Authors: Laura Lee Guhrke
Laura Lee Guhrke
ABANDONED AT THE ALTAR
For the talented fellow authors who helped me so much
during the writing of this book:
Elizabeth Boyle, Gayle Callen, and Kathryn Smith.
I can’t tell you how much your friendship,
support, and enthusiasm mean to me.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley, 1875
rom the London society newspaper
Talk of the Town
, Friday, October 9, 1903:
YARDLEY DIVORCE HEARING
Will the baroness publicly admit to her adultery? Or will she deny it to save herself from further disgrace?
The London courtroom was packed to the rafters, and Julia could feel the avid stares of the curious crowd boring into her back as she walked up the aisle to stand before the president of the divorce court.
Plenty of reporters were there, of course, pencils in hand, scribbling down the lurid details that would appear in the evening papers.
Yardley was there, too, arms folded, remote and inhuman—just as usual, in other words. Julia did not acknowledge his presence. Without turning her head, she spared him only the briefest sideways glance as she passed the table where he sat.
She knew several members of her family and some of her friends were present as well, but she did not look back to find their faces in the crowd. She couldn’t, not now, not yet, not until it was over.
When Sir Birrell cast his stern, reproving eye upon her, Julia felt no pang of conscience for what she had done or what she was about to do. When he asked her if the accusation of her husband was true, she took a deep breath and lifted her chin to an angle she hoped was as unrepentant as she felt. Casting aside the fear that had haunted her for the twelve long, loveless years of her marriage, she turned to look into Yardley’s cold black eyes.
“Yes,” she said, her voice ringing out like a bell of liberty, filled with such adamant conviction that she almost believed herself. “On the afternoon of August 21, 1903, I had intimate relations of a sexual nature with Aidan Carr, the Duke of Trathen.”
The court erupted. Sir Birrell pounded his gavel, demanding order, and when it had been regained, he declared Yardley’s petition granted. A decree of divorce would be issued immediately and would be declared final in six months. Julia’s knees sagged beneath her in relief, and the desperation and despair that had haunted her since the day of her wedding began to ease away. A slave when she came into the court, she turned to leave it knowing that at last she would be free.
It was then that she saw Aidan at the back of the courtroom, standing by the door. His presence surprised her, for as named co-respondent, he had already submitted a written statement and had sworn to its validity before this court a short while ago. He had no need to linger here, and by remaining, he was only giving the ravenous scandal sheets more meat to savor.
As she looked at him, her mind flashed back to the first time she’d ever seen him, standing by that brook in Dorset twelve years earlier, and though it seemed a lifetime ago, he hadn’t changed much during the intervening years. He was as gravely handsome at twenty-nine as he’d been at seventeen.
She could read nothing in his expression as he studied her. Several tendrils of his unruly brown hair curled over his straight brown brows, and below them, his hazel eyes were steady and unblinking as they looked into hers. His stare was hard, searching, but with no glimmer of doubt. As she approached where he stood by the door, his chin went up a notch, and the lines of Henley’s “Invictus” echoed through her mind.
It hurt to look at him now, in the aftermath of what she had wrought. He’d been publicly humiliated, his reputation stained. He would not be permanently damaged, but Julia knew that wasn’t the point. She had done far worse than stain his reputation. She had compromised his honor and stolen his self-respect. For the first time, guilt pressed upon her, a weight against her chest and a shadow on her soul, but she could not find it in her heart to regret what she had done.
As she drew closer, his lips tightened, but he spoke no word to her. He did not turn his head to watch her as she passed. He stood as a soldier stands to post, without moving, his wide shoulders stiff and proud, reminding her that although she was now free, she was not the only one who had paid the price for her freedom.
he Duke of Trathen needed to find a wife. The problem was that when it came to picking the right woman for the job, His Grace was having a serious run of bad luck.
