“[This] sparkling series continues to elevate the Regency romance genre.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Full of history…plenty of romance.”—New York Daily News
“Jane Austen for the modern girl.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Christina Dodd
NEVER BEFORE PUBLISHED!
In the latest Pink Carnation novel from New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig, rumors spreading among the ton turn deadly as a young couple unites to solve a mystery....
In October of 1806, the Little Season is in full swing, and Sally Fitzhugh has had enough of the endless parties and balls./b>/i>/i>
NEVER BEFORE PUBLISHED!
In the latest Pink Carnation novel from New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig, rumors spreading among the ton turn deadly as a young couple unites to solve a mystery....
In October of 1806, the Little Season is in full swing, and Sally Fitzhugh has had enough of the endless parties and balls. With a rampant vampire craze sparked by the novel The Convent of Orsino, it seems no one can speak of anything else. But when Sally hears a rumor that the reclusive Duke of Belliston is an actual vampire, she cannot resist the challenge of proving such nonsense false. At a ball in Belliston Square, she ventures across the gardens and encounters the mysterious Duke.
Lucien, Duke of Belliston, is well versed in the trouble gossip can bring. He’s returned home to dispel the rumors of scandal surrounding his parents’ deaths, which hint at everything from treason to dark sorcery. While he searches for the truth, he welcomes his fearsome reputation—until a woman is found dead in Richmond. Her blood drained from her throat.
Lucien and Sally join forces to stop the so-called vampire from killing again. Someone managed to get away with killing the last Duke of Belliston. But they won’t kill this duke—not if Sally has anything to say about it.
READERS GUIDE INCLUDED
“They say he’s a vampire.”
Sally Fitzhugh’s friend Agnes trotted after her as Sally made a beeline for the French doors to the garden, driven by a restlessness she couldn’t entirely explain. Behind her, she could hear the scraping of the musicians, the swish of fashionable fans. She just wanted out. Away from the heat, away from the smells, away from the petty gossip and murmurings.
It was October, and cold, but the ballroom was humid with the press of too many bodies in too small a place. The very mirrors seemed fogged with it, blurred and distorted. Even with her arms and neck bare, Sally felt uncomfortably warm in her silk and gauze gown.
The crisp October air hit Sally like a tonic, and, with it, Agnes’s words. Had Agnes really said—
Agnes ducked the rapidly swinging door. “A bloodsucking creature of the night,” she said helpfully as she followed Sally out towards the balustrade, away from the crush in Lord Vaughn’s ballroom.
“I know what a vampire is. Everyone knows what they are.” Ever since The Convent of Orsino (by a Lady) had taken the town by storm the previous spring, the ladies of the ton had become intimate experts on the topic. The men, just as sickeningly, had taken to powdering their faces pale and affecting red lip rouge. Sally found it distinctly ridiculous.
But, then, she was finding it all a little ridiculous just now: the too strong perfumes, the smug smiles, the whispering voices behind fans, the incredible arrogance of those powdered fops and perspiring ladies. It would serve them right if there were vampires in their midst. Not that such things existed, of course. Any bloodsucking that went on in the ton was purely of the metaphorical variety, although none the less draining for that.
Sally gripped the cool stone of the balustrade with both hands, breathing in deeply through her nose. She wasn’t sure what ailed her. Back in the cloistered confines of Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary, she had been itching to try her wings on the world, to flirt and laugh and bend beaux to her will. She knew exactly what it would be like: a cross between a Samuel Richardson novel and those notices one read in the paper, the ones that began with “Lady A— wore a gown of watered green silk.” She would be the toast of London, taking the town by storm.
And why shouldn’t she? She was, she knew, without false modesty, more than passably attractive. Quite a bit more, really. It didn’t do to be disingenuous about such things. So what if Martin Frobisher called her a gilded beanpole? He was just sore because she made him look like the sniveling little thing he was—and jealous because his family hadn’t two guineas to rub together. Proud, he called her. Well, yes, she was proud. She knew her own worth, both in character and in coin. What did it matter that her family had never thrown down a cloak for Elizabeth I or provided a mistress for Charles II? Just because they had never toadied for a title didn’t mean that they weren’t as good as anyone. They were certainly a sure sight better-looking, and her dowry was as big as anyone’s.
Both of those, Sally knew, guaranteed her entrée into society—or her brother’s name wasn’t Turnip.
She had sallied off to London in the firm anticipation of champagne-filled evenings of compliments, in which she would hold court among her devoted and witty admirers.
Well, she had been right about the champagne, at least. She just hadn’t expected it to taste quite so sour.
