August 1829, Kent
The night was dark and bloated with clouds, so heavy and dense that even the light of the full moon couldn’t penetrate their cover. All of Kent’s beautiful green grasses and wildflowers were cast in nearly impenetrable blackness. Everything was silent, save for the winds whispering of the coming rain. All decent folks had taken to bed hours before, except for a young woman who stood alone in the night, her hazel eyes flitting anxiously across the shadows shifting over the ground.
Her heart hammered against her ribs, and her throat tightened. She was a slender, graceful creature with red-blonde curls which peeked from beneath her cap, as shining and fine as if they’d been made of silk. It was much too late for a respectable woman to be out, much less a young lady.
“But I’ve come this far,” she murmured. “I cannot let my courage abandon me now.”
Casting a final glance at the townhouse—at her home—she set her shoulders and tilted her chin up. He was waiting for her, and she must not disappoint him. The young woman bit her lip, wrapped her arms around herself, and set a quick but measured pace to their meeting place. She knew the way well and had walked it often during the day, but it was eerily different at night. With every short, chilled draft of wind, shadows moved across the ground. Grasses and trees whispered, and she felt a sharp jolt of cold trace the path of her spine. Night made the familiar, beautiful landscape strange and foreign.
She took a deep breath, steadying herself. Her slippers were quiet against the cobblestones as she neared the familiar park. He’d meet her by the entrance. The young woman quickened her steps, halting by the sweeping grasses and scattered wildflowers, which spilt onto the carefully crafted pathway.
“I am here,” she said.
No one answered. She bit her lip and gazed at the sky, but the time was difficult to determine. It did not matter, anyway. He would be here soon. After everything they had done together and everything they were to each other, she knew he would come for her as promised. Still, she felt an irrational bolt of fear that he might not. That familiar nagging voice assaulted her thoughts, telling her that she might’ve dreamed up the events of the past several months and a love so passionate that it seemed scarcely possible for her to contain it.
Slowly, she seated herself on the stones. The grasses and flowers brushed against her skirts and arms with every whisper of the wind. She waited. And waited.
He had been delayed. Perhaps, he’d had difficulty in sneaking away from his grand manor. He would come, though. He’d promised.
The young woman raised her knees and let her chin rest atop them. “He is an honourable man,” she murmured. “A good man. He’ll always keep his word.”
Certainly, he would not agree to meet her and then abandon her without warning. Surely not. She plucked a pale blue flower from the ground and absentmindedly pulled off its petals, shredding them between her slender fingers.
Time passed. The night grew deeper and darker as the young woman waited. A strange sort of numbness came over her, sinking down into her very bones and freezing her from within. She could no longer really believe that he’d just been a little delayed.
“But if he is not delayed,” she whispered, unable to voice the thought in its entirety.
If he was not delayed, then he was not coming. It was as simple as that, but accepting the idea was another matter entirely.
The sky lightened, growing ever brighter with dawn’s first light.
The young woman drew a deep breath. Her eyes burned with tears. Only her pride kept them from falling freely down her pale face. She had been wrong about him.
So very wrong. He had not meant it. He had not come to her as he had promised.
Was it all a lie?
Her throat felt tight, and her chest ached. There seemed to be no other reasonable explanation for it. She had been wrong—so wrong. What could she do now? Her future and hopes had just fallen to pieces around her.
The clatter of hooves on stone reached her ears. She turned her head. A sleek, black carriage rumbled towards her. Choking back a sob, she slowly rose to her feet and tried to gather her composure once more. The carriage halted before her, and the door opened. A woman peered out from the plush interior. Her eyes were cold and sharp. “I hope you know now what he is truly like.”
The young woman fidgeted with her skirts. “Yes,” she admitted quietly.
A low, exhausted sigh came from the carriage’s occupant. “Get in.”
The young woman had no choice but to obey.
Several months earlier
Miss Liliane Ward leaned forward. Her eyes sparkled, and her coral lips curled upwards into a delighted smile. She wore a green gown embellished with tiny, shining pearls. Her red-blonde curls caressed her rosy cheeks and curved around her pointed chin. Liliane knew that there were some who claimed she was a great beauty, but she herself had never thought so. Women who were great beauties looked more like her dearest friend, Eleanor.
Lady Eleanor Wesbrook, Liliane’s oldest and dearest friend, was in high spirits, elegant and attentive to the guests at her soiree. She was a woman who spoke not only with her voice but with her hands. As she regaled the gathered ladies with her tales of Scotland and marriage, she emphasised each word with flicks of her slender wrists and waves of her fingers. For her part, Liliane was content to watch and listen. It had been some time since Liliane had seen her friend who, after marrying Lord Henry Wesbrook, had settled in Edinburgh.
