Book Series: Shadows and Silk

Three Lessons in Seduction

Posted November 12, 2018 by Sofie Darling in / 0 Comments

Title: Three Lessons in Seduction
Series: Shadows and Silk #1
Genre:
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Chapter One

Paris, September 1824

Lord Nicholas Asquith needs his wife. Too bad he broke her heart ten years ago.

Can he resist a second chance at the love he lost?

When Mariana catches the eye of the man at the center of an assassination plot, Nick puts aside their painful past and enlists her to obtain information by any means necessary, even if it means seducing the enemy agent.

Even if the thought makes his blood boil.

Only by keeping his distance from Mariana these last ten years was he able to pretend indifference to her. With every moment spent with her, he feels his tightly held control slipping…

Can she trust the spy who broke her heart?

Mariana spent the last decade forgetting Nick. Now she has the chance to best him at his own game, an opportunity she can’t resist, even as her view of him begins to shift. Increasingly, she wants nothing more than to seduce her own husband …

It’s only a matter of time before mad passion ignites, a passion never convincingly extinguished. A passion that insists on surrendering to the yearning of the flesh and, quite possibly, of the heart.

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Excerpt:

Chapter 1

Married: Persons chained or handcuffed together, in order to be conveyed to gaol, or on board the lighters for transportation, are in the cant language said to be married together.
- A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue Francis Grose

Paris 12 September 1824

Nick spotted her across the cavernous expanse of La Grande Salle, and the breath froze in his chest. There would be trouble.

From his shadowed position inside the opera box opposite hers, he could easily pretend she was just another sophisticated Parisienne. After all, he couldn’t see her face as she made conversation to her right.

Except he didn’t need to see her face. Her profile, limned in the soft glow of gas lamps, was enough for the heavy thrum of recognition to flood him with both a dread and a thrill that had excited him from the first moment he’d laid eyes on her more than a decade ago.

Why was she in Paris?

As if in response to his unspoken question, she canted her head to the side and froze as if she sensed something unusual, or was it someone unusual? He stepped deeper into shadow. Her gaze shifted sideways and unerringly found the exact spot he’d occupied no more than a trio of seconds ago.

He resisted the urge to run frustrated hands through newly shorn hair. She might have caught a flash of him. He couldn’t be sure.

Blast. Why was she here?

She was here for him. The thought sank in, and horror unfolded within him. Deep down, he’d known this day would come—the day she would enter his shadowy world.

For one thing, he was missing, or was he dead? Or maybe he was on a trip to Italy. No one could say with certainty. And he preferred it that way until he discovered who had sent two men to attack him in his hotel suite a fortnight ago.

The woman was more than trouble. She was a threat to half-formed plans that were barely treading water as it was. Ignoring her presence in Paris wasn’t an option. If she was here for him—and she was without a doubt—she would find him. She was that sort of woman. She didn’t fade into the background when it was convenient for others that she do so. In fact, she only responded by foregrounding herself further.

He must find a way to seize control of the situation before it spiraled away from him, as situations tended to do around her. If she’d caught a glimpse of him, perhaps he could use to his advantage the curiosity such a sighting would stir within her.

She must be handled, and this ran him square into the second reason there would be trouble: she was his wife. If one person in Paris could best him, it was Mariana.

♦♦♦

“Ma chérie,” Mariana heard this as if from a great distance. “To sit in La Grande Salle is a privilege and a joy. Settle and experience it. You have les fourmis.”“Les fourmis?” Mariana’s French didn’t extend beyond the schoolroom basics of bonjours and adieus.

“Zee ants. You sit like ants are crawling against your skin,” explained Helene de Vivonne, her mother’s dearest childhood friend. “I lived in London during la Terreur. Have you forgotten? Everything is rush-rush. Tick one item off your list, so you can complete the next. Posthaste, you English say. This is not the French way.” The older woman pulled Mariana close. “Savor the night, ma chérie. London has nothing on Paris.”

