Authors: Erica Ridley
Captain Xavier Grey’s body is back amongst the Beau Monde, but his mind cannot break free from the horrors of war. His friends try to help him find peace. He knows he doesn’t deserve it. Just like he doesn't deserve the attentions of the sultry bluestocking intent on seducing him into bed...
Spinster Jane Downing wants off the shelf and into the arms of a hot-blooded man. Specifically, the dark and dangerous Captain Grey. She may not be destined to be his wife, but nothing will stop her from being his mistress. She could quote classical Greek by the age of four. How hard can it be to learn the language of love?
Copyright © 2015 Erica Ridley
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover design © Erica Ridley
Photograph on cover © lenanet, DepositPhotos
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.
Table of Contents
Four left for war…
Only three made it home.
Under normal circumstances, Miss Jane Downing would have been eager to alight from a chilly carriage and rush indoors for a welcome respite from the brutal winter. The exquisite building in front of the long line of coaches was none other than the Theatre Royal. The Duke of Ravenwood himself had loaned them his magnificent box for the occasion.
, for that matter—would have been in raptures at such an opportunity.
Jane was not.
She was old enough to be more properly labeled a spinster than a debutante, if anyone chanced to glance her way long enough to label her anything at all. She sighed. Unlikely. After all, the princely theatre box hadn’t been loaned to
. She was no one.
But because even invisible old maids couldn’t gallivant about unchaperoned, her best friend Grace and her husband the Earl of Carlisle (to whom the box had been gifted) had driven in the opposite direction of the opera house in order to collect Jane and return to Covent Garden in time for the performance. All she could do was keep a smile on her face and do her best to be charming.
The ignominy of her inconvenienced friends wasn’t why Jane wished she were elsewhere, however. Those were everyday trials. And these
Grace reached across the small interior to squeeze Jane’s hands as the wheels of the coach inched forward in the queue to the theatre. “Thank you ever so much for joining us. This is my first opera, and I am delighted to be sharing the night with all of my favorite people.”
Jane gave Grace’s hands an answering squeeze. In situations like these, the best thing to do was to lie through one’s teeth. “I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you for inviting me.”
She folded her hands back into her lap and wished for something else to say to break the renewed silence. She was adept at conversation when she was speaking privately with someone she was comfortable with. But she and Grace weren’t alone in the coach. Grace’s mother, Mrs. Clara Halton, sat to Jane’s left, gazing lovingly across the carriage toward her daughter. Lord Carlisle, of course, sat next to his wife, watching her as if the moon and stars paled next to her beauty.
to have a man look at her like that. Just. Once.
Lord Carlisle hadn’t stopped looking at Grace like that. Not since the moment he’d first caught sight of her. Jane should know. She’d seen it happen. From her eternal vantage point among the spinsters and the shadows, she observed everything. Other people laughing, dancing. Falling in love.
Yet spending the entire evening with a newly wed, obviously besotted couple wasn’t what had her biting her lip and cursing her jittery leg. Jane was delighted for her friends. She loved spending time with them.
She hated being out in Society. No—she hated being
Her friends wouldn’t understand. Before Grace had ensnared an earl and become his countess, back when she’d been penniless, gauche, and
persona non grata
for being an upstart American, she’d still caught everyone’s eye. After all, Grace was beautiful. With her white skin, black hair, and sparkling emerald eyes, she easily attracted the attention of men and women alike.
Jane couldn’t even attract mosquitoes.
It wasn’t because she was plain. Many plain women managed to be popular and find husbands. Not Jane. In four-and-twenty years, she’d only twice been invited to dance.
Her dreams of finding someone were just that. Dreams. She smoothed out her skirts. It wasn’t the few extra pounds on her frame, or that she was an unrepentant bluestocking. Her lifelong curse was the unfortunate fact of being utterly, absolutely, one hundred percent… forgettable.
Her head began to ache as the carriage wheels inched her ever closer to a long night of being ignored and misremembered.
Even with all this snow and the serpentine trail of coaches, she and her companions would have plenty of time to mingle by the refreshments before taking their seats.
Jane slumped against the squab. Mingling was horrid. Mingling was standing still in a sea of faces that never once turned in her direction.
She turned her gaze toward the street and sat up straighter. A cluster of well-dressed gentlemen flocked toward a row of women strolling toward the theatre in stunning, bright-colored gowns.
