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Authors: Elise de Sallier

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BOOK: Protection
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“Yes.” Nathaniel had learned his lesson the hard way. “I’m sorry you were put at risk,
again
,
because you weren’t fully informed.”

“I suppose
I can understand why you didn’t say anything . . .” Lisa offered hesitantly, reinforcing
Nathaniel’s belief that she was too forgiving for her own good.

“But there is no denying my good intentions nearly paved a path to hell for us both.”

She whimpered, and he could stand the distance between them no longer. Opening his
arms, he breathed a sigh of relief when she moved into his embrace.

“Promise me, Nathaniel. No more secrets.”

“I promise.” He held her close, resting his cheek against the top of her head. “No
more secrets.”

Chapter 20

Daunting

Lisa awoke with a start.

“It’s all right. I’ve got you,” Nathaniel whispered, not for the first time, and she
wondered if he had slept at all.

Spending the night after her abduction wrapped in his arms—albeit dressed in her most
modest nightgown and with the bedding between them—almost made up for the horrors
of the day before, horrors that had crept into her dreams.

“What time is it?” she asked, snuggling into his embrace.

“Morning.” He kissed her forehead.

“Did you get any
rest?”

“I’ll be fine.” He shrugged. “After yesterday, watching over you was good for my soul.”

Lisa nodded in understanding. It had been good for hers also. “Thank you for staying.
I don’t think I’d have slept a wink without you.”

“It was my pleasure.” He smiled. “Although I have to admit I’m glad the wedding is
not many days hence, as my resolve has been sorely tested.” His smile faded, replaced
by a look of uncertainty. “That’s if you think you’ll still want to . . . I mean,
after what happened, you might prefer to wait . . . I don’t want you to think I’m
assuming anything . . .”


Shh
 . . .” She cut him off with a finger to his lips. “Nothing
those horrid men did has anything to do with what we will share as husband and wife.”

Nathaniel’s shoulders sagged, and she chuckled, relieved that he didn’t view her differently
after their ordeal. Banishing thoughts of the horrors that might have been, or the
pleasures yet to come, she focused on the present.

“For now, I think you’d better remove yourself to the chair. Papa has been very obliging,
but I’d rather we didn’t shock the rest of the household.”

“Sweetheart, you’ve nothing to worry about.” Nathaniel brushed a lock of hair from
her face before removing himself to the more respectable location beside her bed.
“After yesterday, the household—I imagine the entire city—would begrudge you little.”

His words proved prophetic, the newspapers making a terrible fuss over her abduction,
with bold headlines and numerous pages devoted to the story. Lord Copeland’s plan
to sell the King’s beloved cousin, and the young girls he had bought or stolen from
the streets of London, on the slave markets of Eastern Europe made for titillating
reading. The populace was horrified to learn such practices were occurring under the
very noses of the authorities. Calls for increased protection for girls and young
women resounded loudly across London, from the streets to the throne room. However,
it was the lords, who held power over the parliament and too often had vested interests
and took pleasure in the trade of young lives, who would need to be swayed.

With all the publicity the crime received, the city constabulary applied themselves
diligently to the matter. The perpetrators were quickly detained—Maggie, the fair-haired
woman, amongst them. They were quick to give up their contacts and accomplices in
exchange for leniency in sentencing—deportation rather than the death sentence.

“Do you think we have anything to fear from Lord Edgeley?” Lisa asked while she and
Nathaniel ate their breakfast off matching silver trays in her room.

“Not at all.” He reached to squeeze her hand “The cur was in no fit state to divulge
anything
after his encounter with Hugh, and considering what the King has in store for him . . .”

Lisa shuddered, deciding she’d rather not know the details.

She briefly considered taking up the doctor’s suggestion of a day spent recovering
in bed. But some of the more prurient-minded of society’s members were speculating
about the timing of her rescue, intimating it might not have occurred soon enough
to protect her virtue. They expected her to postpone the wedding permanently,
and disappear from public life altogether, as surely a young lady of refined breeding
and tender sensibilities would not recover from such an ordeal.

