The Love Letter

Lucy found the flowers on her escritoire when she returned to her room to dress for dinner. They were striking, an unusual bouquet of flashy crimson amaryllis, black knight hollyhock, and golden begonia, wrapped all around in a purple ribbon. A rectangular card of stiff linen paper was tucked within, bearing her name written in an elegant hand that she did not recognize. 

Lucy had never seen any arrangement quite like it. With its jarring combination of colors, it was simultaneously beautiful and disturbing; looking at it gave her a queer feeling in her stomach.

“Ella!” she shouted, summoning her ladies maid from the dressing room, where she was laying out Lucy’s dinner gown.

The girl, dressed in the grey and white uniform of the household staff, appeared instantly and curtsied before her mistress with eyes properly downcast. “Yes, miss?”

“Do you know who this bouquet came from?” Lucy asked, thrusting the blooms beneath the startled girl’s nose.

“No ma’am,” she replied, briefly risking a glance upward to gauge the expression on her employer’s face. “I’ve not seen them before.”

“Come, you must have done,” Lucy insisted. “They were right here on my desk, and no one enters this room besides you, me, and the upstairs maid.”

Nervously, Ella twisted her fingers together. She was reluctant to contradict the young miss, but neither could she tell a lie. “I’m sorry, miss, but I don’t know anything about them flowers, and I ain’t—I mean haven’t—seen anyone else in this part of the house since we arrived home from the picnic at Waysmith this afternoon. I… I don’t know where they came from, miss, and that’s a fact!”

Lucy sighed and waved her hand in dismissal. “That’s fine then. Go back to what you were doing.” 

Ella retreated gratefully to her work.

Lucy was still mildly curious about the mystery, but not enough to go in search of answers. After all, Lord Reginald Cottington was to be their guest at dinner tonight, and she had only an hour to get properly turned out. Doubtless the housekeeper or some other servant had delivered the flowers at the request of an admirer while she was from home. It was not unusual for her many conquests to attempt to win her favor with gifts, after all. She had armoires full of books she would never read and a piano bench full of sheet music she would never play, and she had received enough flowers over the year since her coming out that she could have opened her own shop. One bouquet more or less was not worth dwelling on.

The matter settled in her mind, she tossed the offering roughly back onto the writing desk. 

Taking a seat at her vanity, she began to array the tools of her arsenal: powders, ribbons, face creams, and tinctures, all of which she had procured secretly with the tremulous aid of the much put-upon Ella. Proper young ladies didn’t wear paint, of course, and her mother would have been scandalized, but Lucy didn’t care what her mother thought. She had found that with a deft hand and a light touch, one’s natural beauty could be “enhanced” without anyone being the wiser, and right now she had need of whatever help would give her an edge on her competition. The game would begin tonight, and she had every intention of winning.

Forty-five minutes later, the guests began to arrive, but Lucy ignored the sounds of greeting and conversation drifting up from downstairs. She still had plenty of time before the bell rang for dinner, and besides, she was planning a grand entrance into the company, the effect of which would be more impressive when she was the last to arrive. She wanted all eyes on her, especially Reginald’s.

Though he was no longer young, and had never been handsome, Lord Reginald did have the one allurement that was absolutely vital to the romantic notions of any marriageable woman of sufficient breeding and connection: a vast fortune, one that had grown in both size and reputation with the addition of the sizable inheritance that fell to him when his older brother passed away on a sea voyage over the summer. Families all over England were tripping over their feet and thrusting unmarried daughters into the Duke’s path everywhere he went in an effort to ally themselves with the house of Cottington.

Lucy was determined that she would be the one he brought home to be mistress of the great stone edifice of Hardwick Hall. Already she was making plans for the improvements she would order, the fine gowns she would buy, the beautiful stable full of horses that would be hers to ride whenever she wished. She would leave behind this middle class mediocrity and join the upper echelons of British society, basking in the adoration of people like that wretched Jane Endecott, who had snubbed her at the Heresford’s Yule Festival last year. Her mind made up, all she had to do was seduce the Duke, an undertaking which suited her skill set very well indeed. She had already laid the groundwork, building up a calculated flirtation over several weeks of garden parties and evening soirees. By the end of this night, he would be eating out of her hand like a baby bird.

With Ella’s help, she had doffed her blue organdy day dress and was now laced into her newest gown, a champagne colored satin with ornate embroidery along the edge of the plunging neckline. The silhouette clung suggestively to her cinched waist and cascaded to the ground in a tumult of cloud-like flounces. Her pale shoulders were bared, luminous in the light from her fire. From a linen bag, Ella drew the slippers of golden silk that the dressmaker had sent to compliment the dress and slipped them onto Lucy’s feet.

