My Dark Duke by Kitty St. Claire
LILLIAN BEAUFORT EYEDthe imposing house looming over St. James' Square warily. It was home to the notorious Duke of Thorncastle; a man whose reputation was so sordid that he was oft referred to by the sobriquet The Devil of Thorncastle instead.
According to the papers, Thorncastle was a rake of the highest order. Not to mention a philanderer, a gambler, and a womaniser to boot.
He would also, if all things went to plan, soon be Lillian's employer.
A pious woman would never even think to set foot in the home of such a scandalous duke, let alone entertain the notion of entering into his employ, but Lillian could make no claims at piety.
No murderess could.
Squaring her shoulders, in the hope that it might make her feel more confident, Lillian climbed the steps of Thorncastle House to meet her fate.
The front door was black, its gleaming brass knocker fashioned in the shape of a coiled snake; a most ominous sign, if one believed in such things.
Her single knock was answered swiftly by a footman, sombre faced and darkly dressed, but nevertheless far more respectable looking than what Lillian had anticipated. She had expected Thorncastle's staff to be as dissolute as their master, but it was not so. Nor was the home the bawdy house that Lillian had envisioned; instead, she found herself in an elegantly appointed entrance hall, which spoke of an owner blessed with taste, refinement, and wealth.
"Mr Danvers, the under-butler, is expecting you," the footman said once she had introduced herself, before leading Lillian down a corridor toward the rear of the house.
An under butler, Lillian noted with a wry smile. The position she was applying for was not important enough to merit the attention of the senior butler, who no doubt saw himself as being above such things as interviewing a woman.
Stifling a sigh of regret at the turn her life had taken, Lillian followed the butler through the maze of corridors, their progress watched over by the portraits of Thorncastles past.
"Just in here, Miss Smith," the footman said, as they finally reached their destination.
The young man opened a mahogany door, to reveal a small, neat office, whose tidy shelves and sparse desk told of a very organised occupant.
"Mr Danvers will be along shortly," he continued, as Lillian followed him inside. "Do take a seat by the fire. If you need anything, just call."
After he had left, Lillian followed the footman's solicitous suggestion and arranged herself on a chair by the fire while she waited for Mr Danvers to appear. The frost of February had chilled her toes, and she was enjoying toasting them by the small fire burning in the grate, when the door of the office was thrown open.
"Are you in here?" an irritated voice called, as a gentleman sauntered—for there was no other way to describe his confident gait—into the room.
Lillian sprang to her feet, hastily smoothing her skirts with nervous hands.
"Mr. Danvers," she replied, her voice shaking slightly; after the solicitousness of the footman, she had not been expecting such abruptness from the butler.
Mr Danvers' head turned at her voice, and Lillian had to refrain herself from gasping aloud at the vision of male beauty standing before her.
But beauty was not the right word, she corrected herself, taking in Mr Danvers' exquisite features. The word beauty evoked softness, but there was nothing soft about Mr Danvers' face. It was beautiful, yes, but almost cruel in its perfection. His jaw was hard and square. His cheekbones so high and so sharp that one might cut themselves upon them. His nose was decidedly Roman; the perfect shape for looking down upon people, which Lillian instinctively knew Mr. Danvers did quite often. Even his eyes, a brilliant blue, were notably cold, as they traversed Lillian from top to toe.
The hard perfection of Mr Danvers' face was softened somewhat by his hair, falling elegantly—and most untidily, for a butler—across his forehead. Unfortunately it also lent him a rakish edge, which set Lillian's heart racing in her chest.
It was not right for an under-butler to be so handsome, she thought peevishly, as she tried to regain control of herself.
"I am Miss Smith," she continued, when it became apparent that Danvers was waiting for her to speak. "I am here about the position."
"Which position?" Danvers queried in a lazy drawl.
Lillian blinked; was the household so large that the under-butler could not keep tally of all the positions which needed filling?
"Assistant to the housekeeper," Lillian replied, glad she had not stammered. Mr. Danvers was most intimidating—not to mention impudent, with his wolfish eyes and smirking mouth.
"I could think of a better position in which to put you," Mr Danvers replied, his lips quirking slightly at the corners, as though he had made a joke. Lillian flushed, certain that there was a double entendre to his words which she did not understand.
"Sit," Danvers continued, ignoring her blushes as he waved a careless hand to the chair before the desk.
Lillian, who was feeling more and more uncertain of her choice to venture into Thorncastle House, obediently placed herself in the proffered seat. She arranged herself in the most ladylike and demure manner possible, folding her hands primly in her lap and crossing her ankles together.
"Tell me a little bit about yourself," Mr Danvers commanded, as he took a seat, before leaning back in his chair. His demeanour was so lackadaisical, Lillian almost expected him to prop his feet up on the table. Thankfully, however, he refrained.
