About the book
She didn’t know love until she saw it in his eyes…
There is nothing Lady Delilah Birkes hates more than her parents' loveless relationship. The oldest of five siblings, she is hard-pressed to set a good example and marry the man that has been chosen for her.
Secretly taken in by the Duchess when his mother died giving birth to him, Victor Dowding, the Marquess of Wringcaster's guilt over having a life he believes he doesn’t deserve has led him to be very charitable. A trait that has earned him the disapproval of the ton. As has his wish to marry Lady Delilah.
Their hopes dim when Delilah's engagement to another is announced before Victor can make his move. Determined to save her from the clutches of a rake, Victor orchestrates a most elaborate plan. A plan that attracts the attention of a monster from his past, that has been sleeping dormant at the bottom of a teacup.
Continuous lightning split the sky, and thunder, its companion, shook the earth. It was not the usual distant grumbling thunder heard in these parts, nor was it gentle. It was menacing and close, too close.
The air was charged to its breaking point and the pleasant earthy smell before the rain had disappeared. What was left was a jarring smell that was hard to breathe and tasted of conflict. Shut casement windows swung open and drapes flew wildly in the wind as if cheering for war.
The woman was pulled from her reverie as the carriage came to a stop. Her heart pounded. They couldn’t have reached her destination yet. Was something amiss?
Her fears were soon confirmed. The carriage door was opened. The coachman stood in the road, his face emotionless. Merciless.
“I’m afraid that I cannot continue, miss,” the coachman said.
“Please,” she begged. “It’s about to rain and we are almost there.”
“What you paid can only take you this far,” the man said. “You’ll have to get out.”
She checked her purse but couldn’t find a single shilling. Her destination wasn’t too much farther away. If she ran, she might get there before the rain started.
But could she run?
She would have to try.
Taking a deep breath, she climbed out of the carriage and watched as the man turned and went back the way they had come. He didn’t give her a second thought, despite her situation.
She cursed under her breath.
She sprinted up the road as her surroundings grew menacingly dark and the warm atmosphere became even more chilly. Incensed clouds poured their anger onto the earth as hard as they could.
As she hurried along under the roiling sky, she hugged shop fronts, pausing with other pedestrians under their small but often tattered awning.
The rain began to fall, first a few fat droplets but quickly increasing to become a heavy curtain of impenetrably gray. There was the shush of water against the pavements and rooftops.
Her worn out clothes clung to her. Moisture slashed and squelched in her waterlogged shoes. Her long auburn hair matted against her back and strands of it clung to her face. The normally pleasant street was transformed and the bushes and trees morphed into vague threatening shapes in the gloom.
Her bones were icy cold and the long wool coat with which her body was covered was also drenched. She could hardly feel her feet or her fingers anymore.
Just a little longer to reach the Duke’s estate
She pulled her wet wool coat more tightly around herself. The Duke and Duchess would help her, she was certain of that. She had heard much about their compassion. She prayed they would have some for her.
By the time she got to the manor, her teeth were chattering, and her legs were heavier than logs
She reached the front door. With the little strength left in her, she knocked.
At first, there was no response, but then she heard the door being unbolted and it opened slightly.
A tall man carrying a lamp appeared.
“Who are you and whom do you seek?” he inquired.
“Good evening sir, please…I…” she stuttered, her teeth chattering. “I…seek the Duke and Duchess…”
“Who might you be?”
“I am a nobody,” she whimpered. “I am just someone who needs their help, please.”
The man frowned. “If you seek employment here, miss, you must be aware that this is not the right means to procure it.”
“I know,” she said. “But I’m desperate, please…”
“I’m afraid you shall have to go back.”
As the man spoke, she could see the foyer through the slightly opened door where a lady dressed in a regal gown was passing.
This could be my only chance.
“Help me, your Grace!” she called.
“What do you think you are doing?” the butler demanded angrily.
“Please! Help me or I die,” she cried even louder.
