Steamy romance sizzles between a resurrected earl and his repentant bride in USA TODAY bestselling author Meredith Duran's latest historical romance.
BACK FROM THE DEAD, AN EARL SEEKS VENGEANCE...
Liam Devaliant, Lord Lockwood, was born into a charmed life. Charismatic, powerful, and wild, he had the world at his feet—and one woman as his aim. His wedding to Anna was meant to be his greatest triumph. Instead, in a single moment, a wicked conspiracy robbed him of his future and freedom.
...BUT WILL HIS LONG-LOST COUNTESS PAY THE PRICE?
Four years later, Liam has returned from death with plans for revenge. Standing in his way, though, is his long-absent bride. Once, he adored Anna's courage. Now it seems like a curse, for Anna refuses to fear or forget him. If she can't win back Liam's love, then she means at least to save his soul...no matter the cost.
Anna had never set foot inside her husband’s London townhouse. They had met and fallen in love in the north of Scotland; he had wed and then abandoned her in Edinburgh. But she felt as though she knew the house from top to bottom. The newspapers were full of florid descriptions. The Times particularly admired the Moorish touches that Lockwood had added to the salons. The Telegraph preferred the stately dignity of his Louis XIV dining room. Everybody agreed that the Earl of Lockwood had laudable taste. Nobody mentioned that this taste was funded by Anna’s money. The earl had been broke as a fishmonger when she’d married him.
Since she had paid for Lockwood’s furnishings, she felt no compunction at going to explore them, regardless of the hour, regardless that her husband had no idea she was in town. Then again, after years spent traveling only heaven knew where, he had not bothered to inform her of his return. So why should she prove more polite?
Indeed, did he even know she was alive? Had he bothered to check? How much more of her money had he spent this week? Would he guess that she was armed, and not in case of brigands?
These questions made fine games as she watched London pass, the streets wet and dirty. The hired coach was moving at a good clip, but the interior smelled musty. Had the city outside it not smelled worse—a fetid mix of coal smoke and sewage—she might have opened the window.
It was nine in the evening. Beggars gathered around burning cans of rubbish to keep warm. Respectable folk strode past them, mufflers drawn against the spring chill, no tenderness in their faces as they looked through their starving brethren. A faint suggestion of lilac sunset still clung to the rim of the English sky.
“This city’s huge,” murmured the girl across from her. Jeannie’s eyes were wide with wonder.
Anna spared a moment’s pity for her. Jeannie had been raised on romances. She believed that all the filth might be hiding something interesting.
As they passed Westminster Abbey, Jeannie sat straighter. “I know what that is! I’ve seen it in books!”
“You read the wrong books,” Anna said. She had tried to train Jeannie into assisting with her experiments, but the girl’s literacy proved strangely changeable: when science was involved, Jeannie forgot how to read. She made a passable lady’s maid, though; her favorite magazines included extensive discussions of au courant hairstyles.
“And there!” Jeannie laid a finger to the glass. “Is that the Tower, where they killed poor Nan Boleyn?”
Jeannie also enjoyed history, but only the gruesome bits. “No. But it would not surprise me if every inch of this city were haunted by unfortunate wives.” At Jeannie’s skeptical look, Anna shrugged. “Englishmen make very poor husbands.”
Jeannie grimaced. She was petite, with a doll-like, heart-shaped face, peaches-and-cream skin, and striking black curls. Gentlemen on the train had stared. Jeannie’s mother, suspicious of her daughter’s enthusiasm for this trip, had begged Anna to make certain she didn’t elope with a Sassenach.
“Not all of them, surely!” Jeannie said. “Some Englishmen must be—”
“All of them.”
The sights out the window changed, grew cleaner and more orderly. The hackney driver had lifted his brows at the address Anna had given, and now she saw the reason for it. Mayfair looked a different species of city from the environs they had passed: clean and well-swept pavements, smooth roads, and manicured parks around which large houses with bright-striped awnings marched in orderly lines.
The coach slowed, drawing up at the curb beside a house lit from top to bottom. Anna cracked the window. The faint strains of a jig flavored the night air.
