The Story about the Story
Self-publishing an anthology together was originally Courtney's idea. She invited Carolyn and Sherry. Sherry was more than happy to jump at the opportunity—she had always wanted to be part of an anthology.
This was in the spring of 2011. By the time Carolyn, Courtney, and Sherry met at RWA Nationals in NYC late that June, Courtney had just self-published her first novella, Unlocked, to stunning success. Carolyn, too, had been digitally self-publishing her backlist titles and doing very well—though more quietly, perhaps.
And Sherry just congratulated herself shamelessly on always falling in with the right people. It's a talent, that. :-)
She will, however, take some credit for providing the idea that ties the anthology together. She had already finished the first draft of RAVISHING THE HEIRESS and knew she wanted to write Isabelle's story. She also knew she wanted to set the story at Doyle's Grange, the house mentioned near the end of RAVISHING THE HEIRESS, something of a much more modest version of Netherfield Park from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, namely, a place in the country leased out to tenants, rather than an entailed property only for the use of the family to whom it belongs. So she proposed to make the house the link between the novellas. And it was done.
Courtney did most of the heavy lifting on cover design and manuscript formatting, with some very capable assistance from Carolyn, while Sherry stood to the side and let the professionals work their magic. She also congratulated herself on not getting in the way. Another real talent, that.
The result? A beautifully written—at least where Carolyn and Courtney's stories are concerned—flawlessly formatted, DRM-free, and reasonably priced book. The lesson? If Courtney Milan and Carolyn Jewel ever extend an invitation to you for anything, accept without a second's delay. (Except, that is, when it involves going somewhere. In which case, still accept the invitation, but make sure Courtney is not in charge of directions, as Sherry learned from Courtney's and her dim sum-less trip to NYC's financial district, when the actual restaurant they were trying to reach was in a different part of town altogether. Sometimes, when Sherry is hungry, she still regrets the dim sum that she never got to enjoy.) :-)
"Best. Anthology. Ever."
— Carolyn Jewel, Courtney Milan & Sherry Thomas
Oh, you mean real reviews? :-) Those to come a little later.
One Starlit Night by Carolyn Jewel
March 13, 1813, the rear lawn of Doyle's Grange, Somerset, near the hills of Exmoor, England
CRISPIN HOPE, FOURTH VISCOUNT NORTHWORD,stood to one side of the lawn and prayed for a miracle. None arrived. He remained unable to summon a blessed word. He twitched with the need to do something besides stand mute. Words, any words, would be better than his damnable silence. Action, any action, would be better than inaction. He managed to force a smile. A minor miracle, then. Hallelujah.
Naturally, a woman was involved in his present difficulties. A particular and specific woman. Was any man's heart ever brought to its metaphorical knees except by a woman? Minor miracle or no, he needed to say or do something to convey how unmoved he was by her.
He tapped the side of his left leg with two fingers. Next, he cleared his throat. Portia sent a questioning look his way. Of course, words failed him. He affected what he hoped appeared to be mild interest in the proceedings; practically nonexistent. He coughed again and dug into his store of conversational inanities. "A fine day."
"Mm." She arched her eyebrows. "A touch cold for me." Her attention returned to the sapling that was the reason he was standing out here in the first place.
He'd known Portia Temple since he was a boy of eight and she a girl of six. Twenty-one years. For the first ten years he'd never thought of her as anything but a friend and companion who by a quirk of fate happened to be female. Pity for her when boys were so superior, and how annoying that she'd disagreed.
For the second ten years he'd managed to set her neatly into a box in which she was devoid of femininity yet continued to exist as his best friend's sister. A woman he avoided, but with whom he kept a friendly correspondence. Friendly. Nothing more.
He did his best not to think about the time between those bookends of decades. Silence reached out and set fire to his nerves. "It's spring," he said. Oh, Jesus. Had he really said that? "One ought not be cold in spring."
That got him another careless glance, and he was convinced that she, unlike him, had found a way to forget. But then, in all their years of friendship, he'd always been the one who felt more deeply.
She stared at the sapling, head tilted. "You've been away too long. You've forgotten our weather."
Resentment boiled in him, and he required a monumental amount of sang-froid to let that pass. Forgotten? He bit back a retort but could not quash the sentiment that came with the impulse. He'd not forgotten a damned thing. It was no accident that this was his first visit to Doyle's Grange in ten years. Nor that this was his first time socializing since his wife's passing nearly two years ago. Outside the circle of his most intimate friends and women of a certain reputation, that is. He straightened the lay of his coat and said with sharp intent, "I've not forgotten anything."
"We'll disagree on that." If he'd not been watching her so closely, he might have missed the distress that briefly replaced her pleasant smile. But he had been watching, and he did, and it ripped him to shreds.
Jesus. They'd made their peace in letters and it was all a lie, all those words they'd written to each other were now stripped of that fantasy pax now that he was here. Instead of the two of them moving on in person as they had in letters, they were mired in the past.
She put a hand on one of the slender branches of the sapling. One would think that in ten years she'd have changed more than she had. He had. Her brother Magnus had. She was remarkably unaltered. Smiling, too-tall-for-a-woman, auburn-haired, full of life. It was—almost—as if those second ten years had never been.
