One Summer of Surrender

By: Jess Michaels
(Seasons Book 3)



Prologue





Summer 1808

Lucien Danford, eleventh Earl of Stenfax, pounded his fist against the door of the London home of one of his best friends. The world was spinning as he awaited a response and he leaned against the barrier as he tried not to cast up his accounts. When the door opened, he staggered through and nearly deposited himself on the foyer floor.

“Where’s Folly?” he barked, flinching at the horrified expression of his friend’s butler. “And where’s my brother? I know they’re both here.”

The older man swallowed as he caught Stenfax’s elbow and kept him from hitting the marble floor. “Mr. Danford and Lord Folworth are in the billiard room, my lord.”

Stenfax shrugged off his supportive arm and began to stagger away. “I’ll find my own way. Thank you, Ritman.”

“Richards, sir,” the butler sighed, though he didn’t follow.

As Stenfax swayed his way down the hall, the door to the billiard room opened and both his brother, Grayson Danford, and their best friend, the Marquess of Folworth, stepped out. They stared at him, eyes wide with surprise at his state. He knew what they saw. Ruin. Loss. Pain.

“Jesus, Lucien,” Gray said, lunging for him as he lost his footing.

He fell squarely into Gray’s arms and leaned there for a moment, squeezing his eyes shut as he tried not to cry. Or vomit. Or both.

“He’s bloody drunk,” Folly said, grabbing Stenfax’s arm. Together the men led him into the billiard room. “Get him inside, I’ll call for coffee.”

They placed him on a settee and then Folly rushed out. Stenfax stared up into his brother’s face, which was lined with concern.

“She wrote me a letter,” he said, an answer to the question Gray had not yet asked.

“Who?” Gray asked softly.

“Elise. Elise wrote me a letter ending our engagement,” he said, and the pain of those words hit him with full power. He could hardly catch his breath as he watched his brother’s face twist in horror.

“No,” Gray murmured. “No! That cannot be possible.”

“But it is,” Stenfax said, his voice shaking. “She did it.”

“Did you quarrel?” Gray asked, still confused.

“No. On the contrary…” Stenfax swallowed as he thought of a night less than a week ago. Then it had been pure pleasure between them. Now it was pure, unadulterated agony. “We were closer than ever.”

“Then why?” Gray pressed. “I don’t understand. You’re to marry in less than a month.”

“Not anymore. She’s marrying Kirkford. Her letter said she preferred a rich duke to a penniless earl.”

Now the horror faded from Gray’s face and it hardened with anger. “She said that?”

Stenfax nodded slowly. “In black and white, written in her own hand. So I went to her house and they wouldn’t let me in. They said she wasn’t home. She wouldn’t even fucking see me.”

Gray bent his head. “Oh God, Lucien. No wonder you’re drunk.”

Stenfax reached into his jacket pocket and drew out the letter. He handed it over, not caring that Gray would see the water streaks where angry tears, tears of disbelief, had fallen as he read over and over again the words of the woman he loved.

Gray took the letter and stood up. “Look, let me explain to Folly. Lay here a moment, will you? Just take a few deep breaths, I’ll be back and we’ll…we’ll get through this together.”

Stenfax said nothing as his brother pushed to his feet and left the room. Gray’s words hung in the air.

Get through this.

There was no getting through this. Stenfax had loved Elise for five years. Hell, probably longer than that. He couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been in his life, his younger sister’s best friend, trailing after him and his friends and his brother, tormenting him and tantalizing him.

He loved her. And she had told him she loved him. She’d shown him she loved him. He squeezed his eyes shut as he tried not to think once again of a night not so long ago when he’d been allowed the liberties only a husband should have.

But he hadn’t felt wrong about it. After all, he would be a husband in a few short weeks. But now that night was poisoned. Because everything Elise had ever said or done or claimed to feel turned out to be a lie.

He got to his feet and paced the room, his stomach roiling. He didn’t want to be sick on Folly’s very nice rug, so he exited the room through the terrace doors. The warm summer air hit him in the face and he shut his eyes as he moved to the edge of the parapet.

The terrace was high above the stone walkway to the garden below. So far down that if a man fell, he would likely die. Stenfax stared at the dizzying distance as the pain in his heart swelled and grew and took over every part of him. Drink hadn’t helped. It only made it worse. In that moment, he knew nothing could make it better.

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