Lily awoke to a rough shake on her arm. A searing ball of light hovered before her face.
She winced, and the light quickly receded. With caution, she opened her eyes. Blinking furiously, Lily strained to make out the lamp-bearer’s identity. It was Holling, the housekeeper.
Good Lord. She bolted upright in bed. Something dreadful had occurred. The servants would never shake her awake unless it was a matter of extreme urgency.
She pressed a hand to her throat. “What is it?”
Yellow lamplight illuminated an apologetic face. “Downstairs, my lady. You’re needed downstairs at once. Begging your pardon.”
With a nod of assent, Lily rose from bed. She shoved her toes into night-chilled slippers and accepted assistance in donning a violet silk wrap.
Her sense of dread only mounted as she descended the stairs. And the feeling was all too familiar.
Nearly five months had passed since the last time she’d been summoned downstairs in the dark. No one had needed to wake her then; she’d been unable to sleep for an insistent sense of foreboding. Her fears were confirmed when she opened the door to find gentlemen crowding her doorstep—three men with nothing in common save their membership in the Stud Club, an exclusive horse-breeding society her brother Leo had founded. They were the reclusive Duke of Morland, scarred war hero Rhys St. Maur, and Julian Bellamy—the London ton’s favorite hell-raiser and Leo’s closest friend.
One look at their grave faces that night, and there’d been no need for words. Lily had known instantly what they’d come to tell her.
Leo was dead.
At the age of eight-and-twenty, her twin brother was dead. Leo Chatwick, the Marquess of Harcliffe. Young, handsome, wealthy, universally-admired—beaten to death in a Whitechapel alleyway, the victim of footpads.
The last time she’d been summoned down these stairs at night, her existence had been torn in half.
Lily’s knees buckled as she reached the foot of the staircase. She clutched the banister for support, then drew a shaky breath as a footman waved her toward the door.
Holling thrust her lamp out over the threshold. Gathering all her available bravery, Lily moved toward the door and peeked out.
As there was no one on the doorstep, her view went straight to the square. The first gray insinuation of daylight hovered over the manicured hedges and paths. The streets were still largely empty, but here and there she saw servants on their way to market.
At the housekeeper’s insistent gesturing, she looked down. There, on the pavement at the bottom of the steps, lodged a costermonger’s wheelbarrow. The wooden cart was heaped with carrots, turnips, vegetable marrows…and the body of an unconscious man.
She clutched the doorjamb. Oh, no.
It was Julian Bellamy.
Lily recognized the red cuff of his coat before she even saw his face. She clapped a palm to her mouth, smothering a cry of alarm.
There’d been one consolation in mourning Leo: the knowledge that she could never endure such a devastating loss again. He was her twin, her best friend from birth and, since their parents’ deaths, her only remaining close kin. She would never love anyone so dearly as she’d loved him. Once Leo had left this world…pain could not touch her now.
Or so she’d thought.
Staring down at Julian’s senseless form, it was hard to believe she’d ever felt this frantic. She sensed her throat emitting sounds—ugly, croaking sounds, she feared. But she couldn’t make herself stop. Even when Leo had died, Julian had been there to stand by her. Devilish rake he might be, he was her brother’s steadfast friend, and hers as well. Over the years, they’d come to think of him as family. If Julian left her…
She would truly be alone.
For the second time that morning, Holling gave her arm a shake. Lily looked to the housekeeper.
“He’s alive,” the older woman said. “Still breathing.”
Tears of relief rushed past Lily’s defenses. “Bring him in.”
The footmen scrambled to obey, lifting his sprawled body from the wheelbarrow and hefting it up the steps.
“To the kitchen.”
They all filed down the narrow corridor, headed for the rear of the house. Holling first with her lamp; then the footmen bearing Julian. Lily brought up the rear as they descended the short flight of steps to the kitchen.
Even at this early hour, the kitchen staff was hard at work. A toasty fire warmed the room, and a yeasty aroma filled the air. A scullery maid lifted floury hands from the breadboard and stepped back in alarm, making room for the footmen to pass.
They placed Julian by the hearth, propping his head on a sack of meal.
