Book Series: Audiobook

Lady Amelia Takes a Lover

Posted May 22, 2022 by Danielle in / 0 Comments

Title: Lady Amelia Takes a Lover
Series: Audiobook #1, Windermeres in Love #1
Genre: ,
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A proper English lady…

A little time in beautiful Italy is just what Lady Amelia Windermere and her eccentric family need while their latest scandal dies down. Amelia is hard at work on their triumphant return to London society when she meets His Grace Tristan Carteret, Duke of Ripon, a sculptor who is too wild for any proper lady.

Meets a dissolute Duke…

Tristan isn’t eager to let go of la dolce vita that he’s enjoyed in Florence—until he meets Amelia. She may appear to be one more uptight debutant, but he soon realizes that there’s a talented artist and a passionate woman just aching to emerge.  If only she can forget what society says and concentrate on what she feels when she’s with him.

And that’s how Lady Amelia Takes a Lover…

Exploring their art leads to Amelia and Tristan exploring much more than stone or canvas. But Amelia knows that indulging her desire for the dissolute Duke comes with a price—more scandal. Tristan refuses to give up on the real Amelia just because of society’s rules, but can he sway her to make him her future?

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Excerpt:

Chapter 1

Florence, Italy
March 1820

“All we need to do is behave,” said Lady Amelia Windermere for the thousandth time to her sister Delilah and cousin Juliet.

Speaking of misbehaving… Amelia turned her head this way and that and still couldn’t understand precisely why the pomegranate set so prettily beneath a window refused to flow from her brush and settle onto paper like a good little watercolor.

“It’s only for a little while longer,” she added.

It was too much to ask that the Windermere brood behave for an indefinite amount of time. Still, she could sense eyes rolling toward the high, airy ceiling. It may have been spring in Italy, but their rented three-story palazzo held the perfect temperature, allowing gentle breezes to drift through at will. While not much was superior to her homeland England, she might have to consider that the Italian weather was. Most of England would’ve been soggy and cold on a late-March day like today.

“Shall we behave like Archie is behaving with his opera singer in Naples?” asked Delilah, reclining lazily across a plush velvet settee the rich hue of sunburnt earth, mischief in each syllable. Amelia didn’t need to look at her sister to see it in her eyes, too.

“What happens in Naples…” Amelia wasn’t quite sure where she was heading with that sentence. It was the red, she decided. The pomegranate red wasn’t quite pink enough. She added a dollop of water to the paint mix.

“Stays in Naples?” added Juliet, ever a wit with word play and seated near the open doors that led onto the terrace. She’d positioned herself so as to better catch the afternoon light for the book she was reading.

Juliet had come to live with them after her parents had perished in a tragic carriage accident when she was but aged two years. Though a second cousin once removed, she was as a sibling and was treated as such.

“I cannot behave, Amelia,” proclaimed Delilah. “You might as well toss me into the Arno now.”

“Delilah,” began Amelia, sensing one of her sister’s dramatic moods coming on.

“What’s the point of being alive if you can’t truly be alive?”

“Delilah—”

“One’s soul shrivels into nothingness.”

While Juliet might have a way with creating words, Delilah had a way with speaking them. One felt perched in the palm of her hand until she’d finished. It had been so since the moment she’d strung a two-word sentence together in her baby cradle.

Still, as the elder sister by five years, Amelia knew when to put her foot down. “Delilah, I forbid you from throwing yourself into the Arno.”

Her sister stared moodily out the window overlooking said river. Delilah—like all Windermeres—didn’t have the natural mien for brooding, with her crystalline blue eyes and blond curls that streaked platinum in the summer sun. “My soul might demand such a cleanse.” Byronic the Windermeres weren’t, but Delilah was giving it her best impression.

Ever the pragmatic one, Amelia felt it her obligation to point out one important fact—the most important fact. “We shall never be received into polite society again.”

“It would be the leap too far,” said Juliet, provoking a giggle from Delilah and a reluctant smile from Amelia.

“But we are received in polite society,” continued Juliet. Where the Windermere siblings were all curly blond hair and blue eyes, their cousin Juliet had straight black hair and clear green eyes so direct they could see into one’s soul, or so it was suspected by all who met her. She had, however, inherited the famous Windermere height. They were tall to a one.