One might think that for a man of his station, choosing a bride would be a relatively straightforward business. Dukes were a rare commodity, highly sought in the marriage mart, so it wasn’t as if he lacked a substantial slate of candidates from which to choose. Nor were dukes hampered by anything as inconvenient as love. Alliance was a perfectly acceptable reason for matrimony among those of the aristocracy, and Aidan Thomas Carr was a man who could trace his aristocratic lineage to the days of Queen Elizabeth.
The eleventh Duke of Trathen, Aidan was in possession of half a dozen lesser titles as well. He was also one of the wealthiest men in Britain, with substantial lands and investments. He had an astute head for business, had a keen interest in politics, and was considered by many among the fair sex to be quite a handsome fellow.
This stellar résumé notwithstanding, the Duke of Trathen was a jilted man, having been abandoned at the altar not once, but twice. He was a bit skittish about making a third attempt, but every duke had a duty to his family and his heritage to marry well, produce sons, and pass everything on to the next generation, and Aidan was a man who would never ignore his duty.
When the time arrived for the Marquess of Kayne’s annual May Day Ball, the most prominent charity event of the London season, the Duke of Trathen was among the attendees. He was not particularly fond of dancing, he hated these crowded charity affairs, and given the endless gossip about him these days, he would have preferred to spend the spring as he had spent the winter—at his favorite estate in Cornwall—but he could not afford that luxury. He was now thirty years old, time was going by, and a man could meet many potential marriage partners at a charity ball.
When he’d begun his search for a duchess three years earlier, he’d never dreamed it would be this difficult. He had decided, quite logically, that twenty-seven was a good age at which to wed, and he had set about finding his duchess. Four months later, he’d met Lady Beatrix Danbury, a girl who was not only beautiful, with honey-blond hair and big, soft brown eyes, but also charming and intelligent. The daughter of an earl, she’d been groomed all her life for the duties of a high-ranking peeress. Aidan had thought their interests coincided, and their affection mutual. Not an overmastering passion, perhaps, but he had never been the sort of man to be carried away by passion, a fact that had seemed acceptable to Beatrix. By Christmas of that year, they had become engaged, but less than two months before the wedding, she’d thrown him over for her childhood sweetheart, the Duke of Sunderland.
Aidan’s heart, though bruised, was not broken. After spending six months in Cornwall, he’d launched his second search for a suitable duchess, and by the end of the season, he had decided upon Lady Rosalind Drummond, the eldest daughter of a Scottish marquess.
But then had come that inexplicable and disastrous episode with Lady Yardley. By the time the story of their afternoon tryst hit the society pages, Aidan was already on his way to Scotland to face his fiancée, but he could offer Rosalind no defense. Hell, he couldn’t offer so much as an explanation.
He didn’t even
Lady Yardley. Just how he had ended up naked in bed with that woman, her enraged husband standing over them both, was still vague in his mind, but he did know that the catastrophe had been preceded by a picnic, an inordinate quantity of champagne, and his own foolish determination to prove he could resist the seductive baroness no matter what. Along with some hazy, hotly erotic memories, he remembered little else of the incident that had brought public humiliation raining down upon him, and to this day, he could not understand what it was about that woman that had evoked such promiscuous and unacceptable behavior in him.
Regardless of how it had come about, he’d had to face the consequences, including a second broken engagement. Another winter at his Cornish estate, the arrival of another London season, and now he was back in town to begin again his search for a suitable bride, but having been twice jilted, as well as humiliated and disgraced, Aidan found himself unable to summon much enthusiasm about the process.
Still, with his worthless cousin as his sole heir, Aidan knew he could not afford the luxury of waiting much longer to marry. To secure his estates and the empire he had built, he needed a duchess by his side and strong, healthy sons in his nursery.