“Send for the doctor,” she said. When no one sprang into action, she repeated herself at the top of her lungs. “Doctor. Now.”
With a hasty bow, one of the footmen hurried from the room.
Lily knelt at Julian’s side. Heavens, he was filthy. Dirt streaked his face, and the smell of the gutter clung to his clothes. She put a hand to his forehead, finding it clammy and cool to the touch. Perhaps he needed air. Her fingers flew to his cravat, and she tugged at it, unwinding the starched linen from his throat. A day’s growth of whiskers scraped her fingertips. She turned her cheek to his face, rejoicing at the warm puff of breath against her skin.
He suddenly convulsed, as if coughing.
She ceased her tussle with his cravat and pulled back to stare at him, not wanting to miss any word he might speak.
His eyes went in and out of focus as his gaze meandered over her form. “Hullo, Lily.”
Relief washed through her. “Julian. Are you well?”
He blinked several times, in rapid succession. Then again, slowly. Finally he said, “Violet always was your color.”
He slumped back, eyes closed.
Was he drunk? She leaned forward, sniffing cautiously at his exposed throat. No liquor. No gutter smells here, either. Just hints of starch and soap, mingled with the metallic, pungent odor of…
She grabbed his arm, shook it hard. “Julian. Julian, wake up.”
When he failed to respond, she withdrew her trembling hand and looked down at it. Just as she’d feared. Her fingers came away wet with blood.
* * *
Julian Bellamy had died sometime during the night.
That could be the only explanation. He’d perished, and there’d been some sort of divine mistake. Because this morning, he woke up in heaven. The sheer purity of it blanked his senses.
All was light. Fragrant. Lush. Clean.
The qualities of Paradise, as his boyhood self would have imagined it. The antithesis of everything he’d known from birth to the age of nine years: squalor, dirt, darkness, hunger.
Come to mention it, he still felt a faint pang of hunger.
His bare arms glided between layers of crisp linen and quilted silk as he stretched, idly wondering if the dead felt hunger. And if so, what mead-and-manna banquet awaited him here?
“At last. There you are.” A feminine voice. Husky and warm, like honey. A familiar voice.
His pulse stuttered.
His pulse? Bloody hell. To the devil with hunger. Dead men definitely did not have pulses.
Julian shot up on one elbow and forced his bleary gaze to sharpen. “Lily? Surely that’s not you.”
The elegant oval of her face came into focus. Dark eyes, anchored by a straight, slim nose. The rosy curve of her mouth. “Of course it’s me.”
Holy God. He was not in heaven; he was damned. He was in a bed—presumably a bed somewhere in Harcliffe House. And Lady Lily Chatwick sat on the edge of the bed, entirely too close. Within arm’s length. And he knew this couldn’t be a dream, because he never dreamed of Lily. He’d tried to dream of her, on a few occasions when he was feeling especially maudlin. It had never worked. Even in sleep, he couldn’t fool himself. Every part of him, conscious and unconscious, knew he didn’t deserve this woman.
Damn. He scrambled to remember the events of the night previous. What the devil had he done? What had he caused her to do?
“Lily.” His tongue felt thick, felted. He swallowed with difficulty. “Tell me this isn’t your room.”
Her lips quirked in a half-smile. “This isn’t my room.”
He released the breath he’d been holding. Now that he flashed a quick glance about him, he could see that the bedchamber was decorated in masculine shades. Rich greens, dark blues.
A worse thought struck him. He sat up further. “Lily. Tell me this isn’t his room.”
Her smile faded, and sadness melted the laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. “No. This isn’t Leo’s room.”
With a muttered curse of thanksgiving, he fell back against the pillows. It was one thing to disgrace his dead friend’s memory. Another thing entirely to do it in his dead friend’s own bed.
“It’s just a spare bedchamber. How is your arm?” she asked.
In answer, the limb gave a fierce throb. The wave of pain pushed memories to the fore. The dusty storehouse. The panicked crowd. The escaped bull, smashing him against the rail.
With his right hand, he touched the bandage tightly wound about his biceps.
