Confessions of an Improper Brideby Jennifer Haymore
Serena Donovan left London six years ago, her heart broken and her reputation ruined by devilishly handsome Jonathan Dane. Now, with her family's future in peril, she reluctantly agrees to return to England and assume her late twin's identity. The price? Marry a man she doesn't love and spend the rest of her days living a lie.
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Serena Donovan left London six years ago, her heart broken and her reputation ruined by devilishly handsome Jonathan Dane. Now, with her family's future in peril, she reluctantly agrees to return to England and assume her late twin's identity. The price? Marry a man she doesn't love and spend the rest of her days living a lie.
Jonathan Dane, Earl of Stratford, has become an incorrigible rake, drinking, gambling-and trying to forget Serena Donovan. Yet the moment he's introduced to the prim and proper "Meg", he recognizes the sensual young woman who captured his heart. Haunted by his past mistakes, he refuses to lose Serena again. But convincing her to trust him is no easy task. Claiming his lost love means exposing the truth and destroying the life Serena has sacrificed everything to rebuild. With the future of all the Donovans at stake, and their undying passion capable of triggering yet another scandal, how much will Jonathan and Serena risk for a chance at true love?
Haymore carefully crafts an original "second chance at love" romance that showcases her creativity and understanding of what readers want. Her three-dimensional characters and their depth of emotion strengthen an already powerful plot. Those new to Haymore's work will be enchanted."
With beautifully rendered characters, lush sensuality, and a riveting story line, this well-told tale puts a refreshing spin on both the hidden identity and classic reunion plots and gets Haymore's new series off to a delightful start."Library Journal"
4.5 Stars, Top Pick!
Haymore carefully crafts an original "second chance at love" romance that showcases her creativity and understanding of what readers want. Her three-dimensional characters and their depth of emotion strengthen an already powerful plot. Those new to Haymore's work will be enchanted."RT Book Reviews on Confessions of an Improper Bride"
Sweep-you-off-your-feet historical romance! Jennifer Haymore sparkles!"New York Times bestselling author Liz Carlyle on A TOUCH OF SCANDAL"
Jennifer Haymore's books are sophisticated, deeply sensual, and emotionally complex. With a dead sexy hero, a sweetly practical heroine, and a love story that draws together two people from vastly different backgrounds, A Touch of Scandal is positively captivating!"Elizabeth Hoyt, New York Times bestselling author on A TOUCH OF SCANDAL"
A unique, heart-tugging story with sympathetic, larger-than-life characters, intriguing plot twists, and sensual love scenes make A Hint of Wicked an impressive romance debut! I was rooting for both Tristan and Garret to win the lovely Sophie's hand for a second time. For jaded romance readers, Jennifer Haymore is an author to watch!"New York Times best-selling author Nicole Jordan"
Jennifer Haymore is an up-and-coming new writer who displays a skilful touch in her erotic tale of a woman torn between two lovers."Shirlee Busbee, New York Times bestselling author on A HINT OF WICKED"
Complex, stirring, and written with a skillful hand, A Hint of Wicked is an evocative love story that will make a special place for itself in your heart."Romance Reviews Today on A HINT OF WICKED"
A Hint of Wicked is an exhilarating regency romance!"Harriet Klausner Romance Reviews Today on A HINT OF WICKED"
Ms. Haymore's talent for storytelling shines throughout this book."Eye on Romance"
41/2 Stars! Haymore uses the Christmas season as an enhancing backdrop for a mystery/romance that is both original and fulfilling. Her fresh voice & ability to build sensual tension into lively love stories...makes this tale shine."RT Book Reviews"
Ms. Haymore has penned a fabulous story of seduction, romance, intrigue and betrayal and above all that - love. You don't want to miss it! I'm now a big fan of this new author and she is going on my automatic to buy list! I love her writing style and the complex plots that she has weaved so beautifully together....The characters are amazing and the story will tug at your heart strings. So if you love a great read, do go and get this series, you will be glad that you did!"sapphireromance.blogspot.com"
Each time Ms. Haymore writes a book in this series I think there is no way to top the one I just finished. I started this latest one and realize she has done just that and has proven to me how fresh this series can remain. The characters of Becky and Jack are so full of life and longing just trying to make the right connection between family, relationship and future happiness while figuring out who to trust with all their secrets. This is a wonderful story and while I recommend reading the 1st two it is not imperative as Jennifer Haymore is a magician at connecting the plot from one book to the next but trust me you will have to buy the first two, they are that good."The Reading Reviewer (www.marygramlich.com)
Read an Excerpt
Confessions of an Improper Bride
By Haymore, Jennifer
ForeverCopyright © 2011 Haymore, Jennifer
All right reserved.
Off the coast of Antigua
Serena Donovan had not slept well since the Victory had left Portsmouth. Usually, the roll of the ship would lull her into a fretful sleep after she’d lain awake for hours next to her slumbering twin. Her mind tumbled over the ways she could have managed everything differently, how she might have saved herself from becoming a pariah.
But tonight was different. It had started off the same, with her lying beside a sound-asleep Meg and thinking about Jonathan Dane, about what she might have done to counter the force of the magnetic pull between them. Sleep had never come, though, because a lookout had sighted land yesterday afternoon, and Serena and Meg would be home tomorrow. Home to their mother and younger sisters and bearing a letter from their aunt that detailed Serena’s disgrace.
Meg shifted, then rolled over to face Serena, her brow furrowed, her gray eyes unfocused from sleep.
“Did I wake you?” Serena asked in a low voice.
Meg rubbed her eyes and twisted her body to stretch. “No, you didn’t wake me,” she said on a yawn. “Haven’t you slept at all?”
When Serena didn’t answer, her twin sighed. “Silly question. Of course you haven’t.”
Serena tried to smile. “It’s near dawn. Will you walk with me before the sun rises? One last time?”
The sisters often rose early and strode along the deck before the ship awakened and the bulk of the crew made its appearance for morning mess. Arm in arm, talking in low voices and enjoying the peaceful beauty of dawn, the two young ladies would stroll along the wood planks of the deck, down the port side and up the starboard, pausing to watch the sun rise over the stern of the Victory.