After getting dressed, she sat before her mirror while Ella swept her chestnut locks into a smooth chignon. She accented it with pearl hairpins that glowed with the suggestion of stars in the night sky of her hair. At the mistress’s command, one stray curl was left loose to drift over her cheek, an innocent enticement that Lucy hoped suggested a hidden streak of sensuality. 

Standing to admire her reflection, the girl smiled. “Just one or two finishing touches, I think.” She held up a simple string of golden pearls For Ella to fasten around her bare throat, and then, with a fingertip, she smoothed a touch of color across her lips to make them look dewy and inviting, careful not to create an affect that would draw her mother’s disapproving eye. 

“There!” she exclaimed. I think I’m ready. How do I look, Ella?”

“Very beautiful, miss,” Ella said dutifully, although in truth she was greatly uneasy about the young mistress’s use of makeup, like a common fancy lady. She knew better than to say so, though, and kept her opinions locked up inside her own bonnet, where they belonged.

“Run downstairs now, and tell mama that I’m dressed and coming down.” She knew that her mother, growing anxious to see her wed, could be counted upon to call attention to her arrival.

And indeed, as Lucy slowly descended the staircase a few minutes later, she saw with satisfaction that her mother had managed to skillfully lead the guests toward dinner by way of the gallery, placing them perfectly in position to witness her stunning appearance from above, as if she were an angel coming to rest upon the earth. Without being obvious, she scanned the watching faces to locate that of Lord Reginald. There he was, next to the Grecian urn, dressed in a peacock blue vest and gazing at her with a rather gobsmacked countenance. Biting back her distaste, she bestowed upon him a dazzling smile, and upon alighting from the last step, moved with practiced poise to stand beside him.

“I say,” the rather portly gentleman exclaimed, “you do know how to make an entrance! You are, if you will pardon my presumption in declaring it, the most beautiful woman in this room.”

“Why Lord Reginald,” Lucy simpered, attempting to project a modesty she did not possess, “you are much too kind. I never dreamed of attracting anyone’s notice. You… you honor me with your attention, sir.” She placed a hand on his arm and looked adoringly at him through demurely lowered lashes.

 “Would you allow me to escort you to the dining room, my dear?” the Duke asked, covering her long, elegant fingers with his meaty paw, and Lucy curtsied in acquiescence, bowing her head to hide the smirk of triumph on her face. It was almost too easy.

As she and her mother had arranged beforehand, Lucy was seated next to Lord Reginald at the banquet table. With practiced ease, she delighted and dazzled the general company at her end of the table. She was witty and bold one moment, blushing and coy the next. Despite the occasional efforts of other ladies to interject themselves into the conversation, the Duke had eyes only for Lucy. By the time the dessert course was served, he was completely under her sway. 

If she was being honest, she was a little disappointed that the game was over so quickly. 

“It appears you have added another heart to your collection,” came a low, resonant voice from her other side. She looked over in surprise. In her determination to accomplish the mission of winning over Lord Reginald, she had barely spared a glance for her other dinner companion. 

She did so now, and realized that she did not know the man. Indeed, she could not even recall being introduced to him, and yet he had addressed her as if they were acquainted.

“I do not know to what you are referring,” she answered coolly.

He chuckled. Lucy studied him appraisingly. He was a young man, perhaps in his late twenties, with broad shoulders and a square jaw that lent him an air of determination. His hair was black and thick, and his eyes were a shade of gray-blue that reminded her of cloudy skies dark with unspilled rain. He raised one eyebrow slightly in a look of amusement. At her? It seemed so. She realized with a jolt that she found him attractive. 

Who was he?

As if in answer to her silent inquiry, he tilted his head and commented, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

Unwilling to admit that she had committed the sin of forgetting a previous acquaintance, she bluffed. “Of course I do. How do you do?”

A sardonic grin quirked up the corners of his mouth. “I’m quite well. And you?”

“Indeed. I am as you see me.” The conversation, such as it was, limped along awkwardly, but she found herself unable to disengage from it without additional rudeness.

Lord Reginald solved the problem for her. Feeling the loss of her devoted attention, he turned to find where it had gone. “Greetings, young Bainbridge,” he said. A note of jealousy colored his tone, and Lucy smiled inwardly. “I had not thought you would still be in town this late in the year.”

Bainbridge. The name was familiar, but still she could not place it. 

“I had business matters to arrange before returning home,” Mr. Bainbridge explained, “and not wishing to see me wallow in loneliness, my friend Benjamin Hughes secured an invitation for me to this fine dinner.” He gestured at a red-haired gentleman animatedly talking to Lucy’s aunt at the other end of the long table. Lucy recognized Mr. Hughes from several of the dances she had attended earlier in the season. He had danced with her twice, but the boredom in her eyes must have shown, for he asked her no more after that.

