About the book
Juliana is growing up in a family where scandal and rumors precede her wherever she goes. Like this wasn't enough, she's also the least favorite daughter among her older evil sisters, and in desperate need of a miracle.
When an unexpected array of events leads to her unforeseen engagement to the mysterious Duke of Brandon, a bitter but dazzling man with a dark past of his own, Juliana quickly starts to see the light at the end of the rainbow.
But when two unlikely enemies put everyone’s lives in grave danger poisoning their souls with doubt, an impending war breaks out having the two heroes realize how quickly everything can fall apart...
By the time her father finally arrived, Juliana Birks knew she had made the right choice in avoiding any association with him — at least for tonight. Heads turned when his name was announced, conversations stopped, whispers followed.
The gossip had preceded him.
Juliana felt a quick squeeze against her own gloved hand before she turned away from the display.
“Again, I would like to express my gratitude…”
“Hush, Juliana. Don’t give them the satisfaction of hearing. Here you are, as my most special guest, and it is I who was blessed that you have stayed this fortnight to accompany me through this particular round of balls. I never quite realized just how busy one is kept once betrothed!” Slipping her arm through her friend’s and stepping lightly through the doorway to the gardens, Susanne Middleton drew Juliana away from the crowd.
It was Juliana who pulled back a single foot upon the threshold.
“Susanne, I will never forgive myself if you leave your own ball to take me on a turn around the garden.” She glanced around the dance floor, noting the flurry of maidens swirling in their dresses and moving into position for the first set of the night. “I know for a fact that you have made a promise to a certain Mr. Allan Derbyshire, and I would hate for you to miss it. Besides,” she leaned in, careful should anyone overhear her, “if you think to spare me from the gossip, I have already been duly informed. There is little you can do to protect me now. I trust I’ll manage this season somehow or another, especially with such a dear as you to guide me. But go…why are we still talking here? Your betrothed awaits, does he not?”
Susanne’s brilliant blue eyes flitted toward the dance floor. She hesitated, holding her silken skirts against her, smoothing the fabric with carefully gloved hands. When nervous, Susanne fidgeted. “You are sure?”
“Decidedly so! Now go! I shall be fine. I might take some air, after all, though I suspect there will be a round of introductions as soon as my father leaves off with his greetings. According to Melanie’s last letter, Father is intent to carry out his threat after all.”
“Marriage?” Susanne’s blonde head turned in her direction fully, ignoring the dance floor for this latest piece of gossip. “Oh, Juliana…”
Juliana heard the music start and pressed her friend toward the dance floor. “Go! We will talk later. Please…I misspoke.”
Susanne’s expression spoke volumes. Indecision in every line of her body, she might have stayed had it not been for the gentleman waiting for her at the edge of the dance floor.
It was amusing to watch. It was de rigueur for Susanne to move fast on foot to the side of her betrothed. His look was filled with such love and contentment for her, that Juliana felt an intruder upon their happiness. Blushing, she turned away, not wanting to witness such joy when her own seemed so terribly impossible.
She looked wistfully toward the garden. Escape would be lovely, yet impossible. To wander into the darkness without a chaperone would raise eyebrows for sure. Better to retire with the ladies who were sitting out this dance, as was proper.
She lingered, enjoying the feel of the cool breeze against her neck. Indeed, it was overly warm in the ballroom with the great press of bodies. Lord Middleton had spared no expense in this gathering for his daughter’s betrothal; it seemed the entire ton was here.
The event of the season. And all I want is to go home.
It was the rumors. Always those blasted rumors. Some ill-meaning individual started the story that her father’s fortune was gone entirely and the tale spread like wildfire. She heard invitations had dried up and she suspected this one came only because of her personal connection to the intended bride.
She dropped her gaze to the beautiful blue of her silken skirts that rustled as she moved. The lace at her bodice was exquisite, the ribbons brilliant in their hue. Her father had sent her the dress just this morning, entreating her to wear it. Had he known the rumors and thought this outward display would show all was well? She suspected such might be the case, though little good it had done.
