About the book
She stared at him, horrified at being so thrilled...
Forced to marry a lecherous Duke and tormented by her terrible step-sisters on a daily basis, Lady Laura Bennett has but one choice: disguise herself as a male servant to escape. Until she meets the uncouth rake she is to serve.
Dominique Brooks, the Earl of Wettington, is sick and tired of being called a hero. Especially when his scars are a painful reminder of his failure to rescue his mother and sister from the flames. His life, however, changes when he hires a new valet. A valet with something decisively strange about him.
When their forbidden desire takes its toll, Dominique finds himself thrown in a different kind of fire. Only this time, failure is not an option. For, the past has flesh and bone, and it finds its way back on the scars mapped on Dominique’s body.
Dominique could feel the flames again, as though they were all around him, trying to touch him, trying to take him into their fiery depths. He covered his eyes, hiding from the bright burn that was ravaging the downstairs floor of the manor.
He stumbled outside through the front door, coughing and spluttering, trying to clear his lungs of the smoke, but to little avail. After many minutes, he fell to his knees on the grass, coughing into the earth, and trying to breathe deeply.
There was a hand on his back, patting him sharply, and trying to assist him in clearing his lungs. Once he could breathe again, he looked up to see the face of the butler, Stanford. Concern laced his features.
Behind them, there was a large crash, as though furniture or even part of a floor was falling down. They both looked back to the house.
Dominique’s eyes danced across the carcass of the building. Flames could be seen, through every window and door. They were dancing, engulfing everything.
“Stanford?” His voice was hoarse as he pulled at the arm of the butler. Across the butler’s jacket were smatterings of ash. “What of my mother? And Juliet?”
The Earl of Wettington, Dominique’s father, and Jason, his brother, were away for the night. The only family in the house were Dominique, his mother, and his sister, Juliet.
Stanford’s eyes glistened with unshed tears as he looked down to the ground, away from Dominique.
“No, no.” Dominque shook his head, unwilling to believe the truth of what Stanford was unable to bring himself to say. He staggered to his feet and looked back to the house again. Behind one of the windows he could see a silhouette – short, with arms flailing. It had to be Juliet, his little sister. Fear shot through his body as though a bolt of lightning had struck it from the sky.
“No!” He sprinted back toward the door. Stanford yelled for him to come back, trying to claw at his jacket, but Dominique pushed him away, determined to be back in the house. He burst through the door he had left moments ago, only to find the fire had grown worse.
Taking off his jacket, he held it across his arms, trying to protect them from the blaze as he made his way through the house.
“Juliet! Mother!” He screeched their names repeatedly as he dived between the parlor, the dining room and the drawing room, but all he found were the flames, whipping at the walls and making the wallpaper curl.
He dropped down to the servant’s floor below the stairs. The fire was not so bad here, merely ash and smoke hung in the air.
“Juliet?!” He screamed her name again, but no one answered him. He could only hear the echo of the fire, as it roared through the corridors above.
He darted to the kitchen and found a pitcher of water in the sink, plunging the jacket in the water until it was sodden. He then replaced it to his arms, a better barrier against the flames, and returned upstairs.
As his feet climbed the stairs, the steps bowed beneath him in the heat, creaking horribly. That was when he saw her: Juliet was by the main staircase of the house, across the corridor from where he stood. She was on the floor, barely moving, her hands clawing at the steps.
He ran to her and threw the jacket around her body, trying to look away from the marks across her skin. She must have been caught in the fire.
“Juliet?” He rolled over her body, trying to see her face. The light of the fire made her skin red and orange. She opened her eyes as slits and looked at him before they fluttered closed again.
He pulled her into his arms, cradling her wrapped in his wet jacket, and carried her from the house. As he reached the front door, there was a bang from one of the nearby rooms that caused flames to leap from the door at his side, as though each flame was trying to grab him, and pull him back into their hell.
One flame connected with him, and he bellowed, clawing at his neck and his side. It was a scolding pain, shooting through his body.
He sprinted outside and saw the shock and horror on Stanford’s face. The other staff behind him had their hands pressed to their mouths, the sight almost unbearable to look at.