“The doctor’s come and gone,” she said. “He seemed to think you’ll survive.”
“Blast.” He threw his wrist over his eyes. “How on earth did I get here?”
She clucked her tongue. “So dramatic. I should think this is a common occurrence for you, waking up naked in a strange bed.”
Naked? Had she truly just said…?
Julian lifted the sheet and glanced downwards. Thank God. Though he was undressed to the waist, the pewter buttons of his trouser falls winked up at him. And they were lying flat and obedient in a tame row. At the moment. If she kept hovering over him, they wouldn’t stay that way for long.
“Minx.” When she only laughed harder at her own joke, he lowered the sheet and chided her, “You are an unforgivable tease.”
“And you are an unmitigated ass.”
When he shifted onto his side, she laid a hand to his bare shoulder. Her touch was a brand against his skin.
“No, I mean it. You know I don’t normally use such words.”
She never used such words at all. Oh, she often thought them, he knew. But she never said them. And the scoundrel in Julian was perversely delighted that he’d provoked her into speaking her mind. Lily had a lot of thoughts worth sharing, and all too often she kept them to herself.
She handed him a glass of barley water, and he accepted it gratefully.
“You are making an ass of yourself, Julian, and I don’t mean just this morning.” Her eyes narrowed to angry slits. “But while we’re on the subject, let’s start with this morning.”
“Must we?” Tucking the sheets close to his chest—to guard her modesty, not his—Julian sat up in bed. He drank as she continued, downing the barley water in greedy gulps.
“Yes. Do you have any idea what a fright you gave me? A costermonger found you in the street before dawn. Lying in the gutter, bleeding.”
Ah, yes. The blood. That was what had done him in. Jagged shards of memory began to piece themselves together.
“Fortunately, Cook recognized you when the costermonger brought you by in his barrow, tumbled in amongst the turnips and celery root.” Her voice rose. “Really, Julian. Can you imagine?”
Yes, he could. He had a vague recollection of celery root. The night came back to him now, in a hot, sweaty rush. Setting aside the glass, he massaged away a sharp pain in his temple. “I can explain.”
“There was a boxing match in Southwark.”
She shook her head. “Not another boxing match. That’s all you care about these past few months.”
“I don’t attend for love of the sport.”
Julian had never shared the popular fascination with pugilism. He’d tasted too much of real danger in his life to take amusement from contrived imitations. But he wished to God he did enjoy bloodsport. If so, a good man would still be alive. Months ago, Julian had agreed to attend a boxing match at Leo’s suggestion. At the last minute, he’d begged off, preferring to pass the evening in a woman’s embrace instead.
Worst decision he’d ever made. And not just because Carnelia was uninspired in bed.
Leo had attended the fight without him. And afterward, he’d been attacked and beaten in a Whitechapel alleyway—murdered in the street by a pair of footpads. A random act of thievery, it was concluded by most.
Julian knew better. That attack had been meant for him. In recent months, he’d attended every boxing match, cockfight, dogfight, and bear-baiting within a day’s travel of London. If the scent of blood hung the air, he followed it—no matter how the spectacle turned his stomach. He could not rest until he reckoned with Leo’s murderers, lest they become his killers, too.
“Do you really think attending these matches will lead you to them?” she asked. “You have scarcely any description of the men. They could be standing next to you on the street, and you would never know.”
“You don’t understand.” He knew well how ineffectual the search was. It didn’t matter. Giving up was unthinkable.
“No, I don’t understand. I don’t understand a great many things you do lately. For example, just how do you get from a boxing match in Southwark to a costermonger’s wheelbarrow in Mayfair?”
“After the bout, there was a bull-baiting. The beast snapped its tether, and the crowd panicked.” Julian closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, his thoughts crowded out by memories of noise. The men shouting, the dogs’ frenzied barks, the thunder of footfalls as everyone rushed for the exits at once.
He raised both hands between them—one balled in a fist, the other extended as an open palm. “The bull charged.” In illustration, he drove the fist into his palm. “I was in the way.”
