The Masterton Family Series
Nothing is the Same
Her reputation is ruined.
Fleeing robbed and penniless, Lilly accepts the help of a handsome stranger. Their growing attraction is jeopardized by the need to keep her identity secret and the scandal of her red garters. Only by trusting each other do they have a hope of happiness, but can they put the past behind them to be happy?
Melbourne, Australia, 1864
Two candles flickered across thescuffed floorboards and tawdry furnishings of their rooms in the boarding house. Lilly's foot tapped an impatient beat as she listened to the draw of the bureau in her father’s bedchamber catch and stick. Her fingers clenched around the threadbare arm of the chair as her father finished his preparations and stepped out, dressed in his evening attire of a white shirt, striped waistcoat, and the impeccably tied neckcloth.
He still cut an elegant figure, though his hair was sprinkled with silver. Lines radiated from his warm toffee-hued eyes, but deep grooves were now carved around his mouth. It reflected their current life and stirred a familiar burn in her belly.
She slid to the chair edge, her palm stretching imploringly. “I don’t want you to go. Stay here. I need you.”
The irritated slice of his brown eyes stopped her from rising to her feet.
“We discussed this earlier. You are safe here. It’s a boarding house.”
He flicked a glance around the room. An air of shabbiness clung to everything, and the rapid chill could not be dismissed. He had to see it. They had never been so destitute.
In the lengtheningsilence, hope swelled. Daily she evaded the landlady, and the expectation of eviction grew. If only her father would listen.
“I’m going. I have already made arrangements to meet my friends at the club.”
“Friends,” Lilly sneered, her patience gone. “Each night they fleece you, then you stagger home reeking of rum.” There was no comfort that perfume did not cling to his clothes.
“Last week I won,” he protested.
The proud thrust of his chest irked her. “You lost it with the same speed you gained it. The landlady is demanding our rent.”
“There is the reason why I must go, to pay the landlady,” her father countered, fixing a pin to his neckcloth. It winked in the candlelight like a real diamond. His smart appearance still lured others into believing him wealthy.
He pulled his velvet evening jacket on, flicked a cloak around his narrow shoulders, and said with the confidence of a gambler, “You will see. I will win tonight.”
“Please, stay. Please!”
The words slipped from her lips, sparking irritation in his countenance. Defeat battered her soul as he strode toward the door. He would not eschew these people he called friends, and the failure to convince him weighed on her heart. The door clicked with cold finality, and his footsteps receded into the distance.
The faded pattern on the walls shimmered. Lilly sniffed, determined not to shed any more tears. She had shed so many already. Her hollow stomach growled, and her hand pressed against it as she shivered. No supper tonight. Not when funds were non-existent.
Early spring evenings lost their warmth fast, and the chill in the room had a bite. She stood, blew out one candle, and used the other to light the way to her bedchamber. A narrow cot, a robe for her few clothes, and a dresser with a washbasin filled the confined space. The only color came from the hand-stitched counterpane, a gift from her dead mother.
Lilly undressed quickly, pulled on her cotton nightgown, and snuffed the candle before diving between abrasive sheets. Filtered moonlight cast shapes like misshapen monsterson the walls.
She closed her eyes and yearned for the past and happier times. Music filled her ears, clear as a summer night filled with enchantment. Her best friend, Maddy, so different with her straw-colored hair and baby-blue eyes, giggled in the background. Lilly remembered again how it felt to be swept into the arms of her affianced, giddy with excitement as she whirled around the ballroom. Magic filled her, bubbled through her blood, as effervescent as imported champagne.
A sharp tapping jarred her awake. She sat up, the music echoing in her ears. The chilly air seeped through to her skin, and when no further noise came, she began to wriggle under the covers. Another rap on the door jerked her upright.
She froze. Had her father locked the door behind him when he left? Could he have forgotten his key? Did she dare check to see?
In the distance, wispy fragmented voices could be heard. Nearer was the clip-clop of hooves. The ticking of the mantelpiece clock in the other room had a crystalline clarity. None bore any resemblance to the sound she had heard.
So, she lit the candle, grabbed her wrapper from the end of the bed, pulling it on as she crept into the next room. Respectable people did not call at such an hour. Hard knuckles rapped again.
Startled, she nearly dropped the candle and hurried to put it on the mantel. Then she crept toward the door, expecting it to fly open at any second. Beside the doorframe, she picked up a recently placed chunk of wood. Her heart thumped, her pulse went wild, and her grip on the wood became sweat-slick when the doorknob rattled.
