Series: Shadows and Silk #6
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Just one night changed their lives…
When Spanish émigré Eva Galante meets French aristocrat Lucien Capet, it’s love at first sight. But their meeting isn’t by chance, and Eva isn’t who Lucien believed her to be. After a whirlwind romance and a flight to Gretna Green, Lucien learns the truth about what loving Eva could cost him.
A single betrayal tore them apart…
Four years later, Eva is London’s most sought-after modiste and Lucien is now Marquis de Touraine, about to become engaged to Eva’s best client—as long as he’s not still married to Eva! Confronting their past means a journey across England to the Scottish border. With each mile memories are raised, and passions reignited, sparking one last night together. Or so they think...
Can a second chance reunite them forever?
But the past isn’t ready to give up its secrets just yet. As Lucien and Eva confront an old foe, new truths are revealed… and a deeper understanding of each other that love-at-first-sight never gave them. Despite the betrayals of the past, feelings are rekindled that were never quite extinguished. Will one last secret pull them apart—or bind them together forever?
Château La Perle, France
Every so often Eva’s shadow self attempted a return to the light.
Her shadow self could be persistent.
Though hidden beneath three years’ worth of carefully accumulated layers of self-control and measured action, this self still existed. The self ruled by passion. The self who acted on impulse. The self who got her into trouble.
For example, her shadow self could easily take a needle—like the one she presently held between forefinger and thumb—and deliver a quick, well-aimed, “accidental” prick to the occasional too-lofty, too-irritating client. This self had no care for the dressmaking empire she’d been methodically building the last few years.
Of course, the client she truly desired to prick with her needle wasn’t the lady whose dress she was currently altering, but the young lady’s mother, Lady Uxbridge, who was—and this was the frustrating part—one of Eva’s best and most influential clients. The Duchess of Uxbridge. Eva’s shadow self could have borne the Duchess for no longer than thirty seconds, but her new self was demonstrating surprising skill, even when Lady Uxbridge opened her mouth and uttered observations to her daughter like, “Oh, don’t slouch your shoulders that way. It makes you look like a louche Continental jade.”
“But Maman,” replied the ever-unruffled Lady Portia, “you were born in France, and you wish for me to marry a Frenchman. Shouldn’t I be a touch Continental?”
Lady Uxbridge gusted a frustrated harrumph. “That is different, mon cherie. I’ve been the wife of an English duke these last thirty years, and am quite English where it counts, I can assure you.”
The daughter adjusted her shoulders as instructed, even if the suggestion of a smile played about her mouth. It was difficult to tell with Lady Portia, for her customary placidity gave little away.
Such conversations between mothers and daughters at the dressmaker’s were not at all unusual. Studiously and intentionally, Eva kept her exterior devoid of reaction, even if her interior was bursting with opinions. The only point the savvy dressmaker should wield was that of a needle, not of a view.
She poked needle through blue silk the hue of frozen ice and kept her mouth decidedly closed. She’d been invited to this château in the French countryside for her dressmaking services to the Uxbridge ladies. Lady Portia was on the brink of becoming engaged to the lord of this estate, the Marquis de Touraine, if his and Lady Portia’s matchmaking mamas had their way. Lady Uxbridge’s desperation for the union only increased with each day the Marquis didn’t propose. Even Eva was beginning to wonder what was taking the man so long.
Convinced that the perfect wardrobe would speed the match along, Lady Uxbridge had paid Eva’s fare from London to Château La Perle, in addition to the price of materials, finished dresses and sundries, and Eva’s undivided attention, which was bringing in quite a tidy sum for her bespoke services. She’d only required a quick stopover in Paris to deposit her son Ariel and her apprentice Nell with Madame Fabienne, former modiste to the Spanish court, and family friend.
Ariel. A pang of longing stole through Eva. She’d only been separated from him for two days, yet it was too long. But it was for him that she’d agreed to Lady Uxbridge’s request. This was how one built an empire, each powerful client a brick in the foundation. Her own advancement in the world only mattered inasmuch as it advanced Ariel’s place. She wasn’t worth anything. He was worth everything.
