Only For His Lady – Christi Caldwell

Following the very public humiliation of Richard Rayne, her eldest brother, Lady Theodosia Rayne found there was no greater agony than witnessing a family member’s tangible heartbreak. Theodosia hovered at the edge of the billiards room. The door slightly cracked, she inched it open, and peered inside. She searched for a glimpse of Richard, heir to the earldom. A bleating snore pierced the quiet and she ducked her head all the way inside, and found him. “Oh, Richard.” Those two words emerged on a whispery sigh of regret. Her brother lay sprawled on the leather button sofa with one arm draped over his face, while his other hung loosely over the side. The muscles of her stomach tightened as she took in this man who was more of a stranger than a brother. Ever the romantic, grinning, carefree brother, he’d lost his heart, to Miss Candace Roberts. In the grandest romantic gesture, he’d gone down on a knee in the middle of Hyde Park to offer for her—only to be rebuffed before all Society. In the end, the lady had chosen another. Theodosia balled her hands into tight fists. Nay. Not just any other.

Seething fury burned to life as fresh now as when she’d read of Lady Candace’s treachery in the gossip columns. The young woman had rejected Richard and given herself, instead, to Charles Renshaw. Of the same Renshaws who’d stolen the ancient heirloom from Theodosia’s family years earlier and left the Raynes cursed. Now another theft had been committed…her brother’s heart. With a vicious hatred spreading like a conflagration inside, Theodosia quietly cursed the Renshaws and all who loved them. Richard emitted another shuddery snore, forcing her attention to him, once more. His face marred with several days’ growth, his jacket discarded, and his remaining garments wrinkled, he had the look of a man who’d lived in the bottom of a bottle since he’d had his offer rebuffed. Which by the glimpses she’d had of him these weeks and the stories written in the papers, was, in fact, just what he’d done. I cannot stand to see him like this… Theodosia pushed the door all the way open and stepped inside. Suddenly, a hand snaked around her wrist.

That unexpected hold had wrung a gasp from her and she spun around. Aidan, the youngest of her brothers, stood before her, a hard glint in his eyes. “Do not,” he ordered her. “But—” “Leave him.” That quiet command raised a frown on her lips. Yes, Aidan was older than her twenty-one years, but not by more than two years. Even with that, there had always been a cocksure arrogance to him where he’d challenged her at every turn. “He cannot remain in this room,” she said quietly while Richard slumbered on noisily from the sofa. “He doesn’t remain in this room,” Aidan corrected in hushed tones. Theodosia pursed her mouth.

“No, he doesn’t,” she concurred. “He visits his wicked clubs and gaming hells and—” “It has been but a month,” Aidan put in. But a month. A month of Richard drinking himself into a stupor and slurring his words and stumbling around. Theodosia cast another look over at Richard’s frame. Even in sleep, the sharp planes of his face were wreathed in agony and despair. “Nothing you say or do will erase his hurt,” Aidan said, following her unspoken thoughts. “He doesn’t require your lecture, or your friendship. So leave him be,” he ordered. They remained locked in a silent battle.

And glaring into his dark brown eyes, she resented him for being right, in this moment. There was nothing she could say or do that would undo Richard’s pain. His heart had been broken by a woman who’d never deserved him and Theodosia had no words with which to help him put that shattered organ back together. The truth of that realization stabbed like a dagger being plunged into her chest. When you loved your family, you loved deeply. Their joy was your joy. And their hurt became your own. Her throat worked painfully as she drew the door closed behind them. Theodosia stalked off. “It is their bloody fault,” Aidan gritted out, as he easily fell into step beside her.

She didn’t pretend to misunderstand whom he spoke of. “Yes,” she seethed. Their age-old hatred of the Renshaws went back well beyond the sale of the Theodosia gladius, a coveted heirloom their families had fought for. A prized sword so special, Theodosia herself had been named for it. Where the Raynes’ investments had failed and they’d found themselves with depleting coffers, the Renshaws had thrived, flourished, and become the epitome of success and power. But this crime…stealing Richard’s love…this was beyond the pale. The depth of treachery and ugly had that defied mere wealth. A sound of frustration escaped Theodosia and she threw her hands up. “There has to be something we can do to help Rich—” A sharp cry went up. An eerie call of desperation that froze them in their tracks.

