The Rake And The recluse : REDUX
This is the final chapter in The Rake And The Recluse : REDUX
Perry felt the tremble course Lilly’s spine as the carriage ground to a halt in front of Eildon Manor.
“The last time I arrived here it was as a servant.”
He almost didn’t hear the words, as softly as they were spoken. He pulled her closer and kissed her temple, nudging the curls aside with the tip of his nose. “You will never arrive as a servant anywhere again.”
She pressed her cheek into his, then trapped his face to hers with her palm against the other. He felt her breath in the rise and fall of her chest and moved both arms around her, pulling her into his strength, willing it to infuse her.
“I love you so, Perry, and I’ve survived much. But I’m not sure how I shall survive this.”
He laughed then was immediately repentant, knowing she spoke the truth. Gideon wasn’t merely possessive of his lands but of all those under his purview. He held each life as sacred, and when Lilly had been found injured he saw to it she had been cared for, then brought to his home for protection.
“We shall survive this together. Believe me, I know my brother. I’ll speak with him, and you will be family. You are family.”
“Name does not denote family,” she whispered, a chill coursed his spine as her lips moved against his jaw.
“Lilly. Sweet, precious, Lilly,” he groaned. “I know what you’re about, but we cannot return to the inn. We’ve a wedding to attend.”
She pushed him away and pouted. Her hands clasped in her lap. Perry returned her to his embrace and teased her mouth, willing her to submit—and she did, soon melting into his sturdy form.
The door opened and he turned to the footman as she straightened her skirts. He jumped down then lifted her from the carriage. As he placed her hand on his arm he guided her to the entry, searching for familiar faces among the workers who milled about.
“Miss Faversham!” he called as he crossed the threshold and spied the governess leading his charges toward the great staircase. “Miss Faversham, you are looking well. Ladies, it’s good to see you.” They curtseyed, and he nodded. “Miss Faversham, would you do me a great honor and allow my beautiful bride to accompany the three of you while I find my brother?”
Her eyes grew impossibly wide, and he watched warily as she glanced at Lilly. It wasn’t until Miss Faversham cleared her throat that he realized he was quite remiss. “I beg your pardon. Miss Faversham, might I present my wife, the Viscountess of Roxleigh, Lady Trumbull.”
Miss Faversham smiled and curtseyed. “So very lovely to meet you, my lady, and these are Lord Trumbull’s charges, Amelié and Maryse.” The girls curtseyed again and Miss Faversham lifted a hand. “Please do join us. We’re about to have a warm cup of chocolate in the family parlor while we wait for the ceremony to begin.”
Perry reluctantly relinquished Lilly’s hand to Miss Faversham, who squeezed it before smiling at him. “We’ll be fine, my lord. You know where to find us, and if you get caught up before the celebration, I’ll ensure she’s by my side until you’re available. Go on now. His Grace is in his suite getting ready.”
Perry nodded, placed a quick kiss on Lilly’s cheek, and vaulted up the stairs, heading straight for Gideon’s chambers. He stood outside the door and straightened his cravat. Smoothed his lapels. Checked his seams. His breath didn’t seem to want to calm, and his heartbeat increased to an inconsolable cadence. Apparently he didn’t believe his own words to Lilly. In fact, he was amazed he’d managed to keep her calm.
Placing his hand on the door latch, Perry was shocked to notice a slight tremor as he took a deep breath and pushed.
Ferry poked and prodded the cravat which was the brightest white Gideon had ever seen. He was quite worried the level of brightness below his chin might blind his guests. Or that Francine wouldn’t be able to see him at all above the glow. Ferry made one final adjustment then nearly smiled, and Gideon knew it was his best knot to date. He watched his valet turn to the rack behind him for his jacket and garter sash, something Gideon was looking forward to wearing, though he wasn’t quite sure why.
“Pulling out the crown jewels, are we, brother? Afraid Francine will turn you down if you don’t impress?”
Gideon turned and in two great strides met Perry at the center of the room. He paused, attempting to read his brother’s disposition, then took Perry’s face between his hands and kissed him on the cheek before pulling him into a fierce embrace.
Perry laughed, then smacked his back when he wouldn’t let go. “Good lord, Gideon, it has been naught but a fortnight.”
“Yet if feels much longer. I’ve missed you.”