Which was why he was here, Aidan reminded himself. Setting aside pointless remembrances of past romantic contretemps, he returned his attention to the glittering ballroom before him. As he did so, he reached for one of the glasses on the tray held by a nearby footman, but he made a sound of exasperation when he realized the glass held champagne rather than punch. He’d discovered long ago that alcohol was rather a dangerous substance where he was concerned, and he usually limited himself to no more than a single glass of wine on any social occasion. The fact that he’d broken that rule in Lady Yardley’s company last summer was only one of many things about that day that still baffled him. Aidan contemplated the glass in his hand for a moment, then prudently set it back on the tray and resumed his study of the many young ladies scattered about the ballroom of Lord Kayne’s Park Lane residence.
Many were dancing, and they flitted across his line of vision like so many gauzy pastel butterflies. The first young lady in the room to catch his eye, however, was not dancing. Instead, Lady Frances Mowbray was standing quite near him with a group of her friends. Before meeting Beatrix, he had considered Lady Frances, but Mowbray’s penchant for deep-stakes gambling and inability to afford it meant he would be paying his father-in-law’s debts endlessly. He’d rather not.
His gaze shifted to one of her companions, Minnie Goulet, a pretty American girl. Not part of the old New York Knickerbocker set, Miss Goulet was very much new money. Aidan, with neither the need nor the desire to marry for money, and the patriotism to prefer a British wife, moved on.
Miss Patricia Hopworth? Not as pretty as Miss Goulet, to be sure, but agreeable enough. Her background was impeccable, and from what he could recall, she had a sweet disposition—
“Heavens, Trathen,” a cheerful feminine voice broke into his thoughts, “what are you doing tucked back here alone? The first ball of the season you have deigned to attend, and here you are skulking in a corner?”
Aidan turned to find Lady Vale standing nearby, shaking her head at him. “Countess,” he greeted with a bow. “I am not skulking,” he added, impelled to correct her choice of words. “I am observing.”
“I see.” She gave him a thoughtful glance as she moved closer to his side, but she said nothing more, seeming content to stand beside him and watch the couples swirling across the floor. It was not until the waltz ended that she spoke again.
“Ah,” she said as if making a sudden discovery, “so Felicia
dancing. I thought perhaps she might have gone to the refreshment room for a glass of punch.” There was another pause, and Lady Vale gave a delicate laugh. “You are perhaps not acquainted with my youngest daughter?” When he shook his head, Lady Vale waved her fan toward another part of the room. “She is standing beside that enormous vase of lilacs over there.”
Aidan’s gaze followed Lady Vale’s gesture to a petite girl in a pink frock standing by a vase of lavender lilacs. She was lovely, with gold hair, porcelain skin, and dark, almond-shaped eyes, but there was something about her prettiness that made her seem rather like a doll, for he fancied a certain vapidity in her expression. Still, meeting the girl could do no harm, especially since her mother seemed quite willing to arrange it.
He turned toward the countess, but before he could request an introduction to Lady Felicia, his attention was diverted by another feminine figure, one he immediately recognized.
Good God, he thought, appalled, what was that woman doing here?
That was how he usually thought of Lady Yardley—as
. Legal precedent enabled her to retain her husband’s title, her Christian name was Julia, and her friends called her Julie, but in Aidan’s mind, she was
, or when he was in a less charitable frame of mind,
that plague on mankind
The color of her gown suited her, he supposed—a crimson dress for a scarlet woman. Cut with a generous expanse of décolleté, caught at the shoulders by the tiniest of cap sleeves, and made of silk charmeuse, the gown displayed her shape without regard for modesty. She’d gained a bit of weight, he noted, his gaze skimming over her. The curves of her body were more generous than before, her breasts fuller, her hips wider, and it aggravated Aidan beyond belief that though many details of that afternoon still eluded him, he could recall perfectly just how her body had looked without any clothes.
Lady Vale, perceiving that his attention had gone astray, turned to see what had caught his eye, but though he sensed the countess’s gaze on him, he could not seem to tear his own from the woman in the doorway.
Other memories of Lady Yardley went through his mind, vague, illicit flashes—his hands unbuttoning her white dress and pulling it down her shoulders, her breasts in his hands, her body on top of his.
