With a keen eye, Lucien Damrill spied a rather plain
young woman across the floor of the assembly hall. Something vaguely familiar
stirred his curiosity—perhaps the hair, her smile, her beautiful eyes.
“You do know who that is, don’t you?” his brother Simon
asked in his usual superior tone.
“I wish I did, but eight years away has dulled my memory
of the village ladies.”
Simon clapped him on the back. “That is Serenity Malin,
daughter of Lord and Lady Dalton.”
Upon closer inspection, Lucien saw the flicker of gold
in her expressive eyes, the creamy skin. Though she possessed an unremarkable
mien, he’d found her excessively pleasant in prior years.
“She must be of age,” he said idly.
“I hear she is six months shy of twenty and still unwed.
Her parents have exhausted the patience of all the eligible young men,
“What’s wrong with her? She seems a perfectly delightful
creature, if not a bit shy.”
“I hear she’s skittish, afraid when a man speaks above a
whisper. Perhaps her windbag father has poisoned her against men; that’s my
Serenity sat alone, the young men in attendance having
claimed the other ladies for a quadrille.
“I shall let you know.” Lucien straightened his cravat
and set out across the wooden floor.
Upon approach, he saw a lovely woman, with a smile that
teased her lips, though she hadn’t yet learned to bring a sparkle to her eyes. “Good
evening, Miss Malin. I fear you may not remember me, due to my long absence.”
Lucien bowed. “Lucien Damrill, at your service.”
Serenity’s sapphire eyes sparkled for the first time in
his memory. She invited him to join her, and they chatted the evening away.
“I fear the crowd has thinned, and I’ve occupied all of
your time.” He stood. “You are a delight, Miss Malin. I have enjoyed our
“As have I, Mr. Damrill,” she said, in a voice so
delicate it nearly broke his heart.
“Might I pay you a call, say, in a week’s time?”
She smiled fully and wove a spell over him.
“Until next Thursday, then. I bid you good health.” He
bowed as any well-trained fourth son of a viscount would do and made his exit,
wishing the evening extended for many hours more.
* * * *
“You make a rather handsome bridegroom, sir.”
Lucien glanced in the mirror at the cravat Hampton had
just tied. “I thank you, old boy. However, I do believe my bride will eclipse
all in attendance.”
“She is indeed lovely, sir. My hearty congratulations to
you on this day. I look forward to serving you both.”
Lucien smiled at his butler, valet, and aside from
Prentice Hyde, the Earl of Cheshire, his oldest friend. Hampton knew all the
secrets, and he protected Lucien from others, as well as from himself.
A loud knock disturbed their preparations. “That is
likely Lord Cheshire. I am expecting him.”
“I’ll see to it.”
A moment later, Hampton returned. “Sir, young Mr. Marlow
is here to see you. He is in rather a fit.”
“Bring him in, please.”
Within moments, Lucien’s nephew staggered in, his face
pale, dark circles under his eyes.
“She’s gone,” he said, a crack in his voice.
Lucien put his arm around the boy and led him to a
chair. “Tell me everything, son.”
“She said she wouldn’t be long, so I tried to wait up. I
shouldn’t have fallen asleep. When I woke up, I saw she hadn’t slept in her
bed. You have to help me. I’m worried.” The young man clutched the neatly
pressed sleeve of Lucien’s wedding shirt.
“All right, calm yourself. Hampton, get the boy a cup of
“Where did she go?”
“When she left, she said he wanted her to meet him at
the rooms he keeps for their trysts. I went there before I came here, but she
isn’t there. He said she never arrived.”
Lucien fumed. “I’ll go talk to him. You stay here.
Hampton will take care of you. Eat something. I’ll return as quickly as I can.”
The boy nodded, his face a mask of grief. “Sir, your
wedding. You are expected at the church in two hours.”
“I’ll be back in plenty of time.”
A half hour later, he banged on his brother’s door. When
the aged butler, Smyth, opened it, Lucien burst in.
“Where is he?” he asked, his ire near boiling over.
“I’m here,” Simon shouted down from the landing above. “Pray,
what has brought you out so early on your wedding day?”
Lucien stormed up the stairs, two at a time.
Simon backed away as Lucien went at him. Lucien grabbed
the front of Simon’s shirt and shook. “I just left a very distraught Haynes
back in my home. He says his mother set out to meet you at your rooms and has
yet to return to her own. Tell me where she is, Simon, and I want the truth
Simon clawed at Lucien’s hand. “Release me, you madman.
I have no idea where you got the idea she was to meet me, but it is completely
Lucien held fast. “You’re already lying to me. Haynes
said he spoke to you late last night and you confirmed Sophia was to meet you
but hadn’t arrived.”
“Unhand me.” Simon gasped as Lucien’s grasp tightened.
“Were you to meet with Sophia last evening or not?”
Lucien shook his brother harder.
“Yes, yes. She said she needed to see me. She threatened
that she would call on Mary if I didn’t meet with her.”
