Authors: Emily Dalton
Tags: #Regency, #:Historical Romance
Lily and the Lion
by Emily Dalton
"THE LION'S" ROAR WAS WORSE THAN HIS BITE
No one could doubt that Miss Lily Clarke was a vicar's daughter. So angelic was she, charitable and compassionate, that all God's creatures earned and deserved her boundless devotion.
Even those who did not wish it, such as Julian Winslow, Lord Ashton. Long ago, Julian had taken mans' measure and found it lacking. Since then he had kept his own counsel with the lone arrogant pride attributed to the King of Beasts.
But Julian's fierce demeanour did not discourage Lily, who set about to remove the thorn from "The Lion's" paw.
Lord Ashton, looked down upon St. James's Street from the bow window at Whites. It was a damp, drear night, the street lamp on the corner casting a weak smudge of light into the thick fog. Having been shaded all day by a low balcony, the length of walkway opposite the exalted men's club was coated with a dingy slick of ice, making it necessary for passers-by to navigate their way with excruciating care.
Most of the people traversing the icy stretch were encumbered with packages and looked highly irritated by the inconvenience of either walking very slowly or falling down and losing everything they'd been struggling to hold on to—which included their dignity. Julian frequently could hear them cursing.
Ah, well. London in December was not especially conducive to lifting one's spirit, Julian concluded philosophically, trying to excuse his own stubborn melancholy, which hung on despite the many weeks that had passed since news of his nephew's death. He
would certainly not be in London at such a damnable time of year if he hadn't wished to help his sister while she attended to business with her solicitor—business necessitated by Peter's death and the resulting upheaval of estate matters.
The dismal scene outside changed a little. A young man and woman were actually laughing as they slipped and slid about on the cobbles. They were attempting to step into a hired hack without falling down. The attempt proved to be futile, the both of them landing on their rumps.
The couple's outburst of merriment at finding themselves in such an embarrassing predicament, and the way they clung to each other, must have caused the hack driver to think the pair to be deep in their cups, because the frowning fellow flicked his dapple grey's ear with a crack of his whip and drove on. But Julian could see that the couple weren't inebriated, rather it was a case of April and May. They were in love. Julian's upper lip curled slightly and he turned away.
Fixing his jaundiced gaze on the gold tassels and fringe of the burgundy drapes pulled back from the tall windows, Julian contemplated the evening before him. A game of whist, a few tosses of hazard, perhaps. And maybe later he'd visit Monique. He'd not paid her a call for several days and he'd no doubt she'd be all in a pucker by now. French mistresses were famous for pouting when neglected and Monique played her part to the hilt.
Julian's gaze drifted back to the window and the view of the couple sprawled on the flagged walkway. He was helping her up now, shaking her skirt free of the grainy bits of frost that clung to it. She was straightening her fur-trimmed bonnet, smiling at her companion in the most intimate way....
* * *
ROSBY, THE HEAD BUTLER
at Whites, had been standing at a respectful but noticeable distance from Lord Ashton for some time. He'd cleared his throat twice, yet his lordship still had not glanced his way. The elegant viscount appeared to be deeply engrossed in some scene outside the window, and a wistful smile played about his lips. Crosby cleared his throat again and waited, his thoughts going back to five years earlier, when Lord Ashton had first appeared on the London scene. Next to Brummel and Prinny, Julian Winslow was probably the most recognized figure in Town.
There were a plethora of young men with titles of equal or greater antiquity and with larger fortunes, though his lordship's fortune was certainly worth a plum. But despite the fact that he'd rusticated in Hampshire till the advanced age of five-and-twenty, when Lord Ashton did choose to show his face in Society, the ton liked what they saw. He quickly became the most sought-after guest for every hostess who had pretension to social glory. If his golden, sun-streaked thatch of hair was glimpsed towering above the milling crowd at any given function, said function was immediately pronounced a smashing success.
Lord Ashton's good looks could probably account for some of this popularity, but there was much more about him that inspired people's interest. The fact was, his looks were unique—not at all in the common way—and his personality matched his appearance. His prodigious height, his exotic golden eyes, his eccentric, Samson-like refusal to shear his waving blond hair short of his collar, his splendid figure and impeccable taste in clothing, his graceful, athletic stride and his aloof, wary demeanor and fang-sharp wit had earned him the ton's awed admiration and the epithet "The Lion."
He had also an interesting past. Everyone knew that the viscount's succession to his father's title was through tragedy, that tragedy being the death of his two elder brothers—one a victim of murder, the other of war. And everyone knew that his lordship had, as the youngest son, been destined for the clergy, and had even been most unfashionably enthusiastic at the notion of becoming a vicar. He'd not have hired a snivelling curate for stipend a month to oversee his parish, but would have personally watched over his flock with a benevolent eye.
