Hampshire, July, 1840.
It had been ten years since Evan Carlton, Earl of Westfeld, last entered a ballroom. This one was just a moderately sized hall on the Arlestons’ country estate—a dance at a house party, not a great London crush. Still, standing at the top of the stairs he felt a touch of vertigo—as if the wide steps leading down to the dance floor were instead a steep slope, and the swirling pastels of evening gowns the rocks that waited below. One wrong step and he would fall.
This time, he had no safety rope.
He blinked, and the illusion passed. The figures at the foot of the stair coalesced into whirling pairs of dancers, not sharp crags. Everything was normal.
Everything, that was, except him. When last he’d been in polite society, he’d been its most ardent participant. Today…
His hand tightened deliberately about his cousin’s arm. She turned and gave him a quizzical look.
“Don’t look so hunted.” Diana, Lady Cosgrove, was resplendent in peacock-blue shimmering silk.
Evan had returned to England nearly fourteen months ago when his father had passed away. Since then, he’d been burdened with the details of the funeral and the estate he’d inherited. And, to be truthful, he’d dreaded the thought of reentering society. Foolish, that; enough time had elapsed that everything must have changed.
“You’ll see,” Diana was saying. “Nothing’s changed—nothing that matters, that is.”
“How enticing,” he said flatly.
She chattered on, oblivious to his unease. “Isn’t it, though? Don’t pull that face. You’ve been in mourning so long you’ve forgotten how to have fun. I must put my foot down: the great explorer will enjoy himself.”
He’d been a mountaineer, not an explorer, but there was no use correcting a trivial point of vocabulary.
Diana patted his arm, no doubt intending her touch to be bracing. “You were the most popular fellow in all of London. When last you were here, you dominated society. I wish you would act like it.”
Not comforting, the unquiet memories that brought to the surface. Evan looked out over the group. A large house party; but even with the addition of a few souls from the neighborhood, it was still a small ball. Of the nine or ten couples, only a handful were dancing. The rest were clustered in a loose knot on the edge of the room, punch glasses in hand.
The evening was young; only Evan felt aged.
When last he’d been here, he would have been the center of that crowd. His jokes had been the funniest—or at least, they had made everyone laugh the loudest. He’d been the golden boy—handsome and popular and liked by everyone.
Almost everyone. Evan shook his head. He had utterly hated himself.
“If it must be done, it’s best done bravely.” He drew himself up. “Let’s go join the throng.”
He took one step toward the massed group.
Diana pulled his arm. “Goodness,” she said. “Have a little care. Don’t you see who is present?”
He frowned. He could only make out a few faces. They blurred into one another at this distance, the bright silks of the ladies’ skirts contrasting with the dark, sober colors of the gentlemen’s coats. “Is that Miss Winston? I thought you were friends.”
“Next to her.” Diana would never have been so uncouth as to point, but she gave a little jerk with her chin. “It’s Lady Equine.”
Ah. Damn. He’d not let himself even think that dreadful appellation in years. But Lady Elaine Warren…she was the reason he had left England. His breath caught on a mix of hope and furious shame, and just as he had all those years ago, he found himself scanning the women for her, searching faces.
No wonder he hadn’t seen her at first. She made herself easy to overlook. Her arms were drawn tightly about her waist, as if she could squeeze herself into insignificance. Her gown, a pink so anemic it might have been white, left her muted in the crowd of bright colors. Even the pale color of her hair, twisted into an indifferent chignon, seemed to declare her inconsequential. It was only his own memory that made her stand out.
He kept his voice calm. “I suppose she isn’t Lady Elaine any longer. Who did she end up marrying?”
“Really. Who would wed a girl who laughs like a horse?”
He looked at his cousin. “Do be serious. We’re not youths any longer.” Even from this distance, Evan could see the ripe swell of her bosom. When she had come out at seventeen, she had attracted attention, her body mature beyond her age. He had noticed. Often.
She’d been entirely unlike all the other debutantes: not just in body, but with that laugh, that long, loud, vital laugh. It had made him think that she held nothing back, that life was ahead of her and she planned to enjoy it. Her laugh had always put him in mind of activities that were decidedly improper.
“I am serious,” Diana said. “Lady Equine never married.”
“You’re not still calling her that a decade later.” He wasn’t sure if he intended his words as a command or a question.
But he felt the truth with a cold, sick certainty. He could see it in the set of Lady Elaine’s shoulders, in the way she ducked her head as if she could avoid all notice. He could see it in her wary glance, darting to either side.
“Come, Evan. You wouldn’t want me to give up my fun.” Diana was grinning, but her bright expression faded as she saw that look on his face. “Don’t you recall? You said once, ‘I can’t tell if she laughs like a horse or a pig, but—’”
“I remember.” His voice was quiet. “I remember very well what I said, thank you.”
He only tried not to.
