About the book
Behind the mask of ice that people wear, there beats a heart on fire...
Rudolph Yardley, valet to the Duke of Upton, hides a dangerous secret.
His real name is Sue and he's not by any means a man. After her family's tragic death from a fire, Sure had but one choice in order to survive: disguise herself as a man and take her later brother's place in the Duke's employ.
Vernon Wade, Duke of Upton, feels lost after his father's passing. Already struggling with his newfound responsibilities, his carefully constructed mask of composure crumbles when he comes across a shocking sight: his very own valet is in fact, a beautiful young woman.
Lost in their budding feelings for each other, Sue and Vernon fail to see the viper in their midst. When a fire breaks out, a face emerges through the flames. A face that has been haunting her nightmares all her life.
The first thing she was aware of, as always, was the heat.
It was a stifling, screaming sort of heat that seemed to fill every bit of the space around her body before she could do so much as open her eyes. She was afraid to open her eyes, even though she knew that her eyes wouldn’t melt or burn. They never had before.
But it always felt as if they would.
She could hear someone shouting her name. Her twin brother, Samuel. Her heart felt as if it was about to burst, and she wanted very much to scream something back to him, but she didn’t know what. The only thing she knew was that there was some dire message that had to be communicated, that absolutely couldn’t wait.
Every moment she remained silent, she was failing him.
She opened her mouth to call out, to let him know where she was, and her lungs filled with smoke and ash. She coughed, doubling over on herself, unable to make another sound.
“Sue!” Samuel yelled. “Where are you?”
I’m here! But again, the words wouldn’t come. Self-loathing welled up in her. What followed would be her fault. She was the one who was unable to answer her brother’s cries. She was the one who kept coughing, helplessly, uselessly. She longed to call out to him, but she couldn’t.
Then she heard a deeper voice, a more commanding one. It was a voice she would always trust, a voice she would always follow. “Sam! This way, son!”
Father. Sue stumbled toward him, unable to see where she was going even now that she had dared to squint into the haze of smoke that surrounded her. Father’s voice meant safety. She would go to him, and then everything would be all right.
“I can’t find Sue!” Samuel yelled. “I can hear her coughing, but I can’t see her!”
“Come out, son! I’ll find her!”
“Go!” Sue croaked, hoping her brother would hear her, but her voice was destroyed, a damaged instrument. Of course he couldn’t hear what she was saying. It was preposterous to think that anybody would be able to hear such a meager sound.
Especially when the noises around them were so dramatic, so violent. She heard the crack of a wooden beam breaking somewhere above her. A shower of sparks rained down around her. She tried to scream, but her ruined voice allowed her no more than another croak.
“Sue!” her father yelled. “Where are you?”
Here! She tried to say, but her voice failed her again. She broke down into another fit of coughing.
“I’m coming for you,” her father said. “I’m coming, Sue.”
She was becoming dizzy and disoriented. It was hard to breathe. It was hard to think. The air was thick with smoke. The flames consumed the door that led into Sue’s bedroom. Father wouldn’t be able to open it.
She turned and climbed onto her bed. The pillow had already begun to burn, and she snatched at her skirts, trying to keep them clear of the flames. She shoved at the window ledge—
It refused to open. It was stuck.
Something seemed to have cleared in Sue’s mind. She knew there was only one way out of this room, and if she didn’t get out, she was unlikely to survive this night.
She grabbed a shoe from the floor and hurried back to the bed. Climbing up once again, she hit the shoe against the glass as hard as she could.
The glass shattered, spilling all over the bed and the ground outside. Vaguely, Sue was aware of pain in her hand, but she didn’t have the time to focus on that. The smoke was getting thicker, the heat getting worse.
She grabbed the window ledge with both hands and hauled her body through. Her exit was ungraceful—she turned head over heels in the air, fell and landed on her back on the dirt below. Thanking God that their home was only one story high, Sue scrambled to her feet and ran away from the house as fast as she could, tripping as she went.
She was only a short distance away when she realized that the heat and the horrible sound of licking flames had followed her. Looking down, she saw that the hem of her nightgown was on fire. With a hoarse shriek, she beat at it with her hands, trying to suppress the flames. She fell to the ground, rolling, tearing at her skirt.
Eventually, the flames subsided.
Sue sat up, shaking and trying to recover her breath. She had been sleeping when it had started. She couldn’t remember the dream she had been jerked out of. All she remembered was the sudden rush of heat and fear.
