Excerpt: A Dream of Redemption
Book 8: The Disgraced Lords
London, England, 1815
Helen barely waited for the door to the Duke of Lyttleton’s London residence to open before racing inside and up the stairs to her sister’s bedchamber. It had been over six weeks since Marisa had been wounded up north, resulting in a lifesaving operation. Finally, to Helen’s relief, her sister was well enough to come home. But Helen needed to see for herself that Marisa was recovered, and her heart pounded in her chest as she hurried up the stairs, sick with guilt at being unable to be there when Marisa had needed her.
At her sister’s bedchamber she slowed, her rollicking stomach easing when she heard voices and laughter from within. She leaned her head upon the door and said softly to herself, “Thank goodness.”
It was only as she made to open the door latch that she noticed a young man sitting on the floor a few paces down the corridor with his head in his hands. She moved slowly toward him and when he looked her way all she saw were silver gray eyes filled with fear and sorrow.
She did not know the gentleman. His garments were made from quality fabric but looked a little out of place in this house. The clothes were made with lots of lace and finery, all quite feminine in nature. He had very curly hair, ringlets almost, and from a distance he might be mistaken for a boy, but when he looked her way his face was all man. Chiseled cheeks, refined nose, proud chin.
Her pulse leapt at the sight of him. “Handsome” was too tame a word. He was a young Adonis statue come to life. For one fleeting moment his beauty made her forget her injured sister lying in the bedchamber behind her. She blinked a few times.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“I will be fine if Her Grace is well. Is she . . . will she be all right?” he asked, his voice soft but deep with emotion.
Helen’s heart rate had slowed, given what she’d heard through the door. “I shall go and see, but I hear laughter from within her room so I suspect she is well on the road to recovery. May I tell her you were asking after her?”
He shook his head as he levered himself up off the floor. “I am of no importance. Do not trouble her.”
How odd. No importance, but he kept vigil outside her room. “Are you a relative of His Grace?” she asked. “How rude of me. I’m Lady Helen, Marisa’s sister,” and she offered the young man her hand.
He stood looking at her as if she had two heads. Finally he stepped forward and hesitantly took her gloved hand, bowing low, still not giving her his name before he quickly let go and stepped back.
“I should not be here. If you could let me know Her Grace’s condition on your way out I would be forever grateful.”
“Of course you can’t, how improper of me to ask.”
As he made to turn away she grabbed his arm on instinct, and they both jumped at the contact. She quickly removed her hand as bolts of tingles shot through her. He too looked shocked. “I merely meant I don’t know your name so I do not know whom to ask for, in order to update you on Her Grace’s condition.”
He drew himself up to his full height and she had to crane her neck to meet his gaze. It was only then that she noticed he looked to be around her age, ten and eight, yet his manner and worldly wise eyes had originally made her think he was much older than she.
“Clarence, my lady. If you give the message to Brunton, he will see that I receive it.”
She nodded. On her departure she would find the butler and give him an update. The stranger took one final look at her as if studying a painting and turned and walked toward the back stairs.
Helen watched until he was out of sight and only then did she notice how fast her chest rose and fell. How odd. Not even Lord Hadley Fullerton had made her as unsettled as this young man did, and she’d been hopelessly in love with her brother’s best friend since she’d been a young girl.
Who was he? Why was he sitting outside her sister’s door?
Clarence was probably another young man fallen under Marisa’s spell, but her sister had recently married the Duke of Lyttleton. He was a man unlikely to take kindly to those who would be overfamiliar with his wife.
She could understand why Clarence had fallen. Everyone loved Marisa. She had a personality that lit up any room and a face that could rival Helen of Troy. How ironic that she was the one her parents had named Helen. The quiet little bookworm was very different from her vivacious sister.
Brunton, Maitland’s butler, would know who this young man was. He must be someone of importance to be staying in the house.
She pushed her unsettling feelings aside as she entered Marisa’s room. A wave of relief turned to waves of joy as she saw Marisa was up and sitting in a chair by the fire.
