Disowned and disinherited by his aristocratic family, Jack Llewelyn survives on his wits and his ability to nurse officers returning from the Napoleonic Wars. He is prepared to go to any lengths to clear his name, but fate, and the Duke of Diable Delamere, have different plans for Jack. Soon, he will be hunting a missing spy, discovering old family secrets, and risking his life pursuing a woman who has changed beyond recognition. Only then will he be able to face his lost love, ask her forgiveness and finally deserve his very happy ending.
Jack Llewelyn gave a long-suffering sigh, crossed his arms and leaned back against the silk-covered wall of the Delamere House ballroom. Lilac ribbons and purple flowers of every variety had transformed the cavernous ballroom into a spectacular spring-like vision of a woodland grove. Even to Jack’s jaundiced eye, the duchess’ first ball would be described as a triumph.
Jack mentally calculated what it must have cost the Duke of Diable Delamere’s secretary to buy all the hothouse blooms and scented flowers in London and grimaced. He glanced down at Michael Waterstone, who occupied the wheelchair by his side. “Michael, I hate doing the pretty, and I’m not dressed for a ton ball. You don’t need my help anymore, so why in God’s name have you dragged me here this evening?”
“Don’t blame me. Elizabeth—or should I say Her Grace, the Duchess of Diable Delamere—ordered me to bring you along. And since this is her first formal ball and the duke is my employer, I couldn’t quite see how to put her off.”
“Devil take it,” Jack swore softly, aware of the interested eyes on him and the gradual, inevitable swell of gossip his presence always stirred. He hadn’t ventured into the ton for almost five years, yet nothing had changed. “I hope Her Grace hasn’t taken it into her head to befriend me. I have enough problems without that.”
Michael’s mouth twitched. “Elizabeth is my sister. Please refrain from referring to her in such unflattering terms.”
“I hold Her Grace in the highest regard, but she can be intimidating when she sets her mind on something. Even you can’t deny that.”
Wisely, Michael chose not to comment. Jack glanced at the dance floor, where a waltz was in progress. In the center of the room, the duke’s dark head was bent toward his new duchess. His stance radiated a possessive interest Jack knew to be sincere. He had crossed paths with the duke earlier in the year and experienced the ferocity of his devotion to his Elizabeth at first hand.
Jack had met Elizabeth before her marriage, when she advertised for a male nurse for her brother, Michael. At the time, unbeknownst to Jack or to her family, she’d paid Jack’s wages from money earned breaking code for the duke.
He forgot about the couple when a uniformed figure stopped in front of Michael and saluted. Jack resisted the automatic impulse to salute back and instead thrust his hand into the pocket of his breeches.
“Lieutenant Waterstone, it’s a pleasure to see you, sir.” The smartly dressed young man shook Michael’s hand and pointedly ignored Jack.
“Good evening, Captain Howard,” Michael replied. “Have you met my friend, Lord Jack Llewelyn?”
Captain Howard flicked Jack a disdainful glance. “With all due respect, Waterstone, I’m surprised that a war hero such as yourself would want to be associated with a man who was dishonorably discharged from the army for deliberately leading two men into a French ambush.”
Jack straightened and withdrew his hands from his pockets. He was a good six inches taller than the hapless Captain Howard. Rash words of contempt and challenge hovered on Jack’s lips, but he kept his mouth shut. He’d trodden that path before and barely survived. Wearily he wondered if he’d ever be allowed to forget.
Michael frowned. “I honor all those who have fought and died for our country. Llewelyn fought through the first years of the peninsular campaign. What right do we have to condemn anyone who lived through that hell on earth? Things happen in the heat of a battle that defy explanation. Why not give the man the benefit of the doubt?”
Captain Howard stepped back and saluted. “I apologize, Lieutenant, but much as I admire you, I can’t feel comfortable conversing with you in such company. Perhaps I may visit you at home?”
He clicked his heels and was gone in a blur of scarlet cloth and silver braid. Michael cursed under his breath.
“You don’t have to defend me,” Jack muttered. “I’m quite capable of looking after myself.”
“I’m not sure you are. And why on earth shouldn’t I stand up for a man I consider my friend?”
“You don’t know what happened in Spain, and I certainly haven’t tried to explain myself. I stopped trying a long time ago.” An image of his father’s disgusted face flashed through Jack’s mind.
“That’s exactly why I believe you were wronged.”
Jack stared out over the ballroom. “I’m no hero. I got what I deserved. A man died because of me. So perhaps you and your sister could stop trying to ‘help’ me and let me go to the devil.”
“Go if you must, but the duke wishes to speak to you before you leave.”
“You know where I lodge. I’m sure you can arrange a convenient time for the duke to meet me there.”
He pushed past Michael, aware that he was behaving atrociously but unable to bear the stifling heat of the ballroom for a second longer. As he strode through the crowds, he rubbed his hand against his thigh. Sometimes he feared he was still so tainted by blood and death that his touch contaminated and destroyed those around him.
Jack headed for the wide doors of the ballroom, ignoring the poisonous whispers that made the hair on the back of his neck spring to attention. He descended the spiral stairs into the wide black and white marbled hallway, stopping in the shadow of the stairway to gulp the fresh air flooding through the open front door.