I suspect my sisters are similarly attired tonight. Poor Papa, being forced to such lengths. I was cowardly to stay away for so long. I should have entered tonight with them. I should be with them. Stand with my family and not hide among my friends.
Juliana paused at the edge of the crowd, craning her neck searching for her sisters. They weren’t on the dance floor, which wouldn’t be unusual if they had just arrived. She stepped around a post to see better, looking for a glimpse of auburn hair, so like her own. She wasn’t sure but thought they might have been near the punch bowl. Distracted, she moved to the left to better see and was caught in a pair of strong arms.
“Steady there! Might it help were you to tell me what you are seeking so assiduously that you feel it necessary to trounce upon my foot?”
Juliana gasped, and pulled back, seeing for the first time the dark-haired gentleman that came seemingly out of nowhere. “I daresay you walked into me, good sir, as I am sure that no one was standing in this place a moment ago!”
He craned his neck in the direction that she’d been looking. “Tell me, which besotted fool were you so desperately angling to get the attention of? Let me guess…was it Lord Turnsley…no…he is a second son. Not worth such lengths. Ah…It was Ramsey, was it not? A man of solid fortune, unmarried, and in want of a bride. I daresay that if you walk along there,” he pointed off to the right, “you should intercept him, hopefully with more grace than you did me.”
She stared at him, cheeks flaming. “You are insufferable. To speak to me in such a way tells me you have absolutely no breeding nor even a sense of rightness.”
“Why, because we have not been properly introduced? Here, I will find someone to tender the introduction that we might continue this conversation with reputation intact.” He looked around, his hand moving as though to snag the sleeve of the elderly gentleman, one of a small knot of such gentlemen talking avidly about politics nearby.
She recognized the man as a baron, one who knew her father well, and who had been the loudest in his speculation prior to her father’s arrival. She’d clearly overheard the phrase ‘dare to show his face’ linked to his name.
“I hardly think that would be necessary,” she murmured, taking his arm, and steering him away from the grouping.
“Why, you’ve gone twelve shades of pale. Are you well?”
“Well? When we are strangers to one another, and you twit me like this? I should have you know I was looking for my sisters. Not…whatever it was you thought.” She dropped his arm, feeling safely away from introductions, and worried that being seen in such close proximity to this…boor…would somehow give rise to fresh gossip, this time regarding the Viscount Cobham’s youngest daughter.
“I beg your indulgence then,” he said, turning to her. “I have been perhaps rude.”
“No ‘perhaps’ about it. You’re downright insufferable. I fail to see why you draw such conclusions about someone you don’t even know.”
“Perhaps because all females of this species have two things in common.”
“Two? You surprise me, sir. I would be hard pressed to name one. Pray tell what your two are.”
“The desire for a fortune. And the need of a husband to provide it for them.”
“That seems a harsh assessment, sir.”
“Let us say it comes from experience.”
She stared at him, seeing beyond the finely wrought coat, the bearing that came with obvious wealth. She noticed something in his eyes, hidden behind the laughter that hinted at great pain. She wondered what happened to cause such hurt.
It was he who broke eye contact first. “Come, let us get out of here. I don’t think I can stand another minute of this ridiculous charade.”
Somehow, they had come back around to that selfsame door to the garden where Susanne had abandoned her not long ago. Now, it was he who took her arm, guiding her gently onto the terrace. The soft breezes she’d so longed for earlier caressed her hot cheeks. Wide marble steps led down to the garden, gaily lit with lanterns, clearly marking the paths where other couples trod in quiet conversation.
“Shall we walk then?” he asked her.
“When I don’t even know your name, sir?” She was smiling, though she could put no name as to why.
“Blast names. Let us just be us for the time it takes to walk once about the garden. For whatever reason, your company is not entirely displeasing to me and I find I would rather walk with someone capable of intelligent discourse than to stifle indoors in…all of that…” He waved dismissively at the light and noise behind them.
She laughed then. “Some would say ‘all that’ is the height of what it means to be a member of the ton.”
“Blast that too!”