The newspapers had also spoken of her husband’s penchant for parties. He used these glamorous gatherings to introduce his friends to new artists. Apparently one such party was under way tonight.
She was not dressed for it. Her wool cloak was travel stained, and beneath it she wore a walking dress of brown taffeta on which Jeannie had sloshed tea not three hours before. If somebody mistook her for a maid . . . She loosed a slow breath.
A fine anger had been brewing in her for days now. She had good reasons for her trip to London, and only one of them concerned her husband. Nevertheless, what a waste if she did not get to hit somebody! Preferably it would be Lockwood, but in a pinch, any of his friends would serve.
Jeannie saw her temper. The girl was clever when it came to people. She caught Anna’s wrist as the driver opened the door for them. “A hotel?” she suggested. “The guidebook recommended several. We could dress your hair, and change into something more . . . fitting? The English are very formal, you know.”
“Are they, indeed? What an expert you are.” Marvelous, too, how Jeannie’s accent kept changing to match their surroundings. In Newcastle, she’d dropped her r’s; by the time the train had passed Peterborough, she’d lost her lilt. “Tell me,” Anna said. “How does a girl raised by Loch Lomond sound more English now than the Queen?”
Jeannie blushed. “Oh, ma’am. I have always wanted to visit London. You know it!”
“I do know it. And I warn you, if I catch you humming a single bar of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ I’ll leave you behind when I go home.”
Jeannie sniffed and flounced out of the cab. The poor goose had grown up dreaming of sparkle and lace. Hoping for luxury, she’d leapt at the chance to work as a lady’s maid, just as her mother had once done for Anna’s mother. But what a disappointment she’d found in her mistress’s households! Wool instead of silk, mud in the carpets, whisky in tin cups instead of champagne.
Nevertheless, Anna had promised to supervise and educate her, and she would continue to do her best at it. “I am the mistress of this house,” Anna said after joining Jeannie on the curb. “However I dress is precisely how I am meant to dress. It is the guests who will feel themselves inappropriate. Do you understand?”
The girl opened her mouth to argue, then evidently thought better of it. With a hike of her chin, she followed the driver around back to oversee the removal of the luggage.
Anna adjusted the hem of her cloak, straightened her shoulders, and marched up the steps to bang the knocker.
The door creaked open. Somebody had left it ajar. Somebody was getting sacked tonight. Anna did not pay for incompetence in her staff.
She stepped into the entry hall, a rectangular space paved by checkerboard marble, topped by a curving split staircase, also of marble. The English had no restraint: they piled ancient statues into every nook and cranny, and managed to find ways to make staircases expensive. That bronze balustrade had probably cost her a year’s interest on her harvest profits in the lowlands.
From behind her came some noise. She turned and found herself locking eyes with a squat, barrel-chested man whose bald skull gleamed in the gaslight.
“Guest?” he croaked—then frowned as his gaze ran down her bedraggled cloak. “Servants around the back,” he said, and shot a stream of tobacco juice into a spittoon standing behind the door.
Anna snorted. The English are very formal, are they? “I am no servant.” Whereas Jeannie’s accent had smoothed, her own had grown new burrs with every southbound mile they’d traveled. She now sounded like one of the islanders, and the little man frowned in consternation.
“What?” he demanded. “Speak English.”
She stepped toward him. He looked startled by his own retreat, and moved his hand into his jacket—a threatening gesture that she acknowledged with a lift of one brow.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Brandish a weapon at your master’s wife.”
His jaw slackened. She caught a glimpse of the tobacco packed into his mouth. “You aren’t,” he said uncertainly.
She had not been born beautiful, like Jeannie. Her cousins teased her that her pale green eyes were witchy, her copper hair the color of devil’s flames. But she had been born with a talent for smiling: with the mere curve of her mouth, she could make men stumble and gape, or quail in momentary fear, for reasons they would never manage to explain to themselves.
The brute was not immune. He let go of his weapon, his eyes widening. “You are the countess.”
She narrowed her eyes. What an odd remark. Had Lockwood been describing her to his staff? “Naturally. And your name, sir?”