She’d never stopped laughing, no matter how he teased her. But when she had looked in his direction, her eyes had begun to slide over him altogether, as if he were nothing but an irrelevant objet d’art, and one that was of no further interest. Over the course of a Season’s worth of mockery, he had watched her draw in on herself until the vital stuff he’d lusted after had simply faded away.
“Don’t worry about her,” Diana was saying. “She’s nothing. There isn’t a man out there who would consider marrying a woman who laughs like the unholy marriage between a horse and a pig.”
“I said that.” His hands clenched.
“Evan, everyone said that.”
He’d run from England, ashamed of what he’d done. But whatever maturity he’d found in his travels abroad, he could feel it slipping now. It would be so easy to be the selfish swine who thought nothing of ruining a girl’s prospects simply becaus
e it would make him popular and make others laugh.
Diana watched him expectantly. One smile, one comment about Elaine’s whinny, and he would seal his cousin’s approval—and his fate.
He’d been right. There were rocky shoals below, and gravity was doing its level best to dash everything good he’d made of himself against the waiting crags.
Gently, he removed his cousin’s hand from his arm.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“What do you suppose?” He bit off the words. “I’m going to dance with Lady Elaine.”
But she misunderstood the martial set to his jaw, because instead of looking worried, a sly, pleased smile spread across her lips. “Oh, Evan,” she said, touching his cuff lightly. “You really are too awful, baiting her like that. This is going to be just like old times.”
Lady Elaine Warren scanned the walls of the ballroom. Choosing the place where she would spend the evening was always an exercise in delicacy and balance. It had grown easier over the years, as the leaders of fashion had found new, more interesting pastimes than making fun of her. She had a few friends, now—real ones. She might go entire evenings at a time without having to school her face to a pleasant, stupid blankness. All she had to do was choose her company wisely.
This house party was mostly safe—she’d interrogated her mother closely as to the guest list. None of her closest friends had come, but her remaining tormenters were absent. Her mother had wanted to attend to pass the time while her father was off overseeing his estates.
“It’s a beautiful room,” she said to her mother. “Why, just look at the carving on the paneling. The details are utterly exquisite.”
Her mother, Lady Stockhurst, looked puzzled and then peered at the wall. Like Elaine, Lady Stockhurst was tall and blond. Like Elaine, her mother was well-endowed, corsets barely containing her ample curves. Like Elaine, her mother was not respected at all.
If they pretended they were more interested in the walls than the dancing, there could be no disappointment.
“Why, Mrs. Arleston,” she heard behind her, “what a lovely gathering.”
Elaine stilled, not turning. She didn’t need to turn; she wasn’t being addressed. But she knew that voice. It was Lady Cosgrove—one of the women who still took delight in needling Elaine.
She leaned in to her mother. “You didn’t say Lady Cosgrove would be here.”
“Didn’t I, then?” her mother responded. “How remiss of me. I must have forgotten. Or maybe I never knew?”
Unlike Elaine, her mother somehow failed to notice how little she was liked.
“Let me introduce you to an old acquaintance,” Lady Cosgrove was saying.
The murmured introduction was too indistinct to reach Elaine’s ears. Instead, she smiled and nodded. “Never mind, Mother. It’s nothing.” And maybe it was nothing. So few of Lady Cosgrove’s compatriots were here. She wouldn’t continue to pursue her game without an appreciative audience, would she?
“Yes,” Lady Cosgrove was saying, “but do look—here’s another old friend. Why, Lady Elaine. How do you do?”
Elaine could not ignore so direct a query. She fixed her smile in place so firmly that her cheeks ached.
“Lady Cosgrove,” she started pleasantly. And then her gaze shifted behind the woman. Her hands grew cold. She stopped, mid-greeting, feeling as if she had just been struck. For just one second, her amiable expression slipped, and Lady Cosgrove’s grin widened to sharklike proportions.
But Elaine couldn’t force herself to beam in placid unconcern. Not through this.
She had fallen into a nightmare: the kind where she entered a ballroom wearing nothing but her drawers. She’d had that dream before. Soon, everyone would start laughing at her. And when they turned to her en masse, the people who pointed and mocked all wore the same face: a thousand incarnations of Evan Carlton—now the Earl of Westfeld.
She always awoke from those dreams in a cold sweat. She would succeed in coaxing herself back to sleep only by repeating to herself that he was gone, he was gone, he was gone, and she wouldn’t ever see him again.
But this horrid dream was real. He was back.
He was older. He was bigger, too, shoulders wider, his jacket unable to hide the ripple of muscles fit for a laborer. Back when he’d tormented her, he’d been almost scrawny. Faint lines gathered at the corner of his eyes, and he was dressed in sober browns. His hair was no longer tamed in the fashionable, sleek look that she remembered. Instead, he’d let the dark gold of his hair fall into tousled curls.