Stanford ran forward, removing his own jacket as Dominique placed Juliet on the floor. The butler pressed his jacket to Dominque’s neck and back, trying to put out the flames that had attached themselves there.
Stanford stepped back, and Dominique was numb for a moment, his nose crinkling against the scent of smoke... He put a hand to his neck, but regretted it immediately, yelping in pain, and pulling his hand away. He was severely burnt.
He looked down to Juliet on the floor and took her back in his arms. She was just a child, so young.
She cannot die.
Holding her tightly, he tried to brush the hair away from her face to see her expression clearly. Her eyes fluttered open again, looking up to see him.
“Juliet?” He murmured, aware of how still her body was. Her arms were limp, and she could not lift them; her body was weak.
“We will get you some help. Someone, send for a physician!” He barked the order, watching as the staff recoiled back.
He looked back down to Juliet. She smiled briefly at him, but it was fleeting, before her face fell slack, and her eyes closed. They would not open again.
Dominique sat bolt upright in bed, breathing heavily. His eyes surveyed his chamber. It was nighttime with a slither of moonlight leaking through the curtains. His hand moved to the scar on his neck, and he clutched it tight, bending forward as though suffering the pain all over again.
He closed his eyes, willing the images of the dream from his mind. He had been a child at the time of the fire; he had not yet reached his sixteenth summer. Yet now, thirteen years later, he still could not escape the memory.
It followed him around, as though he carried the memory in his shadows, and then, like a demon at night, it would seep into him, making him relive the moment in his dreams.
Since the death of his father, Dominique had inherited the title Earl of Wettington, meaning he had to return to the manor house that had been rebuilt after the fire. Here he was haunted by the memories of the past even more.
He leapt out of bed and moved to the window, pulling back the curtains with a harsh jerk. The moonlight blinded him for a moment, and he blinked, adjusting to the glare before catching his reflection in the glass.
He could see his hair, smooth and cropped short. His brown locks were damp with sweat from the dream, and his eyes were wide, their rare amber color alight. He looked away from them. They were too similar to the color of the flames for his comfort.
The scar was still visible, stretching from his neck across part of his chest and his side, a twisting burn mark. He placed his hand to his neck, hiding it from his sight for a moment.
Just like the physical scar, he believed his own soul was scarred too. Scarred by that memory, and by the loss of his mother and Juliet in the awful accident. A candle had been knocked over, that was all – how tragic for two lives to be lost because of something so trivial!
He dropped his hand from his neck, letting his eyes rest on the scar again. Sometimes, he wished he could rip the scar from his body and part from it forever. Leave the dreams behind and the memory that he carried with him everywhere.
He wanted to be happy.
Is that so impossible? Other people can be happy, why can’t I be too?
Laura was running through the house in her haste, excitement leaping through her body. It was the day of the assembly at the London Assembly Rooms, and she had been thinking about it for weeks. Not only would she get to see her friend, Martha, but she would also see a certain gentleman who had turned her head.
She hurried up the stairs, picking up her skirt around her knees in order not to trip, rushing to dress for the evening’s entertainment.
Laura had selected the dress carefully for the evening. Made of a beautiful green silk, it would match the jade color of her eyes and contrast her brunette locks perfectly. She knew the dress suited her well, as she was keen to impress.
Mr. Jason Brooks.
Tall with dark eyes, brown hair, and a smile that could charm anyone he ever met, for Laura, Mr. Brooks was the epitome of a gentleman. Many attendees of the assemblies talked of the chivalrous bachelor.
Laura rounded the corner to the bed chamber when her feet faltered, bringing her to a sharp stop. Her door was half open and on the floor in the doorway was a piece of green silk, identical to the material of her dress.
She walked forward slowly and picked it up, marveling at the similarity with curiosity as she opened the door wider. Her gaze lifted up to the room to find there were hundreds of green silk pieces strewn across the floor of her chamber.
“Diana! Charlotte!” She called her stepsisters’ names at the top of her voice as she ran into the room and dropped into the center of the pile of scraps.
Her dress had been torn and cut into hundreds of fragments. Helplessly, she started to collect them together, as though she could sew them back into one dress. She held up the pieces into the sunlight, feeling her throat constrict for a moment.
They have destroyed it.