What an inappropriate name, Serena thought, for the ship bearing her home as a failure and disgrace. She’d brought shame and humiliation to her entire family. Rejection, Defeat, or perhaps Utter Disappointment would serve as far better names for a vessel returning Serena to everlasting spinsterhood and dishonor.
Serena turned up the lantern and they dressed in silence. It wasn’t necessary to speak—Serena could always trust her sister to know what she was thinking and vice versa. They’d slept in the same bedroom their entire lives, and they’d helped each other to dress since they began to walk.
After Serena slid the final button through the hole at the back of Meg’s dress, she reached for their heavy woolen cloaks hanging on a peg and handed Meg hers. It was midsummer, but the mornings were still cool.
When they emerged on the Victory’s deck, Serena tilted her face up to the sky. Usually at this time, the stars cast a steady silver gleam over the ship, but not this morning. “It’s overcast,” she murmured.
Meg nodded. “Look at the sea. I thought I felt us tossing about rather more vigorously than usual.”
The sea was near black without the stars to light it, but gray foam crested over every wave. On deck, the heightened pitch of the ship was more clearly defined.
“Do you think a storm is coming?”
“Perhaps.” Meg shuddered. “I do hope we arrive home before it strikes.”
“I’m certain we will.” Serena wasn’t concerned. They’d survived several squalls and a rather treacherous storm in the past weeks. She had faith that Captain Moscum could pilot this ship through a hurricane, if need be.
They approached a sailor coiling rope on the deck, his task bathed under the yellow glow of a lantern. Looking up, he tipped his cap at them, and Serena saw that it was young Mr. Rutger from Kent, who was on his fourth voyage with Captain Moscum. “Good morning, misses. Fine morning, ain’t it?”
“Oh, good morning to you, too, Mr. Rutger.” Meg smiled pleasantly at the seaman. Meg was always the friendly one. Everyone loved Meg. “But tell us the truth—do you think the weather will hold?”
“Aye,” the sailor said, a grin splitting his wind-chapped cheeks. “Just a bit o’ the overcast.” He looked to the sky. “A splash o’ rain, but nothin’ more to it than that, I daresay.”
Meg breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, good.”
Serena pulled her sister along. She probably would have tarried there all day talking to Mr. Rutger from Kent. It wasn’t by chance that Serena knew that he had six sisters and a brother, and his father was a cobbler—it was because Meg had crouched on the deck and drawn his life story out of him one morning.
Perhaps it was selfish of her, but Serena wanted to be alone with her sister. Soon they would be at Cedar Place, everyone would be furious with her, and Mother and their younger sisters would divide Meg’s attention.
Meg went along with her willingly enough. Meg understood—she always did. When they were out of earshot from Mr. Rutger, she squeezed Serena’s arm. “You’ll be all right, Serena,” she said in a low voice. “I’ll stand beside you. I’ll do whatever I can to help you through this.”
Why? Serena wanted to ask. She had always been the wicked daughter. She was the oldest of five girls, older than Meg by seventeen minutes, and from birth, she’d been the hellion, the bane of their mother’s existence. Mother had thought a Season in London might cure her of her hoydenish ways; instead, it had proved her far worse than a hoyden.
“I know you will always be beside me, Meg.” And thank God for that. Without Meg, she’d truly founder.
She and Meg were identical in looks but not in temperament. Meg was the angel. The helpful child, ladylike, demure, moral, and always unfailingly sweet. Yet every time Serena was caught hitching her skirts up and splashing at the seashore with the baker’s son, Meg stood unflinchingly beside her. When all the other people in the world had given up on Serena, Meg remained steadfast, inexplicably convinced of her goodness despite all the wicked things she did.
Even now, when she’d committed the worst indiscretion of them all. When their long-awaited trip to England for their first Season had been cut sharply short by her stupidity.
“As long as you stand beside me,” Serena said quietly, “I know I will survive it.”
“Do you miss him?” Meg asked after a moment’s pause.
“I despise him.” Serena’s voice hissed through the gloom. She blinked away the stinging moisture in her eyes.
Meg gave her a sidelong glance, the color of her eyes matching the mist that swirled up behind her. “You’ve said that over and over these past weeks, but I’ve yet to believe you.”
Pressing her lips together, Serena merely shook her head. She would not get into this argument with her sister again. She hated Jonathan Dane. She hated him because her only other option was to fall victim to her broken heart and pine over him, and she wouldn’t do that. She wouldn’t sacrifice her pride for a man who had been a party to her ruin and then turned his back on her.
She’d never admit—not to anyone—that every time she looked over the stern of the Victory, she secretly hoped to see a ship following. And Jonathan would be on that ship, coming for her. She dreamed that it had all been an enormous mistake, that he really had loved her, that he’d never meant for any of this to happen.
She dragged her gaze to the bow of the ship. The lantern lashed to the forestay cast a gloomy light over the fog billowing up over the lip of the deck.
Smiling, she turned the tables on her sister. “You miss Commander Langley far more than I miss Jonathan, I assure you.”
Meg didn’t flinch. “I miss him very much,” she murmured.
Of course, unlike her own affair, Serena’s sister’s had followed propriety to the letter. Serena doubted Commander Langley had touched her sister for anything more than a slight brush of lips over a gloved hand. They danced exactly twice at every assembly, and he’d come to formally call on Meg at their aunt’s house three times a week for a month.
In the fall, Langley was headed to sea for a two-year assignment with the Navy, and he and Meg had agreed, with her family’s blessing, to an extended courtship. He’d done everything to claim Meg as his own short of promising her marriage, and Langley wasn’t the sort of gentleman who’d renege on his word.
Serena groaned to herself. She must stop thinking about him.
She patted her sister’s arm. “I wager you’ll have a letter from him before summer’s end.”
Meg’s gray eyes lit up in the dimness. “Oh, Serena, do you think so?”
Meg sighed. “I feel terrible.”
“Because it seems unfair that I should be so happy and you…” Meg’s voice trailed off.
