Lady Lilian Bliant appears to be a serene earl’s daughter, but under her exotic façade she has a spine of steel. She is determined to thwart her manipulative father’s plan to shackle her to a weak-willed man of the ton and is successful until Lord Maxwell Warrick becomes a suitor.
Lord Maxwell is anything but weak-willed. He is happy with his life until Lady Lilian wreaks havoc on his heart. No lady has ever tempted him as she.
Will Max be able to resist, or will he succumb? And, if he does, will Lily be able to resist?
This book was previously published as The Healing Tree by Amy De Trempe
London, England – May, 1817
“I’ve made my decision, Lilian.” Henry Bliant, the thirteenth Earl of Artemisia, placed his fork in the center of his plate, the handle overlapped in direct alignment with his glass of wine. Satisfied, he signaled the footman to remove his plate.
At his cue, Lilian folded her hands on her lap and lifted her eyes to her father without raising her head. “What is your decision, Father?”
She lowered her eyes once again, and fixed them on a safe object, the goblet. With an elegant and perfectly manicured right hand, she lifted the crystal and brought it to her lips. This action would hide any immediate reaction to his words, a trick she perfected long ago.
“I was wise in waiting to present you until later in the Season. Your dark coloring is no match for the fair young ladies presented this year. Your appearance beside them would have only forced the comparison I wish to avoid.”
She set the glass back down in the exact spot where she had lifted it from. Even a fraction off could see her dismissed from the table and banned from breakfast tomorrow. Lily straightened the cloth napkin on her lap and waited for him to continue. She hoped dessert would be placed before her with haste to give her yet another excuse to avoid his gaze.
“It is one of the reasons I visited my solicitor this afternoon.”
Lilian’s gaze shot to her father, but she quickly recovered her composure. Lord Artemisia demanded a serene countenance from his daughter at all times, and any show of emotion, no matter how slight, never failed to anger him.
His eyes narrowed as he looked at her in disgust.
Lilian immediately regretted letting her emotions show. She held her breath, hoping her one mistake did not send him into a fit of rage.
With no comment on her reaction, Artemisia continued his announcement with annoyance, “I won’t bother you with all the details as you wouldn’t understand.” He dismissed her with a wave of his hand.
Lily inwardly breathed a sigh of relief even though his dismissal was once again a reminder of his disappointment that his only heir was a female, thus far inferior in intelligence. It was only one on his long list of her faults.
Lily masked her emotions and waited for the remainder of his diatribe.
“Obviously, I will have to offer more than most fathers to see you married,” he continued.
Money, one of the many things more important than his daughter. “I am sorry if seeing me married is costing you so dearly, Father.” She buried her sarcasm in a soft tone.
Artemisia pounded his fist on the table, nearly upsetting the perfectly placed china. “As if you have any awareness of the expense to see you dressed properly and tutored to be a lady. My only goal has been to attract a suitable husband for you.”
Lily lowered her eyes demurely when her anger built. Another trick she learned at a young age and one her father mistook for respectful submission. To Lily, it was simply an act of self-preservation. She studied the pattern on the new china, Wedgwood she believed, and hoped it kept her from reacting to her father as he continued to lecture.
“Regardless, the funds will bring me what I need. A son to take over when I’m gone.” Lord Artemisia lapsed into silence while the custard was set before them and they waited for the servant to leave the room.
A son! He had a son. Yes, Wesley had been born on the wrong side of blanket, but he was still the only living son of her father. Even if he couldn’t inherit the entailed lands, Wesley would do well in managing the remaining estates and wealth. Lily lifted her left hand, but stopped herself before it was too late. After all these years, why hadn’t she developed the habit of eating with her right hand as her father insisted? She had no wish to have her left arm tied to her waist to keep her from using it again.
“I can’t leave the matter of attracting the right husband in your hands. Additionally, I have hopes of receiving permission to allow your husband to inherit my title when I die.”
Lily daintily slid her spoon into the custard and forced herself not to react. Her father must be half mad to think he could transfer a title meant for a male blood relative.
“The king is always in need of capital. Luckily, I can afford this particular privilege, if it is approved.”
Only her father would attempt such a ludicrous and impossible feat. On the other hand, given the king’s current faculties, or lack thereof, King George might just grant her father’s equally mad wish. The thought made her ill.