Possessed with the attention span of a butterfly, Helene released her hold on Mariana and turned to her other neighbor, leaving Mariana alone to take in the crowded room.

From the ornate ceiling frescoes illuminated by a magnificent cut-glass, ormolu chandelier, and the parquet floor cushioned by dense Persian carpets, to Society’s glittering monsieurs, madames, and mademoiselles in between, La Grande Salle was nothing short of sumptuous, the sparkling epicenter of Parisian Society. Inside this spectacularly gilded room, one could forget Paris had been in shambles not so long ago. This room could tempt one into pretending that the Revolution had never happened, and that it was only a wicked night terror revealed to be without substance in the warm glow of morning sunshine.

It was within this world that her husband had spent the better part of the last decade. Oh, Nick . . .

She slipped the note from her reticule and fingered its newly worn edges. She’d looked at it so often these last three days, she could quote its contents from memory:

9 September 1824 To the most esteemed Lady Nicholas Asquith: It is with great and solemn regret that we inform you that your husband, Lord Nicholas Asquith, younger son of the Marquess of Clare, is missing, presumed dead in the service of his King and Country. He was last seen in Paris on 30 August. Please accept our most profound and sincere condolences to you and your family.

Unable to comprehend the subtleties contained within the note at once, Mariana had sprung into a course of action regarding its more concrete elements. Namely, she would hasten to Paris and find her estranged husband—either dead or alive.

First, she’d seen to the care of the twins. Her sister, Olivia, took Lavinia with few questions asked, and Geoffrey would remain at school in Westminster.

She couldn’t get Geoffrey’s solemn, intelligent, ten-year-old eyes out of her mind. He’d known that something was wrong. “Tell me again why you’re leaving in such a hurry?” he asked as if she hadn’t already explained herself twice.

“I’m visiting your father in Paris. It will be a holiday.”

“You never visit Father in Paris.” His head had cocked to the side. “Or take holidays, for that matter.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” she’d said, bright and shrill.

Geoffrey’s eyes had only narrowed.

Even so, he, like Lavinia, had agreed to post an express letter to Helene’s Paris address every single day. With the possibility their world had been irrevocably turned upside-down looming over their heads, Mariana needed to know her children were safe while she searched for their father—their missing, presumed dead father.

Next, she’d rushed from London to Margate. There she’d used a combination of desperation and gold to convince a reluctant Captain Nylander to transport her across the Channel in his East Indiaman. He was set to sail to East Asia within hours, and a quick side trip to Calais would be nothing to him. From Calais, she’d hired a coach, paid the driver twice his usual fee, and rode on to Paris.

If Nick proved to be alive, she would leave him where she found him and return home.

For a decade now, they’d been living the perfect facsimile of a Society marriage where they saw each other at arranged times of year—Christmas, Easter, birthdays—for the benefit of Geoffrey and Lavinia. Not ten words passed between them a year, and the children likely never noticed. It was the sort of marriage not uncommon to their social set, and it was not at all the sort of marriage she’d envisioned when she’d fallen head over heels in love with him.

She gave her head a tiny, clearing shake. That dream had been crushed years ago, a lifetime really. A better use of her time would be to focus on the present. If Nick proved to be dead, she would transport his body to London. At the very least, she owed the twins their father’s decent burial at home.

Familiar panic rose, and the ground beneath her feet threatened to crater and give way. She wasn’t certain what lay below, but she suspected it was a bottomless abyss from which she would never claw her way out. Even though she saw him no more than every few months, a world without Nick in it was too much for her brain to comprehend.

It simply couldn’t be, and it simply was not. A force, intangible and mysterious, connected her to Nick. She would sense his absence if he’d left this world for the next. Except . . .

What if she couldn’t? And he was dead? The doubt crept in and threatened to split wide into the unfathomable chasm of her nightmares, but she refused to consider that outcome.

