An excerpt from Chapter One:
Carlton House, June 19, 1811
The soft glow of the gaslights cast ominous shadows across the coach as it crept along Pall Mall. But not even the black curtain of a starless night could relieve the oppressive heat of the sweltering London evening. The air inside the luxurious carriage had passed beyond stagnant over an hour ago, turning the once-delicate mingling of the ladies’ fine French perfumes to pungent and cloying. The normally loquacious occupants of the coach had been silenced by darkness and shared discomfort. The short journey from Berkeley Square to Carlton House that should have taken a quarter of an hour had already extended to an excruciating three.
The interminable wait would try the patience of a saint. And Eugenia Prescott had long ago forsaken her chances for sainthood. Tension knit with excitement balled in her gut. With what was at stake tonight, each minute of delay was pure agony.
After years of pain and heartbreak, Genie stood poised on the verge of triumph. If all went according to plan, tonight would be the beginning of the end of her long quest to secure the life that was denied her five years ago.
The coach lurched forward then jerked to another abrupt stop. Stop and start, like the erratic pounding of her heart. Yet each step, no matter how infinitesimal, brought her closer to the realization of her dream.
She sank back against the silken walls, closed her eyes, and slipped into the shadows, hiding her impatience from the watchful eyes of her companions. She drew a deep breath, both to steady her nerves and to give herself a moment to absorb the significance of all that she had accomplished.
She’d journeyed from the doorstep of hell to the very pinnacle of elite society. Miss Eugenia Prescott, the prodigal parson’s daughter, who’d fled ruin and disgrace, surviving hardship her provincial upbringing never could have imagined, had returned as the soon-to-be fiancée of an earl. Accomplishment enough to be sure, but there was more. Tonight Genie would make her entrée into high society at one of the grandest events ever to befall the fashionable world.
Much rode on her success this night. Acceptance by the ton would secure her future and enable her to finally put the darkness and bitter memories of the past behind her.
Resisting the urge to look outside the small window yet again, Genie adjusted the bodice of her gown, giving only momentary relief from the biting pinch of her stays. Though beautiful, her ensemble was not particularly comfortable in even the most agreeable of circumstances. After hours of confinement in the stifling coach, the diaphanous ivory column gown clung to her lean body as if she’d dampened the skirts, as was the fashion of the more risqué members of the ton. Still, despite her discomfort, Genie had never looked more beautiful. It was a fact, thought without conceit. She had long since taken any pleasure in her beauty. What she’d thought a blessing had turned out to be anything but. Now her face and body were all she had to ensure her survival—and her future.
“Finally,” Lady Hawkesbury, one of her companions and chaperone, broke the silence. “It’s almost our turn.”
Too nervous to respond, Genie instead concentrated on calming her racing heart. Trepidation nibbled at the edges of her consciousness. Everything she had battled and scraped for was so close she could almost reach out and grab it. Almost. But not quite.
The coach clattered to its final stop. A moment later the blue and gold liveried coachman opened the door, releasing the stale air with a gentle cleansing swoosh. Accepting the proffered white-gloved hand, Genie alighted out of the carriage and into her future.
Temporarily blinded, it took a moment to digest the vision before her. Hundreds of gaslights illuminated the evening sky, turning night into day. Astonished, Genie gazed around at the Prince Regent’s wonderland. She’d never seen anything like it, and for a moment, she was an awestruck young girl from Gloucestershire again.
“Dear Prinny will never be criticized for restraint.”
Genie clamped her mouth shut, reminding herself that sophisticated soon-to-be countesses did not gape. She pulled her gaze from the pink and silver draperies and mirrors adorning the trellises of the garden walkways to look up at the handsome man who had appeared at her side. Though not accustomed to seeing him in such dandified evening attire, the jaunty grin and sparkling blue eyes were comfortingly familiar.
An aura of peace settled over her as it always did when she looked upon his handsome face. Genie had sworn never to trust a man again, but Edmund St. George, the Earl of Hawkesbury, had chipped away her resistance with his irrepressible chivalry and nobility. Nobility might be conferred at birth, but being noble was earned—not passed along as part and parcel of a title. Lord Hawkesbury, Edmund after all that they had been through, was a truly noble man. And there had been precious few of those in Genie’s life since she’d been forced from her home.