Even so, it was better than ratafia, the drink of young ladies, of which she had imbibed enough over the past year and a half to float a medium-sized royal barge. To be honest, she hadn’t minded the ratafia at the first. And if her admirers were less witty and more waspish—well, she was too busy flirting her fan and enjoying her own wit to mind. It was only bit by bit, along the course of her first Season, that she began to realize that it all felt a little flat. The bright silks and satins looked best by candlelight, where the stains didn’t show. The glittering jewels were too often paste. The fashionable gossip, which had seemed so terribly clever and scandalous in that first month, became nothing more than the endless repetition of a series of painfully similar on dits.
Did it really matter that Lucy Ponsonby had been seen without her gloves at Lady Beaufeatheringstone’s latest ball? It was hardly a matter of international policy.
She was just in a mood, she told herself. Tired, cranky, weary. Too many nights of too many entertainments that weren’t all that entertaining. It would get better. It had to get better. She didn’t like feeling like this, so purposeless. So restless.
She had hoped that having her friends Lizzy and Agnes join her this year would help, that introducing them to society would provide some of the vim that she had felt last year, when it was all fresh and new. But Agnes didn’t care much for such things, and Lizzy had rapidly, without much help from Sally, acquired her own circle.
Lizzy had, in fact, become something of a minor sensation in her own right. Part of it was due to her stepmother, Mrs. Reid. Mrs. Reid’s novel, The Convent of Orsino, was the topic of conversation at all select soirees, her presence a coup for any hostess. People fought to send cards to her stepdaughter, in the hope that Mrs. Reid might attend, and—even better!—lose her temper and pink someone with her infamous sword parasol. A wound from Mrs. Reid was a sure sign of social success. But while Mrs. Reid’s notoriety might have garnered Lizzy the invitations, the rest she had achieved on her own. At any party, one could find Lizzy surrounded by a fascinated group of men and women, telling hair-raising tales of her youth in India. Given that Lizzy had left India at the age of six, and spent the rest of her formative years first with a retired vicar’s wife and then in the decidedly unexotic confines of Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary, Sally strongly suspected that the larger part of those stories were apocryphal, taken right out of the novels they had smuggled under the covers at Miss Climpson’s. Not that that made any difference to her audience.
It didn’t hurt that the rumor had made its way around the ton that Lizzy’s mother had been an Indian princess, complete with elephant and priceless jewels.
It was Sally who had started the rumor about Lizzy’s mother being an Indian princess. Not the elephants. The elephants had come later, along with other embellishments that made the originator of the tale raise her brows and wrinkle her nose. People did come up with the most ridiculous things. . . .
But, still, it was all better than the truth, which was that Lizzy’s mother had been a bazaar girl. A touch of royal blood rendered Lizzy interesting and exotic; without it, she would be stigmatized as nothing but the bastard brat of an insignificant East India Company Colonel of little fortune and no birth. That was what Sally had reckoned when she started the rumor.
Of course, she hadn’t reckoned on it running away from her like that.
She hadn’t reckoned on being left behind.
That was silly. It wasn’t as though Lizzy had left her. They still spent a great deal of time together. It was just . . . When Sally had left Miss Climpson’s for London, it had never occurred to her that Agnes and Lizzy would carry on without her, turning their trio into a duo. They had even had an adventure of their own—not that it was terribly much of an adventure, given that Lizzy and Agnes had run off the moment there was a hint of a French spy on the scene, disappearing for weeks and causing everyone a lot of bother finding them again. If Sally had been there, they would have routed the spy on their own, and saved everyone a great deal of trouble.
But she hadn’t been there. As they had reminded her countless times. Not always intentionally, but in little ways—in jokes she didn’t understand and in memories she didn’t share. Sally was used to being the leader of their little trio. It felt very odd to be rendered de trop.
“—inconvenient diet,” Agnes was saying. “Blood does stain so.”
Belatedly, Sally pulled her attention back to Agnes. Unlike Sally, Agnes did not seem to be enjoying the cool night air. Her teeth were chattering slightly and her skin was turning a faint shade of blue that matched the color of her gown.
“Here,” Sally said, and took the light shawl from her own shoulders and wrapped it around Agnes, who hadn’t had the sense to bring her own. “What are you talking about?”
“The rumors,” said Agnes, blinking innocently at Sally as she absently tucked the corners of the wrap beneath her arms. “Haven’t you heard? They say he’s a vampire.”
