About the book
Her tender heart called out to his battle scarred soul…
When her godfather, the Duke of Eldbrick, takes her under his wing to help her secure a good marriage and save her family, Miss Emily Pennington is elated. Elation that is coupled with no small amount of guilt. Emily has a dark secret: she's in love with the Duke's son.
Richard McKinnon, the second son of the Duke of Eldbrick's had a single lifeline during his days in the army: memories of Emily. Returned and haunted by his experiences, he has yet another cross to bear. His impending nuptials to a lady he doesn't love.
When rumours of impropriety spur out of thin air, Emily is suddenly engaged, robbing Richard of his last chance at solace. Determined to defeat his demons and rescue her from a life of misery, Richard does the extreme: losing himself amidst the remnants of an old crime, the target he places on his back is painted in blood. And someone is already taking aim...
“Are you certain it will be all right? It’s not too costly?” Emily Pennington asked of her closest friend, Lady Lucinda McKinnon. “I should be beside myself if I were to rend it or cause there to be a stain.”
“Nonsense, it looks stunning on you,” Lucinda said of the delicate silk gown. “If something should happen to it, at least it was due to your enjoyment of the evening rather than moths devouring it in an upstairs wardrobe. Besides, the faint blue flowers in the print make your eyes shine even more brightly. You simply have to wear it this evening.”
Emily blushed, the pink in her cheeks even more pronounced due to her fair skin and soft blond curls. She thought quickly of a compliment she might return to her friend so as not to appear rude, but Lucinda had already begun speaking of the gentleman she hoped to see at Lord Northam’s ball.
“…and if he is there, remember, I cannot simply dance with him because he asked,” Lucinda was saying as she held up different ribbons next to her cheek to decide which one should adorn her brown hair. “I must appear as though I’m considering his request, so be sure to say something behind your fan. It will make him wait a moment longer and feel as though he might miss out on the opportunity.”
“Of course, Lucinda. But tell me why these things are important?” Emily asked. “Why can you not simply say, ‘That would be wonderful,’ and accept the offer of a dance?”
“Oh no, Emily! We must never do such a thing,” Lucinda admonished, turning from her looking glass and facing Emily. “As Mother has taught us, this is all a masterful game and we must be the most skilled of players. Should any gentleman find us too eager to accept the offer of a dance or a walk about the garden, then we do not look so prized. And what man of wealth and title wants a woman whom no one else desires?”
An uncertain frown creased Emily’s features. It was true, the Duchess of Eldbrick had been very forthcoming about the expectations of young ladies in society, but these intrigues and traps had never made sense to her.
“I suppose you’re correct, Lucinda,” she acknowledged, smoothing her hands over the silk gown’s layered skirts. “Though I fear I am too much of a country mouse to think of snaring a gentleman of title and good fortune.”
“Don’t be silly,” Lucinda argued happily. “You are a rare beauty, and you have devoted yourself to your studies, to music, and to your beautiful paintings. So your father is not at the top of the social ladder, what of it? There are men who have such fortunes that all they seek in life is a lovely, adoring wife, regardless of what purse strings she’s bound with.”
Putting aside her concern, Emily looked adoringly at her best friend. Had it really been three years since she had come to live with the Duke of Eldbrick and his family? Three long years since her mother’s illness had sent the kind woman to her bed, to the isolation of the upstairs room where she could not cause anyone else to fall ill?
“But why must I stay away?” Emily had pleaded tearfully at the time, though her father was unmoved by her heartache.
“Your mother would never hear of allowing you up there, not when the risk of you contracting consumption is so great,” Sir James Pennington, Baronet of Greenhill, had answered. “You may send letters through her maid and she will write in reply, but only so often as her strength is sufficient.”
It had been a few bleak months for Emily since the day her mother had been declared an invalid, lonely months of solitude now that her brothers had all moved on from Greenhill. Not long after her mother’s confinement, Sir James brought her some welcome news.
“Thomas, Duke of Eldbrick, who is your godfather and father to your good friend Lucinda, has made a generous offer for you to live with the family at Stroffshire Hall. Your Season will begin soon, and without a mother who can guide you and see to your lessons at this time, he and I both feel that your prospects may not be so auspicious.”
Emily had been elated, of course. Who would not desire to live in one of the most beautiful estate homes in London? But at the same time, she felt the sting of betrayal. How could she reside at Stroffshire and wile away her time going for strolls and carriage rides, attending all of the most sought-after events hosted by the most noted families in the ton, all while her mother was sick and alone?