Hands clenched into fists at her sides, a steadying wave of determination steeled her. It simply couldn’t be. It simply wasn’t. She would find him and prove it—for the children, and, yes, for herself. She could admit that much.

The playful rap of a silk fan across her knuckles snapped her back into the present. Helene leaned in. “I take it the tall drink of Viking water is no longer in Paris?”

Mariana quashed a sigh and replied, “He left soon after escorting me to Nick’s hotel.”

Helene shrugged a Gallic shoulder. “His loss,” she said, returning her attention to her other neighbor.

Escorted all the way to Paris by the imposing Nylander—it was true the man resembled nothing other than a Viking in both bearing and temperament—Mariana’s first order of business on her arrival yesterday had been to place herself on Helene’s doorstep. Within the hour, Mariana and Nylander had followed Helene’s directions to Nick’s hotel in the Place Vendôme.

“I believe this is where we part ways,” Mariana had said to Nylander, her tone purposeful and businesslike. “I’m not certain you needed to escort me all the way here.”

She’d darted a covert glance at the captain. He was the sort of man who could give an unhappily, even happily, married woman ideas. Even though she was here for Nick, Mariana saw how easily she could pivot and pursue a different path. She could invite this gorgeous man into her suite of rooms. She didn’t owe Nick fidelity, especially after what he’d done.

“Shall I escort you inside?” Nylander asked in a low rumble.

For a long moment, she met eyes the blue of a midsummer sky. “I think not.”

“I shall be in Calais for a fortnight to have a few repairs done to the Fortuyn. Contact me at Le Blanc Navire if you need further assistance.” Without another word, he pivoted and strode down the crowded sidewalk as casual passersby parted for him like the Red Sea.

Mariana found herself the lone occupant of Nick’s set of rooms, which once picked apart inch by inch, yielded no clues as to his whereabouts or fate, an outcome at once wildly frustrating and oddly comforting. She didn’t know he was alive, but she didn’t know he was dead either. The man was nowhere.

Mariana worried the note between her fingers. Over the last few days, its texture had become as soft and supple as cloth. Yet, she kept it close for a reason: this note defied all logic. It was impossible to square with the dissolute life Nick led in Paris. Although the note was unsigned, it had originated from the Foreign Office.

How in the course of largely ceremonial consular duties—Nick’s words—did one become missing and presumed dead in the eyes of Whitehall? She intended to ask Nick if she found him . . . No, when she found him.

“Mariana?” came Helene’s voice.

As Mariana turned to reply, the fine hairs on her arms stood on end, and she hesitated. Her eyes darted left, toward the source of the feeling, but she found no one she recognized.

Heart pounding, she whispered, “Helene, may I use your opera glass?”

Helene raised a single eyebrow and handed the object over.

Mariana held the glass to her eyes and . . . saw nothing useful. Her overwrought mind was playing tricks on her. A phantom husband was the stuff of novels full of whimsy and scandal, not the stuff of real life.

The glow of the theater’s lights dimmed, and the roar of the assembled dulled to a low rumble. The ballet was set to begin. All eyes shifted their focus away from the drama of each other and toward the impending drama to be enacted on the stage.

All, except Mariana. She couldn’t succumb to the sugar-coated fantasy of the ballet. In an effort to relax, she exhaled every last bit of breath in her lungs and inhaled a slow, steady stream of air. But it was to no avail. Her heart a relentless tattoo in her chest, the walls of the theater threatened to close in on her.

She shot to her feet. “Helene, I need some fresh air.”

Without a care for the other woman’s response, Mariana darted out of the dark box and into a bright, empty corridor. Finally, blessedly alone, the walls expanded, and a self-conscious smile pulled at her lips. She was in danger of becoming the sort of excitable woman who tested her patience within thirty seconds of conversation. It was no state in which to conduct one’s life. A restorative visit to a museum would do her a bit of good. Perhaps the Museum of Natural History . . .

