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Authors: Jerusha Moors

Abandon

BOOK: Abandon
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Abandon

 

By Jerusha Moors

 

Copyright @ 2015 Jerusha Moors

 

All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the author:

Jerusha Moors

Portland, Maine

 

Chapter One

 

“Lovell, man, please tell me that we can leave this tedious ball and find better amusement.” Edward Pryce, Earl of Thornton, was a handsome man and never more so when he was dressed in formal black evening attire.  But he was in profound fear of the white-clad debutantes and their eagle-eyed mamas who stood observing the small group of men clustered near the terrace doors. Thornton edged around the group, keeping his back to the wall, his height giving him an advantage to observe any women encroaching too close to them.

Aubrey St Clare, Viscount Lovell, grimaced. “I promised both my dear mama and our good friend George that I would stay until the supper dance. Once that occurs, we can leave with haste and go to the club.”

Thornton rolled his eyes. “Surely we can do better than White’s. Perhaps that new gaming hell with a visit to the brothel next door would shake you out of your doldrums.”

“Lovell is too much of a saint now to even think of such entertainments. He left those diversions behind at school, or perhaps in Italy.” Harry Wilton, Lord Blakesley, affected a drawl. “Although I don’t understand why you care what your mother says when you have no intention of marrying anytime soon. You have only just returned from your years abroad. I'm sure she can give you some leeway and time to find a bride.”

Aubrey shrugged. “I am here for George, since he’s the first of our little company to get leg-shackled. He and Lady Harriet especially asked that we attend as it is their engagement ball after all. But I did not agree to dance or even converse with any of the young ladies present.” He gazed around the brightly lit ballroom, his eyes hard and expression stern.

Blakesley laughed. “I swear that those two young ladies standing with Lady Austen took two steps backward when you glared at them just now. You have most assuredly dashed any hopes they might have had at your attendance tonight.”

Thornton smirked. “Perhaps they have designs on you and your estate, Blakesley, old man, instead of Lovell. Your time is drawing near also.”

“I don’t fear that, Thornton. With you in the room, all the mamas are estimating your income and the young ladies are in adulation of your Greek godlike looks.” Blakesley was a good looking man, but knew that his appearance would always come in second to his friends. Thornton did in truth look like Apollo with his blond hair curling over his collar and his blue eyes creased with laugh lines in his striking face. He loved to ride and fence and his body exhibited a muscular form that attracted notice, his shoulders broad under the fine linen of his coat.

“I believe that Lovell will currently win any contest with the ladies. His Byronic looks and mysterious travels are attracting all the attention, as well as his disdain for the fairer sex. There is nothing more guaranteed to attract notice from the ladies than indifference. And he is new “meat”, so to speak.” Thornton did not appear worried about competition.

Aubrey snorted in an inelegant manner. “I am no one’s “meat” I will have you know. And I do not intend to marry – ever. My cousin can have the title and estates with my thanks, no matter what my mother may say.”

“I would think that Lady Harriet may have something to say about that. She has been casting a gimlet eye on us all since the dancing started. Now that she has caught Aversley in her coils, she will be matchmaking for his friends I fear.” Blakesley did not appear to be too concerned, but Thornton lifted his head and examined the room with care, as if afraid that Lady Harriet Everton had him in her sights.

“Relax, Thornton. Lady Harriet is much too busy tonight to bother with finding your future bride.” Lovell sighed, then straightened as a young woman in a pale pink dress clasped her hands together to her breast and gazed at him with appreciation. He rolled his eyes and turned his back with care, not wanting to give the young miss any encouragement.

Blakesley had seen the entire incident and barked a laugh. ”I think that Thornton has the right of it. The less assurance you give to the ladies, the more they think that they can catch the elusive prey.”

