Lord Lucifer by Jade Lee

Chapter Three

Lucas trailed through the house behind Diana. His eyes drank her in as he watched how she moved, how her shoulders were stiff, and her chin held high. And though he walked behind her, he replayed the way she had deferred to her husband and yet still commanded the bedroom. When she said she was the queen, he believed her. The girl in his memory had grown up to be a woman worthy of reverence and protection.

Which was now his job, and he couldn’t suppress the lump of joy that he could finally—after twelve years of regrets—be of service to the goddess he had failed so long ago.

He kept pace with her as she descended through the house until he came to the housekeeper’s room. As they went, he watched all the servants—even the butler—follow her movements with steady, sympathetic gazes. That told him that she was a fair queen who had made good choices in those who served her. But it wasn’t until they stepped into the kitchen that he realized the depth of their devotion to her. Everyone greeted her with a gift. The kitchen-maid held out an apron to her, the cook pressed a scone into her hand, and even the butler set a teapot down just as she entered the housekeeper’s room. She smiled graciously at every one of them, thanked them, and then sat down in her chair before pouring herself some tea.

All without saying a word to him. In truth, he felt like he was about to get a dressing down from a superior officer. And so he stood at attention while he waited, his gaze taking in everything about him.

First and foremost, he thought it was odd that she chose to speak with him from the housekeeper’s room belowstairs. Wouldn’t the female head of the staff be upset by the mistress taking over her place of work? But as he glanced at the papers on the desk, he realized all were written in Diana’s neat hand. So, Diana had taken over the housekeeper’s duties, probably as a way to economize.

Next, he noticed all the touches of a well-used office. Paper and ink were placed at easy use, and there were the inevitable stains on the dark wood desk. There was a tiny vase for a few spring flowers set on the windowsill. He recalled that she liked wildflowers and—at sixteen—had often woven them into her hair or clothing. But most importantly, he saw that she reclined at ease in this place. A mistress should not be one of the servants, and yet here she was as relaxed as if this were the lady’s parlor.

“You should not work as a housekeeper here,” he murmured. The words were spoken low such as to not be overheard. “It demeans your station and upsets the servants. They deserve a place to be at ease, and they cannot do it with you here.”

Her eyes shot up to his. “You are dismissed, Mr. Lucifer. I shall inform my brother that your services are not needed here.”

Dismissed? Good lord, she thought he was here as a true hire and not because she desperately needed some protection. He leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. “So, Elliott was wrong? He didn’t witness your stepson assaulting you? And stealing silver from the house?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Just who are you to Elliott?”

He took a moment to absorb her words. Could it be that she didn’t recognize him? It wasn’t possible! But of course, it was. Just because he’d thought of her every day and night since he’d abandoned her on her wedding day didn’t mean that he figured so prominently in her thoughts. It had been twelve years, after all, and yet the blow was so deep as to make his breath catch.

“Answer me, Mr. Lucifer!” she snapped. Then she rolled her eyes. “My God, that is a ridiculous name, and I will not use it.”

Her outrage gave him enough time to recover his breath. But when he spoke, it was with an extra measure of coldness. “I will answer when you do, my lady,” he said. “Did your stepson steal the silver?”

She blew out a breath. “You know he did.” She glanced past his shoulder, through the open door, to where most of the staff loitered within earshot. “I paid off his debts and told him there would be no more quarterly money until after I was repaid. I’m afraid he misunderstood and came looking for his allowance.”

He frowned. “You paid off his debts? To whom?”

“His debts,” she snapped. “To his landlord, his valet, and even his club. All paid.”

“But not his gambling debts.”

She shook her head. “Those are his own affair.” She snorted. “And he would not suffer the humiliation of having a woman dispense the money.”

Of course not. Pride was one of Geoffrey’s biggest downfalls. “And so he assaulted you in anger and to make you pay him.” The words burned his throat as he said them. The idea of that blighter laying hands on Diana was the only reason he’d come out of hiding.

Diana did not deny it, which made him see red. But he kept it under control even as she tried to turn the tables on him. “I have answered your questions, now answer mine. Who are you to Elliott that he would put you in my household?”

He swallowed, still hurt by her blindness. “Do you not recognize me, Diana? I thought you of all people would remember me.”

He watched her eyes widen at his softer tone. Did she recognize his voice? Or perhaps the way he said her name. But just in case, he made it clear.

“I came back,” he said. “On the day you married. I came back—”

“Stop!” She turned her head away, but not before he’d seen the glisten of tears on her lashes. “Stop,” she repeated again. “That day is long gone. I have ceased thinking of it.”

“I haven’t,” he said. “I joined the army that very day. I couldn’t face that I had failed you.”

