Candlelight filled the room as Cecilia prepared. Tonight, a beautiful mild night in mid-April, was the first debutante ball of the London season. Dressed in just her petticoats, she twirled around her room in an excited rush.
“Martha!” she called out, her voice sweet but with a slight huskiness that was pleasant to the ear. “Martha! Please come and put more pins in my hair. Your delightful work is at risk of slipping.”
It was true. Cecilia’s mass of thick, midnight black hair was curled in an updo reminiscent of a Grecian goddess. However, silvery pins were beginning to fall loose, and several gleaming locks had already slipped free.
Martha, a sweet-faced girl only a few years younger than Cecilia’s twenty-two years, hurried into the room. “Have a seat, my lady,” she said, shooing her mistress to face the large mirror placed above a dressing vanity. Her blue eyes narrowed as she concentrated on ensuring the hair would not come loose again.
Cecilia smiled at her maid in the mirror. Her own eyes were a similar shade, though perhaps a little darker– oceanic rather than cornflowers.
The hair securely back in place, Cecilia quickly dressed, aided by Martha with lacings and buttons and final little arrangements. Her dress was of a soft blue silk sprinkled with tiny pearls around the neckline and across the bodice. When she moved, it looked like she was wearing sea foam.
“You look beautiful, my lady,” Martha said, beaming.
“You did a wonderful job, dear Martha,” Cecilia said, admiring her slim figure in the mirror. “I’m so excited to see the debutantes be presented to His Highness, though I doubt he will be in attendance for very long. I think he prefers more rakish companions.”
“Now, you can’t go saying such things in polite company,” said a teasing voice from the doorway.
She turned to see her brother Jeremy standing there with a grin on his handsome face. He also had blue eyes, inherited from their mother Violetta, but he had their father’s dark brown curls.
“It may be true that the Prince Regent enjoys carousing, but you can’t say such things, dear sister.”
“Don’t lecture me, Jeremy,” she said with a laugh. “I’m not foolish enough to speak so freely while at the ball. But a little criticism in the name of self-improvement never hurt anyone.”
“Now that kind of common sense definitely sounds like something my daughter would say.” Their father, Thomas Hamilton, the Marquess of Dunham, stepped into the room.
Cecilia hurried to him, going up on tiptoes to give him a soft kiss on the cheek. He had given his elegant physique to both of his children, although his shoulders curled forward a little now with age. It was expected after so many years of grief and responsibility. But his dark brown eyes were kind, and most of the creases on his face came from a life spent in laughter.
“You look wonderful, dear,” he said, looking down at her fondly. He turned to his son, leaning against the doorway with a slight smile on his face. “As do you. You look like quite the dandy tonight.”
Jeremy bowed low, flicking the tails of his evening coat out behind him. His shoes were polished to a perfect gleam, the silver buckles twinkling like a star in a night sky. The white shirt and cravat were crisp and perfectly pressed. All in all, he was the perfect presentation of a future Marquess.
Thomas looked from one to the other. “I very much hope that God will forgive me, for though pride is a sin, I am so deeply proud of the people that you both are becoming. I… I know your mother would be equally proud, if not more so.” As if suddenly shy at his display of emotion, he fussed with the black tricorn hat placed atop his flattened curls.
Cecilia stepped in to give him a swift hug. Though her mother, Violetta, had died giving birth to her twenty-two years before, Cecilia still felt incredibly close to the idea of her. From what her father said and from the few hazy memories Jeremy had from his childhood, she had been a bold, witty, and intelligent woman who was also genuinely kind and compassionate. Although all that remained of her was a portrait and echoes of her eyes in both of her children, her presence was still felt in the London house she had loved dearly.
“Well then,” Thomas said brightly, forcing away the misty emotion from his eyes. “Shall we? We can’t be late for such an event, not when so many of your dear friends are coming out tonight, Cece.”
“I do so love a debutante ball,” Jeremy mused. “So many beautiful, accomplished girls enjoying their first night in real society. Maybe I’ll find a girl worth pursuing tonight.”
“Finding a girl to pursue is not your problem, Jeremy,” Cecilia commented as she gave herself a final adjustment in the vanity mirror. “It’s getting to know her in more detail once the first rush of admiration has passed. You cannot expect to ascertain if a woman is perfect for you within five minutes of meeting her.”
“Aren’t women meant to be the ones who are hopeless romantics?” Jeremy teased, leading the way downstairs. “Who knew my sister could be such a ruthless pragmatist.”
In a commotion of good-natured chatter and color and perfume, the familial trio descended the stairs of their stylish London home to the entrance hall. There, Martha and the valets waited with various cloaks and coats. As they reached the ground level, however, Thomas paused, momentarily going pale and clutching onto the carved newel post at the bottom of the stairs.
“Father?” Cecilia stepped forward, but her brother was already there, helping their father to sit on the staircase.
“I’m quite well, children,” he assured them. “I just unexpectedly felt very faint.” He tried to stand but wavered once again, blinking rapidly as if he couldn’t focus his vision. “Perhaps,” he said, slightly out of breath, “perhaps it might be best if I stay home this evening and rest. My doctor has warned me about overexerting myself.”
“We’ll explain your absence, Father, don’t worry,” Cecilia said. Her elegant, dark brows pinched together in concern as she watched her father’s valet, Edwin, escort him up the stairs.
Jeremy picked up their father’s hat from where he had left it on the floor and placed it atop the newel post. “If Father is not attending, we’ll need to find you a chaperone for the evening.”
“I’m sure I can find someone I know,” Cecilia said, distracted, as Martha laid her velvet cape around her shoulders. “Do you think one of us should stay here with him? He is so awfully pale…”
“We’ll keep a careful eye on him, my lady,” the butler, Woodson, said softly.
To Cecilia, he was more of an uncle figure than a member of the staff. She trusted him absolutely to care for her father.
“I’ll check on him when we return,” she said to him, taking her gloves from Martha before stepping out into the damp April evening. It was drizzling slightly, misting on Cecilia’s face.
“Do you think Father will be alright?” she asked her brother as they climbed into the carriage.
“I’m sure nothing is amiss,” he replied. “No doubt he’s just been working too hard for a week or two. Or maybe he’s been too sedentary through the winter.” He took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “He’ll be fine, just you see. Tomorrow at breakfast he’ll be asking us for all the gossip. So,” he rapped on the roof of the carriage, “let’s go and find some gossip to tell him, shall we?”
* * *
The debutante ball was bursting with people. Jewels glittered in the light of seemingly thousands of candles; the air swirled with colognes and perfumes. Fresh-faced young women dressed all in white were scattered throughout the room, still glowing from their presentation in front of the Prince Regent.
Cecilia’s own coming out had been a few years before, but she still remembered it vividly. She made a point to share a word with several of the women she knew well, congratulating them and complimenting their clothing, hair, or smile. However, her enjoyment was soon interrupted when she saw a familiar and unwelcome face across the room.
Lord Leonard Tawney, the youngest child and only son of the Earl of Lenster, was dressed in the height of dandy fashion. The black coat was open to show the subtle gold embroidery on his waistcoat, his breeches were skin-tight, and his knee-high Hessian boots gleamed.