“You must go, my daughter,” Lady Eleanor Pennington had written to her daughter in shaky penmanship. “I will not sacrifice your future happiness and prosperity to an illness I can neither control nor ignore. I assure you, my precious child, the moment I am well I will bring you home to me once again. If I should succumb to this wretched illness, I will go to my grave knowing you have been given every opportunity thanks to the Duke’s generosity.”
“Emily? Did you hear me?” Lucinda asked, interrupting Emily’s somber memories. “I said, we must hurry. Father will have already sent for the carriage and I know it will be here soon. The clock has already struck the hour.”
“Are you parents attending this evening?” Emily asked, trying not to sound uncomfortable. She knew Lucinda’s mother had never taken kindly to her, though Lucinda had always brushed off Emily’s fears to that effect.
“No, Father detests these things and Mother is in the throes of planning a dinner for the Duke of Wessex in three days’ time,” Lucinda said, rolling her eyes. “It would appear, that directing the servants and the cooks on what to do all day tires her out considerably. Richard will be accompanying us instead.”
Emily’s heart leapt in her chest. She felt a flutter of happiness followed instantly by a morose sensation of the blood leaving her face. Of course, it had to be the one person who brought her more pain than any other person in the world.
Richard. Brother to her lifelong friend, the man Emily had adored since she was old enough to think on such things. She had once hoped that someday he might see her as more than his younger sister’s impoverished playmate, but even though he was only the Duke’s second son and therefore not inheriting Eldbrick, Emily knew there was no hope of a match between them.
“You’ve gone awfully quiet for someone who’s about to attend one of the most spectacular events of the month,” Lucinda teased. “I can’t help but notice it was at the mention of a certain annoying brother’s name. Pining for Richard again?”
“Hush, I’ve done no such thing,” Emily protested, but for the second time the flame in her cheeks gave away her true feelings.
“Why will you not let me say something to him?” Lucinda pleaded. “I think the world of both of you, and nothing would make me happier than to see the two of you as the happiest couple in London.”
“Never, you mustn’t,” Emily argued, pulling Lucinda back desperately by the arm to face her. “Promise me you’ll not say anything, please.”
“All right, I promise… just like every other time,” Lucinda said kindly. “But I still don’t understand.”
“It would not be proper,” Emily reminded her. “My father is barely a man of property, and his estate is already to be divided among my five brothers. If your father and mine had not known each other at school, you and I would never have become so close. I could never put the thought in Richard’s head that I fancy him, it’s simply not right.”
“I think you worry too much on these things,” Lucinda said, turning her chin to the door and cocking her head. “But this night is not the time to worry. We must go now, so only promise me you will enjoy yourself.”
“I promise,” Emily said, smiling for Lucinda’s benefit.
No sooner had they reached the door to Lucinda’s chambers than there came a knock from outside. The maid opened it to show Richard, standing ready.
“Ah, I am the most fortunate man in London this evening to attend an event with such lovely young ladies on my arm,” he said, greeting his sister with a smile. He nodded to Emily, but she noticed that the smile that appeared only briefly on his handsome face did not reach his eyes.
“Thank you, Richard. I think you are beholden to say such lofty compliments due to being my brother, but it is wonderful to hear, all the same,” Lucinda said, turning to Emily and giving her a knowing look.
Emily ignored Lucinda’s expression and looked away, her own thoughts nearly betraying her by making themselves plain on her face. She followed Richard and Lucinda out and down the stairs, willing herself to breathe deeply the whole time.
The carriage ride will be torturous, Emily thought unhappily. How will I ever keep my composure with Richard sitting so near?
Matters were all the worse when they stepped outside into the pleasant late spring evening. The sun had already set and the lanterns nearest the door shone brightly. The softest hint of wind brushed across Emily’s bare arms, causing her to shiver in a wonderful way.
“After you, dear sister,” Richard said, waving off the footman and holding out his hand for Lucinda to take. She climbed into the carriage, and Richard turned his attention to Emily. He held out his hand to her as well and said, “And you, Miss Pennington. I think I have failed in my obligation to tell you how beautiful you look this evening.”
Emily forced herself to meet Richard’s eye. What she saw nearly made her breath catch. His practiced smile belied the look of sadness that perpetually circled his immense hazel eyes, lit momentarily by the flickering of lantern light that shone against the flecks of gold.
