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Lucas Mayfield, the Eighth Earl of Heightford, has devised an ingenious gentlemen's club where anonymity protects the reputations of all. But when a young courtesan appears far too innocent, his suspicions are raised . . . along with his interest. When her gleaming hair tumbles down, he recognizes the Duke of Chatterwood's beautiful daughter. Lucas has no idea how the lady managed to get in—or how she tempted him into an unforgettable kiss . . .
Liliah Durary is in a bind. Her father cruelly insists that she marry a man she does not love—who is, in fact, desperately in love with her best friend. She has no choice but to maintain a platonic marriage until some other arrangement can be made. Still, she's determined to experience pleasure before she is wed. An intriguing new club seems the perfect place—and Lucas Mayfield seems the perfect man for the arrangement she seeks . . .
“This Regency romp is a well-balanced mix of heat and sweetness.” —Publishers Weekly
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Lady Liliah Durary urged her mare, Penny, into a rapid gallop as she flew through Hyde Park. A proper lady should have a care about the strolling couples about the park. A proper lady should not ride at such breakneck speed. A proper lady should obey her father in all things.
Liliah was not a proper lady.
And hell would have to freeze over before she'd ever even try.
Tears burned the corners of her eyes, blurring her vision as she urged Penny faster, not caring that she was in a miserable sidesaddle — or that her speed was indeed dangerous for her precarious position. She wanted to outrun her problems — rather, problem. Because aside from the one damning issue at hand, life was otherwise quite lovely.
Being the elder daughter of a duke had its distinct advantages.
Of course, it had its distinct disadvantages as well. Like your father demanding you marry your best friend.
Who so happened to be in love with your other best friend.
It was a miserable mess ... and she was caught in the middle of it all. If only her father would see reason! Yet asking such a thing was like expecting her mare to sprout wings and fly: impossible.
She slowed Penny down to a moderate walk and sighed deeply, the light breeze teasing the strands of unruly blond hair, which came loose from her coiffure as a result of her quick pace. She blew a particularly irritating curl from her forehead, and tucked it behind her ear. Glancing about, she groaned, remembering that she hadn't taken a maid with her. Again.
Thankfully, the staff at Whitefield House was accustomed to her constant disregard of propriety. Maybe Sarah, her maid, would notice and make herself scarce, giving the impression she was with her mistress. Liliah bit her lip, turning her mare toward home — even if that was the last place she wished to be — simply for Sarah's sake. It wouldn't go well for her maid if her father discovered the way his staff allowed his unruly daughter far more freedom than he did, and should he discover it, such freedom would end abruptly — and badly.
Being attached to the staff — especially her maid Sarah — Liliah increased her pace. Besides, running from problems didn't solve them. As she swayed with the steady rhythm of Penny's trot, she considered the situation at hand once more.
It made no sense.
Yet when had one of her father's decisions required logic? Never.
Her best friend Rebecca was delightful and from a well-bred and heavily pursed family. There was no reason for the family of her other best friend Meyer, the Baron of Scoffield, to be opposed to such a match. Yet Meyer's father refused to see reason, just as Liliah's father refused. Only Meyer's father, the Earl of Greywick, had threatened to disinherit his son and grant the title to a cousin when Meyer had objected to the arrangement.
It was wretched, no matter how one looked at it. Love matches were rare amongst the ton, and here was a golden opportunity for each family — squandered.
It was true, Liliah was quite the match herself. The elder daughter of a duke, she understood she was quite the heiress and pedigree, yet was her breeding of more importance than Rebecca's? She doubted it.
Apparently, her father didn't agree.
Nor did Lord Greywick.
As she crossed the cobble street toward her home, she took a deep breath of the spring air, feeling her freedom slowly sifting through her fingers like dry sand. As Whitefield House came into view, she pulled up on the reins, halting Penny's progress toward home. The horse nickered softly, no doubt anticipating a thorough brush-down and sweet oats upon returning, yet Liliah lingered, studying the stone structure. One of the larger houses in Mayfair, Whitefield demanded attention with its large stone pillars and wide, welcoming balcony overlooking the drive. It fit her father's personality well, as if magnifying his overinflated sense of importance. Reluctantly, she urged Penny on, taking the side entrance to the stable in the back.
Upon her arrival, a stable boy rushed out to greet her, helping her dismount. Penny jostled the lad with her head, and he chuckled softly, petting her velvet nose.
"I'll take care of Penny, my lady. You needn't worry." With a quick bow, the boy led the all too pampered horse into the stable, murmuring softly as they walked.
Carefully glancing around, once she was certain that no one lingered about, she rushed to the servants' entrance just to the side of the large manor. The heavy wooden door opened silently and she slipped inside, leaning against the door once it was closed. Her eyes adjusted to the dim light, and she took the stairs to the second floor, turning left down a small hall and turning the latch on the door that would lead to the gallery, just a short distance from her chambers. The metal was cool against her gloved hand as she twisted, then peered out into the sunlight-filled room. Breathing quietly, she listened intently for footsteps or voices. Just before she dared to step out, Sarah, her maid, bustled down the hall, a pinched frown on her face as she opened the door leading to Liliah's rooms.