Muttering something under her breath that was most definitely not ladylike, she tried to conceal herself behind a group of young ladies, but he had seen her. His small gray eyes widened with delight, and he immediately abandoned his current conversation and trotted across the room to intercept her.
“Lady Cecilia,” he called. His brown hair was carefully curled and pomaded; he was doused with an overwhelming scent. “How delightful to see you here…alone. My goodness,” he chuckled, “you really are quite reckless. Or are your brother and father here with you?” He stood just a little too close despite the empty space around them, a situation likely caused by his overzealous perfuming.
Schooling her face into the pleasant expression expected at such events as these, Cecilia gave a slight curtsey. “How pleasant to see you, Lord Leonard. And, no, I’m not unaccompanied. My brother is here, although my father, unfortunately, needed to stay home for his health. He’s been extremely busy in recent weeks and requires a quiet evening at home.”
“What a terrible shame,” Lord Leonard said, although his dismissive tone and the uncaring look on his thin face suggested his words were less than sincere. He gave her a look loaded with meaning and Cecilia had some trouble maintaining her pleasant façade. “Have you considered my expression of interest and affection in any more detail since we last spoke?”
“Lord Leonard,” she said softly, trying to disarm him with a smile.
“Please, call me Leonard,” he said, taking her hand between his in a move that made Cecilia feel extremely uncomfortable. “We’ve known one another for years, Cece. My family has a handsome yearly income and excellent connections in court and across Europe. I would make you an excellent husband.”
She grimaced in distaste at his use of her pet name. “I was under the impression that I had made my position clear. Your…dedication has been flattering. However, as I expressed to you previously, I do not hold that same level of affection for you.” She kept her voice low, desperate for their conversation to not be overheard by the many society gossips she knew were present. “Please, my lord, do not cause a scene. It is not my intent to insult you, but you are beginning to act in a rather uncouth manner.”
He frowned, eyes getting a petulant glint. “You are doing me a great disservice, Lady Cecilia, to accuse me of such behavior.”
Cecilia extricated her hand as she searched for a means to escape the situation. Then, she saw him.
He wore a dark green coat that hugged his broad shoulders, the color complementing his burnished red hair. As he threw his head back to laugh, the rich sound reached her even from across the room.
Lord Benjamin Banford, the heir to the Duke of Hawnshire. She knew him to be an intelligent man with a reputation for his interest in law and the habit of occasionally investigating scandals and alleged crimes that piqued his interest. The two of them had become well acquainted in his time as one of Jeremy’s close friends. Although, since he’d spent the winter in the north at his father’s home estate in Hawnshire, it had been a while since she had seen him last.
Right now, however, he was very possibly her savior.
Benjamin bowed low, bidding farewell to the ever-delightful Lady Dorothea Fentonville and her daughter Phyliss. The girl was sweet and fresh-faced, giddy with excitement from her debut earlier in the evening.
He’d enjoyed catching her eye on occasion while conversing with her mother. It was a particular kind of delicious fun to hold her gaze until her pale cheeks began to pinken. Then he’d briefly caress down her neck, and across her pert bosom with his gaze, just enough to no doubt send her pulse racing, before focusing once more on the conversation with Lady Dorothea.
As the two of them left, she gave him a shy smile. “I very much hope to see you again soon, Lord Benjamin,” she said. Although her tone was sweet, he saw something new growing in her face; an understanding of the sensual game he had initiated her into.
He smiled back. “I’m sure our paths will intertwine again, Lady Phyliss.”
Mother and daughter were absorbed by the smelting pot of the crowd and Benjamin took a drink from his glass.
Half-turning, he came nearly face-to-face with Lady Cecilia Hamilton. She was slightly flushed around her décolletage, the rosy skin revealed by the sweeping neckline of her blue silk gown.
“Lady Cecilia.” He fully turned to address her. “You appear to be a little flustered. Shall I find a drink for you? Or perhaps a turnabout the gardens if you are overheated?”
A look of gratitude filled her bright blue eyes as she glanced back toward a weaselish young man glowering at her some distance away. “Some fresh air would be wonderful, thank you.”
He offered his arm, and she slipped her gloved hand into the crook of his elbow. “I’m sure your brother will approve of me playing chaperone for a few minutes since you seem to have slipped away from yours.”
They began to make their way toward the tall glass doors set into one of the back walls of the room.
“I must admit,” she said, “I haven’t had a chaperone tonight, per se. For the most part, I’ve stayed close to several ladies and their mothers that I know well. Father took ill just before we were supposed to leave, and my brother has been…well…”
He followed her gaze to where he saw his dear friend engaged in animated dancing with the sweet Lady Phyliss, hope shining in his face.
“Being his usual romantic self?” he asked wryly, enjoying the little puff of laughter that emanated from the rouge curve of her mouth. “He spends too much time reading poems from those Romantic poets. Though since he is a fanciful melancholic, I suppose he fits in.”
“Very much so,” she replied with a smile. “My brother is convinced that he will find the woman meant for him at every social gathering we attend. Tonight is no exception.”
The gardens were quieter and far cooler. Cecilia removed her hand from his arm and wandered closer to a small fountain bubbling off to the side, slipping off one of her gloves to momentarily allow her fingers to drag in the water.
“How are you enjoying the party, my lord?” she asked. “You are certainly impeccably dressed for the occasion. The green of your coat suits your complexion.”
He tugged at his lapels, a spark of warmth lighting in his chest at her sincere compliment. “It’s been a delightful evening so far, my lady. I am not always one for society events, but more often than not, I find myself enjoying them once I make the effort to leave the house. However, I also rarely regret the evenings I choose to remain home, ensconced with a book.”
“Ah, a man of study. I did not wholly take you for a scholar, my lord,” she said, her tone lightly teasing. “After all, I have seen you return with my brother from an afternoon of riding point-to-point. Covered in mud, grass, and sweat, the both of you looking like vagabonds.”
“A man may pursue many interests, Lady Cecilia,” he countered, feeling a grin start to grow on his face. In the time he had known Jeremy, he had interacted but briefly with his friend’s sister, often only conversing with her in short bursts over dinner or in passing as he arrived at or left the Marquess of Dunham’s premises. Yet now, the conversation flowed as smoothly as the water in the fountain behind Cecilia, and he found himself becoming increasingly enraptured by her quick wit and sparkling eyes.
“Of course a man may pursue multiple interests,” she said, “But is it not a shame that women are not afforded a similar variety, beyond those that are considered vital for ensuring a woman in society is accomplished?”
“I was under the impression that ladies are exposed to a variety of interests and passions. Possessing diverse skills is a requirement to attaining the moniker of accomplished, is it not?” He stepped closer, clasping one wrist with his other hand behind his back, his posture slipping into one of genuine interest. “Are you saying you have an interest in galloping around the countryside getting filthy and disheveled in the name of sport?” he asked.
She flushed again, and he was struck with a startling urge to run his fingers across the blooming skin of her exposed collarbone. Steeling herself, she looked up into his face, her eyes as vibrant as a fresh spring sky.
“Maybe I do,” she said. “After all, there is something very liberating about reckless dishevelment, is there not?”
He instantly had an unbidden flash of imagination where she was beneath him, her hair loose, her lips darkened by his kisses. As if startled by the forward nature of her words, she blushed more intensely, averting her gaze and focusing on reapplying her glove.