“Thank you, My Lord,” Emily answered automatically, ducking her head shyly and moving to step up into the carriage. The growing pressure on her gloved hand made her stop.
“How many times must I beg of you to call me simply Richard?” he asked softly, his eyes darting towards the carriage to ensure his sister was not taking note. “You wound me by keeping me at arm’s length, you know.”
“I’m sorry, that was not my intention,” Emily said, her voice a half-whisper as she sought to keep the tremble from giving her away.
“I know,” Richard replied gently. “I just thought… well, it is of no matter.” He gave her a pinched smile and nodded politely, then helped guide her into the carriage.
Throughout the ride over, Lucinda chatted happily about who they might see and what their friends might be wearing. Emily kept her attention fixed on Lucinda but said little, her only goal to keep from looking at Richard. For his part, he stared out the window of the carriage, only speaking when Lucinda might demand an answer.
“Look at the pair of you, you seem as though you’re being dragged to the gallows instead of one of the most entertaining events. I wait for Northam’s ball all year long, as everyone will be there,” Lucinda said, pouting comically for effect.
“I can think of no other place I’d rather be,” Richard promised, “and I assure you I will be the most excited person in attendance.”
“Now you’re just making fun of me, and I don’t like it.” Lucinda turned her head away and pretended to be insulted, but she broke out in a fit of laughter only moments later. “Emily, you must ensure that Richard joins in the dancing this evening. Promise that you’ll see to it he dances at least twice.”
Emily shot Lucinda a horrified look, then narrowed her eyes slightly at her friend’s triumphant look. Lucinda appeared to know exactly what she was doing, and Emily could not bear to respond.
Fortunately, the carriage then slowed as it approached Northam’s sprawling home. A line of other guests rolled to the immense doors ahead of them, but Lucinda kept their conversation occupied as she called out the names of those she recognized.
Inside the house and surrounded by the chattering guests, Emily felt the familiar fluttering in her chest, that feeling of being so far removed from her proper place. All around her, members of the peerage greeted one another with hearty welcomes while elegantly dressed ladies scrutinized one another’s gowns and jewels. Meanwhile, Emily stood back, content to walk practically in Lucinda’s shadow and watch the gentle chaos.
“You don’t look all that pleased to be here,” Richard whispered in Emily’s ear, sending a shiver racing through her at the feathery brush of his breath next to her ear.
“I am,” she assured him, “though it is sometimes a bit overwhelming to be in the company of so many important guests.”
“None are more important than you, Miss Pennington. Always remember that.” Richard stood straighter and raised a hand to return someone’s greeting, and the stolen moment between them was gone.
Everywhere Richard turned, more noise and gaiety bombarded him. He wanted nothing more than to flee to the sanctuary of an upstairs room or to escape to the solitude of the garden, but he was tasked with keeping a careful watch on his sister and her companion. He would not fail in this responsibility, as he had in so many others.
“McKinnon, you’ve held the same glass all evening,” one of his school friends—a young man with a shock of bright red hair and whose name escaped him at the moment—called out, laughing. “Let me refill your drink.”
The man raised a hand for one of the many harried servants to scurry forth with a tray, but Richard shook his head at the servant. The poor man looked between Richard and the friend as though uncertain as to what he should do, so he simply stood and did nothing until one of them decided to call him again.
“What have you been up to since we saw each other last?” the man demanded. Richard sized him up, suddenly remembering that his name was Arthur Something, and attempted to look cheery.
“I’ve only just returned from the armed services a few months ago,” Richard said quietly, hoping the topic would be so boring as to force Arthur to propose a different subject.
“The Army, you say? Oh, that’s right. I’d heard about that. Sad sort of luck that you were not a colonel,” Arthur said. “Your father should have put in a word for you with the ministry.”
“He wanted to, but I would not hear of it,” Richard explained, looking away as Arthur’s face fell in confusion.
“Why ever not? The Army needs brilliant minds like ours, leadership of the sort that only gentlemen such as ourselves can provide,” Arthur said. “Someone has to keep those mindless ruffians from scattering about at the front like an overturned basket of chickens.”
“I see,” Richard said, standing up taller and pinning Arthur back with a vicious glare. “And where was your platoon positioned? I don’t recall hearing of your service.”