“Danvers. But, ma’am, his lordship ain’t . . .” His gaze shifted past her. Jeannie was staggering across the threshold, a trunk sliding from her grip.
“Assist Miss Galbraith,” Anna said. “And have our rooms aired and readied. Which way is Lord Lockwood?”
The man made a helpless grunt. Then he lifted his finger to point down the darkened hall. “But, ma’am—my lady—I’ll warn you—”
She did not accept advice from rogues. Besides, what news could he impart of her husband that she did not already know? It took an utter blackguard to abandon his newlywed bride on her wedding night, and to disappear for three years without a word, much less to let her discover his return, months delayed, by a headline in the newspaper.
“Help Miss Galbraith,” she repeated coolly, and turned on her heel to find her errant husband.
The noises of the party drew her around the corner, and to doors that opened into a long gallery. Pausing there, she beheld a scene of complete debauchery: gentlemen in shirtsleeves with waistcoats flapping, women powdered and painted, feathers sagging from their hair. A stray dog or two frolicked amid scraps thrown by cheeky boys. Violinists were wandering among the crowd, sawing out street ditties—multiple ditties, none of them in tune. One wore a monkey on his shoulder. The creature was lifting his little hat in time to the music.
Out the windows that lined one side of the gallery, torches lit a lawn filled with couples. Half of them appeared to be dancing, but to no uniform rhythm or step. Pieces of clothing littered the grass—and glittering shards of broken glasses—and bodies, intertwined.
“Goodness,” she murmured. But her own voice was lost in the din of chatter and discordant tunes and the sudden explosion of a bottle hurled into the wall. “Watch for the paintings!” somebody cried.
It was then that she noticed the other wall of the gallery.
The paintings there showed scenes of slaughter.
After a moment, when her pulse slowed, she realized that these must be the Ashdown paintings. She had read about them in a newspaper she’d purchased at the platform in Peterborough. Her husband was a patron of the artist Miss Aurora Ashdown, and had hosted an exhibit recently for the titillation of his English friends.
Patron. She wondered if that was a polite euphemism, and Miss Ashdown was his mistress. Otherwise, why would he promote such nightmarish scenes? The artist had talent, but taste . . . ?
She averted her eyes from the paintings. The people cavorting beneath them hardly made a better sight. Gritting her teeth, she picked up her skirts and shoved her way into the crowd, using her elbows to clear a path for herself.
“Hey! Watch yourself—”
“Oi, sweetheart! What’s your hurry?”
She pivoted sharply at this last remark, catching the startled eye—and then, between her thumb and forefinger, the ear—of a lad who looked barely old enough to shave.
“What was that?” she asked sweetly. “Whose sweetheart am I?”
He blinked, his reddened eyes and chinless, sallow face lending him the look of a snared rabbit. “I—I—I reckon you’re nobody’s, ma’am!”
Not the cleverest retraction, but the sentiment served. Anna released him, wiped her hand on her skirts, and resumed her progress.
It did occur to her, as glass crunched under her boot and she spied the salon ahead, that she might not recognize Lockwood. Three years and eight months, after all. She herself had changed, so she liked to think. She had far better taste now than to trifle with bankrupt English lordlings, particularly those who had no better use for her money than the despoiling of decency and common sense—
There he was.
She drew up a foot inside the salon, watching through narrowed eyes as William Alexander Knollys Devaliant, fifth Earl of Lockwood, extricated himself from a sofa heaped with three scantily clad women, his balance clearly unsteady.
A pair of hands clung to him as he rose. Those hands belonged to a woman whose hair had been dyed a brassy false red. Lockwood, stepping forward, looked surprised to find himself caught. Looking down and discovering the hands that held him, he pulled them free, lifting one of them to his mouth for a kiss.
• • •
On occasional Tuesdays, Liam opened his doors to the crème de la crème of London society. On occasional Sundays, his staff made the invitations.
The contrast never failed to amuse him—particularly now, as some unnamed drug swam through his brain and lent him a novel perspective. Last Tuesday, some five hundred well-heeled Londoners—members of Parliament and gentlemen farmers and lords—had winced before Miss Ashdown’s paintings. Her images of the violent insurrection in British India had seemed to those guests like accusations. Society folk had murmured among themselves, then fled to the ballroom to guzzle champagne.