While he watched her, she lifted the hem of her muslin skirt and tamped down the last shovelful of dirt around the tree she'd just planted. She was wholly unconscious of his stare. No. He'd not forgotten anything.
Mud coated the bottom and sides of her plain leather half-boots. Spatters of dirt clung to her hem. She'd not been careful when she pinned her hair this morning, for there were curls, and not the fashionable sort. Hers came loose every which way. In daylight, there was no disguising that her hair was more red than brown, and of all things, that was what doomed him. That dark red hair.
To no avail, he reminded himself she was Magnus's younger sister. He had years of correspondence from her. He'd not realized how her spirit had stolen into the pages and words she'd written. Every time he'd read one of her letters, she'd filled a space in his heart he ought to have closed off. He'd not even known it was happening until now. Far too late.
"What do you think, Crispin?" She wore thick gloves of the sort ladies wore when they gardened, and when she swiped a wisp of hair out of her face the careless motion left dirt on her cheek. The breeze sent the curl free to dangle at the side of her face. An undeniably red wisp of hair. Most women with hair that color insisted it was brown. Hers was a deep, dark, secret red. Soft in a man's hands, a river of curling, mysterious color that glinted with strands of gold.
He had been careful, over the last two years, never to make love to a woman with red hair.
"Well? What do you think?"
"About?" His query came late enough that she laughed at him.
"You didn't have to come out here. I told you you'd be bored." She put her hands on her hips. "What do you think about my tree?"
One afternoon, one unforgettable day—God, they'd been so heartbreakingly young—she'd changed him forever, while she went on being Portia. She knew him better than anyone. Still did. For God's sake, she knew him better than the woman he'd married. She hadn't blamed him for his choice. Never a reproach for his decisions, never a hint that she understood he had been avoiding her these last ten years. She knew, of course. She was too intelligent not to know. When it came right down to it, he wasn't blameless either. Not entirely.
"Well." He pretended to study the tree, but he was really looking at her. Her gown was a striped muslin with no bows, no lace, no fancy trim to direct a man's attention to the curve of a breast or the column of a throat. Yet here he stood remembering his hand sliding down smooth skin, the bang of his heart against his ribs because he had never touched a naked woman before, and, Lord, how sinfully luscious she was. Had been. Still was.
He still wanted her. There was nothing so surprising about that. Men lusted after women all the time. But his lust and desire had got mixed up and confused with more powerful emotions.
"It's a tree, not a Venus in marble." She peeked at him, then returned to her study of the tree. "There is no meaning to divine other than God was right to make them like this."
"I like oak trees. An oak is a proper English tree." In London, her serviceable frock would have been thought plain two seasons ago. This season? The fact was, no woman of his set would be caught dead in such a gown. But Portia had never been farther from Doyle's Grange than the village of Aubry Sock, some twenty miles distant. He was guiltily aware that he'd never invited Magnus and Portia to London before or after he was married. The reasons were legion, and not all them were to his credit. He'd wanted to think of her here at Doyle's Grange. Safe. Unchanging. Here in sight of the Exmoor mountains where she would always love him with a passion that moved better men to poetry.
"I'm glad you like oaks, but this isn't an oak. It's a rowan."
"What?" He could not stop staring. Before long Portia was going to take offense.
She rubbed at her cheek, frowned and pulled off one of her gloves. "Have I got dirt on my face?"
She handed her spade to Hob, the man who served as Doyle's Grange's general servant; footman, groundsman, groom, butler, and performer of any other work there might be. Hob stood several feet back, idly tapping the side of his boot against the bucket of water at his feet. The man had looked a weathered forty-five or a well-preserved sixty for as long as he could remember.
The servant came forward to take the spade from Portia. He retreated a respectful distance.
Portia made a few more swipes at her cheek and missed the dirt each time. So like her. Northword knew he ought not stand there like the sexually stunned lump that he was. She'd know something was wrong, and he didn't see how he could possibly tell her that absolutely nothing, and everything, had changed. He wanted nothing more than to take her to bed again, and to do it as a man, not a green boy who didn't know his way around a woman. He took a certain piquant satisfaction from imagining the results of his mastery of that.
Thank God Hob was here because the Lord only knew what he might say or do. He had made his peace with Portia in words, if not in his heart, and as he stood here, seeing her for the first time in ten years, his very soul resonated with all that had never been spoken or put to paper. Better, he thought, if they had done. They ought to have screamed and shouted and accused instead of burying everything beneath a veneer of pleasantness.
"Hold still." He pulled out his spare handkerchief and walked to her. He could, and would, control his base urges. He put one hand underneath her chin, turned her face to the side, and wiped at the dirt. The smudge proved more stubborn than was safe for him. Her lips were full, that bottom lip so tender. Yet another delicate curve. Once, he would he have stolen a kiss. Taken it. Shared it.
"Hurry," she said. "It's cold."