“And I am disgraced and ruined, and the man who promised he’d love me for all time has proved himself a liar,” Serena finished in a dry voice. It hurt to say those words, though. The pain was a deep, sharp slice that seemed to cleave her heart in two. Even so, Serena hid the pain and kept her face expressionless.
Meg’s arm slid from her own, and tears glistened in her eyes. It didn’t matter that Serena struggled so valiantly to mask her feelings, Meg knew exactly what she felt. Meg always knew. She always understood. It was part of being a twin, Serena suspected.
Gently tugging Serena’s arm to draw her to a stop, Meg turned to face her. “I’ll do whatever I can… you know I will. There is someone out there for you, Serena. I know there is. I know it.”
“Someone in Antigua?” Serena asked dubiously. Their aunt had made it quite clear that she would never again be welcome in London. And Meg knew as well as she did that there was nobody for either of them on the island they’d called home since they were twelve years old. Even if there were, she was a debauched woman now. No one would want her.
“Perhaps. Gentlemen visit the island all the time. It certainly could happen.”
The mere idea made Serena’s gut churn. First, to love someone other than Jonathan Dane. It was too soon to even allow such a thought to cross her mind, and every organ in her body rebelled against it. Second, to love anyone ever again, now that she was armed with the knowledge of how destructive love could be. Who would ever be so stupid?
“Oh, Meg. I’ve no need for love. I’ve tried it, and I’ve failed, through and through. A happy marriage and family is for you and Commander Langley. Me? I’ll stay with Mother, and I will care for Cedar Place.”
A future at Cedar Place wasn’t something she’d been raised to imagine—from the moment they had stepped foot on the island, the Donovans had told one another that Antigua was a temporary stop, a place for the family to rebuild its fortune before they returned to England.
But now Cedar Place was all they had left, and it was falling into ruin. Long before her father had purchased the plantation and brought the family to live in Antigua six years ago, Cedar Place had been a beautiful, thriving plantation. Nine months after their arrival, Father died from malaria, leaving them deeply in debt with only their mother to manage everything. And Mother was a well-bred English lady ill equipped to take on the responsibilities of a plantation owner. Serena had doubts Cedar Place could ever be restored to its former glory, but it was the one and only place she could call home now, and she couldn’t let it rot.
Meg sighed and shook her head. “I just think—oh!”
The ship dipped into the trough of a wave and a boom swung around, trailing ropes behind it. A rope caught Meg’s shoulders, and as the boom continued its path to the other side of the deck, it yanked Meg to the edge of the deck and flipped her over the deck rail.
Serena stood frozen, watching the scene unfolding before her in open-mouthed disbelief. As if from far away, she heard a muffled splash.
With a cry of dismay, she jerked into action, lunging forward until her slippered toes hung over the edge of the deck and she clung to the forestay.
Far below, Meg flailed in the water, hardly visible in the shadowy dark and wisping fog, her form growing smaller and finally slipping away as the ship blithely plowed onward.
After living for six years on a small island, Serena’s sister knew how to swim, but the heavy garments she was wearing—oh, God, they would weigh her down. Serena tore off her cloak and ripped off her dress. Clad only in her chemise, she kicked off her shoes, scrambled over the deck rail, and threw herself into the sea.
A firm arm caught her in midair, hooking her about the waist and yanking her back onto the deck. “No, miss. Ye mustn’t jump,” a sailor rasped in her ear.
It was then that she became conscious of the shouts of the seamen and the creaking of the rigging as the ship was ordered to come around.
Serena tried to twist her body from the man’s grasp, roaring, “Let me go! My sister is out there. She’s… Let me go!”
But the man didn’t let her go. In fact, another man grabbed her arm, making escape impossible. She strained to look back, but the ship was turning and she couldn’t see anything but the dark curl of waves and whitecaps and the swirl of fog.
“Hush, miss. Leave this one to us, if ye please. We’ll have ’er back on the ship in no time at all.”
“Where is she?” Serena sprinted toward the stern, pushing past the men in her way, ignoring the pounding of sailors’ feet behind her. When she reached the back of the ship, she tried to jump again, only to be caught once more, this time by Mr. Rutger.
She craned her neck, searching in vain over the choppy, dark water and leaning out as far over the rail as the sailor would allow, but she saw no hint of Meg.
“Never worry, miss,” Mr. Rutger murmured. “We’ll find your sister.”
The crew of the Victory searched until the sun was high in the sky and burned through the fog, and the high seas receded into gentle swells, the ship circling the spot where Meg had fallen overboard again and again.
But they never found a trace of Serena’s twin.
Six years later
Serena hadn’t been on a ship for six years. She’d had no desire to go near a ship. But she’d spent the past several, miserable weeks on the Islington, watching over her younger sister Phoebe with hawk’s eyes, ensuring she kept safely away from the deck’s edge.
Phoebe liked her freedom, and she was on the verge of wringing Serena’s neck out of frustration, but Serena didn’t care. It was far better to have a sulking sister than to have the unthinkable happen again. These weeks at sea had brought back so many memories of Meg. Each day had served as a painful reminder of the hole left in Serena’s life.
Serena stood at the rail, keeping her back to her fate—a fate she hadn’t asked for and had never wanted. Behind her, men scurried about and officers barked out orders. The pungent fishy tang of Portsmouth Harbour washed over the decks of the Islington, and between the called-out orders and the “aye, sirs,” the anchor chain rasped along the edge of the deck. The sailors were lowering the anchor into the dingy harbor waters.
Serena stared out toward the open sea. A lone ship was passing the round tower that marked the harbor entrance and making its way out to sea, its sails puffed full with wind. A part of Serena wished she were on that ship, headed away from England. Cedar Place was a safe haven, a refuge, a place where she could be herself. England was none of those things. Here, she’d be nothing but a fake. A poor replication of a priceless original.
Once she disembarked from the Islington, Serena would begin to spin a web of lies that would ensure her three living sisters’ futures. A person who admired honesty above all else, she nevertheless intended to live a life of deceit.
How would she manage it? Especially in London, a place fraught with danger, with its society and parties and ladies with sharp eyes looking for an opportunity to spread any scathing bit of gossip. If she was caught, society would rip her to shreds.
