About the book
The scars you can't see are the hardest to heal...
The charming Lady Helena Barrington, only daughter of the powerful Duke of York, is tormented by a serious skin condition. Having spent her whole life watching the world from behind her window, she longs for love, acceptance, and freedom.
James Campbell, the very handsome and kind Duke of Durham, is on the threshold of financial ruination and in need of an immediate solution as his business associates betrayed him.
Each has something the other needs…
Desperate to feel normal, even for a while, Helena comes up with a scandalous deal: five courtship visits from the Duke, one for each ruby on the invaluable rose brooch she inherited from her mother.
A deal that could turn out as a fairytale or a nightmare...
Balls were impossible places to find peace of mind.
James Campbell, the Duke of Durham, had quite possibly met every marriageable miss within the entire city of London, and it was only a week since the official London Season had begun. He watched the dancers with a certain boredom that came of too much perfection.
His gaze rested on each dancer in turn. It seems an odd complaint. They each spend so much time on dress and hair with the intent of presenting a visually-pleasing spectacle, that more often than not they neglect what’s important.
Was he too particular? He saw Melanie Rothchild look his way and suppressed a shudder. Melanie was everything he loathed about these affairs, and unwittingly he had met her eye. He was duty-bound to nod in her direction, knowing it would only set her toward expectations.
Expectations of young girls were things to be assiduously avoided in his world. He was now beholden to ask Miss Rothchild to dance, and he’d already had that honor once. To do so again would be tantamount to announcing an engagement.
“Excuse me, you are the Duke of Durham, are you not?” The young man standing at his elbow seemed obsequiously out of place among such finery. Not a servant, or at least not obviously so, he was dressed in a plain, well-cut blue jacket, and — shockingly — wore trousers considered fashionably acceptable only during daylight.
Not one to stand on propriety, James smiled all the same, especially when saved from making a spectacle of himself on the dance floor. “I am, sir. And you are?”
“A messenger only, Your Grace. I am most regretful to interrupt your festivities.”
“At Almack’s with dinner about to be served? Such can only be construed as a blessing.” Gesturing for the man to precede him into a private alcove, James asked, “Come, let us find a quiet corner to talk. What message is so important that it could not wait until morning?”
The man took several folded papers from inside his jacket. “I am afraid it is bad news, Your Grace. These papers will explain all.”
“Bad news?” The Duke took the documents, noting the seal as that of his partner, the man who had charge of his entire fleet for the American venture. Feeling somewhat uneasy, to say the least, he broke the seal on the packet and examined the letters, growing more and more agitated as he moved from one page to the next.
“A hurricane,” he said, at last, feeling the room pitch and sway about him, as though he himself were trying to stand in such a gale. “Is it, as they say, the entire fleet gone?” He couldn’t breathe. He’d been against the idea from the start. One didn’t send the entire fleet on one trip. He’d been talked into the venture, and now it was as precisely as he’d feared.
“I am most regretful to tell you that this is indeed the case. The young man bowed. “Lord Collins should have outlined the matter to you enough in the papers presented.”
James rattled the papers at the messenger, knowing full well that he was placing blame on the wrong man. “He more than outlined it. He also made it disturbingly clear that my partner, Mr. Fortesque, was responsible for a rather sizeable loan toward the building of additional ships, but that I had been signed as the holder of that note. Is that not also the case?”
The young man nodded, his voice coming somewhat hoarse as he replied. “I am afraid that is the case, Your Grace.”
“Speak up, man. Do not be afraid to speak plain. According to this, I am a pauper now, am I not?” James threw the papers upon the floor and sank into a chair.
“Not a pauper, Your Grace. You still have, according to the terms of the loan, your estate and the house near the port—”
“Little good that will do me, with no ships arriving in that port again. Where is Fortesque in all of this? Tell me that, will you?”
The boy shuffled his feet, not quite meeting his gaze. James recognized him as being the younger son of the very man who’d sent him. He wasn’t accustomed to playing messenger boy but had in fact been training to take over his father’s business interests someday. “Dead, Your Grace. He heard the news same as you and he…”
“Do not finish, boy. I can guess the rest.” James got to his feet and paced the small room, thankful that space was empty and that the others at the ball were already at their dinner, such as it was. Almack’s was not known for its fine dining. “Quit looking at me so. I am not going to kill myself. It is a cowardly thing to do. Just give me but a moment to think.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” the boy said, looking only marginally relieved.
“I am done with this incessant Season. Send word to my man, to pack up the London house. We will leave for Hull in the morning. I will make a few stops first, but I want him to be ready to leave when I get there. Though I suppose I cannot afford his salary either right now, can I?”