“A vampire? Hardly.” Sally paused to glower in the general direction of the ballroom. There was no love lost between her and their host. Lord Vaughn was not an admirer of Sally’s brother, Turnip, which meant that Sally was not an admirer of Lord Vaughn. No one but Sally was allowed to insult Turnip. Still, even so . . . “Whatever else I may think of the man, Lord Vaughn looks perfectly corporeal to me. Those waistcoats are just an affectation.”
It would be just like Lord Vaughn to set himself up as an undead creature of the night. He prided himself on being slightly sinister, going about in those black waistcoats with silver serpents, murmuring cryptic comments. It was, reflected Sally critically, all just a little too obvious.
“Not Lord Vaughn,” said Agnes patiently. “The Duke of Belliston.”
“The Duke of Who?” Lizzy joined them on the balcony, her bronze curls escaping from a wreath of flowers that had gone askew, like the halo of a naughty angel. There was a healthy glow in her cheeks and her brown eyes were bright.
“Belliston,” said Agnes, palpably unaware of any social frissons or fissures. “In the house across the garden.”
She gestured in the other direction, away from the crowded ballroom, past long rows of perfectly trimmed parterres.
Even in the waning season of the year, Lord Vaughn’s shrubbery didn’t have a leaf out of place. The garden was arranged in the French style, all gravel paths and geometric designs, scorning the more natural wilderness gardens coming into vogue. Above the close-clipped hedges and the marble statues glimmering white in the moonlight, Sally could just make out the outline of the great house across the way.
Unlike Lord Vaughn’s, that garden had been allowed to run to seed, by either accident or design. Weeping willows trailed ghostly fingers over the dim outline of a pond on which no swans swam, while ivy climbed the walls of the house, dangling from the balconies, obscuring the windows. In the heart of London, the edifice had an eerie air of isolation.
It was the largest house in the square, larger by far than Lord Vaughn’s. Sally felt a certain satisfaction at that thought. Lord Vaughn could put on all the airs he liked, but he still wasn’t the biggest fish in the square. And by fish, she meant duke. The Duke of Belliston out-housed and outranked Vaughn.
He was also remarkably elusive. In her two Seasons in society, Sally had never met the man. There was some sort of story about him . . . something to do with a curse and his parents.
But vampires? Nonsense.
“Is that Belliston House?” Lizzy shook back her curls as she stared avidly at the house across the way. “I hadn’t realized we were so close to the Lair of the Vampire.”
Sally rolled her eyes at the idiocy of mankind. “Vampires are a myth. And not a particularly interesting one,” she added repressively.
“People said the same thing about the Duke of Belliston,” Agnes pointed out. “About his being a myth, I mean. But you can’t deny there are lights in the windows.”
That much was true. Through the ivy and the dust, a faint but distinct light shone.
“She has you there,” said Lizzy. There was no denying that someone was in residence at Belliston House. Whoever—or whatever—that someone might be.
“Yes, but . . .” Sally made an impatient gesture with her hands. “Next you’ll be telling me you saw a bat flying around his belfry.”
Lizzy cocked her head, considering the urns that lined the roof of the house. “I think it’s a crow.”
“Did you know what a group of crows is called?” Agnes’s voice dropped to a hushed whisper. “The collective term for a group of crows is—”
“Oh, no,” said Sally.
“—a murder,” Agnes finished earnestly.
As an academic appellation it was just a little too atmospheric, especially with the moon silhouetted against the chimney pots, casting strange shadows through the abandoned garden. Sally felt a chill shiver its way down her spine, beneath the thin fabric of her gown and chemise.
Catching Lizzy’s too-knowing eye, she hastily looked away, wishing she hadn’t parted with her shawl.
There was no call for Lizzy to look at her that way. Chills were simply what one got when one stood on a balcony in a scoop-necked ball gown in the middle of October. It had nothing at all to do with the black bird flapping about the chimney pots.
Somewhere in the depths of the garden, an owl voiced its mournful cry.
“That”—Sally cast about for a suitably dampening adjective—“is absurd.”
“No, truly,” said Agnes. “It’s a murder of crows and an unkindness of ravens.”
That last, at least, was appropriate. Sally cast a glance back over her shoulder at the ballroom. “I’d say it’s more an affectation of imbeciles.”
Lizzy grinned at her. “You sound like my stepmother.” Before Sally could decide whether that was an insult or not, Lizzy turned her attention back to the dark shell of Belliston House. Leaning her elbows on the balustrade, she said with relish, “They say he sucks the blood of unwary maidens.”
Agnes considered this. “I imagine they’re less trouble than wary ones.”
“Utter rubbish,” said Sally crisply. Before Agnes could argue with her, she added quickly, “Just because the man scorns society doesn’t mean that he’s an unholy creature of the night.”
In fact, at the moment she would say it was rather a sign of his good sense.