Aubrey grimaced. It was going to be a long few weeks until George, Baron Aversley, celebrated his nuptials to Lady Harriet. Until that time Lovell, Blakesley, and Thornton were under strict orders to attend the many fetes and luncheons leading up to the grand event. Thornton and Blakesley would do their duty with minimal effort, escaping to the card rooms or their clubs when allowed. Lovell, who was closest to Aversley and who would be standing up with him at the wedding, needed to maintain a more overt appearance. It did not matter that he had just returned to England after five years abroad and had many duties towards his estates to fulfill. His father had been ill for several months leading to his death last year.  The manager left in charge had not maintained it as he should or at least Aubrey needed to see if that was true. It had taken some time for word to reach him in La Spezia and even then he had delayed his return. He could no longer put it off when the letter from George had arrived announcing his upcoming nuptials and asking for Aubrey's support.

“Smile, Lovell, smile. That gloomy face will never win fair maiden,” Thornton had decided to join in the banter. His grin faded as another matron glided too close to the three men for his comfort. “Perhaps we should adjourn to the card room for the nonce.”

“Ah, Carlisle has arrived. And he has Lady Lucilla on his arm. I had not realized that she had come down from the North,” Blakesley said with a sneer. “I cannot believe he brought her here.”

“What do you mean? She is Lady Harriet’s attendant. Of course she would attend the engagement ball.” Thornton disapproved of Blakesley’s tendency to gossip.

Aubrey felt an icy tendril chase down his back. He casually asked, “Lady Lucilla?” He would not turn to the door to look, he could not move. But the prickling on the back of his neck let him know who had arrived even before Blakesley spoke.

Blakesley replied, unperturbed by Thornton’s frown. “Lady Lucilla Blount, the Earl of Wakefield’s sister. You remember Richard Blount. He was ahead of us by a few years at Oxford. He married a girl from near York, Anne someone or other a few years ago.”

Thornton sniffed. “Lady Lucilla is quite respectable now. The Duke of Carlisle is great friends with Wakefield and he has quite rehabilitated her reputation. I heard a rumor that he intends to marry her and make her his Duchess, so she will outrank you. I would not sneer at Carlisle’s intended if I were you.”

Aubrey was sweating now and had gone quite pale under the tan he still wore from the hot Italian sun. This was his worst nightmare, Lucilla here and not married or betrothed. He had never asked but he thought for certain that she must have had a triumphant Season and married almost at once. The men in London must have recognized her unique manner and outstanding beauty when she had her come out. He had not seen her in over five years, but the memory he carried of her far transcended that of any other woman present in the room.

Thornton and Blakesley were still squabbling over Carlisle and his companion. Aubrey made an effort and composed himself since his two friends were too distracted to notice his agitation. He took a deep breath and in an offhand manner turned towards the entrance to the ball room. A tall ginger-headed man stood there speaking with George and Lady Harriet.  He was tall and good-looking with the aristocratic bearing of his ducal forbears.

Aubrey could not see anyone with him. Where was she? And then George stepped back, revealing the subject of his dreams and despair.

Lucy had changed. She was still slender, but no longer a girl. She had blossomed into a stunning and elegant woman. Her chestnut hair was in some loose arrangement, not curling over her shoulders as the last time he had seen her. She wore a pale peach gown, low-cut in a manner that displayed much more cleavage than he remembered and by god, he thought he remembered every inch of her body. He wanted to rip the shawl off of the Dowager Countess of Hereford and rush over to cover that pale display. She was too far away for him to see her eyes, but he did not need to. The chocolate brown eyes, wide and open, dominated her heart-shaped face, the gateway to her soul. She could never hide what she was thinking if you just looked in her eyes.

Aubrey’s breath seized in his chest and he thought he might faint. This was so much worse than he had ever dreamed and he had envisioned their meeting many times. He tugged on his cravat and spun on his heel, “I am going to get some air” as he walked to the terrace doors, trying not to run.

Once he was outside he rushed off the terrace, down the stairs to the garden. There was a bench situated below the terrace railing above and he sank down, head in his hands and mind in a whirl. He drew in a deep gasp of air, trying to regulate his breathing and regain his composure. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall behind him. He could take a moment and then try to consider how he was going to slip away.