As much as Genie could trust any man, she trusted Edmund.
She met his bemused smile with one of her own. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” She shook her head. “If this is just to celebrate the prince’s regency, I can’t conceive what the coronation will be like.”
Edmund took her kid-gloved hand and placed it in the crook of his arm. “I dare not fathom, but whenever that illustrious event takes place, I’ll not wait three hours just for the privilege of descending from my carriage. A more miserable journey I cannot recall.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, darling,” Edmund’s mother, the Countess of Hawkesbury, chided from his other side with an emphatic snap of her ivory fan to his arm. “Of course you will.”
Genie laughed while Edmund grumbled fondly at his mother. But the countess was indubitably correct, Edmund could be depended upon to do what was right. And attending his king, future or otherwise, certainly qualified—three-hour wait to descend his carriage or not.
They stood unmoving near the entrance to the spectacular Gothic conservatory, held captive as much by the sheer extravagance of the decoration, as by the crush of the throng around them. With two thousand of the crème de la crème of polite society milling about, the crowd inside wasn’t any easier to navigate than the long procession of carriages that lined the Mall.
“It’s both incredible and outrageous,” Edmund said, a touch of recrimination in his voice.
Genie agreed. The Prince Regent’s “Grande Fete” (ostensibly to honor the exiled royal family of France, though in truth a celebration of his regency), was both magnificent and appalling. It was impossible not to be awed by the grandeur of the decoration, but it was an exorbitant expenditure of money for a man already sharply criticized for his excesses.
“My word,” the countess exclaimed. “Look at that table!”
Genie followed the direction of the countess’s fan. Her eyes widened. “Who could possibly have conceived such a thing?”
No one spoke; they were all too transfixed. The dining table had to be at least two hundred feet long. And running down its entire length, from an ornate silver fountain at its head, was a stream, replete with moss, tiny bridges, and silver and gold fish.
The opulence of this celebration would strike even the most jaded of the haut ton with wonder. Everywhere Genie looked were riches beyond her imagination, from the elegantly dressed guests in their finest evening dress and jewels to the gold and silver ornamentation that appeared to adorn every surface. The spectacle, the theater of the Prince Regent’s fete, was a long way from the Kington House rectory.
Overwhelmed by the thought that she could soon be a part of this closed society, her façade of confidence knew a fleeting moment of panic. Nothing in her past could have prepared her for such a lavish display of wealth and power. Certainly not the country balls and assemblies she frequented as a girl, or even the elegant intellectual salons of Boston that she’d enjoyed over the past year with Edmund and his mother.
Could she actually do this? Would these people accept her?
“There are so many people,” she said, almost to herself. Turning back to Edmund, she hesitated. “Are you sure this is the best time?”
Instinctively, Edmund pulled her closer to his side. Always the protector. A veritable knight in shining armor. Genie felt a stab of guilt, knowing that she had taken advantage of those propensities. But tonight she truly needed his stalwart conviction and strength.
“If you wish to cause a sensation, there is no better time. The ton will all be gathered in one room tonight. At one table for that matter,” he said wryly, indicating the enormous table. His hand moved over hers, giving it a comforting squeeze. “There’s nothing to be scared of, Genie. You’re incomparable. They’ll love you, as I do.”
Scared? Her back straightened. She wasn’t scared. She was no longer a frightened country mouse, but a woman hardened by life’s disappointments. She’d faced far more difficult challenges than navigating the perilous pitfalls of society. Edmund was right. This would work. She would be accepted. Genie would not allow herself to be intimidated by rank again. That naïve country miss was gone forever. She was older now, a woman of three and twenty. Five years, well four at least, of suffering had changed her forever. It had been almost a year since Edmund had found her. If only he could have saved her before…
She blocked the memory. Genie refused to dwell on the past when her future, a secure future, was laid out before her.
And ready for the taking.
Genie knew what she wanted and more important, she knew what she had to use to get it—no matter how much playing the coquette went against her natural disposition. The sweet, innocent girl she’d been had been a lamb in a pen of lions. But now she knew better. Men—even decent ones like Edmund (she’d seen the way his eyes devoured her body when he thought she wasn’t looking)—only wanted one thing from her.
So she gave it to them.
