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"My dear, you have been looking forlornly out that window for half an hour now. Why do you not go and call on Lady Black?"
Lucy tucked the bit of lace she held in her hand between the voluminous folds of her rose-colored silk and velvet skirts, as she gazed over her shoulder at her father. It was early November, and the day was gray with drizzle that promised to turn to sleet. She pulled the fur shawl a little tighter about her shoulders. The fire that had been laid was crackling, the amber flames flickering with warmth, filling the room with the comfort that only a roaring fire in late autumn could bring. But still Lucy was cold. She had been for months. Nothing seemed to warm her.
"It is early yet, Papa," she answered. "Too early for calls."
"Nonsense, the new Lady Black is your cousinI daresay almost your sister. It's never too early to call on family. Besides, I'll be leaving now for my club, and I would like to know that you're not at home, hanging about at loose ends."
A wry smile escaped her as she cast her gaze once more out the window, to the mammoth black iron gates that stood across the street. How strange it was, that after all these yearsdecades, actuallyher father cared about what she mightor might notbe doing. Her loneliness, and it had been substantial, had never mattered to him before.
The Marquis of Stonebrook was neither a heartless nor an intentionally cruel man. Lucy could not say that about her father. Only that he wasn't mindful of others and their needs. He was emotionally absentnot mean or quarrelsome. Just.. absent. There was no other word for what her father, and her mother, had been. Although, perhaps uninterested might be a close second. The long-held adage of "seen and not heard" did not pertain to her upbringing. For her parents had seen very little of her, and heard her? Not at all.
Her parents had been more concerned with their own lives than that of their child. She had been of little consequence to them, bringing to them little enjoyment. Her conception had been an obligation to further the title, and when she had turned out to be a girl, and no other children followed her, her parents had resigned themselves to the fact that their legacy would live on through the husband they would choose for her.
And Lucy knew without a doubt who her father wanted her to take for a husband. The passionless and priggish Duke of Sussex.
The duke was a sedate, dull and frightfully proper mannothing like the man she dreamt of when she imagined a husband. Nothing like those dreams she had entertained when she was younger, when the butcher's boy would come round with his master and keep her company in the kitchen while the butcher haggled with Mrs. Brown, their old housekeeper. Those had been silly, girlish fantasies of what it might be like to follow one's heart and dreams; those fantasies had swiftly been dashed by her father, and she soon learned what being a marriageable woman in her world truly meant.
And such was the essence of her life, until eight months ago when she had taken her future into her own hands, seeking out what she felt her life lacked in the arms of an artist. The warmth and acceptance she had found with him would not exist with the duke. Their union would be an alliance, not a relationship.
"Come, my dear, I've been watching you for a while now, sitting on that window box, lost in thought. Surely whatever it is you're hiding there beneath your skirts isn't so serious for one as young as you?"
A bit of Brussels lace, that's what she had buried beneath the folds of her skirts. It was embroidered with her initials, and given to her lover on the night she had offered herself to him. And then he had died, or at least, she had believed he'd died in the fire that had consumed his rented rooms.
She had grieved, wept and despaired over never feeling alive again, until a fortnight ago, when the lace had been resurrected and delivered to her hand. That it had been his grace, the Duke of Sussex, who had delivered the handkerchief to her never ceased to perturb her. Why he had been the one to return it to her was still something she mulled over during the long, lonely nights spent alone in her father's town house. She did not care for the notion that Sussex knew of her dalliance with another man. She didn't care what he thought of her, or what he made of the handkerchiefor if he thought her fast and immoral, and so far beneath him for indulging in base pleasures.
It did not matter what his grace made of it all, for Lucy cared about only one thing: Thomas was alive, she was sure of it. He had made her promises. He'd spoken to her of their future together. She had believed that future burned to ashes in the fire, but the lace that she rubbed between her fingers told her that everything she believed was about to change.
"You're frowning. Your mama always said it would give you creases about your eyes."
Lucy found herself smiling. "Yes, she did say that. But I haven't gotten the wrinkles yet."
It was her father's turn to frown. "Dare I hope the reason for your deep rumination might be the subject of marriage, especially after you have witnessed the marital felicity between your cousin and her new husband?"
"I am afraid not, Papa."
"I thought not, but one can hope, and I haven't given up yet."
Her father would never give up. It was his desire to see her wed to the duke, and nothing less would do.
"And that is all that you intend to say on the matter, is it? Well, then I shall let it rest for now. Come then, Lucy, I must be off. I shall escort you across the street."
"Really, Papa, there is no need for concern. I am quite all right at home."
"Alone?" he guffawed. "Absolutely not, you're still recovering from your illness."
There was no fighting him on this. A fortnight ago she had been gravely illher own stupidity, which she refused to think onand ever since, her father made certain that she was never left alone, although it was not him who was a constant presence, but Isabella, whose task it now seemed was to hover about and mind Lucy's activities.
Lucy thought back to those months ago, when, in an attempt to appease the loneliness left behind by the imagined loss of her lover, she had turned down many a dark and dangerous path, one of seances and scribing, and bargaining in her dreams if only she could find her lover once again. There had been that awful sense of incompleteness, having never had a chance to say goodbye. To see him one last time before he faded forever onto the other side, where breathing mortals could not follow.
Dabbling in the occult had been a way of idling her time awayand perhaps a somewhat foolish and desperate measure to find him in the ethers of the spiritual realmit was then that she had come across the mysterious Brethren Guardians and their sacred relicsa relic she had stolen and used for her own purposes. The result had been disastrous, and nearly deadly.