Refusing to be intimidated, Lisa chose to face the day head-on, an audience with her
future cousins-in-law dauntingly high on the list of her priorities.

“Lady Anneliese.”

Eleanor’s greeting was accompanied by a respectful curtsy, but the expression on her
face led Lisa to believe the viscountess was dreading the encounter even more than
she was. Dressed impeccably to boost her confidence, and with Nathaniel by her side,
Lisa matched the other woman’s actions.

“Lady Cahill,” she said, her tone respectful but cool. “Lord Cahill.”

“Please, call me Michael,” he said, bowing low over her hand. “I trust you are well
after your ordeal?”

Lisa assured him that she was, thanking him for the part he’d played in her rescue.

Michael nodded and then directed a look at Eleanor. The beautiful, fair haired lady
raised her chin and faced Lisa squarely.

“I apologise for my treatment of you at Worthington, Lady Anneliese. I hope you can
find it in your heart to forgive me.”

Sighing inwardly at Eleanor’s stony expression and emotionless delivery, Lisa considered
her options. The tables had been well and truly turned, and she now held the undisputed
position of power. With a few well-chosen phrases, it was not inconceivable she could
ruin Eleanor’s standing in society, something of great importance to the other woman.
Or she could take a different approach.

“May I speak with Lady Cahill privately?”

Lisa’s request was met with mutually concerned expressions on Nathaniel’s and Michael’s
faces, but they did not deny her. She waited until she was alone with Eleanor to respond
to her apology . . . such as it was. But before she could address the coolly spoken
phrases, Eleanor blurted out a truer reflection of her feelings.

“I realise I shouldn’t have put you at risk when I thought you were nothing more than
a maid, as I acknowledge that was unacceptable behaviour for one of my station.”

Lisa’s back stiffened. The thought crossed her mind she should insist Eleanor volunteer
at the charitable home in hopes of challenging her opinion of her so-called superiority,
but she dismissed the idea as soon as it formed. It would be unfair to inflict Eleanor’s
snobbery on girls who’d already suffered so much.

“But if you think I’m going to grovel for your forgiveness,” Eleanor continued in
a rush, “after being banished to the godforsaken bogs of Ireland, only to be called
back to attend
your
wedding, of all things, and to
Marsden
, not to mention the revelation you are not only related to royalty but being touted
as a heroine, when we both know if the truth of your behaviour at Worthington were
to be revealed, you would be seen in a far different light, ruining your reputation—”

“Just as the truth of your behaviour towards me during that time would surely have
a detrimental effect on yours.” Lisa had heard enough and thought to remind the other
woman that the ruination exposure would bring would be far-reaching.

The colour that had risen to Eleanor’s cheeks leeched away, and she stood frozen with
what Lisa recognised as fear in her eyes. Not for the first time, Lisa pitied her.

Lisa had everything Eleanor wanted—position, status, and loftier connections than
being a
mere
viscount’s wife. Yet she would have traded them all if it were the only way to be
with the man she loved. Eleanor, on the other hand, had the affection of a good man—Michael’s
feelings for his wife plain to see—but she spurned it, preferring to hold fast to
her contempt. With nothing to lose or greatly fear, as Lisa doubted Eleanor would
risk bringing any more of Thomas’s wrath upon her head by attempting to publicly discredit
her, she spoke her mind.

“It saddens me to see you wasting your life on bitterness and jealousy when contentment
is yours for the taking. There’s nothing stopping you from experiencing a happy marriage
to a man who clearly holds you in high esteem despite the fact you treat him very
ill.”

Lisa waited for a backlash, but to her surprise, tears welled in Eleanor’s eyes.