“I don’t suppose you were doing something noble, like diving in front of the beast to save a hobbled grandfather.” She put a hand under his chin and tipped his face to the light, examining his cheek. Her finger traced a slanting line toward his mouth—he must have a scratch there, he supposed. He licked his cracked lips.
Her touch skipped to the bandage encircling his arm. She ran her fingers over the binding, tucked a raw edge under the fold.
The casual intimacy of her touch was affecting. Too affecting.
Shaking his head, he pulled her hand away. “Nothing noble. I was just the one stupid enough to be wearing red.”
“Julian.” Her dark eyes glimmered with emotion as she squeezed his fingers. “You must stop making yourself a target.”
“I was only squashed. No real injury, save the pain in my arm. I decided to walk home to shake it off.”
“Walk home? From Southwark?”
He shrugged his good shoulder, easing his hand from her grip. “It’s not so far.” Not for him. Lately he spent most nights wandering all quadrants of the city.
Last night, he’d made his way back so far as the square where Harcliffe House was situated. This house was always the last stop on his nightly rounds. He would pause on the corner down the street. If he stood half on the pavement, half on the green…then craned his neck…he could just glimpse the fourth rightmost window on the second floor. The one he knew belonged to Lily’s bedchamber. If the window was dark, she was sleeping and at peace. He, too, could relax. On the nights he found a lamp burning, he ached for her sorrow. And he simply stood there, quietly sharing her grief, until that light went dark or the sun came up—whichever occurred first.
In the weeks after Leo’s death, he’d found that lamp burning more often than not. As the months passed, however, her bad nights had grown less frequent. Last night, he’d been comforted to see the window dark. And just as Julian had turned to seek his own home, that faint pain in his arm shifted to a deep, persistent throb.
He said, “I was passing nearby. I stopped under the streetlamp to have a look at my arm. Just a flesh wound, but I hadn’t noticed it earlier. Something was caught…a shard of glass, I think.” He touched his bandaged arm in demonstration. “I grasped it and pulled it out, and there was a fair amount of blood. Quite startled me, and I…”
“And you fainted.”
“No,” he said stoutly, jamming his hand under his arm. “Absolutely not. I didn’t swoon, Lily. Men do not swoon.”
“You slumped to the pavement unconscious, for the costermonger to find. Sounds like a fainting spell to me. What else could it have been?”
“I don’t know. Something different. Apoplexy. Malaria.” Anything more masculine than swooning.
Her eyes rolled toward the ceiling. “You don’t have apoplexy or malaria. Aside from your wound and a few bruises, the doctor could find nothing wrong with you. Not physically, at any rate. You’re simply exhausted. When was the last time you slept through the night?”
“Can’t recall, honestly.”
“Hm. And when’s the last time you had a proper meal?”
“Ah, now that I remember. I had very fine steak at the Stoat’s Head.”
He hedged, pushing a hand through his hair. “Not precisely.”
One dark eyebrow arched in disbelief. “You fainted, Julian.”
“And what if I did? What would you have me do, start carrying a vinaigrette?” He chuckled to himself. That would be a good joke. Within a week, every young buck in London would be carrying the same. Like Beau Brummel before him, Julian was the trendsetter of his day. His clothing, hair, even mannerisms were meticulously copied by the impressionable young gentlemen of the ton. Just as he’d planned from the start.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I want you to start taking care of yourself, that’s all. Sleep. Eat. Avoid scenes of violence and mayhem. Is it really so difficult?”
“Yes. It’s impossible.”
She winced, absorbing the force of his reply. He regretted his vehemence, but not the sentiment.
She said quietly, “I want you safe. I care about you. What’s so impossible about that?”
He yanked the coverlet about himself, scanning the room for his clothes. He had to get out of this bed, this house…before this conversation went places it shouldn’t. He planted one foot on the floor and transferred his weight to it.
Dizziness swamped him. The room made a violent twirl, and he found himself pitched straight back to the mattress.
“Malaria,” he muttered. His arms felt wooden at his sides.
“It’s not malaria. Nor even a fainting spell this time. The doctor left a sleeping powder, and I put some in your barley water.”