“No one has seen him for seven years,” Lizzy pointed out. “Or was it ten? That’s rather a long time for societal scorning unless he had some other motive in mind.”
“Such as draining the blood of wary or unwary maidens?” Sally gave a delicate sniff. “I think not.”
Agnes’s face took on the distant look it acquired when she was parsing a difficult academic question. “Seven is a mystical number. . . .”
“So is three,” said Sally. “Or five hundred and thirty-two.” She had no idea about five hundred and thirty-two, but someone had to show a bit of sense. Sally pushed away from the balcony, her gauze overskirt catching on the carved edge of an acanthus leaf. “Whatever the Duke of Belliston is, he’s just a man.”
Lizzy’s eyes glinted with mischief. “Prove it,” she said.
Agnes looked in alarm from Lizzy to Sally and back again. “You don’t mean—”
Lizzy nodded decisively. “Someone ought to go over there. In the interest of truth, of course.” Her face was a picture of guileless innocence as she added delicately, “Unless, of course, you don’t care to go.”
They had played this game so many times before, in the safety of Miss Climpson’s Select Seminary. Sally had never yet turned down a challenge, and Lizzy knew it.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Sally made a show of indifference, even though she could feel the thrum of the blood through her veins, sending her pulse racing, making colors crisper and sounds clearer. “What could be more invigorating on a cool evening than a walk across a garden?”
Agnes looked at her in alarm. “Sally, you wouldn’t. . . .”
Oh, wouldn’t she? Sally caught Lizzy’s grin and knew she understood, even if Agnes didn’t.
“Don’t worry,” Sally said to Agnes. “I shan’t do anything foolish. Anything else foolish,” she amended. “I’ll just peer through the window and report back. That’s all.”
Before Agnes could protest, Sally pushed her cameo bracelets up on her wrists and ran lightly down the path.
“Be—” and behind her, Sally heard Agnes’s voice, soft and worried, on the night breeze. “Careful?”
Careful was just what she didn’t want to be. She had missed this, the sense of being alive that came only from taking risks, from pushing the edges of the rules—all for good reason, of course. Always for good reason. They were nothing if not civic-minded, Sally told herself virtuously. But, oh, it felt good to be free of the leash of polite society, if only for a few stolen moments.
Gravel crunched beneath Sally’s slippers. The cool October breeze lifted the flounces of her dress and set her golden curls dancing. Dimly, Sally was aware of Lizzy, on the bottom step, fidgeting with impatience, all eagerness to run across the garden herself; Agnes behind her, a pale presence leaning over the balustrade, prepared, despite her own doubts, to leap into the fray and fight bloodsucking creatures of the night on Sally’s behalf should the occasion call for it.
Sally’s heart swelled with affection for them. Sometimes, she wished they could go back to Miss Climpson’s, back to the safety and security of the rambling school in Bath, where they all wore identical white muslin gowns and their greatest worry was who was to play whom in Miss Climpson’s annual Christmas fiasco and whether it might be possible that someone was attempting to elope with the music master. Not that she would ever admit it to anyone. At Miss Climpson’s, she had itched and fretted to be out in the world, but now that she was out, she had to admit that she was finding the world strangely flat.
But not tonight. Not now, with an adventure before her on the other side of Lord Vaughn’s garden.
The formal parterres had been cleverly arranged to provide the sense of an endless vista, but, as was always the case with the Vaughns, the sense of spaciousness was an illusion; it was a London garden, and Sally was at the end of it in moments.
There was no wall separating Lord Vaughn’s property from that of the Duke of Belliston, only a series of cypress trees. Their spindly shapes lent a funereal aspect to the scene, but they had one major benefit: there was plenty of space between them for one slender woman.
At the cypress border, Sally checked slightly. For all her bravado, there was something more than a little dodgy about willfully trespassing on someone else’s property. It had been quite another thing to slip down to Miss Climpson’s sitting room in the dead of night; the students did that so often it was practically an official extracurricular exercise.
But she couldn’t turn back now, not with Lizzy watching. And it really couldn’t do any harm just to creep up to the house and back. Admittedly, a white gown wasn’t the best attire for creeping, but, if spotted, she could always raise her hands above her head and pretend to be a statue.
Which was, Sally realized, a plan worthy of her brother, Turnip.
With a shrug, she plunged through the cypress border. And came up short as a candle flame flared in front of her face.
For a moment, she had only a confused image of a dark form, silhouetted against the fronds of a weeping willow. Childhood memories of ghost stories surged through her mind, the horrible tales Nanny used to tell her, of faceless ghouls and headless horsemen and phantom monks in their transparent habits.