Shivers raced up Theodosia’s spine and a numbing chill went through her. Moments later, a wrenching sob filtered down the hallway, springing Theodosia into movement. Heart pumping, she sprinted down the corridor and skidded to a stop outside her father’s office. With fingers that shook, Theodosia tossed the door open, and her stomach lurched. Oh, God. Her mother, wrapped in her father’s arms, wept with such force her slender figure shook. “No,” she cried, pounding at her husband’s chest. And Theodosia knew. Not because the words had been uttered. But rather, because of the despair that poured from her parents’ trembling frames.

He is dead… Her legs weakened under her and she dimly registered Aidan capturing her at the waist. “Luke,” she whispered, managing nothing more than that one name. Her elder brother in the King’s army. Her protector. The honorable man who’d vowed to slay the monsters in her nightmares when she’d been a girl afraid of the shadows. He’d then pledged to defeat Boney and all his forces. “What is it?” Aidan, his voice usually exuding confidence and strength, broke. Their parents, faces ravaged with tears of grief looked up, as one. The desolateness in their empty stares raised gooseflesh on Theodosia’s skin. “It is your brother.

” She’d been expecting it. Knew it. And yet, even so…the air left her on a swift exhale. The weight of despair brought her eyes closed. No. “He is gone missing.” Their father’s voice emerged threadbare. “From the fields of Tavalera.” Mother fell in a heap on the floor, landing hard on her knees. Face buried in her hands, she dissolved into a keening wail that sent tears spilling down Theodosia’s cheeks.

How wrong she’d been earlier. There proved a far greater despair than bearing witness to Richard’s heartbreak. This gripping, aching agony, no words could heal, that came with this news of Lucas. And just like that, the threads of a once beautiful fabric, came undone, so all that remained were the frayed and ruined pieces of the Rayne family. We are cursed. Chapter One London, England Spring 1810 “Not at all, honorable, I’ll say. Not at all.” Lady Theodosia Rayne knew Herbert, the Viscount Fennimore, quite meant those words. He’d uttered them eleven times, and that was only since she’d climbed inside his and his sister’s carriage. Their families were long-standing friends.

In fact, the only friends they’d known since the string of scandals had struck. That blasted sword. “Sneaking into a man’s ball, uninvited,” he mumbled under his breath. “Not at all honorable.” Twelve times. “I’ll not overstay my welcome.” She leaned over and patted the top of his hand. Theodosia was not so self-absorbed that she’d not feel some string of guilt for forcing the oft-nervous viscount to assist in this, her latest, but most worthwhile, scheme. But sometimes, there were things far more important that merited those dishonorable acts. “You already have overstayed your welcome,” he mumbled.

“Dishonorable sneaking into a man’s masquerade all to steal another man’s property.” Thirteen. Apparently his sister, Miss Carol Cresswall, Theodosia’s only true friend in the world, had also tired of the dishonorable charges being leveled. “Oh, do hush, Herbie.” She kicked him hard in the shins. He grunted. “You shouldn’t go about kicking a person. Not at all—” “I swear if you say dishonorable, honorable or any variation in between, then I will do more than kick you.” Herbie clamped his lips tight, indicating he’d been well on his way to fourteen. Carol gave a flounce of her curls.

“Theo is merely retrieving something that belongs to her family.” The something in question was the great Theodosia sword. Legend held that ancient weapon was cursed and would bring great misfortune to the holder. Yet, Theodosia knew enough of her own family’s history to know that Antonia Varyshkova had ultimately found the sword to open one to love and happiness. She squared her jaw. And through the hasty sale from a vile, if prosperous, shipping magnate, that good fortune had been transferred to the Duke of Devlin and his horrid kin. No, Theodosia’s family had been robbed of the artifact. They’d known their share of the toil and bad luck that went with that legend. “I promise, Herbie, I shall retrieve the weapon and be on my way. The Duke of Devlin shall never even know I’ve entered his hallowed home.