“Oh, dearest Juliet, have you learned nothing from this past year?” asked Delilah, wide-eyed and innocent. “You are speaking of polite Italian society, and Amelia isn’t. She’s speaking of the only society that matters to the English.” She allowed a laden beat of time to lope past. “Polite English society.”

“Well, I think the Italians are very nice.” Juliet shrugged one shoulder and returned her attention to the book on her lap. She always had a book on her person. She even had a special necklace with a notepad attached. Juliet was serious about her words.

“Delilah,” said Amelia, her brush only now making headway with this baffling pomegranate. It was the blasted texture of the thing that was trickiest to convey with a watercolor brush. “You aren’t being fair to the English, or the Italians, or me. I would like to return to London and be invited to all the balls and soirées. Is that so wrong?” She glanced up. “Has the post arrived yet?”

Delilah and Juliet gave each a sly look that said they knew exactly why Amelia had asked for the third time today. “I don’t believe so,” said Juliet.

The thing was Amelia had a plan to rehabilitate the Windermere reputation and slip back into the good graces of society before their parents, the Earl and Countess of Cumberland, returned from their two-year archeological journey to Samarkland. Mama and Papa need never know that their children had fled England with scandal nipping at their heels, rather than for a simple holiday.

By Amelia’s calculations, that left them another year; but if all went to her plan, she and her siblings would be enjoying the highest society of the haute ton within three months. The plan was simple: secure an invitation to the Marchioness of Sutton’s ball that marked the end of the season in early June. A cousin had assured Amelia the invitation would be arriving by post any day now. But Amelia wouldn’t believe it until she held it in her hands.

And now Delilah was threatening to throw herself into the Arno.

Being the only sensible Windermere wasn’t the easiest lot.

“But here’s the thing, dear sister,” said Delilah. “You want to be a lady.”

“I am a lady.” Amelia pointed her paintbrush at Delilah. “And so are you.” Her brush shifted toward Juliet. “And you, too.”

“I didn’t choose to be a lady,” said Delilah. Oh, how she loved to say that. “In fact, it’s a great hindrance to what and who I want to be.”

Amelia released a long-held, long-suffering sigh. “What you want to be, Delilah, is what landed you and all of us out here on the fringes of polite society in the first place.”

Delilah directed her unflinching gaze at Amelia. “All you need is paintbrush and paper to create your art.”

Here came Delilah’s grievance, which Amelia had heard a good seventy-three times, if once. While she had sympathy for it, she’d long lost patience with it.

“All Archie needs,” said Delilah, “is a pianoforte. And, Juliet, all you need—”

Juliet held up a staying hand. As ever, she preferred to stay clear of Windermere sibling arguments. “I have no artistic talent to speak of.”

“—is paper, pencil, and a chair placed at the periphery of a room for your art,” finished Delilah.

Juliet’s smooth brow lifted. “And what art is that?”

“Listening.”

Juliet scoffed. “Listening isn’t an art.”

Delilah snorted. “The way you do it is, and don’t think I haven’t noticed.” She stopped long enough to draw breath. “And I need a stage and an audience.”

Amelia let her brush fall to the table. Now it was her turn to voice her grievance for the seventy-third time. “But did you need as public a one as Eton College?”

Delilah shrugged her shoulder.

Amelia wasn’t finished, for her grievance was never satisfied until it had a full airing. “And did you need to pretend to be a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy to do it?”

Delilah looked at Amelia as if she’d suddenly become the most stupid woman in all the world. “That is the role of Viola in Twelfth Night.”

Amelia’s eyes rolled toward the ceiling and remained there until she’d achieved a measure of calm. “But it’s the bit where you pretended to be a boy to get the part in the first place that society has taken issue with.”

How many times had Amelia pointed out the distinction this last year?

“Eton is an all-boys school,” returned Delilah. “How else would I have been able to secure the role?”

And how many times had Delilah refused to acknowledge the point?

“And to think Archie helped you,” said Amelia. She still couldn’t believe it.

“The bet was Archie’s idea in the first place.”

“You didn’t have to accept.”

“Sometimes, it’s like you don’t know me at all,” said Delilah, exasperated. “Besides, Archie’s been wanting to get one over on Eton since he left however many years ago.”

“But you, Delilah, are a lady of two and twenty years.” How many times had Ameila pointed this out? Oh, yes, seventy-three. “How did you ever expect to succeed?”