Her stepsisters appeared in the doorway, laughing. Laura lifted her head to see them, narrowing her eyes in anger as she saw them.
Twin sisters and they were both beautiful, though Laura found their souls as foul as rodents.
Diana, the younger of the two by mere minutes, had striking red hair, that fell in curls behind her shoulders. Her eyes were a bright blue, and her smile was wicked as she looked at Laura.
Charlotte was clutching her stomach in laughter. Of a more robust build, Charlotte was the stronger sister. She had dark auburn hair that was a little shorter and reached her shoulders. She shared her sister’s blue eyes that were currently crinkled with laughter.
“How could you two do this?” Laura jumped to her feet, still clutching the scraps in her hands. “You had no right!”
“No right?” Diana was still giggling as she stepped into the room. “It was too fine a dress for you anyway, my dear. You would not have worn it well.”
Laura recoiled at the use of ‘my dear’. It was sickly sweet, and Diana only ever used it in mockery of her.
“Consider it a kindness; we saved you from your blushes. Think what people would have said to see you in such a dress?”
“This is a kindness?” Laura scoffed, holding the material high in the air. “You would not know kindness if it walked up and introduced itself to you.”
“Very well, if you are to be so insufferable about it, consider it a warning then.” Diana picked up one of the pieces from the floor and walked over to Laura, holding it in front of her as a taunt.
“Stay away from Mr. Jason Brooks.” Diana flicked the material into her face, but Laura caught it easily from the air.
She had suffered the same argument with Diana for the last two months at least. It appeared they had both set their caps at the young gentleman, resulting in a bitter and rather resentful rivalry.
Laura never stooped to Diana’s level. She could not bring herself to be so cruel, but she was happy to spar with words.
“If Mr. Brooks does not give you the attention you crave, Diana, perhaps it is time you realize he has no interest in you. It has nothing to do with me.” Laura dropped to the floor again, hurrying to collect all of the scraps of the torn dress.
“I have never known anyone with as much impertinence as you!” Diana cried loudly, her cheeks blushing red to match the color of her hair in her anger.
“You mistake impertinence for fact,” Laura snapped at her, picking up one of the scraps from beneath Diana’s feet and making her jump away. “If Mr. Brooks wishes to marry a woman with a heart made of empty glass, I am sure he will ask you eventually.”
“Oh! You have a tongue made of acid!” Charlotte now joined the argument, stepping into the room and folding her arms. As Laura went to pick up another fragment of silk, Charlotte stood harshly on it. Laura snapped her hand away, nearly caught by the stamp.
“Tell me, do you think Mr. Brooks would want a shrew for a wife? Because that is what you are.”
“A shrew?” Laura scoffed, rolling her eyes. “You come up with the same insult every day, Charlotte. If you wish to hurt my feelings, you must think of something new to say.”
With most of the scraps in her hands, she stood again and dropped them onto a nearby chair. Sadness seeped in through her outrage at the sight of the once fine dress that was now so destroyed.
“Besides, what does it matter to you?” Laura continued. Her anger had gone too far, and she was keen to continue the argument. She flicked her head back toward Charlotte. “I thought you were more concerned with Mr. Brooks’ brother.”
At the mention of the brother, Charlotte smiled. There was something devilish in the smile as she tilted her head high.
“I am protecting my sister’s interests.” Charlotte stepped toward her, but Laura stood her ground, refusing to be intimidated. She turned to Charlotte and matched her stance with folded arms. “As for the Earl of Wettington, I am confident he would never turn his eyes your direction anyway.”
Laura scoffed, raising her eyebrows. In truth, she did not care for the Earl’s attentions, therefore Charlotte’s words did not bother her.
The Earl of Wettington, Dominique Brooks, was Mr. Jason Brooks’ older brother. She had never seen the man, but she had heard much of him. Many talked about him, and such rumors were plentiful in their circles. It would have been impossible for her to not know something of him.
He had recently returned from France where he had been fighting with the army, which had prompted even more stories to spread about him.
“But,” Charlotte continued, stepping closer to her. She was so near now, that they were nearly nose to nose. “If you should turn your flirtation to the Earl, then consider this,” she picked up one of the scraps from the chair and played with it, “merely an omen of what is to come.”
