Lord Lucifer by Jade Lee
Damn, damn, damn! The words sounded in Diana’s thoughts with every step she took away from her downstairs desk. Twelve years—twelve years!—she had worked night and day to gain respect from the people around her. She’d been a child when she’d taken over the reins of the household, and the staff had run roughshod over her. Her husband had been oblivious to the sleights handed her by everyone from the lowest maid and up through every single one of Oscar’s older and crueler children.
She hadn’t known how to manage anything, but by God, she’d learned. It had been the mother of her dearest school friend who had taught her that respect came from two things: money and a cool head. She had to gain control of the household finances and wield that money with calm, level-headed authority. No histrionics, no whining. Simple, implacable rules.
It sounded so easy, but learning to do it had been the most exacting lesson of her life. Her mother had taught her to wheedle and simper her way into what she wanted. But that only worked on society men. She’d stood firm against her husband when he complained that she’d upset the house by sacking the insolent housekeeper. She’d used the very same words with him that she had a few moments ago. “I am the mistress, am I not?” and “I control who comes and goes in my own household, do I not?”
Since she had not simpered or been tearful, he had bowed to her logic. He’d had no excuse to send her to her room for being too emotional. And in such a way, she’d gained control of her staff. They were obedient to her wishes, or they were fired, whether they were new hires or lifelong retainers pensioned off without a tear of regret.
That had been the first step, and it had taken two years for her to root out those servants who gave their allegiance to her stepdaughter Penelope, Lady Beddoe. The woman was a vicious shrew with nothing better to do than to make sure Diana felt small as all her plans turned to ash.
It had taken several more years of strict, unemotional management before her husband sought her advice on how to handle his increasingly wild heir, Geoffrey. Even then, he’d asked her advice out of desperation. If he’d listened to her then, she wouldn’t be in her current situation, but—ironically—her husband had been too tenderhearted in his dealings with Geoffrey to ever get him under control. Then just last year, her coup de grace.
With Oscar’s health failing and Geoffrey’s debts becoming an embarrassment, Oscar had allowed her to write his letters for him, most specifically his instructions to his man of affairs. And if either man questioned her directives, she had a well-reasoned answer that forced them to bow to her dictates. The most important one had been that Geoffrey’s allowance flowed at her husband’s command. And she, of course, managed what he commanded because she was the one who wrote the letters.
After twelve years of thwarting her at every turn, she had indeed become exactly what Oscar’s children feared: a managing woman. And she was very good at it.
Until today. Until Lucas Crosse, the future Earl of Wolvesmead, had stepped into her husband’s sickroom and brought back feelings long since buried.
He was the one man who had ever tempted her to folly, the one man who had made her good sense scatter. And then he had failed her. Not only failed to marry her but failed to even stand by her side when she was most alone. A young bride of seventeen married to a man three times her age. She needed a friend, and he had been nowhere to be found. She’d shoved him out of her thoughts until today when he’d marched in with a cocky smile and a scar to make him dashing. She wasn’t a girl to have her head turned by a handsome man, and she certainly had the experience to know that he could not swoop in and save her from anything.
And yet how her heart had twisted when she realized his identity. How she’d longed to collapse into his arms. Ridiculous! She’d spent the last twelve years refusing to collapse for any reason at all.
It infuriated her because he clouded her thinking. All she could think about was to get rid of him, to keep him away from her because he upset everything about her life. He upset her very calm, implacable will, and that was a sin she could not afford.
It was his fault, and she damned him for it even as she reached for the chair of her dressing table with an unsteady hand. She stared at her reflection in the mirror. She had no thoughts except for a silent wrench inside her. It hurt to breathe, so she barely inhaled. And she felt so alone sitting in her bedroom. Through the connecting door, she heard her elderly husband cough. It was a dry sound, ineffective and weak. She would have to kiss him on his mouth soon. She would have to stroke his fine wisps of hair and pretend that she adored him.
Part of her did love him. They had been together twelve years, and he had been kind at times, certainly affectionate, and never brutal. She had found peace in that. In truth, it had been many years since she screamed into a pillow that she hated him, hated his children, and hated everything about her existence.
Was that because she had accepted her fate? Or gotten too tired to scream?
A knock sounded at her bedroom door. She blinked, wondering how long she had been sitting here.
“Enter,” she said, but the word had no sound. She had to clear her throat and then repeat the word. “Enter.”
“Simpson said I could come up,” her half-sister, Lilah, said. “I hope I’m not intruding.”
“Of course not,” Diana said, and she meant it.
Her sister was a bastard only by a quirk of fate. In all other respects, she was the best of them. Her mother was irresponsible, her brother was exceptional, but only in the last few years. It helped that he met and married a wonderful woman named Amber. Gwen cared nothing for life except her books, but Lilah was kind and generous. Her smile had a flaw in one tooth that had come in twisted and pushed slightly forward. It gave an uneven look to her mouth that made her all the more endearing. Her hair was a golden blonde with soft curls ruthlessly suppressed. And when she spoke, she used tones so gentle that, at times, Diana had found her annoyingly deferential. Today, she found her sister to be the only person she could tolerate. “I need someone to take me out of my melancholy.”