Helen raced to her sister’s side and embraced her. “You had me so worried.”
“I’m fully recovered, only Maitland is being overprotective and insists I stay in my room for a few days.”
Helen glanced across at her brother-in-law. Maitland looked as if he’d aged ten years. She’d worried her sister’s marriage might have been a mistake but the love in Maitland’s eyes was not in doubt.
She did not visit long as she could see Marisa was tiring. As she rose to leave she suddenly remembered Clarence. “By the way. There was a young man, Clarence, sitting in the corridor outside your room quite distraught at the idea you were unwell. Who is he?”
She saw her sister share a glance with her husband before saying, “He is a young man who helped us defeat Victoria.” She turned to Maitland, “Are they both in the house?”
Her husband nodded.
“Clarence has a younger brother, Simon. I can’t explain everything now, as I’m tired. But do let them know I’m well, and thank him for his thoughts.”
Helen said her goodbyes and when she opened the bedchamber door to take her leave she bumped straight into a boy.
“Is Her Grace better now?”
She smiled down at him as she pulled the door closed behind her. “You must be Simon.” The boy nodded. “You can tell your brother that my sister is recovering and will be up and about in a few days.”
“Thank you, my lady. You must be Lady Helen. Clarence told me you were as beautiful as an angel.”
She could feel her face heat as Simon beamed a smile. She almost said that Clarence was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen but managed to bite her tongue.
“Why don’t you go and put Clarence out of his misery. Tell him Her Grace will soon be up and about.”
She watched him race off toward the back stairs as she made her way downstairs to talk with Brunton. Clarence and Simon piqued her interest. There was a story here, one her sister did not wish her to know. Perhaps Brunton would explain why these two were now living in the Duke of Lyttleton’s house, and why they were so obviously devoted to Marisa.
London 1820—Five years later
“Lord Portman has a large estate in Sussex, not so far from ours.”
On a long drawn-out sigh, Helen carefully replaced her cup of tea back on its saucer on the edge of her sister’s desk.
“Please stop. I am not interested in Lord Gerald Portman, and therefore there is no need for you to sing his praises.”
Although Lord Portman was a nice enough chap, when she chose a husband the first word she thought of to describe him would not be “nice.”
Virile. Handsome. Masculine . . .
Marisa sat back in her chair and rubbed a hand over her eyes.
“I know you mean well, Marisa, but I’ve decided to stop looking for a husband.”
“You’re giving up?” her sister all but yelled. “You’re three and twenty, Helen. Time is marching on.” Marisa eyed her suspiciously. “You’re not still in love with Hadley?”
“Don’t be silly. It was youthful infatuation. I’m pleased for Hadley and Evangeline.” And she was. She had once thought that Hadley Fullerton, Duke of Claymore, was her Prince Charming but he had never shown an ounce of interest in her other than as the younger sister of his best friend, her brother Sebastian.
“Then what is stopping you finding a husband?”
Helen let her sister rant for a few more minutes before calmly saying, “I did not say I was giving up. I’m merely stepping back and allowing fate the chance to play a hand.”
Slumped over her desk, Marisa asked, “Why?”
“Because all the women I know found the love of their lives through fate. All of them married amazing, handsome men who did not primp and line up at balls to dance with them. I won’t find what I’m looking for in the middle of a waltz.”
Marisa stayed silent. There was nothing she could say. Helen’s logic was irrefutable.
“I understand what you are saying but what if fate does not throw a man in your path?”
“I’m sure fate has some plan for me. Or else I would have given in to everyone’s meddling. Sebastian is worse than you. He keeps inviting young men to dinner, only he picks the most sedate and boring men in London.”
“He’s our brother. He’s hardly likely to bring a rake home to meet you.”
They both giggled. “I don’t want a rake either.”
Marisa raised her eyebrow.
“Only an honorable rake then,” Helen conceded. “Sometimes I think the Libertine Scholars are the only handsome, rakish, honorable rogues left, and I’ve missed out.”