She was just about to inquire further into Mr. Bainbridge’s mysterious business when her father stood up from his place at the head of the table and announced that it was time for the ladies to retire to the drawing room so the men could enjoy their cigars and brandy free from the gentling influences of the fairer sex. 

Lucy excused herself prettily and followed her mother into the drawing room. Her curiosity would have to wait.

The conversation buzzing around the well-appointed drawing room was as insipid as ever—who had ordered a new dress, what eligible bachelor was recently engaged (the first met with approval, the second with audible disappointment)—and Lucy soon tuned it out. She was bored, and wished—not for the first time—that she could be a fly on the wall in the dining room while the gentlemen were drinking their port. She was sure that they were discussing more interesting things than the latest card party and whether sprigged muslin was still going to be fashionable next season.

No sooner had the idea occurred to her than it began to grow in her mind. After all, why shouldn’t she indulge her curiosity? Why, Lord Reginald might at this very moment be speaking to her father, perhaps even asking for her hand. She was fairly confident of her triumph in that quarter, but it would be satisfying to hear it from the horse’s mouth, as it were. All she needed to do was linger outside the doors to the dining room. She knew from mischievous childhood experience that voices carried well in that part of the house.

It was the work of a moment to slip away from the other ladies. Aged matrons and fresh-faced ingenues alike were completely consumed in their gossipy tittle-tattle, and no one noticed as Lucy moved discreetly toward the drawing room door under the pretense of looking for a book. Checking first to make sure no one was paying her particular attention, she slipped out into the passage beyond and released a sigh of relief. She would be chided later for neglecting their guests, no doubt, but she rather expected her mother would be much appeased by the news that her daughter would soon be the Duchess of Devonshire. 

In near silence, she crept down the hall and through the deserted gallery. She was thankful for the soft soles of her satin slippers, which made barely a whisper against the cold tiles. The gallery lamps had grown dim, and darkness had crept along the edges of the great room. As she passed the marble bust of Athena on its stone plinth, a sudden voice from the shadows made her gasp and set her heart hammering wildly.

“I see I am not the only one who grows weary of the after dinner banalities.” Mr. Bainbridge stepped smoothly from his place among the sculptures, his aquiline features thrown into sharp relief by the light streaming from the open door at the end of the chamber. “I apologize if I startled you, Miss Ridley. It was not my intention.” His words were polite, but there was a faint note of archness in his tone, as if he merely playacted at propriety.

The initial fright behind her, Lucy felt a pleasant frisson of warmth suffuse her at the sight of the man’s handsome face. She had always enjoyed admiration, and now she exulted inwardly as his appreciative gaze swept over her in a way that was not entirely proper. “That is quite all right, Mr. Bainbridge,” she said loftily. “I’m sorry to impose upon your solitude.”

“Not at all,” he replied, stepping closer to her. 

She fought to hide the way her pulse raced at his nearness, masking her response with a pretense of interest in the sculpted visage of the warrior goddess on the plinth beside her.

“In fact,” he continued, “as it seems our respective parties shall be occupied for the immediate future in listening to the sound of their own voices, perhaps you would consent to take a stroll around your gardens with me. I noted as I entered that the paths are well-lit in preparation for guests. I imagine the others will join us in time.” He held out an arm to her. “Shall we?”

Her eavesdropping ambitions forgotten, she rested her slender ivory fingers over his sturdy bicep, enjoying the sensation of his masculine strength temporarily restrained by her delicate hand. Here it was at last: the rush of the hunt and the anticipation of victory that she had hoped to feel in her pursuit of Lord Reginald. Here was the real triumph of the night. Oh, she would still have her duke, of course, but not before she reduced this fierce young swain to a quivering mass of longing, begging for her attentions. 

And yet his capitulation was not a foregone conclusion, she realized. At the moment, he seemed more in control of himself than she was with her fluttering heartbeat and the craving growing in her for… something she did not yet have words for. It bloomed to life deep in her belly, a warm glow that cast a veil over her reason and left her prey to other forces, less predictable.

They made their way to the arboretum, where exotic specimens of flora imported from warmer climes thrived beneath a stunning dome of paneled glasswork. Their wide tropical leaves and alien fruit bordered a flagstone walkway that ended at an open pair of French doors. A smile curled her lips as she allowed him to lead her through them to the small, cultured wilderness that waited beneath the evening sky.