An inconspicuous door flew open, and a hand shot out, closing around her upper arm with the strength of a steel vise. A scream caught in her throat as she was dragged into a pitch-black room, the door snapping shut behind her. Her heart hammered in her chest as if it was trying to break free of her body, and her mind raced in time with its frenetic rhythm.

Before another scream could gather in her chest, a leather-gloved hand clamped over her mouth, and an arm reached across her torso, trapping her arms to her sides and pulling her tight against a solid, muscular chest. She struggled, twisted, wiggled, and stomped—everything she could think of to free herself. But nothing succeeded, and her breath continued coming hard and fast through her nose.

It wasn’t until her body stilled in frustrated exhaustion that she inhaled and smelled. Located in the scent surrounding her were notes she recognized—notes specific to one man. It was the scent of . . .

“Can I trust you not to scream?”

It was the voice of a dead man.


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Tempted by the Viscount

Posted November 12, 2018 by Sofie Darling in / 0 Comments

Title: Tempted by the Viscount
Series: Shadows and Silk #2
Genre:
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London, April 1825

Lord Jakob Radclyffe left his past behind in the Far East. Or so he thinks until a ruthless thief surfaces in London, threatening to ruin his daughter’s reputation. With the clock ticking, Jake needs the scandalous Lady Olivia Montfort’s connections in the art world to protect his daughter’s future.

Olivia, too, has a past she’d like to escape. By purchasing her very own Mayfair townhouse, she’ll be able to start a new life independent from all men. There’s one problem: she needs a powerful man’s name to do so. The Viscount St. Alban is the perfect name.

A bargain is struck.

What Olivia doesn’t anticipate is the temptation of the viscount. The undeniable spark of awareness that races between them undermines her vow to leave love behind. Soon, she has no choice but to rid her system of Jake by surrendering to her craving for a single scorching encounter.

But is once enough? Sometimes once only stokes the flame of desire higher and hotter. And sometimes once is all the heart needs to risk all and follow a mad passion wherever it may lead.

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Excerpt:

Chapter One

London
4 April 1825

Olivia stepped inside the sweltering ballroom and felt as if a finch had been pulled on her. The Duke had assured her of a small Salon.

Instead, she stood amidst the crush of the Season. The champagne punch flowed with no end in sight, as did the gossip, and the ballroom brimmed with every member of the ton currently in London.

How alone a person could feel in a crowd of people.

“Lady Percival,” she heard a perfectly cultured lady’s voice identical to every other perfectly cultured lady’s voice in the room call out. “Or is it Lady Olivia now?” Soft giggles muted by raised silk fans floated on the air.

Before Olivia, an intimate circle of four couples radiated excitement, anticipating a gossip-worthy exchange, the ladies snickering in delight, the gentlemen shifting from foot to foot, discomfort evident.

“Lady Olivia will do,” she replied, with a succinct snap in her voice, and immediately regretted it. She shouldn’t be using that tone tonight, her first night back in Society after a six-month absence. It could reveal anxious nerves. She’d believed herself prepared for the stir her presence would create, but her body told a different story. Her heart was a hammer in her chest, and sweat slicked her palms.

“We were just speaking of you, and now here you are.” The chit’s smile curved a smidgen too wide.

Her name was Miss Fox, and Olivia knew not a whit about her. She didn’t much keep up with her Debrett’s.

“Your gown is ravishing. You must give me the direction of your modiste. A scandalous French one, to be sure.” Sensing blood in the water, Miss Fox pressed, “It’s so rare these days that you grace Society with your presence.”

A silence so taut a pin could puncture it expanded as the tight circle of couples awaited Olivia’s response. No choice but to proceed as she meant to go on, she drew herself up to her fullest height and met Miss Fox square in the eye. “One must be careful about the company one keeps at a large and indiscriminate gathering such as this. It isn’t as select as one might wish.”