Marisa had married Maitland Spencer, the Duke of Lyttleton and one of a group of men society dubbed the Libertine Scholars due to their love of learning and wenching in their younger days.
Marisa preened. “It’s our fifth wedding anniversary in a few days, and I’m still giddy with love.”
Helen smiled and hugged her secret to herself. Marisa’s husband, Maitland, had asked Helen to come and stay to watch over the children and nanny while he whisked Marisa off to a secret location for a few days. He told her he wanted his beautiful wife all to himself, and he knew his wife would not leave their children with only the nanny.
Helen wished she could find a man as romantic as the Duke of Lyttleton.
Marisa added, “I must admit I would not have looked twice at the young men around the ton at the moment. Perhaps your idea of letting fate take a hand is the right one. You usually find something when you least expect.”
“It would help if I knew what I was looking for.”
Just then there was a knock on the door and the children’s nanny entered. “I’m sorry, Your Grace, but little Stephen is crying and won’t settle. He wants his mother.”
Her sister rose to see to her son. “Please wait, Helen. I want to discuss a trip to the modiste with you. I want the perfect dress to wear for my wedding anniversary.”
She nodded as Marisa left the room. Helen loved her nieces and nephews. They were orphans that Marisa had collected from the various orphanages she oversaw. She owned and controlled several. Five years ago, a carriage accident had left Marisa unable to have children, and Helen once thought her sister’s world had ended, but as she might have suspected, Marisa fought back, and with the love of Maitland set about building her lovely, if somewhat unconventional, family.
Speaking of which, Helen rose and moved to the wall to look at the portraits of Marisa and Maitland’s children, and the young men and women of the orphanages that Marisa had helped over the last five years. Her sister operated several to ensure the children were well looked after and educated, in order to move into a respectable trade and have a chance in life.
Marisa really was an amazing woman. Helen tried to help when she could but being unmarried meant she did not have the same freedom that Marisa had. She wished she could do more. Sometimes the wasteful life she led choked her. Caged in, a woman with a good brain, yet unable to use it for fear of being labeled a bluestocking. What was wrong with wanting to learn and experience the world? Balls, parties, gowns were not enough. Some days she thought she’d go mad from boredom.
Just then there was another soft knock at the door. She stayed silent, thinking that if there were no reply the person on the other side of the door would believe the room was empty. Instead, the door opened and in walked Mr. Clarence Homeward, her sister’s private secretary and overseer of the orphanages.
As always her eyes appreciated the man. She was not in his line of sight so for once she could stare to her heart’s content, and her body was very content.
Over the last five years he’d grown from a young and unsure lad into a “cannot help but notice him” man. He’d filled out. He was tall, big, and all lean, hard muscle. He still had his ebony ringlets but his chiseled cheekbones and strong jaw didn’t let his hair make him look feminine. His virility and beauty knocked the breath from her lungs every time she saw him.
The housemaids twittered around him, hanging on his every smile, hence why he was given his own bachelor quarters on the edge of Mayfair. She’d heard from her sister that Mr. Homeward had now bought the lease to his lodgings. He’d disrupted the household too much when he’d originally lived under this roof. The other reason was his younger brother, Simon. They wanted to be together in their own accommodations. She respected that.
She watched Mr. Homeward walk to Marisa’s desk and begin to go through her diary. He started muttering as he flicked through the pages, and Helen wondered if Marisa let him go through her private appointments.
“Good morning, Mr. Homeward.”
His fingers paused on a page as he looked in her direction, his eyes showing no embarrassment at being caught with his hand in Marisa’s diary. “Forgive me, Lady Helen, I did not realize you were still here.” Then he calmly returned to flicking the pages over.
She pushed off the wall and began to walk back to her chair by the desk. The woman in her was a tad irked that he could dismiss her presence so easily. Most men drank her in. She was known as a ton diamond, a title she usually hated. It made men most insincere.
“Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Homeward? You can’t seem to find what you need in my sister’s private papers.” She emphasized the word “private.”
He didn’t even look up or stop his searching. “Her Grace allows me access to her diary because she prioritizes the orphanages’ issues above everything else.”