"I hail from Kent," Lillian began, taking care to ensure that the "t" in Kent sounded clipped enough to convey her displeasure at his manners. "I kept house for the local vicar and his family, and oversaw the church accounts—as you will see in my letter of character."
Danvers narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, and to avoid a telling blush, Lillian reached into her basket to retrieve her letter of character. It was, of course, a work of fiction, but Danvers did not need to know this.
Her hand shook slightly as she handed it across to Danvers, who whipped it from her grasp and scanned it quickly.
"Good character," he mumbled, as he read through the missive., "Excellent with figures."
Here, the under butler paused, and offered Lillian a lascivious smile. "And an excellent figure, as well. If I might add my own addendum."
"I would rather that you did not add anything that might sully Mr. Hamilton's words, Sir," Lillian replied, bristling with indignation at his impudence. "He was a fine man and would not broker any such talk under his roof."
"Well," Mr Danvers threw the letter down on the table with a sigh, "You're a loyal employee, I'll give you that. Tell me, Miss Smith, why did you leave the employ of Mr. Hamilton if you held him in such high esteem?"
Lillian slowly let out the breath she had not realised she was holding. Here at least, was something she had anticipated. She had not expected a handsome but rude butler, but she had prepared to be quizzed on her backstory, and she had made pains to ensure that it would be as near to the truth as possible.
"I worked for the Hamilton family for five years," Lillian said, as she began to retell a story which belonged not to her, but to her old housekeeper. "As I have said, I kept house for the vicar and the accounts for the church. I was most happy and grateful for the position, but when my mother became unwell, it was necessary for me to return home to care for her. Thankfully, the daughter of the house was then of an age to take over my duties."
"How fortuitous," Danvers replied, his eyebrows in danger of disappearing into his hairline. "Might I enquire as to your age? You look quite youthful for one who professes to have so much experience."
"I am five and twenty, Sir," Lillian replied, raising her chin defiantly against his skepticism. In truth, she had only just turned twenty years of age, but she had thought it necessary to borrow the real Miss Smith's age, as well as her history.
"If you say so," Danvers replied with a shrug, before pushing back his chair and rising to a stand.
He was, Lillian noted, impeccably dressed. How wealthy the Duke of Thorncastle must be, if he could outfit his servants in such fine attire. His black coat looked to be made of merino wool, his breeches so well-fitting that they might have come from a Bond Street tailor, whilst his silk waistcoat—a dark grey—was so luscious that Lillian almost wished she might reach out and stroke it.
As Danvers moved from behind the desk to in front of it, Lillian was gifted the opportunity to appreciate his form, which was tall and athletic. His shoulders were broad and strong, and his thighs—Lillian gulped—were muscular, as though he spent most of his days riding.
"Why do you need this job?" Danvers queried, leaning back against the mahogany desk to survey her. His blue eyes were so piercing, Lillian almost believed he could see right through her, to her very soul.
Worrying, she thought, as she dropped her gaze, for her soul was tarnished with the blood of another.
"I am alone in London, Sir," Lillian replied, opting to offer the truth this time for she did not think she was capable of lying under such intense scrutiny. "I have no family here and require a position that offers lodgings. Mr Fortesque, of the employment agency, did say that the position needs urgent filling, and that I might begin straight away, if accepted."
Danvers remained silent for a few moments, digesting the tale Lillian now regretted sharing. She did not wish for him to think she was begging for charity. Nor was she glad she had revealed to this man just how alone she was in the world.
It felt almost akin to telling a fox that the door to the hen-house had been left ajar.
"A beautiful woman like you might find more enjoyable employment elsewhere," Danvers finally offered, his hooded eyes giving away little emotion.
Silence reigned, as Lillian struggled to comprehend what he was suggesting by enjoyable employment. Was it possible that Mr Danvers was proposing that Lillian take up a position in a bawdy-house or a brothel?
"I am afraid that I do not understand the meaning of your words, Sir," Lillian finally spluttered, her cheeks burning red. Of course, she had understood him well enough, but she was offering the wretch a chance to redeem himself.
"You are beautiful," the butler shrugged, his eyes sparkling with amusement as he saw how flustered she had become. "A woman of your beauty might find that there are men who would pay her to do so much more than keep their accounts."
Lillian gasped; the brute! How dare he suggest that she sell her body to the highest bidder. She was the daughter of a vicar, she had not been brought up to suffer such insult from despicable creatures like Mr Danvers. No matter how much she had sinned, she had not fallen that low.
"Sir, you insult me," Lillian cried, springing from her seat and preparing to leave.