Her hand jerked sideways as if she were shooing away his words. “It was an impossible task. Three thousand pounds in a single night. No one could—”

“I did.”

Her head jerked upward at that, but she didn’t speak.

“I got all the money, but only by turning everyone I met into an enemy. I played deep and well, but it was not enough. I tricked friends and enemies alike to get the rest. I lost my honor that night, but I counted you worth the cost.”

“Lucas,” she whispered, his name voiced with anguish, but it still warmed him to hear her say his name aloud.

“So much money, but I could not have done it again. And three thousand was not enough to support you for the rest of our lives. I certainly couldn’t have protected you when those who lost everything to me came looking for my hide.”

Her breath caught. “You were beaten?”

“I would have been if I’d remained in London.”

“So, you joined the army.” She sounded as if she couldn’t credit the thought.

“I did,” he said firmly. “I had to flee. And you…” He swallowed and ducked his head.

“I was married.”

He forced himself to meet her gaze and say the one thing he’d been waiting to voice for twelve long years. “I’m sorry, Diana. I failed you.”

Her expression softened, and her voice came out with a resigned note. “It is done, Lucas. We were both fools to think it possible.”

He couldn’t disagree. Indeed, he looked back and wondered at his own idiocy. He’d believed that love would make it possible. Only a fool believed that love was enough. “I regret so much about that night.”

She snorted. “Might as well regret the rain. Only children believe that prayers will change the weather.” She pushed to her feet. “Nevertheless, I thank you. It is good to see you again, Lucas.” She extended her hand for his kiss. “Next time you visit, I shall greet you in the front parlor. A man of your station should not be down here among the servants.”

His station? It was below hers. He had yet to inherit his title, and she was already Lady Dunnamore. In fact, at the moment, he was presumed dead, so he had no station at all. He meant to ignore her outstretched hand. Whether she knew it or not, he wasn’t going anywhere. But he couldn’t resist touching her again, even in so small a way.

He took her hand, but instead of lifting it to his lips, he held her fast in his good hand while his bad one stroked across her skin. He felt her delicate bones and gloried in the warmth of her fingers. He felt her soft skin and wished for the millionth time that things had been different for them both.

And he had the pleasure of seeing her flustered, as if she were a girl of sixteen again, touched so innocently by her beau. Her cheeks heated, and she tried to tug her hand free. He didn’t release it, and she wouldn’t be so unseemly as to tussle with him.

“Lucas—” she said in a low undertone. “Release me!”

He didn’t. “Geoffrey will come back. Surely you see that. He is deep in debt, and his creditors are not kind men.”

“How do you know this?”

“I have been working at a place where such things are easily known.” He saw her eyes widen again and rushed to reassure her. “It’s not a brothel,” he said, though, in truth, there were girls, and what they did abovestairs was exactly what one would guess. “I work in a gambling den. That’s where Gus is from as well as a few others. They’re trustworthy and will protect you well.”

She shook her head. “I am in no danger. There is nothing Geoffrey can do to force my hand. Once he realizes that, he will mend his ways. He will have no choice.”

She was so innocent and had no understanding of what a man would do when his back was against a wall. And he had no wish to disillusion her. Especially since he had no need to.

“You may be right,” he said pleasantly. “But I have promised Elliott to protect you, and so I shall.”

“But—”

“I will keep one promise to your family, Diana. Do not think to stop me.”

He let her see he would not be moved on this. He held his ground, he looked her in the eyes, and he kept her hand trapped between his larger palms. Once she saw that he would not bend, she would give in gracefully. Such was the natural order of things.

That’s what he believed until she abruptly whipped her hand from his, then looked past his shoulder. “Simpson, please see to Mr. Lucifer’s departure. Egeus will go as well.”

“What! Diana, don’t be ridiculous—” he began but stopped at her cold, hard stare.

Meanwhile, the butler stepped into the room, his expression anxious. He was older, thinner, and clearly no match for Lucas, but that wasn’t the point. He could no more fight this man than he would his own grandfather.

“This is Simpson,” Diana said before Lucas could do more than assess his opponent. “He has a wife, three children, and a grandchild soon to arrive. I depend on him in countless ways, and it would grieve me to no end to lose him even for so much as an hour to an injury. And that is nothing compared to how his wife and pregnant daughter would fare should he be laid low.”

Simpson dipped his chin slightly. “My lady is too kind.”

She was being nothing of the sort. She was using Lucas’s tender feelings against him. Telling him in clear terms that should he harm Simpson in any way, he would be harming her. And that was something he would not do.

“I would never dream of hurting Mr. Simpson,” he said. “I am here to help him coordinate some very large footmen who will see that nothing untoward happens to my lady. And that is something that your brother, your husband, myself, and Mr. Simpson all feel is of value. Is that not true, Simpson?”

