Seduced by a Lady’s Heart

 Book 1 in the >Lords of Honor Series

Lieutenant Lucien Jones, son of a viscount, returned from war, to find his wife and child dead. Blaming his father for the commission that sent him off to fight Boney’s forces, he was content to languish at London Hospital… until offered employment on the Marquess of Drake’s staff. Through his position, Lucien found purpose in life and is content to keep his past buried.

Lady Eloise Yardley has loved Lucien since they were children. Having long ago given up on the dream of him, she married another. Years later, she is a young, lonely widow who does not fit in with the ton. When Lucien’s family enlists her aid to reunite father and son, she leaps at the opportunity to not only aid her former friend, but to also escape London.

Lucien doesn’t know what scheme Eloise has concocted, but knowing her as he does, when she pays a visit to his employer, he knows she’s up to something. The last thing he wants is the temptation that this new, older, mature Eloise presents; a tantalizing reminder of happier times and peace.

Yet Eloise is determined to win Lucien’s love once and for all…if only Lucien can set aside the pain of his past and risk all on a lady’s heart.

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Chapter 1

London, England
Spring, 1819

In all of Lady Eloise Yardley, the Countess of Sherborne’s, twenty-eight years she could likely place the underhanded, questionable things she’d done on one hand. And that unimpressive list of sins included stealing another girl’s peppermints when she’d been a girl of seven.

Her palms dampened under the unease churning in her belly, and to still her trembling fingers she dusted her palms along the sides of her silver, satin skirts. Staring at the modest, marble foyer of London Hospital, Eloise acknowledged that this disloyal act was far worse than stealing peppermints.

“My lady, if you’d rather not visit, it is more than understandable,” the older nurse’s words snapped into her musings.

Startled into movement, Eloise slapped a hand to her chest. “Er, no. I’m quite all right,” she lied. She cleared her throat. “I’m merely…” Terrified. Nauseous. Panicked. And every emotion in between at the prospect of striding down those corridors and entering the sterile rooms of the hospital.

The gentle light in the woman’s eyes indicated she’d detected the lie.

Eloise sighed. “Shall we?”

The nurse’s white eyebrows shot to her hairline in apparent surprise and then an approving glint replaced her earlier concern. She gave a brief nod. “If you’ll follow me,” she murmured.

The older woman didn’t attempt to fill the awkward pall of silence, for which Eloise was grateful. She didn’t imagine she could muster a single, coherent thought. She furrowed her brow. A matter she’d have to rectify if this carefully orchestrated visit went to plan. She eyed the dreary, white walls, the hard plaster devoid of cheer and life. Then, life had taught her early on that nothing ever truly went to plan.

“I am always so grateful to see ladies such as yourself taking time to visit the wounded soldiers,” Nurse Maitland said.

Their footsteps fell into a synchronized rhythm.

Guilt stabbed at Eloise. She’d never felt more ashamed than she did in that moment. For it was not strictly altruistic reasons that brought her into this feared place. Just the opposite, really. Remorse kept her silent.

“Lady Drake, the Marchioness of Drake, has long visited the hospital.”

She’d, of course, known that. “Has she?” Eloise’s voice emerged as a high-pitched squeak, which earned a sideways glance from the woman.

“Indeed. In fact, she is here even n—oh, my! Are you all right, my lady?”

Eloise stumbled and, unfortunately for the older nurse, caught herself using the woman’s tall, narrow frame. “Yes,” she replied, lamely. Mortified heat burned her cheeks. However, the thrill of excitement coursed through her, more powerful than any small emotion of embarrassment. So, the marchioness was here. She quickly yanked her hands back from Nurse Maitland’s narrow, but seemingly capable, shoulders. “Pardon me,” she said belatedly.

The woman passed a concerned glance over her face and then resumed walking. Eloise kept pace alongside her. With each step drawing her closer to those dreaded hospital rooms, panic pounded in her chest. It flared hot and strong until the familiar buzzing filled her ears and she blinked back the black dots that flecked her vision.