“I am beginning to think,” Lady Mummert, one of the many ladies who kept an estate nearby, said, “that it is a miracle we managed to get you for even a little while here in Kent. You sound so attached to Scotland that I am surprised you were willing to leave.”
“I do feel freer in Scotland than in England. I feel like there are fewer expectations for me there. I’ve made it no secret that I’ve always felt myself too imperfect for London society,” Eleanor admitted, “but I shall also confess that I am half-starved for good company.”
In truth, Eleanor was a vicar’s daughter, and her marriage to one of the ton had been something of a scandal. Liliane greatly suspected that her friend’s fondness for Scotland stemmed from her desire to be free of the gossip which surrounded someone of common blood marrying a lord.
“Will you be in London for the Season?” Liliane asked.
When she had last asked, Eleanor had not been certain of her plans. Lord Wesbrook had business partners in Edinburgh forever vying for his attention. Being a new bride, Eleanor was loathe to be apart from her husband. It was terribly romantic how deeply in love the pair of them were.
“No,” Eleanor said, her easy smile fading a little. “Unfortunately, we cannot be away for that long. Perhaps, we’ll be able to stay in London for the next one, though.”
“A pity,” said Lady Henrietta.
Lady Henrietta was Liliane’s stepmother. She was a stately widow of fifty years with thick, dark hair and striking grey eyes. Her face was curiously expressive, capable of both softness and sharpness. Today, her countenance was gentle and graceful. She carried her years well, her smooth face affected by only a few spiderweb-thin lines around her eyes and her forehead. Liliane had heard that her stepmother had once been a great beauty. She still was.
She had also heard of how her stepmother was so generous and kind, and sometimes, she still was. Liliane felt a pang in her heart and looked away. She needed to pretend that all was well. Even if Eleanor knew the truth of it all, this was her day. Her event, her last soiree before she returned to Scotland for so many months. Liliane would’ve felt wretched if she had allowed her own feelings to cast a shadow upon such a bright event.
Still, Eleanor’s polite smile became a little strained. Liliane curled her fingers into the fabric of her skirts and silently prayed for her friend to remain quiet. One day, Liliane feared that her friend would no longer be moved by her pleas and entreaties. One day, Liliane feared Eleanor would reveal everything, all the secrets that had burned inside both of them for so long.
“It is a pity that I cannot stay,” Eleanor said at last. “But I will try and return as soon as I can. Perhaps, when I do, we can turn our attention to finding our dearest Lily a suitable husband.”
“Unless we find one this Season,” Lady Henrietta said. “It would be wonderful if I could find husbands for all three of my girls this Season.”
“Oh! Where are Jane and Paulina?” Lady Margaret asked.
“Regrettably, they’ve both taken ill,” Lady Henrietta replied.
Lady Mummert’s eyes widened. “Is it very serious?”
Lady Henrietta waved a dismissive hand. “No, not at all. Our physician has it well-in-hand and has assured me that my girls will be well enough soon.”
Liliane felt a bit of pity for Doctor Smith, the family’s favoured physician, and the staff. Jane was especially vicious when she was ill. She was doubtless running the staff ragged with her demands.
“I am certain they’ll both be well by the time we’ve returned home,” Lady Henrietta said. “I fell ill before they did, and as you can see, I have recovered nicely. You were quite fortunate not to be home, Lily, or you might’ve fallen sick, also.”
Liliane kept smiling, but her stomach churned. She had spent the past couple of weeks with Eleanor, blessedly away from home and all its difficulties. That word didn’t nearly encompass all the problems Liliane faced at home, but she didn’t want to give her troubles a more specific term. The truth was more alarming.
Eleanor tilted her head, looking over Lady Henrietta’s shoulder. “It appears the ballroom is ready. Shall we?’
There was a general murmur of agreement as the ladies rose. Liliane remained close to her stepmother as they all exited the fine parlour and walked to the ballroom.
“Once Eleanor has returned to Scotland, you should arrange to visit her,” Lady Henrietta said. “The country air does wonders for raising one’s spirits.”
Liliane nodded, but she doubted such plans would ever come to fruition. Her stepmother might’ve been the one to suggest them, but Liliane had no doubt that when the day came for her to depart for Scotland, Lady Henrietta would’ve already devised several reasons for why Liliane inexplicably couldn’t set a foot outside of Kent.
They took the familiar path from the parlour to the grand ballroom, the beautiful colours of sunset streaming into the room and illuminating the gilded walls and marble floor.