Delilah snorted. “The haircut helped.” She ran her fingers through short blond curls.

“We shan’t discuss your hair,” said Amelia. She still hadn’t recovered from The Haircut. Delilah had once possessed the most beautiful head of hair ever beheld, rivaled only by Amelia’s own long blond curls. Only Botticelli’s Venus standing on her half-shell held a candle to a Windermere head of hair.

Juliet lifted her head. “I rather like Delilah’s haircut.”

Oh, dear cousin Juliet… So honest… So annoying.

“Lady Caroline Lamb would approve.” Delilah knew precisely how to fray Amelia’s last nerve.

I think it makes you look like a twelfth century monk,” said Amelia. “Without the bald patch, of course.”

Delilah and Juliet shared a conspiratorial snicker.

“Further,” Amelia couldn’t help continuing, even though she really, truly shouldn’t. “Lady Caroline Lamb’s approval is the very last thing this family needs.”

But Delilah wasn’t finished torturing her sister. “I could procure a straightedge and give that bald spot a running start.”

“Don’t you dare.” Amelia had to say it. She never quite knew how far Delilah would go.

Delilah’s mouth curled into the mischievous smile that ever did get her out of trouble with her older sister. “When did Archie write that he would arrive?”

“Tomorrow.” Amelia picked up her brush and resumed her study of the pomegranate. It looked…angry. Perhaps she was taking out her frustration with her family on the poor, blameless fruit.

“Which means he could arrive any time between now and next week,” Juliet pointed out.

True. The Windermeres ever had a loose relationship with timekeeping.

“Oh, by the by, Amelia,” said Delilah. “I’ve decided I shall attend tomorrow night’s soirée in honor of the Duke of Ripon.”

“Didn’t you say soirées celebrating decrepit, old dukes weren’t worth your time?”

“Don’t forget lecherous,” added Juliet. “She said that, too.”

“I said likely weren’t worth my time,” said Delilah, indifferently flicking a piece of lint off her skirt. “And as none of us have ever clapped eyes on the man, as reclusive as he is, well, I’m curious, and in need of society and prosecco.”

Something akin to dread filled Amelia. If Archie did, in fact, arrive tomorrow, the possibility existed that the Windermeres could be attending a society function all together—which hadn’t happened since they’d left England. Which meant, of course, she would be playing nursemaid all night, because, quite simply, her siblings couldn’t be trusted not to be utterly and completely themselves—charming, but improper and slightly scandalous, in either word or deed or, most like, both.

A feeling jogged on the edge of memory as if…as if she was forgetting something important, like an…

Appointment.

All-too-familiar panic seized her. “What is the time?” Time just never seemed to pass in the linear fashion everyone said it did.

Delilah pulled a pocket watch from the discreet hip pocket she had sewn into all her dresses. She’d explained it was something about being an actress and timing and honestly Amelia hadn’t been able to understand the reasoning. She couldn’t bring herself to give a fig about time. Signore Rossi, her Italian art instructor, did, however.

“Five minutes shy of one of the clock.”

“Blast!”

In a frantic rush that brought mean, little smiles to Delilah and Juliet’s faces—they’d heard that exact exclamation regarding this very topic more times than any of them could count—Amelia gathered her brushes and palette and shoved them into her valise, which she grabbed on the run. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”

Muted laughter followed Amelia as she dashed from the palazzo and onto the street, her feet a rapid tattoo against cobblestones. The scents and sounds of Florence crashed into her in a frenzied rush, as they always did as she crossed one square, then another, flew down a labyrinthine maze of alleys, another square, then it was a quick turn onto a narrow street, an even quicker turn into a quiet alley. Twenty steps later, she’d arrived, panting, at the turquoise-painted gate of Signore Rossi.

Taking no time to compose herself or wipe the sweat off her flushed brow, Amelia planted both hands on the gate that led into an exterior courtyard and began to push when it suddenly gave way and an ox plowed into her, knocking her off balance and flat onto her bottom, her skirts forming a white muslin puff around her—all in the space of two seconds.

She held a hand to her forehead and glared up at the ox.

Well, not an ox, precisely. But an ox of a man, to be sure. She couldn’t see his face as the sun was at his back, creating a halo of light around his massive hulking form.