“Your language, sir! You are in the presence of a lady! Besides, would you say it does not bode well for the rest of the evening if you are already so tired of it when it’s barely begun? I do believe that the music has started for what is surely just the second dance.”
His expression grew pained. “Then perhaps we shall require more than one pass through the garden to survive it.”
She laughed again. She took his arm and allowed him to guide her onto the garden path, there was a certain agreement within her soul to his every word, though she was loath to admit to it.
So, she settled into the quiet scandal of walking with a stranger, reminding herself that Susanne’s father was hardly willing to invite anyone to the ball of less than sterling reputation. Perhaps not every rule of society needed to be obeyed in every instance.
Undoubtedly there was enough time for proper introductions later.
There was a certain thrill in walking in the garden with a stranger on a balmy evening such as this. Of course, they were not alone. Other such couples drifted about, but the distances between them were enough so that conversations became muted things — a half of a phrase heard here, a small laugh there.
Juliana could not remember a time she enjoyed half so much. Perhaps it was because there had been so much tension in the past weeks. The rumors had surfaced at the start of the season. When the post failed to bring invitations, and the callers became fewer and further between, Juliana’s mother had taken to her chambers, weak and ill, crying over their ruination, making the house a silent and maudlin place. Her sisters had escaped the brunt of it, both taking an opportunity for a weekend party in the country at a cousin’s, but Juliana hadn’t wanted to go.
At least, not until her father had started blustering at her.
Overnight he’d become a changed person. His obsession with her and her sisters marrying well had focused entirely on herself, an unexpected demand given that traditionally the youngest should be last to wed. It was with relief that she’d taken Susanne’s invitation to stay with her through the festivities surrounding her betrothal.
But this particular visit had brought a certain amount of pressure on Juliana, as well. The challenge lay in maintaining not only her poise but her dignity when the rumors had risen to a crescendo. Truth be told, she was starting to wonder that Papa’s protestations might hide darker truths that she would have to face come morning. After this ball, her visit would be over. She had been dreading the return home for some time now.
Do not think of that now. Take this moment. Take tonight and enjoy the dance and the moonlight. Let tomorrow be a thing to worry about later.
So, she enjoyed the way it felt to have her hand tucked safely in the crook of his elbow. She inhaled deeply the scent of roses, and let herself just be nobody, in a garden with no one at all.
His voice broke the quiet. “You are suddenly quiet. I had not expected your tongue to still for so long. Have you truly run out of things to say?”
“Perhaps I was simply giving you the opportunity, that you might plant firmly your well-shod foot…”
“My lady, there are gentlemen present!” He tsked, shaking his head slowly. “Such language!”
“I only follow your example, my lord,” she said, pausing upon the garden path that she might drop a pretty curtsey in front of him.
He roared with laughter. “My word, you are good for my soul. Tell me, my lady, what brings you to such foolishness as this ball? You seem not the usual simpering maiden that appears in droves at such gatherings.”
“I shall have you know, sir, that I simper only with those of sufficient breeding. Simpering is a skill best wrought in the presence of large titles, that the effect not be wasted. It is, after all, they who have the largest of egos and require such attentions.”
“And what title, pray tell, is worthy of such a simper? Would a baron or a viscount suffice?”
It was her turn to laugh. “Surely you jest. I could not possibly simper for anything less than a duke.”
“What! Not even for a marquess?”
“Perhaps, though it would entirely depend on the marquess. Does he have good fortune?” she asked, raising an eyebrow in his direction.
“Come, let us sit. And I should have you know that I have it on good authority that the Marquess of Glastonbury has gambled away his fortune entirely and lives only on the kindness of his friends.”
She winced a little, as she allowed herself to be seated on a marble bench tucked neatly in a bower of roses. The scent was overwhelming to the point of being somewhat unpleasant. Her hands started shaking while she smoothed at her skirts. “So, you have a dislike then, for men who gamble their fortunes away?”
“I find gambling a foolish pastime at best, and an intensely damaging one at worst. The Marquess of Glastonbury hurts no one with his actions, he is an old man with no heirs. His estate is entailed to a man who was last heard from in the colonies. What matters if he spends his dotage on the sufferance of his friends, who enjoy his stories. But there are men who have brought their entire families to ruination at the gaming tables. This behavior cannot be as easily forgiven.”