The Duke ran a trembling hand through his hair, thinking rapidly. “Lord Collins will be at his club, I suppose?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Right. I will see him first. In the meantime, I best make my excuses.” James laughed then, though the sound was rather mirthless. “There is not a maiden in the place who would have me now. A title without wealth is an empty thing, is it not? Though I suppose in my dreams, there is one who is beautiful inside and out and will care little of how many pounds I can claim per annum.”
“Never mind, boy. I am fine.” The Duke turned to the messenger. “Or I will be. Be off with you. We both have our tasks before us, do we not? So it is, the world changes, all in one moment. The only thing left for us is to move forward. Onward and upward, boy, in the noblest of fashion!”
Helena’s harp reflected the sounds of the storm.
She sat next to the window, aware of the driving snow and the way the wind rattled the panes. Her hands flew over the strings, eliciting the symphony in concert with the violence outside. She ignored the ache of fingers as she reached up, to the highest notes, trying to find the pattern of falling snow, the soft tinkle of it raining against the glass.
But the music did not satisfy. She could not capture what she thought it might have been. There was no music for the way the blizzard raged. She sighed and shifted so that her forehead lay against the glass, her skin instantly growing cold as she stared out into the driving snow.
Why am I so unsettled tonight?
The wind blew so cold and fierce against the window, that Helena could see her breath on the thin layer of ice that formed on the inside pane. She winced at the squeak her forefinger made while she drew figures on the frost. One was a giant of a man, standing beside a woman — perhaps her? — since this was her fantasy. She gave the man a hat and debated the bonnet for the woman. How she hated the floppy things she usually wore and longed for something small and neat.
But you can never wear such things, not if you do not wish for the world to stare.
Using her thumbnail to scratch at the ice crystals, she tried to fix the hat, but it wasn’t looking right. But then art had never been her strong suit, much as Papa had paid for tutors to try and ease her fumbling attempts at landscapes. Besides, her thumbnail was too thick. She needed something thinner for the fine detail.
She thought a moment and unfastened the brooch from her dress. The five rubies that made up the heart of the flower glinted dully in the dim light from the window. She brushed her finger over the fine tracery of stem and leaf and wondered for a moment at her mother who had left her such a fine thing.
And laughed a little to think she would use such a thing for an artist’s brush.
Helena grasped the rose in her hand, using the point of the pin on the back to draw in the more intricate details of the hat upon the head of her frost woman. With such a fine instrument, she was able to add a feather with a certain realism that pleased her, though it was hard going to only affect the ice upon the window and not to leave marks upon the glass underneath.
Helena sat back finally, laying the brooch on the table next to her and stared at her efforts. She realized that in her idle etching, she’d been trying to recreate the dream she’d had, however imperfectly. The man…he’d been blond. Handsome. She closed her eyes, idly scratching at a spot on her wrist and tried to see him in her mind’s eye.
He had been tall and blond, with broad shoulders and an easy smile with a familiarity to him that she’d been unable to place in the light of day. “Where have I see you before?” she asked the silent figure on the glass and hid a laugh at the absurdity of the question.
In her dream, it had been his smile she had loved most. He’d regarded at her with a quiet intensity with eyes so blue they might have been pieces of the sky itself. Well, not today when it was storming. But in summer, maybe, when the sun seemed to shine forever.
It had been a silly dream. She sat up, eyes open, staring at the scratched figures on the glass already starting to fade and disappear, much as they had last night, when in her dreams she had only begun to dance.
Angry at herself for getting caught up in silly fantasies, Helena used the edge of her sleeve to wipe away the figures, embarrassed now by her foolishness. Only a child drew upon the glass in a blizzard and at two and twenty, she was long past infancy.
Outside, just on the other side of the glass the storm still waged war with the world. She bent, fascinated by the way the trees bent in the wind, by the snow falling sideways across the window obscuring all from view.
She leaned closer to the glass to see. Outside in the storm, down by the gate a figure hunched over, staggering against the wind. A man like the one she had seen last night? No…this was no dream. The cloak whipped out, away from the figure revealing it to be a woman, her face strained, as she fought to stay upright against the wind.
Helena’s house stood at the edge of town. Why did this woman not have a carriage? It was impossible to make out through the wavy glass. There were so few residences along this road. Had she missed her way? If she needed to return to the city proper, the walk would be far. Any distance in this storm would be brutal. No one could manage such a thing on foot, at least not in this weather!
Helena rose and looked toward the door. She had not heard any visitors, so she had surely not come to Thornhill. Unless perhaps she was a relative of a servant? Yes, that was more logical. Well, if that were the case, would it not be cruel to send this poor creature out into the snow? Would it not be better to give her shelter until morning? Surely it would be better by then.
But what if it is a stranger? Would you give shelter to someone who perhaps has no business here at all?