"It is." She blinked while he worked at the smudge. He remembered the way her eyes had fluttered closed when he had somehow managed to bring her pleasure during their mutual discovery and clumsiness. Too quick the first time. But slow and tender the next. Oh, the enthusiasm and quick recovery of youth during those weeks that he thought, stupidly, they would continue to escape consequences. All that against the deep, wide landscape of loving her.
"What do you think, Hob?" She seemed oblivious to Northword's stare and his memories.
"Well and good, Miss Temple." The man's Exmoor accent was as thick as ever, but, as it happened, Northword had not unlearned how to listen to that accent and make sense of it. "Well and good."
The smudge yielded to him. He held her chin a moment longer than he ought to have. He knew, now, how to conduct an affair—never outside his marriage, he'd kept those vows. "There. As tidy as I can make you."
"Thank you." She pulled off her other glove and shoved it in her pocket with the first one and made an even bigger lump to spoil the line of her gown. They did not have between them the safety imposed by the formality of titles. She'd always been Portia to him, never Miss Temple. He'd always been Crispin to her. It was only the direction of her letters that styled him according to his title.
Crispin. There were nights when he lay awake remembering the sound of his name on her lips as she came to pleasure. His body came alive at those moments.
"Will the lavender be all right there?" She pointed at the plants in question. Again, she was talking to Hob. "Or do you think it will be in too much shade? Too late now, of course."
"It'll be years before the tree's big enough for that." Of course he said avore not before. Remarkable, really, how easily one slid into understanding that accent. Hob leaned a forearm on the shovel. "Thee and me'll be long gone by then."
With the toe of her boot, she knocked away a clod of dirt. A smile flashed on her face, and Northword thought of the kind of sex that made lovers laugh. "Perhaps one day relations of mine will stand by this tree." She used both arms to describe a tree of immense size.
While she did that, his eye was drawn, inexorably, to her bosom, and he felt an absolute dog for it. She remained lush in her curves, more than a good many women, less than others. They'd be as good together as ever. Better. He knew it down to his marrow, that thrill of animal attraction.
She lowered her arms. "They'll curse whoever planted the tree so close to the lavender."
"Surely," he said from the safety of his London drawl, "they'll wonder what bumblehead planted the lavender so close to the tree."
Portia laughed, and his heart eased, to be followed immediately by guilt at his reaction. Just once, when he and his wife lay beside each other, her hand on his chest in a moment of perilous intimacy, she'd asked him whether he had ever loved someone else. His denial hadn't come quickly enough. She never asked again.
"I hope you're right." She tapped the ground again with her boot. The view of her ankle damn near brought him low. Was he not a better man than this? Well. No. He wasn't. She crossed her arms underneath her bosom, and the flesh above her neckline shifted in the most beguiling manner. "Done, then, Hob? Well planted?"
"Aye." Hob came forward with his bucket and, after a glance at him—was that suspicion in the man's eyes?—slowly poured the contents around the base of the rowan tree destined to be gigantic in a future that would not include him.
"I should like to know what this tree will look like in a hundred years." She eyed the tree, but shot him a sideways look, a smile on her lips. "Don't you?"
He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Strong and tall, I should think."
"Yes. Yes, my rowan tree will be strong and tall."
Quite deliberately, he closed his eyes and imagined a hundred-year-old tree, thick trunk, branches spreading over the house and shading this corner of the garden. In a hundred years, the world would be a vastly different place, and yet, there would be this tree, which Portia, the sublimely sexual creature inhabiting his senses, had planted with her own hands in honor of her upcoming marriage. She wanted, she'd told him, to know she'd left something of herself behind at Doyle's Grange. As if she could help doing that.
When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was not Portia, but an auburn-haired woman with a delicious mouth and a ripe figure. He saw a woman with a lover's mouth and hands. He blinked and forced himself to see her as Portia, his friend. Sister of his friend and a woman he'd allowed no claim to a difference in gender.
In the main, he failed.
Hob backed away from the rowan tree and sent a dark look in his direction. "Don't worry, Miss, if the sapling looks ill for a bit. Root shock, you know." He nodded sagely but, to Northword's eye, his look was tainted with distrust. Hob knew men weren't to be trusted. "Give her time. Don't overwater."
"I shan't, then."
"I'll watch over the tree, Miss. Even after thee's away."
"I know you will." She focused on Hob. He, Northword, might as well not be anywhere near. "Thank you. That would be a great comfort."
"Ah," said another woman. They all turned, him, Portia, and Hob. Mrs. Magnus Temple walked toward them.
Portia's brother had married eight months ago. Magnus, it turned out, had met his wife during one of his visits to Northword's London home and had been waiting ever since to have a Church living that would support a wife. As it happened, the living at West Aubry had always been Viscount Northword's to give, which he had done as soon as practical after the previous possessor passed away. Within weeks, Magnus was married. Think of that. Waiting years to marry the woman you loved. Until the time was right and not a moment past then.
Northword had stood up for Magnus at the wedding, which took place by special license at Northword House in London. He'd offered them the chapel here, not even half a mile up the slope at Northword Hill and been refused. They would be married now, please, not in the time it would take to open up the house. And so it was done. Had been done, without Portia knowing about the marriage until Magnus had written to her. The couple had honeymooned in Bath, where Northword had a house he'd offered to them for a month.
