Book 3 in the >Lords of Honor Series
Destitute and determined to finally be free of any man’s shackles, Lily Benedict sets out to salvage her honor. With no choice but to commit a crime that will save her from her past, she enters the home of the recluse, Derek Winters, the new Duke of Blackthorne. But entering the “Beast of Blackthorne’s” lair proves more threatening than she ever imagined.
With half a face and a mangled leg, Derek—once rugged and charming—only exists within the confines of his home. Shunned by society, Derek is leery of the hauntingly beautiful Lily Benedict. As time passes, she slips past his defenses, reminding him how to live again. But when Lily’s sordid past comes back, threatening her life, it’s up to Derek to find the strength to become the hero he once was. Can they overcome the darkness of their sins to find a life of love and redemption?
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Late Winter 1821
Derek Winters, the 8th Duke of Blackthorne, sat cloaked in the darkness of his office. Curtains drawn, the room silent and empty but for the eerie shadows that played off the walls, he’d come to crave the deathly still of the room like a demon craved the fires of hell. From the corner of his sole eye he glared at the crumpled copy of The Times that lay on the table beside him…as it had for months. A growl worked its way up his throat and he swiped the damned sheet up. He squinted and re-read those familiar words, once more.
…The Marquess of St. Cyr nearly killed underneath the deadened branches of a Hyde Park elm…
At one time, that piece would have devastated him. He fisted the page, further wrinkling the old copy. Now, this new man he’d become found an unholy glee in the other man’s misery. He gripped the arms of his chair. With his back presented to the room, he stared into the dancing flames of the blazing hearth. Only, he’d ceased to be human long ago—because of that very happy man, nearly killed by a blasted branch. Then, wasn’t that life? Some men had families and love and good-fortune…and then others? A muscle ticked at the corner of his eye. “And others have nothing,” he whispered. Yes, others were cursed, like the other Winters family members who’d only known death and despair. Such a truth had once ripped him apart with a vicious pain. Somewhere along the way, he’d built himself into a man who didn’t feel or care. And he was all the stronger for it.
Derek hurled the paper into the hearth and the scorching flames quickly devoured them. The hungry fire’s glow burned all the brighter. A hard, mirthless grin turned his lips. How singularly interesting the fire should provide warmth for some and, yet, for him it held nothing but the frigid cold of his past. He absently fingered the head of his serpent-headed cane, the gold metal cool against his right palm.
“If you play with fire, you get burned.
If you play with flames, you’ll be smote.
If you avoid the heat, the better off you be.
So do not ever play with fire, or gone forever more, for all eternity.”
The children’s proverb echoed around the chambers of his mind; words given him by a stern tutor, who’d tired of Derek’s dangerous pursuits.
A log snapped in the hearth in an explosion of crimson embers. He leaned his cane against the edge of his chair and tugged the glove off of his left hand. Turning his hand over, he examined the ragged, puckered, white flesh. How very wrong Mr. Johnson had been. Fire did not kill, it merely destroyed. Death would often be preferable.
A knock sounded at the door. Derek whipped his head to the right and glowered at the wood panel. With a growl of annoyance, he yanked his glove back on. His servants did not disturb him. And the lords he’d once called friends assuredly did not disturb him. No one did. People knew better.
He returned his attention to the fiery blaze once more. The infernal rapping continued. He winced. Alas, this bloody fool still had yet to realize he was a different duke than the one who’d preceded him to the grave. Then the knocking ceased. He eased back into the folds of the worn leather chair. Perhaps the man wasn’t a total lackwit.
The press of a handle sounded like a shot as the creak of the door filled the room. Derek stiffened. Surely the man had gleaned, in the time he’d served his master, one, essential fact—one did not enter the devil’s lair. “Y-your Grace.” The butler cleared his throat. Apparently, he’d not gleaned that essential fact. “I…” He cleared his throat once more. “I—” Derek angled his head at the very slightest angle. Harris bore another damned silver tray with another damned folded note bearing the Earl of Maxwell’s seal. From the corner of his eye, he saw the man jump.
