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James Devlin was twentyseven years old and he had everything that he had ever wanted. He had a place in society, he had a beautiful, rich fiancée and he had a title of his own. Yet on the night that his former wife walked back into his life after nine years absence he was bored; as bored as it was possible for a gentleman to be at a ton ball at the height of the London season.
It was another night of lavish excess and hollow entertainment. The Duke and Duchess of Alton threw the best parties in the ton, opulent, tasteful and frightfully exclusive. For Dev it was also another night of fetching lemonade for Emma when she became thirsty, of finding her fan when she misplaced it and of fawning on Emma's mama, who could not stand him and probably did not even know his name although he had been betrothed to her daughter for two years. Once upon a time Dev had had to brave the elements on the rainlashed deck of a ship of the line, scramble up rigging and fight for his life. Each day had brought new dangers, new excitement. It had only been two years but it felt like a century ago. These days he did nothing more dangerous than check the set of his coat and pass Emma her reticule.
"Jealous, Dev?" His sister Francesca put a hand on his sleeve and Dev realized that he had been frowning at Emma across the dance floor, glaring at her as she twirled through the steps of the waltz in the arms of her cousin Frederick Walters. Chessie was not the only one who had noticed his grim stance. He saw the sideways glances and covert amusement. Everyone thought that he was possessive, resentful of the time that Emma, a consummate flirt, lavished on other men. If he had been the jealous type he would have spent his days on the dueling field but the fact was that one had to care in order to be jealous and Dev had long ago realized that he did not care a jot if Emma flirted with every man in London.
He straightened up and smoothed the frown from his brow. "I'm not jealous in the least," he said.
Chessie's blue gaze appraised his face, looking for signs that he was trying to fool her. "It is no secret that the Earl and Countess of Brooke prefer Fred as a suitor for Emma," she said.
Dev shrugged. "The Earl and Countess would prefer a distempered hound as a suitor for Emma but I am the one that Emma wants."
"And Emma always gets what she wants." There was the very faintest edge to Chessie's voice now.
Dev shot his sister a look. Chessie had not yet got what she wanted and she had been waiting a long time. Fitzwilliam Alton, only son and heir to the Duke and Duchess, had been paying Chessie marked attention for some months. Such public notice could only end respectably in a proposal of marriage but so far Fitz had not declared himself and now the ton was starting to gossip. Society, Dev thought, had not been kind, talking scandal about him and Chessie in particular from the first. They had breeding of sorts, but precious little of it and no money. He had at least carved out something of a Navy career for himself before he had resorted to hunting a fortune. Chessie had had to make an impression through her beauty and her vivacious personality alone. It was always harder for a woman.
"You don't like Emma," Dev said now.
He felt rather than saw his sister's scornful glance. "I don't like what she has done to you," she said. "You've become one of Emma's pets, like that fluffy white dog or her badtempered monkey."
"It's a small price to pay for what I want," Dev said.
Wealth. Status. He had hunted them for the last ten years. Born with nothing, he had no intention of going back to the poverty of his youth. Now everything was within his grasp and if that meant he had to be Emma's lapdog for the rest of his life there were worse fates. Or so he told himself.
"You are no better," he said to his sister, aware that he sounded perilously close to the tit for tat banter of their childhood. "You have caught yourself a marquis."
Chessie flicked her fan in a gesture that conveyed total disdain. "Don't be so vulgar, Dev. I am completely different from you. I may be a fortune hunter but at least I love Fitz. And anyway" a tiny frown marred her brow "I have not caught him yet."
"He'll propose soon," Dev said. He had heard the trace of uncertainty in Chessie's voice that revealed how wafer thin was her confidence. He wanted to reassure her, even though he thought Fitzwilliam Alton nowhere near good enough for his sister. "Fitz loves you, too," he said, hoping he was right. "He is only waiting for the right moment to tell his parents the news."
"That will never happen," Chessie said dryly.
"You must love Fitz very much to be prepared to endure the Duchess of Alton as a motherinlaw," Dev said.
"And you must love Emma's money very much to be prepared to endure the Countess of Brooke," Chessie said.
"I do," Dev said.
Chessie shook her head slightly. "It will not serve, Dev," she said. "In the end you will hate her."
"I'm sure you are right," Dev said. "I already dislike her very much."
"I meant Emma," Chessie said, her eyes on the shifting patterns of the dance, "not her mother. Though if Emma becomes more like her mother as she grows older that will be hard to bear."
Dev could not deny that it was not an appealing prospect.
"If Fitz becomes more like his mother you will have to squeeze money out of him like a lemon," he said. The Duchess of Alton had a sour disposition and a mouth like the tightly drawn drawstring of a purse. It gave fair warning as to her character.
Chessie gave a spontaneous giggle. "Fitz will not become like his parents." The laughter faded from her face and she fidgeted with the struts of her fan, her gloved fingers pulling at the lace. Lately, Dev thought, she seemed to have lost some of her sparkle. Now he could see her searching the crowded room for Fitz. She was wearing her heart on her sleeve. He felt a rush of protective concern. Chessie was pinning everything on the prospect of this betrothal and Fitz, genial enough, but arrogant and spoiled in equal measure, was aware of her regard and was toying with her reputation. Chessie deserved better than that. Dev clenched his fists at his side. One step out of line and he would ram that silver spoon Fitz had been born with right down his throat.
"You look very fierce," Chessie said, squeezing his arm.
"Sorry," Dev said, smoothing out his expression again. He smiled at her. "We haven't done badly," he said, "for two penniless orphans from County Galway."