. She stared out the window, fascinated. These men were hunting their next mistresses.
Her nostrils flared as the men danced attendance upon the demimondaines. Some of the Cyprians were gorgeous and some were ghastly, but each of them would receive more male attention in one night than Jane would in her entire life.
How ironic that the same gentlemen who had never thought to ask Jane to dance would gladly spend exorbitant sums of money in exchange for an hour in the company of a woman with less education and a worse reputation than she had.
What must it be like to be one of them? These weren’t desperate, gin-addicted whores in some bawdy house, forced to accept every brute with a penny. These women were elegant and expensive. They could select their lovers as they pleased.
Jane tilted her head. If she could have any man she wished, who would it be?
A dark, hard-as-granite officer with haunted blue eyes sprang instantly to mind. Captain Xavier Grey.
Heat pricked her cheeks. Of course he sprang to mind. He was all the
spoke about, and one of the earl’s dearest friends. He had always caught Jane’s eye. Years before, when he was merely Mr. Grey, he had still been handsome and confident and the last person on earth who might notice the mooning gaze of a soon-to-be spinster. And then he’d left for war.
Three years later, he’d become a hollow husk of a man, beautiful and broken. He’d remained locked inside his head until Lord Carlisle had rescued the captain from—well, wherever he’d been—and returned him to England, determined to give him back some life.
The last time she’d seen the captain was over a month ago, the night Grace and Lord Carlisle had been compromised into marriage. He had seemed so… defeated. The
was in full agreement that Captain Grey had miraculously awoken from his fugue that very night, but Jane held a private opinion.
For him to “awaken” implied he’d been in a state of arrested consciousness, and she didn’t believe that was the case at all. Every time she’d glimpsed him, his eyes had been too tempestuous to imagine him unaware of the world about him. He just no longer wished to be part of it.
Jane wrapped her arms about her chest and tried to put him out of her mind.
The time to obsess over a strong, silent soldier with dark, haunted eyes was five hours from now, when she was alone in bed with her thoughts. Right now, she needed to focus on being a good friend.
She gave her companions her sunniest smile. “How go the renovations on Carlisle House?”
Grace’s eyes lit up. “’Tis only been a week since the wedding, so we haven’t purchased much—aside from furnishings for my mother’s chambers, of course.” She sent a fond glance toward her mother, then touched her fingers to Lord Carlisle’s chest. “I don’t care about chandeliers and fancy gowns. What we have is more than enough. I want Oliver to spend every penny on his tenants before restoring the estate.”
“And I don’t want
to lack a single comfort,” Lord Carlisle responded gruffly as he pressed a gentle kiss to the top of his wife’s hair.
Wasn’t that adorable? Jane clenched her teeth behind her smile. She wasn’t jealous in the slightest.
No. This was going to be a splendid evening. She was fortunate to have been invited. This opera was one of her favorites.
She pasted the smile back on her face.
“What are your duties while Lord Carlisle handles his affairs?” she asked her friend. “I imagine managing such a large household must be a challenge.”
Grace shook her head. “I thought so at first, but they don’t require much direction from me. Most of the staff has been working there since Oliver was a child. What I truly wish we had is some entertainment for Mama. The library is empty, and—”
Lord Carlisle swung his head sharply in her direction. “I shall order a dozen titles as soon as the tenants’ roofs have been repaired.”
Her chin jutted forward. “Absolutely not. You have other duties a hundred times more important than travel tomes and gothic novels. I refuse to—”
have books,” Jane interjected before the fight could continue. “I can lend...” She coughed into her gloved fist. No. She could do better than that. These people counted their shillings, and she loved them dearly. “…that is,
you as many history tomes and gothic novels as you might like.”
Lord Carlisle’s voice hardened. “We couldn’t possibly.”
Jane made a self-deprecating gesture. “Your wife’s best friend is a bluestocking with more books than sense. You might as well get
out of the association.”
Even if it killed her. She rubbed her suddenly chilled arms. Just the thought of losing any part of her collection left her empty.
Every book, every story, was dear to her heart. For long, lonely weeks at a time, the only conversation she heard was the dialogue printed within those pages—well, that and the gentle prodding of her brother’s servants if she missed a meal. Books kept her company so often that she had a fair quantity memorized.