He was glad of it; if she had held his gaze, he knew that the fiery feelings that she had unexpectedly set alight would have been evident in his face.
They stayed in the gardens a few minutes more, nodding politely to the other couples or individuals they passed, sometimes stopping to exchange a few words. There were at least six feet between them as they walked, and Benjamin found himself missing the light touch of Cecilia’s hand on his arm. Next time he visited Jeremy, maybe he should ask if Cecilia was courting anyone…
Not too much later, Cecilia began to shiver. He escorted her inside, staying close as they navigated the crush of people to the refreshment table for a drink.
He had only just handed her a glass of punch when a murmur of displeasure came from near the doorway. They turned to see Jeremy pushing his way through the gathered attendees. His eyes were frantic, and his face was pale.
“I found you, at last, thank God,” he said to Cecilia, an audible tremor to his voice. He gave Benjamin a perfunctory bow, clearly unconcerned with manners at present. “My apologies for my current state, Banford, my friend. Cecilia and I must leave immediately.”
“Certainly,” Benjamin said, sensing the urgency of the situation even without details.
The Hamilton siblings made a brisk exit from the room, either unaware or uncaring about the horde of whispered and curious looks rising in their wake. He followed his friend, taking his own hat and coat from the footman.
“Can I be of any assistance?” he asked as the three of them waited outside the front of the house for their carriages to be quickly prepared.
“Jeremy,” Cecilia said, her face drawn with fear, “you’re frightening me. What’s happened? What’s wrong?”
Benjamin could see the pain in Jeremy’s face as he prepared to give an answer. He knew the look well enough; it was a look worn by someone who was about to destroy the heart of someone they loved, and they hated that the responsibility had been put on their shoulders. He had seen it in the eyes of his mother when she had sat him down at eleven years old to tell him that his beloved older sister, Abigail, had died delivering her first child. His heart broke for the pain Cecilia was about to experience.
Jeremy took his sister by the hand, holding it close to his chest as the rattle of gravel signaled the approach of their carriage. “Cece, my darling…a fire broke out at the house. Father…” He choked on his words and had to try again. “From the report that I was given, the fire seems to have started in Father’s study. He didn’t survive.”
Benjamin sat back in the plush velvet seat of his carriage, frowning intensely. He had insisted on following the Hamiltons, coming along to do what he could to help. The look in Cecilia’s eyes at the news of her father’s death would haunt him for the rest of his life. He knew that pain all too well, a pain created by experiencing the finality of death with a suddenness that could not be prepared for.
He could smell the smoke long before they reached the house in Mayfair. The hue and cry was still echoing through the streets to bring help running. When he did climb out of his carriage, hurrying to join Cecilia and Jeremy, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the several downstairs windows that had been shattered by the heat. Patches of the smooth, white exterior of the house was stained with soot. Staff from various surrounding houses stood around with buckets, covered in ash, sweat, and water. Benjamin made a note to go around to each of them later and thank them with some coins for their quick work. If not for them, his friends’ home, and likely the whole street, would be ablaze right now.
“Oh, Jeremy,” Cecilia sobbed, looking at their home. “Oh, God, why didn’t we stay with him? Oh, God.” She looked around, frantic, her black hair starting to fall around her shoulders. “Where’s Woodson? Where’s Martha? Who else…?” She couldn’t bear to say the word.
“I’ll go and talk to the constables,” Jeremy said, his voice void of emotion in what Benjamin knew was an attempt to not entirely fall apart. “Stay here with Lord Benjamin, Cece.”
She didn’t move as her brother stepped away, wrapping her arms around herself. Even in the dark, he could see her shaking with shock and cold.
“Lady Cecilia,” Benjamin said, stepping closer, “I am so very sorry for your loss. Please, be assured that I will do everything in my power to help you and your brother through this difficult time—”
With a sob, she turned and buried her face in his chest. On instinct, he wrapped his arms around her, holding her close as she surrendered to the onslaught of grief. He felt as if he had a tiny bird within his grasp, so slight and fragile did she feel. A part of him was genuinely afraid that the pain she was feeling would rip her apart at the seams.
Even as he felt the stares of the surrounding onlookers at such an inappropriate display of familiarity, he held her closer. Pressing her to the soft wool of his greatcoat, he watched a stretcher covered with a sheet exit the house, carried by two orderlies and preceded by a physician. He did not need to see it in detail to know that Thomas Hamilton, Marquess of Dunham, was leaving his home for the final time.
“You and your brother will stay in my home,” he said quietly, as much to himself as to the grieving woman in his arms. “You have my full and freely given hospitality until we understand what happened here tonight.” He watched the stretcher be placed into a covered wagon to be taken to the coroner’s office to begin the inquest. “Because, by God, are there some questions that need to be answered.”
“Please, my lady,” Martha begged. “You must eat some breakfast.”
Cecilia didn’t respond, continuing to listlessly flick through a book. She and Jeremy had moved into Lord Benjamin’s home on Park Lane the same night as the fire. It had since been five long days of displacement, grief, and numbing bureaucracy. Jeremy was wrapped up in the legal proceedings surrounding his ascension to Marquess of Dunham and the inquest into their father’s death.
“Just leave it on the table, Martha,” she said dully. “I’ll eat later.”
“I can’t do that, my lady,” Martha said, her voice soft but firm. She looked tired, and her golden hair was not fixed quite as neatly as it usually was. “You need your strength for the funeral.”
Cecilia’s head ached with the desire to weep, but by now, she had no tears remaining. “Very well,” she mumbled, gesturing for the tray to be placed in front of her. “Father would be mortified if I fainted,” she said softly as she picked up the spoon. “He would expect more suitable comportment than that from me.”
An hour or so later, Cecilia exited her room, her shoulders stiff and her eyes on the ground. Her high-necked black dress was topped with a black fur pelisse, and she held a pair of black gloves to wear once they left for the funeral.
At the other end of the hall, she met Lord Benjamin exiting his own room. From his all-black attire, it was clear that he had also been preparing for the occasion. It was still strange for her, seeing him so often, even if just in passing.
He bowed upon seeing her. “Lady Cecilia. How are you? All things considered, of course.”
His green eyes held such empathy that she once more felt the urge to weep. She wanted to tell him that she didn’t know if she could do this. She was afraid that she would never feel joy again, that there was a jagged wound somewhere deep within her that she didn’t know how to nurse.
“I am continuing on, Lord Benjamin, as I know my father would have wanted. I am endeavoring to remain focused on the things I have to be grateful for.” She straightened and gave him a gracious nod. “I cannot explain how grateful my brother and I are for the kindness demonstrated by you and your family in this trying time.”
“It is the least I can do, my lady.” Stepping back, he gestured for her to take the lead. “I believe your brother is waiting for us downstairs.”
As she passed, he fell into step beside her. “Remember, Lady Cecilia, you are not facing this alone. I promise.”
She looked up at him. How could she not trust those eyes? Even during her despair, they gave her a shred of hope that spring and new beginnings might still be possible.
It was a feeling that rapidly faded as she descended the stairs to find Jeremy waiting, dressed in black, dark heavy circles under his eyes. As she reached her brother, they embraced, clinging tightly to one another.
“Be strong. For Father,” he whispered as he held her. She could feel the tremor in his frame as he fought to keep his composure.