Lilah shut the door behind her. “You don’t look melancholy as much as…” Her voice trailed off. It was a trick she often used as she let others fill in the blank, and it worked very well on Diana sometimes.
“It is merely melancholy,” she said. Then she glanced at the connecting door. “Oscar is better today, but there is no escaping the inevitable.”
Lilah nodded as she sat down on the edge of Diana’s bed. “Your feelings are natural. Is there anything I can do to help?”
And there was the question Lilah always asked—if she could help. She twisted in her seat and felt a wave of gratitude for her youngest sister. “There is nothing to do except tell me why you are here.”
Her sister shrugged. “Mama wants to know if Amber is pregnant. She thinks you know.”
“Me? Why would I know?”
Lilah chuckled. “Because I have no idea and certainly won’t ask.”
“You can tell Mama that the two are blissfully happy together. And given the way they look at one another, I imagine she will become a grandmother soon enough.”
“That’s almost exactly what I said, but Mama is—”
“Impatient? Demanding? Tired of meddling in Gwen’s life?”
“All of that and more,” Lilah responded. “But she also loves us deeply. She doesn’t want Amber and Elliott to make babies too soon. She wants them to enjoy their time now before things get more complicated later.” She raised her hands in defeat. “She wants to suggest that you speak to Amber. She believes you know about ways of prevention.”
Prevention? She did know, but she would never presume to suggest to a married couple what might be good or bad for their marriage. “That is something Elliott and Amber must decide for themselves.” She shook her head. “And Mama must accept that her children can decide these things without her interference.” Then she paused as she looked at her sister. Lilah would never presume to say something so blunt to Mama. She was the epitome of self-effacing kindness. “I’ll speak with her,” Diana finally said.
Lilah’s expression softened with relief. “Thank you.”
Diana smiled. She was happy to help. But as much as she enjoyed seeing her brother ecstatically happy, she couldn’t deny a twinge of jealousy. He was a titled man of means. He could afford to find and marry a woman he loved. She, on the other hand, was a woman who had been sacrificed so he could have time to grow up. It wasn’t fair, but she’d grown past the resentment. Or she had until Lucas brought everything back.
But rather than return to those thoughts, she focused on her sister. “Tell me something exciting. What have you been doing these days?”
Her sister released a laugh. “There is nothing exciting in my days. Mama wants me to get Gwen outside to someplace other than the lending library.”
“You should go to a party. Both of you. Something fun.”
Lilah leaned forward. “I will if you will.”
Diana shook her head. “My place is here beside my husband.”
“Your place was there on the day of your wedding. And now your place is to oversee his household and his care—”
“But it is not to hide away.” She took a breath and dared touch Diana’s hand. It was a bold move for her, but one that was deeply appreciated. “You will need to wrap yourself in crepe soon enough. When he dies, you will be locked away in mourning. Take a moment now to get out of this house just for an evening.” Then she shrugged. “And if we can force Gwen to accompany you, so much the better.”
It was a tempting idea, to be sure. Gwen was twenty-eight and needed to find a husband immediately. And if she could get Lilah out into society, then the woman might meet a man who was willing to overlook her illegitimate birth. Perhaps there could be happiness for her sisters.
“You said you wanted a way out of your melancholy,” Lilah coaxed. “Couldn’t this be the way?”
It wasn’t her melancholy she needed to escape, but Lucas, who had invaded her home and upset her equilibrium. Then the idea came to her.
She snapped her fingers in triumph. “A masquerade!” she said. That would give time for a gentleman to become intrigued with Lilah before her identity was revealed. Plus, they were known to be more forgiving with the invitations as members of the not-quite-proper ton came out to play.
But Lilah shook her head. “Gwen would never go to such a thing. She would find it too frivolous.”
“She finds people too frivolous. If we could dress up a book in trousers, then she might be interested.” Diana shook her head. “No, I have decided. The very next masquerade shall have all three of us in attendance. Tell Gwen I desperately need the frivolity.”
“You do need it.”
“And I will not have it unless both my sisters attend.”
Lilah frowned. “I might be able to convince her.” She sounded doubtful but willing to try.
“The harder part will be to keep Mama away. There can be no fun with her constant interfering.” And no chance that Lilah would be able to kick up her heels a bit. Mama was ever vigilant that Lilah did not put herself forward. In truth, Diana thought it cruel to give Lilah all the trappings of gentility but none of the possible futures. Sadly, that was the way with by-blows. If they were lucky, they were given a place in the household as an unpaid servant. It was a difficult life, but at least she was not on the street.
Then Diana had an idea. “I shall ask Mama to reside here for the evening in case Oscar needs something.”
Lilah’s eyes widened in horror. “Mama abhors a sickbed.”
“But I will remind her that it is her motherly duty to help every once in a while.” Her tone grew harder in memory. “Just as she told me over and over that it was my daughterly duty to marry Oscar.”
Lilah nodded. “Giving you one night away is the least she can do.”
“We have a pact then? The very next masquerade—”
“Will see three sisters attend. Yes.”
They even shook hands on the bargain.
Lucas smiled ashe loitered outside Diana’s bedroom door. Now that was a great idea.