“I don’t expect us to be friends,” she continued when the other woman remained silent.
“But we
are
to be family, which is far more important to me than whatever titles come before
our names. Nathaniel cares for his cousin, and it’s for that reason I would like to
offer an olive branch, Eleanor.” Lisa risked using the lady’s name, even though she’d
not been granted permission. “A truce . . . if you’re willing.”

Eleanor surprised Lisa by accepting her offer, albeit with stilted grace. There may
have even been a slight thawing in her icy demeanour in the ensuing days, but Lisa
found it difficult to imagine Eleanor would ever completely drop the façade of propriety
she had built around herself.

“It does seem unlikely,” Nathaniel said the night before their wedding. “But my cousin
can be very persuasive if given half a chance.”

Lisa raised a brow. “Maybe we will trigger a revolt against the fashion for husbands
and wives to treat each other with disdain.”

“One never knows.” He smiled indulgently.

It was probably a foolish dream, but stranger things had happened, Lisa’s story a
prime example.

Real-life fairy tales were few and far between. Inspired by Lisa’s journey from a
country miss of good family to terrified runaway and unlikely maid, her improbable
tale had captured the imagination of her countrymen, in particular, those of the lower
stations. Her surprising kinship with royalty, betrothal to one of the most eligible
gentlemen in the land, and the revelation she was helping girls in need regardless
of society frowning on her actions, had caused them to open their hearts to her.

The least she could do was show her gratitude by graciously enduring “the wedding
of the decade,” as Nathaniel and her nuptials were being touted.

Chapter 21

Vows

The midday sun shone bright and warm upon the cheering crowds that lined the roads
as Lisa and her father were driven in one of the King’s carriages to her wedding.
Waving through the windows, she attempted to settle her nerves, but shallow breaths
were the only sort her beautiful gown would allow. A confection of golden satin and
the finest hand-spun lace, it was a triumph of elegance, albeit far from restrained
with its yards-long train. Its design was complemented perfectly by her mother’s pearls
and a tiara, drop earrings, and the bracelet Nathaniel had given her to replace the
one she’d lost in the abduction.

While eyebrows would probably be raised at her wearing the same jewels she’d worn
to the King’s ball, Lisa’s decision had nothing to do with a lack of choice. The Marsden
jewels were now hers to wear as she pleased, a stunning array of diamonds, sapphires,
emeralds, and rubies. But after the abduction, the pearls held special meaning to
both her and Nathaniel, as well as being a poignant reminder of her mother.

She felt her absence keenly, wishing she were alive to see her daughter wed and curious
as to what words of encouragement or advice she may have had for her daughter on her
wedding day. She hoped her mother would have been proud of the woman she had become
and the plans she had for her future. She would have surely been astonished to see
her little girl, with the perpetually skinned knees and dusting of freckles on her
nose, now a woman grown and about to marry a man as handsome, dashing, and regal as
the most charming of princes.

Lisa could barely give credence to it herself.

Turning to face her father, who was looking distinguished in his military uniform,
her lips curved in a wistful smile. She couldn’t help comparing the grandeur and pageantry
of this particular journey to the flight she had undertaken from Henbury almost five
months earlier, hidden in the back of a ramshackle cart and believing her beloved
Papa had been murdered. Her life had changed almost beyond imagining since that time,
from tragedy to triumph along a decidedly tumultuous path.

Looking towards a future with Nathaniel by her side, Lisa acknowledged she was blessed.
But before they could begin their life together, she first had to survive their nuptials.
Forgetting the constricting nature of her gown, she attempted a deep breath and ended
up gasping for air.

“Anneliese? Are you unwell?” her father asked as the carriage came to a halt at the
front of the abbey.

Closing her eyes for a moment, she took shallow breaths and thought back to some of
her favourite memories. The first time she had seen Nathaniel, seated proudly upon
his horse. Pouring tea together. Debating French poetry in the library. Sharing dinner
at the inn in Worthey. She pictured his smile, his deep blue eyes, his fringe sweeping
across his forehead in that way she adored—and regained control.

BOOK: Protection
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