“I have told you to leave, stubborn woman!” the man insisted, beginning to close the door.
“No, Martin!” ordered the lady from the foyer. “Bring her in immediately.”
She could see the displeased look on the butler’s face. “You heard the Duchess, come in. Don’t just stand there.”
Relieved and exhausted, she walked slowly into the Manor, water dripping from her body. The foyer was incredibly warm.
“Oh, you poor thing!” the Duchess said as she hurried towards her. “You will freeze to death in those clothes. Martin, get Frances for me so we can decide where to put her.”
“Yes, My Lady,” replied the butler, hurrying away with the lamp in hand.
“Thank you so much, My Lady,” she sobbed, holding on to her stomach.
“Are you all right?” asked the Duchess, observing her.
“I…” she tried to reply but instead sank to her knees.
The Duchess caught her by the arm. “Oh dear! You're freezing! We will need to give you some fresh clothes and…” she stopped as she gaped at her stomach. “You are with child!”
Twenty-Two Years Later…
Mother, please, I beg of you, stop all this talk about marriage,” said Victor. “I am in no hurry at all. It seems that you are more worried than I am over my marriage, or the lack thereof.”
A small squawk of annoyance came from the Duchess. She was a handsome, dark haired-woman who had kept both her looks and figure, despite the passage of time. She surveyed her son, frustration evident in her features. “You’ll be the death of me, Victor. I swear it!”
“Oh, surely not,” replied Victor, smiling and dipping his quill into the inkpot on the table before him. “You must not become excitable over matters which do not bear thinking about. Well, not yet anyway.” He stretched and yawned. “Not for a long time, I should say.”
Victor set his quill down and rose from the chair he had been sitting on during his mother’s lecture on the benefits of matrimony, and strolled to the window where she stood.
“You are tall, good-looking, blessed with all anyone can ask for, with enough charm and style to satisfy every woman in London. Yet…”
“Yet, at two and twenty, I am still unmarried, with no firm intention to correct the situation in the near future,” he smiled. It was an old conversation, one he could have recited every note of without prompting.
“But why? Victor, why? Why do you want to destroy everything we’ve been working toward?”
Victor rested a hand on his mother’s shoulder. She was given to dramatics, but he did hate to see her upset.
“Do you know how Lavinia would feel if she were alive?” she asked him. “God knows I’m doing everything possible to protect you, and getting married will take care of the future.”
Her voice was unusually wistful, very different from her usual firm tones.
“Is it too much to ask that you chose a wife? Do you not know that having a family helps to avert all suspicion from you? And what of your legacy? Or do you want your father and I to die before you produce an heir?”
Victor strode to her and took her hands.
“Do not speak of death, Mother. You and Father are still very much alive. Your health is excellent.”
The Duchess’s eyes filled with tears and she turned her face away.
“Right now, I have a lot to do, Mother. I am barely of a marriageable age and I am busy with plans for the orphanage. Will you please understand?”
“You know I support the charitable work you do, Victor,” she said. “You know how proud I am of you. But please, for once, take a break from your work and attend to your own happiness.”
The Swinford Orphanage is at full capacity and the Rutledge Orphanage I am working on is barely finished. If it isn’t completed soon, more children will be on the streets. How can I think of marriage with this work still unfinished?
“Mother,” he said, “I must say that your thoughts far differ from mine. Marriage is not in my plans now. I do not think I am ready for a lifetime commitment yet.”
“But this is for your own good!” his mother protested. “Why do you not understand that I am trying to help you?”
“I do understand,” Victor said. “I only wish that you could understand that this pressure to marry before I am ready isn’t helpful"
His mother sank into a chair near her. “Why do you cause me so much distress, son? Why can you not just do this for my sake? You know how I worry about securing your place in society.”
“But I can hardly prioritize my own social standing above those who have been less fortunate in their lives than I have, Mother,” Victor reasoned. “You and Father have given me so much. I owe it to society to repay that debt.”