"There you are, Portia." Mrs. Temple arrived at the site of the tree planting and pursed her lips. She pointed at the undisturbed ground between the tree and the lavender. "What are those?"
"It's spring," Portia said. "Crocuses grow here every spring. You cannot hope to obliterate them all."
"I can and I shall do so." Mrs. Temple gestured at Hob and stepped around the patch of ground where the flowers were opening to the sun. "Dig them up, please." She curtseyed to Northword and went so far as to bow her head. Her pretty blonde head. "Lord Northword."
He bowed. "Mrs. Temple. Good morning to you."
The woman had the most angelic smile he'd ever seen. "Portia, my dear. Might I have a word?"
What Happened at Midnight by Courtney Milan
February 1856, Southampton, England
"YOU THERE. WHERE DO YOU think you're off to? And where is your father?"
Miss Mary Chartley came to a stop in the hall, mere steps from escape. The servants' door was only a few feet away. She silently cursed the board that had let out the telltale creak. Her shoulders ached. Her heart pounded. And behind her eyes, a headache had started, brought on by sleeplessness and unshed—&nsbp;
No. Not tears. She was done with crying.
She gathered her composure and her wits, and turned.
Her father's one-time business partners had started to ransack the house early that morning. She had heard them come in; the constable who had accompanied them had even questioned her briefly. But they'd busied themselves downstairs, leaving her free to do what needed to be done. She had hoped to simply steal out the back door, with nobody aware of her departure.
"Mr. Lawson." She gave the nearest man a quick curtsey. "Mr. Frost." Another dip of her head. Only one of the partners was missing, and she couldn't let herself think about Mr. John Mason. "Good morning."
It was absurd to observe the forms of propriety at a time such as this, but she'd been steeped in proper manners for most of her life. Five years of a very expensive finishing school in Vienna had trained her to smile at these men in pleasant harmony, even while they pawed through her father's things.
Mr. Lawson and Mr. Frost had made a shambles of the office. Her father's carefully-sorted papers had been strewn about the room; books had been pulled from their shelves and left in uneven, teetering piles. They'd wrested the drawers from the desk and splintered the wooden boards into kindling.
Lawson raised his head from the wreckage to contemplate her. "Where is your father?" he asked again.
"She doesn't know anything," Frost said, after giving her a brief, dismissive glance. He was methodically flipping through books, searching for some hidden secret within their pages. "Look at her—dressed for a stroll in the park, as if nothing had changed."
How else she was to dress, Mary did not know. She had walking dresses and riding habits, dinner gowns and morning gowns. But nothing in her wardrobe was marked, "Wear me in the event of disaster." Her hand clenched inside its glove.
Frost tossed the book he held to one side and picked up another. But Mr. Lawson was still looking at her. Staring, really, in a manner that was anything but polite.
Ignore it, and your better manners will soon embarrass him into behaving properly. That was what the etiquette instructor at her finishing school would have advised her.
Ha. The instructor hadn't known Mr. Lawson. He set down his papers and stepped toward her.
Her heart pounded faster. His lips were compressed in anger, but his eyes… She didn't like that unblinking reptilian look in his eyes, nor the slither in his step.
"Where is your father, Mary?"
"Miss Chartley," she corrected gently. "I think we'll all be happier if you call me Miss Chartley, and—"
He grabbed her wrist. "You really don't understand. You stupid creature. ‘Miss Chartley' is what I'd call a lady, and in case you haven't discovered it, you no longer fit the description. The sooner you recognize that, the better it will go for you."
Mary yanked her wrist away. She hadn't had time for soul-searching. She certainly hadn't had time to quietly contemplate her new position in the complicated taxonomy of womanhood. All her thoughts since three that morning had been consumed by one thing: getting her trunk and its contents miles away from these men, before they discovered the truth.
"No railway receipt, no record of a hired cab," Frost was saying, shaking his head. "It's as if Chartley simply vanished. And when I find him—"
No question about it. Mary had to get her trunk away from here, and quickly.
But Lawson took hold of her wrist once more, wrenching her arm around her back as if she were a scullery maid caught stealing the silver. "Where is your bleeding father?"
That twisting motion really hurt, sending stars floating across her vision. Aside from the rap of a ruler across her knuckles, nobody had ever touched her in violence.
But it wasn't the pinched face of her etiquette instructor that came to mind. It was the round, frowning visage of her piano master.
Weep later, he would have said in a heavy German accent. Play now.
She jutted out her chin. "I don't know." True in at least one respect. She wanted to believe that Papa, who she'd loved so dearly, was in heaven. But if there was any truth to what the curate said, he was likely in hell.
"And what message did he leave you?" His grip tightened on her wrist.
"Nothing." Lying came easier, the more she did it. Her father might have been a cheat and a thief, but he'd loved her and she'd loved him. She would save him this final indignity.
"You're getting tiresome, Mary." Lawson yanked her wrist. She took two stumbling steps toward him before she found her balance. "I don't think you understand what it means that he's abandoned you. If he's gone for good, you're nothing."