” He gave her a skeptical look. “Still not the very least honor—oomph.” Carol buried the tip of her boot in his shin once more. Theo gave her friend a smile, a way of showing she truly appreciated her support. She did. And with the Raynes’ luck, these years, she’d take any and all support she could get. “All I am saying—” “I do not care what you are saying,” Carol, the viscount’s younger by two years sister, snapped. As brother and sister launched into a squabble about the word honor, and Theo’s actions, and a pairing of that word dishonor that resulted in further grunts from Herbie, Theodosia turned her attention to the window. She tugged back the curtain and peered out into the passing, dark, London streets, her masked visage reflected back in the crystal panel. The rub of it was…she did see the merit of Herbie’s argument.

It wasn’t honorable, even if it was common, to enter someone’s ball without an invitation. But the Duke of Devlin and his lucky in every way family were not going to be handing out invitations to any member of the Rayne family. It just wasn’t going to happen. The rivalry between them was an age-old one that dated through the years; a bitter feud fought for some beautiful lady and the rights to that lady. The animosity between their two families had only been intensified when her family’s great sword had been sold off to none other than one of those monstrous Renshaw ancestors. Even with all the years that had passed since that theft, the acrimony burned just as strong. She pursed her lips. Particularly when one of those blasted gentlemen went and stole another man’s love. Her poor brother. The carriage hit a particularly nasty bump in the road and she knocked into Carol’s side, interrupting her friend’s impressive rant.

“Pardon,” she murmured as Carol steadied her. Her friend waved her hand off. “Where was I?” She jabbed a finger at her brother and launched once more into her diatribe for poor Herbie. “I’ve not finished with you, Herbert Harold Cresswall.” Before, Theo had felt just a niggling of guilt, now she felt all manner of guilt. When Carol was in one of her tempers it really wasn’t pleasant. When one of those tempers was directed at one person, it was all the worse. She should know. Closer to sisters than friends, Theo had been on the receiving end of one of those jabbing fingers far too many times. Theo returned her attention to the passing streets, the carriage rattling through the surprisingly quiet streets at an impressive clip.

Unease turned in her belly. She brushed it back. Or she tried to. The nasty little churning remained. She’d so carefully considered this whole scheme, knew the rightness of her plan, and her family’s claim to that sword, and yet now…unease rolled along her spine. “Don’t be silly,” she muttered under her breath. Neither the Duke of Devlin nor any of his three devilish siblings would dare find her hidden amidst their masked guests at their annual, famed masquerade. She pursed her lips. One of the most famed, favorite events of a London Season, which she’d never had an opportunity to attend. Granted she’d only just entered her third Season, but it never felt pleasant to be left out—of anything.

She should know. Plenty of doors were closed to the Raynes, all because the Duke of Devlin and his devilish kin had done nothing to hide their disdain of the Rayne family. Who would welcome a mere earl’s family when it would earn the displeasure of a duke? You didn’t do it. You just didn’t do it. The carriage jerked to a sudden, unexpected stop. Her heart dipped. “We’re here?” Carol’s lips, turned up in a gleeful smile. “We’re here.” Then, Carol had always found romanticism in subterfuge. A driver pulled the door open and Herbie leaned down, wincing as his feet collided with the pavement, likely sore from having so many kicks dealt him by Carol in her shepherdess’ costume with those serviceable boots.

Carol allowed the servant to hand her down, and turned, looking back questioningly at Theo frozen inside the carriage. The frisson of unease grew, spiraling inside her. And she knew it must be madness because she never worried about Herbie, the habitual worrier, well…worrying. But the manner in which the thick, London fog rolled over the pavement, and the night clouds eerily rolled past the moon bespoke doom. Oh, don’t be a ninny. “Well, what are you waiting for? Come along then, Th—” She clamped her lips tight. Giving her head a shake, Theo stepped down from the carriage. The metal of her costume rattled noisily. She adjusted her armor and then reached back for the enormous, and more importantly, fake broadsword upon her seat. Just a small piece in her plot.