As Jack watched, a party of guests arrived and began to remove their cloaks and wraps before ascending the impressive staircase. A woman stood silhouetted against the backdrop of the falling snow. A flash of titian hair, frosted with diamonds, caught his attention. He paused as the woman took off her cloak to reveal a simple white ball gown.
When the lady raised one hand to pat her hair, her fragile skirts took flight in the draughts of freezing air and more diamonds sparkled in the candlelight.
With a deep sense of male appreciation, Jack imagined the auburn-haired beauty standing naked in her bedroom as fat cherubs poured sparkling gems over her luscious, long-limbed body. He wished he could be there…
She turned toward him, as if noticing the heat of his stare, and he forgot to breathe. Ignoring her chattering companions, she picked up her gauzy skirts and walked toward him. The tap of her jeweled-heeled white sandals echoed against the marble floor. When she reached him, her hand came up to her throat.
“Jack—I didn’t know you had returned. I was hoping to contact you…”
Jack bowed. “I’ve been in England for the last two years. Didn’t my father inform you?”
She shook her head and her long diamond earrings trembled. Idly, Jack wondered how she could afford them.
“My father didn’t tell you?” He faked surprise. “I thought you two were as thick as thieves.”
She blushed and caught her bottom lip between her teeth. “I’ve hardly seen him since you left.”
Before she could continue, one of the men in her party came up and laid a proprietary hand on her shoulder. Jack stared at the gloved fingers, aware of a deep desire to wrench them away from the soft flesh they touched and plant the man a facer.
“Carys, darling. We are already late and we agreed to meet my mother at the supper table.”
Jack raised an inquiring eyebrow but stood his ground. He was eager to find out why Carys allowed another male to address her with such familiarity. And why in God’s name did she need to find favor with this person’s mother?
Carys looked from Jack to her companion and sighed. “Lord Rice, may I present Lord Jack Llewelyn?”
To Jack’s immense satisfaction, Rice released Carys’s arm and stepped back, a flash of understanding on his dark-set features. Jack took the opportunity to claim his wife’s gloved hand and bring it to his lips.
“As far as I am aware, Carys is still my wife. I don’t recall giving you permission to address her by her first name, or to escort her anywhere.”
Lord Rice bowed, his calm gaze lingering on Carys. “I do, of course, apologize, my lord. But I understood from Carys—I mean, from Lady Jack—that you and she led separate lives.”
Jack admired the man’s courage even as he mocked it. “Then perhaps you were mistaken. Women’s understanding of such matters can be tenuous.” He dropped his wife’s hand and flicked her cheek with a careless finger. “If there is something you need to discuss with me, Carys, may I suggest you contact my father’s solicitors? I’m sure you’d prefer not to have to suffer the indignity of speaking to me directly.”
Carys’s face paled and she clenched her hand at her side. He watched as she gathered her composure around her like a cloak and lifted her chin. “If that is how you want to proceed, I will follow your wishes, but I do need to speak with you.”
Jack had started to move past her. He stopped and lowered his voice so the others couldn’t hear. “Well, that makes a change, darling. I thought we’d said everything there was to say when you chose to side with my father and left me.”
“I didn’t leave, Jack. You did.” Her voice was low and fierce. “And in truth, you had already left me long before your father disinherited you.”
She averted her gaze and stepped away from him. Placed her hand on Lord Rice’s arm and accompanied him up the stairs without a backward glance.
Jack waited until she disappeared from view then marched out of the door into the snow-filled night. He walked clear across to the other side of the square before the shock hit him. He stopped and leaned against the cast iron railings, staring up at the leaden skies. Stinging snow fell unheeded onto his rapidly freezing face.
Christ. Carys had looked even more beautiful than he imagined her in his countless frustrated dreams. His wife, his first love, the woman who had ripped out his heart and left him to face a painful future alone. He groaned. What had he expected her to do? Fall into his arms, tell him it had all been a terrible mistake and that she still loved him? He wouldn’t have believed her even if she had. But Carys had no way of knowing he’d decided to face his demons and sort out their troubled past.
Jack pushed away from the frigid iron railings and buried his hands in his pockets. In his haste to get away, he’d left his greatcoat drying in the kitchens at Delamere House. His coat, taken from a dead French soldier, had seen him through blistering hot summers and stone-cold mountain winters whilst on campaign. Unlike the rest of the invited guests, he only owned one coat. He was damned if he was going to let his wife’s unexpected appearance make him lose it.
Jack looked back across the snow-covered square and retraced his solitary diagonal footprints. Through the swirling drifts of snow, the front of Delamere House blazed with light and resonated with the turmoil of guests arriving and leaving. The park at the center of the square was locked and dark, guarding its winter secrets. Crossing the road, Jack picked his way through the once pristine snow, which had been churned up into a thick, muddy sludge by the carriages.
His boots were soaked through by the time he trudged around to the rear of the house. He descended the steep steps to the basement and let himself in through the back door. To his surprise, nobody was there. The warmth and earthy smells of roasting pork enfolded him. He shook the snow from his hair and hunkered beside the huge kitchen range to warm his hands. The final chords of the orchestra concluding a cotillion filtered down from the ballroom above. Jack guessed the staff was probably engaged in serving supper to the guests.