The butler blushed a little as he turned rheumy eyes to Diana. “I do find that—at my age—having a few extra strong footmen about makes my tasks easier. And you did just yesterday suggest that I should take a bit more rest when I can.”

Excellent. That put the butler firmly in his camp. Now Diana would give in gracefully.

“Mr. Simpson,” she snapped. “We can handle things quite well—”

“But as you said,” Simpson interrupted, “I should rest more. And I fear your brother would take insult if we refused his generous aid.”

Diana stared at her butler for a long moment. When she spoke, it was quietly and with a queen’s command. “I am the mistress here, am I not?”

“Indubitably,” Simpson answered.

“I control who is allowed in my house and who is not.”

It wasn’t phrased as a question, but Simpson answered, nonetheless. “Of course, my lady.”

“Then I say—”

Lucas spoke up before she could make a declaration she would regret. “How many bruises did Mr. Geoffrey Hough leave on your skin?”

Diana’s head snapped up, and she spoke low and angry. “You go too far.”

He hadn’t gone far enough. “What has he threatened to do to you? Does he stop at a simple beating? Or does he insinuate far worse?”

He saw a flash of fear in her eyes, but she quickly covered it. That told him all he needed to know about the vile things her stepson had said to her. He let the moment hang not so he could draw breath but to control the surge of rage boiling through his body.

“Empty threats,” she said. “He would not dare carry them out.”

None of that was true. Geoffrey would indeed carry out his threats, and her very pale skin told him she suspected she was being naïve. Which meant he had to force her to admit her vulnerability, not only for her own sake but for everyone else’s.

“If something were to happen to you,” he asked, “what would become of the servants here? Of your husband? Will your stepson treat them well? Or will he corner the maids in the library? He has certainly done depraved things at the Lyon’s Den. How will you keep Simpson safe from an empty bottle thrown at his head? Geoffrey put a three-inch gash in Egeus’s forehead seven months ago at the Den. That is why Egeus was the first to volunteer for his duties here.” He straightened to his full height. “Refuse my aid if you must, but who will protect your servants? Pride is not reserved just for feckless heirs. I understand that even a mistress of her own home can suffer from the same affliction.”

She stiffened at the insult. “It is not pride that makes me want you gone.”

He arched his brows in challenge. “No? Then why?”

Her next words cut deeper than anything else she could have said. “Because I do not know you, sir. And I am not accustomed to allowing men I do not know into my home, no matter what promises they or my brother make.”

That hurt. Never—not even when they were teenagers—had she spoken to anyone with that imperious tone. It clogged his throat with surprising pain, but he still got his words out.

“You do know me,” he said.

She sucked in a breath. “No—”

“You know that I failed you once, Diana. Which is why I will not fail you again. I swear it.”

She shook her head, and her eyes shone brightly. “I put no faith in the promises of men.”

Simpson straightened in shock. “My lady!”

“Diana, you are being illogical—”

“Enough!” she snapped as she slashed her hand through the air. He watched her gather her dignity in the way she straightened her spine and lifted her chin. She looked at Simpson first, and his cheeks burned red at her hard regard.

“My lady—” he began, pain in his tone.

“You want him here?” she asked.

He swallowed and nodded. “I think it best.”

She did not look at Lucas. “Then you will be sure that I never cross paths with him inside this house. Fill my home to the rafters with his large men, but I will not set eyes on Mr. Lucifer again.” She coated his name with disdain. “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, my lady.”

Then she swept between them, her skirts nearly trapping his ankles as she moved through, only to release him with the force of a whip letting go. She had every right to hate him. Twelve years ago, he had failed her. But in all his daydreams of how they might meet again, never had he expected this. That the very sight of him would fill her with fury.

Except it hadn’t at first. Her eyes had softened and… And she had tried to boot him from her home. And while he was thinking about that, Simpson blew out a slow breath.

“It shouldn’t be too difficult to keep you two apart. If your men—”

“I’m afraid I’m about to disappoint her ladyship again.”

“What?”

“I have no intention of staying apart from her.” He hadn’t even realized he meant the words until he’d spoken them. So much had changed for them both in twelve years. And yet, the drive to be by her side hadn’t lessened one jot. He’d suppressed it for twelve long years, but now, after seeing her again, he could not abandon her again. Not even if she brought in the royal guard to throw him into the street.

“I have promised to protect her, Simpson. That means I will be at her side every minute of every day until that blighter is gone from England.”

Simpson was quiet for a long moment, then he pursed his lips. “She won’t like that, my lord. And though she might not look like much, she can fight in unexpected ways.”

In that respect, they were well and truly matched.