Her composure recovered, Genie caressed the hard bulge of Edmund’s upper arm with her thumb. She wobbled a brave smile and peeked up at him from beneath her lashes. Years ago the innocent, vulnerable look might have been done unthinkingly. Now she understood its effect.
Heat warmed Edmund’s gaze.
He really was extraordinarily handsome, with his coal-black hair, piercing blue eyes and ruggedly masculine features. Rakish looks without the profligate behavior to go along with it. Genie was fortunate to have him, and she knew it.
She fought the stab of conscience. Was it really so horrible to give him what he wanted? Edmund liked to be the knight in shining armor. What did it matter if she had to pretend a little to be the innocent maiden in need of rescue?
She nudged a little closer, allowing her breast to brush against his arm and said, “With you by my side, my lord, how could I fear anything?”
His eyes lingered on her bosom for a moment before his face grew suddenly earnest. His voice dropped. “You don’t need to do this, my love. Say the word and I’ll shout from the rooftop that you have agreed to be my countess. I don’t care whether we rusticate in the country all year long, as long as we’re together.”
She was half-tempted. Before, Genie might have let him do just that. She would achieve the security of wealth and position just by marrying him—with or without society’s approval. But over the past few months, she’d grown to love him. Not in the soul-encompassing, uncontrollable way she’d loved before—shudder—but in a safe, manageable way.
Dear Edmund. Always gallant, always noble. Even if that nobility could lead to his own social ruin. Though she wanted the protection that marriage to Edmund would afford, she would not destroy him needlessly. The taint of scandal once given could never be undone. A woman with a shadowed past was vastly different from the woman of mystery she hoped to portray.
Genie just had to make sure the ton accepted her, or rather the respectable widow Mrs. Ginny Preston. Miss Eugenia Prescott, parson’s daughter from Thornbury, was a distant memory.
Although there was one person who might remember.
She quickly discarded the thought. He probably had forgotten all about her—just another notch in his bedpost. And if he hadn’t…
He could be persuaded to remain silent.
Genie scanned the crowd for familiar faces, though it was unlikely that she would know anyone. The exalted circles of the haut ton did not often overlap with that of a country parson. She knew that her family would eventually hear that she had returned from America, but she couldn’t face them just yet. She told herself she would go to them and explain once she was established. Once they had reason to be proud of her. Once she was a countess and the threat of scandal was behind her.
For now, she was simply Mrs. Prescott, the widow of a soldier, recently arrived from America. There was no reason to suspect anything else. A carefully constructed web of lies would pave her way to happiness. A brittle bed, perhaps, but it was all she had to sleep on.
Edmund knew her secrets, or those that mattered, and was still willing, even anxious, to marry her. Indeed, since she’d revealed her true name to him a few months ago, his desire to marry her had taken on an almost frantic urgency.
Edmund dared the unthinkable: a misalliance—an inferior marriage in the eyes of the ton. After all that he’d done for her, she owed it to him to try to not make it a costly decision.
“Nothing would make me happier than to announce our betrothal,” she said truthfully. “But it’s better this way. We’ve already agreed. I’ll win them over first then we’ll announce our engagement in a few weeks.”
Then she could relax.
If her past didn’t find her first.
Three hours later, Genie could breathe more easily. The night was progressing well. At supper she’d found herself inexplicably seated between Edmund and the charming old Earl of Clarendon—much too high on the table for a mere soldier’s widow. Edmund’s doing she suspected. She’d been introduced to the highest peers in the realm and had acquitted herself well. She’d even, at his request, been presented to the Prince Regent.
But her real achievement came earlier in the evening. Lady Hawkesbury had presented her to five of the seven grandes dames of society, the famed Patronesses of Almack’s, and Genie had secured a “stranger’s ticket” as Lady Hawkesbury’s guest for next Wednesday’s ball from the friendly Lady Cowper. A mixture of joy and relief surged through her. If she could win over the dragons of Almack’s, her success was virtually guaranteed.
They’d finished the lengthy meal and had moved into the gardens where a temporary courtyard had been set up to accommodate the two thousand guests. The evening’s entertainment of dancing and gaming would begin shortly. The band of Guards played under the portico while the guests enjoyed the temporary promenades that had been erected for the occasion.
Edmund leaned over to whisper in her ear.