 

Chapter Two

 

Lady Lucilla Blount gave every appearance of icy calm and serene reserve. She would not let Carlisle down. He was her dear friend and did not deserve disapprobation from his peers on her account. She knew that she was in good looks tonight, a fit companion to a Duke, even if her décolletage might be a trifle low for a single woman. But she was no longer a girl and most considered her on the shelf, so she would do as she pleased, as long as Harriet and Carlisle were happy.

In truth, she was nervous. She hated ton affairs and seldom came to town after the spectacular failure of her first Season. She could not abide the gossip that still ran rampant about her. But Harriet wanted her here to celebrate her wedding to George, Baron Aversley. Dearest George, he was so kind to Harriet and she deserved all that was good. Lucy smiled at her friend where she stood on George’s arm, triumphant in her happiness. George’s mother, a witch, thought her son could do so much better, even if George was so much in love with Harriet, the youngest daughter of the dissolute Earl of Brandwine. But Harriet was sweet and pretty, just as in love with George as he was her, though loth to cause a rift with his mother. George had dug his heels in and his mother was currently rusticating at his country home, on probation until she could behave at the pre-wedding festivities.

Carlisle looked down at her and patted her hand where it rested on his arm, reassuring her that he was here to support her, even if no one else spoke to her this evening. As if anyone here would gainsay the Duke of Carlisle or be rude to her in front of him. It would be the subtle cuts in the ladies retiring room or pointed remarks spoken just as she passed that the ladies of the ton would use to show their contempt for her. Even worse would be the leering glances of the men and the rubbing too close, the too-tight embraces, if she chose to dance. Surely she had paid enough penance for the wildness of a grieving girl, let too free in her first bid at society.

“Lucy, please smile. Reassure me that I did the right thing in dragging you from your Northern stronghold.” Harriet clasped Lucilla close and whispered in her ear. Harriet drew back and examined her friend, seeing the tautness of her lips and the worry in her eyes. “I need you here and I want you to share my happiness.” Harriet chewed at her lower lip, a nervous habit that just endeared her all the more to Lucy.

She pushed a stray curl behind Harriet’s ear and gave a little smile. “Oh, my dear, you know that I am most happy for you. George is mad for you and will do all possible to make you a wonderful life. I am quite envious.”

“He is quite perfect, is he not?” Harriet beamed. “But, Lucy”, she whispered, “what about Carlisle? Could you not find the same happiness with him?”

“Carlisle is my dear friend and nothing more. I don’t expect to ever find the ideal man such as you have discovered and I am quite resigned to my fate.” Lucy grinned. “But dear, you and George must circulate amongst your guests. Do not worry; Carlisle will take good care of me.”

Harriet nodded and looked up at George by her side, her eyes shining. His look was just as tender as he drew her away to speak to the Countess of Lisle and her three marriageable daughters. They were all glaring daggers at Lucy while trying to simper at Carlisle at the same time. She sighed again and Carlisle looked down. He was so impossibly tall even if she wasn’t particularly petite.

“Would you like to dance?” he asked. “Or perhaps a refreshment?”

Lucilla gazed around the crowded ballroom. No one was giving her the cut, but neither did anyone look particularly friendly. Several of the rakes who would be all too welcoming if she went anywhere near them without the Carlisle at her side was the only exceptions.

“Perhaps some air would be invigorating. It seems so warm in here, don’t you think?”

Carlisle murmured in agreement and guided her to the terrace doors on the far side of the room. He received greetings and acknowledgements as they passed though none were for her. But he held her arm and kept by her side, dispensing frosty stares at any of the dowagers who were too pointed in their disapproval.

No one was on the terrace and Lucilla finally relaxed. She walked to the railing, staring out at the dark gardens. Carlisle had stopped a few steps back and she could feel him staring at her back. She closed her eyes and tensed. In her haste to remove herself from the glowers in the ballroom she had placed herself in a more awkward situation. She had known this moment was coming, it was one of the reasons she had delayed her arrival in London until today. But she did not want to have this conversation now at all.