Did it matter? Would not a truly compassionate person invite the poor wanderer in, even if she were nothing more than a stranger?
Suddenly unsure, Helena went to the window again, but by now the storm had increased to where she was unsure whether anyone was out there at all, or if she had dreamed the whole thing.
Dreams! Her dream had held danger. Was she being foolish now while spending time dithering over this strange figure? What if the woman became so disoriented in the storm that she fell and perhaps even died? Such things happened, did they not?
It was too dreadful to contemplate. Helena reached for her gloves discarded upon the table next to the harp and flew from the room even as she tugged them into place. It was Antony she found first, her father’s manservant, a kindly man who had always been more than a servant, but also a friend to her. So excited was she that she scarce noticed that she grabbed his sleeve with her bare hand, as she drew him to the window.
“Please tell me I am not seeing things amiss,” she begged, half out of breath from her mad flight down the hall. “But is there, or is there not a poor creature huddling at the gate in this storm?”
Antony, being much taller than her, bent to look through the pane indicated. When he straightened, he was frowning heavily. “Indeed, there is, though I mislike what it might mean. A thief perhaps, thinking the house empty with your father gone.”
Helena stared at him, absolutely aghast. “Antony! Do you mean to say you feel no compulsion of any kind to bid the poor woman come in out of the wind?”
It was Antony’s turn to stare at her in a way that was at best disapproving. Already, before she could even plead for even the remotest chance at understanding, he was shaking his head ‘no’ in her general direction.
It was times like this when Helena most felt the difference between them in age, for Antony had been with her father since before she had been born. His hair was graying now, his eyebrows gone bushy, though they drew together now in a most alarming way. But his gaze was still clear even if he looked down at her through a pair of spectacles that constantly slid down his rather hawk-like nose.
She met that gaze now, arms crossed, one hand still holding the glove that she still hadn’t replaced upon her hand. It spoiled the effect somewhat, especially with her skin so mottled and sore. “Antony, are you my friend or not?” she asked, her voice strident and sure.
“I am your father’s servant,” he reminded her. “Charged with keeping the house safe in his absence.”
“Pish tosh, what nonsense. There is a woman freezing outside from the cold and you are standing there arguing semantics. May I remind you I am the mistress of his house?”
“A moment ago, you were my friend,” he pointed out with a slight lifting of one rather furry eyebrow. “And I daresay your aunt would argue with you.”
“My aunt is not the mistress here,” Helena muttered darkly. “And while I will show her the respect she deserves for raising me, I will humbly disagree with her notions of being in charge. In my Father’s absence, it is I who will make the decisions.”
“Which explains why we have pudding at every meal,” Antony said in dark amusement. “And if I might clarify, you were left in charge of matters of the household. Choosing dinner, as has been pointed out. And whether to give Adele a free weekend that she might visit her mother who is ill.”
“Adele’s mother is ill? Why of course she can—stay a moment! You will not trick me so easily. I have already decided a course of action. We shall find that poor wretch if she has not already frozen through and bring her into this house. I would have her fed and warmed, and given a safe place to sleep for the night.”
“The latter being more than we shall have if I were to follow such orders,” Antony muttered half under his breath, tugging at his cuffs. “Very well, Lady Helena, if this is your order…”
“Do not be such a dreary thing. I love you dearly and you know it,” Helena said, hugging the old man with such violence that he staggered under the assault. “Now, do fetch that poor woman before she falls ill for having been out in such conditions as these. I will find your wife and make sure she has something hot waiting that we can feed her.”
“As if Bridget has ever not had something hot and ready to eat in that kitchen of hers,” Antony murmured but put out a hand to catch at Helena, before she could go. “I will do as you say, only because ’tis our Christian duty to do so. But I wish to also put some conditions on my doing so.”
Helena’s eyes opened wide. “You would order the mistress of the house?”
Antony replied, “I would order the child I set upon her first pony only to have her give it such a kick that she had to be fetched from the next county over, and still had not fallen off despite the distance involved.”
“Nonsense, that happened at the estate. The next county was only a mile or so distant.”
“You were five,” he reminded her and sighed. “Be that as it may, I still would set these conditions. The first being that you will stay out of sight. This is a stranger to us and I would not have you exposed to someone who might be…common.”
Helena sniffed. “As though that were such a bad thing. I have met many an individual that might be thought of as common. I might point out that some would say you might be considered such had I not allowed you such familiarity.”
He leveled his gaze upon her. “Have you now? For the life of me, I cannot imagine where you get such ideas.”
She waved that away with her hand. “ ’Tis inconsequential, but I will accede to the demand all the same. I will stay out of sight. And the other?”
“That you shall stay safe in your chambers with your aunt to attend you tonight. I will bring you a tray to take dinner myself.”