It had terrified her father, and now he was hovering about, foisting her onto her cousin, and generally distrusting her, treating her like a child.
"Come, Lucy. I insist," her father muttered in that voice that would brook no refusal. "There is no moving me on this. You will join Lady Black today and attend to those things that ladies do during morning calls."
"I will just change," Lucy sighed, quite resigned in the matter.
"Balderdash! You are quite appropriately attired. There is no need to waste time on changing your wardrobe."
Her father wouldn't hear of it. He was in something of a hurry to get to his club, and therefore, she was escorted out of the salon, and into the hall, where Jennings, their butler, assisted her with her cloak and umbrella.
"Damn this weather," her father grumbled as he reached for her elbow and ushered her down the stone steps to the waiting carriage. "We'll drive across the street, for there is no telling how long it will take Black's footman to open the gates. I have no desire to wait in the rain for the gates to open. Don't know why he needs them, anyway." Because he was a Brethren Guardian. But she couldn't very well inform her father of such a fact. She herself should know nothing of it. Lucy barely understood this strange Brethren that Sussex and Lord Black belonged to, but it didn't matter. During her study of the occult, she had stumbled across it, discovering not only who the Brethren were, but the relics they kept hidden. She had sworn an oath of silence, promising never to speak of their little group to anyone. And in return, her own shocking secret would be kept from her father, and the microcosm that was their worldthe ton.
She knew only bits and pieces of the Brethren Guardians' secrets; it was an esoteric society made up of three influential peers: Black, Sussex and the Marquis of Alynwick.
Their business was mysterious and secretive, and dangerous. From what she knew of their secrets, there existed an onyx pendant, which was the very essence of evil, and some sort of chalice that they protected. But what they represented, she could not say, and could not find out.
Black, who had recently become the husband of Isabella, Lucy's cousin, had been shot a fortnight ago during what was termed Guardian business. Well on the mend, Black pretended that naught had happened, and Isabella, a true and honorable wife, would not speak of it. Lucy had tried, but Isabella had remained stubbornly tight-lipped. And the pendant
it had belonged to Black and his family, and purportedly contained seeds with magical powers. Lucy had taken it, ingested a seed inside the pendant and wished with everything inside her in the hopes she might once more see her lover and say her tearful goodbyes.
Of course, the rash action had caused her days of vomiting, and a strange feeling of possession, not to mention the fact that her actions had both alarmed and angered not only Black but Sussex. But in the end, her goal had been achieved. Thomas was alive
And the Brethren Guardians were not only looking for him, but watching her as well to see if Thomas would come to her. When Sussex had delivered the lace to her he had also informed her that the man who had dropped it was a man he and the Brethren were hunting. He was their enemy, Sussex had claimed, and that man, Lucy knew, was Thomas. Her lover from the past. And Lucy knew with every cell of her being that she must protect him from the duke and his two fellow Guardians, for they were powerful and influential men, while her lover was an artist, without influence of a title or the power that both peerage and money could wield.
Yes, those iron gates that surrounded his lordship's home, standing sentry like a castle drawbridge against marauding knights, was a security measureone Black would never abolish.
Her father cleared his throat several times, while glancing sidelong at her, all indications that something was weighing on him, something he felt compelled to speak of. "I'm afraid I cannot allow our previous conservation to lay fallow. I must speak plainly, Lucy. I've noticed, my dear, that Sussex hasn't been by for some time. Two weeks, at least, I believe."
Lucy refused to take her gaze from the rain-streaked carriage window. She would not talk of his grace, and she would not have this conversation with her father.
"I hope you have not had a falling-out."
"I wasn't aware that we had a falling-in."
That quip made her father glare at her. "You don't make it easy on the poor fellow. You hold him at arm's length. He's trying to court you, but you're too obstinate to see it."
"I am well aware of the fact, Father. You have made it too blatant for me to misunderstand. You wish me to marry the duke."
"You say it with such disdain, as though he were a common laborer, when he is the furthest thing from it."
She thought back to her young friend Gabriel, the butcher's boy, and realized that they had shared something remarkablethe same sadness, the same loneliness, despite their stations being so opposite. "I am not at all opposed to a common man, if he were to feel a genuine sense of affection for me."
"Affection!" Her father's thick mutton chops twitched in irritation. "Good God, child, are we back to that?
Those fairy-tale thoughts were amusing when you were twelve, now they are downright mortifying. Marriage is an institution"
"Rather like one of those asylums for lunatics," she mumbled, unable to help herself. She didn't want an institution. She wanted a marriage. A friendship. A loving partner.
Her father sighed deeply, but did not bother to address her thoughts and instead began to talk to her as he had so many years ago, as she lay on her bed, sobbing into her pillow after he had turned away the only friend she had ever hadGabriel. Depriving her of that friendship had destroyed her, frozen part of her heart and soul. How wretched her father had beenhow horrid it was to see her friend leave, and never, ever return. Internally she had railed against the injustice of it all, but she had been powerless then to take charge of her life, and her future. And now, here she was years later, still just as powerless, still enduring the same lectures on duty and the responsibilities of a female of her class.
"Now, Lucy, must I remind you that every station in life has its obligations, and the daughter of a marquis's obligation is to marry well, furthering their nobility, and riches. You were put on this earth, girl, to marry a duke."
How many times had she heard that particular lecture? Her entire existence in the world was based on matrimony and breeding. A harrowing thought, one that made her feel pity for all the other unborn daughters of the peerage.