Tears filled her eyes, and a few dampened her brother’s shoulder, but by the time she pulled back, she had made sure he wouldn’t see the depth of agony in her eyes. Jeremy was so encumbered by his own pain that she couldn’t bear to burden him with her own.
“For Father,” she echoed, even finding a ghost of a smile for him.
But as they exited the house, Cecilia caught Lord Benjamin looking at her. Had he caught a glimpse of her raw pain? Remembering his promise that she was not alone in this, she gave him a nod, straightened her spine, and walked outside to the carriage.
It was time to lay her father to rest.
It was a gray, dreary day with an unexpected bite of cold in the air. The procession to the modest church on the edge of London where her father would be buried involved not only the hearse, but other carriages filled with bereaved members of high society. The hooves and harnesses of the black horses pulling the hearse were wrapped in cloth to muffle the sound. Once they reached the church, Cecilia briefly stopped to pet the velvety noses of the hearse horses.
“Thank you for bringing him here safely,” she whispered, breathing in their warm, grassy scent.
Inside, the dusty walls, covered in old military banners and commemorative plaques of other dead, seemed to close in around Cecilia. Keeping herself veiled for the full service helped to create an illusion of distance between herself and the endless rounds of well-wishers, but she was soon desperate to be alone.
Jeremy clutched her hand. On her other side, she felt Lord Benjamin’s presence like an echo of his promise: you are not alone.
Lord Thomas Hamilton, the late Marquess of Dunham, was interred quietly. Each mourner tossed a sprig of fresh rosemary onto the coffin and then drifted away like petals on the breeze.
As the other funeral-goers took their leave, several stopped to whisper condolences to her and Jeremy in passing. Many nodded to Lord Benjamin where he stood nearby, acknowledging his kindness in helping the Hamilton siblings in their time of need. Benjamin, Cecilia noticed, gave little reaction and brushed off any praise. She also noticed how his red hair glowed the color of autumn in the dreary graveyard. She startled slightly when he caught her eye, but he merely gave her a smile and then returned to looking out over the graves, lost in his own thoughts.
“Your father was a deeply honorable man,” rumbled Lord Alfred Caversham, tufts of his graying black hair poking out from beneath his wig.
Cecilia pulled her eyes away from Lord Benjamin’s and back to the conversation in front of her.
“And he had the kindest heart,” added his wife, Lady Charlotte Caversham, her usually jovial face composed in a sympathetic frown. “He will be sorely missed by many.”
“Not least of all by us,” Jeremy murmured, inclining his head in acknowledgement of their words. “Thank you for coming to bid him farewell.”
“Your father aided me during my fair share of difficult times,” Lord Caversham said, leaning his bulk toward Jeremy so he could speak in quieter tones. “And I know things are a little rough for you at the moment, Lord Dunham, what with the insurance agents and untangling finances, so I want to offer my help if you require it.”
Cecilia saw her brother stiffen.
“Thank you for your thoughtful offer, Lord Caversham,” Jeremy said, finding a facsimile of a smile for the older man. “As my position as Marquess of Dunham is a recent development, it is indeed taking me a little time to find my feet, as you can imagine. My current focus is ensuring our personal business remains out of the public eye…and out of the public’s ears.”
“Of course, Lord Dunham. Very wise,” Lord Caversham replied, a tinge of color across the bridge of his large nose indicating his embarrassment at Jeremy’s pointed reference to his lack of discretion.
The couple retreated swiftly, and Cecilia turned to her brother.
“What aren’t you telling me about the finances?” she asked in a low whisper.
“Really, Cece, you’re doing this now?” He glanced at the wet earth still being shoveled onto their father’s coffin. “If it were anything to worry about, I’d tell you.”
“I promise.” He took her hand, but there was something deliberately blank about his face that Cecilia found disconcerting. “Now, please, let’s not discuss this. Benjamin, are you ready to go?”
Benjamin stepped up to join them and began leading the way out of the graveyard. As they neared the exit, Cecilia spotted a black-cloaked figure approaching. Her heart sank when she recognized Lord Leonard Tawney. Right now, she did not have it in her to smile and nod at the man, with his overly intense eye-contact and lack of respect for personal space. If Jeremy hadn’t spotted him yet, perhaps they could make their getaway without having to interact? It was rude of her, but today, of all days, it could be argued that she could ignore the rules of social niceties.
She subtly quickened her steps, their carriage now within sight, the breath of the horses steaming slightly. Jeremy didn’t appear to notice her change of pace, but she saw Benjamin glance at her curiously as he handed her up into the blissful anonymity of the dark interior.
As they pulled away from the graveyard, she saw Lord Leonard Tawney standing at the gate, hat in hand. She would have thought him forlorn if not for the way his mouth twisted into a hook of displeasure.
Much later, when the sky was thick with night, Cecilia finally set aside her book. The attempt at distracting herself had only given her a headache. She reluctantly decided to retire.
Leaving the small library on the ground floor that had become her haven
for the past few days, she crept toward the stairs. The rest of the house was still and quiet; only the metronomic ticking of a clock in the entrance hall accompanied her.
As she passed the oak door that led to Benjamin’s private study, however, she heard voices. Heart hammering, she paused. Rocking from one foot to the other, she battled her urge to listen even as the stinging reprimand from her first governess regarding the evils of eavesdropping filled her mind.
The choice was removed from her, however, as a scrap of conversation floated out to her ears.
“I just cannot shake the feeling that some kind of foul play is at hand here, Banford.” The voice was Jeremy’s. “My father was healthy. Not a month ago, Doctor Valethold gave him a clean bill of health. Yet the same night my father takes ill and decides to stay home, a mysterious fire starts in our house?” The words were a little slurred; Cecilia suspected that the one brandy after dinner that the men had intended to savor had turned into several.
“And you say the inquest found nothing suspicious?” Benjamin sounded sober, at least.
There was the clink of a glass and pouring liquid. “Nothing of note,” Jeremy said. “There was…damage to the head and face caused by fire. Woodson didn’t give me details.”
Cecilia felt nausea rise in her throat and locked her hands across her mouth to keep her silence. Poor Father…
“The coroner suggested that he suffered a bout of apoplexy and collapsed,” explained Jeremy, his voice shaking. “But something doesn’t feel right, Benjamin.” Her heart broke further as she heard him sob.
“Your father died unexpectedly, my friend,” Benjamin said, his deep voice like a soothing warm quilt. “It is natural for you to feel that something is amiss.”
“Please, Benjamin,” Jeremy slurred, “make some inquiries for me. To put my mind at ease. And for Cece’s sake. If our father died of unnatural causes, both she and I have a right to know.”
Cecilia was trembling. Did Jeremy really think someone had a hand in their father’s death?
“I’ll look into it,” Benjamin said softly. “Anything for you. And your sister.” There was a sound of creaking leather, and she pictured him rising from the armchair in the corner. “Now, let’s get you to bed. Your head will be sore in the morning, but we can minimize the damage. Come on, up.”
Flooded with panic, Cecilia bolted away. Up in her room, she heard the two men stumble by a few minutes later and then the house returned to silence.
But it was only as the first hint of dawn appeared that she finally fell into a restless doze.
He rose early, mind whirling with questions, possibilities, and plans. Dressing quickly, he took a light breakfast in his room and then set out into the new day.