“Lilly, it’s me. I need to talk with you.”
Shock held her immobile. Will, her best friend Maddy’s brother, should not be here, not at this hour. She propped the timber against the wall, then opened the door.
Will shouldered her backward into the room. His pale blue eyes scanned both the outside hall and the interior. His sandy hair was in disarray, his neckcloth rumpled. Her usual meticulous friend had disappeared, causing her stomach to knot.
He closed the door with the faintest click of the latch. As he turned, he saw the chunk of wood and his brows hiked.
“I’m glad you never used that on my head.”
She swallowed at the image. “So am I.”
Lilly tightened her wrapper. The clandestine feel of his presence amplified her anxiety. “Why are you here?”
He stepped close, his hands closing around the tops of her arms. “Ask no questions. Dress fast and warm. Maddy is waiting at home for us. Hurry!”
She gulped. Her pulse took flight at the deep-seated worryin his eyes. “Why?”
“We have no time now. Get dressed. All will be explained when I get you there.” He gave her a small push in the direction of her bedchamber.
Lilly hurriedly began to pull on whatever clothes were at hand. When she returned, Will remained in the same place, his face taut, watching the entrance. He swung around at her footsteps.
“Come, let me help you with your cape.” He settled the garment on her shoulders, then let her fasten it, draw on her gloves, and pick up her reticule. He opened the door with the caution of a thief and peered into the dimly lit corridor. Satisfied there was no threat, he signaled to her to follow him.
They were nearly through the door when she saw the candle still alight on the mantel above the fire. When she went to go back to it, his hand shot out and halted her.
“I must douse the candle,” she whispered.
Impatience tightened his lips. She hurried to snuff it and return. Once the door was locked, he compelled her out of the building. Will’s pace kept her pulse fast and every sense on high alert. She had no idea what danger threatened, but Will was all sharp intensity.
The dark streets echoed with their footfalls. At one point, she was sure she heard footsteps as they turned the corner, but when she went to look back, Will’s hand caught her elbow and gave her no chance. He did take a quick backward glance over his shoulder, then increased their pace until they were nigh on running.
Once in front of Maddy’s house, Lilly stopped, her breath sawing in and out of her lungs. Between each one, she said, “You know how to run a woman off her feet.”
“Only those who are special.”
He gave her a lopsided grin. She clung to the rail at the bottom of the stairs for a few more minutes before climbing them. Will strode up with no loss of breath and stood with the door open, his stance all impatient male. A wild flutter began in her stomach, and she had to dig deep for the courage to enter. The usually brilliantly lit hall had but one lamp to keep the shadows at bay.
She pushed open the door to the parlor, aware of the click of the outer door closing behind her and Will following. As she entered, Maddy spun around and hurried over.
“You’re here. What took you so long?” Maddy hugged her like they had been apart for a month rather than a few hours.
“What do you think? I had to wake her without drawing attention, and she had to dress,” Will responded, a sharp bite to his voice.
Maddy gave a tight smile. “No one saw you?”
“No,” said Will.
Confused, Lilly looked between them.
Maddy grabbed her hand. “Come and sit here.”
Lilly took a seat on the chaise lounge beside Maddy, while Will stood to the side of the fireplace and leaned against the mantel. The pleasant crackle of a fired log spread warmth, and Lilly appreciated the chance to thaw.
“What has happened since I saw you both earlier?”
Will’sgrimace froze her heart. Maddy had her hand wedged in hers.
The bob of Will’s throat, his rigid stance, and his grim face brought her to the edge of her seat.
“Please, what is wrong?”
“When I entered a gentlemen’s club tonight, it was quite a crush. At first, I didn’t notice your father. We do not frequent the same place usually.
“It was obvious he was in a high-stakes card game. One he should not have been involved in given your current circumstances.”
“Will,” Lilly interrupted, “tell me why you stole me out in the middle of the night.”
Maddy patted her hand.
“Tension gripped all the players. Quite a crowd gathered around the table. When it came to your father’s turn, he had no coins. I could see he wanted to bail out, but a scarred, slick fellow told him to get on. Leaving was not an option, but what your father wagered was reprehensible.”
The mantel clock was loud in the silence. “He offered a night in his virginal daughter’s bed, Lilly.”