“Oh no, I did not sign on for any nastiness such as that,” Arthur said with a derisive chuckle. “No, I’ll leave the bravado and the heroics to you sort. I’m far too involved with matters at home.”
“Of course,” Richard acknowledged with a curt nod. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m sure there is something else I must be doing.”
Richard strode away, but at every turn he found himself face to face with boisterous clusters of noblemen or their wives. Occasionally, some hapless young lady found herself thrust in front of him—no doubt thanks to a significant shove from an overbearing mother—and he would have to sidestep around her while muttering a greeting of some sort.
“You look terrified, Richard. Are you all right?” Lucinda whispered, sidling up close to her brother while still looking about the room and waving at someone.
“I’m fine,” he answered through gritted teeth. “I just… I need a moment to get used to this.”
“Dear brother, only say the word and we shall leave at once,” Lucinda said, turning to face him and looking up at him. “If it is too soon, or all the noise is troubling you…”
“No, I’m all right,” he answered, taking both her hands and holding them tightly for a moment. “But thank you for understanding.”
“Of course. Father said things have been… difficult for you since you’ve returned. I cannot know what he means, but I might imagine.” Lucinda gave him a sympathetic look, and her sympathy hurt almost as much as others’ indifference.
“I’m fine,” Richard said once again. “Please, enjoy yourself. Do not be troubled on my account.”
“If you say so,” she answered slowly before finally moving away and leaving him in peace.
Richard looked up and saw Emily watching him, turning slightly to keep her eyes on his as Lucinda led her away. He wanted to reassure her that he was all right, but he lacked the strength to do so. The sounds of laughter, of clattering dishes, of the musicians tuning up for the dancing were enough to make him seek cover somewhere.
“There you are!” a shrill voice called out behind him. Richard tensed immediately, his neck twinging painfully as he recognized the speaker.
He turned around to see Lady Alvena Greene rooted firmly in place before him. Richard took in the pinched expression and sour, down-turned mouth before noting her mother standing some distance behind, watching with hawkish eyes.
“Lady Alvena. You grow more lovely with each passing year,” Richard said, nodding politely. “How have you been?”
And that was all he needed to say. The next half of an hour was spent in blissful silence as Richard tuned out everything around him, even the unfortunate young lady’s words. He made certain to look interested and nod at the proper times, though his mind was adrift, a skill he had used to take himself away from the relentless echoes of gunfire and cannons those two long years.
“And so I told Mummy that I would not be going anywhere near the coast until such time as the government assures us there would be plenty of room away from all the lesser people who swarm like rats and make it impossible to enjoy oneself,” Lady Alvena finished, looking about the room, bored. She took a deep breath and was about to launch into another endless tirade, but she stopped. “What is it?”
“Hmm?” Richard asked absently.
“What is the matter?” Lady Alvena asked, suddenly looking very cross. “You have this look about you as though, I dunno, as though you disapprove.”
“No, no. I don’t disapprove of… what?” Richard asked, feeling somewhat ashamed.
Lady Alvena glared for a moment but waved her hand indifferently. “It is nothing. So, Mummy says you went to war. I suppose that made you feel rather important.”
“No, actually,” he answered quietly. “Nothing makes one feel less important than watching young men die senselessly, their innards spilling out as they beg for help.”
“What a ghastly thing to say!” Lady Alvena said, sneering. “You are ruining a very nice evening, you know.”
The sound of a bow gliding across a violin string caused Richard to flinch, ducking slightly without meaning to.
Like the damnable cannon fire, he thought, recovering just as quickly.
“Dear brother, it is time for the dancing,” Lucinda said, appearing out of nowhere like a heavenly angel. She turned to his conversation partner and said, “Oh. Lady Alvena. I did not know you would be here this evening, isn’t London quite a long way from… where is it you live?”
Lady Alvena opened her wide mouth to answer but Lucinda linked her arm through Richard’s and pulled him away. “My apologies, but my brother has promised he would dance this evening.”
When they were finally free of her, Richard whispered, “You were sent by the gods to rescue me, I’m sure of it. But you know that I cannot dance, it is impossible.”
“Nonsense. Do not let Emily stand against a wall all evening,” Lucinda whispered.
“But my leg—” he began, but Lucinda shook her head as she continued to lead him towards the open space where partners were already lining up.
“It will be fine. No one will notice, I’m sure of it, as this dance is not so robust that you must move quickly,” she promised. “There, go ask of her before she tries to flee the room.”