Nurse Maitland said something, her words lost to the memories churning at an agonizingly quick pace through her mind. The older woman looked to Eloise with a smile, her unheard words clearly merited a like response and so she told her mind to tell her lips to move. She mustered a weak, clearly sufficient smile for the woman continued on.

Since the dark days, as she’d come to refer to them, she’d detested any and all things pertaining to illness—hospitals, doctors, the color white, the heat of a fever. All of it. It was irrational and insensible and she’d never been accused of being either irrational or insensible. But there you had it.

“Ah, here we are,” the nurse murmured.

And here she was. The last place in the world she cared to be. Feet twitching with the urge to flee, Eloise swallowed past the enormous swell of fear in her throat and stared at the double doors. Yet a place she had come…for him. Finding strength in the memory of him, even as that was all he lived as—a fleeting memory of her past—she drew in a steadying breath.

Nurse Maitland, unaware of Eloise’s inner turmoil, opened a door and motioned her forward.

Eloise hesitated and craned her head inside the doorway and blinked. The cheerful room with rows of beds was nothing one would conjure when they imagined the dreary walls of a lonely hospital. Extravagant blooms in generous vases lent a merry feel to the room. Which was ludicrous, of course. There could never truly be anything joyous in this room, filled with men who’d sacrificed so much, received so little, and, no doubt, forgotten by all. Nay, not all. Most. She swallowed hard at the sight of the men confined to these beds.

Again, guilt pricked her conscience. For her reason in being here was not the honorable, admirable sort.

He had been one of them.

Oh, God. Why didn’t I know? But more…Why didn’t you tell me? She would have braved the horrors she’d carried all these years just to step through the doors and see him.

Because you never mattered, a silent voice reminded her, pragmatic and sincere.

“Ahem.” Eloise forced her legs to move forward as the nurse discreetly cleared her throat. She stepped inside, not knowing what she expected. The room to suddenly burn with the heat of bodies ablaze with fever? The scent of vomit and sweat that even the mere memory of caused bile to build in her throat? She swallowed it forcibly back and walked alongside Nurse Maitland.

She glanced about at the soldiers, still confined to these beds. Many eyed her with blank, empty stares. Others with a modicum of curiosity in their bored gazes. Eloise managed a smile and then continued surveying the room.

And then found her. She froze.

The young woman, a diminutive, smallish figure with brown hair the color of chocolate sat beside a gentleman, her head bent over a book as she read. Forgetting all the rules of propriety drilled into her from early on, Eloise studied the Marchioness of Drake.

Nurse Maitland continued on and then realized Eloise no longer fell into step beside her, for she turned back with a frown. She followed her gaze fixed on the young lady. “Ah, forgive me. Are you acquainted with Her Ladyship?”

“No,” Eloise’s response was instantaneous. After all, she couldn’t very well admit that she’d never really been welcomed into the same social circles as the respectable marchioness, daughter of a duke. Unlike Eloise who’d been a mere knight’s daughter, who’d captured the notice of the Earl of Sherborne. In truth, however, Eloise well knew she could have coordinated a meeting with the woman at a place other than London Hospital. But it was a need to know not only this woman, but more importantly this place.

As though feeling her stare, the marchioness glanced up from her reading and looked about. Her gaze collided with Eloise. A wide smile wreathed the woman’s face and she lifted a hand in greeting.

Some of the anxiety went out of Eloise as she managed her first real smile and she returned the gesture.

“Please, allow me to introduce you.”

For the first time in so very long, excitement stirred to life inside her as, with each passing step, her fear of this room, of her plans, of simply being here slipped away. Oh, they didn’t disappear altogether, but rather remained muted by the hope in her heart.

“Lady Drake,” the nurse said with far more familiarity than Eloise expected as they drew to a stop beside a gentleman’s bed.