Her skin crawled, but she suppressed all hint of a shiver. "I still don't know—"
He wrenched her elbow. "You really don't understand. Why, as your father's closest associate, I'm practically your guardian. And do you know what I do with wayward girls who won't speak to me?"
There was nothing he could do to her anymore. She'd been the one to discover her father's note. She'd found his body. The physical pain was nothing to that. But every second she remained here, being manhandled by them, was another moment where someone might find the trunk she'd lowered out her window.
Her father was an embezzler and a suicide. Nobody would help her—nobody except herself. She shut her mouth and tried once again to free her arm.
Lawson pulled his arm back, made a fist—
"Lawson," a new voice said, "what do you think you're doing?"
Lawson straightened, moving away from Mary so quickly that she gasped in relief.
"Aw," Lawson said, "I didn't mean any harm. I was just going to—"
"I have a good idea what you were going to do." With those words, John Mason stepped into her father's office. Mary shut her eyes. She hadn't cried, not even when she'd realized that her father had left her alone with nothing. Not when she'd realized that the future she'd dreamed of was gone forever. It had been easy to bury her fear, her despair, her mourning. Those emotions were too big to believe; her loss too large to comprehend.
Why, then, did the sight of John Mason make her want to weep?
She opened her eyes wide, willing that stupid moisture to evaporate into nothingness.
Across the room, John met her gaze briefly, and then looked away.
He didn't belong with these men; he never had. The other men were both grandfathers; John was scarcely twenty-five. They were dressed in sober, respectable browns and grays, every white starched to points; John's cravat was a bare pretense of a neckcloth, well-laundered but soft. Most of all, the other men were thin and pale from hunching over desks, while John's hours out-of-doors had left him golden-skinned and broad-shouldered.
He hadn't been part of their initial investment scheme. His father and his brother-in-law had been involved. But he'd taken over when his relatives had passed away.
That was how she had met him.
She had always believed his eyes were sweet—large and liquid brown. There had been nothing sweet about them last night, when he'd confronted her father, proof in hand, finger pointing directly at his chest. There was nothing sweet about them now, either. Mary's stomach churned, and she looked away.
"Don't be difficult, boy," Lawson said. "It's your money at stake, too. She knows something. I swear it's so."
"I don't truck with hitting ladies," John responded.
"She's no lady."
John's eyes flicked to Mary, touching her without really seeing her. But he didn't contradict the older man. He simply shrugged. "I don't truck with hitting women, either," he said in a low growl, then spat on the ground.
Don't spit on Papa's carpet, some stupid part of her wanted to say. As if the Turkey carpet mattered. Just one more possession to be sold to make up for his wrongdoings. One more thing for her to leave behind. Still, that disrespect hurt more than John's casual acceptance of her new status.
"Come now," Lawson said. "Given what her father owes us, she's practically a servant. It's not wrong to slap—"
John shoved the other man into the wall of the office. "I mean it, Lawson. That's enough."
She forced herself to concentrate on the hard lines of John's face, so different from the confident smile that he usually gave her when their paths crossed. He made her think of a rocky cliff: impossibly hard, with an unforgiving drop to the crags below.
"Very well," Lawson finally muttered in a sullen sneer. "But one day, you'll regret letting her go. Useless bitch." That last was directed at her.
Mary wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing her affected by that epithet. She simply nodded to the two men, as if this were the last round of an exchange of pleasantries, and turned to go.
John set his hand in the curve of her spine and guided her away, down the dark hallway, to the back of the house. He wrenched the servants' door open, and then glanced outside, verifying that nobody was about. Then, and only then, did he turn to her.
"Mary…" He ran one hand through the dark brown of his hair. She'd never heard his voice like this—dark and rumbling like thunder on the horizon. She'd never seen his eyes like this, either. There was a tension in them, worry-lines gathering at the corners. He wasn't quiet because he intended to be gentle with her. It was the quiet of a pot on the verge of boiling over.
"John." She shut her eyes.
"Swear to me that you don't know where he is."
Like everyone else, he was thinking only of her father. But unlike the others, at least he believed her. For now. Mary's thoughts went to her trunk, to the ache in her arms.
"If I had to guess," she told him gravely, "I would say that he went straight to hell. He left me—" All that angry fury raged within her for a moment, startling in its heat. No place to put it now; she had too much to do.
"Did he tell you where the money was?"
"Not a word."
"What are your plans? Is that your trunk over there?" His tone was curiously flat as he spoke to her—not devoid of emotion, but withdrawn, as if he'd turned away from his own feelings.
She hadn't dared to look at the massive steamer trunk where it lay. It had followed her from Southampton to Vienna, and then back for more holidays than she could count. It was large enough to fit all the many components of a lady's wardrobe, and that made it very large indeed. The rope she'd used to lower it was still fastened to one handle; the brass fittings dented where it had banged against the ground when it had gotten away from her. She glanced over, bit her lip, and nodded.
He didn't rush over and open it. Thank God.
"Do you have anywhere to go?"
"My father's second cousin lives in Basingstoke. He'll take me in." The lies came easier now.