Laura snatched it from Charlotte’s hands and threw it back on the chair.
“I have no interest in the Earl, so set your mind at rest, but if I did, then be warned, your threats would mean nothing to me.”
“I see you will not heed our warning,” Diana shrugged at her side as she moved toward her closet. “Tell me, where are the shoes you selected for this evening? I think we must make ourselves clearer.”
“Lay a finger on any other apparel I own, and I will do the same to you.” Laura knew her threat was empty. She despised her sister’s behavior, but she knew she could never act as they did, even with her anger.
“I do not believe you,” Diana reached for the closet.
“Mama!” Laura bellowed, lurching away from the sisters and making a beeline for the door. “Mama!”
Laura continued to call her mother as she searched the house. Behind her, she was aware of Diana and Charlotte following, giggling. She hurried down the stairs and found her way to the sitting room at the back of the house.
“Mama?” She leapt through the doorway and saw her mother sitting at a chair in the corner of the room, completing some embroidery in her lap.
“Laura, please do not shout so,” her mother said, shaking her head. “It is rather brazen. Where are your manners?”
Countess Barbara Leeds did not bother raising her eyes to see her daughter. Her aloof behavior made Laura’s chest ache.
“My manners are being called into question?” Laura marched through the room. A chink to her left turned her attention to the side of the room, where she saw her stepfather, pouring himself a brandy from the drink’s cabinet. “It is my stepsisters’ manners I wish to talk of.”
The Earl of Mumford, Lord Frederick Leeds, did not look at her either. Not that she minded- she did not care for him.
“What is wrong?” Barbara looked up eventually, placing the embroidery into her lap.
“Diana and Charlotte have destroyed my dress for this evening.” Laura pointed to the sisters.
“Destroyed it? How?” Barbara frowned before she turned her eyes to her stepdaughters. “What happened, dears?”
“It was an accident,” Diana stepped forward with a false appearance of sadness.
“An accident?” Laura repeated in horror. “You tore it into hundreds of pieces!”
“Do be quiet, Laura.” Her stepfather intervened, walking toward his wife and passing her a brandy. She looked up at him with a smile of thanks. The sight made Laura sick. Her mother used to only give that look to her father.
Frederick placed a small kiss to Barbara’s forehead before taking a seat beside her.
“I will not be quiet.” Laura placed her hands on her hips, her anger fueled by the sudden ache of missing her father’s presence. He had always taught her to speak her mind, and she would not shy away from it. “I have something to say, and it shall be heard.”
“If you behave in such an unladylike fashion, then you must grow accustomed to the idea that people will not listen.” Frederick shook his head, speaking to her as though she were a child. “It is not a big deal, Laura. It is trivial. No real harm has been done.”
“No harm?” She flicked her gaze between the sisters who were smiling with glee and Frederick. “They destroyed an expensive dress.”
“You have others to wear, dear,” Barbara said, returning to her aloof manner as she picked up the embroidery again from her lap. “Wear one of those instead.”
Laura opened her mouth to object again, but she quickly realized that the one person in the room who should have been her ally was not interested. Her mother’s attention was fixed on the embroidery and her husband.
Laura closed her mouth and hurried out of the room. As she disappeared down the corridor, she heard Frederick talking to her mother. His words were spoken softly, but they left Laura feeling cold.
“We really must do something about her manners, Barbara.”
“She is like her father.”
Laura knew her manners were not so poor. It was just her anger that had fueled her behavior. She ran back to her room, feeling the tightness of her throat as she stepped into the chamber. She closed the door behind her and locked it tight, as thoughts of her father returned.
Lord Richard Bennett, Earl of Rockfield, had been the very best of men to Laura. He had raised her differently, valuing her education over the more frivolous pastimes often ladies were encouraged to pursue.
She had loved him dearly for that.
He was a kind man, with an active and intelligent mind. He challenged her and encouraged her to pursue her education and keep her own opinion.
‘Never bow to anyone’s wants but your own, Laura.’
His words came back to her as she pushed herself away from the door toward the closet. Flinging open the closet door, she started flicking through her dresses, searching in desperation for something else to wear.
Ever since her mother’s marriage to the Earl of Mumford, Laura had dreamed of escaping the house, yet the practicalities of an escape were limited.
