It’s the day after Thanksgiving! Though we’re not having our dinner until tomorrow because of wonky work schedules, so my day will be full of baking and eating and baking and last-minute grocery shopping.
There was more than enough tea and several small plates of edible tidbits laid out for Lord Cailvairt and his guests. The tray was heavy, but nothing greater than Lydia was accustomed to dealing with after years of serving the interminable flow of people who had passed through her father’s inn.
She walked up the servants’ stairs, her elbows tucked into her sides. The walls and narrow doorways threatened to knock against the edges of the tray if she failed to pay attention. The main corridor was empty, as she knew it would be, and her own steps sounded loud to her ears as she moved steadily towards the door to the drawing room.
The room itself was also empty. This surprised her, as she’d expected to be called upon to serve the assembled company. Her nerves still overwrought, she placed the tray down on the nearest table and began to fuss over the cups and saucers, the silverware that had been polished and polished again to a high gleam.
Another minute passed, and still no one arrived. Should she simply leave the tray and be on her way? She glanced about the room, its red brocaded walls attempting to lend the space a warmth that belied the chill that persisted outside. Those same walls were hung with portraits of people who meant nothing to her, the heavy frames adding an austere gloom to every pair of eyes that stared down at her. Above her head, the ceiling had been painted with various depictions of mythological scenes. Unfortunately, none of those scenes were of a sort to add any comfort or cheer to the room.
She would leave, she told herself, before anyone else could arrive. One last adjustment to the delicacies on the tray, and she began to move towards the door. Her hand was on the knob when it pushed toward her from the other side, the cold metal turning beneath her hand without any exertion from her own fingers.
A quick step back and the door swung open before her. She had not seen Lord Cailvairt for three days, not counting the small glimpse she’d had of him as she’d huddled behind the writing desk less than an hour before. His eyes were what struck her first, the blue of them so clear they startled her with a level of depth she knew it was impossible for them to possess.
His hair, she noticed, was neater today. Still unfashionably long, still tied back into a queue at the nape of his neck, but there was a sleekness to it this afternoon, as if he’d taken greater care with the brushing and styling of it.
Lydia realised she had done nothing but stare boldly at him since he entered the room, when he finally opened his mouth and spoke.
“Ah, the tea.”
She backed away from him, her chin lowered in deference. “Yes, m-my lord. If that will be all…” The beginnings of a curtsy began to weigh upon her shoulders, but the sound of his voice tempted her gaze into betraying her, the treacherous thing returning to his throat, to his jaw, to the sharp lines of his cheekbones.
“Your name,” he said suddenly. The smallest of nods from him, and she felt at once as if he were trying to make her feel more at ease. “That is, only if it will not make you uncomfortable to reveal such a thing.”
“Lydia,” she said, without giving her tongue a moment to hesitate.
A touch of a smile played about the corners of his mouth. It was a beautiful mouth, she thought, and then quickly banished such dangerous musings from her mind. “Only Lydia? There is no other name or title by which I could refer to you?”
The guests… There were to be other people present, were there not? She glanced about the room, a sudden wish for some power that would will the other houseguests into being with the briefest sweep of her gaze. “Um… Miss Hunt,” she replied. “My father owns The Lamb’s Head, the inn at the crossroads.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of it.” His eyes narrowed slightly, several deep lines appearing between his eyebrows as he regarded her. “So, I take it you’re only to be with us for a brief spell, soon to return to your home once the uproar of preparing for a house party has begun to wane.” There was no question in his voice, a fact that left Lydia briefly flummoxed as to how best to respond, or if she was even required to.
“I will return to my father’s house, yes. His business is slow this time of year, but it will pick up again as soon as the weather improves, and I’ve no doubt he’ll wish for me to resume my former duties as soon as possible.” She cleared her throat, feeling suddenly self-conscious. She was not accustomed to carrying on a long spate of conversation with someone who resided at such a lofty height above her in society’s eyes. “Um, your tea,” she said, her hands gesturing to the forgotten tray as she attempted to bring the dialogue back to its former purpose. “Shall I…?”
His own keen glance took in the presence of the tea things, as if acknowledging them for the first time. “Will you join me?”
Lydia blinked. Surely, she must have misheard him. “My apologies, my lord. But what did you say?”
This time, his smile was unmistakable. “Sit, if you please, and I’ll fix something for the both of us.”
He turned away from her then and began to prepare two separate cups of tea. “Do you take milk? Sugar?” he asked over his shoulder, but Lydia was frozen in place, her mind slow to absorb the banal question.
“Milk,” she said, the single word coming out as if it had been pried from her with a pair of tongs. “N-No sugar.”
His task complete, he turned around and offered one of the small, delicate cups to her, but she could not find it within herself to raise her hands and take it from him.
“Would you prefer to be seated first?”
