From Award-Winning Australian author Cassandra Dean comes the second book in her delicious new Regency romance series, Lost Lords.
The girl he’s always loved
Oliver, Earl of Roxwaithe, has always regarded Lady Lydia Torrence as a sibling even as she’d declared one day they would wed. Fourteen years her elder, Oliver was convinced Lydia felt only a crush and when she inevitably declared her love, he had to refuse. After she left for the Continent, he told himself he didn’t miss her, that she had always been too young, and if perhaps he’d noticed she had become a woman, that was best left unsaid.
The man she’s always adored
Lydia had always known she loved Oliver and he loved her. Furious he would claim she was too young, she determined to take the Continent by storm, to hone her skills and become an expert in flirtation. Upon her return to London, she’d show him she was a fully-grown woman who knew what she wanted—and she wanted him.
~ Excerpt ~
Roxegate, London, England, July, 1819
He’d read the same sentence three times.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Oliver focused on the report before him and ignored the complaints of his stomach. He’d been at his desk since seven o’clock that morning, and he’d only just realised he’d missed lunch. Par for the course, really. His staff knew not to disturb him when the study door was shut and would no doubt deliver a larger dinner to make up for the shortfall, if he remembered to make his way to the dining room. Perhaps he should take a small break and ring for a footman to deliver a sandwich or some such, but from the corner of his eye he saw the towers of reports and papers his secretary had left this morning and discarded it as the wishful thinking it was.
Exhaling, he leant his head on the back of his chair and looked out the window, resolving to ignore his stomach. Outside it was murky and grey, but when was London not murky and grey? The murky afternoon would pass into a murky evening, and then turn to a murky morning. London was nothing if not consistent. The street lamp outside the window would soon be lit, and then carriages against cobblestones would rumble past as society travelled to their amusements for the evening.
He’d remain in his study and work, as he had most evenings for the past year and a half. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d attended a gathering of society, apart from the occasional dinner at Torrence House or with Wainwright and his lady. There was too much to do and there was little to tempt him to abandon it.
Without him realising, his gaze had strayed to the chair by the fireplace and the stack of books on the table beside it.
Jerking his gaze back where it belonged, Oliver leant over the report open on his desk. This one was from the steward of Waithe Hall, the usual quarterly report. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d been to Waithe Hall since becoming the earl but he’d not stayed there, instead staying at Bentley Close, the neighbouring estate owned by the Earl of Demartine. Waithe Hall held too many ghosts.
Exhaling steadily, he glanced at the report and his gaze snagged on an odd phrase. Frowning, he reread the passage. The villagers of Waithe Village were still reporting strange lights troubling Waithe Hall, and the report claimed wild stories rioted in its wake. The villagers spoke of ghosts and ghouls, with a particular favourite being the old legend of a housekeeper of Waithe Hall roaming in search of her lost keys. He remembered as children, Alexandra and Maxim would search the hall for her keys and—
He drew in his breath. A dull ache pained him at the thought of his lost brother.
Shaking himself, he closed the report. He’d mentioned this phenomenon to Lord Demartine last month, but the earl had dismissed the report as so much talk, citing the Hall’s history of ghost stories that always amounted to nothing.
His gaze again strayed to the chair opposite. Jerking his gaze away, he focussed on a report of the Roxwaithe shipping concern. They’d come close to losing another shipment on the passage around South Africa,
treacherous waters and pirates doing their utmost to inflict damage. Lord Demartine had been right in his advice, however. The employ of a master navigator and a host of security staff had taken care of both concerns. Lord Demartine often said to make money one had to spend money, and the adage had proved true once more.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, he exhaled. At least he had no parliamentary concerns. The summer session had ended the week previous, though he would remain in London through autumn and most of winter. Perhaps in the new year he would visit the Penzance estate. Lord and Lady Demartine were due to tour the Continent, and their children would more than likely remove to Bentley Close in the coming months. There would be nothing in London bar work, and he could do that by the sea as well as he could do it in the capital.