Helena stared at him in horror. “You would lock me in?”
“I would ensure your safety for when the master returns,” Antony stated. This time it was he whose arms were crossed, being firm in his demand. He would not be moved when he looked at her like that. She knew this well from experience.
Helena shot an uneasy glance toward the window. How much time had passed while they’d stood there arguing. “Agreed. But do hurry! The poor woman!”
“The ‘poor woman’ indeed,” Antony said, and rolled his eyes. “Go talk to Bridget, then if you would be so kind as to retire to your quarters, I would much appreciate it. In the meantime, I will attend to your strange guest.”
Such was her relief that he had agreed, Helena kissed the wrinkled cheek and darted for the door, her golden skirts rustling as she moved swiftly across the floor.
“And do not forget your gloves!” he called after her. Helena made a show of tugging on the second glove from the doorway, waving as she finished. Antony only shook his head and moved slowly toward the opposite door, heading for the servant’s stairs no doubt.
Helena watched him go before spinning and continuing on her way with a most unladylike shout of glee. For it was not often they got visitors, and while she had promised that their guest would not see her, Antony had said nothing about her not seeing the guest.
The woman, for indeed it was a woman, was near froze through by the time she was escorted in to the fire.
Helena stayed to the shadows, one hand lifted to her cheek, touching the ravaged flesh there and thinking perhaps it a good thing that she had been thus confined, as her appearance now would only add to the horrors of this poor creature’s misery. For miserable she was, wrapped within a blanket and shivering despite the wood piled high on the fire.
They had stayed arguing too long. This was entirely her fault.
Chagrined, Helena eased shut the door that had afforded a view of her unexpected guest and leaned against it, deep in thought. She wanted very much to talk to their guest but was unsure how to manage it with Bridget fussing over the woman, practically spooning soup into the poor creature’s mouth.
Her fingertips brushed her cheek again. Helena swallowed hard, knowing full well how she must look to the outside world. Even without the mirrors that she’d had removed from every room, she had never lost the image of her affliction from her mind. Her skin, naturally creamy white, beneath the dark mahogany of her hair, carried not the roses of youth within her cheeks, but the stain of her sin.
She knew this as she knew every room of this house. She had been confined here for so long it seemed. The country estate existed only in her memory, since her aunt had arrived and had revealed to Helena the truth of her own existence. The villagers outside of Rose Park feared her, thinking her to be cursed.
They had gone so far as to ask her father to remove her, blaming the child with the strange and mottled skin for everything from crop failure to a well running dry. It was utter nonsense, as Aunt Phoebe had told her when she’d shared the salacious gossip with her niece but had recommended the house in town all the same. In a more populous place, people would be less aware of the afflicted child, so long as she stayed within these four walls.
’Tis a kindness, Helena reminded herself, not for the first time. But truly it was her aunt that seemed to thrive in town, not herself. With only the patch of sky that she saw out the windows or from the courtyard, her life felt very closed in and dull indeed.
Not that there is anyone to blame but myself. I am old enough to amuse myself, and not feel so terribly…well, disquieted, I suppose. Father does his best and is fair enough to manage his business here, and Aunt Phoebe is kindness itself in attending to social duties for the family, managing the small things. I am the one who needs to strive to find contentment.
Which would be much easier to find if there was more to occupy her mind. So was it not best for her in many ways then to do as she did next, in donning her long cloak, and carefully pulling the hood up so that it concealed her face as she slipped into the room next door as soon as Bridget had safely retired.
The woman seemed careworn and weary. She reclined in an armchair near the fire, her feet upon the ottoman and nestled deep within the blankets. Her face was pale, mouth slack with fatigue, her eyes shut as she dozed. For a moment Helena quailed at the thought of waking her, for it seemed too dreadfully selfish to do so.
But the woman answered that concern for her, her eyes opening wide revealing a most startling blue that reminded her dimly of something, though such thoughts were lost to her now. “Who is there?”
The panic in her visitor’s voice was not lost on the girl. Helena stepped back, where the shadows were deepest, near the shelves of books that were her only true companions. Near to hand was her beloved Shakespeare, beyond that Homer and Euripides. “I am no one. No one at all,” she said, her voice breathless and unsure.
“Hardly no one, in a house such as this,” the woman said, gesturing with a frail hand to the opulent room around her. “Even a servant in this house would be very fine indeed, I should think.”
Helena looked around as though seeing the room for the first time. The carpet upon the floor was indeed rather lush from very far away. Small ornaments lay out on shelves, on tables. Tidbits and mementoes from the days when her father had traveled upon the very ships he sent around the world now in various ventures.
