttered from her left.
"It is." Lindsay sighed, flexing fingers raw and burning after six hours of nonstop hemming. She threw her sister a pleading glance. "I'll pay you to deliver these ribbons to Mamma?"
"With what? Dried peas?" Claire cocked a dubious dark brow. "I'll set foot in that room on a cold day in 'you know where.'" She then proceeded to stuff a fat wad of cotton in each ear and stalked off.
Lindsay scowled. Yes, she knew exactly where, and she had the sudden childish urge to wish her sister there. Resisting the desire to flee, she took a deep breath and ventured through the nursery door.
Old gowns, butchered for their finer parts, hung from chair backs, bureaus, and closet doors. Mismatched buttons and pins littered the floor, while odds and ends of fabric and lace lay scattered about the room. Amidst the chaos, her two youngest sisters mimicked fidgeting dress dummies while Tess, their lady's maid, and Lindsay's mother worked feverishly to create "new" ball gowns.
"I found the purple ribbons you asked for, Mamma." Lindsay waved the brightly colored bundle but no one paid her any mind.
"May the good Lord take me now," her mother cried in overt frustration. "Miranda, you've already scuffed your shoes."
Miranda, youngest of the Dunsfield brood by six total minutes, rolled her eyes irritably. "Mamma, I'm sorry, but —"
"But? But nothing. Those shoes must last the entire season and this may very well be the only season for all of you." Emma Dunsfield stood, sweeping a reproachful finger about the room, implicating three of her four daughters. "There are funds for one great hoorah and nothing more, Miranda. I'll not have you lamenting the fact you don't have a husband at the end of the summer because of your shoes." She bent back over Miranda's hem, mumbling to herself, and Miranda promptly stuck her tongue out.
There was a time when Lindsay would have laughed at the display — she missed those days of love and levity — but today there was nothing funny about the situation. While Lindsay was beginning on her second season, their father's severely ailing health and more severely ailing funds made it necessary to debut the remaining three daughters in hopes of marrying at least one — if not all — the girls off before destitution befell the family.
After the scandal surrounding their elder brother's untimely death, most gossiped the girls would have no means for a decent match. If not for her Uncle Geoffrey Dunsfield, Baron Lightford, her father's elder brother, they would scarcely be received in society. Uncle Geoffrey had painfully little to do with them and had made it abundantly clear he would not aid them financially or take them in if the need arose. With all four daughters out at once, the family reeked of desperation. No suitable gentleman would touch the "Dreaded Dunsfields" without diamond-studded garters.
"Where should I put the ribbons?"
No one, save for Miranda, so much as looked at Lindsay. Miranda shrugged and Lindsay finally tossed the lavender bundle amid the clutter before taking full advantage of the opportunity to escape and slip back into the hall.
Elizabeth threw her a beleaguered glare. "Lindsay, wait, you can't leave! Mamma, why don't you make her stay?"
Lindsay threw her curly haired sister a murderous glare.
"Lindsay must go and prepare herself for Lord Harold. Their engagement will be officially announced tonight, Elizabeth. You know that." Her mother glanced up briefly. "Lindsay, wear the pink gown."
"Of course, Mamma." The plunging neckline flashed through her mind. Lindsay gulped, trudging into the hall, feeling as though murky water lapped at her ankles ...inching cold and wet up her legs ... She shuddered, beating back vile memories, and returned her attention to the task — or rather the dress — at hand.
The pale ensemble was perfect in its simplicity. One thick satin ribbon tied around the waist, just below her bosom, and the bodice gathered in tiny pleats that pulled the neckline down and together enough to make even Lindsay look as though she had cleavage. Quite a feat considering the lack of flesh she had to work with. No excess cloth or lace adorned the sleeves or hem to distract onlookers from the displayed décolletage. The gown was daring for an unmarried woman and Lindsay was never daring — at least not anymore.
She shook her head. Black attire would far more suit her mood. Lord Harold Grimsby, uncle to the current Duke of Hampton, was old enough to be her grandfather. Just the thought of his clammy hands made her shudder, but marriage to the elderly gentleman would ensure not only the financial future of her mother and sisters, but pave the way for her siblings to make respectable matches.
Bone-jarring coughs rattled through the narrow hallway, emanating from the master bedchamber.
Lindsay's gaze shifted to the door; the murky waters swirling about her legs crept higher. Her father's death was imminent. Though Papa's mind was very much intact, his body was failing him. Anymore, he spent the majority of the day confined to his room. The physician had come and gone just that afternoon.
"I'd give him a month, six weeks at most, but truly, Mrs. Dunsfield, your husband could pass at any time," Dr. Pollack's warning rang clear through Lindsay's head.