“Who is it?” she demanded, her voice high. But not with fear. It was just shortness of breath—that was all. “Show yourself.”
A man swept aside the fronds of a weeping willow tree. “Show myself?” The man’s voice was well-bred, and distinctly incredulous. “I should ask the same of you.”
For a moment Sally froze, wildly recalling all the tales Agnes had recounted. The man’s face was marble pale against the dark leaves, his features chiseled as if from stone, beautiful and stern.
The only sign of color was the single splotch of blood that marred the snowy whiteness of his cravat.
Not blood. In the space of a heartbeat, Sally saw her own folly. Carmine. Merely red stone, carved with a device or sigil too faint to make out in the uncertain light.
Sally could feel her breathing return to normal. Just a man. Just a man in a garden. What she had taken to be a gibbering imp behind him revealed itself as nothing more than the marble statue of a satyr, overgrown with moss and cracked with time. The satyr presided over the empty basin of an ornamental pool, flanked by a weather-blasted marble bench, its base tangled with dark weeds.
Sally felt monumentally foolish. She didn’t like being made to feel foolish.
“It isn’t polite to creep up on people,” Sally said sharply.
“Creep?” The man looked at her incredulously. Under the circumstances, Sally wasn’t sure she could blame him. He stepped closer, holding his candle aloft. “I was simply enjoying my own garden.”
The sudden shock of light made Sally wince. Also, he was holding it on her bad side.
“Which begs the question . . . ,” the man said, in a tone that made the hairs on Sally’s arms prickle with something other than cold. “What are you doing in my garden?”
Sally pressed her lips tightly together, refusing to be intimidated. “What are you doing—”
Sally stopped short. She couldn’t very well ask him what he was doing in his own garden.
She drew herself up to her full height, letting the moonlight play off the rich gold of the cameo parure that adorned her neck, ears, and brow, and made a quick recovery. “What are you doing addressing me when we haven’t been introduced?”
The Duke of Belliston—or, at least, Sally assumed it must be the Duke of Belliston—lowered his candle. “I would say,” he said silkily, “that trespass was a good substitute for a formal introduction.”
His hair had been allowed to grow down over his collar, curling slightly at the edges, the darkness of it contrasting with the pallor of his skin. He was even fairer than she was, which Sally took as a personal affront. She was accustomed to being the fairest of them all.
He stepped forward, the moonlight silvering his hair, making him look strangely ageless. As though he might have dwelt in this ruined garden for centuries, his eyes as dark and haunted as the night.
Behind him, the moss-grown satyr on its plinth seemed to leer at Sally.
“I am not trespassing,” Sally said haughtily. “I was simply admiring your foliage.”
The Duke of Belliston arched one brow. “Has anyone warned you that strange plants might have thorns?”
If she had wanted a lesson in horticulture, she would have consulted a gardener. “Has anyone ever told you that it is exceedingly annoying to speak in aphorisms?”
For a moment, a flicker of something that might have been amusement showed in his dark eyes. Amusement, or merely the reflected light of the candle. “Yes,” he said. “It tends to truncate conversation quite effectively.”
Sally wasn’t accustomed to allowing herself to be truncated.
She took her time studying the scraggly shrubbery and empty flower beds. “Your gardener has been neglecting his duties.”
The duke took a step forward. He was taller than she had realized, and he moved with a controlled grace that managed to be both elegant and slightly menacing. “There are gardens . . . and there are gardens.”
His voice whirled around her like the slow swirl of a dark potion, conjuring up images of strange rites in midnight gardens, of night-blooming flowers and witches dancing under the full moon. There was a foreign flavor to it, a strange tang that blurred the edges of his accent, as exotic as a flower from distant shores.
What manner of man cloistered himself away from the world in a garden such as this?
A showy one, Sally told herself firmly, and made a pretense of contemplating the bleak remains of what must once have been a rather pretty little pleasure garden. “Your overgrowth is particularly overgrown,” she said brightly. “Have you considered a scythe?”
The duke’s heavy-lidded black eyes swept from the bottom of her gold-embroidered hem all the way up to the glimmering concoction of gold and coral around her neck.
At least, she assumed it was the necklace at which he was looking, and not the fine blue veins in her throat.
The duke stepped forward, fallen leaves rustling beneath his feet. The air in the garden felt suddenly very close, heavy with the scent of dead flowers. “Are you volunteering to wield it?”
Sally stumbled as she took a half step back, trying to pass it off with an airy gesture. “I toil not, neither do I scythe. But I am assured that they are quite effective at eradicating extraneous foliage.”