Funny how she had never before considered the room all that strange with its various idols from India and pillows from Persia. But then her father had spent his youth in rebellion, not content to play the part of the Duke’s younger son, but eager to take advantage of the many ships his father had set upon the seas to revel in his thirst for adventure.
He had never expected his only brother to die, leaving him the heir to a Dukedom he’d never wanted in the first place.
Helena picked up a small jade box and smiled a little for it had always been a favorite of hers. She wondered, not for the first time, if the walls of this house felt as confining to her father, who had sailed the seven seas. It was a new and rather strange thought.
“You enable me to see my home in a way I have not otherwise. I thank you for that,” she said, replacing the box upon the table, and moving deeper into the shadows. “Tell me where you were going in such a storm if not to see someone here?”
“Who said I was not seeing someone in this house?” the woman challenged her, a spot of color returning to her cheeks as she sat up a little, the blanket falling from her thin shoulders.
“Well, I surely do not know you,” Helena responded, somewhat put out by the reply.
The woman looked rather pointedly at Helena’s cloak. “And you know every visitor to this house?” the woman asked.
Helena put out a hand, trailing it along the bindings of the books, needing their comfort. “You talk rather confidently for someone who has not even been properly introduced,” she said, with a certain ferociousness, not liking the feeling of being cornered. It mattered little that the woman was right; Helena very rarely saw any of the visitors at all.
In fact, she wasn’t even altogether sure that the people of this town knew she existed. But then, she had hidden away from people for so long. She had never dared a conversation like this.
It was exhilarating. And maddening.
Helena little knew how to speak to strangers, though she suspected it required more courtesy than she gave now. She took a shaky breath and tried again. “What is your name, good lady? And where do you come from?”
The woman regarded her somberly. “Could I not ask you the same, my Lady?”
Helena answered slowly, as she thought each word through, looking for the trap in the conversation, for she was sure there was one. “I hardly think so,” she said finally. “This is my own home after all and I have a right to know who has invaded it, do I not? My own identity should be my own prerogative.”
The stranger bowed her head. “In that case you have a right to know that I am Lucille Davenport…Lucy. I am in the employ of the Duke of Durham.”
“Of Durham?” Helena asked, head tilted to one side as she regarded the woman with new interest. “Then how have you come to be here?”
“I had…business to attend to.” The woman placed a hand over her eyes and sank back against the pillows again. “I owe you an apology. I am being rude when I am a guest in your house. I thank you for sheltering me from the storm. If I could but rest a moment, I will leave and trouble you no longer.”
“You will do no such thing!” Helena exclaimed, drawing in closer though she had not intended to do so. “I saw you from the very window there,” she said pointing, “and I feel responsible for your well-being now. Indeed, you will rest with us for the night, and come morning, when the storm is past, you will be set upon your way.”
Lucy sat up a little, looking toward the window with some interest. “Then that is your harp there, my Lady?” she asked. “It is a beautiful instrument.”
Helena inclined her head a small bit, feeling her attitude softening somewhat. Perhaps they had not gotten off to the best start, but could the woman not be forgiven for being weary and cold? “Thank you. Though I suspect I am wearying you further. Allow me to see that a room is being prepared for your use.”
Lucy rose to her feet, sending the blanket tumbling to the floor. “I am too much trouble already. My Lord will worry…”
“What is he like? Your Lord?” Helena asked, frowning a little, clasping her hands beneath the cloak so not to scratch in front of her strange guest.
Lucy smiled then, her face taking on a beatific radiance. “He is tall and mighty, with broad shoulders, strong enough to lift…why even me I suppose! He has comely features, with hair like the sun, and eyes so blue that they seemed to be formed of sapphires. But more than that, he is kind to all he meets. And generous to a fault.”
She laughed a little. “I suppose you think I go on overmuch, but he is considered beautiful by all who meet him, both in bearing and manner. It is not only I who think so.”
Helena felt a chill run through her. “He is then, a good head taller than me? With a voice that is low and deep, but who speaks with great intelligence?”
Lucy looked at her in surprise. “That is indeed so. I suspect you have seen him somewhere before?”
“I met him once in a dream I think,” Helena answered softly, trying to ignore the tremble that ran through her body.
Lucy nodded, with a somewhat wistful smile. “Many balls must seem as such to a Lady such as yourself, though he eschews society of late. He was much in demand this Season but stayed back from London this year due to certain…circumstances.”
The shadows were back in her eyes, and her hands fluttered nervously before her. “Please, I must go. I would hate to see my Lord suffer with worry over me.”
“He would worry over a servant?” Helena asked, drawing still closer though she knew the danger. One gloved hand raised to tug at her hood, to keep her face in shadows, though she angled her body away from the other all the same.
“He would worry over anyone in his household. He is that kind,” Lucy answered softly from behind him.