Casting a wary glance at his sister, Richard moved through the crowd of people lining the room. He made his way to where Emily stood, looking as though she felt out of place. He noted that she did look unlike anyone else present; she was the most beautiful woman in the room, but more than that, she was the most genuine person among all of them.
At his approach, Emily’s face lit up. For a moment, Richard felt the warmth of her smile wrap around him, welcoming him to come closer.
“Miss Pennington,” Richard began, “I thought perhaps you might wish to—”
“Pardon me,” another man said, “but may I have the honor of dancing with you?”
The dark-haired man waited, stone-faced, as Emily looked to Richard as if to implore him to say something. Instead, Richard nodded grimly and stepped back for them to pass. He fought to ignore the look of disappointment on Emily’s face as she placed her hand in the man’s and followed him.
Facing this stranger with a dark glower and an even darker general countenance, Emily attempted to look polite and grateful for the request of a dance. But nothing about this man, from his upright, tense posture to his permanent scowl that peered out from below an unruly thatch of dark black curls, did anything to put her at ease in his presence.
As the tune began, Emily curtsied and dropped her gaze along with the other ladies in line. Sneaking a glance at this stranger, she saw that he barely nodded at her.
As the two straight lines approached each other, Emily moved to the man’s right, extending her hand for him to take. He placed his closed hand beneath hers and looked past her, as though intentionally not meeting her eye.
Do I speak? Emily wondered, feeling different sets of eyes watching the pair. Do I introduce myself?
“I am Emily Pennington,” she began hesitantly, but she was interrupted by his curt answer.
“And you might be?” she asked, attempting a polite introduction.
“Your partner for this dance,” the man replied in a droll voice, his bright green eyes looking past her without any sign of recognition.
“And you know Lord Northam?” Emily asked, hoping he would at least give his name.
“Clearly, as I am in his home.”
Emily said nothing further. The discomfort of their exchange took all enjoyment from the dance, perhaps even the entire evening. When the music mercifully waned, she curtsied as did the other ladies and turned to take her leave of the dreadful man, only he put out a hand to stop her.
“Are you free for another dance?” he asked, sounding as uninterested as before.
“I should think not, my apologies,” Emily said quietly, looking away. “Thank you all the same.”
She hurried away before he could say anything else, her eyes roving the well-dressed mass of revelers looking for Lucinda. Instead, someone moving from the room quickly caught her eye, and Emily followed.
Following Richard out of the grand room was no easy feat, but from the way he was walking, Emily knew he was suffering greatly. His wound had been one of many unspoken topics since his return from the Army, though she’d heard enough here and there to understand that he was greatly affected by it.
Shirking off polite greetings as kindly as she could, Emily was finally free of the crowded room. She looked this way and that to see if she could tell where Richard might have gone, but it took a moment to hear the sharp retort of his one marching footstep followed by the shuffling drag of the foot on his bad leg.
He’s off to the library, Emily thought, and perhaps he wishes to be alone.
She thought for a moment of how to return to the ball without him knowing she was out in the hallway, watching him, but something about the look on his face when he took a seat and fell back against the chair in a weary slump made her stop.
“Is everything all right?” Emily finally asked from the doorway. Richard looked up in surprise and immediately jumped to his feet in greeting. She shook her head, “None of that, please. Sit down.”
“I cannot rise to greet a lady, but you cannot call me Richard? Is that how it’s to be then?” he teased, though he sat back down. He gestured to an empty chair, so Emily came in and sat across from him.
“I’m not a lady,” she reminded him, looking somewhat embarrassed. “I’m only the daughter of a baronet, one with five sons at that. It’s not fitting for me to address you so informally.”
“Miss Pennington, I beg you.” Richard looked at her imploringly, and she finally acquiesced at the unreadable look she saw there.
“All right then. Richard,” she said, looking away.
“Thank you… Emily. I’ve always thought of you as Emily,” Richard said, but he corrected himself at once. “No, not that you are not deserving of far more respect, of course not that. Only that Lucinda talks about you so much that in my mind, when I envision your smiling face, that’s the name that fills my thoughts.”
“You should find more entertaining diversions if you find yourself plagued by thoughts of my face,” Emily said, trying to laugh. Richard shook his head.
“There were times, though you know it not, that seeing the faces of my family back at Eldbrick—including you, now that you have been a part of our household for such a time—was the only thing that kept me in my right mind,” Richard confessed.
