Rescued By a Lady's Love (Lords of Honor, #3)(3)

By: Christi Caldwell

With a skill that came from too many games of tag with her younger siblings, she darted past the aged butler and around the footman who reached for her. Heart racing, Lily darted past the men and down the crimson carpet while the blood raced in her veins and fueled her steps. Her breath came hard and fast...and then, she collided with a wall.

Nay, a person.

“Oomph.” Lily sailed backwards and landed hard on her buttocks. Pain shot up her tailbone and climbed up her spine. With stars dancing before her eyes, she blinked several times bringing the beloved visage of George Winters, the Duke of Blackthorne, into focus.

Hands folded at his chest, he stood, a tall beacon of strength and power. “What in blazes is this about?” The fury in his deep baritone marked him the champion who’d earned her love.

Her heart tugged as that familiar voice washed over her. She’d lain in his arms but once and known only a handful of his kisses, but it was a voice that had sustained her through the horror of The Scandal. Lying on the floor, she craned her neck back and stared at him.

Immaculate. Impeccable. Coolly elegant and wholly perfect. Attired in a sapphire jacket with a snow white cravat, he was the model of male beauty. As though in absolute mockery of his perfection, a wet curl fell over her eye and she brushed it back to better gaze at—

His scowl.

Unease churned in her belly.

Why is he me?

He peered down at her and his blue-eyed stare ran through her; a man who saw, but did not see. That was, at least, see rain-soaked urchins on the floor with their skirts rucked up above their ankles. She gasped and quickly shoved them down.

George looked again to his butler. “What in blazes is the meaning of this, Sutton?” he bit out, ignoring Lily’s prone form at his feet.

“Your Grace, I am sorry,” the butler said, rushing forward. “This...cretin...entered through the front entrance.”

A healthy rage filled her. How dare he speak of her with those tones of icy derision? She was no lady born, but she was a vicar’s daughter, and a woman who even for that had earned the heart of this powerful lord. “How dare you?” A man who, in the moment, simply could not see past her ragged garments and bedraggled appearance.

“I pay you good wages to see that these persons,” these persons? “do not—”

“George,” she whispered, cutting across shameful words she’d believed this man incapable of. She may as well have fired a pistol into the quiet.

A charge of shock ricocheted about the portrait-lined corridor.

Using that distraction, Lily scrambled to her feet and stretched a hand out. “George, it is me,” she said softly. She continued forward and then stopped before him.

But an inch or so taller than her own five feet seven inches, their eyes nearly met. In an eternal moment that stretched on forever, he stared at her. He narrowed his eyes. “Who are you to enter this home and use my Christian name?”

She froze; her body immobile and eyes unblinking, she braced for his teasing laughter, for him to fold her in his arms and hold her a moment—that did not come.

Unease skittered along her spine. He did not recognize her. That was all. There was nothing else to account for this icy disdain seeping from his cold eyes. She turned her palms up. “George, it is I,” she tried again. How could eyes that had twinkled with warmth now ice her worse than the late autumn cold raging outside? “Lily Bennett,” she said, pleadingly. She turned her palms up, praying he played an unfunny jest, one that she would take him to task for the remainder of their days when he did right by her.

He frowned and peered at her through blond lashes. He took in her now limp curls and as his stare lingered on her painfully modest cloak, shame spiraled through her. “Deal with this, Sutton,” he ordered and turned on his heel.

“Surely you remember me!” Her cry echoed about the hall, freezing him, and earning gasps from the butler and footman. “I-I wrote you letters,” she said, her voice catching, as he turned around. Mayhap with his mother’s interception of those missives he’d believed Lily a faithless, fickle girl who’d forgotten him. “Y-Your mother came to my parents’ cottage with them.”

He opened his mouth and closed it several times. “What manner of jest is this?” he asked, so coolly detached that a sliver of her heart broke.

Oh, God. He does not remember me. She reeled. How could she have given her virtue to a man who did not even recognize her from Eve? Her fingers scrabbled at her throat and she searched for words. Any words. A sound. A plea. A cry. Something to prove that she was still breathing. Lily managed words. “I am—”