Eloise glanced down and, for a fleeting moment, her reasons for seeking out the marchioness faded when paired with the extreme starkness in the blond-haired, blue-eyed gentleman’s empty eyes.

“Nurse Maitland,” the marchioness returned.

The remainder of her words was lost as Eloise rudely met the gaze of a stranger who stared boldly back. Pain tightened her belly while she replaced this stranger’s face with another. Is this what Lucien had become? She’d never imagined the gentle, polite young boy she’d considered a friend anything but full of laughter and cheer.

Then, if he were still that laughing, cheerful man wouldn’t he have returned? a voice needled.

“This is Lady Sherborne.” Nurse Maitland’s greeting jerked her back.

She flushed. “M-my lady,” she stammered and dropped a belated curtsy.

The marchioness rose in a flurry of skirts. She waved a hand breezily about. “Oh, please, there is no need for such formality,” she assured. “Emmaline will suffice.” She smiled, again a grin teeming with warmth and sincerity. “We do so enjoy the addition of new, pleasant guests, isn’t that correct, Lieutenant Forbes?”

His lips quirked up in half a grin. “Aye.” For a moment Eloise wondered if she’d merely imagined his earlier coolness. Then he shifted his attention to her and the wary mistrust replaced all hint of warmth.

Eloise shifted upon her feet, feeling like an interloper in this world. In all worlds, really. But for the meadows of Kent, she’d never really felt a kindred connection to any place.

“…Just showing Lady Sherborne about…”

She wet her lips, torn with the purpose that had brought her here and this sudden need to see the men who called this hospital home. Lucien was once one of them. Agony twisted her belly into knots. With a slow nod she said, “It was a pleasure meeting you, my…Emmaline,” she quickly amended at the gentle reproach in the marchioness’ eyes.

“Indeed,” Emmaline concurred. She lifted a hand in parting and returned her attention to Lieutenant Forbes.

With pained reluctance, she fell into step beside Nurse Maitland once again. “The gentlemen enjoy when books are read to them. They enjoy singing,” she said with a wave of her hand about the room.

Eloise winced. She couldn’t imagine a more egregious affront than to visit these men and torture them with the off-key, high whine of her singing voice. “I do not have any books with me,” she said, regret filling her. Now, she wished she’d been less selfish. Wished she’d stopped to consider there were men much like Lucien, alone, dependent upon the charity of strangers for every kindness. Agony knifed through her at the idea of him alone at this hospital when there had been others who loved him, waiting for him. There was me. I was there.

Nurse Maitland stopped beside the bed of a tall, broad bear of a man with shocking white-blond hair. She gave her an encouraging smile. “Just your presence alone is welcome,” she assured. She didn’t allow Eloise to issue protestations, but turned instead to the gentleman with his gaze fixed on the window. “Lieutenant-Captain Washburn,” the nurse greeted.

He inclined his head in greeting. “Nurse Maitland.” The broad stranger shifted his attention to Eloise.

“Allow me to introduce Lady Sherborne. She is so good as to visit.” Guilt twisted Eloise’s belly. There was a self-serving purpose to her being here that didn’t merit the nurse’s kindness. With a parting smile for Eloise that only magnified Eloise’s sense of guilt, Nurse Maitland took her leave.

Panic budded inside Eloise’s chest at the idea of being alone, in this room, though, she wasn’t truly alone. She took a steadying breath and concentrated on that saving fact.

“Are you all right, my lady?” Lieutenant-Captain Washburn asked, concern in his question.

What a weak ninny everyone must take her to be. She mustered a smile. “I am,” she assured as he motioned to the small, wooden chair behind her. Eloise perched on the edge of the hard, uncomfortable seat. Thought better of it and dragged it closer to the side of his bed.

They took each other in for a long while, eyeing each other in silence. “Are you certain you are—?”