"And you have a plan." He nodded. "I wish…" His voice was still flat, but his lips pressed together.
She turned away. "Don't wish. You'll only say something that we'll both regret. After last night, anything more is impossible."
And yet the possibility of that more kept intruding on her. Was it so little, then, that they'd had between them? She had liked the look of him, the way that he laughed. He'd liked the look of her. That was all. A few months' acquaintance.
A few kisses, a few conversations—not much, but enough to spark a lifetime of hope. Enough that she'd chosen the possibility of him and family over…
No. She couldn't let herself think that way any longer. Those memories belonged to another woman entirely—Miss Mary Chartley, the daughter of a respected member of the community. She wasn't sure who she was in this skin any longer, but she'd ceased to be that person. No matter what she and John might once have been to one another, it wasn't enough to survive the cataclysm of discovering that her father had taken thousands of pounds from their partnership.
She took off one glove, removed the ring from her finger, and held it out to him.
His flat façade finally cracked. His hand slapped against his trousers, and he turned his head from her. "God damn it."
"Set it against my father's debt."
His jaw worked. It took him a few breaths to regain his composure, but when he turned back, he didn't take the ring from her. "You'll need help getting to the station." Before she knew what was happening, he was reaching for the handle of her trunk.
She couldn't let him touch that. If he tried to lift it, he might wonder what made her luggage so heavy.
"Really, John," she said sharply, stepping in front of him. "I should think you've done enough."
"It doesn't have to be this way."
"Doesn't it? Say you love me, that you would marry me without any fortune, with my father in disgrace. Say your sister would welcome me into the family, knowing that my father stole her son's future."
He met her eyes. She wasn't sure what she saw reflected there. Regret? Anger? "You're right," he finally said. "I can't say anything of the sort. But—"
"I don't love you, either. If I did…" She slipped the ring into his hand. "If I did, surely I could not give you this with my head held high."
If he'd put her in mind of thunder before, that flashing look in his eyes was the lightning, spearing her through in one instant. For one second, she thought he was actually going to grab hold of her. But he didn't move. He didn't even frown. He simply took a deep breath and shoved the ring into his pocket.
"Well, then." Another breath, and he looked away. "Good riddance." His voice dropped low on that last.
It was a good thing her heart had turned to stone, or it might be breaking now. She hadn't loved him. She couldn't have. If she'd loved him, she would be weeping now, and she refused to weep. But they would have had a home all of their own. Children. Happiness. Warmth. She would have had John himself, so sweet, so strong, and yet so utterly implacable when betrayed…
He leaned down to her. He didn't put his hands on her and draw her close, as he might once have done. Still, she felt the echo of those prior intimacies on her skin. On her lips, tingling with his nearness.
He was going to kiss her one last time. She'd yearned for his kisses before, but she didn't want one now. She wanted her memories of him to remain unsullied by the last twenty-four hours.
But close as he came, his lips didn't touch hers.
"Mary," he said softly. "My nephew's future depends on the income from this partnership. If I find out that you have lied to me, that you know where your father is and where he hid what he stole…" He raised his eyes to hers. "I will escort you to the gates of hell myself."
A Dance in Moonlight by Sherry Thomas
Summer 1896, Somerset, a few miles south of the hills of Exmoor
THE WOMAN WAS BACK.
Ralston Fitzwilliam had seen her once before, two days ago. He had been on the tail-end of a fourteen mile walk, up and down hills so gentle they were barely bumps in the ground, across rain-swollen streams, and alongside green, sheep-dotted pastures.
Given that dark rain clouds, so low he could almost touch them, had crowded the sky from horizon to horizon, he should have gone straight home to Stanton House, set at his disposal by the Duke of Perrin for the few weeks a year Ralston spent in England. But the walk had not been sufficiently tiring for a man who wanted his limbs aching and his mind blank, so he had traversed Beauregard's farm and headed up the slope at the top of which sat Viscount Northword's country seat.
Only to have the rain come down hard halfway uphill. He veered toward Doyle's Grange, a smaller property of the Northword estate. It was vacant at present, and he could take shelter under its ivy-covered portico without being fussed over and lectured about the foolishness of being abroad in such weather, without even an umbrella. As he approached the garden gate behind the house, she had appeared on the garden path, a young widow all in black.
She was beautiful—tall, regal, her hair as dark as the beads of jet that trimmed her hat. But what had truly caught his eye was the story of her life that had been written on her otherwise exquisite face.
It had not been the easiest of lives. There was an air of fragility to her—not an inborn timidity, but the residual fear of someone who had been burnt by the vagaries of fate.
He recognized himself—as he had been for many years, and perhaps even as he was now.
She hurried into the house without noticing him. But he thought of her as he waited out the rain beneath the eaves of the garden shed, for the entirety of his walk home, and when he extinguished his light at night.
He called on Doyle's Grange the next day, but the front gate was locked, the house shut tight.
And now here she was again, a lovely, somber silhouette in the waning light of a summer evening, stepping down from a hansom cab, a satchel in hand. His heart leaped until he realized that the hansom cab, parked on the country lane before the blooming rhododendron hedge, did not leave. It was waiting for her to come out from the house and would ferry her elsewhere.