Two servants flanked the entrance to the maze-like garden, where a stone path meandered in sweeping curves through the meticulously trimmed bushes and trees. Lucy and Mr. Bainbridge passed between them and were very soon beyond their sight, following the labyrinthine trails deeper into the verdure. 

“I confess I was disappointed tonight when I saw that you were not carrying the flowers I sent you.”

“Those were from you?” Lucy allowed her surprise to show. “The card was unsigned.”

“I rather hoped the flowers might speak for themselves.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t you know that flowers have a language all their own? Each one is a message, if only you know how to read it.” he teased. 

“Of course,” she said. In truth, she had not thought about those fusty old flower meanings in years, though she remembered her governess teaching them to her once during a rainy afternoon when she was complaining about being bored. “I don’t recall the meanings of those particular flowers, however. I much prefer plain speaking to hints and old-fashioned codes.” She adopted a tone of light playfulness that was usually very effective at invoking the desired response from her suitors. “So, Mr. Bainbridge, do enlighten me. Whatever did you mean by your gift?”

He merely glanced down at her, a secretive smile on his lips. 

Not used to being thwarted in anything, she pouted prettily.

“I believe this is your third season, is it not?” he commented, changing the subject. “You must know a great deal about London society. I believe you have always been a favorite among the ton.”

Her pout vanished. Here was a subject to which she warmed instantly, though she took care to pretend the proper modesty. “You are most kind to say so, sir, even if it is an egregious exaggeration.”

“Indeed, no! I have heard it said in many drawing rooms that there are none who rival your beauty among the young ladies who frequent the most auspicious soirees of the Season.”

She managed a becoming blush. “You flatter me.”

“Not at all. I would almost agree with them,” he continued, “but for a certain young lady I recall seeing last year at the Atherton’s ball. As alluring as you are, Miss Ridley, I believe her innocent charms and unstudied beauty drew the eye of many admirers. What was her name again?” He tapped his chin. “Ah, yes. Hannah Fennemore. Perhaps you remember her?”

“I’m sure I don’t know who you mean,” Lucy said with affected nonchalance. “There were many young ladies of lovely aspect among the guests.”

In truth, Lucy did recall the young girl to whom Mr. Bainbridge referred. From the very first event of the season, the girl’s instant popularity had been a thorn in her side, an unwanted source of competition on a field over which Lucy had previously held absolute sway. And the chit hadn’t even realized she was trespassing. It was not only her considerable beauty, but her wide-eyed wonder and sincere pleasure in the company of others that drew eligible men to her side as steadily as lamplight draws moths. Though she had taken pains not to show her disdain openly, Lucy had seethed with jealousy over the defection of a large number of her own army of suitors.

Really, she’d had no choice but to remove her rival from contention.

“That is too bad,” Mr. Bainbridge said. “I’m sure you would have been fast friends. And she dearly could have used one, if the story I heard about her was correct.”

“Oh?” Lucy composed her face into an expression of concern.

“Yes. You see, some weeks after her arrival in town, a rumor began circulating to her discredit. It was being whispered that she had been compromised, had given herself over to the passions of a man known among the aristocracy as something of a rake.”

Lucy drew a hand to her throat in feigned shock. “Oh, my! How terrible! You know, now that you have shared the details, I do begin to recollect some tale of disgrace that passed among the gossip mongers last year. Alas, I fear some young girls don’t have the moral fortitude to resist the attentions of such men. Such a stain on her character would not be easily set aside by persons of influence.”

“You are quite correct,” he said mildly. “It was not. The girl’s reputation was destroyed utterly. From what I understand, the shame of the accusation and the subsequent scandal caused the young lady to take her own life.”

This time the shock on Lucy’s face was genuine.

“I see you did not know,” he remarked. His keen eyes missed nothing. “The family hushed it up, but those who live and serve on their country estate know the whole sad story. It is considered a great tragedy by everyone in her small circle.”

“I’m sure,” she murmured, but she was distracted. Already her nimble mind was at work covering over the twinge of remorse that nagged at her conscience. She had started the rumor, certainly, but it was only intended to get her out of the way. Surely the chit had not been foolish enough to kill herself over mere talk? And if she had, was that Lucy’s fault? After all, she had only told one person. That it had spread like wildfire throughout the whole ton was not her doing. She didn’t control the flapping lips of those prattling busybodies. The outcome had been entirely out of her hands.

Thus soothing the weak stirrings of her seldom-used scruples, Lucy steered the conversation in a more comfortable direction. “Tell me, sir, what do you think of our garden? My mother has been busy for weeks ordering improvements to it. She says her dream is to recreate the gardens of the Villa D’Este in Tivoli.”