“Was it truly so awful as that?” Emily whispered. “I mean to say, I know that you were injured so there must have been fighting of some sort.”
“It was,” he answered, looking down. “I’ve never witnessed such horrors in my life, and I pray that God kill me to prevent that I ever witness such things again.”
Emily was silent, rendered speechless by his honest admission. “But why would you go then?” she finally asked.
“Do you truly not know?” Richard asked, turning to look at her and staring into her eyes. “I would have thought the gossip might reach you once I’d gone. Perhaps some secrets are better kept than others.”
“You do not have to tell me anything of a private nature,” Emily said, leaning away as though she had no wish to be privy to matters that did not concern her.
“You must be thinking the worst of me,” Richard said, smiling wryly. “I assure you, it was nothing at all untoward.”
“Truly, you mustn’t speak to me of your personal matters, it’s not my place to know these things.” Emily looked uncomfortable again, and Richard remained silent for a few moments.
Finally, he let out an exasperated sigh and said, “Emily, it was you.”
“Me?” Emily asked, pressing a hand to her heart and looking for all the world as though she might faint. “What is it that I did wrong?”
“No, nothing like that,” Richard said, smiling genuinely now that his secret had been revealed. “Emily, beautiful and kind Emily… I had to leave to keep my distance from you. I desired you more and more every day, and I could never have betrayed your friendship with my sister or betrayed… well, nothing. But as my thoughts turned to you more and more and I knew that I could never be worthy of your love, I sought refuge in crossing an ocean to be away from you.”
Emily’s breath caught in her throat, and for a moment, the room seemed to float in circles before her eyes. She felt light-headed, uncertain as to what to say next.
“And now?” she whispered, the hope in her voice causing her to blush.
“Now, I cannot care who may object or what others may say,” Richard admitted boldly. “These past few months since my return have been the most wonderful sort of agony. Pain from seeing you merely an arm’s length away each day and not being able to profess my true feelings for you, a terrible ache from the fear that some other man would seek to have your hand when I could not. But what a delight it has been to see you, to talk to you, to be the one to lead you and Lucinda about the ton. Even as I was serving as your chaperone and protector, inwardly I was able to pretend—even if just for an hour or two—that you and I had gone there together.”
“I don’t know what to say… because I have adored you for so long,” she finally confessed, the words hovering in the space between them, unable to be taken back.
Richard’s face lit up; the first sign of life Emily had seen there since his return. “Is that true?”
She nodded, a single tear escaping her eye and sliding down her cheek. Without hesitation, Richard reached out and brushed it away, leaving Emily to shudder at the unfamiliar touch.
“I… I’ve kept this a secret for so long that I find I do not know what to say now,” Richard said, his voice hollow as he continued to watch Emily. “I’m both elated and terrified.”
Emily laughed softly, which only caused Richard to smile even broader. He held out his hand tentatively, and she watched it for some time, uncertain as to whether or not she should take it, before placing her small hand in his. She watched as his long fingers encircled hers and for the first time in years, she was filled with an indescribable sense of safety, of being at home.
“I’m sorry, but now after pouring out my heart to you, I find that I don’t know what to say,” Richard said again, clearly floundering for the words.
“Then let us say nothing,” Emily said sweetly. “I am content to only know the truth, and to remain here with you for a time.”
“You are not sad to miss the party while you keep watch over an injured old man?” Richard asked, wincing slightly at his remark.
Emily shook her head. “No, I had my fill of being watched and talked about last year during my Season. I knew that I never measured up, so repeating the agony this year will have no effect.”
“Nonsense,” Richard said slowly, staring at her with a strange look. “Should anyone be talking about you, it is only to tell others that they must come at once to see the rare beauty who has kindly graced their hall that evening.”
Emily looked away, ducking her head to cover her look of delight. “You mustn’t flatter me too much, lest I think you are only saying kind things to have fun at my expense.”
“Emily, look at me,” Richard said firmly, waiting until she did so. “I would never say anything of the sort to you in jest. I would certainly never pay you a compliment so dear as to commend your beauty or your wit, only to snatch it away as a foolish game.”
Without another word, Richard stood up and pulled Emily to her feet. She held her breath as he gazed down at her, though she willed herself not to look away from the look of hope she had never before seen in his eyes.
“We did not get to dance earlier,” Richard whispered. Emily smiled, still holding his hand. He added, “I was under strict orders from Lucinda to dance with you this evening.”