“Have I not told you, I’m not to be disturbed?” Especially not with notes from boyhood friends.
“Yes, Y-your Grace.” The silver tray trembled in his hands. “I would not disturb you unless—”
“Have I not instructed you to direct all matters of business to my man-of-affairs?” He jerked his chin at the tray. “And not to bother me with those damned notes?”
The butler looked down at the ivory velum in his care and blinked several times. “Uh, y-yes, Your Grace.” He hastily set the note on a veneered wood side table, as he always did, and pulled the tray against his chest. As he also always did. “But you see—” Drawing a deep breath, the man let his words out on a swift exhale. “Mr. Davies has arrived,” he finished on a rush.
His man-of-affairs. Rather, his dead brother’s man-of-affairs. “He can go to the devil and you can join him, Harrison,” he hissed. “Now, get out.”
Harris’ cheeks went ashen. He hesitated and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. The servant looked over his shoulder and then back to Derek.
He narrowed his eye. “You showed him here anyway, did you, Harrison?”
The remaining color fled his butler’s cheeks. “I-I—”
“I should sack you,” he seethed, climbing slowly to his feet. And he would toss the insolent servant on his bloody arse if he were in a mind to have Davies search out another who’d brave The Beast of Blackthorne’s lair.
“Y-yes.” Then with a remarkable show of courage the young servant asked, “So I may show him in, then?”
And if Derek hadn’t ceased laughing a lifetime ago, he’d have at least managed a smile born of mirth at the man’s temerity. Then, he didn’t think the muscles of his scarred and burned face could manage the appropriate movement anymore. “Show him in,” he said on a steely whisper.
Mr. Davies, a white-haired man of indiscriminate years stepped around Harris, his arms laden with folios. “Your G-Grace.” He dropped a bow, but not before revulsion flashed in his eyes.
Derek peeled his lip back in a sneer. When he’d returned to England from the Battle of Toulouse, the left side of his face ravaged by burns, those appalled looks and horrified whispers had gutted him. Somewhere along the way, he’d become mercifully deadened to that revulsion.
Harris took his leave and pulled the door closed with a soft click. Derek grabbed his serpent-headed cane and, with the aid of that mortifying crutch, he awkwardly lurched across the room. “What the hell do you want?” He infused a deathly edge to that whisper. He cast a glance at Davies.
The books tumbled from his arms and hit the hardwood floor with a loud thump. “It is about your sister, Lady Stonehaven, Y-Your Grace.”
Derek’s useless left leg dragged and he stumbled. He righted himself with the use of his cane. “My sister?” His words came as though down a long corridor.
“Y-yes, Your Grace.” The sounds of rustling papers filled the room while Davies tidied his documents.
Derek stood frozen, his gaze fixed on the garish, crimson wallpaper—the color of blood. His heart thundered loudly and he longed to spin on his heel and shake some bloody urgency from the other man. As he, who’d given up on hope long ago, felt it flicker to life from a place deep inside he’d believed long dead. His sister, Edeline. “And has she been located?” At the stretch of silence, he shot a look over his shoulder.
The floorboards creaked as Davies climbed to his feet. “Found?” Thick befuddlement coated that word. “Uh, no, Your G-Grace.”
That matter-of-fact deliverance spoke volumes, quashed all fledgling hope, and promptly restored Derek to the coolly logical beast who didn’t believe in fairytales of hope and happiness. “Then what the hell do you want?” They met precisely the same time each week. There were no additional meetings. “I’d specifically told you I wouldn’t give a bloody damn if the world was ending on Sunday; I don’t expect your presence here that day.”
“Y-yes. Very well, Your Grace. Indeed, I know that.” Davies shifted back and forth on his feet with an ease and grace Derek despised.
What sorry days, indeed, when he should envy a man that slight pathetic movement with unbroken legs. With a growl, he lurched the remainder of the way to his sideboard and slammed down his cane.