The countess playfully rapped Edmund’s knuckles with her fan. “Stop that whispering immediately. You’ve drawn enough wagging tongues already.” Motioning to Genie she said, “Come along, my dear, move away from your vicious guard dog’s side.” She turned to frown at her son. “And you, my boy, should know better. It’s not the thing at all, monopolizing her like this. Why you’ve barely let any other man near her. I thought for one horrible moment that you might refuse to present her to the prince.”
A decidedly petulant scowl descended across Edmund’s handsome features. Genie hid her smile behind her hand. He looked at any moment like he might thrust out his lower lip and pout like a naughty schoolboy.
“That lecherous old cur! Did you see him? I thought he might drool down the front of her dress—”
“Shush,” the countess scolded, rapping him harder this time, but still smiling. “Do you want someone to hear?” She turned her cheerful smile back to Genie. “And can you blame him? It’s a remarkable bosom.” Genie blushed, but the countess didn’t seem to notice. “You’ve created quite a stir, my dear. Why that harpy Lady Jersey is just positively twittering with curiosity.” The countess preened. “You’ll be the talk of the ball tonight, I can feel it. You look exquisite.” She studied Genie over the top of her fan. “Simply exquisite.”
“I feel like a princess. This dress is beautiful. You’ve been so generous, I can’t thank you—”
“Oh, posh,” the countess said cutting her off. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It’s great fun giving the ton something to talk about. And I know you must think it difficult to believe, but I caused a minor sensation in my day.”
“I don’t find that difficult to believe at all,” Genie said honestly, giving her a fond peck on the cheek. With her dancing eyes and vivacious smile, Lady Hawkesbury was still a beautiful woman.
Lady Hawkesbury was another reason for Genie to feel fortunate. The countess cared not that her son was to marry an inconsequential widow of no standing and without five pounds to her name. Edmund loved Genie and that was enough for his mother. Lady Hawkesbury’s support and friendship tonight had been just as important as Edmund’s, perhaps more so.
If only the rest of the ton were as easily persuaded.
But Genie knew she should feel pleased. So far the evening had gone exceptionally well. The ton was intrigued. And there hadn’t been any unwelcome vestiges of her past to fend off. It was more than she could have hoped for.
She turned back to Edmund to tell him she would see him for their dance later when she noticed him scanning the crowd behind her. Strange, she thought. She’d caught him doing the same thing many times throughout the evening. He appeared to be looking for someone. Though Genie had refused to tell Edmund his name, perhaps he, too, was concerned that he might be here.
Now that she thought about it, there was a distinct edginess to Edmund tonight. Genie bit her bottom lip, feeling guilty. She’d been so preoccupied with her own thoughts, she hadn’t realized that this night might be difficult for him as well. They both had much riding on her success.
She touched his arm and gave him a tender smile. There was no need to feign this time. Her eyes dropped to his mouth and she ran her tongue along her upper lip, thinking about how she would thank him later for all he had done tonight. She’d come to enjoy kissing Edmund. Though it didn’t create the heart-pounding frantic craving from her youth, Edmund’s kiss was like him: warm and secure.
Not dangerous and destructive.
“Your mother’s right,” she said, disengaging her hand from his arm. When Edmund looked like he might argue she continued, “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
“But I do worry,” he said in a tone that was far too serious than was warranted by the situation. There was a tense moment where it seemed like he might refuse, before he sighed. “I’ll go for now, but I’ll be back if you need me.” He paused meaningfully. “For anything.”
Genie watched him make his way through the crowd. Even his carriage seemed odd. Though graceful, there was a predatory slant to his movements tonight. It was almost as if he were stalking something… or someone.
Whatever was bothering him—and she was sure something was—it was getting worse as the evening drew on. Perhaps Edmund was more jealous than she’d realized?
She was prevented from thinking about the matter any further as the dancing began and she was led into the ballroom by the first in a steady stream of partners.
Dismounting, the man carelessly tossed the reins of his horse to the waiting footman and hurried up the walkway, barely noticing the outrageous extravagances of tonight’s fete.
He was late. Very late. Prinny would be furious, though he’d been fortunate to make it at all. A last-minute trip to Surrey to attend to an emergency for a friend had taken him from town yesterday. He’d only arrived home an hour ago, leaving him barely time to change before rushing to Carlton House to put in the obligatory appearance.