So here she stood, face not three inches from Lady Portia’s waist—dressmaking was an intimate business—inside Château La Perle, a palace that reached the heights of muted, airy sophistication with its white marble floors, pale green walls, and high coffered ceilings. Waistlines had dropped considerably in the last several months, and Eva was here to ensure Lady Portia was clothed head to toe in the latest fashion. Lady Uxbridge had been most firm on that point. No French ladies would be snickering behind her daughter’s back.
Eva settled her haunches onto her heels and took in her handiwork. Tomorrow night, at the ball that was expected to be Lady Portia’s engagement ball, she would stun the room with her tall, willowy form, pale blonde hair, crystalline blue eyes, and cheekbones that spoke of generations of noble forebears.
Still, Eva wasn’t quite enamored of this particular shade of blue on Lady Portia. She couldn’t deny the color perfectly matched Lady Portia’s eyes and set off her pale coloring, but its icy coolness leaned too far in that direction. Eva would have chosen a different color to thaw Lady Portia a few degrees. Perhaps a soft mossy green or a summer-sun yellow. But Lady Uxbridge had insisted.
Eva let the matter go. Perhaps the Marquis wanted an ice queen for a wife. She’d never met the man—and likely never would—her work keeping her in the shadow of the ladies she serviced.
There were men who liked that sort of beauty.
There were men who liked everything.
She shoved the thought away. She wouldn’t think about men and their varying tastes and how she’d come by such knowledge. That was her past. A past made more distant with every aristocratic client she acquired.
No one would be able to touch her or her family again. Ever.
“Señora Galante,” said Lady Uxbridge, her tone hovering somewhere between a wheedle and a command. Eva wouldn’t like what next emerged from the lady’s mouth. “What if you lowered the neckline another inch?”
“Another inch?” exclaimed Lady Portia. “Maman, if the neckline drops any lower, the pinks of my nipples will show.”
Lady Uxbridge threw her hands into the air in exasperation. “And would that be the worst outcome in the world?”
“Yes,” said Lady Portia, cool to the point of frigidity. “I will not go to any lengths to secure a proposal of marriage from the Marquis.”
“Oh, mon cherie, I do despair of you at times.” Lady Uxbridge expelled a long-suffering sigh and turned her eye onto Eva.
Eva braced herself. She didn’t enjoy being caught betwixt a mother and daughter struggle.
“You are a married woman, non?” asked the Duchess.
“For a short time only,” said Eva, tight, controlled. She moved to inspect the back of Lady Portia’s gown so she didn’t have to meet anyone’s eye.
Of all the subjects under the sun, marriage was the one she most especially didn’t want to discuss. There was the respectable short marriage to a fictitious soldier these women thought she’d had.
And then there was the other one.
Lady Uxbridge, however, wasn’t one to be distracted. She was rather like a small terrier with a bone when her mind fixed on a subject. “I’m not interested in your marriage. But what of the proposal? Perhaps you could give my daughter a few suggestions on how to coax Touraine into asking the question.”
A fragment of memory flashed across Eva’s mind. Dark eyes, earnest and sure… Long, masculine fingers taking her hand, the heat of him entering her body through that single point of contact… A sudden, solemn question asked… A breathy, buoyant ‘yes’ answered… A thin blade of grass plucked from the riverbank, twining round and round the fourth finger of her left hand… A vow never to remove it as long as she lived…
Her thumb rubbed the back of her fourth finger—bare, only skin.
And somehow, she’d survived.
“It wasn’t a romantic proposal.” How easily her new self lied.
Lady Uxbridge flicked a dismissive hand. “Oh, pish, but it was a proposal, non?”
“He was going to war.” The fictitious soldier had tragically perished in a far-flung region of the world. “The proposal was one borne of circumstance.” Eva wondered if the lie sounded hollow to anyone else’s ears. “It was all rather rushed.”
That applied to both the false, respectable marriage and…the other one.
A canniness entered Lady Uxbridge’s eye. “Ah, I know what you speak of.”