“Well, I didn’t miss your unsightly face one bit. I imagined Francine was keeping you entirely too busy to wonder about me, regardless. Now unhand me.” He laughed.
Gideon took his brother by the shoulders, still reluctant to release him. He heard a grunt from across the room and turned to find Ferry scowling. Gideon’s hand went straight to the neck cloth. “Ferry, a moment.”
Ferry bowed stiffly and disappeared behind the fireplace.
“Come.” Gideon motioned to the chairs at the fireplace as he unraveled the rumpled cravat. “I cannot tell you what it means to me that you’ve returned. I haven’t heard from you in days, and there was no message with the railcar. They told me you had brought it up yourself. What did you think?”
“I…quite enjoyed the railcar, in fact. The accommodations were luxurious, appointments beautiful, and the ride was quite— Well.” Perry rubbed his thumb down his jaw and Gideon knew there was more. He sat back in the chair and crossed his ankles in front of him, waiting.
Perry appeared hale and whole, his hair a bit long, but there wasn’t much to be surprised about. His clothes were well suited to the occasion, he was not injured, his hand glinted in the sun— He was…he was married? Gideon caught the shine of the band on Perry’s finger and watched as the hand it belonged to slid next to Perry’s jaw. Back and forth.
“Married?” Gideon caught his brother’s eye. He thought back to the night in London when he’d told Perry about Francine. “Is that a marriage band?”
Perry froze then moved his hand, twisting the ring on his finger. “Gideon. Let me—”
Gideon raised his hands, spread them wide in invitation, and set about waiting…once again.
Perry smiled, and it was the most overwhelming smile Gideon had ever witnessed on his brother’s face. He knew. Gideon brought his hands together in his lap and fought to suppress his answering grin. And continued waiting.
“I understand. I understand completely why you did everything you did. I was wrong to speak in such a manner. I was wrong to accuse you, to berate you, to—”
Gideon waved his hand as if to wipe the slate clean. “Perry. Nobody in my life has been more supportive of me, or more correct in their assessment of my behavior. You were in the right to call me out. It was beneath me to act in such a way and it was demeaning to my Francine. I will not hear another word on it. We have already discussed this.” He leaned forward. “Who is she? Is she here? Do I know her?”
“You already know her, and yes, she’s here.” Perry stared at the ring on his finger.
“Out with it. Your nerves are unsettling.”
Perry looked up at him, clenching his fists on his knees.
“Her name is Lilly. Lilly Steele. Well, it was Lilly Steele.”
Perry was watching him closely, and for some reason the name resonated with Gideon. Lilly Steele. Lilly. Lady Steele? Miss Steele? Lilly. Oh, dear God—Lilly Steele of Kelso.
Gideon stood. “Lilly? Meggie’s Lilly? They told me she returned to her family. Why was she with you? She is one of my people, Peregrine.” He took a step forward. “What have you done? That girl…what was done to her… What have you done?” Gideon heard the echo of his words resound through the room and hoped his walls were sturdy enough to contain it.
Perry stood and reached out to his brother—whether to console him or stay his advance, he wasn’t sure. But he was quite sure he’d better start talking, and quickly. He put the chair between them. “Please listen to me, Gideon. I need you… I need you to hear me.”
Perry felt as though he were being weighed and measured, a prized animal being prepared for sale and slaughter: the benefit of every inch of him accounted for, the leftovers considered, the comparison between the good and the bad closely examined. He felt any sudden movement could be disastrous.
Perry paced before the fireplace, angling to keep Gideon in his perifery. A safe distance from his brother, with two chairs and a chaise now between them. “She was in my carriage when I quit Eildon that night. She heard us argue, and she stowed away. It wasn’t long before I found her. Once I saw her face, once I knew… There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t leave her stranded, and she refused to return to Eildon…”
Perry wove his tale and did his utmost to stay true to the story while protecting Lilly as best he could. He knew full well how intimate was her struggle to be free of her demons. Relating their history to Gideon was perhaps the most difficult thing he’d ever done. He knew there was no way around it. His brother was the head of the family and could demand the marriage be annulled. He had the power to leave Lilly destitute, though Perry believed in his bones Gideon would never do such a thing. He might skin him to the core, but he knew Lilly would forever be protected.