Her father had been calling her name…
She struggled to her feet. At four-and-ten years old, she liked to think of herself as too old to need her parents for comfort, but she had never experienced a night like this one before. She wanted nothing more than to find them, to find Samuel. To be together.
In front of her, the flames rose higher, paralyzing her with horror for a moment. Though she knew it was futile, there was a part of her that longed to run back to the house, to try to recover her worldly possessions.
But to run back into the fire would be madness. She had barely escaped with her life. No, the only thing to do now was to find her family and ensure that they were all safe.
Her bedroom window faced the rear of the house. It was most likely that the others would have escaped through the front door. Sue gathered the skirt of her nightgown in her hands and hurried around the corner, gasping and gagging as she did so. It was still difficult to breathe. She had inhaled too much smoke.
She wanted to move closer to the house, to see whether they were still inside, but she didn’t dare. The smoke would choke her.
She reached the front of the house and looked around desperately. There was no one there. Not her father, whose calls had gone silent. Not her mother. Not Samuel.
And she knew then—she had known all along, she realized, it was coming to her now as if from a memory that she had tried to forget—that she was alone.
She was the only one who had survived. Her parents and her brother hadn’t made it out of the house. They had perished in the flames.
She fell to her knees, feeling as if her insides had been scooped out, hollow and bereft. She couldn’t feel the heat from the fire anymore. The only thing she felt was the barren emptiness of knowing that her family was gone.
They’re all gone. I’m alone.
Nothing would ever numb the horror of that realization, of the moment she knew she was alone in the world and would have to fend for herself.
There was a time when Sue would have strained her ears, desperate to hear their voices, desperate to be proven wrong.
But she knew better now.
They were gone.
And now someone was coming toward her, and she knew, without even knowing where the knowledge had come from, that this person was not an ally. This was the person who had set the fire. This was the person who had killed her family.
I need to see his face. I need to know who he is!
But she wasn’t looking. She was running, running into the woods in nothing but her nightgown, running to the road that would take her to her father’s store, where she could hide. Where she could pull herself together and make a plan.
Did she hear footsteps behind her? Was he running after her? Or was that just the sound of the house finally giving in to the flames, finally allowing itself to be consumed?
She looked over her shoulder and saw—
Sue awoke with a start.
She was covered in sweat and panting with exertion, as if the frantic flight through the forest in her dreams had been a reality. As if it had all just happened moments ago, instead of years.
She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs, doing her best to comfort herself in the weak light of early morning. Yes, the fire had happened. Yes, she had lost her family. And yes, the face of the villain who had caused it had appeared through the smoke, and she had been certain for a moment that he meant to kill her, too.
But that had been five years ago. Five long years.
It was behind her now.
It was strange to be nine-and-ten years of age when her twin brother never would. In her memory, he remained frozen as he had been five years ago. He was a boy, and she had become a woman.
The loss of her parents had been hard and painful. But to lose her brother, who had been her other half—to face growing up without him by her side—that had been a life Sue had never planned on living.
She took deep breaths, allowing the fear to slowly drain from her body. What had happened all those years ago couldn’t happen to her again. She was safe now. Her home now was secure. No one could hurt her here.
And she had no family left. There was no one left to take away from her. Only her own life remained.
It was never an attack against me.
She reminded herself of that, exhaling slowly, feeling her heart rate subside.
It was an attack against Father. It had to be. No one would attack a girl of only four-and-ten years.
Besides, her father had known. She remembered the evening before the fire, how distressed he had been over dinner. Though she and Samuel had both tried to get answers out of him, he hadn’t explained himself. Not then. But she had overheard him speaking to her mother as they cleared away the dishes.
He’s found us, her father had said.
His tone had been so ominous that Sue had been deeply afraid. She had been too frightened, even, to go to Samuel and tell him what she had heard.
She would forever wish that she had told him. Perhaps he would have seen the fire coming. Perhaps he would have known what to do.
Of course he couldn’t have known what would happen. After all, Father didn’t even know. Samuel would have been just as confused as I was.
He’s found us, her father had said. Sue was sure that he must be the mysterious figure she had seen through the smoke after the fire had passed. But why had he done what he had done?
She shook her head. The past was the past, and she was better off accepting that some mysteries would never be solved.
Besides, she had work to do.
She got out of bed and put on her trousers and shirt. She carefully tied her hair in a short ponytail at the back of her neck.
She had been doing this for five years, and yet, even now, it made her a little nervous. Even now, she felt the need to check her reflection in the looking glass before allowing herself to be seen by any of the other members of the household.
The looking glass in her room was small and cracked, a castoff that she had rescued during her first year serving here. But it worked well enough for her purposes. She stood before it, carefully examining her appearance. As usual, it was flawless.