“You do?” Eva couldn’t imagine she did.
“Driven by carnal passions.” Lady Uxbridge’s mouth pinched primly about the corners. “Well, that is decidedly not the case here.”
“No?” Eva asked, utterly flummoxed by this turn. How she wished she could reverse the clock one minute and direct the conversation down a different avenue.
“Touraine is not a man of carnal passions.” Lady Uxbridge all but huffed. “He is known for his high standards and virtuous nature.”
“A virtuous man?” Eva scoffed, without thinking. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
Lady Portia laughed, but the pinch of Lady Uxbridge’s mouth didn’t relent. Dread curled in Eva’s stomach.
“Maybe that’s true of the low men with whom your sort cavorts,” said the Duchess. “But I can assure you the Marquis de Touraine is of the highest respectability and nobility in all of France. He takes no delight in low pleasures.”
Cheeks flaming, Eva pressed her lips together and took up Lady Portia’s hem, pretending to find a stitch that needed fixing.
It didn’t take much for the upper classes to reveal just what they thought of her sort—a woman whose family name wasn’t listed in Debrett’s. Of course, she wouldn’t be, as her heritage was both Spanish and Jewish, even though very few in English Society knew that last bit. Not that Eva hid or denied it, but no one thought to ask, so myopic was the English aristocratic view of the world. But it all conspired to make her different—exotic, with her dark hair, eyes, and accent—and therefore of lower standing.
The simple fact was, she’d overstepped. Empires built around servicing the rich and titled weren’t accomplished by overstepping. They were built by being the best, and by being meek.
The former was easily accomplished. It was a fact. She was the best at her profession.
Even her new self had a bit of trouble with that one.
She retreated into the safety of her occupation. “Lady Portia, if you would remove the gown, I shall make the needed adjustments and have it ready by tomorrow afternoon.”
Lady Portia turned and met the eye of the lady’s maid who had sat quiet and unnoticed in a discreet corner for the duration of the alteration session. “What do you think, Edith? Am I alluring in this dress?”
“Must you call your lady’s maid by her given name?” asked Lady Uxbridge. Her capacity for exasperation knew no limitations. “It’s most peculiar.”
“Yes, in fact, I must,” returned Lady Portia without an ounce of heat, but with cool, steely determination.
Edith held her mistress’s eye. “Any man would be a fool to think otherwise.”
Lady Portia clearly had a friendship with her maid, as did many ladies. After all, a lady’s maid was the keeper of not only her mistress’s clothing and sundries, but her secrets, too.
As Lady Portia changed into her morning dress, her mother took a different tack. “Tell me what you know of Château La Perle, mon cherie.”
“Oh, Maman,” said Lady Portia. “I visited here a few times with you and Father as a child. I know enough about Touraine’s estate.”
“But it’s been years, and Touraine is most involved in the running of his winemaking venture. The more a woman is intrigued by a man, the more he is intrigued by her.” Lady Uxbridge gave a little shrug that accepted she didn’t make the rules.
Since resisting her mother would get her nowhere, Lady Portia began to recite a list of facts.
“Château La Perle is constructed of tuffeau, a local limestone that gives the château its white appearance. It’s about three hundred years old.”
“And the vineyard?”
“Planted two hundred years ago. It was rehabilitated by the previous marquis after the Revolution.”
“Best not bring up the Revolution,” interrupted Lady Uxbridge.
Lady Portia continued. “The current marquis is carrying on with the business after his father’s untimely death last year.”
Lady Uxbridge crossed herself and uttered, “Rest in peace, dear Henri.” Her focus didn’t stray from the topic at hand, however. “The winemaking is not a business, Portia, and the Marquis is no common tradesman.”
“Then he’s an uncommon one?”
Eva only just contained a snort.
Lady Uxbridge’s eyes narrowed on her daughter. “It isn’t for you to put forward ideas. Leave those to the Marquis.”
Lady Portia’s gaze flashed to meet Edith’s for the fraction of a second, a silent communication that would remain between only them.