“Perry.” His brother was turning him; he hadn’t realized he’d stopped talking. He hadn’t heard Gideon approach. Hadn’t felt his hands on his shoulders. Perry didn’t move. He felt his arm twitch, perhaps wanting to rub his jaw, but he didn’t. Gideon’s eyes narrowed on him and he tensed.
“I should have been there.” The words came through a clenched jaw, tight lips, closed teeth. “I should have stood by you when you pledged your troth. It’s my place, I should have been allowed to stand by your side. This is unforgivable.”
“Gideon, I’m sorry. I was concerned—”
“That I would stop you? Well, that would have been entirely up to her, of course.” Perry wasn’t prepared for his smile, and it overtook him. “Perry, I’ve always known you to be honorable. Trustworthy. Steadfast and true. I believe every word you’ve spoken. Did you really insult her the night you met?”
Perry shook his head in disbelief then nodded. “I did, quite egregiously. It was atrocious the way I spoke to her. She should never have let me apologize. But she simply unmans me, and I don’t know how to react. I feel so out of control when she’s in danger. I know, Gideon, I truly know.” His brother moved across the room toward the tantalus. “Gideon, I honestly don’t understand… It was naught but a fortnight!”
“I knew the moment I met Francine. No, not then. I knew the moment she railed at me across my guest room. The first time she prodded my waistcoat with that dainty finger, I knew.” Gideon poured two glasses of rich brown whiskey and turned to Perry.
“You were in a right state when you arrived in London.”
Gideon laughed. “I was. Then I spoke with you and understood. Perry, I’m terribly impressed with you. I don’t know that I could have done what you did for Lilly.” Gideon handed him one of the glasses, then they clinked the rims and he downed the contents.
“Well, I am a rake, after all.” Perry raised the glass and inhaled, the heady smell of Gideon’s prized whiskey burning its way through his senses and relaxing his mind. He downed it then turned back to his brother. “I only wish you’d been there—at the wedding, I mean.”
Gideon smiled. “As do I. I do, however, have another question for you.”
The grin slid across Perry’s face before he could stop it, and his hand went to his chin.
Gideon’s eye narrowed on him again. “I see. Well, I believe I’ll commission a new one. You may consider that one your wedding gift.” Gideon raised a brow. “What exactly will I tell my wife when we have to wait for another car to be finished for our honeymoon?”
“I am terribly sorry.” Perry couldn’t stop grinning.
“Not at all.” He shook his head and chuckled. “Not a bit.”
“I thought not.”
“There’s one other thing.”
“Hepplewort is dead. As is his mother.”
“Truly?” Gideon asked.
Perry saw a certain stress leave his brother then. It was nearly imperceptible. If he hadn’t been watching for it, he never would have seen the slight lift of his shoulders, the tension in his forehead drift.
“Yes, there’s no doubt. But you are to be married, and we haven’t much time for these stories now. I just thought you should know this one last thing before…”
“Before I’m to be married.” Gideon beamed. “I am so glad you made it home for this.” Gideon put his glass down with a thump. “She must be a terrible mess, waiting.” He headed for the door. “Where is she?” Gideon left his chambers.
“Gideon.” Perry panicked and ran to catch up.
“Family parlor? Must be. I can’t imagine where else she would be.”
“Gideon.” Perry grabbed his shoulder as his brother reached for the door.
“Not to worry, Perry. But I can’t wait another moment to greet my sister.” He stopped. “A sister! Who would have thought? I certainly never did. Not with you for a brother, at any rate.” As Perry started to smile, Gideon turned the latch on the parlor door and stepped in.
Lilly was sitting with the girls by the French doors. The doors stood open to a slight breeze, and the three of them looked so young and happy. Gideon looked back and when he laughed, Perry knew he was gazing at her with one of those ridiculous besotted faces he usually attempted to hide.
“Oh yes, brother, you’re in this one for good, I see.”
Perry may have actually blushed then, and Gideon marched for Lilly.
“I’m told I have a sister.” Gideon said it quietly so as not to startle her or the girls. She stood instantly, and cowered. Exactly what Perry had been hoping to avoid. He tried to go to her, to move around Gideon, but Gideon threw his hand out to stay him. “Lady Trumbull, it is my greatest honor to meet the woman who has captured my brother’s heart.” He took another step toward her, and she straightened as he approached, like a flower warming to the sun. Perry’s heart picked up a beat, and his shoulders started to relax.
