Authors: Samantha Holt
Tempting His Mistress
Copyright 2014 ©Samantha Holt
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organisations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Table of Contents
Hampshire, England 1869
Lilly had to resist the urge to swipe her clammy palms down her gown. Today she would come face to face with her father’s murderer—Lord Hawksley, Marquess of Hawksley. Even now, her heart throbbed against her bodice. What would he look like? Sinister? Depraved? Ugly, no doubt, to match his ugly soul. Revenge and greed must have twisted the man to sink to such lows as to hire someone to kill her father.
“You remind me of your mother,” Lady Stanley said on a sigh, a smile teasing her lips.
Her imaginings vanished and she turned her attention back to her hostess. Feathers bobbed in her hair, and her austere blue gown matched the shade of the wallpaper. Yet Lady Stanley could never be accused of being a wallflower. Even at the age of sixty-eight, she exuded elegance, and vitality shone from her.
Lilly eyed the older woman and noted the twinkle in her grey eyes. “Because I look like her?” she asked innocently.
Lady Stanley arched an eyebrow. “Because you are as stubborn as a mule.”
Lily smothered a laugh with an inelegant snort. Indeed her mother had been a wilful character in her time. She had long suspected it was one of the reasons her father loved her so dearly.
“You have been refusing my invitations for far too long. You should not have had to mourn for your father alone.”
“Violet,” the grey-haired woman corrected.
“Violet, it has only been eleven months—that is not a lifetime. I came to you no less than a month before Papa’s death, did I not?”
“Indeed you did, but you would have been far better mourning him with someone who cares for you. I shudder to think of you all alone in that house.”
“Well you mustn’t fear for me.” She leaned over and rested a hand on Violet’s bony fingers. “I like my solitude and I’m well used to it.” Though she feared it would come to an end soon enough. Her cousin, heir to her father’s fortune and current guardian of her home, had made plenty of noises about needing to rent it out. Which left her, well, homeless.
Lilly glanced around the drawing room. The old fashioned décor was not to her taste. A few new pieces—a Hepplewhite chair and some Gillows furniture—adorned the room that hadn’t been redecorated in at least fifty years by her reckoning. Her mother’s house had recently been renovated in an oriental style. She loved the modern touch, but goodness knows what her mother would have thought of it.
“You take too much pride in your independence, Lilly,” Lady Stanley scolded.
“Should I be dependent on those who would rather not even look upon me?” Lilly asked, a brow arched.
“I would look upon you. Your mother was my dearest friend and as her daughter, you are as dear to me as she.”
“Yes, but you, Lady Stanley, are an exception. I shall not see the same warm welcome from your guests.”
Lilly’s mother had always credited Lady Stanley’s liberal views to her education in Italy. Lilly concluded that the continental lifestyle must be very liberal indeed for Lady Stanley to have remained friends with a woman shunned by society—and her illegitimate daughter.
“My guests will welcome you or they shall have me to deal with.”
Chuckling, Lilly smoothed down her lavender skirt and awaited a rebuke but none came. In spite of being ostracized by society, her mother insisted on impeccable manners.
Illegitimate or not
, she would remind her,
you are still the daughter of a lady.
She swallowed the lump that gathered in her throat. Though grateful to be out of her mourning wear, it only reminded her she was no closer to finding the man who’d killed her father.
“So will you tell me why, after all this time, you have finally taken up my invitation to stay?”
Reasons burned in her mind. To find a killer. To confront the man who had taken away a beloved father. She might be no more than a mistress’s daughter but her father had been a good and kind man. He loved her mother and he loved her. He did not deserve such an ending.
Instead of letting the words spill forth, Lilly smiled. “Because I’ve missed your vibrant company, Lady Stanley.”
Guilt curled in her stomach, restricting it further than any corset could. Lady Stanley had been a staunch supporter of her mother when her father had taken her as his mistress and given Lilly his name. Even after her mother’s death, Papa had ensured she was taken care of. Few people understood the love and devotion her parents had for each other, not even Lilly. Her mother was a stronger character than she, surely? If her mother’s heart broke every time her lover returned to his wife, she never showed it.
“I am glad to have your company, dear Lilly.”
Maybe she should confess she was here for one reason, but what if the lady tried to dissuade her? Lilly shook off the notion. To her mind it was always better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.
“Lord Hawksley and his companions should be here in a few hours. His hunting lodge is but four miles from here.”
“How fortunate you are to have him so close by,” Lilly replied.
“Violet,” she corrected again. “I recognise that tone. There is something snide in it. What on earth has Lord Hawksley done to offend you? I don’t recall you ever having met him.”