Lady Uxbridge wasn’t finished. “Now, about this afternoon—”
A frustrated squeak erupted from Lady Portia. “Must I go?”
“We are beneath the same roof as a young marquis who is without a wife,” Lady Uxbridge explained very slowly. “A situation we shall remedy now that the mourning period for his father has ended. It is why his dear maman invited us here. So, you will compliment his wines and you will skate arm-in-arm on the ice with him this afternoon.”
“While the former is within my capabilities, the latter is a ticklish proposition,” said Lady Portia. “I’m rather an unskilled frog on the ice.”
Cunning lit within Lady Uxbridge’s eyes. “And how you will need to lean on the Marquis for support.”
Being born of the lower classes might’ve had its disadvantages, but at least Eva never had to suffer through a campaign to secure a marquis for a husband. What a dreadful business.
Lady Uxbridge gasped. “Señora Galante, do you have the time?”
Eva consulted the silver pocket watch hanging from a chain at her waist. “Eleven of the clock, my lady.”
“Oh, we must move along,” exclaimed the Duchess. “We are to meet the group at half past two for the ice-skating.”
“I believe that gives us ample time to ready ourselves.” Lady Portia handed the ball gown to Eva.
“Señora Galante, perhaps you would like to join our party?”
Eva opened her mouth to refuse when Lady Uxbridge beat her to it. “Señora Galante to join us?”
The woman laughed. Just a little meanly. Just enough to raise the hackles of Eva’s shadow self. The self who didn’t play as nicely as her new self.
“I can’t imagine where you get such ideas, mon cherie. Señora Galante is our—”
“Guest,” Lady Portia cut in. Her mother had been about to say servant. “And she’s here at our invitation. Why shouldn’t she enjoy the hospitality of the Marquis?”
“I’m certain her hands will be quite full of needles and silk, readying your gown for tomorrow night’s ball,” Lady Uxbridge stated.
Eva was meant to refuse the invitation, she understood that. But her shadow self had already lifted its head. Something about Lady Uxbridge using all the excuses Eva would have used particularly irked her. It made her want nothing more than to contradict the woman.
A temptation she must resist…resist…resist…
“I would be honored to join your party,” Eva found herself saying.
Lady Uxbridge opened her mouth and closed it. Opened it again, and closed it again. Eva had rendered the woman momentarily speechless. That a part of her didn’t enjoy it entirely too much.
Deeming it unwise to ruffle the feathers of one of her best clients any further, Eva quietly set about packing her two cases and exiting the room posthaste, nodding at each of the ladies and politely refusing the assistance of Edith.
It was only when she’d lugged the cases all the way to the opposite wing of the château and had tromped halfway up a second set of stairs that she regretted her decision. She reached a landing that led to yet another set of stairs, let her cases drop to the floor in an undignified heap, and took in the beauty surrounding her. The French excelled at simple design that spoke of luxury in the quality of its marbles, rugs, and tapestries, even in this part of the château—an unfashionable wing that wasn’t quite the servants’ quarters, but not for the higher-ranking guests either.
Eva fell into that middling class—not a servant, but not an equal of the nobility either. Even as the most sought-after dressmaker in all of London—a title she’d been striving for these last few years—she would always exist on a lower tier. As long as they paid their bills, the rich could treat her as they pleased. Whatever made them feel superior.
Her hands tightened around the case handles, and she straightened, determined not to stop again until she reached her rooms. Only a hundred or so yards to go.
She was halfway up the flight of stairs when a male voice sounded behind her, “Please, madame, allow me to assist you.”
Eva pasted a smile onto her face before turning, ready to decline the offer. A too-handsome-for-his-own-good valet had come within arm’s reach of her with a smirk on his face that said he knew it.
“I have no need of your assistance.” She didn’t accept help from men, ever. It only indebted a woman to a man, which only got a woman into trouble.
He didn’t seem to hear her refusal—or simply ignored it—for he stepped closer. “Here,” he said, extending his hands.
She only gripped the cases tighter. “I said no.”
“You’re a modiste, non?”
“Have we met?” she asked, cold, direct. He would know who was in control here.