“So noble,” his mother sighed. “Perhaps if Lady Catherina had remained in London, you two would have gotten engaged by now.”
Victor’s heart sank. He hated it every time Lady Catherina’s name came out. She was his childhood friend and their parents were very close. When they were younger, it had been evident how much Lady Catherina liked him. She had often hinted at the idea of their getting married someday, but Victor had never returned her affections. He could never imagine getting married to Lady Catherina. Five years ago, she and her parents had left for Spain.
He ran his fingers through his hair. He was fine with the usual conversations and arguments about marriage and bearing children, but he wasn’t comfortable with seeing his mother so upset.
“Mother,” he started as he moved close to her, “I cannot promise you marriage as soon as you would like, but I will take actions to prepare myself.”
His words, spoken in a light-hearted tone, wrought a remarkable transformation in the previously distraught lady.
“Then that means you are coming with me to the ball tonight. It is the first ball of the season.” she said with a gleam in her eyes.
Victor paled. His mother had caught him in a cunning trap he should have seen coming.
I was supposed to meet some men this evening with Gabriel. We were to discuss further arrangements to fund the Rutledge Orphanage. Now I must cancel that plan. I can’t disappoint Mother any further than I already have.
An evening of dancing with different ladies of the ton was the most boring thing he could think of at that moment. But he owed it to his mother to compromise. He would just have to take Gabriel along to ease the boredom.
He clapped one hand to his chest in a noble gesture. “I give you my word.”
“Good,” she said merrily, all sign of dismay now gone from her face. “And now that you’ve given it, all you have to do is keep it.”
“But Mother, I hope you understand that I am not planning to get married just yet. I may not be ready for a while, but I will socialize more if it will make you happy.”
His mother smiled a little. She had made some headway finally.
“I know you will find someone soon.”
He took one of her hands, raised to his lips and kissed it softly. “I love what you and Father have. That is what I aspire to for myself, and that is why I am taking my time. I hope that I someday meet someone who will care for me just like you care for Father. But when I do, I want to be ready, so I can take care of her as well.”
Tears caused his mother’s eyes to sparkle. Smiling, she ran a hand through his hair.
“That’s very admirable, Victor. But such a person won’t come here to find you. You will have to go out in search of them. This is why you must come with me to the ball. Do you understand?”
He laughed and nodded. “Of course, Mother. I already gave you my word.”
His mother took her leave, and Victor slumped into his chair.
Well, I can bid farewell to all my plans today.
A knock sounded on his door.
His footman Carson, a man in his early forties, walked in and bowed.
“My Lord, Lord Windham is here.”
“Thank you, Carson,’ he replied. “I will be out shortly.”
The footman bowed and took his leave.
Victor found his oldest friend, Gabriel Seton, in the drawing room, sipping from a cup of tea.
His friendship with Gabriel, who was, after all, untitled, made him something of a rarity among gentlemen. But Gabriel shared his passion for charitable work, even if his zeal for it had never quite matched Victor’s own. The two had met several years ago, when Victor had had the idea to establish his first orphanage, and they had been friends ever since.
“Oh, there you are,” Gabriel said, putting down his cup. “I was wondering how long it would take you to come out of your chamber.”
Victor ignored his friend’s remark and sat opposite him.
“I am surprised that you aren’t dressed, Victor. Aren’t we going to speak with the workers again?”
Victor shook his head. “We might need to postpone that, my dear friend.”
“My mother demands my presence at the first ball of the Season tonight.”
Gabriel raised his eyebrows. “Why, that is incredible! That you will be gracing the season with your presence. Haha!” he laughed, throwing his head back. “Lady Barknor must be really proud to have made such headway with her stubborn son.”
“I don’t know why you mock me, Gabriel,” Victor said. “You’ve been trying to persuade me to attend these social events for quite some time.”
“Yes, and you’ve always turned me down. You’ve always said that you had more important things to do than attend parties.”
“I hope you will be free to accompany me to the ball because, I cannot bear to go alone. The boredom will kill me.”