She sometimes dreamed of finding a gentleman who was a little like her father. Someone who would encourage her mind and respect her for it. She supposed that was why her head had been turned by Mr. Jason Brooks in the first place. Many spoke of him as a fine gentleman who possessed bright conversation skills and respected those he conversed with.
However, if Mr. Jason Brooks were to be the means of her escape of the house, she had competition. Many women admired him, in particular Diana.
She reached into the closet and pulled out one of her dresses, despairing at having to spend a whole evening at an assembly with Diana and Charlotte.
Her gaze returned to the chair briefly and the scraps of green material. She wondered what they would do next. She had no doubt now that they had gotten away with their mischief, they would continue.
How far will they go to pursue their own endeavors? And what harm will they do to me in the process?
Dominique shifted between his feet in discomfort. He pulled at the collar and the cravat around his neck, trying to loosen the pressure against his scar. His eyes flitted through the crowd of the assembly, painfully aware of how many people kept glancing his way.
“This is ridiculous,” he murmured, sipping from his claret as his brother Jason smiled at his side.
“It is not so bad.” Jason attempted to hide his smile when Dominique gave him a harsh glare. “They are talking about you. Is that not better than not being talked about at all?”
“I would wager a good sum that half of what they say is not true.” He adjusted his cravat again, brushing his scar before turning his body away from the crowd completely. “Merely prattle and gossip.”
“I would happily switch places with you, Dom, if you were able to do so,” Jason cast a happy gaze around the room. “The ladies tonight talk of nothing but you and would quite happily queue up for a dance with you.”
“I think you would happily switch places with me for other reasons too.” Dominique allowed himself a small smirk which made Jason laugh.
“You have caught me there.”
It was no secret between the brothers that Jason would have preferred to have been the eldest son and heir and have the fortune that had been inherited by his brother. It was often a point of jest between the brothers. Dominique could not entirely blame him for it, but, nevertheless, Jason was due to go into the navy soon and forge his own career.
“But it has to be said,” Jason smiled and gestured toward the room again, “the ladies this evening will stop at nothing to get your attention.”
Dominique winced, refusing to look back at the crowd. He chose instead to focus on the claret in his glass.
He was not oblivious to the behavior of the ladies. He had barely arrived at the grand assembly rooms when their attentions had begun. He had been admiring the cavernous ceiling, the candelabras, and the renaissance paintings when the first lady had been introduced to him. Ever since then, it had been one long round of introductions, with fathers intent on presenting their daughters to him.
In truth, Dominique was no stranger to a woman’s company and had even had a few mistresses in the past. There was a moment in his life where he had thought he could find solace and freedom from what haunted him in a woman’s arms and bed.
He soon saw a fleeting night could not make him happy, and when he had realized his endeavor was flawed, he stepped away from such evenings. All he wanted these days was to find happiness.
To be happy.
“Oh yes, dear, rescued three men from the battlefield. Carried them out with his bare hands…” The words of a passerby found him. When the lady who had spoken realized who she had just walked past, she closed her mouth and moved on.
Dominique winced as he looked back to Jason who was still smiling.
“As a matter of fact, I would happily be in your shoes at this moment,” Dominique nodded as he finished his wine. “Then I could understand why you find this all so amusing.”
“Oh, it is better than the theatre!” Jason laughed as he poured another glass of claret and passed it to Dominique. “Here, Dom. Try to think of something else.”
“How can I when all I hear is people saying such lies about me?”
“Was that one a lie?” Jason enquired, pointing after the woman who had just disappeared.
“It was not quite the whole truth,” Dominique admitted as he focused on his glass.
“Ah, well I have found someone that can distract us from such stories,” Jason gestured across the room to where two young ladies stood talking. “Come, if it is conversation you wish to distract yourself with, then I know the perfect young lady’s company.”
Dominique followed his brother, though he walked a little slower, wishing he could escape entirely from the evening.
Laura had disentangled herself from her family as soon as they had arrived at the assembly. She instead sought the company of her friend, Martha. At length, the two of them discussed their lives, much more concerned with each other’s company than that of anyone else’s.