“She’s done well, then. It is enchanting. The fountains and statuary seem well-suited to a Roman esplanade. You should speak to your gardener, however. I believe I detected signs of disease at the base of the bougainvillea.”

“Nonsense,” Lucy said dismissively. “You can see for yourself how beautifully they are blooming.”

“Ahh, but that does not contradict my point, my lovely Miss Ridley. Have you never observed that something can be beautiful on the outside and yet teeming with rot below the surface?”

Not sure what to make of his cryptic look, Lucy remained silent. The aroma of flowers was making her a bit lightheaded, and the mystery and magnetism of the man beside her grew moment by moment.

“Still,” he went on, placing a strong hand over hers as they walked, “the effect is very… hypnotizing.”

Torches and lanterns were set at intervals along the way, and small alcoves containing benches were accessible through openings in the hedges. 

It was into one of these last that Mr. Bainbridge led Lucy, drawing her as much by the dark promise in his eyes as by the warm pressure of his hand.

Lucy’s blood sang. She was an accomplished flirt, with scores of conquests to her credit, but none of the simpering fops with whom she had traded carefully suggestive words had ever made her feel like this. She felt reckless, and did not know what she would do if Mr. Bainbridge were to press for liberties here in the jasmine scented seclusion, where the flickering lamplight wove a gauzy, dreamlike cast over every detail.

But he did not immediately importune her. Instead, he drew the edges of her shawl more securely around her shoulders. “You still do not know me, I think. I am rather disappointed.”

She did not pretend this time, but carefully studied his shadowed face in the moonlight. 

“I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose,” he said. “I was six inches shorter then and a good deal slighter, just one admiring face among the many in your orbit.”

He did seem familiar, but she still couldn’t call forth the circumstances of their acquaintance. “I’m sorry. I do hope I was kind to you.”

He considered. “I guess you were, in your way. We danced and made small talk. It was all very proper. I was quite infatuated with you, you know.”

His use of the past tense was like a wrong note played on a violin. “You were. But not anymore?” Her pout was back.

“Naturally, all such concerns were pushed aside when my sister’s scandal broke.”

His sister? Then… “Miss Fennemore is your sister?” The jolt of realization twisted uncomfortably in her guts.

“Was. She is dead, remember? And her loss was to me like the loss of my own heart.” Genuine anguish replaced the facade of insouciance he’d worn like a mask. 

“We were the best of friends, and constant companions. She was so excited to go to her first ball, to experience the sights and sounds of the city! If only I’d known that vipers lay in wait for her, I would have moved heaven and earth to keep her home!” He laughed harshly and without mirth. “The only reason I came back to London this year was to find out who it was, what wretched demon could have laid such a charge on one so innocent. To find out and to make them look into the black recesses of their own soul!” The agony that had built in him throughout this speech flared in his eyes, then subsided slowly.

Lucy was frozen like a fox before the hounds. Did he know it was her whom he sought? Tremulously, she reached out a hand and laid it on his arm. He lifted his eyes to hers and that sardonic smile once again curved his lips. The fever of remembering seemed to have passed.

She relaxed. Her part in his sister’s tragedy was still secret. Relief flooded her. The past would stay in the past, where it belonged. She refused to feel guilty.

All the same, she resolved to let him kiss her, if only to help clear the remnants of melancholy from his mind.

In her distraction, the edge of her shawl slipped from one creamy shoulder and fell onto the stone bench where they sat. 

His hooded gaze never leaving hers, Mr. Bainbridge reached out once more to take the edges of her wrap with gentle hands, drawing it slowly back up her arm. She shivered deliciously and smiled up at him, waiting in heady anticipation for him to steal a kiss. 

But she had misread the determination in his expression. Before she knew what was happening, he had looped her shawl twice around her throat and pulled it tight, then tighter still, the muscles straining beneath his fine linen coat. All the time, he stared into her bulging eyes, a terrible mixture of grief and rage contorting his handsome face.

She couldn’t breathe! Feebly, her hands beat against his chest as she clawed for air, but none was forthcoming. Darkness hovered at the edges of her vision, and terror beat within her chest like a caged bird.

As her movements grew weaker, he leaned in close, whispering into her ear with the intimacy of a lover.

“You really should have paid attention to the language of the flowers, my dear.” 

Lucy’s face swelled purple above the silken noose, her eyes bulging wildly in their sockets.

“Amaryllis… ‘pride’. Hollyhock… ‘ambition’. And the begonia? It means ‘beware’. Beware the danger that hides itself behind a beautiful face.” 

Though the broken smile did not leave his face, hopeless tears spilled from his empty eyes. “It is a lesson we have both learned the hard way.”

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