If anyone should be granted that opportunity, it should be Wesley, not some gentleman her father decides, who doesn’t have a drop of Bliant blood in his veins.
She remembered to keep her posture erect when the earl launched into yet another lecture. He could speak continually for half an hour if he so chose, and she hoped to make her dessert last long enough to keep her busy while he spoke, and to avoid having to look in his direction. Her participation wasn’t required, as long as she appeared to be listening.
“As your future husband will receive everything that is mine, it is my duty to choose the right successor. The perfect choice is the younger son of a peer. They are more willing to marry an heiress regardless of her faults. No true gentleman wishes to earn his own way, or rely on what little pension his family provides. The farther the son is from a title, the more willing he will be to overlook your flaws.” Artemisia sighed heavily. “At least I have that small advantage on my side.”
Lily tried to force the food down her constricted throat.
“If he agrees to those terms, then all that is mine will be his.” Lord Artemisia sat back. “There are a few minor details to work out, but Dudley doesn’t anticipate any problems.”
Afraid that he might see her bitterness, Lilian did not raise her eyes. She only sensed when he rose and walked toward the foyer. Of course, Dudley, his solicitor, always managed to achieve what the earl most desired, with the exception of a legitimate son.
Lilian remained where she was and listened for her father’s departure. Yet, he’d let his own son make his own way in the world without a care or concern for him.
“Gloves, hat, cane,” he yelled at the valet. “Never hat, gloves, cane.”
Lilian winced at his tone, yet the footman should know by now not to disturb her father’s peculiar habits.
Only when she heard the door close did she let her spoon drop from her hand, and she raised eyes toward the entrance. He may have his plans, but she had her own. Never would she marry. Especially not a man her father handpicked, who married out of greed, with a willingness to turn his back on his own family name and heritage.
If she took care with her plan and execution, she would remain unbetrothed and thus unwed at the end of the Season, and every year following, without her father having the slightest hint she sabotaged his every effort. He would be angry, lay blame, and inflict punishment, of course, but she could live with that, knowing someday she would be free, having the ultimate triumph over the man who had caused her mother’s death.
* * *
It was an unusual occurrence for Lord Maxwell James Warrick to find himself sitting next to his own father, of all people, at two o’clock in the morning in the receiving room of Haven, an orphanage where Max presided on the board. Hadn’t he just been here not twelve hours ago?
Following Sunday services, he and the children enjoyed a pleasant lunch and played in the park until dusk. The children were exhausted by the time the staff finished getting them into bed and Max hadn’t expected to return until Wednesday afternoon.
Unlike most of the supporters, he became a living, breathing part of the home, which was why Mrs. Harper, the headmistress, had sent for him when there had been a break in.
Max couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to rob an orphanage. Besides the children, there was very little of value inside. However, it was also near Seven Dials, so perhaps the criminals didn’t realize they were more likely to come away with a runny nose than a quid.
The children had been frightened when he arrived, but after calming their fears, he sent for the Bow Street Runners to investigate and then for a locksmith to fix the door that very night, regardless of the cost. He had been waiting for the man to finish when his father, the Duke of Wayland, arrived.
When he first walked through the doors, Maxwell suffered a sudden panic, afraid something had happened to one of his family members. That had not been the case. Apparently his father simply yielded to one of his own odd moods of contemplation. As his wife was already abed, and his three other sons were at home with their wives, Maxwell, his youngest and only unmarried child, was the one he sought out when he had learned from Max’s butler where to find him.
They visited until the locksmith finished and then, after a final check of all the doors and windows, took their leave into the dark, foggy night. While his father lit a cheroot, Maxwell strolled with him to the hackney waiting at the corner. Neither man brought their own carriage to this area of town after nightfall. The attention would attract the more unsavory inhabitants.
“Is there something in particular on your mind this evening, Father?” Max asked.
The duke shook his grey head and sighed. “I met up with an old schoolmate from years ago—Artemisia.”
Maxwell stepped into the hackney and settled into the well-worn seat. He ignored the pungent smells and stained shabby interior. Dank, musty air surrounded them and Max tried not to breathe too deeply. It was best not to contemplate what may have occurred in this space prior to their arrival.