Tonight’s crowd, on the other hand, cavorted beneath those same paintings, admiring but not shocked. Working people—servants and barmaids, factory men and honest criminals—saw nothing unusual in such graphic depictions. Violence and power were but two sides of the same coin; this crowd knew it.
Liam had kept the ballroom closed. The music room stood locked as well, the interior burned after more recent festivities. Tonight, the musicians wandered freely, and the dancing took place on the lawn outside. The grass proved a novelty for this crowd, to whom London’s finest parklands stood closed.
In the salon, he’d gathered the small number of men whom he’d invited personally. They were penned there by Liam’s footmen, who had stationed themselves in postures of servitude but who nevertheless managed to loom in a manner that discouraged guests from pushing past them. Few of the celebrants noticed this, much less wondered if it was deliberate. Half of them were drunk, a quarter more dazed, like him, by the toxic tarry substance that Colthurst had brought to smoke.
Liam’s cousin was sober, though. Stephen Devaliant had accepted the invitation, delivered this afternoon in the reading room at White’s, very casually, as though there was nothing unusual in it. He was doing a very good job of pretending he had not tried to have Liam killed four years ago, much less that the greatest shock of his life had not been to learn of Liam’s return, this past autumn, and not in a casket—for Liam, despite his cousin’s best efforts, had survived.
Liam walked over to the sofa, his mere approach causing Stephen’s conversation with a courtesan to fracture into stuttering syllables. “More champagne?” he asked his cousin. Stephen’s glass had remained empty for an hour now. Hunted creatures could not afford to muddle their brains.
Stephen glanced up. He was Liam’s elder by eighteen months, with a full head of brown hair and a lineless face. Had he spent three years battling starvation, however, he might have looked different. His hair might have been bleached, his cheeks hollow, and his crow’s-feet deeper, to match Liam’s.
“How kind of you,” he said. “No, I’m entirely content.” His smile looked fixed; no doubt he was racking his brain for a reason to leave. Stephen aspired to public office—a seat in Parliament would go far to effacing the commercial stain of his wealth—and to that end, he cultivated a pious reputation. He sponsored charities. He paid newspapers to publish his homilies on Christian virtue. He volunteered as churchwarden in the parish where London’s most powerful men prayed.
To be seen at this raucous party would do him no favors. But he accepted all of Liam’s invitations. He could not afford to do otherwise. He was not yet certain if Liam knew what he had done.
“But it’s very fine champagne,” Liam said. The finest that money could buy—a fitting slogan for everything in this house. In the last eight months, he’d spent vast amounts of money refurbishing his London property. The glitter now gave him a headache, but it made excellent camouflage. Blinded by his opulent good taste, nobody ever bothered to look too closely at him. “Come,” he told his cousin. “Just a glass.”
“Just a glass,” echoed the courtesan on a giggle—she was one of Colthurst’s, a long-limbed beauty with a lisp and dyed scarlet hair.
Her hair annoyed Liam. He had told Colthurst not to bring redheads. He considered hunting down Colthurst and gutting the man—an image so vivid and pleasurable that he abruptly reconsidered the wisdom of trying Colthurst’s drugs.
Stephen’s mouth was tightening. This game was a delicate one; push him too far, bully him in any way, and he would find a credible reason to withdraw. “I’m certain it’s very fine champagne,” he said. “I order it occasionally myself, when the Lafitte is not available.”
Liam laughed. “Of course,” he agreed, “you would only drink Lafitte.” He felt kinder now to the courtesan, who must have been annoying Stephen, to set him so on edge as to allude to his own wealth. For a time, this had been Stephen’s great advantage—his only solace for having been born to a second son, and thereby deprived of the earldom.
That trick of birth had been the greatest tragedy of Stephen’s life to date. Liam meant to correct that, but he was taking his time. Revenge made an excellent hobby.
Stephen rose, drawing himself as straight as possible to diminish the difference between their respective heights. “A lovely evening,” he said. “I’m afraid I must be going.”