He hesitated. But before long, he found himself slipping into the front gate and walking up the drive. A movement of an upstairs curtain caught his eye—he had been sighted. Under the portico, as he raised his hand toward the bell pull, the door flung open, and she launched herself into his arms.
He was over six feet in height and sturdy of build. But she was at least five foot nine and no skeleton. He stumbled back a step.
Before he could quite recover from his surprise, she gripped his face and kissed him.
He'd kissed women to whom he hadn't been properly introduced, but never before he'd uttered so much as a greeting. She was ravenous, almost barbarous, as if she wanted to level him to the ground and lay waste to him.
The next moment her kiss turned tender. Now she was kissing her beloved, thought to be lost on the battlefield, but found alive and well, needing only to be cared for and cherished. Her fingers, which had been digging hard into the sides of his head, relaxed. Her body fitted itself to his. And he, who'd until now been largely stunned, wondering how to disentangle himself without giving offense, was suddenly caught in the kiss.
She smelled of roses. Not the smothering scent he'd encountered at times, as if he'd been stuffed inside a perfume bottle, but light and fresh, like a single petal held beneath the nostrils. Her cheek beneath his hand was wondrously soft. And her body was all velvet—her mourning gown was made of the stuff—plush, smooth, sensational.
"Oh, Fitz," she murmured, her arms banding tighter about him. "My darling Fitz."
His nickname at school had been Bosh—he liked to roll his eyes and say "bosh" when his mates sprouted nonsense. But he supposed one could call him Fitz, short for Fitzwilliam. Which raised the question, who was she? Where had he met her before that she considered their acquaintance to merit such a passionate kiss at this reunion? And if indeed they knew each other so well, how was it that he did not have the least recollection of her?
But that was for later. For now, he pulled her closer and kissed her back.
ISABELLE ENGLEWOOD ALMOST COULD NOT withstand the wild burst of joy in her heart. Her Fitz, her beautiful, beloved Fitz. He had realized his mistake and returned to her at last.
He smelled wonderful—but different, of cedar and bergamot, with the faintest underpinning of oriental spices. And he was more substantial than she remembered—good, she preferred a little more meat on his bones. And how she loved the way he kissed her, with a gentleness that nevertheless scorched.
Since her return to England, he'd been reticent to be physically close to her. But not anymore. Now he was unhesitating. Now he was hungry.
As was she. She'd been dreaming of this moment. It had been more than eighteen months since she'd lain with a man, more than a decade since she understood that she wanted to wake up next to him every morning of her life.
She broke the kiss when she could no longer breathe. Locking her fingers together behind his neck, she rested her head against his shoulder and panted, all the while pressing kisses into his cheek and jaw.
At last he was hers to have and to hold. To love and to cherish. Tears welled in her eyes, but she did not care; it had been far too long since she'd wept tears of happiness.
Happiness, what an alien sensation.
She nibbled him just above his collar, and the sound that emerged from his throat was full of suppressed desire. And his body—she could feel his unsuppressed desire against her, making her giddy even as a tear escaped the corner of her eye.
She smiled. And giggled—she loved being dizzy with hope.
"Let's go inside," she said, reaching up to touch his hair. "But let me dismiss the cabbie first, before he begins to wonder what…"
She forgot what else she was about to say. The hair beneath her finger was brown, with perhaps the slightest reddish tint. Fitz's hair was not brown; it was black, like her own. Not to mention when she last saw him, this very morning, his hair had been at least two inches shorter.
Dazed, she looked up into his eyes. "What happened to your—"
The eyes that gazed back at her were green. Green. A man could conceivably dye his hair—or put on a wig. But how did he change the color of his eyes?
She leaped back from him. "You are not Fitz. Who are you?"
A SIMPLE CASE OF mistaken identity.
Which would have been rather funny, a woman kissing the wrong man, if she did not look so shattered.
She stared at him as if he were a piece of art for which she'd bartered all her worldly possessions, only to realize that he was but a forgery, an inferior copy of what she truly wanted. She blinked furiously, then, forgetting—or perhaps no longer caring—that she'd asked for his identity, she turned her back to him and reached for the door of the house.
"Mrs. Englewood," he blurted out.
He'd spoken to the estate agent who had overseen the letting of Doyle's Grange. He knew her name. He knew that she was the mother of two young children. He knew that she had lost her husband, a cavalry officer, in India.
"My apologies, Mrs. Englewood. I did not mean to…disrupt your evening. My name is Fitzwilliam and I live nearby. I was informed that you have taken Doyle's Grange and hoped to make your acquaintance."
The breath she took was audible. Stiffly, she turned her head enough to look at him. "I should apologize to you, Mr. Fitzwilliam. The mistake and the responsibility were both mine."
For years, whenever he'd sought company, he'd made sure he singled out those who were carefree and lighthearted. Or at least, those who were as determined to be carefree and lighthearted as he, so that all his social interactions were characterized by a resolute cheerfulness. He did not quite understand why Mrs. Englewood, who made no effort to be jaunty and breezy, and whose pain was as unmistakable as her mourning gown, should exert such a pull upon him.
