Why Lords Lose Their Hearts
THE TRUTH COULD RUIN HER
Perdita, the widowed Duchess of Ormonde, keeps a dangerous secret—the truth of how her brutish husband died. But a mysterious avenger seems to know it, too, and when anonymous threats turn into public attacks, there’s only one friend she can turn to for help—her husband’s former secretary, Lord Archer Lisle. The man who witnessed her every heartache. The kind of man whose love she can only dream of …
WILL HIS LOVE SAVE HER
The youngest of the Duke of Pemberton’s five sons, Lord Archer Lisle is used to waiting his turn. For years, he could only stand by, seething, as Perdita suffered at the hands of her husband, but now she’s under threat from another source—one who will stop at nothing to make her pay for the late duke’s death. But the good-natured Archer can be dangerous when crossed—and he’ll do anything to keep the woman he’s adored for so long safe in his arms…
“A pair of primer goers, Lord Archer. The best I’ve ever seen at Tattersall’s.”
Lord Archer Lisle nodded and tried to look somewhat interested as the overeager Earl of Wrotham waxed rhapsodic over his new pair of matched bays. He was as fond of horseflesh as the next man, but tonight his mind was on another sort of flesh altogether.
He’d accepted the invitation to Lady Sumrall’s annual ball knowing that Perdita, Duchess of Ormond would also be in attendance. In fact, Perdita’s presence was the sole reason he’d chosen to come at all. Since both her sister, the former Lady Isabella Wharton now Duchess of Ormond, and her friend, the Countess of Coniston, had had their lives threatened by an as yet unknown assailant earlier in the year, the widowed duchess had become the sole focus of architect of their attacks. So far the threats had come in the form of anonymous notes taunting the widowed duchess with the knowledge that he—Archer assumed this person was a he—knew what she’d done last season, when her deceased husband, the brutish sixth Duke of Ormond, had been killed. Nevermind that the dead nobleman had been killed while attempting to cut his wife’s throat. Whoever this mastermind was, he’d appointed himself judge and jury and had found all three women guilty of the crime of killing Ormond. Nevermind that there had been no suspicions, as far as Archer knew, from the authorities.
Thus far, the threats against her had not persuaded the headstrong Perdita to curb one of her normal activities, a resistance of which she was inordinately proud. But Archer, who had been there for the aftermath of the attempts on the lives of both the Duchess of Ormond and Lady Coniston, was not so happy about her resistance to any kind of curtailment of her behavior. Yes, he wished to see the coward who threatened her thwarted, and Perdita going about as if nothing was amiss did so, but knowing that her defiance put her life in jeopardy frightened him and he wasn’t afraid to admit it. And since Perdita refused to listen to reason—especially when it came from the mouth of Lord Archer Lisle—he’d decided to see to it that she remained safe whether she chose to listen to him or not.
At present Perdita was waltzing with Lord Dunthorp, a viscount of middling years who had spent the last few weeks dancing attendance on her. Her luxuriant strawberry blond hair was dressed in a simple chignon that put the fussier styles of the other ladies to shame. And her gown, a cerise colored silk that was simply cut but hugged her slim figure in all the right places, also put the others to shame. He’d seen Dunthorp’s eyes wander from her pretty face down to her impressive décolletage more than once since they’d taken to the floor—a circumstance that made Archer long to gut the other man, though it would be dashed bad manners to his hosts.
He’d been half in love with her ever since they’d met. And it hadn’t taken long for that half to expand into a whole.
It wasn’t just because she was beautiful—though she was. No, though he appreciated her fine-boned loveliness, it was her spirit that solidified his affection for her. Perdita wasn’t an angel. What woman was? But she had a way about her. A sweetness in the way she dealt with people—he’d heard the servants at Ormond House speak of it—that set them at ease. Even her bad moods—which were rare—were short-lived and often ended with a self-deprecating remark.
But the thing that most endeared her to Archer was something she likely didn’t even recall. It had been a moment some three years earlier when one of the housemaids had fallen pregnant. There were few secrets in a household as large as Ormond House, and Archer had a strong suspicion that it had been the duke or one of his cronies who forced himself upon the girl. But when the housekeeper had informed Perdita, she’d handled the matter with kindness and compassion, giving the maid enough money to return home to the country and with the offer of a reference should she need one in the future. Perdita hadn’t considered the matter in terms of it’s reflection on herself. She’d only considered the little maid’s feelings. And it had been that bit of selflessness that did him in. From that moment on he’d been a goner. And in spite of himself he’d fallen all the way in love with his employer’s wife.
From the corner of his eye, he could see her deep blue gown as they made the circuit of the Sumrall ballroom. He wasn’t jealous. How could he be when his position as private secretary to the Duke of Ormond made her his virtual employer? And it wasn’t as if the late duke’s death had cleared the way for him. While Perdita was a duchess, Archer was still the younger son of a Duke with only a courtesy title.
No, Perdita was not for the likes of him. No matter how he might, in his heart of hearts, wish to declare himself to her.
