Authors: Manda Collins
For all the doctors, nurses, prosthetists, and countless other medical professionals who have taken care of me over the years. I literally would not be here without you.
Once again, I have about a million people to thank, but I’ll stop before then. I promise.
Thanks to my wonderful editor Holly Blanck, and everyone at St. Martin’s who works behind the scenes to bring my books to the shelves, both virtual and actual. Thank you for allowing me the freedom to write a story about someone like me.
To my always-upbeat, always-on agent, the fabulous Holly Root, who is always there when I’ve got a question or a crazytime freak-out, and tells me the truth without crushing my spirit.
To the Vanettes, for shared squees and laments, and never calling my questions dumb.
To Lindsey, for always-sound opinions and for sharing my opinions about oh-so-many things. You, madam, rock!
To Julianne and Santa, for always having my back and for being your hilarious, talented selves. Love you guys!
To Janga, for reading this book in its earliest, most flawed form, and loving Juliet unabashedly.
To Cindy and Katie for preserving my sanity on more than one occasion and for always responding to my distress calls with speed and support.
To my family for not whining (too much) when I drop off the radar to write and my sister Jessie for rallying the local troops and reminding me to eat when I was on deadline.
To Toni Blake, Vanessa Kelly, Julie Anne Long, Tessa Dare, Kieran Kramer, and so many others for continued support. You guys are not only gifted writers, but also generous, gifted people. You guys make me proud to call myself a romance writer.
From his close-cropped golden curls to his gleaming dancing shoes, Lord Deveril was a man envied by men and adored by women.
And he was bloody tired of it.
A leader of the fashionable set, he was dressed tonight for his family’s annual ball in a style slavish young fops had dubbed “Deverilish,” which was marked by a blend of Brummell’s simplicity and a hint of dash. His pristine neck cloth was skillfully tied in a knot called—what else—the Deveril, and was anchored by a ruby stickpin that could keep a young buck in hats for a century or more. The cut of his black coat was looser than in Brummell’s day but the tailoring was exquisite. And at his wrists he wore just a hint of lace.
It was not, he reflected, as he kissed the elderly Lady Sophronia Singleton’s gloved hand and complimented her horrific scarlet turban, that he minded his popularity so much. Given the snubs he’d endured from the hypocritical
when his father had still been drinking and whoring his way through London, the
’s approval had been a welcome change at first.
It hadn’t happened overnight, of course. He had been ruthless in his social campaign for those first few years. He’d worked hard to establish himself as a man of substance as well as style. He gambled, but only enough to prove himself honest. He had his share of liaisons with willing widows and even kept a few mistresses. But though he’d enjoyed the affairs while they lasted, always in the back of his mind was the memory that he was proving to the world just how different he was from his father.
And eventually, his diligence had paid off. Whereas he’d left university still in the shadow of his father’s notoriety, now he was considered a good ’un by the gentlemen, and a catch by marriage-minded mamas.
Given what his social status might have been, then, Alec knew just how ungrateful it was for him to admit he was less than satisfied with it. His ennui sprang, he supposed, from the knowledge that if he so chose, this same pattern could continue on into his dotage. Breakfast at White’s, horseflesh at Tattersall’s, seeing and being seen in the park, followed up by some evening entertainment or other. The same people, the same food, the same conversation.
“Why so gloomy, Deveril?” Colonel Lord Christian Monteith asked from his usual post, one shoulder propped against a marble column. “Trouble with the old cravat? Champagne not shining your Hessians as bright as you’d like? Stickpin poking you in the…?”
“Don’t be an ass, Monteith.” Alec raised his quizzing glass and a dark blond brow, channeling his annoyance through the eyepiece.
“Sorry, chap, that thingummy doesn’t work on me,” Monteith said apologetically. “My head’s too thick. Its powers cannot penetrate to my brain.”
With a sigh, Alec tucked the glass away. “Should have known you’d ignore it.”
Taking up a position on the other side of Monteith’s pillar, he nodded toward the ballroom floor. “Why aren’t you dancing?” he asked.
“What, you danced once and having done your duty, retired here to this pillar?” It was unfair for Monteith to shirk his duty when Alec knew full well that there were plenty of ladies who would be without a partner. Ladies like his sisters. He ignored the fact that his own failure to marry someone who could serve as a chaperone for them might also impact their social success or lack thereof.
“For your information, Lord Hauteur,” Monteith returned, “I danced with at least five ladies and now I am resting my tired bones, rather than sprinting to the card room as my less noble spirit would have me do.”
Oh. “Where’s Winterson?”
The Duke and Duchess of Winterson had become good friends with Alec earlier in the season through their investigation of the Egyptian Club, of which Alec had been a member. Theirs had been a rather hasty marriage, but to his delight they seemed blissfully happy together. Winterson and Monteith had served in the campaign against Napoleon together and were often to be seen surveying the crowds at these
“Keeping watch over his lady wife,” Monteith said with a frown, “and intimidating young swells into paying court to her cousins.”