“Not a thing,” Lilly lied. “I am sure he is as charming as any other marquess I have met.”
All of whom dismissed me upon learning I was illegitimate,
she thought archly. But being well used to such behaviour, she seldom succumbed to self-pity. Once she turned five and twenty—only two short years away—the investment her father left in trust would be hers and she could command her own destiny. She needed no attention from a man.
In truth, a man would probably hinder her ambitions. Already, women’s rights were garnering more attention. With the opening of the first women’s college but a few years ago, Lilly anticipated that being a woman of independence in such a time could be a great thing indeed. Maybe if she invested wisely, she too could bring education to women or attention to ways the law was so unfavourable to wives.
“You would do well to be pleasant, Lilly. Lord Hawksley is an influential man. It would do you no harm to speak with him. Maybe you shall learn something. He is a little gruff at times, but I find him to be intelligent and well informed.”
Lilly eyed Lady Stanley. “I fear you are an optimist, my lady. Few people are as open and hopeful as you.”
“And you, my dear, are jaded for so young a person. Even your mother held onto hope. People can surprise you.”
“Mother held onto hope and love, but what did that bring her? A life of being hidden away.”
“Your mother had love.”
Lilly released a full snort this time. “Love? I know full well my mother and father were a love match and they had some happy moments but to become a mistress, to withdraw from society and risk such scorn…all for love? I do not think I could ever do such a thing.”
“Ah, but you have never experienced such love.”
“And I shall not. No man shall ever look at me and see anything other than the illegitimacy of my birth.” Lady Stanley opened her mouth to protest, but Lilly held up a hand. “Don’t fear, for I am quite content alone. I have plans to lead a full and busy life now that I am out of mourning.” And once she had confronted her father’s murderer and seen him brought to justice. “In the meantime, I shall enjoy your hospitality and I promise to be courteous to your guests.”
Clamping down on the nerves roiling in her stomach, Lilly offered Lady Stanley a shaky smile. She refused to do anything to embarrass her mother’s friend, but somehow she would find out what she needed to know about Lord Hawksley’s dealings with her father. One way or another, she would ensure he paid for killing her father.
“There you go, my lady.”
The maid finished threading blue flowers into the back of her hair and tugged several curls so they spilled down her neck and touched her cheeks.
“My thanks, Annette.”
Lilly put a hand to her chest and waited for the maid to leave before spritzing on some perfume. Jasmine infused the air and she took a deep breath, fingering the ruffles across the low neckline of her pale blue gown. To be free of mourning colours was a relief, for black and dark colours never suited her pale skin or light brown hair. She looked ill in such colours. But her heart panged with sorrow.
While at times she resented her parents’ love—the sacrifices her mother and herself had made so her father could have the best of both worlds, his wife and his mistress—Lilly acknowledged few children of mistresses would be as blessed with such a doting father. Lilly wanted for little—aside from more time with her father—and Charles Claremont had loved her dearly. An ache gathered in her throat and she curled a fist.
Voices carried up from the entrance hall and Lilly jolted, snatched her gloves and pushed back the chair. Lord Hawksley and his hunting party had arrived an hour ago while she had been getting ready.
She had peered past the heavy drapes to view him arriving in his town coach but had been unable to assess the three gentlemen properly as their top hats hid their features—though one was clearly older and more portly. Was that Lord Hawksley? She had heard he was only one and thirty. One of the younger gentlemen had glanced her way, raising his head to latch his gaze onto hers. Her stomach twisted, and she drew back behind the curtains to watch the rest of the party.
The two ladies—the marquess’s sister-in-law and an older woman of her acquaintance—were dressed in the highest fashions. While Lilly attempted to keep up with the fashions of the day, not daring to step foot in London meant she likely dressed like a country bumpkin to them.
Lily sighed. It was hard to keep up with the fashions when you spent all your time in the countryside. As much as she enjoyed the fresh air and beautiful scenery of Hampshire, she longed to experience the excitement of London or Bath.
She slipped on her gloves and placed a bracelet over the top. One day she would, she vowed. If she was to make progress in women’s rights, she would have to brave London and the scorn of those who believed her to be inferior because of her birth. Sadly, the daughter of a wealthy shipping merchant—even if claimed—would never be accepted. Lilly snorted to herself. If her father had owned a title of some kind, her chances of being accepted might have been much higher.
A prayer uttered, she smoothed her hands down her bodice, checked her reflection and stepped out of the room. She paused at the top of the stairs and heard voices in the saloon. Lady Stanley’s deep laugh echoed off the pillars, and Lilly smiled. Following the curve of the stairs, she paused at the sight of one of the men at the bottom—the man who had caught her observing them earlier. That unfamiliar flip flop of her belly almost caused her to stumble as he watched her descent.