Jeremy’s admission the night before had startled him, but he couldn’t deny that he’d already had some questions of his own. On the night it had happened, he’d stayed behind in Mayfair after a distraught Cecilia and Jeremy had been taken to his home in Park Lane, but the few bystanders and staff he had talked to had little information to give.
His first stop was to the coroner for a copy of the inquest file. It wasn’t difficult when he explained who he was and offered some money. Next, he rode straight to the Hamilton home, handing his horse off to the stable boy.
“Give her a little water and take her saddle off,” he instructed the lad. “I’m likely going to be here a while.”
“Yes, my lord,” the boy stammered, leading the roan mare away.
“Boy?” Benjamin called, summoning him back with a quick gesture.
“Yes, my lord?” He didn’t look more than twelve, with nervous hazel-green eyes and smudge of dirt across his cheek.
“What’s your name?”
“Alfie, my lord.”
“Alfie, the night of the fire, did you see or hear anything out of the ordinary?” Benjamin crouched down, knowing his height and broad shoulders were likely intimidating to the boy.
The boy shook his head vehemently. “I didn’t hear anything, my lord. Only when the shouts of fire started up. Then I turned all the horses loose in the yard in case the stable caught alight and then ran with all the buckets I could carry to help put out the blaze.”
The roan snuffled at Alfie’s shoulder, and he absently patted her face with the natural air of someone who knew horses well. The action was small, but it made Benjamin trust the boy’s honesty. This roan mare had a way of reacting to people who had less than pure motives. It was as if she could sense the tension generated by their dishonesty. The fact that she had always disliked a particular groom at the Banford estate in Hawnshire had been cause enough for Benjamin to investigate. He’d discovered the man was beating the horses when no one was looking and bullying the stable boys and young scullery maids.
“If you remember anything you think might be even a little important,” he said, reaching out to adjust the mare’s noseband, “you tell the butler. What’s his name…Woodson?”
The boy nodded.
“You tell Woodson what you remember, and I’ll make sure he sends a letter to me.” Benjamin stood once more and flicked the boy a sixpence. “There’ll be another of those if you give Clementine a polish with a body brush.”
The body gaped and then grinned. “Absolutely, my lord. Thank you, my lord.” He led the mare away, muttered softly to her as the clip of her iron-shod feet faded. Benjamin smiled, then approached the door and knocked, asking to see the butler of the house.
Woodson was a sturdy man of about five and a half feet. Square-shouldered, with excellent poise, his face held a wisdom that was reiterated by his silvering cloud of hair. The somewhat chaotic sounds of construction sounded from where workers were repairing the fire-damaged study, but Woodson remained composed, inviting Benjamin into the main parlor to take some tea.
“I apologize for the early visit,” Benjamin said as the butler closed the door on the noise. “But Lord Dunham has asked me to try and get a sense of the events leading up to his father’s passing. It is not a task I take lightly, and I wanted to start on it as soon as I could.”
“It’s no trouble at all, Lord Benjamin.” Woodson had a pleasantly deep voice, with excellent enunciation.
A maid entered carrying a tea tray, and Woodson then took on the role of serving Benjamin. After a moment of hesitation, he also served himself.
“I am not in the habit of taking tea with guests,” he admitted. “It feels as if I am shirking my duties to be sitting here.”
“You are helping me with a most important duty,” Benjamin reassured him, opening his leather satchel to pull out a notebook, an inkwell, and a finely cut crow feather quill to make neat notes. “Now, please, Woodson. Tell me a little about yourself and then about the night of the late Marquess’ death.”
“It is not a habit of mine to argue with guests, either,” Woodson said, a sudden note of caution in his voice, “but how is my history pertinent to your investigation?”
Benjamin dipped the quill into the ink, tapping off the excess. “In my experience, it is often beneficial to gather details about friends, family, and staff of the deceased in a case where there are lingering questions regarding the cause of death. Sometimes a motive to harm one person can be to expressly cause the distress of loss in another.” He wrote Woodson’s name at the top of a new page, then looked at the butler’s tense face. “I can assure you, Mr. Woodson, anything you tell me about yourself that I don’t consider pertinent to the investigation shall remain private between us.”
This seemed to relax the other man somewhat. “You must forgive my concern, my lord,” he said. “Throughout my life, many folks have had a variety of opinions about the close relationship that I have with the Hamilton family. Many consider it inappropriate for someone of a lower station to be so familiar with the people they serve. I’ve learned to keep personal information about myself private for the safety of myself and the Hamiltons.”
As Woodson told of his life, Benjamin wrote. Woodson was the son of a poor family in the Caribbean. His father had moved them from the north of England in search of better opportunities, but they soon found themselves in poverty.
Woodson’s mother had found a job working in the kitchen at the home of Lady Violetta’s family. Woodson soon joined his mother as a general dogsbody.
Lady Violetta’s father died of a fever when she was only ten, the same fever that took both of Woodson’s parents. He stayed with the household at Lady Violetta’s insistence when she and her mother returned to England, working in the house and serving as a friend and confidante to Lady Cecilia’s mother. When Lady Violetta married Thomas Hamilton, who was not yet the Marquess of Dunham, she brought Woodson with her, adamant that the house would not feel like a home without him. He had been appointed as the butler, and he and Lady Violetta went on to organize many incredible salons, balls, parties, and evenings of entertainment. These events, held at the various houses owned by the Dunham title up and down the country, had been in aid of the abolitionist movement. Woodson had been devastated by Lady Violetta’s death but remained as a crucial member of the household.
“You were as equally close with the late Lord Dunham as you were with his late wife?” Benjamin asked, circling his wrist as he rested from notetaking.
Woodson nodded, now more at ease. “Lord Thomas was one of the finest men I’ve ever known. It was a pleasure to work by his side for so many years, a role I shall continue to perform for the new Lord Dunham. And his sister, for as long as she lives under this roof.”
Benjamin looked around the parlor, imagining a young Cecilia moving about the room. Had she painted that charming watercolor by the fireplace? Which of those books had she pored over, caressing the pages with her elegant fingers?
He shook himself, recalling that he was here for a purpose and not to let his thoughts wander. “Now, Woodson,” he said, turning to a new page. “What can you recall about the night of the fire and Lord Dunham’s death?”
The butler’s dark eyes went distant as he searched his memory. “Lord Thomas and the children were all supposed to attend the debutante ball at eight o’clock, but he took ill as they were leaving. So, Lord Jeremy and Lady Cecilia went on without him at his insistence. His valet, Edwin, escorted him upstairs to his room but Lord Thomas said he would rather sit in his study. One of the girls laid a fire for him, and I took him some supper a little later in the evening. He was writing in his private journal and going over some letters of business to be sent out the next day.” He paused. “Around nine-thirty, I suggested that he should retire for the night, and he assured me that he would. I returned below stairs to work in my office a while longer. I fell asleep at my desk and a few hours later was awoken by a hue and cry in the street and the house. That was when I discovered that Lord Thomas’ study was ablaze.”
“And what time was this?” Benjamin asked. “Do you remember?”