“You might ask me now,” Emily replied, her voice shaking slightly.
“Miss Pennington, might I have the highest possible honor of asking you to dance with me?” he said, watching her intently.
“My Lord, it would be my pleasure,” Emily answered.
She stood up straighter, and though they could barely hear the faint strains of the music drifting up the stairs from the festivities below, Richard held out his hand to her.
“I suppose it is already scandal enough that I have taken up your evening,” he said. “I would further demonstrate my poor manners by showing you a dance our troops were treated to as we enjoyed the company of the French court.”
“A new dance? I am sorry, but I fear I will not be a quick study,” Emily replied.
“This one lends itself to grand, open ballrooms filled with many people. It is called a waltz, though my mother would fall headfirst into her grave if she thought I had introduced such a shocking pastime at Northam’s.”
Emily blanched. Richard smiled reassuringly. “I’m not so certain this is the sort of dance Lucinda and I might practice in lessons.”
“It is not so unaccepted in other places, even in other courts, though the ton would faint or titter behind their fans at such a thing. Here, I will show you,” he said, taking her hand and placing it on his shoulder. Richard watched Emily’s face to see whether she was displeased, but she returned his faltering smile. “Then I take your hand thus so, and the music would be very soft, very dreamlike. Not at all like the tiptoeing and hopping about of our country dances and reels.”
Richard led Emily around the room, smiling when she seemed to relax at this strange new style of dance. After only a few moments, she stepped away, bewildered.
“I see why it might displease your mother, she is rather watchful to see that Lucinda and I comport ourselves well at all times,” Emily said.
Richard closed the space between them. “I am very well aware of her notions on acceptable behavior in polite society. She was rather put out with me that I did not seek a higher rank through my father’s connections.”
Emily looked discomforted, and Richard sighed. “Here I am, once again, putting a dark cloud over your evening with talk of unpleasant things. It seems at times that I have kept them locked inside me for so long that I cannot help but spill over whenever someone so kind and understanding as you happen by.”
“You need not apologize to me… Richard,” Emily explained in a sure voice. “I am glad that you trust me with your thoughts.”
“I do more than trust you, I find that I want you to know me better. To understand me. And I cannot explain why that is, other than to say… I love you.”
Richard stopped, hesitating now that he might have said too much. Emily looked to him, a mixture of joy and sadness on her face, elation that he felt the way she had for so long, grief that he did not seem to feel worthy of her attention.
“And I love you too, Richard,” she answered. “I have for so long that it has been nearly painful for me to remain in the same house without speaking the words.”
Richard looked down at her tenderly, then leaned closer and let his lips brush against Emily’s softly. She shivered at the touch, at the sensation she had dreamed about for so long but knew would never be real to her.
“I… I’m sorry, that was rude of me to take such advantage,” Richard said, a look of horror on his face.
“I am not sorry, so do not rob me of this great joy,” Emily assured him.
“Still, we had best return to the party below. Should anyone wonder where you’ve been, it would not be kindly handled if they knew you were alone here with me.” Richard looked apologetic, but Emily only nodded.
“Then I shall depart first, please wait but a few moments before returning as well,” Emily suggested. She looked up at him and smiled longingly, then moved around him and left the room.
“What have I done?” Richard whispered desperately to himself after Emily had left the room. “How could I have been so cruel to the most wonderful woman in the world?”
He turned to look to the door where Emily had departed only seconds ago, as though hoping she might have returned to spend even a few more moments with him. Instead, the darkness of the hallway outside the door stared back at him, luring him into the melancholy of its emptiness.
Richard sank into a chair and leaned back, covering his face with his hands. When he finally removed them and looked to the ornately squared ceiling, Emily’s face still haunted him. The memory of her touch, the softness of her lips crept over him like a specter, leaving him shaking with an onslaught of emotions.
“You must not do such a thing,” he muttered to the ceiling. “You are all but betrothed, and she… Emily would be devastated by the news.”
Finally, the weight of the evening nearly overwhelming him, Richard managed to stand and exit the library. He looked out to make sure no one might see him, then casually strolled to the staircase as though he had only been looking about the house.
At the bottom of the stairs, he turned and came face to face with a sight that nearly caused him to go mad. There stood Emily, her posture rigid and uncomfortable, her expression blank as slate, engaged in conversation with a man whom Richard knew all too well.