“Please don’t apologize,” she said acidly, dusting her hands off on her skirts, before checking that nothing had spilled from her valise.

The man snorted. Rather like an ox. “That was far from my intention. Perhaps it has occurred to you that you’re entirely at fault for your current condition.”

“Why…why…” she sputtered through righteous, disbelieving shock. Never in her life had she been spoken to thusly.

And she most definitely didn’t like it.

He held out a hand, presumably to help her to her feet. She would rather grab hold of a writhing serpent.

Gathering the few remaining shreds of her dignity available to her, she managed to scramble to her feet with her modesty in place—thank you very much—even if her bottom had begun to throb. It wasn’t until she was squarely facing the ox of a man—well, not facing precisely as he stood a good six inches taller than her and she was no diminutive woman—that a shocking fact hit her. “You’re an Englishman.”

And a noble one at that, given the clipped syllables of his speech, even if his appearance lent a different impression given that he was wearing the clothes of a laborer and his brown hair hung unfashionably long and loose about his face.

What sort of English nobleman was this ox anyway?

He grunted—like a grouchy Highland coo she’d once encountered in Scotland—and that was leave taken as he brushed past. A faint blend of scents remained—clove, sandalwood, and… Was that sweat?

Tetchy remnants of the encounter quaking through her, Amelia entered Signore Rossi’s exterior courtyard and halted, dipping a hand into the fountain depicting frolicking water sprites and bringing it to her face. She needed a quick cool-down before greeting Signore. What just happened?

Servants accustomed to her twice-a-week arrival simply nodded as she slipped through Signore’s typically Italian palazzo and into the studio, with its tremendous north-facing windows that allowed light to pour in at all hours of the day. She found her customary easel and began readying her pencils and brushes. A bowl of fruit had been arranged for her session today. Perhaps not the most exciting subject, but a useful one in her education, of course.

Still, how many bowls of fruit had she painted in her life?

The lot of the gentlelady painter.

Signore Rossi and his little white dog Dolce entered the studio. “Ah, Signorina Amelia, you decided to join us today.” He ever commented on her lateness—as was his rightful prerogative—but did so with a smile on his face.

Dolce curled up on his purple velvet pillow across from her, allowing sunlight to soak into his scruffy white fur, his little face resting on a paw, gaze lazily fixed on outdoor happenings in the cypress trees. Amelia found herself doing a sketch. Just a few lines to expand upon later.

Signore glanced over her shoulder. “Ah, would you like to paint Dolce today?”

Si,” she said, already delighting in the prospect. She rarely painted live forms with Signore.

She attempted to quiet her mind and enter the creative space where her brush would find inspiration for this little moppet of a dog. But she was still fizzing with her collision with the ox. Before she knew it, words were spilling from her mouth. “I just had the most curious encounter at the entrance to your studio.”

Signore Rossi didn’t bother looking up. “Hmm.”

“With the most incredibly rude man.”

A name, she wanted a name.

All Signore gave her was another, “Hmm.”

She wasn’t to be put off so easily. The ox was a menace and an Englishman. She couldn’t let it pass. “Is he your student?”

She had to know.

Even as the question passed her lips, however, an image entered her mind. Of his hands, unrepentantly massive and masculine, like the rest of him. She couldn’t imagine those hands holding anything as delicate as a paintbrush. Surely, it would snap in two.

Signore Rossi set his charcoal down and gave her an indulgent smile. “Signorina Amelia, would you appreciate me passing your information along to all manner of those who might ask about you?”

There was but one answer, and it put her in her place. “No.”

Signore nodded, and that was her question sorted. She wasn’t to know. She was to forget the ox of an English nobleman whose face she hadn’t clearly seen.

Dolce shot to his four feet and gave a sudden round of barking at the squirrel who had the temerity to race up the cypress nearest the window. The little dog was on high defensive alert.

A chirrup of giggles escaped Amelia, and her brush sparked with inspiration. She would call the painting, Our Greatest Defender.

As her brush followed the creative muse where it led, oxes of men were forgotten.

For now.


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One Night His Lady

Posted September 13, 2021 by Sofie Darling in / 0 Comments

Title: One Night His Lady
Series: Audiobook #6, Shadows and Silk #6
Genre: ,
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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?

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Excerpt:

Chapter One

Château La Perle, France
March 1829

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.

Your sort.

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.

The latter…

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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