Lilly forced a weak smile onto her lips and glanced around for Lady Stanley. Her laughter echoed again from the other room, and Lilly suppressed a grimace. Violet had never been one for formality in her home, particularly at evening dinners, but to be confronted by this man with no formal introduction was more than she could bear.
Particularly when the man in question eyed her through a dark gaze, mouth pulled thin.
His gaze stripped her of her determination. How was she to find out more about her father’s death with this man watching her like a hawk? When she reached the final step, he dipped his head in greeting. When he lifted his head to peer at her from under his brow, her heart skipped and threatened to escape her bodice.
“Miss Claremont, I presume?”
“Yes.” Her response came out breathy. The man towered over her, his shoulders emphasised by the exquisite cut of his dinner suit. She searched frantically for Lady Stanley but to no avail.
Still, he did not smile but interest flickered in those dark eyes, so brown they reminded her of the finest chocolates. “Allow me to introduce myself as our hostess seems to be somewhat engaged. Lord Hawksley at your service.”
Lilly didn’t even manage to smother her gasp of surprise. This was Lord Hawksley? Where was the depraved look in his eyes? His hooked nose and sickly countenance? This was not at all how she’d pictured the man who had ordered the killing of her father. His complexion spoke of a fair amount of time out of doors, and his nose was not the slightest bit hooked. It was straight and well… perfect. How unfair he should be so attractive.
“Miss Claremont, is something amiss?” he prompted.
His deep voice sent a delicious whorl of excitement into her belly. She felt her eyes widen as she tried to fight it. “Forgive me. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lord Hawksley.”
His lips remained as straight as an arrow, though they were firm and pleasant-looking even in such a severe position. Lilly dragged her gaze from them and met his stare. Heat rose in her cheeks but she held her ground. Was this really her father’s murderer? The coldness in his expression said yes, but something in his eyes—a spark of amusement or maybe even warmth—kept quashing that belief.
“Lady Stanley has told me much about you.”
“Indeed, my lord?” Her voice still refused to stay strong, as if his presence had sucked the air from her.
But was that not to be expected? Here was a cold-hearted killer who thought nothing of getting revenge for some money lost by sending out a hired assassin. Words swirled in her mind—bitter and angry. They sat on her tongue and begged to be spilled but she could not, not yet. She had no proof Lord Hawksley had hired the man who had beaten her father to death on a deserted street, nor did she wish to embarrass Lady Stanley. At the moment, she was relying on her cousin’s words alone that rumours of underhand behaviour followed the marquess. Being an outcast had its disadvantages when it came to keeping up with popular society. If she was to find out more, she needed to get closer to him.
“I fear I might be at a disadvantage,” she continued and suppressed a sigh of relief when her reedy tone grew stronger. “I know little of you, save that you are a good neighbour, my lord.”
“Then we shall be able to get better acquainted so as to redress the balance.” The tiniest smile lifted one corner of his lips.
The difference it created almost sent her reeling backwards. Lilly suspected if the man ever smiled fully, he must send every debutante swooning. Not she, of course. She had never been one to fall for the charms of the opposite sex. Few were interested in her once they learned of her inferior birth and any who persisted had little intention of offering her anything but further ruination.
But Lord Hawksley, with his dark, slightly curly hair, soulful eyes and broad shoulders had likely ruined many a woman with ease.
“I look forward to it, my lord,” she lied while her stomach bunched.
Lord Hawksley indicated to the saloon with a tilt of his head. “Shall we, Miss Claremont?”
Hatred, hot and burning, swirled in her gut while her common sense warned not to let it overcome her. She entered the saloon at his side while her mother’s incessant reminder to be better than her birth also repeated through her mind.
Just because society’s opinion of you is set, does not mean it cannot be changed. Do not live up to their expectations, Lilly,
her mother would say.
Her mother, the steadfast romantic, had always hoped good manners and Lilly’s pretty—if a little simple—looks would be enough to recommend her. Once she had the money her father left to her, she would be wealthy enough, so maybe some man might pay her attention, but she didn’t wish for someone interested only in her money, someone who felt he could ignore the status of her birth if induced by enough wealth.
Drawing in a breath, she kept a polite smile on her face as Lady Stanley approached. Had she been foolish in believing she could confront her father’s killer yet not expose herself and her friend? Lady Stanley didn’t deserve any kind of dramatic scenes. Lilly needed to hold her tongue until she had found out the truth behind Lord Hawksley’s dealings with her father and maybe wait until the two week long party at Oakholm Hall was over.