Move on, Richard told himself bitterly, there is nothing to be said at this time, at least not that wouldn’t give her away.
Richard walked past them with barely a nod of acknowledgement, and he was certain he could feel Emily’s disappointed expression following him as he returned to the ballroom. He was instantly pounced upon by a most unwelcome predator.
“I have been looking for you,” Lady Alvena cried, her tight yellow curls swaying this way and that as she spoke vehemently.
“My apologies, I needed some air,” Richard replied, forcing a smile.
“You should have come to find me, I would have taken a turn in the garden with you,” she said, though something in her tone made Richard think it was more of a demand than an offer.
“Perhaps next time,” he said, bowing slightly. Richard changed the subject, asking, “Have you seen my sister?”
“I don’t think so, which one is she again?” Lady Alvena asked, pretending to look around the room.
Richard shook off the slight insult at her intentional ignorance. “Never mind, I think I see her. If you would excuse me,” he said, bowing lower and leaving without giving Alvena a chance to object.
Richard found Lucinda in a cluster of young ladies, all discussing some topic of great importance judging by the serious expressions on their faces. She brightened when she saw him, slipping her hand through his elbow.
“I’ve been looking for you, wondering where you’ve gotten off to,” Lucinda said in a low voice for Richard to hear. “I cannot find Emily anywhere.”
“It is of no importance, I saw her a moment ago,” Richard said, clearing his throat nervously. “I’m sure she’ll join you shortly.”
“I hope so, the dancing is nearly finished, and I want to find a place where she and I can be seated together to eat. I despise the custom of splitting up good friends and leaving strangers to shoulder the burden of good conversation,” Lucinda said, more for her companions’ benefits than for Richard’s.
“True,” he finally said, agreeing. But his mind was elsewhere, as was his attention. He kept a close watch on the wide doorway, waiting for Emily. He liked it not that she was apart from the others, and from her chaperone. Moreover, he was especially displeased that a man—one he did not know but thought certain he recognized—was talking to her some distance away from the general press of people.
“Richard, are you feeling well?” Lucinda whispered. “You don’t look yourself.”
“I’m not, actually,” he replied, still watching for Emily, and breathing a small sigh of relief when she entered the room.
“Should we go?” Lucinda asked, clearly concerned. “Is it, well, are you in pain?”
“No, no,” he answered, brushing it off and finally looking to Lucinda. “I shall not spoil your fun this evening. I’ll be all right.”
“Truly, I don’t mind. If it’s all right with Emily, I think I’d rather leave for home now too,” Lucinda said, already leading Richard away from the group of ladies. “I’ve had my fill of the dancing, now all that remains is sitting and listening to an endless parade of ladies playing the pianoforte while I pretend to lose at cards to some dowager lady.”
Richard smiled at his sister’s vibrancy, her spirit, knowing that it was something his mother had worked tirelessly to quell in her. He patted her hand where it still rested against his elbow.
“Thank you, we’ll go then. I’m sure I will feel better tomorrow.”
But not unless something drastic changes to save me from this wretched fate, Richard thought miserably, forcing a happy countenance while Lucinda waved Emily over. Whatever it takes, Emily must be mine. But she must never know of this awful secret.
All through the long ride back to Lucinda’s home, Emily had struggled to keep her attention focused on her friend’s words and the sights beyond the window of the carriage. If she had thought the ride to Northam’s would be difficult, being in such close proximity to a man she secretly admired, it was nothing compared with the impossible task of sitting so close while pretending that nothing had happened between them.
“I’m so sorry the three of us never had the chance to dance together,” Lucinda continued after finishing her description of one woman’s gown. “It would have been great fun.”
“Yes, of course,” Richard said.
“It’s no matter,” Emily said at precisely the same time.
They exchanged a look, then Emily added, “The important thing is that we all enjoyed a wonderful evening.”
“Well, I certainly did,” Lucinda assured her.
They rode the rest of the way home in near silence, and for once, Emily couldn’t wait to reach the solitude of her room. Citing the early morning hour, she bade Richard and Lucinda goodnight at the door and escaped to the quiet of her room.
The following morning, Emily was awakened by Lucinda shaking her gently and hissing urgently in her ear.
“Emily, hurry. You must wake up; your father is here. He’s angered over something and he’s come to take you home!”
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
A Wounded Soldier for the Trapped Duchess is live on Amazon now!