Chessie did not reply and he saw that her gaze had returned to the waltz, which was now spinning to a triumphant climax. Fitz, tall, dark, distinguished, was at the far end of the room, almost lost in the shift and sway of the dancers. He was partnering a woman in a shimmering silver gauze gown, a woman who was also tall and dark. They looked magnificent together. Fitz had always had a weakness for a pretty face, just as his cousin Emma wanted a handsome trophy of a husband. But this woman was different from Fitz's usual flirts and there was something about the way that she moved, the lilt and cadence of her steps that shot Dev through with recognition even though he could not see her face.
"Who is that?" he said, and his voice sounded a little hoarse. Something strangepremonitionwas edging up his spine. He was the least superstitious of men yet he felt the cold air breathe gooseflesh along his skin even though the Duke and Duchess of Alton's ballroom was stiflingly hot.
He could see that Chessie felt something, too. She was strung as tight as violin, her face pale now. He saw a shiver rack her body.
"Someone rich," she said bitterly. "Someone beautiful and eligible whom Fitz's parents will have introduced to him tonight in order to distract him from me."
"Nonsense," Dev said bracingly. "She will be yet another horsefaced, inbred poor relation"
"Dev," Chessie reproved, as a dowager rustled past them on a wave of disapproval.
The music finished on a resounding flourish. There was a ripple of applause about the room. The pattern of dancers broke up. Fitz was escorting his partner across the floor toward them. Evidently he intended to introduce her to Chessie. Dev was not sure whether that reassured him or worried him.
"Dev!" Emma had also arrived, breathless and flushed by his side, dragging Freddie Walters with her by the hand. "Come and dance with me!"
For the first time in as long as he could remember, Dev did not respond immediately to Emma's imperious demand. Instead he was watching the woman at Fitz's side. She was not in the first flush of youth, closer perhaps to his age than Chessie's. Age, or experience, or both, gave her an unconscious confidence. She walked with the same elegance that Dev had seen in her in the waltz, a fluid grace that was accentuated by the sinuous swirl of the silver gauze gown. It caressed her breasts and hips, wrapping itself about her like a lover's kiss. There was not a man in the room, Dev thought, who was not staring at her, his mouth drying with lust, his mind a rampage of images as to what it would be like to unwrap that gown from those curves.
Or perhaps those were just his fantasies.
She was very pale with the kind of translucent skin dusted with freckles that was a feature of the Celtic races. The contrast between her vivid green eyes and her black hair was shocking, exhilarating. It made her look fragile and fey, like a kelpie or dryad, too exotic to be human. Her black curls were piled up on her head in a tumble of ringlets held by a dazzling diamond comb. Matching jewels sparkled about her slender neck and adorned her wrists. Not a poor relation then. She looked magnificent.
She also looked familiar.
Dev's heart missed a beat then started to race. For a moment it felt as though everything had stopped; the music, the chatter, the breath in his body. For one long moment he could neither think nor speak.
It was almost ten years since he had seen Susanna Burney. His last memory of her was not one he was likely ever to forget; Susanna gloriously naked and fast asleep in the bed that they had shared for their brief, passionate wedding night. As he had blown out the guttering candle he had had no notion that he would never see her again.
In the morning she was gone, and with her his marriage. She had left him a noteit had all been a terrible mistake, she had said. She had begged him not to come after her, had said that she would sue for an annulment. Young and full of pride, angry, hurt and betrayed, he had let her go.
It had been two years later when he had returned from his first full tour of duty with the Royal Navy that he had reconsidered his abandonment of his wayward wife and had traveled to Scotland to find her again. He had told himself that it had been for curiosity's sake alone and to ensure that their annulment had indeed been granted. He had plans for the future, ambitious ideas, and they did not involve the girl he had seduced, married on impulse and let go. Sweat broke out over his body now as he recalled knocking on the door of the rectory and confronting Susanna's uncle and aunt. They had told him that Susanna was dead. He could recall the fierce punch of shock that had made a mockery of his bravado. He had cared for Susanna a great deal more than he had pretended.
Susanna Burney looked very much alive to him.
Anger and shock warred within him. He met her indifferent, unrecognizing gaze and a second wave of fury beat through him. She was pretending that she did not know him.
"Dev!" Emma was tugging on his hand, reclaiming his attention. A frown marred the pretty regularity of her features.
Emma, his rich, beautiful, wellconnected fiancée
Emma, the woman who was bringing him everything that he had ever wanted
He had never told Emma about his first hasty, illfated marriage. There were many things that he had not told Emma. He had pretended that it was because all his past indiscretions were long gone, unimportant and forgotten, but the truth was that Emma was jealous and possessive and he could not predict how she would react to any revelation, and he did not want to put that to the test and endanger the entire house of cards he had built for himselfand for Chessie.
A cold prickle of tension edged its way down Dev's spine. The damage that Susanna might do was incalculable. If she revealed even a hint of his past, Emma might break their engagement and everything he had worked for would be lost.
He watched as Susanna drew closer. Her hand was resting on Fitz's arm in the most confiding gesture, their dark heads bent close together. She was smiling at Fitz as though he was the most fascinating man in the universe. Fitz, Dev thought, looked completely dazzled, flushing like a youth in the grip of his first infatuation.
Susanna looked up again and her gaze met Dev's for one long, long moment. He could not read her expression. There was still no flicker of recognition in her eyes and no trace of nervousness in her manner.
Dev felt cold, very cold. He straightened, squared his shoulders and prepared to be introduced to the wife he had thought was dead.
HQN Books; August 2011
384 pages; ISBN 9781459208940
Author: Nicola Cornick
384 pages; ISBN 9781459208940
Author: Nicola Cornick
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