She slashed the air with a hand. “Quite.” She paused and a thick blanket of tense silence fell. Then, she’d never been the loquacious sort, unable to fill all voids of silence as Miss Sara Abbott could. Eloise fisted her skirts at the unwitting reminder of the lovely golden-blonde woman, the vicar’s flawlessly perfect daughter who’d moved into the village following the previous vicar’s death. Sara would know what to say. Eloise, however, never did. And for that, she broke into the awkward pause with truth. “I’m nervous at hospitals.” By the slight widening of his eyes, she gathered she’d shocked him with her bold admission. She turned her attention out the window. “They remind me of illness,” she said, more to herself.

“I’m sorry, my lady.”

She caught the inside of her lower lip between her teeth and returned her attention to him. “I imagine you’d be a good deal better with no company than my miserable self,” she said with a wry smile.

“No,” he hastened to assure. “Not a good deal better. Perhaps just a bit better.” He winked.

A startled bark of laughter escaped her, earning the curious stares of those around her. And with a glib comment and a wink, all the remaining tension left her body. “Thank you,” she said softly.

“Smiling is important, my lady,” he said sagely. “Even when the memories creep in.”

She started. How did he—?

“You wear it in your face, my lady.” The astute stranger jerked his chin in her direction and reflexively Eloise touched her cheeks. “I imagine we all do.”

She wore it in her entire being. Eloise dropped her hands to her lap. Regrets of the past, the agony of her failures. “How long have you been here?” she asked quietly.

His lips twisted wryly. “More years than I care to remember.” Her heart twisted with regret for his loneliness. An image flashed to mind of Lucien, here, with these men for friends and company. Had he spoken of his past? Had he spoken of her?

As soon as the silly musing slipped in, it disappeared. Lucien would have never made mention of a girlhood friend, even as she’d loved him, his heart had belonged to Sara. Again, the guilt of her failings pebbled in her belly. “I’m sorry,” she said at last.

He stiffened, a proud man who’d never welcome or accept pity.

“Not for your situation, Lieutenant-Captain.” She’d already received heaps more of the wasted emotion than she could ever want. “I would never pity you or anyone else for their life.” She’d never dare subject someone to that unwelcome, useless sentiment. “But I’m sorry you are in a place you’d rather not be, because I know the regret of…that.”

Sunlight slashed through the window and cast his bed in a soft glow. She followed the beam out the crystal pane, hating that regrets had crept in with their tentacle-like grip.

“Forgive me,” he apologized, jerking her attention back. “It was unfair of me to make assumptions about your experiences.” A small chuckle rumbled up from his chest. “Life’s experiences should have certainly taught me better,” he said with a small grin.

“It’s not always easy to remember.” From the corner of her eye she spied the slender woman at the opposite end of the room, stand and start for the door. Conflict warred within as she was besieged by a desire to stay and speak with the gentleman and the urge to fly across the room and stop the woman she’d come here with the express intention of seeking out.

The soldier motioned to Lady Drake.

“Are you—?”

“Quite certain,” he assured her.

“Forgive me.” With a hasty whisper of apologies and a promise to return, she raced across the room, earning more and more curious stares.

Satin slippers proved a disastrous selection for her day’s attire. She cried out as she slid like a skater upon ice and collided into the marchioness’ back. Lady Drake pitched forward and would have toppled onto her face if Eloise didn’t steady her about the shoulders.

Emmaline spun around, a warm, grateful smile on her face. “Oh, my, why thank you very much. I do believe I would have made quite a cake of myself right here.”

Eloise waved off the unnecessary expression of gratitude. “No, my lady…Emmaline,” she amended when the kindly woman opened her mouth. “It was—”

“Please say you’ll join me for tea, my lady.”

…Entirely Eloise’s fault. “Please, just Eloise,” she blurted.

The marchioness’ smile widened. “Splendid! Shall we say tomorrow?” With a quick curtsy she spun on her heel and marched from the room, leaving Eloise staring wide-eyed after her.

Well…that was indeed a good deal easier than she’d imagined it would be.

Coming in January 2020

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