She swallowed, hard. This was not right. He should not be standing there, offering cups of tea to her and asking that she sit in his presence, and to converse with him as if there was not dirt streaked across the faded white of her apron. She glanced down at her hands, red and cracked from a lifetime of scrubbing. And she thought of her hair, pulled back simply, for no other reason than to keep it scraped back and away from her face. “I’m sorry, my lord. But I should not.”
She watched his shoulders rise and fall as he pulled in a deep breath and then released it on a sigh. “I find I must ask for your forgiveness, Miss Hunt. I have been most presumptuous with you, and it is clear that I have done nothing but cause you undue discomfort. Again, I am truly sorry.” He turned away from her then, long enough to return the tea to its place on the tray. “You may leave, if you wish. I had not thought to keep you from your work and Mrs. Latimer’s constant haranguing. No doubt she would deliver the most potent of scoldings should you turn up below stairs, well indulged after a few moments in my company.”
There was a spark of humour underlying his words. He seemed to think it all some great game, a mere joke, while she realised the danger of remaining there with him. It was too tempting, the desire to accept the proffered cup of tea, to sit with him, to allow him to raise his fingers to her face, as he had once before.
“Your guests,” she blurted out all of a sudden, her head turning as her gaze skipped across the chairs, the multiple sofas that furnished the room behind them. “I would not wish to impose…”
“Lord and Lady Muir,” he said with a slight dip of his chin. “They arrived fatigued from their journey. I told them to rest, to refresh themselves before joining me for dinner tonight.”
She was not so dull that she did not understand the implication of those words. They were alone, the chance of someone coming along to interrupt them quite insignificant. And there he stood, his hair black, his clothes black with only a few slashes of white at his throat and his wrists, and his eyes… their colour as cold as the winter sky, as dangerous as the sea lapping over the rocks at the base of the tallest cliff.
Throughout her childhood, she had been told of her own weaknesses, of her inability to resist temptation. She would fall, they told her, again and again. And here stood this Lord Cailvairt, all kindness and quiet words, treating her as an equal, offering her the chance—as fleeting a one as it was—to experience the comforts of her betters.
Perhaps it was a test. She could stay, she realised. Accept the cup of tea, taste a few of the dainty edibles that had been brought up with the tray, and…
Her mind immediately put a halt to the progress of her own thoughts. That option could not even be considered. She should return to the kitchens, the tea tray having been delivered and the rugs soon needing to be beaten and returned to their place in the morning room. And there were still the final preparations for dinner, and for bed, and for the remainder of the guests who would no doubt be arriving over the next few days, and…
“One cup,” she said, raising her chin an inch. “And then I must return to my duties.”
“Of course.” Lord Cailvairt’s eyes caught the light from the room’s tall windows, the rest of his features seeming to grow darker, more shadowed in comparison to the shine reflected from his gaze. “Have a seat, and I will fetch it for you.”
Lydia’s hand shook when she attempted to raise the cup to her lips, and so she returned it to its saucer before any of the liquid could spill over the edge. There was a strange, nearly surreal quality to the scene if she gave herself time to think over it. Here she was, sitting on a sofa in the drawing room of a great—if somewhat neglected—house, served tea by a lord while she wore the same clothes she’d had on as she’d helped to build up the fires this morning.
Her host sat on the opposite end of the sofa, far enough away that no part of his body came in contact with hers as he slowly sipped at his own beverage.
“So you have always resided in this part of the country?” he asked as he gave the contents of his cup a languorous swirl.
She nodded, her gaze pinned to the milky depths that filled her own cup. “My family have been innkeepers for several generations. It is all that I know.”
“And it will pass to you at some point? Or perhaps a brother…?”
“I have no siblings,” she said, replying to his drawn-out inquiry. “My mother died when I was…” She waved her free hand, placing a vague ending on her own explanations. “My grandmother took on the task of bringing me up, and when I was old enough, I began to work at the inn.”
He leaned forward and placed his cup on the tray that he had moved to a table near the sofa. She watched the stretch of his lean arm, the delicacy of his fingers as he handled the fine porcelain. The scent of him wafted towards her, a clean scent, devoid of the overwhelming miasma of cologne or perfume with which the upper classes often chose to douse themselves. “And your education?” he asked, his question shaking her from her perilous thoughts.
“I can read,” she said, with no small amount of pride. “And I can write my letters. There were a few books at the inn, and of course there were the newspapers and gossip sheets available to the guests.”
“And that is all?” He lounged against the back of the sofa, his disarming gaze regarding her in a way that made her feel as if she were a puzzle, some mystery that he could not quite figure out. “No painting, or drawing? Or music? Did you ever learn to play?”
But her head began to move from side to side before he could finish speaking. “My grandmother did not approve of such things. She believed that…” She stopped herself before she could continue. She had told him too much already, and yet he continued to question her, displaying a genuine interest in every facet of her existence.
“Yes?” His voice was low, a soft whisper spoken only for her ears.
“Music,” she began again, her mouth suddenly dry. “Music was a frivolous… No, that’s not right.” She drew in a deep breath and allowed the words to come on their own. “My grandmother was religious. To her, music would lead one to sin. As would art, fashion, fine food… Anything that extended beyond the mere necessities of life. In fact, I doubt she would have approved of my learning to read if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was able to read the Bible to her as her eyesight began to fail.”