“And there they are! The two most luminous ladies in the room!” Liliane’s father, Captain Ward, approached them. He grinned rakishly and bowed to Lady Henrietta. “May I have the first dance?”
Lady Henrietta smiled. “I suppose. It has been a long time, after all.”
It had been months, actually. Liliane remembered it well, as she did every time her father was home. Those were the only times, fleeting as they were, that Liliane could really pretend that her family was together and happy.
“Too long,” George replied, his brown eyes soft. “It pains me to be away for so long from the both of you.”
But it was necessary, as George had explained time and time again in Liliane’s youth. Being an earl’s second son was a difficult prospect. More difficult still was managing the Earl of Lyndon’s many estates and ensuring that all his tenants were content. The Earl of Lyndon was an old man, and his eldest son and successor had yet to abandon his rakish ways and treat his inheritance with any sense of dignity. Someday, Liliane’s father insisted that his brother would grow into the role, but that had not happened yet.
“You’ll have the second dance, of course,” her father said, grinning at Liliane.
She nodded and clasped her hands before her. “I shall look forward to it, Father.”
He gave her a final grin and turned away. Lady Henrietta’s hand rested on the crook of his elbow. Liliane followed them with her eyes, but she was mostly resigned to remaining a wallflower until the first dance was completed. She stood near the wall, letting the music and the vision of swirling dancers sink within her. She wanted to hold onto the moment—to imprint it in her mind like a painting and hold it forever. Moments like this came so seldomly to her, and once her father left again, she knew enjoyable occasions such as Eleanor’s soiree would be rare.
The song ended, and Liliane straightened her back. Her father and stepmother both strode toward her. Lady Henrietta’s head was tipped back, her eyes shining. “I shall surrender him to you now, Lily. He is all yours.”
Her father bowed. “May I have this dance, young lady?”
Liliane’s heart was in her throat. She extended her hand and let her father guide her into the ring of dancing couples. George smiled affectionately. “Is that gown a new one? I don’t think I’ve seen it before.”
It had been purchased over a year before, but Liliane wasn’t surprised her father had never seen it.
“Indeed,” she replied, lying to spare his feelings. “Do you think it suits me?”
“I think any gown would suit you. You have your mother’s beauty. I daresay she might have been beautiful, even wearing dirty rags. You look more like her every day, too. I wish she could’ve been here to see you.”
Liliane’s chest ached at the mention of her mother, who’d died when she was a young girl, only ten years of age. Memories of her mother were scarce, but sometimes, Liliane still missed the mother she had never really gotten to know. It was strange knowing that once there had been a mother who truly loved her always.
Once, Lady Henrietta had loved her. When she had married Liliane’s father, she had been the recently widowed wife of a baron, and she had been so kind in those early days. Liliane knew that her stepmother had. Such affection was surely incapable of being faked. But something had changed over time, and Liliane had lost the doting stepmother who treated her just as she did her own daughters. She had lain awake many nights trying to discover precisely what she might’ve done to draw her stepmother’s distaste, but she had never managed to learn what that might be. Still, she hoped—especially in those brief moments when her stepmother was kind—that her loving stepmother might one day return to her.
“We met at an event like this,” her father continued. “I still remember the way that the light of the setting sun caught in her hair.”
“Yes?” Liliane asked.
She tried to imagine how her mother would look, based on the portraits that she had seen around the estate. They did greatly resemble one another. Both she and her mother had the same colour of hair and the same delicate, hazel eyes. The same high cheekbones and soft-featured face.
They danced, and Liliane’s mind whirled. The air was heady and lovely with the sound of music and scattered laughter. Despite not dancing for some time, she found that her feet remembered the steps well. She and her father moved elegantly over the floor, weaving through the other couples in flashes of brightly coloured gowns and flickering candlelight.
Twice more, they danced before George led his daughter from the centre of the room. Lady Henrietta waited for them.
“I would not want to keep you for the whole night,” George said, “with so many gentlemen seeking a dance with you.”
There weren’t that many, really. Liliane did not spend as much time among the ton as a lady of her status ought to, but her father couldn’t possibly know that. She had not told him and had no intention of revealing the truth of everything that happened while he was away from home and managing his businesses and affairs.
Still, Liliane said nothing as her father took Lady Henrietta’s hand and led her back among the dancers, just as the next song began. Liliane caught the sight of Eleanor coming towards her. It seemed she had left her husband with a couple of gentlemen, clustered together and laughing brazenly.
With a gentle smile, Eleanor held out her hands and took Liliane’s in hers. “Why don’t we sneak away for a little while?” she asked.
“That sounds nice.”