“Hello, Samuel,” she said quietly.
Then she turned and hurried out of the room, ready to see to her daily responsibilities.
Sue hurried down the hall through the servants’ quarters and into the main part of the house. In the foyer, she crossed paths with the butler, Mr. Barlow.
He frowned at her. “Running a bit late this morning, aren’t you, Samuel?”
“Yes, sir,” Sue said, remembering to pitch her voice just a little bit lower than her normal speaking voice. It was habit, after so many years. She had never slipped. “I’m on my way right now.”
“Mind you don’t keep His Grace waiting,” Mr. Barlow said. “Today of all days, he has to be able to count on his staff.”
Then why are you delaying me?
Sue would have liked to retort, but she restrained herself. She had never gotten along with Mr. Barlow. Of all the members of the Duke’s household, he alone seemed to guess that there was something she was concealing. He alone seemed not to trust her.
But he had never been able to identify a reason why she shouldn’t be trusted, and Sue knew that he wouldn’t speak against her without evidence. The Duke liked her too much for Mr. Barlow to oppose her presence in the Manor.
As far as he’s concerned, I’m just a valet he doesn’t trust.
She made her way to the Duke’s room.
He has no idea what I’m really hiding.
She reached the Duke’s door and knocked. “Your Grace?” she called. “It’s Samuel.”
There was no answer.
She knocked again. “Your Grace?”
Nothing. No response.
“I’m coming in,” she said.
He still didn’t answer, so she grasped the doorknob and turned.
It was always a risk, entering the Duke’s room. Though he didn’t know it—though nobody knew it—Sue couldn’t help but be very conscious of the fact that she was a woman, alone with a gentleman in his room. And because her position in the Manor as his personal valet required her to help him dress and mind his wardrobe, she had seen him in states of undress that she certainly never would have otherwise.
It doesn’t matter. I can do this job just as well as Samuel would have been able to, had he lived.
That was true. And yet, it did matter a little. Sue couldn’t help feeling her heart accelerate every time she saw him half dressed, every time her responsibilities called for touching his shoulders or his waist.
It didn’t help matters that he was so very, very attractive. Sue was tall, she always had been, but the Duke was taller. He was slim but muscular, with wavy blond hair and bright blue eyes, and he was quick to smile.
I wish his face was the one I saw in my dreams!
She pushed that thought firmly away. She could not afford to allow herself to think that way. She might be a woman, but she needed everyone to believe that she was a man. She needed to be the perfect valet. If she lost this position, she would have nowhere else to go.
She stepped into the room. The Duke was sitting on the side of his bed, his head in his hands.
“Your Grace,” she said gently.
He lifted his head and looked at her. “Samuel,” he said. “You’re here.”
“Of course I’m here,” she said. “It’s time to get ready, Your Grace.”
“I can’t face this, Samuel,” he whispered.
Sue didn’t answer. She knew her duties. She went to his wardrobe and pulled out his trousers and tailcoat. She had taken care to clean them yesterday evening, and she was pleased to see that they were in good shape.
“Put those down,” the Duke ordered.
She crossed the room and set them carefully on the bed beside him.
“You have to get ready,” she said. “I know it’s difficult, Your Grace. But you don’t want to miss your father’s funeral. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you do.”
Sue could attest to that firsthand. But talking too much about her own family life was also a dangerous thing. It would be all too easy to slip and say something that would reveal that she had been her parents’ only daughter, not their son.
“He was the last family member I had,” the Duke said. “I’ll be completely on my own now.” He looked up, and Sue saw that his eyes were bloodshot.
“Have you slept at all, Your Grace?” she asked.
He shook his head. “How could I?” he asked. “How could I possibly sleep, knowing that today was the day I would have to say farewell to the last of my family?”
Sue wondered whether it was worse to know or not to know that such an event was coming. When she had lost her family, it had come as a shock in the middle of the night. She had never had a chance to mourn—she’d had to rush right into taking care of herself, making her way through the world on her own.
Of course, the Duke had also lost his father in a shocking way. It had been a carriage accident, and they had all been taken by surprise. But now the Duke had had days to think about the fact that his father was gone. He had had nothing to do but think about it.
Perhaps Sue had been the lucky one.
It had been difficult trying to find her way after the death of her family. It had been stressful and frightening, stealing clothes from her father’s shop, finding the landed family Samuel had been planning to go and work for, presenting herself as her brother and taking up the position that should have been his.