Her gaze swept up and down Miss Fox, and the vulpine smile fell from the younger woman’s lips as the implication of Olivia’s words hit her. No one could deny the fact that though she may be this Season’s scandal, Lady Olivia Montfort still outranked Miss Anne Fox. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

Olivia didn’t await a response before gliding away across the ballroom’s polished mahogany floor to seek sanctuary in the ladies’ retiring room. A single, bracing moment of peace and quiet should shore her up for this night.

She’d hardly exhaled the sigh that had wanted release all evening, when the outer door opened and closed with a muted, but distinct, click. She was about to peek around the screen when a firm, matronly voice rang out. “I say, she is lucky to be received in polite society, and you know it, Clarinda. But with a benefactor like His Grace at her disposal, well, who can refuse her?”

Olivia startled backward, breath suspended in her chest, ears attuned to whatever words would come next.

“Now, Ernestine, His Grace isn’t her benefactor. She is his daughter by law. Besides, Lady Olivia Montfort is the daughter of the Earl of Surrey. She isn’t the sort of woman who needs a benefactor.”

“Was the Duke’s daughter by law, you mean,” Ernestine huffed.

“Yet,” Clarinda began on a conspiratorial whisper, “it was the Duke who backed her petition for divorce at the House of Lords.”

“From his own son.” Ernestine lowered her righteous voice an octave. “She petitioned for the divorce, Clarinda. What is this world coming to that a wife can petition the House of Lords for a divorce? Then have the audacity to continue living beneath the roof of her divorced husband’s father? I daresay, we may be near the end times.”

That went to show what this battle-ax understood of these matters: the House of Lords hadn’t the legal or ecclesiastical power to grant Olivia a true divorce. What they had was the power to set the marriage aside. It was called a divorce a vinculo matrimonii, and she was only the fourth woman in England to be granted one on the grounds of desertion.

Still, the gossipy duo was correct about one point: the Duke had thrown his support behind her in the endeavor. In fact, he’d been the one to suggest it, promising to ensure that her daughter Lucy remained, if not legitimate to the exact letter of the law, a fully-fledged member of the powerful Bretagne family. She was the granddaughter of a duke, and no one would dare forget it.

The daughter of an earl herself, Olivia understood power and privilege, or thought she had, until the Duke had chosen to flex his ducal muscle on her behalf and the might of the dukedom was revealed to her in its full glory and scope. It was a magnificent and awe-inspiring thing, that sort of power, and she’d never felt so humbled in her life as when it worked on her behalf. With nary a whimper of contradiction, the House of Lords had acceded to his directive in the matter. Still, she understood that if Percy hadn’t been a younger son, or if their daughter had been male, the outcome might not have settled so satisfactorily in her favor.

“But, Ernestine,” Clarinda’s voice lowered a conspiratorial octave, “Lord Percival Bretagne was alive these last twelve years. Can you believe it? We mustn’t be too hard on the poor chit.”

“The woman spent a decade running around with those artistic, bohemian types while her husband lay dead in Spain.”

“But he wasn’t dead in Spain,” Clarinda insisted.

“What sort of proper widow spends her time in those circles? I daresay,” Ernestine continued as if Clarinda hadn’t spoken. Olivia imagined brows lifted to the ceiling in damning hauteur.

“But the girl wasn’t a widow at all.”

“Girl?” Ernestine spat.

“Well, no longer a girl, I suppose.” Clarinda paused while another “humpf!” sounded from Ernestine. “But when she lost that boy—”

“You mean her husband, Lord Percival?” Ernestine interrupted.

“What a sweet love match they made in her first Season. Rumor has it she nearly went mad from the grief, poor dear.”

Olivia’s fingers curled into tight fists, the nails digging into her palms. They discussed her as if she was some sort of revolutionary bent on rending the very fabric of society in two.

Perhaps she was. Except that hadn’t been her intent at all.

When her sister Mariana had returned from Paris six months ago and revealed that she’d seen—and spoken with!—Percy, an avalanche of dread had nearly crushed Olivia, making it difficult for her lungs to draw air, suffocating her.

Percy was alive.