The way he said it without even looking at her implied everything else was superfluous. As if her life of social calls, shopping, and balls was a waste. He was probably right but Helen didn’t know what else she could do. An unmarried lady of her standing was not free to gallivant around the city pursuing good causes. Not if she wanted to make a good match. For an unmarried lady her reputation was the only thing that was her own.
Her mouth dried and for the first time in a long while a man made her feel insignificant. Usually men flattered and preened around her. He must have noted her silence for he finally stopped his page shuffling and looked up at her.
“Do you know where Her Grace is?”
“She is with Stephen.”
More muttering. “Will she be long?”
“I have no idea.” Helen sat back down and decided to see if she could stare him out and make him as uncomfortable as he was trying to make her. She had no idea why he acted like this around her. His disapproval of her existence was obvious and unfair. Mr. Homeward was polite to her when she did happen to cross paths with him, and he always kept in the background, but his manner around her bordered on indifference, and that’s what bothered her.
She knew Mr. Homeward and Simon had come into Marisa’s life when her sister had just married and they’d been the target of her husband’s enemy. However, she did not know why or how Mr. Homeward had become Marisa’s man of business. No one would share that story with Helen. She was sure there was some dreadful tale behind it all because her sister would brush off any attempt by Helen to learn more. Curiosity was a terrible thing, but Mr. Homeward was an enigma. An attractive enigma that for some reason she wanted to know more about.
“Is there something urgent you need her for? I can always send a servant to fetch her.”
He stood up straight and made to leave the room. “No. It can wait.”
“What can wait?” Marisa asked as she breezed back into the room.
Mr. Homeward’s demeanor changed in a flash. A look of reverence entered his gaze as he approached Marisa. “Your Grace, I need to find a suitable time for you and I to pay a visit to the orphanage you have just acquired in Southwark. I think it should be sooner rather than later.”
As Marisa took her seat, she asked, “Did you look in my diary?”
Mr. Homeward flashed a look at Helen as if to say I told you so.
“Yes, but the only date free was the sixteenth.”
Helen sat up straight. Marisa would be away that day. That was during the few days that Maitland wanted to surprise his wife with a romantic liaison. She couldn’t let her sister agree to a trip on that day. But how could she stop her without giving the surprise away?
She cleared her throat. “Marisa, would you mind if I got more involved in your charity work? Perhaps I could take the lead on this new orphanage. With Mr. Homeward’s help that is.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Mr. Homeward’s tone was quite emphatic.
She leaned forward and ignored the virile man glowering at her and spoke to Marisa. “Since I am putting my other plans on hold, I need something to do with my time. I’d really like to help; you are getting too busy.”
Marisa looked at Mr. Homeward before looking at Helen. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. It’s a new orphanage, and we have not really taken stock of how it is operating. You—your sensibilities—may be shocked at what we find.”
Helen wracked her brain to think of another reason Marisa could not agree to that date. If she could shoot daggers at Mr. Homeward she would. “Mr. Homeward was just inferring how superfluous my life is. I really do want to help. Please let me do this,” she asked softly.
“Clarence!” Marisa scolded.
“I’m sorry, Your Grace, but I did not infer any such thing. I merely said you put the orphanages first.”
Marisa nodded and Helen could see her chewing her bottom lip, which meant she was thinking. “Do you know you are right, Clary. I have been putting them first and Maitland keeps reminding me I also have a family. Since Aunt Alison passed away, I have need for another helper. I give a lot of my time to the orphanages and it’s very rewarding but my husband and children need me too.” She turned to Helen. “Are you sure about this? If you want to take charge of the Southwark orphanage it will be a lot of hard, and often painful, emotional work. You’ll lose your heart to the children and it will become a lifelong commitment.”
Was she ready? Mr. Homeward’s eyes bored into her as if daring Helen to say yes. He was usually Mr. Calm, so totally collected, quiet, and emotionless, blending into the background, but right now his eyes blazed. She wanted to say yes just to see his reaction. However, she did not want to commit for the wrong reasons. The children deserved a total commitment.