“Perhaps,” said the duke, and Sally found herself unable to look away from the eyes that were so very dark in his pale face, “I like my foliage just as it is.”
Sally’s voice was somewhat more breathless than she would have liked. “Even when it obstructs your view?”
“That,” said the duke, “depends on what you wish to see.”
“Or on what you wish to hide?” said Sally boldly.
She couldn’t recall stepping forward, but she and the duke were nose to nose. Or nose to chin, as the case might be. His cravat smelled faintly of French perfume, a haunting bouquet of exotic flowers.
For all the rumors, up close, there was nothing the least bit incorporeal about the duke. There was a faint scar on one side of his brow and a callus on his ungloved hand; she could feel the warmth of his skin through the dark stuff of his jacket. She felt an insane urge to reach out and lay her hand upon his chest, to feel if his heart was beating beneath the antique silver buttons of his waistcoat or whether that was merely the echo of her own elevated pulse.
“In that case,” said the duke gently, and she could feel the brush of his breath against her cheek, “surely I wouldn’t tell you.”
Their gazes locked; the world around them receded to nothing.
Somewhere, not far away, a church bell tolled. The lonely knell broke over the garden, once, twice, and then again, breaking the spell that held her. Sally counted twelve.
She hadn’t realized she had said it aloud until the duke said, “That is the accepted term.”
He took a step back, and Sally became painfully aware of just how close they had been standing, her head tilted back like some silly ninny waiting to be kissed.
Sally hastily rearranged the angle of her chin, aiming for maximum hauteur. She was generally quite good at hauteur. It went with her height and the size of her dowry. But tonight she found herself at something of a loss.
“Forgive me if my hospitality”—the duke gave Sally a pointed look that brought the color into her cheeks—“seems lacking, but I have . . . an appointment. Shall I escort you back to the line of shrubbery, or may I trust you to make your own way?”
“I made it here without escort,” said Sally tartly, before realizing that that didn’t exactly help her case.
“I make the offer for your own protection.” Sally caught a glimmer of something that might have been a smile. “Against ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night.”
Oh, ha-ha. Very funny.
“Hmph,” said Sally, in her best imitation of Mrs. Reid’s infamous sniff. “The question you should be asking is, who will protect them from me?”
It was an excellent parting line, and Sally meant to use it to its full advantage. She turned on her heel with an exaggerated sweep of her demi-train. But one thing nagged at her. She knew she should leave it be, but . . .
Turning, Sally demanded, “Who makes appointments at midnight?”
The Duke of Belliston was standing just as she had left him, silhouetted against the dark shadows of the empty pool.
He essayed an ironical bow. “What better time for a creature of the night to travel?”
Lucien, Duke of Belliston, watched his trespasser as she stalked with great dignity as far as the cypress border, and then ruined it by glancing back over her shoulder.
To make sure, presumably, that he hadn’t turned into a giant bat.
Lucien essayed an elegant bow.
The girl gave a loud and disapproving sniff and disappeared between two twisted trees, and Lucien allowed the grin that he had been repressing to spread across his face. Beasties and ghoulies and things that went bump in the night, indeed. It had been worth it, just to see her eyes widen and then narrow again. He hadn’t been so amused since—
Since boarding the ship to return to England.
That thought was enough to wipe the smile off his face. Only a few weeks more, he reminded himself. Just a few weeks to sort through the yellowing papers in his father’s study and the long-abandoned journals in his mother’s workroom, to sift through moldering correspondence and mouse-eaten cards of invitation.
And then what? Back to New Orleans, to the home of his mother’s sister? Lucien had been happy there, or something close to it, but it wasn’t his home. The broad acres of his uncle’s plantation were well managed by others, and he had no place in the insular society of the French Quarter. An English duke was as out of place there as a Creole in London.
In New Orleans, he was too English; at home, he was tainted by his mother’s blood, by the tang of something foreign, and exotic, and more than a little bit French. His mother had come from Martinique, with the liquid accent of the islands, hair as dark as his, and pale skin warmed by the sun on distant shores. She had been considerably younger than his father.
Witchwoman’s brat, the boys at school had taunted him.
Lucien’s face hardened. Others might flirt with girls in gardens, but he had another task, a task too long delayed. He meant to see justice done, or, at least, some measure of it.
To his right, he could see the remains of his mother’s greenhouse, the glass panes cracked and blackened with soot and grime, the frame warped by English winter weather. The broken panels gaped like a silent scream, leering like a demon’s smile.