He felt around for his watch fob but realized that in his haste he’d forgotten it. Instinctively his fingers dug around in the small pocket on his waistcoat that lay right below his heart. Relieved, he exhaled. It was there. The slide of cool silk slipping between his fingertips was strangely comforting. A corner of the blue ribbon, frayed and worn with time, peeked out from the opening of the pocket for a moment before he quickly stabbed it back down out of sight.
Such sentimentality was not like him. But like some wretched talisman, he carried the damned thing with him everywhere.
It was all he had left of a past that he could not forget.
For it seemed nothing would ever bring her back.
Much later, breathless and flushed from the heat of the ballroom, Genie decided to take a turn on the promenades. Catching sight of Edmund outside in the courtyard, she started across the room.
She stepped outside Carlton House and paused for a moment, shocked by the drop in temperature. It had taken until well past midnight, but the sweltering heat had finally dissipated. She closed her eyes, allowing the cool breeze to wash over her.
A startled gasp drew her attention to the man coming up the walk. He stood perhaps ten feet in front of her, dressed in a black cape and tall beaver hat. She tilted her head to one side in question. There was something familiar…
Their eyes met and her heart stopped.
The music and dancing, the din of conversation around them slipped away. Unbidden, the memories rushed back in a chaotic montage: the first time she’d seen him, the first time he’d held her in his arms on the dance floor.
The first time they’d made love.
Heat stained her cheeks as if he could know her thoughts. The memories were so strong, so clear, as if five years of recrimination and tribulation had never happened.
But it had.
Other memories, much darker memories, blotted out the fond ones, breaking the spell. Her gaze shifted.
He, however, continued to stare at her in shocked silence.
She’d known it was bound to happen, seeing him again. And she’d realized that there was a good chance it would be tonight. Perhaps a small part of her had hoped it would be so, when she undoubtedly looked her best. She wanted him to see what he had forsaken. She wanted him to know regret. As she did.
Genie studied him. He’d changed so much she was surprised that she recognized him. There was nothing left of the lean young man she remembered. His shoulders were unfashionably broad and muscular; his legs thick and powerful. Unusually tall, perhaps standing four inches above six feet, his frame with the added bulk seemed infinitely larger. He looked more like a blacksmith or common laborer than a vaunted peer of the realm. Even his elegant court attire did nothing to civilize his appearance.
Undeniably he was still incredibly handsome, but he’d changed more than just from the passage of time. There was a hard edge to his face that had not been there before. As if chiseled from stone, his once softly sculpted features had sharpened from those of a boy to a man. The wide, arrogant mouth she recognized, but now it sat atop a cynical jaw that was both square and uncompromising. Where before there had been only dimples, now she noticed tiny cruel lines around his mouth. His hair was darker—no longer blond but golden brown—and longer, but still thick and straight with a slight wave that framed his face. His striking blue eyes shone as hard as glass, no longer sparkling like the sun upon the sea.
Though changed, it was still the face that had launched hundreds of hours of tears and regret. Yes, she thought with relief, she could finally feel regret behind all the bitterness and recriminations. Behind the cold dull edge of hatred. Regret for the suffering, regret for the anger. But most of all, regret for the loss of love.
When she looked at him and saw how changed he was, she felt something that she had not anticipated: a poignant longing for the innocence of youth.
An innocence that he had taken from her.
She was connected to this man by a past that should no longer matter. But it did. Perhaps it always would. He’d taken something from her that could never be returned. He’d forced her to open her eyes to the real world, where people are imperfect, where people break your heart and your trust.
He’d once meant so much to her. Yet, oddly, Genie felt detached. She was not that same young ignorant country girl. He did not have the power to affect her any longer. That part of her life was gone forever. Seeing him again had finally solidified it.
She might grieve for the innocence of youth, but she would never forget what had come after her cruel disillusionment. She would never forget what this man did to her.
Lord Fitzwilliam Hastings.
The man who’d nearly destroyed her.
She’d given him her soul and he’d sent her into hell. Alone.
The echo of her childhood ringing in her ears, Genie remembered. How he’d failed her. For refusing to do the unthinkable…
End of Excerpt