“Perhaps eleven o’clock?” Woodson went quiet. “I was the one who pulled his body from the flames.” He pulled off his white gloves to show hands covered in dressings. “I couldn’t bear to leave him there a moment longer.” He wiped at his eyes, suddenly looking twice his age. “Lord Thomas and Lady Violetta Hamilton were some of the best people to walk this earth, Lord Benjamin. Their children are equally wonderful people. If there is even a chance that someone was involved in removing my master from the land of the living, then I hope you will do everything within your power to find them and send them to hell as they deserve.”
The emotion in the butler’s voice caught Benjamin off guard.
“I will do all that I can,” he said, making sure he held Woodson’s gaze so that the older man could see he was sincere. “I will not rest until I have explored every possibility. However,” he frowned, “I do need you to be aware that I might not be able to provide any new answers. It is more than likely that Lord Hamilton’s passing was nothing but an unexpected tragedy with natural causes.”
Woodson nodded in understanding. “As strange as it may sound considering the manner of his death,” he said, “it is my sincere hope that it was nothing more than what the coroner told Lord Jeremy. That Lord Thomas passed after a bout of apoplexy. The notion that there is any more to it than that…” He trailed away, then looked Benjamin straight in the face. “The thought is unbearable. Because it means that I failed the promise I made to Lady Violetta that I would care for him.”
Benjamin placed his quill in the ink bottle. “I don’t think anyone could argue that you have done anything other than loyally care for this family, Mr. Woodson.”
The butler said nothing more and Benjamin asked him if he could send in the rest of the available staff, one by one. He took their statements, writing down everything to assess later. Nothing of interest leapt out at him immediately, apart from the admission of one scullery maid that she had washed the kitchen floor before she went to bed and found muddy footprints the next morning. He nodded as he took down her theories of thieves and ruffians breaking in and even went to inspect the kitchen door and windows after he had finished the interviews. But nothing suggested any kind of forced entry.
Eventually, he had written for so long his hand was cramping, and his stomach was making embarrassing sounds. Woodson invited him to stay for luncheon, but Benjamin assured him that he had much to be getting on with and would dine at home. He gave instructions that if any of the staff, including the stable boy, thought of anything else that they were to tell Woodson who would send a letter. He would then come by again to take down the details when he could.
Clementine was gleaming in the yard when Benjamin emerged from the house. He could tell that her saddle had also been polished. The boy was softly petting her reddish muzzle and beamed as he handed the reins over, receiving his promised second sixpence in return.
“She’s a beautiful horse, my lord,” he said shyly.
“You looked after her excellently, Alfie,” he replied. “If you didn’t work for such dear friends of mine, I would offer you a job in a heartbeat.” He mounted up, settling his feet in the stirrups, and giving the boy a wink. “You never know, I might poach you from them anyway.” With a tap of his heels, Clementine went trotting smartly out of the yard, her shoes sending up sparks on the cobbles.
As he rode back through the streets of affluent London, tipping his hat to acquaintances as he passed, Benjamin’s mind whirled faster than before.
Was there something nefarious at the heart of Lord Thomas Hamilton’s death? Or was he chasing nothing more than muddy footprints leading nowhere?
When she came downstairs for luncheon around noon, Jeremy was already there, picking at some bread, dried fruits, and cold meats.
“Good morning, sister,” he said as he noticed her. “How are you today?”
“Fine,” she said dully, sitting down as she was being served a selection of food. “Where’s Lord Benjamin? Is he not joining us for luncheon?”
“He went out. Early,” Jeremy replied. He looked terrible; there were dark circles under his usually alert eyes, and his curls were limp and greasy. “Had some business to attend to, apparently.”
Cecilia thinly spread her bread with butter. “Business regarding the investigation you asked him to do about Father’s death?” she asked with a note of accusation in her voice.
Jeremy’s fork clattered to the floor. There was an achingly tense moment of silence before he dismissed the servants, leaving he and Cecilia alone.
She felt her cheeks heat with anger, knowing the color would appear more vibrant in her face made overly pale from lack of sleep. “Were you ever going to tell me about your suspicions? Or were you never going to inform me that you had reason to believe Father was taken from us through unnatural means?” She felt tears spark. “I am also his child, Jeremy. He was also my father. I feel his loss just as keenly as you do. I have a right to know these things.”
“You’re right,” her brother replied softly. “Honestly, I don’t know if I was going to tell you. I had no desire to keep you in the dark, but I didn’t want to bring you any additional distress if my suspicions were unfounded.” He rubbed a hand over his face and let out a weary sigh. “Did Benjamin tell you then?”
“No,” Cecilia admitted, having the grace to look shame-faced. “I overheard the two of you talking in his study last night as I was heading up to bed.”
“Aren’t you a little too old to be sneaking around and eavesdropping?” Jeremy said, his tone cutting.
“Old enough to not be treated like a child,” she snapped. “Secrets about the insurance agents and the finances and now this?”
He flung his napkin down. “There are no issues with finances. Just a few things to straighten out with the books.”
“And the insurance agents?” she asked, relentless. “I know you can’t look me in the face and lie, Jeremy. You’ve never been able to. Now,” she leaned in, her blue eyes blazing, her black hair melding with the mourning gown she wore, “what did Lord Caversham mean about the insurance agents being difficult?”
“It’s to do with Father’s policy,” he muttered, looking away. “The insurance company is arguing that they won’t pay for the fire damage. And there might not be quite as much money coming in as we thought.”
“From the policy?”
“From anywhere.” He flicked at some crumbs on the table. “It looks like some investments didn’t perform as well as expected, and it’s caused a few…monetary tangles for us.”
“What kind of tangles?” She felt her heart pounding in her throat.
He looked at her, and she saw panic in his eyes at the responsibility that had been thrust upon him. “The kind that means I must strongly urge you to secure a husband within the year. Or you may begin to struggle to do so. Beauty you have plenty of, but a certain amount of shine is produced by your dowry.”
“That’s an awfully cynical view for you to take, brother,” Cecilia said, sagging back in her chair. “What happened to your hopeless romanticism?”
Just then, the door opened, admitting Benjamin. He was slightly rumpled and had a clean, slightly salty scent to him, as well as the immediately familiar smell of horses. It made Cecilia long for an afternoon galloping across open fields. To feel the wind in her hair, the power of a horse beneath her, feeling that if she only went fast enough that she could meet the fluffy clouds racing across the sky.
“Good afternoon to you both,” he said, executing a neat little bow. “How are you faring?”
They both murmured something noncommittal, the tension from their conflict still hanging in the air like pipe smoke. Cecilia knew Benjamin noticed it, for he kept flicking glances between the two of them as he served himself food, not mentioning the absence of the servants.
“So, Lord Benjamin,” she said finally, breaking the skin of the silence when it became unbearably taut. “How is your investigation into our father’s death proceeding so far?”
Benjamin paused in lifting a slice of cold ox tongue to his mouth and gave Jeremy a curious look.
“I don’t think in matters such as this it is necessary to get my brother’s permission to speak to me, Lord Benjamin,” Cecilia said sharply.
He raised a surprised eyebrow, and she paused, taking a breath.
“I apologize for my tone,” she said quietly, shame creeping under her ribs at her loss of poise. “I am exceedingly grateful that you agreed to Jeremy’s request to look into this matter. Your aid to us both has been invaluable.” She steeled herself and met his piercing green eyes. “Have you learned anything of note in your investigation so far?”