The door to his study opened. “I am not ready, Rajitha,” he said. “Come back in an hour.”
His head jerked up.
Instead of his secretary, a woman stood in the doorway. Light from the large windows in the entrance hall outlined her form and cast the rest of her in shadow. For a moment, for half a second, his heart beat faster and an inexplicable joy crashed through him. Then she stepped forward.
She wasn’t as tall, and her hair was blonde instead of a reddish kind of gold. Her dress was a sensible shade of cream, and she wore a mint green spencer, the short jacket suggesting she had traversed the street between their houses rather than clamber through their shared attic.
It wasn’t disappointment he felt. Of course it wouldn’t be her.
Standing, he greeted Lydia’s sister. “Lady Alexandra.”
“Lord Roxwaithe.” At his gesture, Alexandra seated herself in the chair before his.
“How are you?”
“I am well.” This was odd. He couldn’t recall Alexandra had ever entered his study, unlike Lydia, who had burst through the door more times than he could possibly recall. “And you? Your family?”
“I and they are well. My mother asks after you and invites you to dine with us Wednesday next.”
“I should be delighted to attend.” It was a strange circumstance with Alexandra. He’d know her since her birth but she always brought to mind his brother. As children, she and Maxim had been joined at the hip and no matter the years that had passed since his death, the sight of Alexandra Torrence brought a deluge of memories and with them, a wave of grief.
“Will it be family only?”
She nodded. “Though my middle brother is still on tour. George is still in Prague. We receive letters from him on occasion, and always filled with the most excruciating details. Apparently, he has discovered a history of grotesquery in an abandoned medical clinic outside Karlin.”
Oliver concealed a smile. The Torrences had always had odd interests and George, true to their nature, was obsessed with the medical and sought out grotesqueries across the Continent. “How many clinics is that now?”
“Four.” Her lips twisted ruefully. “One would almost believe my brother to be searching them out rather than educating himself on history and art.”
“And your other brothers?”
“They are both well. Preparations for Harry’s wedding proceed, and Michael is doing well at Eton.”
“I am glad to hear it.”
She smiled. Silence fell between them. The fire crackled, and in the distance he could hear the movements of his staff as they went about their duties outside the study.
“My sister is also well,” Alexandra finally said.
He told himself his interest in Lydia was no different than any other who was acquainted with her. “Is she?”
“Since her return from the Continent, she has cut a broad swathe through the Ton. Papa has had to wade through all the gentlemen wishing to court her.”
Dull pain lodged in his chest as he made a noncommittal noise. He was too young for heart problems. Maybe it was because he hadn’t eaten.
He knew Lydia had returned. Three months ago. She’d toured Paris, Venice, and Vienna for a year and a half, and he’d braced himself for seeing her for the first time since her eighteenth birthday ball. He’d needn’t have bothered as it had been, by anyone’s reckoning, anticlimactic. He’d attended a family dinner at Torrence House, and his palms had sweated and his heart had raced, but when she had spied him, her gaze had slid over him with a polite smile as if there were nothing between them. As if she hadn’t said she’d loved him. In the months since her return, she’d spoken all of four words to him, and only then after he’d welcomed her home. Thank you, Lord Roxwaithe.
“She’ll be at the Fanning ball tonight,” Alexandra said.
His hands curled into fists. “Along with most of London,” he said as indifferently as he could. “Forgive me, Lady Alexandra, but what brings you to Roxegate?”
Sitting back in her chair, she asked, “I cannot visit an old family friend?”
“You have not done so before,” he said bluntly. “How can I assist you?”
She bit her lip. “My father told me of a report. From Waithe Hall.”
Of course. The Torrences had peculiar interests. Her brother was interested in medical grotesquery, her sister in tying men in knots, and Alexandra Torrence was interested in the occult.
“Father won’t expand upon it, but you will, won’t you, Roxwaithe?” She looked at him beseechingly.