“Lucilla,” his voice was low and seductive in the dark.

“Jamie, please,” she turned to look over her shoulder, hoping to put him off for at least one more day, just until she felt stronger. She didn’t want to hurt him and she needed more time to find the right words to make that happen. But she could tell that he wanted no more delays and she bowed her head, awaiting the inevitable.

“Lucilla, you know that I have the utmost regard and affection for you.” Carlisle had taken her fingers into one of his big hands while he tipped her face up with the other hand so that she had to look into his earnest and dear face. “I am sure that your brother would approve and I would do all possible to make you happy. Would you do I the honor of accepting my declaration of respect and admiration for you and make me the happiest man on earth?”

A sound from the garden below distracted Lucy. Was someone down there? But Jamie had not moved, was still staring at her, his question unanswered, and she needed to settle this. She reached up and placed her hand at the side of his face.

“Jamie, you do me the greatest of honor,” she spoke with precision, determined to find the exact words that would somehow keep Jamie as a friend. James Lennox, Duke of Carlisle, was a handsome, wealthy man who would make some woman a wonderful husband. But he deserved a woman whom he could love and who would love him in return. He was too good a friend and Lucy would not take his generous sacrifice, even if he was willing.

“It is no good, my dear. You will not have me?” She had taken too much time and Jamie had drawn the proper conclusion. He was always too astute, especially when it came to Lucy. He had been her friend since her first Season, when he had stood by her in the midst of the muddle she had made.

“I cannot. I love you so much as a friend and brother. But I will never marry. And you should find a more suitable companion, a lady to marry and love you in all the ways that you deserve.” Lucy ached, her entire body tense and still, hoping that Jamie would understand. He lifted his free hand to cover the small hand that she still held to the side of his face.

“You know that I find you suitable or I would not have asked,” Carlisle was gentle but firm.

“Yes, I know and I much appreciate your friendship and how you have supported me in these last years. Richard is also excessively grateful for your aid in rehabilitating our name which I so disgraced in the eyes of the ton.” The bitterness with which she said this surprised Lucy.  She must have recovered from that mad Season by now. Her life currently was calm, pleasurable and serene.

So she tried for a lighter tone. “I do intend to live my life at home with only occasional trips to town. I am happy there, indeed, I would be there now if not for Harriet. It is not the type of life the Duchess of Carlisle must lead. She must be a leader of the Ton, holding balls and gracing social affairs. I could not make you happy.” She leaned her forehead against his broad chest. If anyone came out on the terrace and saw her, she would be compromised once more. But she wanted to give him some comfort if she could and she would deal with any fallout later.

Carlisle stepped back though, correct as always. He did not smile but she thought that his face, while not smiling, had relaxed and the tightness around his eyes had eased.

“I do wish that you felt otherwise, my dear. You are too young to give up all hope of husband and family. Do you not want children of your own someday?” He was so kind and Lucy thought her heart might break, but she could not give in. It would be a good life with Jamie, placid and unruffled, and her ducal status would force the Ton to accept her if reluctantly. But she had a life of her own that she would not leave and he had his own duties and responsibilities. There would never be the passion that she had once had and for a moment the idea tempted her but she could not do it.

Slowly Lucilla shook her head and Carlisle seemed to finally concede. “Then I suppose we should return to the ballroom. Perhaps you might grace me with a dance?”

Lucilla stared into his face in the light of the torches on the terrace, but his eyes were kind and he gave her a small smile. She was reassured that there was no heartbreak on either side, maybe just a little regret. And she knew how to live with regret. She took his arm and turned back to the doors.

Below in the gardens, Aubrey St. Clare stared into the darkness beyond him, stunned on what he had overheard. Lucy should have accepted the man’s offer, he thought. And it was his fault.

BOOK: Abandon
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