He hardly changed position. A lift of his arm so that it draped across the back of the sofa. A slight stretching of his left leg. But Lydia felt something change, his presence seeming to devour more of the space around her. “Well, then I believe I feel most confident in declaring that your grandmother was a fool.”
Lydia’s cup rattled in its saucer. To hear such things spoken aloud, and concerning the dead… Well, it seemed almost akin to blasphemy. And yet she could not bring herself to disagree with him, or even to display the slightest amount of shock at his words. The best she could manage was to sit there and allow his statement to find an accord with the rebellious thoughts she had always sought to quell throughout her childhood.
“To deny beauty, is that itself not a sin?”
Her lips parted slightly. She had no answer to this. How could she? For all of her life, it had been repeated to her again and again that she was nothing but a wicked creature, and that her birth had heralded nothing more than the arrival of more sin, of more darkness, and that anything she expressed a desire towards, anything that extended beyond the confines of the world her grandmother had created for her, would succeed in dragging her farther down into that threatened darkness.
“What of a garden?” Lord Cailvairt continued. “What of the music created between two birds, singing sweetly to each other at the end of the day? To listen to that, to enjoy it… Is that a sin? What of art done to the glory of Heaven and its angels? And good food, wine? Are we to rail against the ability to taste, an ability that is born into each and every one of us?”
“As is sin,” Lydia said, her voice so quiet she wondered if he even heard her. She raised her eyes, meeting his cool gaze with her own. “Sin is inside of us, all of us, from the first moment we draw breath. So how are we to know what is good, what is right? Every feeling, every want could be nothing more than that dark portion of ourselves attempting to trick us into doing what is wrong.”
He moved again, this time closing the scant inches of space between them until his thigh brushed her own, his body near enough that she could feel the warmth radiate from him, even watch the ticking of his pulse above the folded lines of his neckcloth.
“And what if I were to tell you that I find you to be one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever laid eyes upon, hmm? Like a work of art gifted with life and breath.”
“I would ask you to stop such nonsense,” she said, and finally returned her forgotten cup of tea to the tray before she wound up spilling it all over herself. “Beauty leads to vanity, and vanity itself is a sin.”
He shook his head then, his mouth pronouncing a silent “no” as he leaned towards her. “You are incorrect. It is excessive pride in one’s beauty that leads to vanity. And you should stop parroting your grandmother’s tired sermons. They sound false coming from your lips.”
His gaze was intent. The hint of a smile had disappeared from the corners of his mouth. His breath skimmed across her cheek, across her jaw as he tilted his head down to watch the progress of his fingers as they unfurled and gently traced the length of her throat.
She could not breathe. Indeed, she dared not to. As the tips of his fingers moved downward, slowly downward, the beating of her heart quickened until she was sure he could sense the vibration sounding from within her chest. But still his hand continued lower, until his knuckles brushed the high, plain neckline of her gown.
“To take pleasure in another’s touch,” he said, his voice a soft caress that stirred the sensitive hairs that curled beneath her ear. “Is that a sin?”
“I…” Her lips were parted. Her gaze found its way to his face, to his eyes, now pinned on her own. He was watching her, waiting for her reaction before his fingers moved beyond the line of coarse fabric that circled her throat. “I don’t… I don’t know,” she admitted, and shut her eyes against the sensations within her, so fiercely locked in battle.
And then, his hand was gone. She felt him move away from her, even before she opened her eyes again to see him retreat to his side of the sofa. “Miss Hunt,” he pronounced, again with the slight nod of his head, with his ability to make her feel nothing of the servant that she was. “There is so much more to this world than what you’ve been taught. But until you do know…” Another nod, and then he rose from the sofa, his movements quick and precise as he straightened the contents of the tea tray and—to Lydia’s surprise—picked it up and carried it from the room.
She remained where she was for several minutes, her skin prickling where Cailvairt had touched her… and in other places where he had not. When she finally stood, her legs felt strange and weak beneath her. And yet, nothing had happened. A brief caress to her neck, a few whispered words…
No, Lydia thought, her head beginning to shake as she made her way towards the door. Too much had happened. Too much, and not nearly enough.
Lydia Hunt is familiar with the concept of sin. Reared beneath the strictures of religious zealotry and abuse, she has heard again and again that her nature is wicked and her soul bound for eternal damnation. But when she is sent to work at Mowbray Hall, ancestral home of the enigmatic Lord Cailvairt, Lydia begins to fear just how wicked she might be.
For although Cailvairt makes no effort to hide his pursuit of her, his insistence on challenging the ideals imposed upon her as a child―even while speaking to her as an equal―leaves it difficult for Lydia to resist his attentions. As her inhibitions crumble away and the foundation of her beliefs threatens to falter, she must determine if giving into temptation will destroy her… or be the act that saves her.
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