After waiting one more moment, Liliah stepped from the servants' hall, rushing her steps till she approached her room, then slowed as if she weren't in a hurry at all, just in case someone noticed her presence.
Quickly, she opened the door to her room and swiftly shut it silently behind her, Sarah's relieved sigh welcoming her.
"My lady! You've not but a moment to lose! Your father is searching about for you! When he noticed me, he bid me find you, but I fear he is growing impatient. He was in the library."
"Quick, help me disrobe. I need an afternoon dress." Liliah started to tug off her gloves, exchanging them for ones that did not bear the marks from the leather reins, as Sarah made quick work of the buttons on her riding habit.
In only a few short minutes, Liliah was properly attired — all evidence of her earlier unchaperoned excursion tucked away. And with a quick grin to Sarah, who offered a relieved sigh, Liliah left her chambers and strode down the hall as if without a care in the world.
When in truth, the cares were heavy upon her indeed.
Because her father rarely spoke to her, unless demanding her obedience in some matter — and she knew exactly what he had on his mind.
She clasped her hands, trying to calm the slight tremble as she took the stairs and walked toward the library. How she hated feeling weak, out of control in her own life! With a fortifying breath, she made the final steps to the library entrance, the delicate clink of china teacups drifting through the air.
"Your Grace." Liliah curtseyed to her father, taking in the furrow in his expression, drawing his bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows like thunderclouds over his gray eyes.
"At last. I was about to begin a search," he replied tersely, setting down his teacup and gesturing to a chair.
"Forgive me, I was quite absorbed in my — "
"Book, I know. Your little maid said as much. And I'll remind you that you mustn't spend so much time engaging your mind. Fine-tune your other qualities. Your pianoforte could benefit a great deal from some practice." He sighed, as if already tired of the conversation with his daughter.
Liliah bit her tongue, not wishing to initiate a battle of wills just yet; she'd save the fight for a more worthy cause.
The only worthy cause of the moment.
"Now that you're here, I need to inform you that Lord Greywick and I have decided on a date — "
"But, Your Grace ..."
His brows knit further over his eyes, and he glared, his expression frosty and furious. "Do not interrupt me."
Liliah swallowed, clenching her teeth as she nodded.
"As I was saying ..." He paused, arching a brow, daring her to interfere again. "Lord Greywick and I are tired of waiting. We've been patient, and your progress with Greywick's heir is apathetic at best. Therefore, tonight, at the Langford rout, Meyer will be asking you for two waltzes. That should set up the perfect tone for the banns being read in two weeks' time. Hence, you shall be wed at St. George's in two months. That is beyond generous and I — "
"It is anything but generous and you well know it!" Liliah couldn't restrain herself any longer. Standing, she took position behind the chair, her fingers biting into the damask fabric as she prepared for battle.
One she knew was already lost.
"How dare you!" Her father's voice boomed.
"Father, Meyer has no interest in me! How long will you imagine something greater than friendship?"
"I care not if he gives a fig about you!" her father roared, standing as well.
"I refuse." Liliah spoke softly, like silk over steel as she clenched her teeth.
Her father took a menacing step forward. "There is no other way. And consider this: If this arrangement is not made, your friend will lose his title. Do you think that Lord and Lady Grace will allow their daughter to be married to a man with no means? No title?" He shook his head, his eyes calculating. "They will not. So cease your reluctance. There is no other option." He took a deep breath and met her gaze. "I suggest you prepare for tonight; you'll certainly be the center of attention and you should look the part. You're dismissed." With a quick wave of his fingers, he turned and went back to his tea, sitting down.
Tears burned the back of Liliah's eyes, yet she held them in till she spun on her heel and quit the room, just as the first streams of warm tears spilled down her cheeks.
Surely there had to be another way?
Perhaps there was, but time was running out.
* * *
The Langford rout was buzzing with activity from London society's most elite, the bon ton. The orchestra's sweet melody floated through the air, drowning out most of the buzzing hum of voices. The dancers swirled around, a kaleidoscope of pastel colors amidst the gentlemen's black evening kits. Ostrich and peacock feathers decorated the main banquet table, along with painted silver eggs. But the beauty of the ballroom was lost on Liliah; even the prospect of a treacle tart didn't boost her mood. She meandered through the crush of humanity, swiping a glass of champagne from a passing footman. Sipping the cool liquid, she savored the bubbles as her gaze sharpened on her target.
Lady Grace — Rebecca — danced gracefully as she took the practiced steps of the quadrille. Rebecca smiled at her partner, and Liliah watched as the poor sop all but melted with admiration. Stifling a giggle, she waited till the dance ended, and made her way toward her friend. As she drew near, Rebecca caught sight and raised a hand in a wave, her overly expressive eyes smiling as wide as her lips.
"Liliah! Did you only just arrive? I was searching for you earlier." Rebecca reached out and squeezed Liliah's hand.
"I stalled," Liliah confessed.
Rebecca's smile faded, her green eyes no longer bright. "Did it work?"
"No." Liliah glanced away, not knowing if she could handle the heartbreak that must be evident in Rebecca's gaze.