“We will send him a message then…”
The woman darted forward and caught at her arm. “Please no! I should not have said so much. If he knew I was here…”
“Here? You mean at this house?” Helena only just stopped herself from turning to face the woman fully. She shook her off her arm and retreated to the nook by the books. “Explain yourself.”
Lucy shrank back toward the window. “I cannot.” She glanced past the harp through the frosted panes of glass. “Look, the storm is perhaps waning. I am warm now and well fed. Truly you have been a godsend, but I need not trouble you any longer.”
“At the very least I will arrange for a carriage to take you.” Helena moved toward the door. “Give me but a moment.”
She needed that moment. As she shut the door behind her, she took a moment to drop the hood of the cloak. Her hair clung in wet tendrils to her sweaty face, making the itching worse. She clawed at the worst of it, not caring anymore that she wasn’t supposed to scratch. The urge was just that maddening.
Thankfully the hall was empty, so no one saw her transgression, though her forehead now burned from the rough treatment, it was better than that insidious itch. She went thoughtfully to the entry, trying to peer through the window next to the door, to see the storm for herself, if anything blowing wilder than ever before.
No, there was no way she could send anyone into this storm.
A short search found a maid who moved with alacrity to prepare their guest a chamber. In less time than she had supposed, she had returned to the doorway to the parlor where she paused, one hand on the knob while she considered things.
If she stayed much longer with their guest, then her aunt would grow suspicious. She had invented a task in the kitchen regarding discussion of next week’s menus that should not have taken even this long. She fully expected that soon, her deception would be found out.
But at the same time, she wanted nothing more than to find out more about this Duke, who was so noble and kind, and who apparently invaded the dreams of sleeping maidens.
I will ask but one more question. Maybe two. Then I absolutely MUST be satisfied, or I will be found out and not allowed out of my room again. I just know Aunt Phoebe would imprison me forever if she but thought I was talking to strangers in this way. Or Antony will, though it is quite clear the woman is no danger. Why she must be nigh on fifty! As if someone of such an age could be so suspicious as he thinks!
Half laughing at herself for even listening to such crazy fantasies, she pulled the hood of her cloak up and opened the door.
Her visitor was still standing by the window, not looking out, but instead her attention was on something else entirely, some small object cupped in her palm.
Even as Helena watched, she saw the cunning look come over Lucy’s face, though she seemed to waver, debating something within herself before carefully closing her fingers around the object and slipping it into her reticule.
Helena frowned, her gaze going to the table next to the window, seeing only the book there she had been reading earlier in the day.
Helena started forward, forgetting to clasp the cloak shut at her throat, not caring as it fell away behind her in a heap. The words that tore from her throat were nearly incoherent with rage. “What are you doing? Is this how you repay us? Where is my mother’s rose?”
Lucille Davenport, late of the employ of the Duke of Durham, cowered away from Helena as the girl descended feeling like a wild thing, crazed with fury, upon the woman. She tore the reticule from the old woman’s hands, ignoring her protests, ignoring everything except the violent rage that sent sobs shuddering through her body.
“How dare you!” she cried as she drew the rose from the confines of the bag and held it up in heartbreaking triumph. “We brought you in from the storm, and this is how you repay us?”
“You do not understand…” Lucy’s hands came toward her, clasped in prayerful supplication. “I only meant—”
“To steal? Does your precious Duke know of your habits? What would he say if he knew you to be so light-fingered?”
“Please…please do not hurt me…” the woman stammered, cowering back against the window as though to escape through the glass itself into the very storm if necessary.
“Hurt you…?” Helena repeated the words and drew back, realizing how her unexpected guest stared at her face.
Helena’s fingers went to her cheeks, to her forehead, the glove coming away stained red with blood. Belatedly Helena remembered scratching wildly at her forehead, the tears of the skin beneath her assault. How must she look, her skin wild and mottled and stained red with blood, coming at a person as though a…a wild beast.
Her other hand clutched at the rose, feeling the sharp edges of the pin even through her glove. “Why must you stare? Why must you look at me so?” Helena wailed, drawing the hood of the cloak up, despite the fact that the damage was well and truly done.
“I was not…I never meant…it was all a misunderstanding!”
Helena lifted the pin so that the firelight reflected off the facets of each individual ruby, setting the pin itself ablaze so that the rose was illuminated as though it had a life of its own. “This is quite the misunderstanding,” she mocked before drawing back away from the other. “For heaven’s sake, go sit down. You can barely stand.”
The woman sank into the chair by the window, the very one Helena had vacated. Her slender frame shook with sobs as she bowed her head, burying her grief in her hands. “You do not understand.”
“Then make me understand,” Helena replied, throwing up her hands. “Help me to make sense of this all. For I understand not why you would steal from me if you are honestly in the employ of a man of such obvious wealth and breeding.”