But he could not look away from her, this woman who did not hide her heartbreak. Who had perhaps never considered concealing her desolation beneath a frenzy of merrymaking.
"Clearly I have come at an inconvenient time," he said, staring at her sharp profile. "I shall wish you a good evening and take my leave. But will you allow me to call on you again, perhaps next week?"
She bit her lower lip. "You are very kind, sir. But I will not be here next week. In fact, I plan to never come back again."
Then he would never know her story. The thud of dismay he felt was out of all proportion with their negligible acquaintance. "But I understand you have signed a lease for an entire year."
"So I have." She briefly closed her eyes, as if the mention of the lease caused her actual pain. "But the lease only stipulates payment, not my presence."
"I hope I have not contributed to—"
"No. No, indeed, sir. My mind was made up this morning. I came back to retrieve a personal belonging, that is all."
Her hand opened and closed. It was obvious she wanted to be far from him, far from this house. He should be gentlemanly and understanding. Should immediately make himself scarce.
But he did not want to make himself scarce. He wanted to know what had made her kiss him with such devotion—and what made her unable to even look at him anymore. "If I may be so forward, Mrs. Englewood, did you change your mind, however momentarily, when you thought I was someone else?"
She jerked, as if he had slapped her, and turned away. "Good evening, Mr. Fitzwilliam."
He'd already overstepped the bounds; what did it matter if he were to say something even more hugely inappropriate? "If it pleases you, Mrs. Englewood, you are more than welcome to call me Fitz."
ISABELLE SPUN AROUND, her throat burning with anger. But at the sight of Mr. Fitzwilliam, she forgot what she was about to say. Even knowing that he was not Fitz, that he was but a stranger who bore an uncanny resemblance to the man she loved, it took a superhuman effort not to once more throw herself into his arms.
She turned her face to the side. It was easier when she didn't look at him directly. "You do not know who Fitz is or what he means to me. Nor do you have the least idea how cruelly fate has already mocked me. To you I am but a chance for a dalliance, the possibility of one night's pleasure—my acceptance would mean little to you, my refusal even less. So no, it does not please me to call you Fitz, as dear a name as I have ever known. And I would be forever grateful if I am never to see you again."
She waited a few heartbeats for him to leave. When he did not, she reached for the door.
"I do have some idea how cruelly fate has mocked you, Mrs. Englewood—your anguish is writ plain on your face," came his answer, in a deep, slightly gravelly voice that thankfully did not sound like Fitz's at all. "I won't deny that I also find you beautiful and that my thoughts may have occasionally turned amorous. But I am far more interested in your story than in your body, if that is what offends you."
Wasn't it enough she had already lived her life? She had no interest in recounting her sorry tale to anyone, least of all a man she was constantly on the verge of mistaking for Fitz.
"Goodbye, Mr. Fitzwilliam."
She entered the house and shut the door firmly in his face. Then she sagged against the doorframe, her face numb with pain. She understood in her very marrow that life was cruel. This, however, was cruelty beyond even what she could endure.
She had lost Fitz the first time when she was eighteen, tears streaming down her face, watching him marry an heiress he barely knew, because a distant cousin's death had saddled him with a title and a bankrupt estate. She had lost him a second time only hours ago, when he'd told her that he could not see himself living in this charming house with her, because he had, after eight years of marriage, fallen deeply in love with his heiress wife.
And now she had to lose him a third time when God saw fit to set in her path a man who looked almost exactly like him but—
Something struck her with the force of a thunderbolt: God had seen fit to set in her path a man who looked almost exactly like Fitz.
And she had been too stupid to understand what a gift it was.
Cursing herself, she lifted her skirts, ran up the stairs, and skidded to a stop before the sitting room window. Mr. Fitzwilliam had not yet vacated the property, but he was near the gate, passing through the long shadows cast by a line of pine trees.
Night was falling. She could not tell the exact color of his hair, except that it was darkish and noticeably longer than Fitz's, which she did not mind. Fitz possessed a beautiful bone structure that would have carried off longer hair with poetic ease—but he never had because he was old-fashioned that way, always preferring his hair trimmed short.
Mr. Fitzwilliam reached up to pluck a pine needle. His motion was easy and graceful, like Fitz's. His height was almost identical to Fitz's. And though in her arms he'd felt more substantial, viewed as a whole he was far from bulky: wide shoulders, trim waist, and long limbs.
As if sensing her gaze, he glanced up over his shoulder. Her heart roared in her chest. Fitz, her dear, dear Fitz who had lingered beneath her window all those years ago, waiting for a glimpse of her, except he would pretend to be examining something in the garden, as if her mother's rather scraggly rosebushes could sustain the interest of a young man with no particular fondness for horticulture.
How she'd loved holding herself flat against the wall and spying on him, to count how many times he looked up from his supposed botanical study to scan her window. Seven, eight, nine. She usually rewarded him after the tenth time by opening her window, leaning out, and calling his name.
Before she quite knew what she was doing, she opened the window, leaned out, and shouted, "Wait! Wait!"