Serena and Phoebe would be staying with their aunt Geraldine in St. James’s Square. Aunt Geraldine was a viscountess, the widow of Lord Alcott, one of the most respected members of Parliament in his day. Serena knew from her last visit to London that her aunt was ruled by the expectations of society, and she bowed to its every whim.
When the sisters left in disgrace six years ago, Aunt Geraldine had loathed Serena and despised Meg by association. Even worse, she lived two houses down from the Earl of Stratford, Jonathan Dane’s father. This time, Serena had begged her mother to arrange housing elsewhere, but they couldn’t afford suitable lodgings in London. Aunt Geraldine was the only reasonable choice.
Serena squeezed her eyes shut. Jonathan Dane probably wouldn’t be in London. Six years ago, his father had ambitions for him to take holy orders, and if that had happened, he’d be residing at his family seat in Sussex or at some other vicarage far away from Town. She fervently hoped Jonathan wasn’t in London. If he was, he could only be a reminder of all the pain and heartache of the past, and of her willful deception of the present.
If he was in London, she would avoid him at all costs. Because, as much as she aspired to be more like Meg, she was still Serena. If she came face to face with Jonathan Dane, it was likely her claws would extend and tear him apart. If that happened, all would be lost.
She must remember that. There was more at stake here than just her reputation.
With shaking hands, Serena drew out the letter from the pocket of her pelisse. Careful to pin it tightly between her fingertips so the breeze wouldn’t tear it from her grip, she read it for the hundredth time.
My dearest Meg,
I waited breathlessly for your last letter, and when it arrived, I tore it open right away. I cannot express the level of joy I experienced when I read your assurances of love. And my happiness only increased when I read that you will be returning to England, and that you have agreed, with your mother’s blessing, to become my wife.
I’m equally delighted to hear that you and your sister, Phoebe, will come to London for the duration of the summer. It will give us an opportunity to plan our wedding, and to reacquaint ourselves in the flesh after so many lonely years of separation.
How I long to look on your sweet face again, my dearest. I shall come to Portsmouth the instant I hear of your arrival. I look much as I did the last time we met.
With my sincerest love,
Carefully, Serena folded the letter and replaced it in her pocket. She returned her gaze to the horizon and the ship slowly slipping away through the waves, becoming smaller with every moment that passed.
She hated lying. She hated herself. She hated her mother. She hated England. She hated everything about this situation.
“This! This very moment is the most exciting moment of my whole, entire life!”
Serena turned to see nineteen-year-old Phoebe grinning at her, her face young and alive, and her expression bright with happiness.
More than anything, Meg would want to see Phoebe and their other sisters, Olivia and Jessica, well situated. All Serena wanted was their happiness. She couldn’t stand it if anything horrible happened to them. She’d do anything to shield them from an experience like she’d had on her last visit to London.
She’d do this for her beautiful, innocent, lovely sisters. To insure their future.
“It is very exciting,” she said to Phoebe, her voice grave. They had moved to the West Indies when Phoebe was only seven years old, and she hardly remembered England at all. The bustle of Portsmouth Harbour was nothing like the lazy, slow-paced English Harbour at Antigua. Portsmouth’s sprawling waterfront held dense clusters of buildings, conveyances, and people—likely more buildings, people, and conveyances than populated their entire island.
Phoebe didn’t perceive the sadness leaching into Serena’s voice. With a pang, Serena remembered she’d never been able to hide such things from Meg. Now, though she possessed what most people would consider a tightly knit family in her mother and sisters, no one really knew her.
Nobody would ever really know her. It was too late for that. She’d sealed her fate in stone in the summer of 1822. From that point forward, she’d been the only person in the world to know her true self. Even after six years, the loneliness that thought provoked was nearly unbearable.
Blinking hard, she turned to gaze back out to sea. Looking in the opposite direction, Phoebe clapped her hands together and stood on her toes, craning to see through the thick lines of rigging blocking her view. “Oh, do look! There is a boat approaching. Can it be the one meant to bring us ashore?”
Serena looked over her shoulder in the direction her sister was pointing. The long boat, filled with empty seats, with abundant room in the stern holding area for their luggage, bobbed toward them, its rowers driving the oars through the murky water in long, precise draws. “I believe so.”
“We should make certain we’ve packed everything, shouldn’t we?”
“Yes.” Serena didn’t move, though. Rooted to the spot, she stared at the horizon, where the dark blue of the ocean faded through haze into the crystalline blue of the sky. She was about to become someone she’d despise. She was about to do something unforgivable.
What would Meg do?
That question had guided Serena’s life for the past several years. She had grown calmer, and she gave far more forethought to her actions than she had before her sister’s death. Phoebe was the one who’d taken over the role of hellion in their family.
For Phoebe’s sake, she’d do this. For Olivia’s and Jessica’s sakes. If she betrayed her mother now, her sisters would be the ones to suffer. Mother was no fool—she knew exactly what drove Serena. She knew that Serena would never willingly cause pain to her sisters, and she knew exactly how to use that truth to manipulate her eldest daughter.
Yet if Serena succeeded with what Mother intended for her to do, it held far-reaching consequences. Consequences so life altering Serena could hardly fathom them. Soon, she’d be married to a handsome, rich gentleman, with more funds than she’d ever require at her disposal. Yet, she couldn’t imagine spending her life with William Langley. The thought of marrying him had never even crossed her mind until a few weeks ago, when Mother had told her everything.
“Well?” Flicking a tendril of blond hair out of her face, Phoebe stamped her foot lightly on a deck plank. “Are you coming or aren’t you?”
“I’ll come down in a moment, Phoebe. You go ahead and make sure Flannery has gathered all our things, all right?”
Phoebe’s brow creased, and she gave Serena a hard glare. “Are you feverish?”
She tried to smile. “Not at all.”
“Humph. Very well, then.” With a swing of her jewel-blue skirts, Phoebe turned and disappeared.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Serena curled her fingers around the deck rail. She didn’t want to do this. She despised lying. Despised even more that she would aspire to standards she couldn’t attain. She could never succeed in living up to Meg’s goodness.
What would Meg do?