He didn’t know how to respond. At more than one house party, Alexandra searched its rooms and halls for evidence of ghostly visitation. Lord Demartine spoke with pride of the lexicon Alexandra had gathered, and encouraged his eldest daughter in her pursuits. The Torrences were, as he said, uniformly odd.
They were, however, his family. He and Stephen had leaned heavily on the Torrences when Maxim had died, and when he’d become the earl, Lord Demartine’s council had steered him from disaster too often to count. It was strange Lord Demartine did not wish to encourage Alexandra in this particular pursuit, but he would not go against the Marquis’s wishes. “I am sorry, Lady Alexandra,” he said quietly.
“It is only it is such an interesting circumstance, and I have a personal connection to Waithe Hall. I already know all the tales and….”
“Waithe Hall is closed, Alexandra. No doubt it is simply the villagers’ imaginations.”
“No doubt,” she echoed. “You will tell me, though, should there be any more reports?”
“I will discuss them with your father, and relay to him any necessary impact to Bentley Close.”
“That’s not what I—” She sighed. “Thank you, Roxwaithe.” Getting to her feet, she gave him a small smile. “I shall trouble you no further and leave you to your work.”
Hastily, he rose. “It was no trouble.”
She gave another smile and turned to leave.
Unable to stop himself, he said, “Your family are to the Fanning ball tonight?”
She paused, clearly surprised. He didn’t blame her. “Yes. Will we see you there, my lord?”
Of course he wouldn’t attend. He never attended balls anymore. “Yes,” he said, surprising even himself.
A frown troubled her brow briefly. “I hope you will seek me out.”
Remembering his manners, he said, “And that you shall save me a dance.”
“Of course. No need to see me out,” she said as he stepped from behind his desk.
He hovered awkwardly. “But—”
“We are practically family.”
They were. Lord Demartine was more of a father to him than his ever had been.
“Good day, my lord.” Alexandra left, closing the door quietly behind her.
Slowly, he lowered himself into his chair. He never went to balls anymore. Hell, had he even responded to the invitation?
He rang for his secretary and Rajitha was, as always, prompt in his response. “Yes, my lord?”
“Rajitha, did I respond to the Fanning invite?”
It took Rajitha but a moment to respond. “No, my lord.”
“In that case, do so now in the affirmative and extend my apologies to Lady Fanning for the lateness of my reply.”
“Yes, my lord. Do you require anything further?”
“Not at the moment. Thank you, Rajitha.”
The secretary offered a short bow and departed.
Leaning back in his chair, Oliver stared again out the window. Why he’d agreed to go to the ball baffled him. He’d been to a handful of gatherings in the last year, and none in the past three months. He had been busy, and he hadn’t wanted to make things awkward for her. For Lydia. After the dinner where she’d ignored him, he’d barely seen her, mostly by design. She clearly had no wish to renew their friendship and he had no desire to force his presence where it wasn’t wanted. She’d obviously realised her actions on her eighteenth birthday had been a mistake and if her determined pursuit of other men was any indication, she had realised all she had felt was a crush. Theirs had always been an unusual friendship, and it was always a given she would grow out of it. It was for the best, really. No doubt one day soon he would be holding the invitation to her wedding.
Belatedly, he looked down at his fist. How odd. The paper within it was crushed. Methodically, he smoothed the paper, making it line up with the others on his desk.
The ball tonight could be interesting. Perhaps he should start the search for a bride. Lydia was cutting a swathe through the ton, perhaps he could do the same. He would be thirty-five on his next birthday and though he had Stephen as his heir, his brother also had yet to marry and set up his nursery.
He stared down at the creased paper. It would be fine to see her tonight. Maybe they would even share a dance and, maybe, they would again be friends. Maybe she would tell him of her adventures, and she would laugh and tease him as she always had, and things would be…normal.
Shaking himself, he turned back to his work. Maybe was a dangerous word. Maybe was hope and desire, and could lead to disappointment as much as anything. He would attend the ball and maybe, if he was lucky, it would be unremarkable.
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