Rescued By a Lady's Love (Lords of Honor, #3)(6)

By: Christi Caldwell

The old gentleman continued to smile at her in that benevolent manner. “I’ve a brief meeting inside with the duke. I’ve no intention of hurting you, but given your exit from Blackthorne’s home, you are just another one subject to his ruthlessness.” The frown on the man’s lips met his eyes and hinted at a person who’d also been somehow victim to that powerful peer. “If you choose to remain, I’ll help you.”

She eyed him through narrowed eyes. Hadn’t George proven gentlemen were only driven by their own motives? “Why would you do that?”

“Because you need help,” he said simply. The stranger motioned to the door. “You are free to go. I will not stop you.” He paused. “But neither is it safe for you to be out on these streets, alone. The decision is yours.”

Lily remained silent, glaring at him through mistrustful eyes until he opened the door and strode back across the street and, eventually, disappeared inside George’s home.

She reached for the handle and froze. Where will I go? Home was no longer an option. Shivering from cold and fear, Lily pulled her fingers back and balled them on her lap. She huddled deeper into the thick squabs of the comfortable carriage.

After all, as he’d said—what other choice did she have?

Chapter 1

London, England

Late Winter 1821

Derek Winters, the 8th Duke of Blackthorne, sat cloaked in the darkness of his office. Curtains drawn, the room silent and empty but for the eerie shadows that played off the walls, he’d come to crave the deathly still of the room like a demon craved the fires of hell. From the corner of his sole eye he glared at the crumpled copy of The Times that lay on the table beside it had for months. A growl worked its way up his throat and he swiped the damned sheet up. He squinted and re-read those familiar words, once more.

...The Marquess of St. Cyr nearly killed underneath the deadened branches of a Hyde Park elm...

At one time, that piece would have devastated him. He fisted the page, further wrinkling the old copy. Now, this new man he’d become found an unholy glee in the other man’s misery. He gripped the arms of his chair. With his back presented to the room, he stared into the dancing flames of the blazing hearth. Only, he’d ceased to be human long ago—because of that very happy man, nearly killed by a blasted branch. Then, wasn’t that life? Some men had families and love and good-fortune...and then others? A muscle ticked at the corner of his eye. “And others have nothing,” he whispered. Yes, others were cursed, like the other Winters family members who’d only known death and despair. Such a truth had once ripped him apart with a vicious pain. Somewhere along the way, he’d built himself into a man who didn’t feel or care. And he was all the stronger for it.

Derek hurled the paper into the hearth and the scorching flames quickly devoured them. The hungry fire’s glow burned all the brighter. A hard, mirthless grin turned his lips. How singularly interesting the fire should provide warmth for some and, yet, for him it held nothing but the frigid cold of his past. He absently fingered the head of his serpent-headed cane, the gold metal cool against his right palm.

“If you play with fire, you get burned.

If you play with flames, you’ll be smote.

If you avoid the heat, the better off you be.

So do not ever play with fire, or gone forever more, for all eternity.”

The children’s proverb echoed around the chambers of his mind; words given him by a stern tutor, who’d tired of Derek’s dangerous pursuits.

A log snapped in the hearth in an explosion of crimson embers. He leaned his cane against the edge of his chair and tugged the glove off of his left hand. Turning his hand over, he examined the ragged, puckered, white flesh. How very wrong Mr. Johnson had been. Fire did not kill, it merely destroyed. Death would often be preferable.

A knock sounded at the door. Derek whipped his head to the right and glowered at the wood panel. With a growl of annoyance, he yanked his glove back on. His servants did not disturb him. And the lords he’d once called friends assuredly did not disturb him. No one did. People knew better.

He returned his attention to the fiery blaze once more. The infernal rapping continued. He winced. Alas, this bloody fool still had yet to realize he was a different duke than the one who’d preceded him to the grave. Then the knocking ceased. He eased back into the folds of the worn leather chair. Perhaps the man wasn’t a total lackwit.

The press of a handle sounded like a shot as the creak of the door filled the room. Derek stiffened. Surely the man had gleaned, in the time he’d served his master, one, essential fact—one did not enter the devil’s lair. “Y-your Grace.” The butler cleared his throat. Apparently, he’d not gleaned that essential fact. “I...” He cleared his throat once more. “I—” Derek angled his head at the very slightest angle. Harris bore another damned silver tray with another damned folded note bearing the Earl of Maxwell’s seal. From the corner of his eye, he saw the man jump.