The ladies slipped away from the joy of the dancers and into the nearby corridor. They linked arms and walked aimlessly through the unfamiliar halls. This property was a recent purchase by Eleanor’s new husband. It was beautiful and decadent, but for some reason, it made Liliane long for the days of her girlhood, when she and Eleanor had played in much simpler, more familiar halls and rooms.
“It has been wonderful to have you here,” Eleanor said. “It is like—just like before I married. As if we’ve lost no time at all.”
“It really has been. Even if you cannot stay, I am glad that you came to visit us.”
“To visit you mostly,” Eleanor replied, smiling slyly, “but don’t tell the other ladies.”
Liliane smiled. “I will not.”
“I will try to return as quickly as I can,” Eleanor continued. “It pains me to be parted from you, but being such a new wife, I fear that I have…so many duties to attend to.”
“I know. I cannot expect you to change your whole life to—to stay here just because I want you to,” Liliane said.
Eleanor pressed her lips together and fell quiet for a long moment, looking as though she were searching for some way to refute that argument. “How are things at home?” she asked instead.
Liliane shrugged. “They are the same as they always are, Ellie.”
Eleanor furrowed her brow. “And your father?”
“Departs in a few days’ time,” Liliane said.
“Don’t,” Liliane interrupted. “Please. I know what you’re going to say, and I cannot tell him. I just cannot.”
“I know, I know,” Eleanor replied. “But I also—I mean, how do you know she isn’t simply making idle threats? The way Lady Henrietta treats you is just—just disgraceful! I really feel as though you must do something. I’ve kept silent for your sake, but…Lily, if you….”
“I know, and I am sorry for putting such a burden on you.”
“You’ve never been and never will be a burden to anyone,” Eleanor said. “Least of all to me.”
They halted and stood alone together in the empty corridor. Liliane could scarcely bear to look at her friend. She knew she had found only sympathy and understanding, but she still felt vaguely ashamed when Eleanor looked at her with such earnest sympathy.
“I am dreading my father’s absence,” Liliane said softly, “but I shall manage. I have for years now.”
“You should not have to manage in your own home.”
“I know that, too.”
Eleanor clasped her friend’s hands in hers. “Then, you must marry and leave Kent. The Season is approaching. That will be your opportunity to finally be free.”
Liliane shook her head sadly. “That will not be possible if my stepmother has any say. It is clear that she is determined to see me a spinster.”
“She will not be able to,” Eleanor insisted fiercely. “If she takes Jane and Paulina to any social occasions, she’ll have to explain your absence, and Henrietta can only claim that you’re ill so many times before people begin to gossip.”
Liliane bit her lip. She didn’t want anyone to gossip about her or her family. She just wanted everything to be like it had been so long ago—when her stepmother had loved her, and it had seemed like they really could be a peaceful, happy family.
The clock chimed, heralding that they’d been away for some time. Eleanor sighed and shook her head. Her shoulders slumped a little, and she looked so very tired.
“You should return to your guests,” Liliane said gently. “You’ve given me a couple of wonderful weeks, Ellie. I love you for that.”
Eleanor nodded slowly. “But remember this. You know as well as I how passionate some of these young bachelors are. If you find a man who is passionate about you, your stepmother will not be enough to thwart him. If you can only marry, you’ll be free to live as you ought. I know that sounds frightening, but it is really the only thing.”
It sounded so easy when Eleanor worded it like that, but not wanting to upset her friend, Liliane nodded. She could pretend that marriage was possible and that everything would be fine. That was, until her father inevitably left. Then, reality would set in all too harshly.
“A Wicked Duke to Her Rescue” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Being mistreated by her stepmother her whole life, the fiery Liliane Ward is trying to live a peaceful life, which leaves no time for romance. Certainly no time for the seductive stranger she keeps running into… However, when a flaming encounter at a ball reveals that he is the newly named Duke of Gillingham, remaining unnoticed will become much harder.
Can her desire for the Duke make her dance on the wild side?
Harry, the tempting Duke of Gillingham, is convinced that love is not in the cards for him. However, things are about to change when he meets a mysterious servant-girl who insists on keeping her identity a secret. After her very seductive appearance at a ball, he is even more intrigued, but every time he tries to get close to her, she disappears.
Will he manage to discover the identity of the mysterious woman who always leves him wanting so much more?
Even if the obstacles between them seem greater than their fierce connection, Liliane and Harry find themselves bound together by their sizzling passion. With Harry facing his own demons and Liliane’s stepmother threatening her with misfortune, they will soon be forced to make a decision… Will their sinful feelings be strong enough to thwart their families wicked intentions? Or will they kneel to everyone else’s desires and abandon their own?
“A Wicked Duke to Her Rescue” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.