Laura liked Martha for her conversation. They had similar minds, as Martha had also pursued her education. Martha was often belittled by her brothers for her strong resolve and desire to give an opinion. Laura loved her dearly for it.
When they had finished discussing their recent studies of fossils and the discoveries made at Lyme Regis, their conversation turned to what had happened to Laura’s dress.
“I have never known two people with more capacity for hatred than those two,” Martha laughed, but with indignation, as she shook her head. “It is a wonder they are accepted in good company at all.”
“Oh, they know how to behave very well in public. That is part of the problem,” Laura said as she picked up two glasses of sparkling wine from a nearby tray and passed one to Martha. “They hide in plain sight, wearing disguises that are flawless.”
“Indeed, they are beautiful people, and I have witnessed myself how Diana can charm any stranger,” Martha nodded as she sipped from her drink. “Yet is seems she has not yet charmed your favorite,” she dropped her voice to a whisper.
“Perhaps not yet,” Laura smiled, unable to stop smiling at the thought of Mr. Brooks.
“Have you seen his brother is here tonight?”
“The Earl of which everyone speaks?” Laura smirked at the idea. “He is everyone’s favorite subject this evening. Apart from you and I, is anyone here capable of talking of anything else?”
“I know what you mean,” Martha nodded, her fair curls dancing around her face with the movement. “I cannot tell you how many times before you arrived that I had to listen to the same story repeatedly- how he has only just returned from war, and this is one of his rare public appearances.”
“What else do they say?”
“I do not doubt some of it is just rumors.” Martha pointed across the room slyly with her glass. “He is over there.”
Laura followed her gesture, more than a little floored by the sight.
Standing next to Mr. Brooks was a fine figure of a gentleman. Of a similar height to his brother, the Earl had short brown hair and a strong, athletic figure evident beneath his grand clothes. His face was classically handsome, clean shaven, with a strong jawline and high cheekbones.
Laura smiled as she returned her eyes to Martha.
“Well, I would have to be blind if I was to argue that I did not understand why people talked of him so.” She sipped from her wine, sharing a small laugh with Martha.
“I know, a handsome man indeed,” Martha laughed too. “Some of the rumors are outrageous. They talk of how he might have gotten that scar on his neck.”
“Apparently it is some kind of burn mark,” Martha nodded again. “But I have heard three different tales already this evening of how it might have happened. His exploits in France have been talked of as well. Some say he was a hero on the battlefield, and others the finest marksman in England, whilst some declare he once fought three men at once and was victorious, escaping bearing just one bruise.”
“He sounds more like a fictional character than a real man,” Laura shook her head, “but people do like to embellish the truth, do they not?”
“Indeed, they do.” Martha cast a quick glance across the room.
“I imagine most young ladies this evening crave the gentleman’s company.”
“Rather ironically, it seems we are to have that company.” Martha gestured across the room. “The Earl and his brother are heading this way.”
Laura raised her eyes to follow her friend’s gesture. Mr. Jason Brooks was walking toward them, a spring in his step and wearing a bright smile. She matched his smile as their gaze connected, that familiar warmth she had grown so accustomed to feeling in his presence as of late returned.
Her eyes then drifted behind him to his brother. The Earl was lagging somewhat behind.
Laura could not deny he cut a fine presence through the room, and he was a handsome man, yet she thought the set of his features rather displayed his coldness for the proceedings. It was clear to her that he did not want to be there.
“Ah, Lady Bennett, Lady Black, how are you two this evening?” Mr. Brooks bowed to them, prompting them to curtsy back.
“We are well, Sir, and yourself?” Laura asked just as the Earl appeared in their circle at her side.
“I am very amused, for it seems all talk is of my brother this evening, much to his displeasure.” He smirked with mischief and turned to the Earl. “May I introduce him to you? This is the Earl of Wettington, Lord Dominique Brooks. Dom, this is Lady Black and Lady Bennett.”
Laura curtsied as her name was mentioned.
“It is a pleasure,” the Earl said as he bowed. Though the words were spoken well, and he had been perfectly mannered, Laura was astute enough to see that the Earl was still not a happy man.
“If it is a pleasure, I am afraid your countenance does not agree with you.” Her words made the Earl’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise. “Are you unhappy, my Lord?”
She waited for his reply with sudden nerves.
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