Nor should it. Her uneasiness returned. One hand went to the rosette along the high waist of her dress, adjusting the ribbons so that they lay properly. “You sound like you have experience in this regard,” she said softly, turning her head to look at him in the soft glow of the nearby lantern.
He shook his head. “Forgive me. I daresay it would be best if we returned inside after all. I fear I’m not good company tonight.” He rose and offered her his hand.
It was her turn to protest. “I have only just sat. Please…I am loath to end this conversation on such a poor note.”
“I have no idea why I spoke as I did.” He settled himself again next to her. The light was behind him, and she could not see his eyes. But the slope of his shoulders, his entire posture seemed to speak of private torture. Her heart went out to this stranger, and she found herself reaching, laying her hand gently on his arm.
She felt the bunched muscle beneath the cloth. The tension absolutely radiating from his body. “Sometimes,” she said carefully, “it is easier to talk to a stranger in the dark, then to a friend in the light.”
“But there is light,” he half turned, smiling to point at the lantern behind him.
She too twisted, but only to survey the garden itself and the other couples therein. But they’d disappeared. They were perhaps serving dinner already. It was hard to gauge how much time had passed while they’d walked, saying nothing. But it suited her purposes that they were so alone.
The bower was private, secluded. They would not be seen easily from the house. So, she rose, and with more daring than she’d ever thought to possess, she slipped over to the lantern and extinguished the light.
He gasped dramatically.
“Oh hush,” she muttered, coming to sit next to him again. “I will remind you that I am a lady and expect to be treated as such. One untoward action and I shall scream.”
He was gentleman enough to point out that even with the windows open, between the music and the conversation, she would hardly be heard. All the same, she felt no fear as she settled her skirts about her.
“It is strange now, trying to think what to say,” she murmured, looking up through the branches, trying to see the stars. But there were still too many lights from the house. She gave up and turned to face him, gratified to see in the semi-darkness that he was smiling. “Odd that you look more content now than you have since I have met you.”
“Perhaps because we have found a way to run away.”
There was a wistful note to his voice. She looked away, finding it easier to talk without seeing him. He left her unsettled, but in a way, she couldn’t define. Perhaps she was rather liking this time out of time? There was a certain hint of danger to this act. They would create a scandal if caught, despite how innocent their conversation.
“What are you running away from?” she asked into the quiet.
“Family. Duty. Responsibility. The need to find a wife. A fact all those around like to remind me of regularly.”
Her hands bunched in her skirts. “I am afraid of marrying,” she said softly.
Thankfully he did not laugh, though she’d half expected him to. “It is not an unusual thing for a woman… of maidenly virtue… to be… a little fearful…” he finally said, though his words seemed strained, with unnatural pauses between.
She glanced at him in surprise. “Are you blushing, my lord?”
“And you are not?”
They stared at one another and laughed.
“Truly, that part of things does not concern me overmuch. It is more the who of marrying that frightens me. I am told…” she faltered here but pressed on regardless. “I am told to marry for money and title. My sisters and I have been raised thus, but while they embrace their lot, I find myself…hesitant.”
“You are a romantic then?”
“My dearest friend in the whole world is marrying at the end of the season. This is her house, her ball tonight. I see her with her betrothed, and never have I witnessed such happiness. When she speaks of him, her entire being seems to light from within. And when they are apart, she experiences that separation with her entire being.”
“You wish to experience such misery?”
He was laughing at her. She swatted at his arm. “You are a cad. You know precisely of what I am speaking. I wish to experience all of it. The joy, the sadness. To love fully is to live fully. How then is one supposed to experience such a thing when wed to a stranger?” It was her turn to sigh. “But enough…this was to be your conversation with a stranger, not mine. What burdens do you carry that leave such a sadness in your eyes?”
“You have noticed my eyes then?” he asked in amusement, half-turning to look at her.