“It is Lady Flora.”
He paused, his hand poised over the crystal decanters. Flora? Derek furrowed his brow and tried to make sense of the name and, more importantly, why it should mean something. People didn’t matter to him. They saw him as the scarred, horrific beast he was and he preferred life that way. Though, not everyone saw you as only a beast. An unexpected pain ripped through him.
Derek thrust aside that unwanted emotion and searched his mind for the familiarity of that name. He’d not had a woman since he’d been back from his heroic pursuits upon the Continent. Since his return, not even a heavily paid whore had braved his touch. Shame pricked his neck at the memory.
“Lady Flora,” the man repeated.
“I’m not in the mood for your guessing games, Davies.” He snapped up a bottle of brandy. With quick, jerky movements, he yanked out the stopper and tossed it down where it clattered noisily upon the sideboard. Derek poured himself a tall snifter of fine French brandy. The bloody French. When Davies still did not speak, he turned. “Who the hell is Lady Flora?”
At that lethal whisper his man-of-affairs dropped his books once more. He fell to his knees and scurried about collecting his papers and folios, like a mouse who’d found crumbs in the kitchen.
Derek grabbed his cane and stalked over to the still silent man. Davies craned his neck back. “Your Grace, she is your niece,” he croaked. “Lady Stonehaven’s daughter.”
Edeline’s daughter. He gripped hard the top of his cane. That child born to his sister, a stranger whom he’d not met. The child he’d not wanted to meet, despite his sister’s occasional attempts to invade his sanctuary, with her daughter in tow. “What of her?”
The man, who’d loyally served the previous two dukes before, stared wide-eyed at him. “You were named guardian, Your Grace.”
“She has two guardians.”
“But her other guardian,” Davies yanked at his collar and then the folios drooped in his arms. He hurried to catch them. “Your mother would never have approved of Lord Landon, Your Grace.”
A mocking grin tugged the unscarred corner of his mouth. “But my mother is dead now, isn’t she?” He raised his glass in salute. For his devoted mother, the same one who’d taken one look at him upon his return from Toulouse and ordered him to hide his face from Polite Society, had been so devastated by her other children’s passing, that she’d willed herself to death.
Proving more loyal than smart, Davies frowned. “I have served your family for nearly two decades, Your Grace. Your mother was honorable and good and put the Blackthorne title first. As such, she’d not care to see her granddaughter living in Lord Landon’s household.”
That devoted, devastated mama had mourned her dead son, and then with Edeline’s disappearance aboard her sunken ship six months earlier, had abandoned all aspect of living. “You dare presume to tell me what manner of woman my mother was?” Proud and boastful of Derek when he’d been a young man in the 2nd regiment, and disgusted and horrified when he’d returned a monster.
The man gulped loudly. “N-no, Your Grace.”
He fixed a black glower on the loyal servant. That loyalty, no doubt, accounted for his willingness to bear Derek’s company, weekly. Derek returned to the sideboard to retrieve his brandy and limped toward his seat at the hearth. A mirthless half-smile formed on his lips. Loyal mother, indeed.
The flames danced and twisted and froze him mid-movement. …Ah, God. Mother of God. Make it stop…
Davies cleared his throat. “Your Grace?”
That hesitant inquiry propelled him into movement and Derek reclaimed his chair. He settled his cane alongside his comfortable leather seat. With the muscles of his thigh aching from his exertions, Derek rubbed the throbbing tendons.
His man-of-affairs followed his efforts and he stilled. Tired of the servant’s presence here this day, Derek spoke in emotionless tones. “The girl can be Lord Landon’s responsibility.”
He expected Davies to take his leave. Instead, he set the burden in his arms on the side table and tightened his mouth. “She is your sister’s daughter. Surely that means something?”