"I wasn't suggesting you walk the cobblestones of Covent Garden," Danvers replied with a bark of laughter, not looking the slightest bit remorseful. "I was thinking a gentleman—a wealthy one, mind—might think to take you on as his mistress. Wouldn't you rather spend your days in bed being pleasured by a man, than wasting them toiling away in boredom?"
"I would rather be bored than a whore," Lillian snapped, taking a step toward the door.
Mr Danvers, who until now had been indolent in posture and manner, moved quickly to block her path.
"I wasn't suggesting you become a whore," he drawled, his dark eyebrows narrowed in annoyance. "You could be a mistress. It can be considered a most prestigious position, if the right man takes you under his protection."
"You, Sir," Lillian drew herself up to her full height, "are a swine. I wonder what your master would think, if he knew that you were using your position to try and find a body to warm your bed."
"I think he would heartily approve."
In all her life, Lillian had struck only one man, and, as she struggled against the urge to lash out at the abominable Mr Danvers, Lillian bid herself remembering how badly that particular scenario had ended.
"It would be best if you moved out of my way, Sir," Lillian finally said, amazed that her voice sounded so contained.
Inside she was reeling from insult and something else—a strange, delicious churning in her stomach, as she briefly imagined herself entangled in bed with the dashing man before her.
"Best for whom?" Danvers raised an eyebrow, his expression now dangerous and lupine.
"For you, Sir." Lillian tilted her chin defiantly, taking courage from the memory that, if necessary, she was capable of defending herself against any man who might think to use violence against her.
Mercifully, Mr Danvers—though quite despicable—was not that type of man, and with a flourishing bow—more mocking than courteous—he took a step back to allow Lillian to pass.
"We will meet again soon, Miss Smith," he called, as she reached the door.
"I doubt that very much, Sir, for I have no immediate plans to visit the belly of hell," Lillian replied, without missing a beat.
Her hand touched the door knob and she twisted it, relief flooding over her as she opened the door to her escape. No longer caring for social niceties, Lillian slammed from the room, only to come face to face—or rather face to chest—with another gentleman.
"Miss Smith, I presume?" the man said brightly, his face wearing a congenial smile. "Do forgive my lateness, I was waylaid below stairs...were you leaving?"
Lillian blinked in confusion; who on earth was this?
"Yes," she answered with a sniff, hoping her rigid posture would convey her displeasure at having been delayed. "My meeting with Mr Danvers has come to an end."
"Meeting with—" the gentleman took a handkerchief from his pocket to mop his brow. "But I am Mr Danvers, my dear."
Lillian met his announcement with silence, as she tried to work out just whom it was that she had been speaking to moments before, if this was Mr Danvers. Who on earth had been confident enough—no, mad enough—to think they might get away with impersonating the under-butler in his own office?
Lillian heard the door open behind her and the sound of someone taking a noisy, deliberate step out into the hallway.
"Your Grace." Mr Danvers was not looking at Lillian now, but over her shoulder. "Perhaps you might be kind enough to clear up all the confusion."
Lillian felt all the blood drain from her face, as she realised who it was that the real Mr Danvers was addressing. She turned her head slightly to find the Duke of Thorncastle watching her closely, his expression one of thorough amusement.
"I should be happy to clear up any confusion," he stated, as his sensual lips quirked at their corners.
Lillian felt a strange jolt of desire course through her whole body, as this powerful man watched her, in the way a cat might watch a mouse it had trapped between its claws.
Thorncastle was a predator, and he wanted her for his prey. He had offered her a carte blanche; a chance to earn her keep through pleasure, rather than hard work. For a moment, Lillian allowed herself to be tempted.
A man like Thorncastle would, no doubt, be most skilled at pleasuring a woman. Lillian, despite her innocence, knew instinctively that the cock-sure, arrogant duke would make a most attentive lover.
But he would never be her lover, she vowed, as anger replaced desire in her veins.
"I have no need for you to do anything, your Grace," she snapped, leveling a cool glance Thorncastle's way. "The only thing I require is to leave this house at once. Your reputation, your Grace, does not do you service—you are twice the devil you are reported to be."
With all the dignity she could muster, Lillian took her leave, pushing past a rather confused Mr Danvers and racing down the corridor as fast as her feet could take her.
She should never have come to Thorncastle House, she thought, as she escaped through the front door, back into the frigid air of St. James' Square. She had known of the duke's sordid reputation; what on earth had made her think that he was suited to offer her employment?
Lillian, whose funds were rapidly dwindling, had needed the position far more than she cared to admit. She had already pawned all the jewels she owned, and the monies she had received for them were disappearing at an astonishing rate.
Better a free pauper, than a servant to that fiend, she told herself, as she pulled her shawl tight against the February wind.
But as she made her way back to her lodgings, she was ashamed to find that the memory of Thorncastle's eyes possessively traversing her body, warmed her insides and protected her from the worst of the chill.