He held her gaze, and Cecilia felt her heart rate begin to increase. For the first time, she noticed a silvery scar on the left side of his chin, the mark following his elegant jawline. She wondered if it would feel smooth under her fingers compared to the bronze shadow of stubble across his face…
“In all honesty, Lady Cecilia, I wish I had some information to give you,” Benjamin said. His voice snapped her from her inappropriate mental detour.
She wasn’t sure if he had noticed her caressing his face with her eyes, but she felt embarrassed, nonetheless. The only thing that kept her from careening into tears was the amused voice of her father in her mind. He gently teased her about her habit of being easily distracted by a passing thing of beauty.
“Of all the flaws to have,” he had assured her, “it is not a terrible one. But mind that you are not drawn from important paths by transient fancies. Sometimes the most beautiful things are plain and solid and unassuming. But their beauty comes from these reliable qualities. Honesty, honor, and loyalty are far more valuable than any fortune or talent at quick-witted remarks.”
Taking a calming breath, she refocused on what Benjamin was saying.
“I interviewed all of your staff, but if you could provide me with a list of anyone else who might have had access to the house, that would allow me to close any additional loose ends,” he said. He set down his utensils. “All I can say for certain at this point is that everything your father’s physician wrote in the coroner’s report and everything they found during the inquest suggests that the late Lord Dunham was in excellent health. However, some illnesses can do their work within moments. It is equally possible that such a thing happened to your father as it is that there is some amount of foul play at work.”
“We’re not looking for absolute answers, Benjamin, my friend,” Jeremy said, getting slowly to his feet. “I know, as I’m sure Cecilia does, that we may never get the answers we’re seeking. But your investigation might be able to bring us a small amount of peace.” He bowed perfunctorily. “I’ll make sure you get a full list of anyone who was regularly around the house and grounds and might have access to the house. If you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting with the solicitors.” As he left, he gave Cecilia a look she knew was the introduction to an apology he would no doubt give her later when they were in private.
Cecilia was quickly aware that she was alone with Benjamin. It had happened a few times over the last week, such as yesterday in the upstairs hall, but this time it felt unbearably intimate. She felt her hands shaking in her lap, and part of her knew that this was from her internal emotional turmoil and not necessarily anything to do with Lord Benjamin’s presence. She felt the tears rising, the struggle for breath that indicated she was about to lose her composure, and yet she was frozen in place. There was not enough breath in her to make her excuses, and the more she thought of the silent room upstairs and becoming isolated in her grief again, the less she wanted to be alone.
All at once, she was weeping and shaking, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Clenching her eyes shut, she struggled for air too much to feel embarrassment, although she knew the shame would come later. How could she look Benjamin in the face after this?
But then she heard his warm voice, close to her ear, murmuring soothing words. The sound wrapped around her, soon followed by his arms and she allowed herself to lean into his chest. His chin rested atop her head, and she could feel his fingers trailing along the winding braid of her hair. The scent of him filled her nose: something like cinnamon and citrus, with a woody undertone that reminded her of riding through dappled forests in the heat of summer after a flash thunderstorm. The mental image and his touch acted as a grounding force; slowly, she managed to even her breathing. Finally, his words took shape.
“You’re safe,” he was murmuring. “Just breathe. You have been so brave in the face of such tragedy. A crack in the façade is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Despite his words, she felt the expected pang of horrified shame. If anyone saw this, the scandal would be unbearable. Yet, she could not find it in herself to regret finding comfort in his touch, nor resent him for touching her so familiarly.
Still, she pulled away, wiping at her eyes with her table napkin. Somehow, Cecilia found the courage to meet his eyes, finding them to be soft as fresh clover as he looked at her.
“I’m so sorry, Lord Benjamin,” she said in a choked whisper. “You must think me a ridiculous girl to act so inappropriately in front of you.”
“Not at all, Lady Cecilia.” He gave a little smile and brushed a strand of hair away from her damp face.
The movement sent an expected spark to Cecilia’s belly. She had never been so close to him before. She’d never been this close to any man before.
“I do think we might be at a stage where you can call me Benjamin on occasion,” he said, looking overly serious even as he tried to quash a broader smile. “It only seems appropriate if I am to continue to be your emergency handkerchief.”
Caught off guard by the joke, she laughed. Only for a moment, but it felt good to make a joyful sound for the first time since her father had died.
“Very well, Lord Benjamin,” she conceded, warm in the face from a mixture of weeping, embarrassment, and amusement. “And in the name of equality, I think it only fair if you call me Cecilia. Maybe even on occasions when I’m not weeping on you.”
They chuckled again, an air of conspiracy drawing them together in a manner even more intimate than the fingers Benjamin rested lightly on her hand.
The morning sun ran radiant fingers through Benjamin’s hair as he sat at his desk several days after his interaction over lunch with Cecilia. He had to admit that he was distracted. Not only did it still thrill him to know that he could address her by her beautiful name, but he found himself puzzling over the scent she wore in her hair.
He’d found it creeping into his senses as he floated between wakefulness and sleep. It was now possible for him to note where Cecilia had been in the house recently from the fading notes of whatever this scent was.
Shaking himself from his daydreams, he returned to work. Some of the papers on his desk were practical matters connected to running his home. There were also several invitations to society events placed neatly on a brass tray to his left. The majority of his attention, however, was on his notes regarding Lord Thomas Hamilton. He’d followed several more leads in recent days, but all concluded in impasses. A part of him dearly wanted to tell Jeremy and Cecilia that he was certain their father had died of natural causes so that they could begin to grieve and heal. The only reason he continued to pick away at this investigation was because of a detail that Woodson had passed on to him the previous day.
The stable boy, Alfie, said he remembered the yard dog, Jasper, barking at some point late in the evening after Lady Cecilia and Lord Jeremy had left for the ball. He’d said he was sure of the timing as he’d been prepping the carriage horses’ stables for when they returned when the dog had started whining and scrabbling to be let out of the stables.
Benjamin checked with a few of the other servants, and several recalled the dog barking that evening but dismissed it as nothing. However, Alfie insisted that the dog rarely barked. The fact that Jasper had been unsettled convinced Alfie that someone had been sneaking around the back of the house. And, if that were true, the chances of someone trying to break in on the same night as the unexpected death of the late Lord Dunham could not be dismissed as mere coincidence. Suddenly, the scullery maid’s account of muddy footprints on the clean kitchen floor took on a new weight of meaning.
Benjamin sat frowning at his notes, trying to fathom his next steps, when there was a knock on the door of his study.
The butler of the house, Jethro, opened the door. “Your father is here to see you, my lord.”
Benjamin immediately scrambled to his feet. “When did he arrive in town?”
“About an hour ago,” said the man himself, striding into the room. He dismissed Jethro with a gentle wave. The butler bowed and exited, leaving father and son facing one another.
In appearance, they were very similar. John Banford, the current Duke of Hawnshire, was the source of his son’s striking ginger hair, height, and broad physique. Where Benjamin’s eyes were green and lit with friendly intelligence, however, his father’s were gray and sharp with a shrewd reservation. He was not an unkind man; merely an intensely focused and practical one.
He stepped forward and shook Benjamin’s hand firmly, but Benjamin noted that his eyes were taking in the layout and state of the office rather than the reaction of his son.