But at least those difficulties had kept her from dwelling on her sadness. They had distracted her.
The Duke had no such distractions.
Her heart broke for him.
“You’re all I have now, Samuel,” he said. “You’re the best friend I’ve got, you know.”
That made her feel even worse. How would he feel if he knew that his supposed best friend wasn’t who he claimed to be? How would he feel if he knew that the real Samuel had died before the Duke had even met him, and that for the past five years he had been served by Samuel’s sister in disguise?
She pushed that thought aside. It wasn’t as if she could ever confess that to him. And besides, today was no day to be dwelling on the things that made her feel guilty. She had a responsibility to the Duke. He needed her support.
“Stand up,” she said gently.
To her surprise, he complied, and she helped him into his mourning clothes.
He had been twenty years old when she had first come to the Manor. Back then, he had seemed as distant as the horizon. While it had always been awkward for her to serve a gentleman, things had changed as she had gotten older, as she had discovered more womanly thoughts and feelings within herself.
These days, she could hardly bear to let her hands rest for a moment while she worked for fear she would take too much pleasure in the shape of his arms under her fingers.
When he was dressed, she carefully brushed off the back of his tailcoat and straightened his collar, making certain that he looked presentable. “There,” she said. “You’re ready.”
The Duke shook his head. “I’m not ready, Samuel,” he said. “How could I ever be ready? You know how close Father and I were.”
“I know very well,” she agreed. “I have been a part of his household for five years, and I saw you together every day. I can attest to the fact that he adored you.”
“Forgive me,” the Duke said. “It’s not proper that I should go to pieces right now.”
“No,” she said. “You’re in the privacy of your own room, and whatever reaction you need to have to your father’s passing, this is the place to do it. When you step out of this room you will need to show strength. You’ll need to let the other members of the ton see that you’re ready to take on the responsibility of the Dukedom, to inherit your father’s lands and title. But right now, you’re alone, and it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m not alone,” he said. “I have you, Samuel.” He gripped her shoulder. “I’m so fortunate that Father made such a wise choice when he hired you to be my valet all those years ago. I’m so glad there’s one person in this Manor I can truly call a friend.”
“I’m honored that you consider me your friend, Your Grace,” Sue said. And it was the truth. Sometimes she could almost forget about the fact that she had never once been honest with him about her identity. So much of what they had between them was genuine.
She really did like him. If he had not been the Duke of Upton, and if she had not been a young woman of common birth disguising herself as his valet, she could have imagined becoming real friends.
Of course, it could never happen. Not really. Every moment of friendship between them was stolen from a fate that seemed determined to keep them apart. He was noble, and she was a commoner. He was a gentleman, and she was a woman. There was no world in which the two of them might forge a friendship.
And the fact that she had spent the past five years deceiving him only made friendship more unlikely.
“All right,” she said, looking him over. “There’s little else we can do to put this off, Your Grace. Your carriage will be waiting to take you to the Abbey.”
He sighed. “I wish I could stay here and talk about Father with you instead of going through all these formalities,” he said. “You actually knew him, Samuel. You knew what he was like. The people who will be at the funeral didn’t know him the way you and I did. Many of them will only be attending because it’s a social event, because they want to be seen.”
“I’m sure that isn’t true,” she said. “People admired and respected your father, Your Grace. You and I weren’t the only ones who saw the greatness in him. There are plenty of members of the ton who will be there to honor him, just as you will.”
“Maybe so,” he acknowledged. “All I know is that it won’t feel that way to me. To me, it’s just going to seem like the usual gossiping and chatter that happens at every social function.”
“Ignore them,” Sue advised. “Today is about your need to grieve. You don’t need to worry about what anyone else is thinking or saying.”
“I wish…” He hesitated.
“What, Your Grace?”
“I wish you could be by my side,” he admitted. “I don’t have any brothers or sisters to help me say my last farewell to Father. I don’t have any friends who knew him well. I wish you could attend the service with me.”
Sue closed her eyes, allowing herself a moment to wish that such a thing was possible. That she might take his hand while he mourned and help him through his suffering.
But it wouldn’t be appropriate. He was a Duke, and she was a valet.
“I’ll be there,” she reminded him. “I won’t be at your side, but I will be there.”
He nodded. “I suppose that will have to be enough,” he said.
“I’ll remember to check on you,” she said. “But we really must go now, Your Grace. Just a few hours, and then this will be behind you.”
“You’re right,” he said, turning toward the door. “Thank you for your assistance, Samuel.”
She watched as he walked out with his head held high.
“I only wish I could do more,” she said quietly.
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