His friend laughed. “I will gladly accompany you, even if it is to laugh at you as you dance with handsome ladies of the ton.”
“Enough with the jest, Gabriel. Mother wants me married. I will be attending the ball only because I gave her my word. Marriage is not my plan for now. There are still several children wandering about homeless. Perhaps when the orphanage has been renovated, I might start thinking about getting married.”
Gabriel chuckled and leaned forward. “You are a good man, my friend, but you will never rest until every orphaned child is off the street. Your mother is only trying to help you in every way possible. Besides, it will be interesting to watch you at the ball. Who knows, you might just find someone special. As you know, there will be many new lovely fruits, ripe for the picking.”
“I doubt that very much,” retorted Victor. “I have yet to meet a lady who catches my eye.”
“Well, I have a feeling that things will soon change,” Gabriel said. “You haven’t been to as many balls as I have. You’ve no idea what you’re about to see. The women are a spectacle. You will definitely find someone who will make your heart beat faster”
How amazing it would be to find someone who I love and who loves me back just as much.
For just a moment, Victor allowed himself to set aside thoughts of the orphanage and to imagine what it would be like to fall in love.
He had learned so much from his parents. Despite the many years they had spent together as husband and wife, it was apparent in the way they related with each other how much they were still in love. He had been raised in that love and he wanted nothing less for himself. This was why he was taking his time. He didn’t want to get married to just anybody. He wanted to fall in love.
“Do you really think I will find someone special, Gabriel?” he asked.
“Anything is possible,” Gabriel said. “Perhaps, if you find that special person, I might be convinced to get married as well.”
“You are lucky that no one is subjecting you to any pressure to get married. You should take as much time as you need.”
Gabriel laughed. “You are right, my friend. By the way, there are some charitable events coming up later this week which I believe will interest you.”
Victor’s interest was piqued. “When?”
“Two this week and another next week, but…Victor. Are you ever going to stop giving your belongings away?”
“Gabriel, you should understand by now. This is not about giving money away. This is about helping people less privileged, most especially orphans. That’s not something I plan to stop doing.”
Gabriel shrugged. “You know how much I support your cause, old friend,” he replied, placing a hand on Victor’s shoulder. “I am with you for as long as you need me.”
“Exactly what I wanted to hear.” They both laughed.
The Duchess walked in. “May I interrupt?” she asked.
“My Lady,” Gabriel stood and bowed.
“Gabriel, how are you?”
“Very well, My Lady. I trust you are doing well yourself.”
“Very well,” replied the Duchess with a bright smile. “I am certain Victor told you he would be coming to the ball tonight.”
“Oh, yes he did. I was very surprised to hear it. You must have been very persuasive.”
The Duchess laughed. “He’s such a good son. I hope you will be coming as well.”
“I wouldn’t miss it, My Lady.”
“I am delighted to hear that, Gabriel.”
“Your mother is really excited,” Gabriel commented after the Duchess had left.
“Well, nothing pleases me more than making her happy,” Victor said. “I only hope that tonight’s ball isn’t too dull.”
I cannot take your gambling anymore, Andrew!” Frances Pratt lashed out at her husband. “There are debts to settle, and I need my medicine! How are we going to survive?”
She broke into tears and fell into a chair. The she grabbed a handkerchief and dabbed at her face. She glanced at her husband, who was sitting stone faced at the other end of the room, hoping that he would say something, but he remained quiet.
Frances turned sharply to face him.
“How can you just sit there without saying a thing?” she demanded.
Andrew sighed. “I apologize, Frances, but what can I possibly say? You know that I am making an effort.”
“Your efforts are not enough!”
“What would you have me do?” he demanded. “I have no money. I can’t repay these debts. If I had money—”
“If you had money, you would no doubt squander it gambling, just as you squander every bit of my wages,” she said. “The Duke and Duchess of Barknor pay me well to keep their house, but it makes no difference how much I bring home if you lose it all the way you do!”