Alec felt an unfamiliar pang of jealousy. He’d been considering the possibility of marriage as a means of curing his ennui, and the Duchess of Winterson’s cousin Lady Madeline Essex was high on his list of potential candidates. Curvy, blond, and quiet, Madeline would make an excellent viscountess. And her easy manners would endear her to his sisters. But if Monteith beat him to the punch, it wouldn’t matter whether his sisters liked her or not.
“How is that working?” he asked, careful to keep his tone neutral.
“Not too well.” The taller man grinned. “I don’t think Miss Shelby or Lady Madeline care for being managed by their cousin’s husband. Took quite a bit of convincing to get Lady Madeline to dance with me, and that was only grudgingly done. I do not think the lady cares for me.”
Something in Alec’s gut unknotted. He had come to admire both ladies over the past few weeks. But he had no wish to compete with his friend as a rival for Lady Madeline’s hand. He was quite sure he could hold his own, but Monteith could be charming when he set his mind to it. Things would be much better if Monteith set his sights on Miss Juliet Shelby, the Duchess of Winterson’s other cousin.
Slim and fair of complexion with deep auburn hair, Miss Shelby could have been the toast of the
were it not for an accident during her teens that had left her with a pronounced limp. Alec had been partnered with her at a card party some weeks ago and found her to be a sensible and witty young woman. She was not one to suffer fools gladly, and he could only imagine her annoyance at Winterson’s interference. If he guessed right, she’d much rather have spent the evening at home working on one of her compositions for the pianoforte.
“On the other hand,” Monteith continued, “Miss Shelby and I had a delightful conversation speculating over the identity of the artist everyone is chattering about. She thinks he’s probably some unknown trying to gain the spotlight. I think it’s probably some chap with a flagging career who wishes to raise speculation about his work.”
All of London had been engrossed with learning the identity of the mysterious artist who had begun showing his controversial paintings a little over a month ago. The gallery owner claimed not to know, as did the few who had purchased pieces from the show. And it was generally agreed that the longer he kept his identity a secret the more intrigued the public would become.
“Who else?” Monteith said with something like disgust. “I blame Byron for all of this ado. He swans about with his dark looks, spouting poetry and seducing women, and now every other fellow with the least bit of artistic inclination thinks a foreign sobriquet and risqué art are the shortcut to celebrity.”
“Yes,” Alec reasoned, “but Byron didn’t keep his identity a secret. He makes sure everyone knows it’s himself he’s writing about.”
The other man grimaced. “Just wait.
will have a grand unmasking as soon as he’s whipped the ladies into a sufficient frenzy of curiosity.” He smiled. “All except for Miss Shelby, that is. I think a surfeit of chatter about that blighter is what sent her over the edge.”
“What do you mean?” Alec asked, his brow furrowed. “Is she unwell?”
He did not like to think of Juliet ill. And it was the duty of a good host to ensure the comfort of all his guests, of course.
Monteith’s glib tone turned serious. “I think her leg might be paining her a bit,” he said. “And of course her harridan of a mother refused to allow her to take the carriage home.”
On that point, Deveril and Monteith were in firm agreement. Lady Shelby was one of the most beautiful women to grace the
. She and her two sisters had taken society by storm when they’d made their debuts some two and a half decades earlier. The daughters of an undistinguished Dorset squire, they’d been introduced to the
by a distant cousin and within months married three of the most eligible bachelors in town. Of the three, Rose was the least admired. Not because of her looks, which had only improved with age, but because of her unpleasant nature.
“It would have surprised me to hear she had done so,” he remarked. “Lady Shelby loves no one but herself. And even those feelings come with conditions.”
The other man made a snort of agreement.
His respite from his guests over, Deveril took leave of his friend and wandered over to the line of chairs that had been set out for the matrons and those young ladies who either did not care to dance, or had not been asked. An empty seat next to Lady Madeline Essex beckoned, but as he glanced up he saw a familiar figure slipping through the doors leading to a hallway off the family rooms. Changing direction, he threaded his way through chattering guests, and finally made his way to the exit.
When he reached the corridor, it was deserted except for a few wandering pairs taking advantage of the less crowded room for quiet conversation. Or perhaps for assignations. He was hardly one to judge.
Turning into a side hallway, he saw what he was looking for. A familiar man was turning a key in the door of Alec’s office.
“Uncle,” he said, making no effort to hush his approach. “Is there something I can help you with?”
Roderick Devenish gave a start at being caught, but quickly regained his composure.
“Nephew.” He nodded, revealing the extent to which his graying hair had begun its slow retreat toward the back of his scalp. “I was just wondering if you had any of those Spanish cheroots you like so much.”
But Alec did not challenge him.
“Were you, indeed?” he asked blandly, letting his eyes convey what he really thought of that falsehood. “I would have offered one if I knew you wanted one. Of course I didn’t realize you had a key.”
A pregnant silence fell between the two men. Alec marveled at his uncle’s audacity. He was just like Alec’s late father.
“A legacy of my youth, I’m afraid,” Roderick said, fingering the key in his hand. “And I thank you for the offer, but I’ve decided I don’t wish to indulge after all.”
“Then I’ll have to ask you to return to the ballroom,” Deveril said, his voice still calm. “If the other guests find you wandering about in the family quarters then they’ll think we’re actually family.”