"We understood it was a small chance. We must now simply seize every opportunity." Rebecca spoke with far more control than Liliah expected. As she turned to her friend, she saw a depth of pain, yet a depth of strength in her gaze.
"There's always hope," Liliah affirmed, squeezing her friend's hand.
"Always. And that being said, I must now seize this present opportunity." Rebecca's face lit up as only one deeply in love could do, and curtseyed as Meyer approached.
The Baron of Scoffield approached, but Liliah ever knew him as simply Meyer. Their friendship had been immediate and long-standing. Ever since Liliah, Rebecca, and Meyer had snuck away during a fireworks display at Vauxhall Gardens, they had created a special bond of friendship. But over the years, that friendship had shifted into something deeper between Meyer and Rebecca, while Liliah was happy to watch their romance bloom. Meyer's gaze smoldered as he studied Rebecca, a secretive smile in place. As Liliah turned back to Rebecca, she saw the most delicate blush tint her olive skin. Liliah blushed as well, feeling like an intruder in their private moment. "I'll just leave you two ..." She trailed off, walking away as she heard Meyer ask Rebecca for a dance.
Liliah sipped the remaining champagne, watching her friends dance. Their eyes never left each other's; even if they switched partners for the steps, they always came together, their love apparent for anyone who cared to look.
It was beautiful, and it was for naught.
As the dance ended, the first strains of a waltz soared through the air. What should have been beautiful was poisoned, and her heart felt increasingly heavy as Meyer walked in her direction, his lips a grim line.
He didn't ask, simply held out his hand, and Liliah placed hers within his grasp, reluctantly following as they took the floor.
"By your expression, I can only assume you had as much progress with your father as I've had with mine," Meyer said, his brown eyes sober as his gaze flickered away — likely looking for Rebecca.
"Your assumption would be correct," Liliah replied.
Meyer took a deep breath, meeting her gaze. "We'll figure something out."
"But Meyer —" Liliah started.
"We will. We just need to bide our time till the opportunity presents itself." He nodded with a brave confidence in his deep eyes.
"But what if we don't?" Liliah hated to give voice to her deepest fears, watching as Meyer's brave façade slowly fractured.
"Liliah, I — I can't think of that. I'm damned if I do, damned if I do not. I'm sure your father reminded you about my title — "
"And how Lord and Lady Grace wouldn't consider you without a title ..."
"Exactly. I have to hold on to hope. But I, I do need to tell you ... Liliah, if we are forced ... nothing between us will change." He lowered his chin, meeting Liliah's gaze dead on, conveying words he couldn't speak out loud.
"Thank you," Liliah replied, feeling relieved. As much as she hated the idea of a platonic marriage, it hurt far worse to think of the betrayal that would haunt them all should Meyer take her to bed. It hurt to think she'd never know physical love, yet what choice did they all have? Should they take that step, Meyer would be thinking of Rebecca during the act, Liliah would know, and would not only be betraying her friend, but how could she not be resentful? Far better for them to simply bide their time till an arrangement could be made — she would simply step aside. Maybe take a lover of her own?
How she hated how complicated her life had become.
Liliah took a deep breath, mindlessly performing the waltz steps. A smile quirked her lips as she had a rather unhelpful — yet still amusing — thought.
"Ah, I know that smile. What is your devious mind thinking?" Meyer asked, raising a dark brow even as he grinned.
Liliah gave him a mock glare. "I'm not devious."
"You are utterly devious." Meyer chuckled. "Which makes you a very diverting friend indeed. Now share your thoughts."
Liliah rolled her eyes. "Such charm. Very well, I was simply thinking how it would be lovely if we could simply make the wedding a masquerade and have Rebecca switch places with me at the last moment! Then you'd marry her rather than me and it would be over and done before they could change it!" She hitched a shoulder at her silly thoughts.
Meyer chuckled. "Devious indeed! Too bad it will not work." He furrowed a brow and glanced away, as if thinking.
"What is your wicked mind concocting?"
"Nothing of import." His gaze shifted back to her. "Your mentioning of the masquerade reminded me of an earlier conversation with a chum."
Liliah grinned. "Is there a masquerade ball being planned?" she asked with barely restrained enthusiasm.
"Indeed, but it is one to which you will not be invited, thank heavens." He shook his head, grinning, yet his expression was one of relief.
"It's not a masquerade for polite society, my dear. And I shouldn't have even mentioned it."
"A secret? Meyer, you simply must tell me!"
"Heavens no! This is not for your delicate —"
Liliah snorted softly, giving him an exasperated expression, before she slowly grinned.
"Aw hell. I know that smile. Liliah ..." he warned.
"If you won't tell me, then I can always ask someone else —"
"You'll do nothing of the sort!"
"You know I will."
"You're a menace!" Meyer hissed, his expression narrowing as the waltz ended.
"So, you'll tell me?" Liliah asked, biting her lip with excitement.
Meyer was silent as he led them to a quiet corner of the ballroom, pausing beside a vacant alcove.
"This is a yes!" Liliah answered her question, squeezing his forearm as her hand rested upon it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Falling From His Grace"
Copyright © 2018 Kristin Vayden.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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