“It only takes one win,” Andrew protested. “One big win and I’ll have enough money to pay all our debts. You will be able to leave your position. We will hire a housekeeper to serve you.”
“My mistake was in believing you the first time you said that to me,” Frances told him. “You never win. You always lose. And I don’t need a housekeeper. I need my medicine.”
Andrew sighed and was about to respond but a loud knock on the door interrupted their discussion.
As she turned, Andrew hurried to stop her.
“Do not open it yet!” he whispered. She could detect the urgency in his voice.
“I need to see who it is first,” he replied. Quietly, he tiptoed to the window side and pulled the curtain. When he saw who he was, he gasped and released the curtain.
“Who is it, Andrew?” Frances was suspicious. “You’re frightening me.”
“It’s Mr. Johnson,” Andrew whispered.
Frances gasped. Mr. Johnson was a merchant who several weeks ago had lent them ten pounds. Andrew, of course, had quickly gambled the money away, promising Frances that he would double it.
Of course he didn’t double it. He lost it. He always loses it.
Mr. Johnson had come to them twice already for his money and the ten percent interest that was promised.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“You have to lie to him,” replied her husband.
“I have to lie to him? This is your mess!”
But Andrew was no longer listening. Instead, he hurried into the closet and squeezed himself in. Frances stared in horror. Did he truly mean to leave her alone to deal with this?
The knock sounded once again and this time, it was louder.
“Just a minute, please,” she replied and quickly went to unbolt the door.
“What on earth took you so long?” Mr. Johnson lashed out. “I knew you were at home. I could hear you moving about. Where is Andrew?”
“Did…did you not meet him on your way here?” Frances asked. It was the only thing she could think of to say.
“Is this a trick?” demanded Mr. Johnson. “Was it not his voice I heard moments ago?”
“Not at all,” she replied. “It’s only me at home.” Silently, she cursed her husband for putting her in this position. “My husband left the house early this morning. He did say he would be coming to see you as regards the money. I’m surprised you haven’t seen him.”
Mr. Johnson was quiet. Frances could see that he wasn’t convinced. He moved around the room suspiciously. His hands rested behind his back, but his eyes searched every corner of the room.
He bent to check under the bed, but not before giving her a suspicious look. She knew she couldn’t say or do anything except hope that he didn’t check the closet. When he rose, she tried to meet his eyes without giving herself away.
“I do not mean to call you a liar,” he started.
“I understand,” she said, hoping this meant that he was finished with his search.
But it seemed that he was not. He headed for the closet. Frances’s heart raced as she scrambled for an explanation. The door of the closet creaked open slowly as he pushed it with a stick he found by the door. She didn’t blame him, that door was too old and dirty.
She never had time to clean her home after hours upon hours at work. Her husband didn’t help any. He gambled away their money and spent whatever was left on drink.
He peeped inside when the door fully opened, but only with a foot inside. She got on her knees and held her palms together to plea for some more time. But nothing happened.
He turned and saw her on her knees.
“What is the matter?”
She was confused, but she had to answer, “I…I felt momentarily ill.” she stammered, placing her hands on her stomach.
“I’ll leave you be,” he said. “But I need my money today, so tell your husband to bring it to me. However,” he continued, raising his voice and towering over her. “If I later find out that you were deceiving me, I will be back, and I won’t be alone. Tell your husband that.”
He left, slamming the door behind him. Frances hurried to bolt it and then gave a deep sigh. Just then, her husband came out of his hiding place, covered in sweat.
“Is he gone?” he asked, panting.
“Yes, he is,” she replied, sighing in exasperation. “Where were you?”
“I coiled up on the floor and spread some clothes over myself.”
“Andrew, we must put an end to this. I cannot keep doing this!”
Andrew slumped into a chair. “Surely, there must be something we can do that will fetch us some money.”
Frances thought and thought until an idea formed in her mind.
“I might have an idea,” she said. “Although I am not certain if it will work or not.”