Such enthusiasm for such a profession kept Julian in Hampshire and away from the frivolities of London for some time. But at the death of his beloved brothers and after a period of mourning, he'd emerged from the countryside a changed man. He was as cynical and jaded as the next fellow—nay, he was worse! Embracing the vices of Town life with a vengeance, he'd sinned with such efficient regularity that Old Harry himself would have been proud.
However, it was said that his lordship was an honest, honourable man who did not hurt or take advantage of anyone. He only indulged his excesses and debauchery in the company of men and women who were as jaded as he. He was also said to be a devoted brother to his one remaining sibling, a widowed sister. It was rumoured that he'd taken quite badly the news of his nephew's death at Waterloo several months ago. But it was difficult to imagine the aloof viscount caring very much about anything.
However, watching his lordship now, Crosby could have sworn he perceived a tender longing in that celebrated cynical expression. For a moment, he saw Lord Ashton as the vicar he might have been, wearing his surplice on Sabbath day.
"Crosby! What is it?"
Ah, he'd finally been noticed, but by the gruff tone of his lordship's voice, his presence wasn't appreciated. Crosby straightened and attached his gaze to a point just left of Lord Ashton's ear. "There's a note for you, my lord, just come from Albemarle Street." Crosby stepped closer and extended the silver salver on which reposed a small sheet of folded parchment paper.
Lord Ashton's brows lowered as he took the paper and read the message written there. Crosby waited at a discreet distance lest his lordship might need him to fetch quill and ink-horn for a reply. But Lord Ashton's concentration remained fixed on the paper for several moments beyond which might be expected in order to read the short missive.
"My lord?" Crosby ventured. "Do you wish me to fetch you some writing materials? Is there anything I can do?"
Lord Ashton's gaze swept about the room in a distracted fashion, as if seeking to settle upon something pleasing and finding that it was an impossible task. Crosby caught his eye for a second and was stirred by the stricken expression he perceived there.
"No, there's nothing you can do, Crosby," was his level, emotionless reply. "Except perhaps fetch my coat and hat, if you please. I'll be leaving." Lord Ashton then turned his back to the butler and propped his shoulder against the window embrasure, once more staring out at the drear December night.
* * *
"He's alive, Julian! Peter's
Julian observed his elder sister with alarm and compassion. Her large blue eyes were brimmed with happy tears and her fading blond hair, grown so much greyer in the past few months, escaped her plain black cap in several places. When she'd summoned him from his club to her rented lodgings at Albemarle Street with a barely decipherable note claiming that she'd had a letter from Peter, Julian was filled with dread. And just as he'd feared, it seemed as though his grieving sister's fragile hold on reality had kicked over the traces at last. Apparently losing her husband and her only child within two years of each other was too much to bear.
"Winifred...Winny," he said soothingly, lifting his hands to grasp her thin shoulders. "You must know that's not true. Peter's gone. He was seen falling in battle. He died bravely, Winny, and you have every reason to be proud of your son. Had his father lived, Edward would have been proud, too. I know you loved Peter dearly, as did I, but you must accept—"
"You don't understand, Julian," Winifred interrupted, shrugging out of his gentle hold and beaming up at him with a smile that could light the cold, black night without. "It's true what I said in my note to you! I've a letter from him! He wrote to me! Come, I'll show you!"
Julian followed his sister from the entrance hall to the small parlour, his heavy black greatcoat and hat still in place. He held hope firmly in check as Winifred hurried to a satinwood table by the sofa, snatched up a sheet of thin writing paper and waved it in front of his longish and decidedly aristocratic nose. "Read it, dearest! It is from Peter. You know his handwriting. He's convalescing in a vicarage in a small town called Whitfield. He's been ill. He was unable to write till—"
Julian took the letter and examined the writing. Hope shook loose from his firm control and blossomed like the vibrant petals of spring's first flower. The writing was shaky, as if penned by a weak hand, but it
Peter's style! He thrust the letter back to his sister, saying in a voice brusque with emotion, "Hold this for me for just a moment while I take off my hat and coat, if you please! My temperature's shot up considerably since I entered this room."
Giggling like a schoolgirl, Winifred helped Julian out of his greatcoat and shallow-crowned beaver and tossed them to the butler. Flimwell caught the flying articles of clothing with considerable aplomb, and judging by the smile wreathing his usually grave and formal countenance, he didn't mind his mistress's lack of decorum in the least.
"Now, I'm going to sit down and go about this business in a calm manner," Julian stated carefully, inhaling a deep breath and easing his lanky frame down onto the sofa. His black jacket, breeches and waistcoat stood out starkly against the pale peach brocade of the couch, and also brought his shimmering aureate eyes into striking contrast. "I don't think I believe any of this, Winny. I dare not believe it." He dragged a slightly tremulous hand through his hair.
"You shall believe it all in a moment, little brother," Winifred assured him as she gleefully handed him the letter. Then she plopped down beside him and twined her small hands about his arm. "Read it aloud, Julian. I never tire of hearing those dear words! I've read it twice to the servants already, and thrice to Flimwell!"