“If you harmed that woman, I’ll destroy you.” Lucien
shoved Simon, who skittered across the floor before he recovered his feet. “What
have you done?”
Simon held his neck as he coughed. “What makes you
believe I’ve done anything to her?”
“Because you’re breathing. You have treated that woman
with contempt since Haynes was born. Then you abandoned them to whatever the
Fates had in store. I’d say that is reason enough to believe you have done
Simon glared through squinty eyes. “She came asking for
more money. Said she couldn’t go to you, that you’d done enough by taking care
of the boy.”
“Your son, your responsibility, lest you forget.
The son you refuse to claim, for fear your viscountess will get wise to you
casting your seed about, while her field lay fallow.”
“Must only crudity spew from your mouth?”
“I am crude, admittedly so. However, I have never sired
a child, only to leave the poor wretch and his mother to their own devices.
Quite the contrary, brother dear. I have taken care of your son and done the
best by Sophia that I could, in your stead.”
Simon raised a dismissive hand, his jaw squared. “You
put your nose where you shouldn’t have. They would have made their way. Whores
and their spawn always do.” He bared his teeth.
“You are indeed as despicable as ever. Have you no
Fully recovered, Simon strutted about. “I’ve not seen
her since she left last night. Now you must leave before Mary inquires as to
“You’re lying, Simon, and I’ll prove it. When I do, I’ll
lay it at your door myself.”
Lucien left and went back home, where he found his
friend Prentice Hyde waiting for him.
“What is it?” the earl asked. “You look as though your
bride has cried off.”
Lucien glared. “Not likely. I think Simon has done harm
“I talked to Haynes, but he said you’d gone to talk to
Simon. What makes you believe he’s did her harm?”
Lucien explained the situation as Hampton attempted to
redress him. “I’ll need your help. Do you still have your contacts from our
Prentice reclined in a comfortable chair and smiled. “Of
“I suspect Simon has disposed of Sophia. No explanation
for it, I just feel it. We must act with utmost discretion. Can you trust two
or three of those contacts to search for her? Have them report only to you, and
then you to me.”
Prentice rose. “Several owe me favors. I’ll call in the
markers. Do you wish to know as soon as I do, or would you prefer a night with
Lucien glared with good humor. “If my suspicions are
correct, I don’t want Serenity upset by the news. I’ll make some excuse and
come around tomorrow. Do you truly believe you’ll learn something today?”
“He’d find difficulty disposing of a body in London.
Someone always knows something.”
“I pity the boy,” Lucien said.
Prentice clapped Lucien on the back. “He has you, and,
my friend, he’ll need you more now than ever.”
Lucien nodded. How to explain the ready-made family to
* * * *
Serenity fussed with her unruly hair, always
uncooperative even for her lady’s maid.
“I want to look perfect.” She tore the jewel-encrusted
hairpin, a wedding gift from her father, from her hair.
“You are very fortunate at your age, daughter, that a
gentleman from such a good family wishes to take you to wife. I’d all but
resigned myself to caring for you into your dotage.”
“I am but twenty and a week, Father, and quite young of
spirit. I marry today because I have no wish to cause you further concern, but
if I had my way, I would travel and think of marriage only after I have seen my
“You speak as though you hold no affection for Mr.
Serenity had thought deeply on the subject. “Affection,
yes, but no more. I fear he cares for me much more than I do for him.”
Her father huffed but dismissed her. “You speak
foolishness, gel. You will be a good wife to him, as your mother has taught
you. If he is as good a man as reputed, you will grow to love him in time.”
“I’ll do the best I can, Father. I’m sure our happiness will
equal yours and Mother’s.”
With a choking cough that increasingly worried her, he
laughed. “I should hope you aspire to something more than that, daughter.”
Her mother dashed into the room and plunked the white
lace veil onto Serenity head. “He is waiting for you in the parlor. My, he is a
handsome man, Serenity. So tall, and his black hair positively gleams with
pomade. Sad you didn’t marry him while he served in the Royal Army. I should
have liked that.” Her mother waved her hands about. “No matter. He dresses
Lady Dalton tugged down the bodice of Serenity’s pale
yellow frock, much lower than was fashionable.
Serenity pulled the garment up to cover her cleavage. “Mother,
really. I’ll display them soon enough. No need to entertain the entire village.”
“You speak such nonsense.” Her mother worried her hands.
“He must know, with subtlety of course, that you go to him without reserve.”
“There is nothing subtle about revealing my chest.”
Serenity cringed as her mother spoke of the dreaded
subject—sex. To make matters worse, her mother’s instruction gave her no
courage in facing her wedding night.
“You must lie there, dear, and endure, as I have all
these years. He will do vile things to you, at his pleasure, and our lot
dictates our sacrifice of pride as we allow him his way. There is nothing for
it I’m afraid. We women suffer so. Do your best to disguise your disgust. God
will bless you for your attention to duty, child.”
“Has he blessed you, Mother? For yours, that is?”
Her mother stared with a sour countenance. “I fear I
still wait, but my reward shall come.”