“Let’s hear it.”
She pulled a chair close to him and started.
“There’s a secret that my friend told me years ago about a certain nobleman.”
She nodded. “Yes. She told me before she died. Nobody knows about this secret. Perhaps he will be willing to pay for my silence.”
Andrew frowned. “But what is the secret?”
She confided the secret she had kept for so many years.
“How do you know this?” Andrew asked. “How can you be sure?”
Frances let out a sigh. Her husband could be such a half-wit. “I serve in the household of nobles, Andrew. I’m privy to all kinds of information.”
“But if you know, surely the rest of the staff knows,” he protested.
“Unlikely,” Frances said. “The woman who told me this secret no longer lives, and the rest of the staff is new since that time. Now please, fetch me some writing materials.”
Frances wrote her letter, hoping that her scheme would fetch the money that they needed to settle their debts. At the same time, she was careful enough not to reveal her identity. The letter demanded a sum of fifty pounds. The money was just enough to settle their debts and buy some medicine.
“Are you certain he will believe you?” Andrew asked after she was done writing.
“Of course. He would do anything to protect his reputation,” she replied.
After she was done writing, she folded the letter and handed it to her husband.
“You know where to go. You have to be very careful.”
“I know, my darling. You should not worry.”
Frances paced and checked the time. It was already thirty minutes past midnight, yet her husband hadn’t returned.
He ought to be home by now…
She tried to sit down, but she felt so restless that she had to stand up again. She quietly prayed that everything went perfectly.
She checked the time again….
What if the gentleman had more men with him? What if he discovered Andrew?
Her husband had gone to recover the money. The plan was for him to stay in a hidden place where he could see everything that was going on. I shouldn’t have trusted him, what if something has gone wrong? The last thing she wanted was to spend the rest of her life in prison.
The door burst open all of a sudden, causing her heart to jump. However, when Andrew came in and bolted the door behind him, she was able to relax.
“What took you so long?” she demanded. “You gave me such a fright!”
He laughed and dropped a black small sack on the table. “There it is, fifty pounds!”
She gasped and took it up to be certain she wasn’t dreaming this. When she checked and found the money, she laughed excitedly.
“It worked! This is such good news! I cannot believe that it worked!”
“I could hardly believe it myself,” replied Andrew. “He got there on time and kept looking around, perhaps thinking someone would come to meet him.”
“Where were you the entire time?”
“Oh, I was hiding close by. Thanks to the darkness, he was unable to see me. I saw him drop the bag and I had to wait until he was long gone.”
She emptied the sack on the table. “The main thing is that the plan worked, So, once we settle all our debts, we would have about five pounds left.”
“For him to have responded in this manner, he’s clearly afraid. And are you thinking what I’m thinking, Frances?”
She was no longer listening, imagining how she would put this money to use.
“I think we can make a fortune out of this…”
She frowned, unsure of what he meant.
“Do you not understand?”
She shook her head. “What fortune could we require when we already got the money we need?”
“Think about it,” he said, taking her hands. “We can make a fortune if we keep asking him for more money. How many weeks do you think this money can last us?”
“Weeks?” she demanded, aghast. “This can last us for months if we manage our spending and your gambling.”
“But just imagine, Frances,” he said earnestly. “Imagine having more money than we needed. You wouldn’t have to work as a housekeeper anymore. You and I could finally live the kind of life we have always desired. Think about it, Frances.”
Frances considered. As tempting as this sounded, she knew that it could bring more attention to them. Everyone would become suspicious of them when they started dressing extravagantly. More importantly, if the Marquess suspected them, then they would be in trouble. The best thing was to be as quiet as possible.
“I do not support that, Andrew,” she said.
“Unnecessary attention will be drawn to us…”
“Maybe it’s time attention was paid to us,” Andrew countered. “We live as if we were nobodies, and here’s a chance to make things better.”
“No ‘buts,’ Frances. Don’t you deserve this, after all the hard work you have done in your life?”
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