“Artemisia married later than I. Your mother and I only had the pleasure of visiting with her on a few occasions. I always found Artemisia to be a pompous fool, but his wife was a very lovely woman.”
“She is no longer?”
“No.” Lord Wayland shook his head. “She died several years ago, along with the son to whom she had just given birth.”
Maxwell said nothing.
“Lord Artemisia has a daughter who is twenty and is just now being presented. That is what brought him back into London. The man has been completely cut off from society, a recluse, for all these years. Seemed rather grateful to run into me. He doesn’t have any friends in Town.”
Maxwell eyed his father with suspicion. For the past year and a half, since he had turned five and twenty, his parents had been after him to take a bride. “Oh, I see.”
Lord Wayland continued. “No, no, Maxwell. I leave the matchmaking to your mother.”
Maxwell relaxed. If his father had been speaking of a possible match, he would have admitted to it. “Then what is troubling you?”
“The way the man spoke of his daughter. They have been in London for weeks, and she has yet to make an appearance.”
“Perhaps he isn’t very anxious to see her married.”
“No. That is not the case at all. Artemisia was investigating. He wants to ensure his daughter brought the highest dowry this season.”
“Does he hope to have every destitute lord on his doorstep?”
“Artemisia refuses to consider any titled gentleman.” His Grace frowned. “He didn’t explain his reasoning, odd though it is.”
Maxwell could only wonder at what must be wrong with the girl if the cost of purchasing her husband was so high. And what father didn’t want a title for his daughter? Usually those gentlemen were the first to be considered before any lesser gentleman. “Have you met the young lady?”
“No, though I would like to. What could be so wrong that Artemisia feels he must purchase a husband, while rejecting those most sought after? Unless he doesn’t believe anyone of title would consider his daughter. But why discount them before she’s ever made an appearance? It’s all rather confusing to me.”
“The thought does give one pause. Artemisia did not mention why he felt there would be no offers otherwise?” Max asked.
Again, the duke shook his head, his mouth turned down in a frown. “No, except for her mother’s tainted ancestry.”
Maxwell raised a surprised eyebrow. It wasn’t unusual for a noble English family’s blood to have previously mixed with the French, Scots, Italians, or other European countries. But to be tainted…
“The man is very bitter over the fact that he doesn’t have a legitimate son, and resentful for having a daughter who cannot attract a husband on her own.”
“Then he has an illegitimate one?” Max asked.
His father frowned. “At one time there were rumors, but they were quickly hushed.” He shrugged. “Rumors or no, it does not change that fact that his only heir is a female.”
“But you have four sons,” Maxwell reminded his father. “How would you have felt at not having any? Or, if rumors are to be believed, your only son was born on the wrong side of the blanket?”
“Your mother would have been all too happy to have a daughter, not that she doesn’t love each of her sons,” the duke assured him.
Max chuckled. The entire family knew his mother had always wanted a daughter, and still hoped for a granddaughter, though one had yet to be produced.
“Are you sure this isn’t the real reason you came looking for me?” Max’s lips pulled into a smile.
“Whatever do you mean?” His father blinked in confusion.
Maxwell’s smile broadened. “After all, I am the son of a duke with no hope of ever obtaining a title. I would be a perfect candidate for the lady’s hand.”
His father smiled sheepishly, and Maxwell thought perhaps his jest was in fact, the truth.
“It wasn't my intention, but before I knew of Artemisia’s own circumstances, I had boasted quite a bit about my own family. Now I know why he asked more pointed questions, about you in particular.”
Maxwell didn’t bother to hide his groan. It wouldn’t be the first time he had been sought out because his father was a duke, regardless of the fact that he was the fourth son and his older brothers had produced a total of four sons. The most tragic of circumstances would need to occur, which would mean the deaths of three brothers and four nephews before Max could make it to the head of the line. First, he loved his family dearly and it would destroy him to lose even one. And second, the last thing he ever wanted to become was the Duke of Wayland.
“I am sorry, Maxwell.”
Maxwell shrugged. His father hadn’t intentionally tried to play matchmaker. “No harm. If those are her father’s qualifications, he would have learned my name eventually.”
His father sighed deeply. “I suppose so.”