“Of course.” Liam straightened, looking down his nose, and Stephen’s mouth pinched. By their next meeting, no doubt, he’d be wearing lifts in his shoes. “Shall I walk you out?”
“I believe I can find the way,” Stephen said stiffly. “If you’ll recall, I once lived here myself.”
Ah, yes. The old reminder of their shared boyhood. After Stephen’s father had died, he had come to live with Liam’s family for a time. “Of course!” Liam clapped his cousin on the shoulder, just as a brother would, and felt the man flinch.
He had several advantages over Stephen, in fact, the earldom being the least of them. Thanks to Stephen, he had learned a great deal about torture, and come to grasp that the usual methods—floggings and starvation and terror—were not useful. Pain stripped a man of his humanity. What remained became bestial and wild: it could not be controlled. Common tortures were useless, then, unless one intended to put down the animal directly.
The subtler tortures held a world of possibility, though. To invite a man over and ask him to drink, to smile at him in one’s club, to clap him on the back—to keep him startled, second-guessing, dreaming of poison, his paranoia ever-growing: it made a fine game, far better than the brief satisfaction of a bullet in the brain.
“Perhaps I’ll drop by tomorrow,” he said into his cousin’s ear. “You can catch me up on the world of commerce.”
Stephen recoiled from this murmur and threw a hunted look over his shoulder as he hurried away.
“What’s so funny?” The courtesan wound her arms around Liam, the cloying scent of her lavender perfume tickling his nose as she pulled him down onto the sofa beside her.
“A great deal.” Laughter escaped Liam, though he no longer felt amused. The laugh felt like an animal, clawing and wrestling out of his throat. Stop it. The sound of the chatter intensified all around him, rattling and buzzing like bees.
Foul drug. Colthurst should know better. Liam wanted a numbing, not a false enlivening. He needed a quiet place to wait this out. He stood again, realizing belatedly that the courtesan still clutched on to him. He pried away her wrists, dropping a casual kiss on her knuckles when she protested.
“Find someone else,” he told her with a smile. He did not like being touched, but there was no need to advertise it.
The woman, perhaps hard of hearing, misunderstood the kiss as an invitation. “I’ll put you in a better mood,” she said, twining herself around him.
“I will not pay for that,” came a woman’s voice from the doorway.
The gaslights seemed to flicker. His heart missed a beat. Liam found himself abruptly nauseated, mouth dry.
“Are you all right?” asked the courtesan, her eyes wide with concern.
A mirror hung on the wall beyond her. Liam did not let himself focus on it. He would not like what he saw. These were not feelings he could feel.
His mouth still held the semblance of a smile. He widened that smile as he pivoted from one redhead toward the other.
She filled the doorway completely. She was taller than he remembered, her jaw squarer. Her lips were full, wide, sneering. He had remembered the feel of them better than the look.
Ah, but this drug was wicked. It caused her to intensify into impossible vividness, a vision in copper and green and cream. In all the lands he had crossed to come home, there had been no shade like her eyes: leaves were not vibrant enough, grass was too dark. Her hair was blazingly bright, the color of freshly polished pennies. The world behind her was breaking apart, swimming in little colored dots, like schools of fish.
“You should not be here,” he said to her. God above, not now. Sober would serve them both better.
Her smile gutted him. He had forgotten the trick of that smile—how it could spark a light inside a man that made him feel untethered from the earth, or gut him more deeply than a blade. “And you should be in hell,” she said. “Alas, few of us end up where we belong.”
Meredith Duran is the USA TODAY bestselling author of thirteen novels. She blames Anne Boleyn for sparking her lifelong obsession with British history (and for convincing her that princely love is no prize if it doesn’t come with a happily-ever-after). She enjoys collecting old etiquette manuals, guidebooks to nineteenth-century London, and travelogues by intrepid Victorian women.
"Duran has created unforgettable characters whose struggles with injustice and emotional and physical pain only bring them closer together. The novel, rich with powerful prose, is an exemplar of second-chance love stories."
– Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Duran does a fabulous job...THE SINS OF LORD LOCKWOOD is an intricate story of redemption overcoming the stains of fear and despair, and of love proving that two people together are stronger than two apart."
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