“Then you know him?” Lucy asked, raising her tear-streaked face hopefully in Helena’s direction.
“I know of him,” Helena replied cautiously, for in truth she knew only the name. But then she only ever knew the names through the stories her aunt told her, tales carried from her own socials or teas.
Oddly enough, this was one such name that had stood out, perhaps by dint of the sheer number of times it had been repeated. Aunt Phoebe had a certain fascination for the Duke of Durham.
The woman sprang at her, falling to her knees in front of Helena and clutching at Helena’s cloak with fingers that shook. “Pray, do not tell him what I have done. I had…a need. A situation that called for some…funding. I saw the pin and thought perhaps that such a small thing might not be missed. It was foolishness on my part. I have never…”
“You have never, perhaps, but you did all the same here tonight,” Helena said, trying to pry the woman’s hands from her clothing before she lost the cloak again, revealing her shameful appearance for a second time that night. Once was enough. “What thing is so desperate in need of money that you would risk so much for the sake of a single pin?”
The woman moaned, drawing away, curling within herself, her face twisted in grief so deep that Helena’s heart beat hard within her breast. What could cause such overwhelming grief, such desperation that would cause a woman to take such an unlikely chance?
The storm. She came out in the storm because she needed money. Not to rob. To talk to someone else on this street about a loan perhaps. Only she was turned away, hence her attitude when faced with the storm. Storms cannot possibly matter when faced with so much turmoil within.
Helena drew back, unsure what to do. Someone of a finer heart than hers likely would have forgiven her already and set about to see what could be done to remedy this woman’s situation. Did she have some relative in trouble? Some terrible debt to pay?
I am not so fine as all that. Perhaps this is a flaw within my own character that I am still angry. But this was my mother’s brooch. And while I kept her safe from the storm, she repaid me thus. Is it not right that I be more than a little put out by the entire affair?
Helena felt the anger rekindle within her breast. “Do you not have an answer for me, then?” she asked, her tone mocking. “Or does it take too much time to concoct a lie suitable for the occasion?”
“No. No lie. Only the truth.” Lucille rose unsteadily to her feet, seeming to pull herself up by sheer will. “I am many things, but I am not a liar,” she said, raising her chin somewhat. “But I cannot share with you my reasoning without a promise from you in return.”
“A promise?” Helena asked, drawing back a little in shock. “Whatever can I promise you? If you are worried about the constable…”
Lucy shook her head. “No. If you had wished to cause that kind of scandal, you would have called for someone to summon the constabulary the moment you realized what I had done. This is another sort of promise altogether.”
Helena lifted a hand to her cheek, brushing her fingertips over a spot that had been troubling her for some time. It was so very difficult to not scratch, especially as she had noticed that the rash that plagued her was so much worse when she was distressed, as she was now.
“Tell me,” she said carefully, aware that she was dealing with someone who had already proven herself clever on more than one occasion. “What makes you think you can trust my promise?”
At this Lucy smiled a little. “It is plain to see that you are a lady who prides honor over all else by the very means by which you had me brought here, and my every need attended to.”
This was perhaps true enough, though Helena was not one to be won over easily by mere flattery. “What is this promise then?”
“That you tell no one what I am about to tell you.”
A confidence then. Helena sank down onto a chair, careful that her face remained hidden, though it seemed foolish now that she had been seen already once. Besides, the cloak was very hot. With a sigh, she pushed the hood back from her sweaty face, ignoring the quick intake of breath from her guest. “Tell me then and I will decide whether ’tis worthy of the promise.”
She was being unreasonable, but Lucy nodded, accepting this. Taking a deep breath, she began. “I have already told you that I serve the Duke of Durham. What you need to understand is that I have tended him since he was a child. I was his nurse, and so am privy to information that the rest of the household is not.”
Helena nodded. Her own aunt had taken that role with her, and she understood well that nature of the position.
“What is not widely known, is that the Duke’s entire fleet was lost in a hurricane in the West Indies little more than a fortnight ago. In this disaster, it was found that his business partner had been…less than forthright with him regarding his holdings. He has stolen from him, great amounts of money. As of this moment, the Duke is…without means, save his own houses.”
There was much unsaid in the story, but Helena also appreciated the raw honesty. She stared at the brooch still clutched in her hand. Each brilliant petal worth so terribly much. As a whole, a priceless beauty. “You thought to help him,” she said softly.
Lucy nodded, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “I thought that such an exquisite piece would perhaps fund another voyage, one that would enable him to build his fortunes again. That done quietly…no one need ever know. I thought…well, I thought that once the fortune was made, you could have been repaid…with interest even.”