“I say, Lord Archer,” Wrotham interrupted his thoughts. “I think Mrs. Fitzroy is attempting to get your attention.”
Pulling himself together, Archer glanced across the room to see that indeed the comely widow was casting a speaking glance his way. And if he were any interpreter of glances, hers was saying something that was not appropriate in mixed company. The lady had been trying to lure him into her bed for weeks now, but though Archer could appreciate the joys of the bedchamber as much as the next man, he was too busy protecting Perdita from herself to succumb. Then there was the whole unrequited business.
He snagged a glass of champagne from a passing footman and took a drink before he spoke. “I believe you’re correct Wrotham,” he said nodding to the other man. “But I’m afraid I have other plans this evening. Lovely though Mrs. Fitzroy may be.”
The other man touched his index finger to the side of his nose. “Say no more, old fellow,” he said with a knowing look. “Just between us, I’ve heard Mrs. Fitzroy is a bit possessive, so it’s probably just as well that you not try to juggle her with another woman, if you catch my meaning.”
Since it was impossible not to catch Wrotham’s meaning, Archer just nodded.
“I hope you won’t mind if I have a bit of a try at her,” the other man continued, straightening his cuffs as he placed his own empty champagne glass on an obliging side table. “It’s just that I’m in search of a new mistress and I like the look of your Mrs. Fitzroy.”
Archer would have told the other man to be his guest, but that would have implied that he did indeed have some sort of connection with her, so he simply nodded again and the two men parted ways.
The waltz having just ended, Archer threaded his way toward the side of the ballroom where Dunthorp had just left Perdita—presumably in search of champagne for her. But before he’d made it halfway there, their hostess clapped her hands from a position near where the musicians were set up. “Lords and ladies,” she said once the chatter in the ballroom had descended to a low murmur, “if I could have your attention, please!”
Not wishing to do her the discourtesy of walking while she spoke, Archer paused.
“I am delighted to tell you that I’ve arranged a wonderful bit of theatre for you this evening, thanks to the gracious proprietors of the Theatre Royale,” Lady Sumrall said. “For your enjoyment, we have not just one, but three superb actresses: leading lady of the stage, Mrs. Alicia Lloyd, her charming understudy Mrs. Pfeiffer and the soon to be famous ingénue, Miss Desdemona Wright. And playing opposite all three is the incomparable Mr. Charles Keating. All starring in a pantomime that is sure to bring everyone to rapturous applause!”
As she introduced each of the actors, they stepped forward. Archer could see more than one gentleman eyeing the actresses, and Lord Carston, who was rumored to be Mrs. Lloyd’s current paramour, beamed, despite the fact that his wife was also present in the room.
“Let the play, entitled ‘The Secret’ begin,” Lady Sumrall said before stepping aside while the actors took their places before the —musicians’ dais.
Intrigued despite himself, Archer folded his arms across his chest as the performance got underway.
Mrs. Pfeiffer and Miss Wright stood to one side while Mrs. Lloyd and Mr. Keating took center stage. Neither of them speaking, Mrs. Lloyd stood before an imaginary table arranging flowers, moving them this way and that as she assessed them. Behind her, Keating stormed forward, his face thunderous as he roughly touched her on the shoulder. As she turned in surprise, he brandished an invisible letter as if to admonish her with whatever was written there. Her eyes wide, Mrs. Lloyd clasped her hands before her, pleading with him as he glared at her, his grip on her arm tight and painful-looking. The actress exaggerated her actions, throwing her head and making as if to escape his grip. Then Keating gipped her by the shoulders and shook her.
Though it was obvious that the two were acting, Archer shifted his weight from one foot to the other, the scene making him uncomfortable.
From stage left, Mrs. Pfeiffer entered, and stomped her foot. Keating and Lloyd turned feigned shock. From stage right, Miss Wright entered and gasped loudly. Seeing the other woman, Keating pulled Mrs. Lloyd against him an invisible knife to her throat. Archer watched in dawning horror as Mrs. Pfeiffer clasped an invisible pistol between her hands and pulled the trigger. At the same time, Mrs. Lloyd twisted out of his grasp. Then Miss Wright and Mrs. Pfeiffer rushed toward Keating as he fell senseless to the floor. All three women embraced and stilled, the performance over as the ballroom erupted in thunderous applause.
His mouth agape, Archer stood motionless as the three actors took their bows and Lady Sumrall’s guests continued to rain praise upon them. Then, he pushed his way through the crowd, desperate to get to where he’d last seen Perdita. Because he knew without doubt that she would have been as disturbed as he was by the performance.
Not because the subject matter was so shocking. One can and did see more melodrama at the theatre every evening of the week.
No, she’d be shocked by this show for another reason altogether.
Because the actors from the Theatre Royale hadn’t simply been performing a play written for the entertainment of Lady Sumrall’s guests. It had been written to instill fear in the heart of one person and one alone. Perdita.
The scene hadn’t depicted a scene from the imagination of the playwright. It had been the retelling of a scene that was all too familiar to the widowed duchess. Because she’d not only witnessed it, but lived it.
On the day her husband died.