“He was His Grace’s favorite, they say,” Clarinda said.

Olivia couldn’t deny the truth of those words. Percy had been everyone’s favorite.

Except hers. At least, by the time he’d died. And most definitely by the time he’d rejoined the land of the living as, of all things, a spy, and the full weight of the truth crashed down on her: Percy had chosen to stay away—from her, from their daughter—for the last twelve years.

He’d been better off dead as far as she was concerned, which was why she needed to press forward with her plan to move house. Someday, he would arrive in Town, and when he did, he wouldn’t find her still housed beneath his father’s roof. She would eat glass first.

An unladylike huff of frustration escaped her. This morning, her plan had hit a snag. The Duke’s solicitors refused to assist her without his express consent. He would help her, of that she was certain, but she’d wanted to purchase a Mayfair townhouse herself and present it to him as a fait accompli. This final step toward independence was hers alone to take.

Yet, with no other option open to her, she’d had to petition her father’s solicitors for their services, even though her father and mother would remain in Italy for another season and have no ability to back her request any time in the near future. When she’d set out on this course six months ago, she’d had no idea how much male assistance a woman needed to become free and independent. Galling.

“Speaking of His Grace,” Ernestine began, a ribbon of girlish excitement twirling through her words. The door opened, and a roar of bright gaiety rushed in. The gossipy duo were exiting the room. “Have you seen him tonight? He is one eligible bachelor.”

“At five and sixty?”

“An unmarried Duke of Arundel is eligible at any age, Clarinda.”

The door shut behind the pair, and the outside world again dulled its pitch to a quiet muffle. Olivia stepped out from behind the screen and paused before a gilded Baroque mirror. Even its warm, reflective glow couldn’t mask the fact that her face spoke of devastation, like it had been scrubbed raw across a washboard. This wouldn’t do.

She leaned over the washstand and dabbed her skin with its cooling water. Hands to either side of the basin, she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, clearing her mind on a long exhale. This Salon was no place for her past.

Another glance in the mirror revealed the red splotches mostly gone. Only a hint of pink remained, which could be taken for too much heat at a crush like tonight’s. Emotion could darken the sky blue of her eyes into stormy gray in an instant. She opened them a little wider into a semblance of their usual selves. The clouds receded.

Social armor intact, she stepped to the door, pushed it wide on a gust of festive cacophony, and her seventeen-year-old self danced before her on the happy notes of violin strings underlain by the grounding drone of cello and bass; the sporadic shrill giggle here and there, punctuating a witty remark like an exclamation point; the rustle of silk and superfine as guests wove in and out of each other, seeking good conversation, good gossip, and good champagne. All underscored by the dull, monotone din of the crowd as the light from a thousand candles glittered overhead, tiny prisms of chandelier crystals dancing to the subtle rhythm of the string quartet.

How her seventeen-year-old self had loved the controlled chaos of a party. Although there was pain on one side of this memory, she experienced the pleasure on the other side of it.

Her lips curved into her first genuine, if subdued, smile of the night. The past didn’t have to be all guilt and hurt.

How that girl would be giddy over the sight of this full-to-capacity ballroom, at the possibilities hidden within it. A tidbit of choice gossip. A chance to roam a room unchaperoned. A stolen glimpse of a handsome-beyond-compare boy with the deepest brown eyes in the wide world . . .

Oh, how Ernestine and Clarinda had conjured the past tonight. She longed to rush home and lie with Lucy, her daughter’s breath soft and regular in the cadence of sleep. Then she would steal away to her studio to ready the sketches she would present to her art master on the morrow.

But the present beckoned, and she must pretend to enjoy herself, smile pasted onto her face. She lifted her chin a notch and feigned indifference. She would be an ice queen, not the soft, gay girl this room had seen over a decade ago.

It was too soon. Hardly a fortnight had passed since Parliament set aside her marriage.