“It does not.” Derek took a long, slow sip of his drink and then stared at the amber drops that clung to the other side of the glass. At one time, when he’d been human, such a thing as his sister’s child would have mattered. Then, he’d been a man who’d loved his sister and cared for her happiness. He didn’t care about anyone or anything, anymore. Not even himself. He looked up and frowned. “Why are you still here?”
The other man snapped out a kerchief, removed his wire-rimmed spectacles and brushed off the lenses. “Lord Landon is a rake. He has…” A mottled flush stained the other man’s cheeks.
It mattered not what Lord Landon had or did not have? And yet… “He has what?” he snapped.
“Parties.” Davies jammed his spectacles on his nose and then wrestled with his cravat once again. “Improper parties,” he said on a whisper. “With ladies and gentlemen who are not at all respectable. Shocking parties. Scandalous.”
Back in his youth, just before he’d gone off to war, his brother had hosted one of those shocking events. Attired in his resplendent uniform, women had clamored for a place in Derek’s bed, and he’d reveled in the fleeting role of rogue. The agony of remembrance struck as fresh as the day he’d returned; facing horror and disdain.
A potent hatred unfurled inside him toward Davies, who’d dredge forth all the ugliest, darkest memories of his past; memories he’d thought himself immune to. Derek gripped the arms of his chair and forced his attention back to the old servant who eyed him with a rightful degree of terror. “My sister’s husband named Lord Landon as the child’s second guardian. That should suffice in terms of your unease.” Derek swirled the contents of his glass. He’d but glimpsed his niece from the corner of a window when his sister had paid her foolishly devoted visits to his townhouse. Mother and daughter would arrive, knock, be greeted by his butler, and then turned away. He didn’t want Lady Flora to matter, because frankly, she did not matter. Ultimately, she was doomed by the very nature of her birth to their cursed family…and he’d little desire letting her in his life—in any way.
Davies took a hesitant step closer. “Prior to your mother’s passing, she asked that you see to Her Ladyship’s care.” Of course, because the repulsed mother hadn’t been able to manage a letter, let alone a visit.
“She never said a word of it to me,” he taunted.
The ancient man-of-affairs pursed his lips. “Her Grace was too grief-stricken to deal with the matter of the girl.” Yes, because for as little as she’d loved Derek, she’d much loved her Incomparable daughter, Edeline, and her pompous, now dead, ducal son.
…It is unnatural for a mother to look upon her son with a face such as yours… He sneered. “You expect me to care about what she wished?”
Davies winced. He opened his mouth. Footsteps sounded in the hall cutting into whatever the man was about to say. “The girl has been living alone with only her governess.” The footfalls grew closer and Davies spoke louder, as though trying to blot out the sound of it. “Her governess has refused to care for the child as long as she resides in Lord Landon’s home…and…” A rap sounded at the door. “And…”
“Who is next, the bloody, goddamn king?” Derek thundered. “Enter.”
His butler opened the door slowly and white-cheeked, stuck his head inside the room. “Y-your Grace?”
A small child, with dark brown hair stepped around the butler. With her tight curls and cornflower blue eyes, she may as well have been a tiny replica of Edeline, years and years earlier. The girl searched the room; her gaze teeming with curiosity, landed on Derek. The air lodged in his chest. What in blazes? Fear and horror sprang to life inside her eyes and he welcomed that familiar, comforting response to the beast he was, for that was the only thing he understood in this goddamn moment.
Except, with the same boldness and strength demonstrated by his sister when she’d been living, the girl came forward. Uninvited. Unasked. Unafraid? Surely not. She stopped before him. Then, she looked him up and down in an assessing manner. “You are my Uncle Derek.” She stuck her tiny palm out. “And I am here to live with you.” She wrinkled her nose. “Mostly because I have nowhere else to go.”
Derek cocked his head and stared down at the girl. Ignoring her outstretched fingers, he whipped his gaze to the fool Davies.
The man swallowed audibly. “As I was saying, Your Grace. The lady’s governess would not care for Lady Flora in Lord Landon’s home. As such, I took the liberty of having her delivered here.”
He narrowed his eye.