Helen thought about the orphans Marisa had helped and she’d seen the joy her sister took from it. At the moment Helen’s life was empty. She lived in her brother’s home with his wife and children and felt like an imposer. Her sister and her brother both wanted her married off. Oh, she understood they wanted her happy too, but if she said yes to helping with the Southwark orphanage, her life would have some purpose. Then she could keep busy and let fate take a hand in sending her Prince Charming.
Besides, she grinned to herself, it would annoy Mr. Homeward.
“I would be honored if you’d let me become more involved, and I vow I will not let you down.”
She could almost swear that she saw steam coming from Mr. Homeward’s ears, and for a second she also thought she saw fear in his eyes. But when she looked again all she saw was anger. She sat up straighter.
Marisa clapped her hands together. “Perfect! Maitland will be pleased that I’m sharing my responsibilities. Clary, arrange for a trip to Southwark at your earliest convenience. You may have to meet with Helen beforehand to go over how our orphanage reviews are conducted.”
Mr. Homeward’s face was a mask of calm once more. He simply nodded at Marisa and said to Helen, “If you could send me a note when it would be suitable to meet?”
“Certainly. If it’s all right with Marisa, I’ll have a small desk moved in here too. Then I shall be close by should you need me,” and she smiled sweetly at Mr. Homeward, wanting to needle him more.
“That’s a wonderful idea, Helen.” Marisa smiled. “Now, Clary, if there is nothing more, Helen and I have a shopping trip to plan.”
Clary’s teeth were grinding as he calmly took his leave of the ladies. As much as he would’ve liked, he didn’t slam his office door, but closed it quietly behind him, and then he cursed. And cursed. And cursed.
His day had started out badly and just got a whole lot worse. His latest lover, a young opera singer, had decided she wanted more than he was prepared to give. More than they had agreed on when they’d started their affair, and on her way out of his bed this morning she’d almost unmanned him when he politely declined her offer and then ended their liaison.
Despite the life he had been forced to live as a young boy, he still enjoyed sex. Craved it even. However, he did not trust anyone, let alone himself, enough to let another person too close. Everyone in his life had deceived, lied to, or abused him. He was not about to open himself up to any type of intimacy. Sex—freely indulged sex—was necessary and enjoyable, and if he trusted no one he could never be hurt again.
But this, this having to work with Lady Helen, was far worse.
Lady Helen was his angel. She was the purest, most innocent, kind, and beautiful person he’d ever had the privilege to meet. She’d been so kind to a young man sitting on the floor in the corridor worrying when Her Grace had been injured. Taking the time to reassure him. But he’d been too wracked with pain to think much about her then.
He could still remember the moment he’d fallen under her spell. He had arrived for his first day in his new role, and he came out of his office to see a vision of purity and beauty standing in the foyer. From his life of darkness and sin, she was the glowing light of goodness.
The front door was open and the sun was shining behind her, giving her an ethereal glow. Her fair hair was piled on top of her head and laced with pearls that glinted in the sunlight. She was dressed in a gown of emerald, and it made the green of her eyes stand out in her clear, creamy complexion.
When she saw him she smiled. He barely heard her say hello as she walked toward him. Her face was exquisite. Her eyes were filled with warmth, and her luscious lips looked completely void of sin. It was obvious that she had no idea just how stunningly gorgeous she was.
He could barely breathe.
So pure. So innocent. So perfect . . .
He fell in love instantly.
Then he’d remembered that he was not good enough to lick the dirt off of her dainty slippers. He had always kept his distance because he was too scared to be near her in case his sordid past tainted her in some way. He ran his hand through his hair and chased those memories away.
His other hand slipped into his jacket pocket and gripped the key he found there. Remember what you have to lose. His fingers stroked the cold iron as he tried to calm the panic that rose.
She already haunted his nights. Now he would see her every day.
He would have to spend much of his time in her company.
It would be heaven.
It would be torture.
He could hardly wait.