The duke moved toward Lilly like a tangible force. She felt as though she’d been laid bare before him, unable to hide her face, unable to bow her head as was comfortable for her in her former station. She’d forgotten how easily one could hide in plain sight with a simple submissive bow of the head. “Your Grace.”
“Gideon.” Perry said it over his shoulder but the duke brushed him off.
“Please, my lady, address me as Gideon while in our home.”
She felt as though her eyes might roll down her cheeks and plop to the floor, they were so wide. She attempted to rein her shock as he reached for her hands, and she watched, telling her hands to still. Willing them to calm. Hoping he couldn’t see her terror. Then he took her in an embrace, and kissed her cheek, and Perry was the one who stood by in shock.
“Gideon,” she whispered. “Lilly.” That was all she could manage after.
“Lilly.” She felt it rumble through him, loosing her nerves and melting her tension. Why had she always been afraid of this man? “I cannot wait for you to meet Francine properly. She will be so thrilled for you, and for Perry. I hope you have a wonderful time today. If you need anything, please come to me directly and I will see to it. Perry is useless when it comes to getting anything done, as you are probably already aware.”
Gideon placed her hand in Perry’s. “I wasn’t at your wedding, though I should have been.” he glanced at Perry, then held their hands bound together. “Know now, that you have my blessing, whether you wish it or not. And we are family.” He released their hands and stepped back. “We have much to discuss, but for now I must see to my cravat. I’m afraid Ferry will be in a right state. He simply won’t allow me to be married in a rumpled neck cloth.”
He beamed at Lilly, and she was caught. This was why her mother told her to never meet a man’s eyes. She felt perfectly snared. Perry took her hand and squeezed it, and she nodded then moved toward him. Gideon turned to leave, then stopped at the entry. “Perry, please be sure to tell your lovely bride of your wedding gift from Francine and I.” He smiled.
Perry laughed, then nodded. “On that note, Gideon, as I am quite unprepared for today’s event, might I extend the same to you? Please, let me commission yours. It would be my honor.”
She turned to look up at him. The hand not holding hers was placed over his heart in a pledge, and he winked at her. When she glanced back at the door the duke was gone, his laughter echoing back from the grand entry.
“Yes, my lovely, sweet, wonderful woman?”
Lilly looked up at him again. “What exactly is this gift?”
He bowed swiftly to the girls, who had watched the entire scene unfold quietly, and pulled Lilly out the French doors to the balcony. “A new railcar.” She felt the words as a whisper across her ear and knew she blushed from the heat in her cheeks.
“You didn’t tell him.”
“I didn’t have to. He knows me too well.”
“So I am to be laid bare before him because he knows you so well?”
“An unfortunate side effect, I have to say, but this works both ways. You’ll come to know Gideon better than all of England. Save, of course, for myself and Francine.”
She smiled and smoothed his jacket over his sturdy shoulders, then turned her face to the sun.
“What is it?” he asked quietly.
“He said ‘our home’, Perry.”
“Of course he did. As it is. Would you like to see our suite?” he asked casually.
She thought she’d swoon. “I need a moment. Perhaps after the ceremony? Give me at least a moment for all of this”—she waved her hand above her head—“to settle in. It’s a bit much for a girl, don’t you know? Three days ago I was naught but Lilly Steele.”
“And now, this!” She waved her hands about again. She saw Miss Faversham herding the girls from the parlor and shied away from the doors, realizing she was being a bit loud. Perhaps she needed more than a moment, she thought absently. She turned for the staircase at the end of the balcony.
She turned back to him, took his face between her hands, and kissed him until their souls met between their lips in a soaring shout the angels would certainly hear. “Perry, I love you. I truly do. I’m not going anywhere. I won’t disappear, I won’t wander off. I’m here, wherever here may be with you. I simply need a moment. Never fear.”
He smiled and wrapped his arms around her waist, lifting and swinging her in a grand circle. Her skirts flew out behind her, carrying her laughter along to the breeze as his face nestled comfortably in her bosom.
“Lilly, my lady?” he said as he slowed and gazed up at her.
“Yes, my dear?”
“I love you.”
“Yes, my lord, my Perry, I believe you do.”