She had been a botanist, his mother, specializing in the plants of the tropics. Her greenhouse had bloomed with exotic specimens, warmed by braziers through the cold of the English winters. Among Lucien’s earliest memories was his mother in the greenhouses at Hullingden, taking him from bloom to bloom, introducing each by name, warning him away from some, letting him crinkle and sniff others. Lucien had made mud pies in the rich garden loam while his mother had scribbled her notes in a flowing hand in the faintly scented brown ink she favored.
Lucien’s grandfather had been a botanist too. He had taken Lucien’s mother with him from Martinique to London to give a paper at the Royal Society—and it was there that Lucien’s parents had met. His father had little interest in plants, but he, who had defied all the best matchmaking efforts of London’s matrons, had displayed a great deal of interest in the bluestocking from Martinique. The duke was well past forty, at an age when London had despaired of seeing him married; Lucien’s mother was barely twenty. But something in them had called each to each. They were married a mere three weeks later, with half of London in attendance to speculate and gawp.
An old man’s fancy, they called her, but Lucien knew otherwise. His mother hadn’t been like that; his parents hadn’t been like that. He could remember them together, teasing and mocking, his mother inquiring after his father’s activities in the government, his father displaying a valiant interest in his mother’s cuttings and sectionings and who had insulted whom in which learned paper. Lucien could remember them sitting together on a bench in the garden at Hullingden, his mother’s unpowdered head on his father’s shoulder, the black curls falling long and free across his silver-brocade waistcoat as little Marie-Clarice batted her hands in a basket by their feet.
Lucien looked across the garden, at the dark bulk of Belliston House. For a moment, he could see it as it had been, the statues solid on their plinths, lithe goldfish swimming in the clear water of the fountain, hedges neatly trimmed, windows blazing with light. All gone now. Gone these past twelve years.
Lucien had been only twelve. He had been shunted off to school, left to stew and brood and avenge his honor with his fists as best he could on and off the playing fields of Eton. Those hadn’t been pleasant years. He had been numb with shock and grief, and the concerted malice of his peers had caught him on the raw. He had escaped as soon as he could, first for the family seat, and then, when Uncle Henry had sent him back, where all the Uncle Henrys in the world couldn’t reach him, all the way to his mother’s family in America.
“Your grace.” A rough voice pulled him back to the present, the guttural accents turning the title from an honorific into a grunt.
It was Jamison, who had served as caretaker of the house these past twelve years, and now, for want of a better option, butler and general factotum. His wife, once an under-housemaid, made a pretense of keeping the house, and served Lucien meals so consistently inedible that he was forced to conclude that either her taste buds had long since atrophied or she was engaged in a plot to slowly poison him with rancid pie.
Despite their inadequacies, there had been no call to go to the bother of hiring staff, the sort of staff the house had once boasted, the legions of maids and footmen, the well-starched butler and chattering scullions. He didn’t intend to stay long.
Besides, it wasn’t as though Lucien would be receiving callers. The only guests he was entertaining were long since dead.
With the exception of that girl in the garden.
“Your grace.” As always, Jamison’s weather-beaten face revealed nothing of his feelings. His loose-lipped visage and stooped shoulders suggested ancestry of the simian variety, but he had been head gardener in Lucien’s parents’ day. More importantly, he was the only one of the staff to stay on, after—
Lucien’s life was divided into two halves: before and after. There was no need to specify the event.
Never one to waste time on niceties, Jamison got right to the point. “You have callers.”
He spat on the last word, which might have been an opinion as to their guests or merely his habitual form of communication.
“At midnight?” Lucien heard himself echoing the girl in the garden. But she was right. Midnight was a deuced odd time for anyone to come calling.
Jamison merely directed another wad of spittle towards a spot just to the left of Lucien’s right shoe.
“All right, then,” said Lucien. “I suppose it’s too much to ask whether you showed them in?”
But Jamison had already departed. Buttling was not among his core competencies.
Curious despite himself, Lucien retraced his steps along the crumbling flagstone path and let himself in by a little door in the side of the house, a door once meant for the comings and goings of servants, but which, in their absence, had proved a convenient means of ingress for the master of the house. Especially when he wished to enter without being seen.
For a moment, he wondered if the girl with the golden hair had chosen to essay another approach, having been banned from the garden. Was it was a weakness in himself that he rather hoped she had? His self-appointed task might be a noble one, but that didn’t make it any less lonely.
Jamison had left the callers standing in the hall, which, Lucien supposed, was rather what one got when one visited, unheralded, at midnight. There were four of them: a young man in high shirt points, an older man with his hair clubbed back in the old style, a matron in the finest stare of style, egret feathers bristling from a turban of Nile green satin.
And a young woman, a fillet of filigree shining in her gently curling hair.