Meg wouldn’t risk their sisters’ reputations. Phoebe, Olivia, and Jessica needed freedom from their mother, and from Antigua, once and for all.
Serena’s sisters needed to marry, and marry well. They could never do so if Captain William Langley discovered the truth and revealed it to the world.
Jonathan Dane, the Sixth Earl of Stratford, stared broodingly at his ale. The delicious brew at the Blue Bell Inn had lured him to Whitechapel tonight, and the smooth amber liquid shimmered in his glass.
No, he fooled himself. It wasn’t the ale that had drawn him here. He’d been a frequent customer at the Blue Bell Inn for years, but he hadn’t come for a while. And he knew damn well why he’d come tonight.
She would arrive in England soon—within the next day or two. Jonathan had little previous connection to the lady. The problem was that on the outside she was identical to her twin sister. Serena… the woman whose death he was responsible for. The woman he’d loved… and betrayed.
Meg would be in London. He’d undoubtedly see her often, considering the fact that Langley had asked him to be the best man at their wedding. And each time he looked at her beautiful lips or gray eyes or blond curls, he’d be reminded of Serena… of kissing those lips, of gazing into the depths of those eyes, of sifting those curls between his fingers.
Suppressing a groan, Jonathan thrust away the sudden flood of memories. This happened on occasion—just when he thought he was free of her, she swept through his memories, blazing a trail through his dark, cloudy mind and leaving a bright, glittering stream of happiness in her wake. After all these years, the memories served nothing but to remind him of how worthless he had become.
Jonathan took a healthy swallow of ale.
“Well, if it isn’t the Earl of Stratford.”
Jonathan jerked his head upward to see a voluptuous redhead dressed in a red and black dress, her bosom flowing over the bodice.
“Thought you’d disappeared into the ether, milord.” She winked at him. “Haven’t seen you in half a year.”
“Haven’t you?” Jonathan asked, frowning. Had it been that long?
She pursed her red-painted lips and shook her head. “I’ve missed you.”
He chuckled. “Been busy.”
The owner of the Blue Bell Inn had discovered Maggie in a Covent Garden whorehouse four years ago. He’d taken a powerful fancy to her and had married her. They worked as a team, Maggie flirting with the male customers and seducing them to return for more, and her husband in the back office, overseeing the inn’s operation.
She winked at Jonathan. “Carousing elsewhere, I take it?”
He raised his glass of ale. “Exactly.”
His face heated from the lie. Carousing. He hadn’t done much of that lately. Yet it was well known that wherever Lord Stratford went, scandal and debauchery followed. Jonathan thrived on his poor reputation. He would go to his grave known for his wicked soul and black heart. Better, after all, than being remembered as a brainless coward. But lately the game had begun to bore him.
Maggie grinned. “Well, I’m right glad to see you back, then, milord. Can I fetch you something? More ale?” She looked dubiously at his nearly full glass.
“No, thank you.”
Wishing him a good evening, she inclined her head and left, her red and black skirts swishing over her abundant backside as she strode away.
He sat staring at his ale. He’d accomplish nothing by sitting here and moping. It was time to summon his coachman and go home. With a deep sigh, he began to rise, but the dark shadow of a man loomed over him.
“I’ve been searching for you all evening. Suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised you decided to come here, of all places.”
Jonathan blinked at William Langley, Post Captain in His Majesty’s Navy, as if he were viewing a ghostly apparition. The man standing at the end of the table was so strictly composed and so straightlaced, most people didn’t hesitate to call him priggish. Jonathan knew otherwise. Langley wasn’t priggish, he just had a strong sense of a man’s moral duty. He was a good man, but a human one, through and through. Still, he wasn’t one to go chasing after Jonathan at such a late hour. Something was wrong.
“Why are you here?” Jonathan asked, his senses going into full alert. “What has happened?”
“It’s… well, it’s Miss Donovan.” Langley slid onto the bench across from him, his face twisted in consternation.
Jonathan’s gut churned. He’d tried to be happy for Langley. Really tried. But every time his friend mentioned his betrothed, he felt the sour burn of jealousy scraping over his throat.
Langley had been his friend for many years, and he knew Jonathan far too well. Jonathan couldn’t look him in the eye right now—his damned aching memories were probably written all over his face. And Langley would remember. He had gone through it with him, had been there in those miserable days after Jonathan had lost her. Before Langley had gone to sea that autumn, he and Jonathan had helped each other through the darkest time of their lives.
Langley placed his hands on the table and leaned forward. “I received word that her ship arrived in Portsmouth today. And, well, I thought I’d come find you.”
“Seems you succeeded in that, at least.” In one long draught, Jonathan finished his ale.
“I remembered this was the tavern where you… well…” Langley’s voice trailed off. “It was just a guess.”
Jonathan rubbed his thumb over a bead of condensation on his glass. “A good one.”
Jonathan finally looked up at him. “So why are you here, Langley?”
Casting his gaze to the table, the other man adjusted his cravat. “I was wondering… well, you were acquainted with Miss Donovan.”
Jonathan pressed his lips together. Unable to speak, he gave a slow nod. Indeed he had known Meg Donovan. Not nearly as well as he’d known her sister. Langley knew that. “Yes. I was acquainted with her.”
“Well… will you accompany me? To Portsmouth, I mean. I’m to escort her and her sister to London.”
“Accompany you,” Jonathan repeated, enunciating each word carefully. “To Portsmouth.” He stared hard at Langley. Was the man sotted? No, Langley rarely drank. But other than the deep gray circles beneath his eyes, he looked pale as death.
“Yes. Today. I’ve received word that her ship has arrived.” Langley’s Adam’s apple moved as he swallowed. “I thought you might… you know… help. If it became… difficult between us. Awkward. If I say something—”
Jonathan raised his hand, stopping the man midsentence. “Let me see if I understand this correctly. You’ve sought me out here, at this hour, to ask me if I might travel with you to Portsmouth later today to meet your betrothed.”
“Yes. That’s right.”
Jonathan stared at Langley incredulously. For Christ’s sake, the man had been a captain in the Navy. Accustomed to barking out orders and having them obeyed without question. Accustomed to having the lives of hundreds of men under his control. Accustomed to leadership.
