Lady Derring Takes a Lover - Julie Anne Long

Chapter One

Lady Derring had been raised to believe breeding and manners were a bulwark against all of life’s vicissitudes. So as she peered through her black veil at her husband’s solicitor, her spine was straight, her chin was high, and her brow was as smooth as the curve of the Chinese porcelain urn she’d wrested from the hands of the man who had come to take it away this morning.

“But I’ve a list!” He’d thrust it at her. “And I’ve a crew what’s been promised a day’s pay!”

He did indeed have a list.

One could very nearly ruffle its pages like a book.

It read like a diary of every beautiful thing her husband had ever purchased.

With the possible exception of her, of course.

By the bottom of the first page (which ended with “statue, naked, stone, Leda and Swan”) suspicion had crept in like a killing frost. Her heart felt like a foreign object she’d inadvertently swallowed. Lumpen, frozen, jaggedly lodged.

She took a breath.

And then another.

Only then was she able to look up at the man through her eyelashes. “I’ll just have a more thorough look at this, shall I?” she said brightly and firmly, in her best, most imperious countess voice.

And then using the only weapons she had at her disposal—guilt, widow’s weeds, and limpid brown eyes—she somehow managed to herd him back out the door.

She aimed a black look at the perfidious butler who’d accepted a bribe to let him in.

He had the grace to cast his eyes sideways.

Then she’d called for the carriage and paid her first unannounced visit upon her husband’s solicitor four days after her husband’s funeral and one day earlier than Tavistock, in a hushed, sympathetic voice, had arranged for her to visit him.

Mr. Tavistock, round, balding, and self-satisfied, had been startled to see her, but blunt. Doubtless he charged extra for blow cushioning.

“Oh, yes. Devil of a way to find out, so soon after the funeral,” he mused. “But our Derring hadn’t an honest sou to his name when he cocked up his toes. Was in debt up to his eyeballs. I daresay the whole of his estate was held together by credit.”

Her heart was now thudding inside her like a trapped beast. It was the only thing she could feel. Her tightly folded hands, gloved in smooth black kid, felt oddly separate from her, like a creature that had crept into her lap looking for refuge.

This peculiar numbness was about to become a luxury, that much was clear. Her wits were going to need to get involved.

No one, particularly not her late husband, had ever valued her for wits.

Oh, but she possessed them.

“This is all that’s left of his estate, if you’d like to have a look.” He opened a drawer and grabbed a fistful of papers. “I’m sure it can be reconciled with the list of items you have in your hand.”

She gingerly accepted them.

While Tavistock silently watched, she read through three of the bills.

The first was for “Statue, stone, Leda and Swan.” From a mason in Sussex.

The third was from Madame Le Fleur. “Gloves, black kid.”

The ones she was wearing.

That was when she stopped. She laid the bills carefully back down on Tavistock’s spotless desk and returned her hands to the safety of her lap.

Tavistock didn’t say a word. He began to fidget with a quill. He had the air of a man who was mightily struggling not to glance at a clock.

She cleared her throat. “But Derring was wealthy—”

“Was,” Tavistock repeated laconically.

“Perhaps there is a more recent will, Mr. Tavistock, reflective of more current holdings.” She heard her own voice as if through a pillow. “Perhaps you could ask the nice young clerk outside the door to have another look through—”

“There was but one will and one Earl of Derring, the one that you and I knew and loved well, rest his soul.”

And then Mr. Tavistock had the nerve to bow his head.

Delilah stared at him, fascinated and repulsed. The stink of sanctimony clung to him like the smoke from Derring’s foul cigars—the ones that called to mind the meaty breath of a fanged carnivore, mingled with the things the gardener burned after a day of trimming the roses, with a top note of perhaps leather.

The only things Tavistock had “loved” were Derring’s connections and those foul cigars.

And the most feverish emotion she’d felt for Derring was gratitude.

She had tried to love him. She’d wanted nothing more. She’d yearned for a house full of children and laughter and friends and musical evenings,