Juliana blushed. “I have noticed everything about you, sir. That you like to tease. That you enjoy laughing and laugh much, but that the laughter covers a deeper pain. But perhaps that is the way of many of us. We learn to cover the pain the best we can, to put our best face forward. It is what society expects.”
“Yet, you hide not at all. I see many truths in your eyes, there for the taking,” he said, and there was a hint of surprise in his voice.
“Not with you. Oddly enough, I do not think I could hide from you.” Perhaps she shouldn’t have said it, but in a sense, she had been caught in her own trap. Maybe it was too easy to be honest when sitting in the dark with a stranger.
“Perhaps because I give you no reason to hide.” He was smiling as he spoke, looking at her as though he enjoyed being with her in the same way she enjoyed being with him.
With the moonlight in his hair and the way the lights reflected in his eyes, she found herself thinking new thoughts. Thoughts about what it would be like to be held, to be kissed by such a man.
It was unsettling. For the first time in her life, she understood why young ladies were cautioned against being alone in such intimacy with someone else.
This was new territory. She had no idea what to say. Thankfully she was spared answering. Over his shoulder, she saw her sisters framed in the doorway. Looking for her.
“I need to go. Please…wait before returning.”
But she could not leave like that — not without acknowledging their time together. “Thank you. I enjoyed our walk very much,” she said quietly and fled back across the grass to the ball and the duty that lay beyond those doors.
I should not have done that. To have allowed such intimacy with a stranger. I actually blew out the lantern…what was I thinking?
All the way across the grass she scolded herself. She’d acted highly improper, but never had Juliana felt such elation, such delight in the company of a man. Nor was it likely she would ever again, once he found out who she was. For he hated men who gambled.
And her father lived — notoriously — at the gaming tables.
Heartbroken, she climbed the steps out of breath, knowing she must look a sight, her skirts caught and snagged several times on the roses in passing.
“Juliana! Where have you been? Father wanted to make an announcement at dinner.” Lucinda, the eldest was shrill in her disapproval. “Susanne said she left you here an hour ago!”
Has it only been an hour? Her life had somehow changed so significantly in such a short time. “I pray you forgive me, Luci dearest. I got to walking and started daydreaming. I daresay the time got away from me.”
It was enough truth for them. Indeed, the whole night had the feeling of a dream now, especially in the cold light of the ballroom. Had it always been so overly bright and glaring? She brushed at her skirts, removing the worst of the dirt, and prayed that no one would notice the small tear at the hem. Then she linked her arm through Melanie’s, knowing Lucinda would only shake her off.
Adroitly she changed the subject. “Has it been two weeks since we’ve seen each other? I thought for sure you would be at that concert Thursday last. My how that pale green suits you, Melanie…is that new? You both look so wonderful. Now tell me what Papa is on about. You said an announcement?”
Her disjointed babbling seemed to deflect easily enough any curiosity about her. Melanie blushed under the praises, but then she was always the quiet one of the group, following Lucinda’s lead in all things with a blind devotion that had never left room for Juliana in their midst.
“I think you will find it a pleasant surprise,” Lucinda said and took her other arm so that they could walk into the dining room together. It was such a rare sign of sisterly affection, and Juliana smiled with a true joy she’d not felt in a long time.
Her sisters customarily held themselves somewhat aloof from her, and now here they welcomed her into their circle. Perhaps absence did indeed grow a certain amount of affection. “I was gone only a fortnight,” she teased as they paused in the doorway.
“A lot changes in a fortnight.” She waved to someone unseen. “Father! Here we are!”
Their group was still in the process of finding their seats. Juliana was pleased to discover she had not been gone for as long as she’d feared.
She searched the crowd and wondered where her stranger had gone. Even with his lack of fondness for these affairs, he would have at least come to table. She ran her eyes over those seated, being curious who he was and hoping she would see him again. As it was, she missed the arrival of her father entirely with another gentleman who she knew only too well.
“Good evening, daughter.”
“Papa.” She disliked his companion but nodded to him all the same, cold and polite.
