Ruined by a Lady

 

Nathaniel,

 

You and Samuel must return home immediately. The most horrendous circumstance has occurred and I am so beside myself that I do not know what to do. It is far too distressing to even write in a letter. Suffice it to say, nothing this horrific has happened to our family in a very long time, and your presence is needed most urgently.

 

Mother

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

 

April 18, 1817, London

 

     Samuel Storm sucked in a breath the moment those familiar blues eyes met his. It had to be her. But how was it even possible?

     He took a step in her direction but Nathaniel, his twin brother, put a hand on his arm and handed him the missive that had been delivered as soon as they stepped out of St. Paul’s. Sam took it without removing his eyes from her. The late afternoon sun shone on her head, making it appear as if her blonde locks were laced with gold, and for a moment she glanced back. Her haunting Caribbean blue eyes met his before she was assisted into a carriage displaying the Duke of Eldridge’s coat of arms. An older man stood waiting. By his regal bearing, no doubt he was Eldridge.

     Either the duke’s daughter at one time sat for a rather scandalous portrait, or a woman who looked exactly like her had. That very portrait hung in his home in Barbados, and he needed to know if the two were one and the same.

     With reluctance, Sam tore his eyes away from the duke’s carriage and glanced at the missive. The one thing that had not changed in the five years he’d been gone was the habit of his mother to succumb to hysterics.

     “What could be so blasted important that she thought it appropriate to pull us from a wedding?” Nate demanded.

     Sam handed the summons back to his brother who promptly crushed it in his fist.

     “At least the footman ignored her dictate and waited until we exited the church or you might have missed the wedding you stood to witness for Roxburg,” Nate grumbled.

     Sam and Mark Easton, the Duke of Roxburg, had been friends for a number of years. The last five of which they’d lived in Barbados, each managing their own sugar plantations. Life had been good living on an island of beautiful women when one was wealthy and a bachelor. Roxburg’s sudden change in title was what brought them back to London. Not that Sam needed to return, but Roxburg had wanted the one gentleman he trusted by his side when facing society once again. Not that he needed Sam. In the month that Sam was away visiting his family, Roxburg had met his wife, and the two had married just a short time ago.

     “Let’s make it quick,” Sam was resigned to deal with their mother, but waste no more time than necessary on whatever crisis had arisen. He and Nate had planned on going to their club until it was time for the ball. Roxburg managed to obtain a Special License so that he could be married at the earliest time the church was available, which happened to be today at five. He had also decided to forgo the wedding breakfast in lieu of a ball, which he insisted would begin in a few hours and not late in the evening as was tradition.

     “If Mother starts going on and on about torn flounces, stained gloves, or spilled tea at the al fresco, I swear I’ll send her right back home and let Ben deal with our sisters.” Benjamin, the Earl of Kenley, their older brother, could see to their three younger sisters attending the Season.

     “I’d hate to see her reaction if something actually horrific occurred,” Sam grumbled after he followed his brother into the carriage and relaxed against the squabs. As he glanced out the window, the duke’s carriage passed and his eyes met those all too familiar blue eyes.

     Could it really be her?

     He’d first spied the painting in a gallery in New Orleans and knew instantly that he must have it. Not so much because of the lush body that lay in repose upon a fainting coach, a long leg extended and uncovered, though white gossamer shielded the rest of her body, or because of the delicious breasts practically spilled from a fitted corset, or the full, red lips beckoning for a kiss. Not only did he want that woman on his own couch, clad similarly, but he wanted to know her too. Those blue eyes conveyed innocence, seduction, spirit, vulnerability, rebellion, and sadness and pulled him in. He longed to ask why sadness lurked in the deep recesses of her blue irises. Why her mouth may tip at the corner when there was no happiness? Why was she haunted?

     It was ridiculous, of course. The girl was a model and the artist was simply excellent at his craft. Yet, when Sam spied the lady in St. Paul’s Church, not only did the same emotion lurk in her eyes, but the sadness seemed deeper.

     Yes, she smiled, but it was forced. The tension in her jaw betrayed what she was trying not to show.

     Did nobody else realize she wasn’t happy?

     He needed to know her.

     Just because the lady in the painting bore a striking resemblance to Eldridge’s daughter, it was impossible that it was her. A duke’s daughter did not pose for erotic paintings, yet Sam felt the same pull towards Eldridge’s daughter as he had experienced when he first viewed the painting, and he had every intention of gaining an introduction.

     The carriage pulled up before their townhouse and the gentlemen jumped out and hurried to the door. Not because Sam believed distressing news awaited them, but because he wanted to be done with whatever had fluffed mother’s feathers this time.

     They found their mother, the Dowager Countess of Kenley, in the sitting room with three of their younger sisters. Hannah was pacing as if she were too agitated to sit. Tabitha was stitching, which he learned she often did when there was little else to occupy her time, and Deborah simply sat in a chair by the window, watching the others as if in deep contemplation.

His oldest brother, Benjamin, relaxed with his lovely and enchanting wife, Mary, sipping tea. It certainly didn’t appear as if there was anything urgent that required his or Nate’s attention, which he already suspected would be the case.

     “What happened?” Nate demanded, his tone laced with the irritation Sam felt.

     “We were at Lady Emma Heathfield’s al fresco when we saw him.”

     “Who?” Sam asked. He had not been back in England all that long, but nobody had uttered a word about any gentleman his mother feared.

     “I didn’t know what to do, so of course, we left immediately.” His mother waived a handkerchief in front of her face. “Oh, I do hope he didn’t see us. Though it was highly rude to leave so quickly without paying our respects to Lady Heathfield, but it was necessary given the circumstances. I must send her a note of apology right away.”

     “Stop!” Nate yelled. “Who did you see that has you so upset?”

     Her eyes widened and she looked at them. “His Grace! The Duke of Danby.”

     “I don’t understand why this is important.” He was a duke. Wasn’t he required to be here with Parliament in session, and what the blazes did his great-uncle being in London have to do with them?             “You do realize I was at the wedding of my closest friend. I stood as a witness.”

     His mother’s eyes grew wide. “But, it is the Duke of Danby.”

     “I don’t care if it’s the Crown Prince,” Samuel yelled as he turned for the door. Of all the ridiculous nonsense. He needed a drink and only in a place where reasonable gentlemen were allowed.

     “But, you don’t understand,” their mother cried.

     “What the blazes is there to understand?” Nate demanded.

     “He’s going to ruin everything.”

     Sam turned just in time to see his mother’s eyes fill with tears.

     “He’ll ruin my family.”

     Ben stood and assisted Mary to her feet. “My wife and I are going for a drive in the park.”

     “But, but, but….” their mother sputtered.

     Ben didn’t look back and stopped before his brothers. “As I need to deal with this all of the time because neither one of you can be bothered to remain in England, you now have the pleasure of calming her while I enjoy the afternoon with my wife, which was ruined by her early return.”

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