For the people populating this room, life maintained a smooth, unwavering trajectory from birth to death. They couldn’t comprehend how her fate had diverged so dramatically from theirs. Six months ago, she’d been an unremarkable widow, if a little eccentric given her involvement with the arts. But they’d understood her.

Now? She was a real, live divorcée, little more than a new species on display at the zoo.

Across the crowd, she spotted the Duke’s signature shock of silver hair and began making her way toward him through the ever-changing maze of ever-sweaty ton. She could hardly remember a time when she’d seen more of Society’s luminaries assembled in one place.

Who was tonight’s honoree? She hadn’t been attentive to the details when the Duke had requested her presence tonight.

“Olivia!”

She turned toward the first welcome voice of the night, her sister’s. “Oh, Mariana, what a relief to see you.”

Upon their presentation at court, “Milk and Honey” was the moniker the Regent had bestowed on the Earl of Surrey’s twin daughters, Ladies Olivia and Mariana, in reference to their respective, un-twinlike appearances. Olivia’s clear, milky complexion had been the perfect complement to Mariana’s tawny hair and eyes.

“Lady Olivia,” Mariana purred, not unlike the intonation of a jungle cat settling in for a feast of minced rat. “Sir Edwin, here”—She indicated the rather pugnacious-looking man at her side—“was inquiring about The Progressive School for Young Ladies and the Education of Their Minds.”

“Oh?” Olivia smiled and began to back away. No good ever came of crossing Mariana when her lioness purr coupled with that particular glint in her eye.

Most gentlemen of the ton regarded The Progressive School for Young Ladies and the Education of Their Minds to be a complete waste of time and resources for the needless education of daughters who were best married off as soon as could be decently managed. It was clear as day that Mariana was spoiling for a row.

“I’m uncertain how I can be of more help than my sister. If you will pardon me—”

Mariana slipped her hand into the crook of Olivia’s arm, securing her to her side. Olivia was caught. “Sir Edwin,” Mariana began, turning a dazzling smile onto her prey, “has difficulty believing our daughters’ feeble female brains are capable of progressing mathematically beyond tallying the number of stitches on a sampler.”

Olivia heard in Mariana’s tone the familiar stirrings of a righteous and one-sided debate. Sir Edwin would have no hope of getting a word in edgewise once Mariana warmed to her subject.

Herein lay the difference between herself and Mariana: Olivia was no crusader. While she believed that her daughter needed a male education—the very reason she and Mariana had founded the school, after all—she had no interest in converting the Sir Edwins of the ton to her way of thinking.

The ton simply wasn’t ready for The Progressive School for Young Ladies and the Education of Their Minds. And it wasn’t Olivia’s mission in life to make them so.

“Sir Edwin,” Olivia conceded, “I suggest you bring your daughter for a visit if your curiosity has gotten the better of you.”

Sir Edwin’s nose darkened into an unattractive shade of aubergine. “I can assure you that curiosity about such a school does not in any way outweigh my good judgment. Curiosity, indeed.” The man harrumphed. “More like turning my daughter into a curiosity with these outlandish—”

Olivia was spared the remainder of Sir Edwin’s scold when his voice died away and the volume of the room hushed to a dull murmur. Her eyes shifted from Sir Edwin’s florid face and followed the collective gaze.

At first glance, it appeared to be nothing more than the announcement of yet another couple standing at the top of the ballroom’s grand staircase. A closer examination revealed that the pair was no couple, rather a man and a girl a few years shy of her debut.

The girl was both the man’s opposite and his equal at once. Where she was dark, he was light. Where he towered impressively, she stood modestly. Their connection, however, was apparent in the intangibles: a similarity in their composure and in the quiet way they took in the scene before them.

Mariana pulled Olivia close. “It appears the night’s gossip trump card is being played. You, dear sister, are old news.”

Olivia tore her gaze away from the new arrivals and lent an attentive ear to her sister.

“The newly minted Right Honourable Jakob Radclyffe, Fifth Viscount St. Alban,” Mariana whispered. “Rich as Croesus and tonight’s guest of honor. A shipping heir, if the gossip is true.”