“Lord Hawksley, I see you have already met my dear friend, Miss Claremont. Her mother and I were the closest of friends and now she is almost a daughter to me.”
Lilly resisted the desire to roll her eyes. Guilt now extinguished the hatred. How could she humiliate Lady Stanley in any way? Any accusations would have to wait. She eyed the older woman whose lively green gaze matched the deep emerald of her gown and caught something. She reminded her of a mischievous child. Did the lady know something of her reason for coming here?
No, surely not. Only her cousin knew of the papers alluding to her father and Lord Hawksley’s dealings. Henry had been the one to alert her to the rumours surrounding the marquess and his dissatisfaction at her father losing a good deal of his money.
Lilly was introduced to the other members of the party. All treated her well, though she noted the cold mien in Lady Richdale’s gaze as she eyed Lilly’s dress. Her husband, who was also the marquess’s brother, was, however, charming and jovial. He had a similar dark colouring to his brother but his features were softer, more classically handsome, she supposed. The older man, Lord Brexley—a good friend of the marquess it seemed—was pleasant enough too, while Mrs Willis, a recently widowed lady, held no censure in her gaze.
“I hear you hold a place in the country,” Mrs Willis commented.
“Yes, some ten miles from here. Marshgate Lodge.”
“I do enjoy the country. I seldom visit it. My husband preferred London while I tired of society there.”
“The company is certainly more colourful in the country,” Lady Richdale remarked and her gaze skimmed Lilly’s dress once more.
With every one of the blonde hairs perfectly in place and a touch of light make-up, Lady Richdale made her feel unkempt and dowdy in her old dress.
Resisting the urge to pat her hair or smooth the taffeta, Lilly merely smiled. Lord Hawksley positioned himself not far from her elbow, and heat leapt across the gap. She stiffened to prevent herself from shuddering.
“The country has its benefits to be sure. Pleasing scenery for one.” His gaze landed on her but no hint as to whether he meant anything more than that he enjoyed the hills of Hampshire lingered in his expression.
“I have always preferred the country,” she declared. “The fresh air is known to be good for the health and when it’s home to people like Lady Stanley, you cannot go wrong.”
“How right you are, Miss Claremont,” Mrs Willis agreed. “If only my husband could have been persuaded to spend more time in the country, it would have vastly improved his health.”
Lord Hawksley shifted so that his arm brushed Lilly’s elbow. “Indeed, Miss Claremont shall likely outlive us all and live to be a hundred.”
The two women laughed while Lilly waited for the tingles racing down her arm to cease. Somehow she managed to keep the surprise from her face at such a sensation. “You suggest that I spend too much time in the country, my lord?”
“Do I? Maybe I do. It isn’t good for a person to spend so much time in one place. I believe variety to be better for one’s health than stagnating.”
“You think I am stagnant?” She lifted her brows. Holding her tongue was going to prove harder than she thought with such a man around.
That flicker of amusement was back, and this time it tugged both corners of his lips upward. “Not at all, Miss Claremont. You are far from stagnant, but it seems a shame to deprive London society of your company simply because you wish to outlive us all.”
Was he having a jest at her expense? Lily couldn’t work the man out. “I have sincere doubts, my lord, that anyone in London feels bereft of my company.”
The curve of his lips dropped, his eyes, if possible, appeared to darken. The room felt larger, and she much smaller. A prey for the hawk perhaps? Yes, this man very much suited his name. Like a predator, he loomed over her. A trickle of fear danced down her spine and mingled with the heat low in her belly.
“I cannot speak for London as a whole, but I’m certainly regretful we have not met sooner,” he said quietly.
Lilly glanced at the two other ladies, grateful to see their exchange had clearly bored them and they had moved onto other topics. Her cheeks scalded and were likely crimson. If the marquess’s expression was anything to go by, he had seen her embarrassment and shock. His gaze traced her features and lingered on her cheeks and lips.
Lilly opened her mouth, when the bell for dinner rang. Clamping it shut, she let out a long breath through her nose and turned to see Lady Stanley take the arm of the elderly earl. “You shall take myself and Mrs Willis in,” she announced.
Inwardly, Lilly cringed. She had secretly hoped to be left alone with the uneven numbers. Lord and Lady Richdale would go in to the dining room together, leaving her with Lord Hawksley.
“Shall we?” He offered his arm.
“Certainly.” Lilly laid her fingers over his arm and in spite of her lace gloves, the warmth of his skin somehow reached hers. She glanced at his large hands. The image of those capable-looking fingers on other parts of her flashed through her mind, and she released a squeak.