He spied a loaf of bread and a slab of butter on the pine kitchen table and helped himself. There was no food at his lodgings and almost no money. Ignoring the sudden anxious pain in his gut, he tried to block out his fears for the future.
Unless his luck changed, he would have to crawl back to the mysterious Captain Fury and beg for more work. Warm bread stuck in his throat. He coughed and tried to swallow. He wanted to earn an honest living but kept getting pulled back into a murky underworld of lies and deceit by his need to survive.
Jack had once joked to Michael that as a soldier, all he’d been trained to do was kill people and bind up wounds. After being dishonorably discharged from the army, he’d taken employment nursing wounded officers back to health. Somehow, people always found out about his colorful past. Despite his considerable skill, he was usually dismissed at the earliest opportunity.
The Waterstones were the first family who had accepted him for what he was. It galled him that his whole relationship with them was based on a lie.
His sharp ears picked up the sound of someone descending the servants’ stairs. He got slowly to his feet and wiped the breadcrumbs from his mouth. The Duke of Diable Delamere appeared, Jack’s missing coat in his hand. To Jack’s surprise, the duke had changed out of his gray eveningwear into riding gear.
The duke held out the coat. “Were you looking for this?”
Jack turned his back, cut himself another thick wedge of bread and slathered it with butter before looking up again. “What do you want, Your Grace? And what do I have to do to get my coat back—lick your boots?”
The duke half smiled as he glanced down at his immaculate riding boots. He tossed the coat toward Jack. “No thank you, Llewelyn. I fear you would spoil the polish and Jacques, my valet, would never forgive me.” His expression sobered. “Will you come to my study whilst the other guests eat their supper? I have something very important to discuss with you.”
* * * * *
As soon as she reached the ballroom, Carys Llewelyn escaped to the ladies retiring room. After Jack’s startling appearance, she had pretended not to notice the interested stares of her companions and Lord Rice’s silent support. Luckily, no one occupied the quiet sanctuary, apart from a serving maid who greeted Carys and withdrew. Carys sank onto one of the chairs and pressed her cold hands to her cheeks. She’d imagined meeting Jack in a thousand different places, but not at a ball.
She pulled out two diamond headed pins from her hair and admired their stark brilliance. Five years ago, when his father had disinherited him, she had let him walk out of her life.
She’d only seen him once since then. On that occasion, two years previously, Jack hadn’t even bothered to speak to her. If his brother, Robert, had hoped to bring them together, his good-hearted scheme had failed miserably. The shame of that meeting and the ridiculous duel resulting from it between Jack and her brother, Gareth, still made Carys wince.
She grimaced and slid one of the pins back into her hair. By that point she hadn’t wanted to speak to Jack. Scream, shout and throw things at him, perhaps, but not conduct a reasonable conversation. He hadn’t answered her increasingly desperate letters and she wasn’t a fool. He hadn’t forgiven her. To her dismay, it appeared as if his dislike had only hardened in the past two years.
In the magnificence of the marbled hallway, he’d looked older than his thirty years, shabbier and out of place. The Spanish sun had tanned his skin and bleached his hair from honey to harsh gilt. Harder and deeper furrows on his face replaced the gentle lines of good humor and soft living she remembered. She recalled the hint of scorn in his voice and the insolent way he ran his eyes over her, as though she were a light skirt begging for his custom.
She regarded herself in the mirror, surprised by her composure. It had taken her a long time after Jack’s desertion to achieve such an unruffled exterior. She pictured herself as a swan. All graceful, gliding elegance on the surface and frantically paddling feet down below.
She was four and twenty and had been married to Jack for seven years. Did he care that she’d grown up? Did he care that another man was escorting her around London? It was impossible to tell. All she sensed was his disapproval. After five years apart, she wasn’t sure she knew him anymore, or if she would even like him. To think he was once the sun moon and stars to her…
“Carys, are you all right?”
As Carys slid the last pin back into her hair, Anna, Lord Rice’s sister, peered around the door.
“Yes, I’m fine.” She tried to smile. “It was just such a surprise…”
Anna nodded, her blue eyes full of sympathy. “I would say it was. You arrive at a ball with my brother and your long-lost husband turns up! It’s worthy of a comedy of errors at Drury Lane.”
“It’s not funny, Anna. I have to find a way out of this muddle. I’ve been trying to convince myself that Jack will agree to my plans and simply disappear again. But my husband is never predictable.”
She shivered as she recalled the contemptuous expression in Jack’s brown eyes. He had tried to make her look like a dithering peahen. She was certain that without Oliver’s calm intervention, she and Jack would still be bickering now. How was she supposed to deal with a man who hadn’t contacted her since his return from God knows where? Was she to be forever chasing after him like a little girl with a crush on her brother’s best friend?
Anna came to sit beside her. Carys was grateful for her undemanding presence. Soon, she would have to leave the sanctuary of the retiring room and go out to face the questions of her friends and, most importantly, Lord Oliver Rice.
The man who expected to marry her.