Olivia couldn’t resist the tug of another glance. They were an impossibly gorgeous and arresting pair. His golden head of hair was the finest mixture of red and sun-kissed blond she’d ever seen, which contrasted sharply with the girl’s hair, the deep, complex black of a crow’s wing. It would be a challenge for any painter to get the colors right, especially a novice like herself, but she would love to try.

She heard someone say, “She’s his daughter. Haven’t you heard?”

Mariana squeezed Olivia’s arm. “Oh, the gossips will have a field day with this.”

Olivia nodded once, taking Mariana’s meaning. The girl’s parentage, specifically on her mother’s side.

The resemblance to both her Asian and European ancestries clear, the girl’s features came together in flawless synthesis: a heart-shaped face, a full rosebud mouth, and the most beautiful eyes Olivia had ever beheld, oval but angled in the exact same line as high cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass, appearing to be not brown, but the changeable gray of a black pearl. It was as if Nature had taken the best from both lines of descent to illustrate for the world its capacity for perfection.

The ladies formed a tight, exclusive circle, and whispered snippets of conversation flurried around Olivia.

“Rumor has it that the mother is Japanese,” she overheard.

“A servant, do you think?” came the scandalized reply.

“And he acknowledges her?”

“Oriental women have secrets, don’t you know?” came a giggly whisper from her left.

“Which ones did they teach him?”

“Wouldn’t mind finding out,” came a sly response.

The giggles grew bolder, and the crowd roared back to life as the string quartet swept bows across strings and played on with renewed vigor. The clamor to gossip about this new and intriguing development eluded Olivia, even as it possessed everyone around her.

Unable to take her eyes off the viscount’s face composed entirely of angles and shadows, she felt a twinge of something she couldn’t identify and quickly dismissed the feeling as nothing more than simple curiosity.

Why on earth would she feel anything more? The man was nothing to her.

“Have you ever seen such a pair?” came Mariana’s whisper in her ear.

“I think not,” was all Olivia could speak through parched lips.

“Come, let’s waggle an introduction from the Dowager.”

As Mariana pulled in one direction, Olivia leaned in the other and slipped her arm free. “I’m afraid not tonight. I have a splitting headache.” At Mariana’s bewildered expression, she continued, “You can fill me in on all the details at my soirée in a few days.”

“Promise?”

“Yes, sister.”

Without further hesitation, Mariana was off on her mission, leaving Olivia on her own, a strange relief at her sister’s departure stealing through her. Recently reunited with her husband, happiness radiated off Mariana in waves. Olivia wouldn’t weigh down Mariana’s newfound joy with her problems and anxieties. In this way, she knew she wasn’t alone, for she had a full life and a supportive family, but she was alone in her choices and the path she wanted to forge. It was simultaneously exciting and terrifying.

Her gaze again stole toward the staircase where Lord St. Alban stood quietly surveying the room. Except his eyes weren’t quiet. They were absolutely fierce, only softening when he bent his head to make a comment to his daughter. The girl nodded once while staring straight ahead and drawing her embroidered silk reticule close to her chest. Deliberately, protectively, he placed a hand at her elbow. His message was clear: his daughter was a peer of this room as much as he.

The fearsome display of love elicited a confusion of emotion within Olivia, strange and alarming. She couldn’t help thinking of Lucy and Percy, of how he hadn’t been that father to her, and a hard knot twisted inside her chest, even as a warm shiver purled down her spine.

Instinct urged her to run as fast and as far away as her feet could carry her from this scene. After the scandalous six months of gossip she’d provided the ton, confusions of emotion were best left unexplored and avoided at all costs.

She would make her excuses, kiss her good-byes, and forget all about the unsettling Right Honourable Jakob Radclyffe, Fifth Viscount St. Alban. By tomorrow morn, she would be settled and ready to begin her independent future, decidedly free from all confusions of emotion.


Also in this series:

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