A wave of nausea roiled in her stomach. She stalled, leaning against the wall, clenching a fist until her knuckles turned white. The imminence of his death made the need for her hasty marriage all the more necessary. Night after night, she lay awake desperate to block out the miserable echo and the reality of what her life would be once her father passed on. She couldn't allow herself to grieve. Strength — or mayhap denial — was her only means of survival at this point.
The metaphorical water threatened to swallow her whole just as the pond had when she was ten years old. Memories of the day she'd nearly drowned collided with new fears and, despite the fact she stood on the sturdy dry boards of a second story townhouse, she was drowning. The walls closed in and if she did not escape the house immediately she would scream. She hiked up the heavy skirts of her serviceable day gown, descended the stairs two at a time, and dashed with less than ladylike haste down the hall and through the kitchen. Snatching a worn blue shawl from a peg along the back wall, she slipped out the back door into the May damp. A few minutes sitting in the garden gazebo would clear her head.
She snuggled the shawl against her throat, blocking the chilled air, and stepped from the stone stair into the yard, finally able to breathe. Blessedly, the unrelenting drizzle had waned to a feathery mist and a thick fog settled over the garden bringing with it an atmosphere of perfect solitude.
Voices from the front of the house drew her attention before she was halfway to the gazebo. "Return again and you'll be arrested for trespassing," Garrison, their butler, boomed officiously.
Trespassing? How odd. Curious, she crept around the weathered stone corner of the house, her feet squishing in the rain-soaked grass. Another creditor perhaps?
"Please, sir, if you'd only grant me a moment," an oddly familiar voice argued.
The door slammed loudly, cutting the voice off.
She peered around the corner, squinting through the heavy mist to the stairs situated at the opposite end of the house. Shrouded in fog, the tall, shadowed figure of a man shook a fist at the wooden door and cursed. Though further obscured by the branches of a newly budding shrub, the side profile of the frustrated caller struck a chord of familiarity yet again. Why the gentleman looked just like ...
She teetered, blood roaring in her ears. No. It couldn't be. Jonathan Rycroft, the man responsible for her family's ruin, would never be so foolish as to visit. Desperation had her mind playing tricks on her. Last she'd heard, Jonathan was sailing the Atlantic, living a life of adventure and consequence. Obviously, he'd never given her a parting thought.
Just the same, Lindsay stepped forward to better examine the gentleman striding down the walk toward the gate, but the mist enveloped him, keeping his identity from view.
* * *
Jonathan Rycroft prowled the perimeter of Lady Darvenshire's lavish ball, nodding to acquaintances and murmuring polite greetings only when absolutely necessary. Being the bastard son of an earl had its perks. The majority of society would as soon snub their noses to him as make eye contact. No one paid him much mind or gave a damn what hell he raised. For all intents and purposes, he was invisible, which served his purpose tonight perfectly — find Lord Harold Grimsby and stick to the treasonous son of a bitch like glue.
Oh, Lord. Inwardly he groaned, searching for escape. Apparently he was invisible to everyone except women like the portly Mrs. Westland and her three mousy, spinster daughters. With the woman only strides away and the burgundy-washed wall to his left and back, avoidance was impossible. He pasted a bland smile on his face, steeling himself for the encounter.
"I wasn't aware you were back in town," Mrs. Westland preened, sidling up and sinking her fingers into his arm.
"Yes, my ship made port two days ago."
"How wonderful you made it back to enjoy the beginning of the season."
Wonderful was not the word Jonathan would use to describe the timing. He'd always hated the gauche, pretentious ways of the ton and, as such, strove to live a life of purpose.
And speaking of purpose ... he spotted the towering silver head of Lord Harold weaving through the swirling sea of brightly colored silks toward the door.
Hell. He couldn't take the chance Grimsby would slip away from the party. Jonathan had it on excellent authority his lordship was meeting with key contacts tonight. "If you'll excuse me, Mrs. Westland." He took an impatient step toward Grimsby.
Mrs. Westland's claw-like grip proved unrelenting. "You remember my daughters, Lieutenant?"
Battling irritation, he gave a stiff nod to the thin, sallow women standing just behind Mrs. Westland. For the life of him he couldn't remember their names. "Yes, of course." Now to escape before the inevitable obligation to dance with one — if not all three girls — arose. "If you'll please excuse me, I have some rather pressing business with his lordship." He gestured broadly about the ballroom, indicating any one of a dozen gentlemen, and tactfully extricated himself from her iron grasp.