All of a sudden, the ballroom seemed suffocatingly hot. Aidan drew a deep breath and ran a finger around the inside of his collar, knowing he ought to leave the room before she noticed him, but he could not seem to move.
Her heart-shaped face seemed the same, though perhaps not quite so drawn as before. He was too far away to see the color of her eyes, but he already knew they were the same shade of lavender as the lilacs that adorned the room, but the shadows that had been beneath those eyes last summer were gone now. Her hair was piled atop her head in the Gibson fashion, displaying her long, slender neck to perfection, but Aidan’s mind could not escape the image of her riotous raven-black tresses tumbling down around her bare white shoulders amid a snowy mound of white sheets, an image that did not make the room feel any cooler.
Diamonds sparkled at her throat, drawing his attention.
Had he kissed her there?
he wondered, his gaze riveted to the creamy expanse of skin above her breasts. The heat that immediately began spreading through his body gave him the answer to that question. Even now, he thought with chagrin, even two dozen feet away from her and three quarters of a year from that fateful day, he could still imagine the texture of her skin, like warm satin against his mouth.
The waltz ended, the last notes faded away, and Aidan came to his senses with a start, realizing how quiet the room had become. Then he heard the murmurs begin, a ripple of discreet whispers. He could imagine what people were saying—reminders that her husband’s divorce petition had become final last month, tittering jokes about their mutual presence here, speculation as to whether he intended to resume his amour with her.
Beside him, Lady Vale murmured a rather frosty farewell and departed, having drawn the obvious conclusion from his scrutiny of the other woman. A quick glance around confirmed that she was not the only one who had done so. Many curious gazes were sliding back and forth between him and the scandalous divorcee.
, he told himself, now, before any gossip could begin that coupled their names. Yet, even as that thought passed through his mind, he could not find the will to move. Instead, like a moth drawn to a destructive flame, he returned his attention to the woman in the doorway, and he discovered it was now too late to escape her notice even if he chose to do so, for she’d seen him. She acknowledged him with a nod, then she waited, watching him, a faint smile curving one corner of her rouged lips.
He could still make his feelings clear to everyone present. All he had to do was give her the cut direct. By turning his back on her without an acknowledging bow, he would put a stop to any ridiculous speculation that they might once again be lovers.
The wise thing to do, he knew, but he couldn’t do it. He could not compound his lapse of gentlemanly conduct nine months ago by being ungentlemanly now. The fact that her husband had divorced her was his fault as well as hers. He bowed to her, the slightest bow good manners could allow, then he turned away from her and the erotic images that hovered just at the edge of his conscious mind.
He kept his head high as he made his way amid the crowd to the open French doors leading onto the terrace. He stepped outside and moved to stand at the carved marble railing, where he stared out into the darkness of Kayne’s gardens and breathed deeply of the spring air to cool his blood. With that woman near him again, anything might happen, and Aidan was glad that this time around, he’d chosen to forgo the champagne.
Julia sighed as she watched Aidan leave the ballroom amid the whispers and stares.
He hasn’t changed a bit
, she thought in frustration. Still so stiff and so proud, still considering women who were all wrong for him, and still just too damned nice for his own good. He should have cut her a moment ago, for it was obvious why he was at this ball, and acknowledging her did him no favors in that quarter.
Guilt nudged at her, the same guilt that she’d felt the last time she’d seen him. It was a feeling she was unaccustomed to and one she did not like, and she wondered if perhaps she should have stayed in France. She shrugged her shoulders several times as if to shrug off that niggling guilt and reminded herself that one had to face the music sometime. Besides, she hadn’t gone to all this trouble freeing herself from Yardley so that she could hide away somewhere. She’d done enough hiding in her life already. Unlike Aidan, she didn’t mind being stared at and whispered about. She didn’t mind losing her reputation. She’d never given a damn what society thought. Aidan did, he minded terribly, and that was the difference between them.