It wasn’t him.
He shrugged one shoulder in the indifferent manner only a Frenchman could affect. “You know how word gets around the servants.”
“Do I?” She drew herself up to her full height and narrowed her eyes. “I am a guest here, not a servant. Now, if you will stand aside, I have a day to get on with.”
Brow crinkled with bewilderment, the valet stepped aside to allow her passage with an exaggerated bow and flourish of his arm. The English had an excellent word for a man like him. Cheeky.
Inside her room, arms determined to fall off, she shut the door with a bump of her bottom, dropped the cases in the middle of the floor, turned the key in the lock, and slumped onto the bed.
Alone at last.
But she had no time for relief as regret instantly seized her. She’d agreed to attend the ice-skating party. Why?
The answer was easy.
Her shadow self, ever looking for an angle to assert herself.
She’d allowed that part of herself a glimmer of light, and now she had no choice but to attend.
She dragged herself to the wardrobe and flung the doors open. Each dress constructed by her, they were all of a piece: muted colors and prim lines. Nothing that flashed or caught the eye. Nothing that would dare outshine the ladies she serviced. Still, she did allow herself one concession: Her clothing was of fine quality, which she could admit was a nod to her shadow self.
But must she contain and suppress every bit of herself? May she not be allowed a few indulgences?
The truth was she preferred bold colors to grays, and silk to cotton. She couldn’t have the bold colors, but she could have the silk.
Yet the outing presented another problem. Her shadow self loved such outings. The socializing. The flirting. The strutting and strolling. The showing of oneself to advantage. Her shadow self was so very aware of her beauty and enjoyed seeing its effect on others, and not purely for vanity’s sake. A woman’s beauty made fools of men, and she never tired of seeing a man made foolish. Often, they were deserving of it.
She crossed the room to the window and took in the magnificent view. A cold, almost-spring sun poured its light over the carefully manicured gardens that extended from the house, stopping at the gentle rise of a hill where rows of vines extended as far as the eye could see, disappearing behind the fall of the hill, and reappearing up the rise of another behind it.
The immensity of the château and its surrounding estate struck her for the first time. To be the possessor of all this… And a pond for ice-skating, too?
Although it was March, and the trees and vines were showing the suggestion of green, winter hadn’t quite finished with this part of France, as evidenced by the cold winds that yet whistled through the air. She supposed it was enough to keep a pond frozen if it lay in the shade of a hillside.
Her eye caught on two men slowly walking up a row of vines. One short, with a touch of a stoop and a hitch in his step that spoke of old age. The other quite tall, with broad shoulders that filled out his rough laborer’s coat to perfection, and possessed of the confident stride of a man in his prime who knew what he was about. The estate manager, like as not.
However, it wasn’t what her eyes saw that made her heart accelerate in her chest, but a phantom sense of recognition, even as her mind insisted it held no true substance. Four years on, she should have learned. Many men were tall and broad-shouldered and possessed of a confident stride.
And none of those qualities made those men him.
In fact, in these last four years she’d seen any number of such men, and none were him.
Not that she would want anything to do with him, even if it were.
Which it couldn’t be, even if he had been French.
France was a large country. A country vast enough to disappear a man into nonexistence. If only memory would follow similar logic.
She stepped away from the window. If she was to join the ice-skating party, she needed to make some progress on Lady Portia’s ball gown. She opened her cases and removed the garment, rubbing the fine Italian silk between her fingers. Work never failed to bring focus to her mind when it wanted to reverse into the past. Work was her shelter. It was through work that her life had gained a forward momentum when the past had done all it could to destroy her.
Best she set to it.
But truly, the idea that a dress—even at its most stylish, luxurious, and fine—would give a man thoughts of matrimony was absurd.
Eva had been clad in nothing but unremarkable muslin with a blade of grass for a ring, and it had been absolutely perfect.
For a few days.
And then it had all gone to hell.
She exhaled a frustrated breath. She was thinking about that time and him entirely too often today.
He and that time were best left where she kept the shadow Eva.
In the past.
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