Yet he was deathly afraid of meeting his beloved after a six-year separation. Poor Langley.
Langley blew out a breath through his teeth. “What if I say something wrong? What if I…?”
Jonathan shook his head. “By all accounts, the lady is as besotted with you as you are with her. There’s nothing you could possibly say that would offend her.”
Langley gave him a baleful look.
As much as Jonathan could sympathize with the panic of a man about to face the shackles of marriage, there was no way in hell Jonathan would be going to Portsmouth. He knew he’d eventually come face to face with Serena Donovan’s twin sister, but it wouldn’t be today. He’d had months to prepare for the eventuality of seeing her, but he wasn’t ready. Not yet.
He was a damn coward.
Well, he’d always known that, hadn’t he? He’d been a coward six years ago. Nothing had changed.
Langley would have to face her eventually, just as Jonathan would. It was better for Langley to get it over with now, rather than have him leaning on Jonathan for support every time he saw her in the weeks to come.
“I can’t go to Portsmouth today,” he said in a kindly voice. “Sorry, old chap. I’ve a meeting with my solicitor, and it cannot be missed.”
Langley’s face fell. “Damn,” he said under his breath.
Jonathan drew back a bit, unused to hearing Langley curse. “You’ll do fine.”
Langley grimaced. “I hope you’re right.”
“Of course I am right.”
“But… you will come to the soiree?”
“Of course I’ll be there.” He didn’t want to go to Langley’s soiree, but he would. He’d promised Langley he would go. That would give him a full week to prepare for his reintroduction to Meg Donovan.
Langley stared at Jonathan’s empty glass of ale, and Jonathan felt a surge of compassion for the man. Langley would be nervous tomorrow, and for very good reason. But it was for the best that Jonathan didn’t go. His presence at Portsmouth wouldn’t be good for any of them. Meg Donovan probably hated him, probably blamed him for her sister’s death. As well she should.
He forced himself to smile at his friend. Langley understood exactly why Jonathan had become the man he was. Jonathan had lost his Donovan sister through his own cowardice and stupidity, while Langley had held on to his. And in three months, he would marry her.
One thing Jonathan was sure of: No matter what, Langley would remain loyal to Meg Donovan. He would love her forever. She was a lucky woman to have ensnared a man such as him.
“Let’s retire, then,” Jonathan said, keeping his voice gentle and even. “It’s getting late, and I should be going home.”
Langley sighed. “Yes, yes. I should as well. Forgive me for interrupting you—”
Jonathan gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “You interrupted nothing.”
That was too true for comfort.
Sighing, he rose and escorted his friend out of the Blue Bell Inn.
Serena and Phoebe ate in the common room at the inn, where they were fed a heavy breakfast that made Serena feel weighted down and greasy. Neither of them was used to such lavishness, but Mother had scraped her pennies so Serena, Phoebe, and their new maid, Flannery, could spend one night in this particular inn. Even this breakfast had been an extravagance, and Serena’s purse was uncomfortably light after her payment for it.
But of course they couldn’t give the appearance of genteel poverty. That simply wouldn’t do. Forget the fact that Mother couldn’t afford the passage for herself and Serena’s other two sisters, nor could they afford the proper stylish garments required by London society. Mother would never show her face in London if she couldn’t look fashionable.
Today Serena wore her new cherry-striped silk with puffed sleeves and a satin-net trim on the skirt and cuffs. She hadn’t worn it on the ship, per Mother’s orders. She’d wanted Serena to reunite with William Langley in a spotless, crisp new gown.
Serena shouldn’t have eaten, for the mix of her breakfast, her stays, and her nerves caused her stomach to twist and cramp. She hadn’t even been hungry, so her only excuse was anxiety. She was about to meet Commander Langley—now Captain Langley—for the first time in six years.
“Are you ready?” Phoebe patted her coiffure. Of the five sisters, Serena and Meg had resembled Papa, with golden-streaked blond hair and gray eyes. The three younger girls looked more like their mother, with the same snapping blue eyes and a reddish gleam in their blond hair.
“I’m ready.” Serena sighed. As ready as she’d ever be.
“I’m stuffed like a pig,” Phoebe announced.
Serena’s brows snapped together. “You should be happy Mother’s not here,” she said under her breath. “She’d whip you for that. Especially if you spoke that way in the presence of her sister.”
Phoebe elevated her nose primly. “Which is exactly why I shall not speak so in Aunt Geraldine’s presence. I’m sure Mother would hear of it immediately and fly all the way from Antigua like a rampaging dragon to punish me. I’m not stupid, you know.”
“Don’t be impertinent,” Serena chastised mildly.
Phoebe probably didn’t remember, but Serena had been equally impertinent before she and Meg had gone to London six years ago. Everything had changed when she’d returned without her sister at her side. She’d withdrawn into herself.
Mother had been devastated by Meg’s death, but she had been somewhat gratified to learn that the bulk of Serena’s rebelliousness had drowned along with Meg. Unfortunately, Serena still had a scandal of enormous proportions hanging over her head, ruining any chance whatsoever of a respectable gentleman asking for her hand in marriage.
Her rebelliousness hadn’t drowned, though. Serena had just forced it to plunge below the surface. It threatened to emerge every day, but she kept it firmly concealed.
Serena and Phoebe retired to a sitting room where they pretended to sew while they spoke in muted tones and awaited Captain Langley’s arrival. Eventually, a gentle knock sounded on the door, and Serena froze, needle poised.
“Come in,” Phoebe called.
The door opened a crack to reveal a maid. “There’s a gentleman come, miss. Says his name is Captain Langley and he’s arrived to escort you to London.”
This was it. This first meeting would decide once and for all whether Serena had the nerve to go through with this charade. Her heart thumped through her body, as loud as a clanging church bell. She was surprised no one else seemed to hear it.
Phoebe set her embroidery aside and rose, brushing her skirts straight, and Serena realized she was expected to do the same. Moving her limbs was like moving solid iron. It took every bit of strength her body contained.
Can I lie to this man? Can I be what—and who—he wants me to be?