A necessary piece that would ensure her actions this night attracted no suspicious looks. She fell into step alongside Carol and hurried after Herbie. As they walked, Theo studied the pink stucco townhouse awash in the soft glow of candles. The Devil, as she’d come to call him, of course, lived in London’s most fashionable end of Mayfair and likely had an elegant, white marble foyer and a grand sweeping staircase. She climbed the handful of steps and the butler, resplendent in a mask, drew the door open. Theo filed in behind Herbie and Carol, entering…the elegant foyer resplendent in, of course, the white marble floor and grand sweeping staircase. “Of course,” she mumbled to herself. Footmen rushed forward to relieve them of their cloaks. She hesitated and then shrugged out of the green muslin garment, feeling entirely naked, even as she was fully concealed in her armor, piecemeal, and black breeches. “Quite scandalous donning breeches,” Herbie muttered.

Yes. But then, it was the least scandalous thing she’d done yet this evening, and would do for the remainder of it. He looked as though he wished to say more on it but then Carol quelled his words with another dark look. Then, the butler led them toward the noise filtering from deep within the townhouse. The ballroom. Her heart sped up, a thrill that had nothing to do with the excitement likely filling every other unwed, young lady present. Those ladies would be seeking stolen kisses and the promise of a mere taste of passion. Theodosia had only one manner of theft on her mind…and had for the better part of a fortnight. Carol slowed her step and Theodosia adjusted her stride to match the pace set by her friend. “You’re blinking.

” “Of course I’m blinking,” Theodosia muttered. Except she knew what her friend meant. “Oh, come, you know what I mean.” Yes, those rapid, too many blinks that had made her a deplorable liar as a child. Did you steal your brother’s biscuit? BlinkBlinkBlink. Did you cut up your sister’s dress and stitch a gown for your pug? Blinkblinkblink. Did you— Carol caught her hand. She passed her gaze over her face. “You’ve…we’ve, worked through all the details.” Theodosia looked after Herbie and the butler…of course wildly—blinking.

“I’ll not be discovered,” she said, not sure if she sought to convince herself or Carol. “You’ll be in and then you’ll be gone.” The driver had, of course, been instructed to wait at the opposite end of the street for Lady Theodosia and Carol. Her faithful friend would forego the evening’s fun for her. “It shall go perfectly smoothly.” She shifted her weapon to her other hand. Carol took her by the other and pulled her down after Herbie who stood in wait beside the butler, a pained expression revealed even through the black domino he’d donned as…a king’s jester. It really was the perfect costume for the ever-worrying Herbie. At last, they reached the ballroom and Theo became an interloper from the enemy family, hidden by a mask and some armor and a carefully conceived plan. And as she slipped into the ballroom alongside Carol and Herbie, gay laughter and the thrum of the orchestra blared loud, nearly deafening in its exuberance.

For a moment, she allowed herself, who’d been far too serious for far too long with her hopelessly unfortunate family to forget that she’d snuck in uninvited, to steal the host’s ancient weapon. Er…her family’s ancient weapon. For the promise she’d made Herbie to steal her sword and be on her way, she’d allow herself but a small moment to enjoy the evening’s festivities. Purely to avoid attracting notice is all. Yes, that was it. “You said you were leaving,” Herbie hissed. “Do hush.” She nudged him with her elbow. “You’ve injured my feelings.” He frowned.

“It wasn’t my intention.” She’d merely been teasing him. She knew he wasn’t trying to be unkind, but rather feared the duplicitous role he’d agreed to. “Do not worry, I’ll slip out and then you’ll…” “Yes, yes, I know my role.” Sweat dotted his high forehead. Obviously, the fear of being discovered stealing something from the Devil Duke was a far more egregious offense than agreeing to secret her into the duke’s home. All entirely accurate. “I shall meet you in the foyer,” Carol said from the side of her mouth. Everyone knew his or her respective roles. “Now, go,” she ordered brother and sister.

It wouldn’t do for them to be discovered speaking or together…but for the end…when she was triumphant in her plan. Herbie sprinted off, entirely too eager, by her thinking, to be free of her. “That one gives me doubts,” Carol whispered hurriedly and then without another word, disappeared into the crowd.

.

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