Mansfield Park. Waverley. Guy Mannering.
Her throat convulsed. Of course she would relinquish her dearest possessions to Grace and her mother.
That’s what friends did.
Grace reached across the carriage to squeeze Jane’s hand again. “You are the kindest woman who ever lived. I will accept a loan, but not a gift. We shall return your books as quickly as we can read them.”
Some of the tightness left Jane’s shoulders. “As you please.”
The carriage jerked to a stop. Lord Carlisle and Mrs. Halton exchanged pleased smiles. Grace clapped her hands in excitement.
Jane concentrated on making it through the night with her pride intact.
Lord Carlisle helped his wife from the carriage, then his mother-in-law. When it was Jane’s turn to alight, she rallied her courage and forced herself up from the squab. It was just a Society event. She would survive.
Once on Bow Street, they bent their heads against the bitter wind and dashed into the theatre lobby. Warmth enveloped them. To the others, the heat from the fireplace might have been welcome, but to Jane, it was her cue that she had officially entered Hell. Throngs of fashionable faces crowded them at once.
“Lord Carlisle! Lady Carlisle!”
“You look radiant, Lady Carlisle! Lovely to meet you, Mrs. Halton!”
“I fancy you want your grays back, Carlisle. Their price has doubled, I daresay!”
say you’ll come to our dinner party next month, Lady Carlisle.”
“Ravishing bride, Carlisle. I hear the mother’s a widow?”
“Congratulations on your nuptials, Lady Carlisle. Is this stunning woman your mother?”
“She is!” Grace chirped, radiant as a new countess. “Your Grace, I present Mrs. Halton. Mama, this is His Grace, the Duke of Lambley.” A firm grip latched onto Jane’s wrist and yanked her to Grace’s side. “And this is Miss Downing, my best friend. She’s as brilliant as she is beautiful.”
The duke bent over Jane’s fingers. “In that case, I am very pleased to meet you.”
“As am I.” She refrained from mentioning they’d met on at least ten prior occasions. It wasn’t his fault. Rakes couldn’t be expected to recall the names of all the ladies they’d tupped, much less the face of lowly wallflower.
“Grace!” squealed a happy female voice. “That is,
. Do you
being a countess?”
“I definitely adore my earl,” Grace answered with a laugh. “Matilda, this is my friend Miss Downing. Jane, I’d like you to meet Miss Kingsley.”
It seemed churlish to say,
I met her when we had our come-out on the same evening, then again when her cousin disappeared at a musicale and Miss Kingsley needed someone to turn the pages, then again when the ladies’ club collected embroidered handkerchiefs for charity
, so Jane just sighed and said, “How do you do?”
As she always, always did.
Emptiness yawned inside of her. Jane wasn’t just a fixture in Society—she
a fixture. No more memorable than a carpet or a bellpull.
Grace looped her arm through Jane’s and turned her toward one of the young men. “This is my best friend, Miss Downing. Jane, this is Mr. Fairfax.”
Another familiar face.
He touched his lips to the back of Jane’s gloved hand. “Don’t believe everything they write about me in the scandal sheets.”
She smiled brightly. “So you’re
an incurable rogue addicted to gaming hells and pricy brothels?”
Grace groaned into her hands.
Jane blinked back at her innocently.
As expected, Mr. Fairfax wasn’t listening. His gaze had already been caught by a young lady in an emerald dress, and he was even now disappearing into the crowd without remembering to say good-bye.
Grace cast Jane a look, but before she could say a word of chastisement she was once again surrounded by well-wishers. “Oh, of course, Lady Grenville! I would love for you to meet my mother. Mama, this is …”
Jane stepped back into the shadows. She supposed the positive aspect to never being recalled was that she could get away with some truly outlandish behavior. Mr. Fairfax hadn’t been insulted. He’d already forgotten her.
She let the voices fade to a distant buzz. Her ability to ignore the outside world and live inside her head was key to getting through each boring, endless day. When at home, it let her escape into her books. And when at the Theatre Royal… Well, living inside her head was better than being introduced to the same blank faces time and again.
Others might not mind. Her brother, Isaac,
being invisible. He was boring on purpose, just to keep his name off the Marriage Mart’s most wanted list. He cherished his solitude.