How could she? This was all her mother’s doing. Serena hadn’t even known what was happening. She should end the ruse right now, before the lie spread through London, before it was too late.
Phoebe had already pasted a smile on her face, preparing herself to be introduced to Serena’s betrothed.
Serena stood, straightened her spine, and nodded to the maid. She was glad she wore her new kid gloves, because nerves had soaked her hands with sweat. “Show him in, please.”
It seemed like hours passed before Captain Langley appeared in the doorway. He was quite a handsome man, tall and lithe, with angular features and dark brown hair. He wore a stiff collar, a snow-white cravat, and a dark blue coat. His eyes were his most handsome feature, Serena thought. Meg had always spoken highly of his eyes. They were kind, expressive eyes, of a rich, deep brown.
“Captain Langley,” she said in the smooth, cultured London accent she’d spent endless hours practicing under her mother’s watchful eye. “It is so lovely to see you again.”
“And you, Miss Donovan,” the captain said. His voice was soft, but his bow was stiff. “I trust your voyage was comfortable?”
“Indeed it was. Please”—Serena gestured toward Phoebe—“allow me to introduce you to Miss Phoebe Donovan, my sister.”
Phoebe bobbed a curtsy, and Langley gave another stiff bow. “Miss Phoebe.”
When he turned back to her, hope and expectation brimming in his expression, tears surged up in Serena so powerfully and so quickly she almost couldn’t contain them. She dipped her head so Langley wouldn’t see the shine in her eyes.
How could she possibly meet his expectations?
She’d changed in the past six years. She’d grown slimmer and taller, her hair had grown a shade darker, and she’d lost the residual plumpness in her cheeks, stomach, and thighs. Physically, Meg would have changed similarly, she knew. She didn’t know if Meg’s eyes would have changed as her own had.
When she was little, Papa used to say that he could always tell Serena from Meg because Serena had the silver gleam of a sprite in her eyes, the spark that promised mischief. He’d always teased her about it.
He hadn’t been there to see the change in her after Meg died, but Serena had seen the difference in the looking glass. The sprightly gleam faded into cloudy shadow, and her eyes had changed from sparkling silver to flat gray.
Langley strode forward and gathered her hands in his own. His hands were large, firm, and comforting.
“Miss Donovan.” His breath hitched, and he squeezed her fingers tightly and shook his head, seemingly at a loss for words. Then he murmured, “Meg. I never thought you would come after… I mean, I hoped—I prayed—that I would see you again, that you would respond with an acceptance to my offer of marriage… But to have you here… my love—it is a dream come true.”
As his words sank in, it struck Serena for the first time that her mother’s lies had deeply affected another person outside the core of their family. This man truly did love Meg. He’d loved her for years. Captain Langley would be devastated if he learned the truth of what had happened that day on the Victory.
She looked up and stared into those deep brown eyes brimming with emotion. Langley was a good man, a respectable man. He was the man Meg had loved, and now Serena had the power to destroy him.
She squeezed his fingers in return. “I missed you,” she whispered.
A week later, Serena faced her official reintroduction to society as Miss Margaret Donovan, the future wife of Captain William Langley.
She played the part to the best of her ability—she smiled so hard and for so long that her cheeks hurt. She danced with gentlemen whose names she forgot seconds after the dances ended. She’d never been good with names, and after a while, Langley’s friends, all of a similar age, half in somber Navy uniforms and the other half wearing dark tailcoats and sharp white cravats, began to look the same to her.
The dance ended, and Langley bowed formally and then offered his arm to lead her off the dance floor. She took his arm, and they strolled toward a woman whom he introduced as Lady Montgomery, a tiny woman with sleek dark hair and a smart gray dress. Serena would have thought she looked like a stern governess if not for her warm smile.
“Are you happy to have returned to London after so long away, Miss Donovan?” she asked.
Serena hesitated. Should she tell the truth? What would Meg say?
“I’m gratified,” she said slowly, “that my sister, Phoebe, will have the opportunity to be in London society for the first time. More than anything, I’m happy to finally see Captain Langley again.”
She smiled at him, and he very appropriately blushed and excused himself. As he walked toward a group of Navy officers, Lady Montgomery smiled.
“Of course you are,” she said quietly. “Captain Langley is a friend of mine, Miss Donovan, and he is a good man. He has missed you beyond measure in these past years. It brings him great happiness that you have accepted his offer of marriage.”
Serena’s face felt hot as a lobster dumped into a pot of boiling water, and she was sure she possessed the complexion to match. “Thank you.”
She glanced at Langley, who was conversing in animated tones with a group of Navy officers. She wished he would speak in such a manner to her.
“Have you known Captain Langley for very long, my lady?”
Before Lady Montgomery could answer, she glanced toward the ballroom door and sucked in her breath. Serena followed her gaze. Her entire body stiffened.
The world spun, driving away the smell of burning wax and the heavy perfumes of the guests. The sounds of the waltz and the laughter and discussions that had moments ago swelled into a crescendo around her seemed to have been sucked into a vacuum.
At the age of eighteen, when Serena had first seen him, she thought him the most handsome man in the world. Since then, she had dismissed those interpretations as the warped imaginings of an inexperienced and besotted mind. Since then, she had studied men from afar, and now believed she understood masculine allure.
She was wrong.
There was nothing, nobody. Except for the man standing across the room, shaking the hand of another guest Serena couldn’t see at all.
The years had treated him well. Very well. His body appeared larger now than it had back then. He was heavier, but none of it was fat. From his shape, she knew it was all firmness and muscle and not the work of a man’s corset. His hair was dark blond and thick but cut short, his fashionable sideburns trimmed close to his face.
He turned his head a little, and she gazed at his profile. Since she had last seen him, his face had roughened, its angles had become sharper and more defined. His face had always been beautiful, but the years had etched light lines around his mouth and eyes and given him character. His nose had a small bump along its ridge that hadn’t been there before.
“Yes.” Lady Montgomery’s voice was like a feather tickling at Serena’s consciousness. Serena jerked her head around to face the lady and saw the knowledge of her and Jonathan’s past in Lady Montgomery’s dark eyes. “That is the Earl of Stratford. I understand you and he were previously acquainted.”