She pushed him back on the bed, arranging the coverlet about him. Her hands…they were everywhere. As she leaned forward to arrange the pillows beneath his head, he got an intoxicating lungful of her sweet warmth. The swell of her breast brushed against his wounded arm. Soft. God, so soft. His heart gave a wild kick. Now this was perilous.
He said, “I thought you wanted me to avoid danger.”
“I do. That’s why you’re going to sleep. When you wake up, you’re going to eat. And then we’re going to talk.”
Her words seemed wrapped in cotton. It took him a moment to unravel their meaning. “Just how much sleeping powder did you give me?”
“Two doses, and an extra pinch for good measure. You’re a large man, Julian Bellamy.”
“Ah, Lily. You noticed.” The flirtatious retort slipped out on accident. Damn. He was so sleepy, drunken with it. He couldn’t censor his replies.
“You’re also an ass.”
“You know me so well.”
“Do I?” She laid a hand to his cheek. “Sometimes I wonder. Sometimes I think I don’t know you at all.”
“Don’t say that.”
Her dark eyes searched his. So beautiful, those eyes. He wanted to keep staring into them for hours—forever—but some devil’s imp had tied lead weights to his eyelashes. He couldn’t hold them up much longer.
“Go to sleep.” Her soft form receded.
“No, wait. Don’t go. I’m sorry.”
A spike of clarity pierced his drugged haze. He struggled up on one elbow. With his other hand, he reached for her, curling his hand around the back of her slender neck. He wove his fingers into the thick silk of her hair, holding her tight. Leaving her nowhere to look but at him. He needed to say this. Nothing in the world was more important than saying these words, right now. And he needed to know she understood.
He twisted his grip in her hair, and she gave a little gasp. He waited until her gaze fell to his lips. There. Now he knew she was listening.
“I’m so sorry, Lily. So damn sorry, and I wish to God… It’s my fault, you know. Leo’s murder. My fault. But I’m going to make it right. Not right. Can’t be put right. But better. I swear to you, I’ll…”
Damn it, he was rambling like a bedlamite. From the furrowed set of her brow, he could tell he’d lost her some ways back.
“Please,” she said. “Don’t distress yourself so.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, his voice breaking into a hoarse whisper. He began again, forcing his lips to shape the words clearly, even if no sound came out. “You must know I’d do anything for you. For you. You and I… I wish….”
She shushed him, tapping her thumb against his jaw. “Rest, Julian.”
Julian. The name echoed through his skull until he scarcely recognized it as his own. Perhaps because it wasn’t.
“You should sleep,” she said.
His chin concurred, nodding in agreement. He should sleep. He should.
No. His eyes snapped open. He couldn’t let her go, not yet. And if he couldn’t reach her with words, he’d have to try something else. With his last bit of consciousness, he pushed up on one arm, pulled her close with the other—
And kissed her. God damn his soul, he kissed Lady Lily Chatwick for all he was worth. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t much at the moment.
Beneath his palm, her neck went rigid with shock. Her lips were warm, but firm. Resistant. Sealed.
Still he held her fast, pressing his mouth to hers with artless desperation. All his seductive techniques—clever caresses, murmured endearments, nimble flicks of the tongue—they’d deserted him utterly. After all these years, so many fantasies of this moment… Bloody hell. This was not going well, not at all.
He tilted his head, hoping a different angle might help.
A panicked sound creaked from her throat.
Julian cursed himself. Really, he wanted to pull back and insist, I’m a much better kisser than this.
But what was the use? He’d never have another chance to prove it.
Then, suddenly, something happened. Or nothing happened.
Because in that moment, neither of them moved. Neither of them breathed. They just…existed together. The tension melted away. And the kiss was still artless, still desperate—but only because it was real. The most honest, truthful moment they’d ever shared.
The sheer power of it was lightning strike, jolting them apart.
He stared at her, unable to speak as the room contracted to a dark, narrow tunnel. He at one end, and she at the other. Sleep tugged at him with its clumsy grasp, stealing the edges from his vision and the strength from his limbs. His grip slipped from her neck. Strands of her hair slid through his fingers like water. Cool and abundant and vital.
Impossible to hold.
He fell back to the bed, and knew no more.