For a moment it was hard to breathe. An entire ship and a fortune built upon a single pin? It seemed incredible…but also entirely possible.
The Duke of Durham was a good man. Had not Aunt Phoebe sung his virtues often enough when she had come in from an outing where he had been sighted? Not that he and Aunt Phoebe moved in the same circles. But she had an uncanny knack for attending the various musicales that he loved. She had only good things to say about the man.
What if she were in a position to help him?
She felt the edges of the pin with her fingers. She had never known her mother. Anne Barrington had died giving birth to her only child. What would she say in this situation?
Helena found herself rising to face her guest. It would be such a simple matter to give the pin to the woman. A small piece of jewelry could stand between a man and complete and utter ruination. It was not too late — her Aunt thrived on gossip. She’d know if the Duke’s change in fortune had been broadcast about. If it were still a secret, would not the noble thing to do, be to help? To think of it, as Lucy had said, as a loan?
No. A gift. She did not want the Duke to be beholden to her. She opened her mouth to say as much when a thought occurred to her. “Is the Duke a proud man?” she asked, drawing her hand back, and feeling the edge of the pin cut into her palm. The pain was at once sharp and a relief.
“How do you mean?” Lucy asked, looking up at her with troubled eyes. “If you are asking whether he would be unhappy to hear of my actions, I assure you he would be. I have done a thing which has reflected badly upon his household.”
Helena waved that away as inconsequential. “Pray do not start crying again. It only occurs to me that he would not be one to accept a gift of such magnitude, would he? From what I have heard of his nature, he would be shamed by such.”
For a moment bright hope flared in Lucy’s eyes only to fade. “You have the right of it. Even had I brought him the means he would have been most unhappy with me and refused the gift outright. I was not thinking.”
“What if it were not a gift?” Helena drew Lucille to her feet and pressed the rose into the other woman’s hands. “I am using it to purchase a service from him. A thing that only he can do.”
“He is hardly a common laborer…” Lucy said uncertainly, glancing around the room. “And I fail to see what you could possibly need.”
“A suitor,” Helena said all in a rush, hardly daring at her audacity. “I wish to be courted. What say you? Will he agree?”
Lucy’s eyes opened wide. “A suitor?”
“A suitor. I would purchase the company of a Duke. Look at the petals of the rose. Five of them. Five priceless rubies. One visit for each.”
“You wish him to marry you?” Lucy asked, drawing back in horror.
“Oh la, no!” Helena laughed and stood back. “LOOK at me! I would never be so bold as to even imagine such a thing. I am a veritable beast! No…I only…” her expression grew thoughtful. “I only wish to know what it’s like to have a gentleman come to call. To…to do the things that a gentleman caller would.”
Helena blushed a little and laughed. “Oh, please do not look at me like that. But…perhaps…he would not mind taking me for a turn around the garden? To share tea. To…talk. I so would like to have someone just…talk to me.”
Her voice had become wistful, and she busied herself with her cloak, retrieving it from the chair. “‘Tis a ridiculous idea, I know. I likely am asking too much…” she said past the sudden lump in her throat.
Helena laughed. “I get rather caught up in my ideas, do I not? I see only how perfect it would be. Being the daughter of a Duke myself, there are limitations as to whom would be considered proper company for me, were I not so afflicted. But then…I am not exactly one suited to the world of courtships and marriages, am I?” She reached to put on her cloak.
“No…” Lucy’s voice behind her stayed her hand. “No, you are wrong. And ’tis not too much to ask at all.”
“You think not?” Helena took a shaky breath, the sudden surge of hope making her chest burn with a strange tightness. “It is not too strange a thing for me to demand your Master return to this house for your transgressions?” she asked, shaking her head and thinking what an absolute fool she was acting to even question it.
Lucy faced her, having drawn herself up straight and sure, her eyes burning with intensity. She looked at the rose in her hand, before curling her fingers around it. “I will see to it,” she said with quiet determination.
She meant it. Dear God in heaven, she meant it. “Five visits?” Helena asked, breathless.
“Five,” Lucy said with a firm nod. “In exchange for this rose, I will myself see to it that James Campbell returns to this house five times.”
“Not out of pity though. Please. Don’t tell him…” she gestured toward her face, “As payment. A business transaction. His company for the space of five afternoons. No expectations of a genuine courtship. Nothing…untoward. Just…just enough…”
Enough to not feel alone. Enough to know what it was to be like other girls her age. Enough to be normal.
“Not out of pity,” Lucy said softly.
“Then we are agreed?” Helena asked her smile tremulous.
“We are agreed.”
They clasped hands, shaking the way gentlemen did when they came to an agreement, then laughing together as they realized the enormity of what they had just done.
Yes, she wanted this with all her heart.
The question was, would the Duke agree?
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