He stood too close to her—three full steps away, true, but even that seemed unconscionably near. Cold gathered in her hands and a knot formed in the pit of her stomach. She wanted to turn on her heel and run.
But she’d realized long ago that running was the worst thing she could do. Deer and rabbits ran, and the sight of their hindquarters usually only spurred the dogs to the hunt.
“Lady Elaine,” he said, giving her a stiff bow.
She had been Lady Equine for as long as she could remember. But now he was calling her by her real name and looking into her eyes, and it was almost as if he respected her.
He had always had deceptively compelling eyes—dark and fathomless. She felt as if she might glimpse hidden secrets if only she peered into those depths. He looked as if he were about to reveal some extraordinary truth, one that would explain everything.
An illusion, that. He was nothing more than a snake who could hold her spellbound in his gaze. As for the fluttering in her belly…that was nothing so mundane as attraction. Instead, Westfeld made her feel the vital, vicious pull of a might-have-been. Even after all these years, some foolish part of her believed that she might one day be respected. One day, she would not have to watch over her shoulder, constantly wary. One day, she could enjoy herself without fear that she would become the object of ridicule. If the Earl of Westfeld would treat her with respect—well, then she’d know she was safe.
She hated that he made her think that the impossible might be attainable.
Right on cue, Lady Cosgrove asked, “Indeed, Lady Elaine. How are your horses?”
Long years of training kept Elaine’s face unruffled. It was a triumph over both of them to curl her lips into a smile, to reach out one hand in polite greeting.
“Very well, and thank you for the gracious inquiry,” she said, ignoring Lady Cosgrove’s delicate smirk. “And do tell—how are yours?”
“Leave off the talk of horses,” Westfeld said shortly. He wasn’t smiling, not even a little.
“True. Westfeld has been all round the world,” Lady Cosgrove put in. “He could talk about more exotic creatures than pigs or ponies.”
Westfeld didn’t glance at his cousin. Still, his lips thinned further. “Don’t.” His voice was steel. “Besides, I spent most of my time in Switzerland. I don’t consider the alpine ground squirrel to be particularly exotic.”
“Don’t tell me you saw nothing exotic.” Elaine let a hint of breathiness invade her tone. “Didn’t Hannibal lead all his elephants into the Alps?”
At Lady Cosgrove’s befuddled look, Elaine felt her smile broaden, and she gave herself a mental point in this match.
“You see,” Elaine said, “I know all about foreign animals. I haven’t any need to hear from Westfeld on that score.” And with that, she laughed.
Laughter was an act of defiance, although these two would never understand it. Elaine knew her laugh was awful: high-pitched and so loud that people turned to stare at her. When she laughed, she snorted in the most indelicate manner. Her laugh had been the cause of their torment all those years ago. And so when Elaine laughed without holding back, she sent them a message.
You cannot break me. You cannot hurt me. You cannot even make me notice you.
“Yes,” Lady Cosgrove said after a telling pause, “I can see you’re quite the expert.”
“Indeed.” Elaine beamed at the pair of them. “I attended a lecture given by a naturalist just
the other week. He had traveled all the way to the Great Karoo.”
“The Great Karoo?” Lady Cosgrove asked. “Where—never mind. The animals there must be different indeed. Do they snort? Or squeal?”
Elaine waved a dismissive hand. “It’s a desert. There aren’t many creatures that make their homes there.”
Still, she had pored over his sketches of giant, flightless birds. He had said that the creatures put their heads in the sand when threatened. Apparently they believed that if they couldn’t see you, you could not see them.
She hadn’t seen why anyone would need to spend nine months traveling to Africa to find specimens that hid from the truth. No; one had only to travel half a mile to the nearest ballroom.
She had been the butt of jokes for so long now that denial had become second nature to her. It didn’t matter what people said; if you pretended not to hear it, they couldn’t embarrass you. She need show no reaction, need have no shame. If you didn’t acknowledge what they said, you need shed no tears. And so she’d hid her head in the sand and locked away everything about herself but a pale-haired marionette of a lady. Marionettes felt nothing, not even when they were presented with their biggest tormenter of all time.
She smiled, this time at both of them—Lady Cosgrove and her petty jabs, and Lord Westfeld, who had not so much as cracked a smile the entire time since he’d returned.
“No,” Elaine said brightly, “there’s nothing in all the African continent that could be considered the least bit foreign.”
Westfeld was watching her intently. That abstracted look on his face had always heralded a particularly cruel remark.
Beside her, her mother tapped gloved fingers against her skirts. “Lady Cosgrove, Lord Westfeld—I do thank you for giving your regards. It has been so long since we’ve seen you.” Her mother paused, and Elaine could see her drawing in breath and doing her best to make polite small talk. “The stars. They’ll be bright tonight. Did you know the moon is almost new?”
“Indeed,” Lady Cosgrove said silkily. “Tell us more of the moon, Lady Stockhurst. You know a great deal about it.”