“—disgraceful!” the older woman was saying. But Lucien had eyes only for the young woman.
He felt that dislocation again, that curious overlay of past and present. In place of the slender woman in the hall, he saw a little girl in a white dress with a sash embroidered with posies, her chubby hands grasping a bouquet of dandelions.
Lucien stepped out from behind the suit of armor. “Marie-Clarice,” he said.
All four turned to stare at him as though the suit of armor had suddenly taken to its legs and staggered forward to greet them.
Marie-Clarice stared at him, with eyes that were too dark for her pale face. She had inherited their father’s fair coloring, but their mother’s eyes, deep-set and black, the same eyes that Lucien saw in the mirror every morning.
“So it is true,” she said distantly. Her eyes narrowed and her voice hardened. “It is you.”
There seemed very little to say to that except, “Yes.”
How else did one fill nine missing years?
“Well!” said Aunt Winifred, her stays creaking ominously beneath her satin gown as she drew in an indignant breath. “One would think you might have allowed your own family to hear of your return from your own hand, rather than leaving it to the mouths of common gossips—”
“We’re delighted,” Uncle Henry intervened, shooting his wife a hard look. A little too heartily, he said, “Welcome home, my boy. Welcome home.”
Lucien’s cousin, Hal, his hair the same silver-gilt that Uncle Henry’s had once been, did nothing but stare, his jaw dropping until it connected with the top fold of his elaborately tied cravat.
They were all fair. The Caldicotts had been breeding fair-haired, light-eyed, and pink-cheeked since time immemorial, a testament to their Saxon forebears. Next to them, Lucien felt, as he always had, a cuckoo in the nest. It was an unfortunate mischance that he was the cuckoo who bore the title.
“Hello,” Lucien said inadequately.
His sister took a step forward. Their mother had been petite, but Marie-Clarice had inherited the Caldicott height, as well as the family’s famed silver-gilt hair. Only her eyes belonged to their mother.
“Did you mean to call?” she inquired dangerously. “Or were we not to be privileged with the pleasure of your company?”
Every word stung like the lash of a whip, all the more so for being—Lucien had to admit—deserved.
“I had thought you would have been at Hullingden,” he ventured.
Hullingden was the primary family seat. Lucien had grown up there, had roamed those woods and explored those secret passageways. It had been, for the bulk of his childhood, his entire world; Belliston House, in London, was a faraway place he knew of only from his parents’ conversation.
The estate had been passed into the stewardship of Uncle Henry until such time as Lucien came of age.
By the time Lucien came of age, he was already halfway across the world.
He ought, he knew, to have presented himself at Hullingden first. It wasn’t much good for the prodigal to return without making his presence known. But the idea of passing through those portals again had filled him with a fine sweat of fear. Belliston House was different. It was bland. It was safe.
“It’s your sister’s first Season.” Aunt Winifred sailed into the fray, her feathers bobbing ominously. “Naturally, we are in London. As you would have known had you shown any of the consideration due as the Head of the House.”
Lucien could hear the capital letters as she pronounced it and the bite of venom behind it.
“But what,” Aunt Winifred added, addressing herself to the suit of armor, “can one expect?”
From the witchwoman’s brat.
The boys at Eton weren’t the only ones to have cast slurs on Lucien’s parentage; Aunt Winifred had been more subtle, but no less vicious. It was one of the reasons that Lucien had bolted when he had. Without his parents in it, Hullingden hadn’t been home; with Aunt Winifred in it, it had become a form of prison. Aunt Winifred had made it quite clear that she thought it a sad mistake on the part of Fate to allow the dukedom to fall to so unworthy a creature as Lucien, the debased product of a sad mésalliance.
One would think she might be a bit more pleased that Lucien had obliged her by removing himself.
“We would have consulted you,” said Uncle Henry mildly, “but we supposed you abroad.”
The gentle reproach in Uncle Henry’s voice was worse than the vitriol in Aunt Winifred’s.
Lucien looked from one hostile face to the next, at a loss as to what to say. Yes, it had been a childish trick to bolt, as he had, all those years ago. He could see that now. But he had never imagined his presence being missed. In fact, quite the contrary. Uncle Henry had the care of Hullingden and of Marie-Clarice; if Lucien had thought of it, he had imagined it all meandering on just as it had. He had never thought of himself as having any part of it, or as shirking by being away. He had never thought of Marie-Clarice as growing older; in his head, she was eternally a child of six, in the nursery with her governess.
Lucien took a tentative step towards her. “Marie-Clarice—”
“Clarissa,” she corrected him sharply, her accent very proper, very correct. Very English.
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