Cecil Huntington eyed her wolfishly, taking her hand and kissing the back of it with the exaggerated courtly manner he so often adopted. Juliana would have recoiled entirely had it not been for her sisters holding her in so close. She’d hated Cecil since he’d started coming around. The way he looked at her left her feeling pawed over with his eyes.
And she knew for a fact that he was at the root of the rumors. It could have been only him, for her father gambled at Cecil’s tables, losing heavily on occasion. She suspected he pressured her father into a forced repayment for some sum owed. Such was the problem with rumors; too often they were bounded with truth.
She withdrew her hand, and turned to her father, still curious as to his announcement. He seemed distracted and on edge. Something was amiss.
“Papa?” The excitement of her sisters, the way her father looked at her, at once tragic and triumphant…it all was coming together. A dreadful suspicion formed in her head. This announcement then…
She tried to pull free, suddenly needing to run, to be out of there, but her sisters held her fast, Lucinda delivered a sharp pinch out of sight of the gathering crowd.
“Stay still.” The words came through the gritted teeth of a smile so well-practiced as to seem sincere.
But surely her father wouldn’t — not with her own mother not even in attendance, but still home, ill and hiding from the impending scandal.
It all came together with sharp clarity. Cecil, her father’s look, her sisters’ satisfaction. The cryptic letter from Melanie. The rumors had all been true then, and she was being…sold…to pay her father’s debts. And very likely to fund her sisters’ dowries, that they might snare for themselves a mate with both title and fortune. It was she — the youngest — who could be married to a second son and sacrificed for the family good.
“I will not. Father, do you hear me, I will not!”
It was impossible to fight in whispers, but she dared not call attention to the scene. While the rest of the table settled for the first course, their particular grouping had yet to be seated, and curious looks were already cast in their direction. She could see Susanne watching her, a frown of concern on her face. But Susanne’s father knew it was written plainly upon his face. This announcement came with his blessing.
Cornelius rose, and silence fell upon the room. He made the proper noises, the thanks, the compliments. Juliana heard none of it. Everything seemed to be coming from a long distance. She became dimly aware that her father was being bid to speak, for he stepped forward and bowed to the assembly.
Juliana looked wildly from one sister to the other. She recognized their determination in the set of their chins and in the grip that kept her between them. She was going to faint. Or if she were fortunate, expire on the spot, for Cecil was an evil man. She felt the malignancy coming off of him in waves; the satisfaction he felt in obtaining her thusly.
“It is with great pleasure, that I announce the joining of Birks to Huntington. Two houses, nobly appointed, united under one banner. Truly this is an auspicious moment. I hereby announce the betrothal of Miss Juliana Birks of Cobham to —”
“to myself, Martin Huntington, Duke of Brandon.”
It was the stranger, arrived suddenly to take her hand, to draw her from her sisters’ grasp, pulling her into his arms in front of the entire assembly. She lifted her face to his, trying to make sense of it all.
He spoke out of the side of his mouth, smiling and nodding in the sudden, startled applause. “Smile. Do not faint. I have this. That’s right, look pleased for God’s sake if you can manage it.”
Across the room Susanne looked absolutely delighted, clutching at the arm of her betrothed and talking excitedly in his ear. Around her was a sea of faces, with varying looks of surprise, not the least from her own family. Her father seemed dazed, her sisters wavering between furious and flummoxed. She had stolen a march on them, taking the most eligible man there.
Her stranger was the elusive Duke of Brandon?
His arm around her was strong, sure, as he guided her to the table. He approached the lady who had been given the honor of the place at his side, and asked, “I expect that given the circumstance, we could perhaps rearrange your seating chart a little?”
Her hand was still on his sleeve, his arm still around her. She glanced up at him, still fighting tears, still horribly unsure of what had just happened. “You…?”
Her eyes met his and saw only fury there. To all outward appearance, he was the delighted betrothed, but she felt the tremble in the arm that held her.
“We will talk later. Can you get through this without becoming a simpering fool?”
Simpering? Her chin came up and met his gaze square as he seated her. Her smile for him was genuine. Whatever he had done, he had done it for her. She would carry this farce through to the end.
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