Jonathan trailed Grimsby at an inconspicuous distance, watching — waiting — for anything out of the ordinary which may lend a clue as to Grimsby's grave plans. To observe Lord Harold, one would never suspect him guilty of smuggling sensitive military secrets. The man was practically British royalty for Christ's sake, why would he stoop to treason and murder? Jonathan clenched and unclenched a fist. His dislike for the traitor went far beyond king and country. He hated the man for infinitely more personal reasons.
A gentleman garbed all in black bumped into Grimsby. "Terribly sorry, milord," the man slurred, obviously deep in his cups.
"Quite all right," Lord Harold replied amiably, steadying the man before continuing on his way.
The whole encounter appeared painfully innocent ... too innocent ... and Jonathan nearly missed the slip of paper passed from the inebriated gentleman's hand to Grimsby's. Jonathan shifted impatiently. He needed to see that paper.
The suddenly sober man in black strode purposefully through the crowd, staring directly at Jonathan. An inkling of familiarity itched at the back of his mind, but for the life of him he could not place the chestnut-haired gentleman. Dark, beady eyes bore directly into his, sending a cold rush along his spine. Did the man know of his deadly mission? He couldn't possibly. Jonathan had only been in London two days. Dread settled in the pit of his stomach as the skeleton-like man continued his approach. Discovered already. Apparently Jonathan was even worse at espionage than he'd initially suspected.
"Lieutenant Rycroft?" The beanpole sidled up to him, quartering away.
The fact seemed obvious as Jonathan was the only naval officer in the room. "Yes."
Obsidian eyes flicked nervously left, then right, before making brief contact. "The maze at midnight," he uttered cryptically, already striding away.
Bewildered, Jonathan grasped the gent's bony arm, turning him back to face him. "The maze — What?"
"The maze at midnight." The man plucked a champagne flute from a passing waiter and slid into the crowd. "Good luck, Lieutenant."
"Who are you?"
With the War Office no doubt. Confusion ebbed as Jonathan digested the information. If Grimsby's clandestine meeting would take place at midnight, Jonathan would be in position at the maze entrance at quarter to twelve.
Lord Harold paused at the refreshment table casually sampling a tiny sandwich, the perfect display of English manners and decorum. Sickened by the charade, Jonathan swept his gaze across the ballroom before he lost all semblance of control and pummeled the bastard on sight.
The silvery blond head of Jonathan's sister, Felicity, bobbed through the crush of dancers. He wasn't acquainted with the dark-haired gentleman squiring her about the dance floor ...he'd have to remedy that. Felicity was ridiculously beautiful in the way that left fathers and elder brothers sweating bullets.
"Oh dear heavens, it's the dreaded Dunsfields," an older woman dressed much like a male peacock muttered as she stood amongst a cluster of other society hags.
The Dunsfields? Immediately Jonathan snapped his attention to the elaborately carved double doors. Regret clinched his chest, squeezing until he could scarcely breathe. Dear God. He hadn't seen them in three years and had received no communication from them in two. Had it been just that afternoon their ever-faithful butler had slammed the door rudely in his face? The devil only knew what became of the letters he'd sent.
"Such an embarrassment those girls have turned out to be," the woman continued. "Four daughters out at once. An absolute disgrace."
A disgrace? Since when?
"It's hardly their fault, Mary," a companion of similar age and dress scolded. "What with their brother's death and their father's ailing health, those girls have no chance in this world but to find a husband."
"None but old men and lechers will want to marry that brood," the woman sniped. "Mrs. Peabody told me just yesterday the oldest girl will be announcing an engagement to Lord Harold Grimsby. Everyone knows he has a weakness for young women."
Jonathan tensed, tuning to the women's conversation.
"You don't say? Well, I heard that Lord Harold killed his second and third wives." She shrugged. "The magistrate and his runners never could prove anything."
The other woman shook her head. "More's the pity for that poor girl, but again, she doesn't have many options. The whole family situation is a crying shame if you ask me."
"I had forgotten all about Andrew Dunsfield. Squandered the family fortune before joining the navy and being killed, if memory serves." The peacock woman flipped open a black lace fan, covering her mouth as though to drop a hefty piece of gossip. "He was suspected of being a traitor though nothing was ever proved."
"I remember. Left the family in ruin."
Gossiping old biddies.
Jonathan strode abruptly away. They knew nothing of the true circumstances surrounding Andrew's death. Nothing. Neither did the Dunsfield family, for that matter, and that was precisely why Jonathan had gone from beloved friend of the family, invited for Christmas goose every year, to reviled archenemy.
Excerpted from Confessions of Love by Melissa Blue, Gwen Hayes. Copyright © 2013 Melissa Blue. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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