“Father,” he said, smiling wide. “I did not expect to see you in London until at least the end of May.”
“I did not intend to travel before then, believe me,” the duke replied. “But one of your cousins announced her engagement a few days ago and your sister and mother insisted on coming down early.”
“Is Mother with you here?” Benjamin asked, wishing he’d had the chance to warn Cecilia that his parents were going to be calling.
“No, she’s at our house over toward the palace. We have a dinner with the eminent Duke of Sanders tonight, so I mustn’t tarry, not when it’ll take most of the day to get the house set to rights and send calling cards out to all the necessary members of the ton.”
“Then, with the greatest respect and appreciation, I must ask why you came to call on me,” Benjamin asked. “I’m delighted to see you, of course, but I would have called on you when your schedule was less frantic.”
“I’m going to be blunt with you, Benjamin,” his father said, clasping his hands over the handle of his cane.
“I would expect nothing less of you, Father,” Benjamin muttered, his throat tightening a little as he realized that this was not a social visit.
“I’ve heard from various sources that you’ve picked up your habit of investigating again,” he said. “Except that this time, instead of some society scandal to earn a girl’s favor or some minor wild goose chase, you are looking into the death of the late Marquess of Dunham?”
“I’m close to his son,” Benjamin explained. “And I advise you to keep your voice low. Lord Dunham and his sister have been staying here while the fire damage to their home is repaired. Lady Cecilia is currently somewhere in the house, and I doubt you want her to hear whatever you have to say.”
The duke gave a nod of understanding, lowering his voice a suitable amount. “I understand your good intentions, Benjamin, but don’t you think this has gone far enough? The notion that a peer of the realm might have been murdered, or at the very least, did not die an entirely natural death, but the constables and magistrates aren’t doing anything about it is preposterous.”
“I’m not claiming that Thomas Hamilton was murdered, Father,” Benjamin replied in a sharp whisper. “I took on this investigation for a friend to ease fears he had found in his grief.”
“Then you are willing to bring your questioning to a close?” his father said, apparently surprised but pleased that he had reached the outcome he desired with such ease.
“I would, but I have unanswered questions that sit uneasily with me. To tell my friends that their father died naturally would feel like a lie of omission.” Benjamin leaned back against his desk. “I’m not kicking hornets’ nests, Father. It’s a good deed for a friend. Why are you so eager for me to abandon this case?”
Lord Hawnshire paused, his expression thoughtful. “I’ve always endeavored to encourage you to be your own man,” he said eventually. “Your mother and I didn’t indulge your every whim, but we did want you and your siblings to embrace the world in your own unique way. Your sister Clarice chose horticulture. Abigail, may she rest in peace, joyfully pursued becoming a mother. You loved your horses and law and books of all kinds. I was happy to have you follow your passions, even when I heard that you were playing investigator in minor society matters. It did not escape my attention that many of the cases you took on provided aid to pretty young women, but I thought that as long as you didn’t recklessly sow wild oats in fields that were not yours to enter, then I could forgive you a few romances. But this time…”
He paused, frowning, and Benjamin saw genuine worry in his father’s face.
“What is different this time?” Benjamin asked softly. “Why are you so concerned?”
His father sighed. “This time, my dear boy, I would rather you did not remain involved in this case. This isn’t a stolen fan, or a mildly threatening note slipped under a dandy’s door. If the late Marquess’ death was not natural, then who knows what kind of people you could unwittingly be pursuing? You may be rushing to gain an enemy that you do not need. If a person is willing to kill a Marquess, then you being the heir to a dukedom will not be of any protection.” He stepped forward and touched Benjamin lightly on the shoulder. “I don’t want their attention to turn on you, dear boy. I’ve already lost one child in the prime of their life. I cannot lose two.”
Benjamin rested his hand atop his father’s. “Seeing what the Hamilton siblings are experiencing right now has reminded me of how awful it was to lose Abigail. I want to help them, Father. To give them some peace.”
“Then tell them you’ve found nothing,” the Duke almost pleaded. “I doubt they actually expect you to give them a new answer. And, surely, it will bring them more peace to know that while the Marquess’ death was a tragedy, it was just a cruel twist of nature. There is greater distress in thinking that someone you love was murdered.”
Benjamin pondered that in silence. Then, in the distance, he heard the light footsteps that signaled Cecilia’s approach, along with the first notes of that alluring perfume.
“I will think of your words, Father,” he said quietly. “But I believe Lady Cecilia’s arrival is imminent and I think it unwise that we continue this conversation now.”
The Duke of Hawnshire stepped back, his sandy eyebrows pulling together in frustration for a moment. Then his brow smoothed, and he looked at his son with acceptance. “Although I have framed this as a request,” he said, “note that it carries the weight of an order. I will not strong-arm you into a decision, but I must be clear that I want you to halt this investigation as soon as possible.”
There came a light tap at the door, and a moment later, Cecilia opened it. Her blue eyes went wide as she realized he had a guest and quickly began to stutter apologies.
“Please, Lady Cecilia, come in,” Benjamin encouraged. “This is my father, John Banford, His Grace the Duke of Hawnshire. He arrived in town unexpectedly and decided to pay me a surprise visit.”
Cecilia entered and performed a flawless curtsey, her black hair shining like jet in the spring sunshine streaming through the windows. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace.”
The duke gave his son a long, deliberate look, then responded to Cecilia. “Likewise, Lady Cecilia. My most sincere condolences for your loss.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Cecilia said softly, and Benjamin was struck by how pale and fragile she had become in the short time since she had dazzled him at the debutante ball.
“I greatly look forward to seeing you another time, my lady,” the Duke said, “but I must take my leave. My wife is waiting for me at home.” He nodded to his son. “Think of what I said. Your mother and I will anticipate a visit from you soon.”
Cecilia gave Benjamin a nervous look as the sound of his father’s footsteps faded.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t intend to intrude. I only came to return your book.”
He noted then that she was clutching his leather-bound volume of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She passed it to him, and he caressed it for a moment before slipping it back onto the shelf.
“I enjoyed it very much,” Cecilia said. “I’ve read a little of Wollstonecraft’s work when Father had it around the house, but I’d never read her seminal piece. Thank you for recommending it.”
“Any time,” he said. “Please, feel free to browse the shelves of my study whenever you wish. Consider it a second library for you.”
She nodded, a slight air of awkwardness falling over the room, then bobbed a quick curtsey and made to leave. At the door, however, she paused and looked back.
“Benjamin,” she said slowly, and his heart raced to hear his name in her mouth. “Have you found anything new in your investigation?”
Benjamin thought of his father’s subtle ultimatum. He momentarily considered telling her that his questions had all been satisfied and he was going to close the investigation. But then he looked in her eyes and knew he couldn’t lie to her like that.
“I cannot say for sure,” he said, “but I’m doing my due diligence. I will only give you a decisive answer either way when I have exhausted every possibility. You and your brother deserve some peace of mind.”
Tears welled in her eyes, and his heart broke, but she quickly wiped them away.
“You’re a good man, Benjamin,” she whispered.
Then, she slipped away, leaving him soaking in the trails of her perfume and warmed by a sensation quite separate from the sunshine.
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''The Maze of a Marquess' Passion'' is Live on Amazon!