Serena blinked at the lady. The Earl of Stratford? What? Serena opened her mouth and then snapped it shut. Quickly, she gathered her fractured wits.
When she’d first met him, she’d learned his name as the Honourable Mr. Dane, a second son to an earl and to her young eyes, a very high personage indeed.
“Forgive me,” she said carefully, “I wasn’t aware that he’d inherited his father’s title.”
“Oh? Well, yes, he did, in fact. His older brother’s death preceded his father’s by a few months. Back in… twenty-three, I believe it was.”
“I am very sorry to hear that.” That meant Jonathan’s father had died a year or so after her departure from London. Serena had never been told. If she’d lived in England, there would have been no way of keeping such news from her, but she’d been so far away, and the topic of Jonathan Dane was forbidden in their home. She wondered whether Mother had known. Probably.
Lady Montgomery studied her with eyes that seemed to take in too much. “I would very much like to know you better, Miss Donovan,” she said. “You must call on me soon.”
“Oh, well yes,” Serena said. She needed to escape this suddenly stifling place, these people she didn’t know. Most of all, she needed to get away from Jonathan Dane, now the Earl of Stratford. But where could she go? She felt like a wild animal, trapped and caged, knowing it was no use to try to claw her way out. “I’d love to. If you’d excuse me, my lady, I believe I need some air.”
Sympathy washed over Lady Montgomery’s face. “Of course. Your constitution must be in rebellion. The stifling atmosphere in a London ballroom is probably nothing like the fresh open air of the West Indies.”
“Quite true. Excuse me.” Serena curtsied and then spun toward the double doors leading to an outside balcony, where escape, at least a temporary one, lay.
Gripping her champagne glass tightly, Serena made her way through Langley’s guests, answering politely to those who acknowledged her as she passed. Since her betrothed’s town house was too small for an event this large, a friend had given him the use of his family’s grand Kensington home for the event.
The orchestra was playing the final notes of a waltz, and Serena glimpsed Phoebe dancing beneath the row of glittering chandeliers. Phoebe’s partner, a handsome, dark-haired young man, was whisking her about the floor, and Phoebe was grinning and giggling at some joke he had just told her.
Despite herself, Serena smiled. Seeing Phoebe like this gave her hope that all this awful deception might be worth it after all.
The waltz ended, and laughter and pleasant chatter quickly drowned out the sudden silence. Serena reached for the door handle.
“There you are.”
It was Langley’s voice. With a sigh, Serena dropped her hand and turned. There he stood, not an arm’s length away, with Jonathan Dane at his side.
Jonathan’s wide, sensuous mouth hadn’t changed in shape, but its turn seemed more cynical, more inclined to smirk rather than display the genuine, joyful smiles she remembered. His lips were parted, and she could see the hint of teeth behind them.
She remembered those lips. How often she’d kissed them, had run her tongue over those teeth.
“Good evening.” Serena’s voice emerged smooth and deep and contained no tremor. It reminded her of her voice when she was with Jonathan before, when she was aroused and could only think she wanted more, wanted him to take her to the pinnacle.
He had taken her to those heights, not only physically, but emotionally as well, and she had counted on it never to end. But ended it had, with an abruptness that had shattered her.
He gazed at her as if startled, a slight frown forming between his brows. “Serena?”
The cheerful roar of the ballroom faded to nothing behind the din of her shock. She glanced at Langley to see him blanch. Everyone standing nearby had turned to gape at them.
She stared up at Jonathan, unable to speak, to breathe.
He stared back at her, his eyes dilated in the shadows until they looked black. She remembered them, though. They were midnight blue, like the deepest ocean on a sunny day. They always appeared quite dark whenever there wasn’t enough light to illuminate their true color. In broad daylight, his eyes were exotic, their dark cobalt sparks contrasting with the gold streaks in his hair and the broad slashes of his eyebrows. Such a handsome man.
Langley gave an awkward laugh and clapped Jonathan on the shoulder. “No, this is Meg, man. Meg Donovan, my betrothed.”
Jonathan shook his head, as if flinging away a fog that had descended over him. He blinked hard, and seeming to come to his senses, he bowed. “Of course,” he murmured. “Of course. Forgive me. Miss Donovan, it is a pleasure to see you again.”
The low timbre of his voice made something within Serena clench. She had dreamed about that voice more times than she could count. His voice had whispered in her ear, caressed the most private parts of her body, told her wicked things she was certain she’d never hear again. The words he had uttered to her had made her first fall madly in love and later tremble in ecstasy.
It had nearly killed her when she learned all those words had been lies.
Was he still a liar?
Such characteristics were usually ingrained in a person by the time he reached adulthood. If a man was a liar at twenty-two, he probably was at twenty-eight as well.
Serena couldn’t answer him. She simply stared. Langley gave her an apologetic look, as if asking for forgiveness that he hadn’t warned her about the arrival of the man who had defiled her sister. Serena sucked in a steadying breath. Suddenly, she felt perilously close to bursting into tears.
Langley came to her rescue. “Were you going to take some air?”
She nodded dumbly.
He gave her a gentle smile. “May I accompany you?”
His kind words helped her find her voice, and she waved her hand. “No, no, please. It looked like you two were headed toward the punch bowl.” She gave them a game smile. “I certainly wouldn’t want to deprive two gentlemen of their punch.”
Langley returned her smile and inclined his head. “But I won’t have you outside alone.” He clasped Jonathan’s shoulder. “If you’ll excuse—”
Just then, an arm slipped through hers. Lady Montgomery squeezed her wrist. “Oh, do come onto the terrace with me, Miss Donovan. I was just thinking about taking some air myself.”
Serena swallowed hard, then smiled at her savior. “Thank you. I’d love to join you outside.”
She gave a faltering, watery smile to Langley, silently thanking him for his thoughtfulness. The two men bowed, Langley looking understanding and Jonathan looking as bewildered as if he’d just been awakened from a yearlong sleep. They turned toward the punch bowl, Langley holding on to Jonathan’s shoulder, guiding him away and across the room.
Keeping her arm tightly entwined about Serena’s, Lady Montgomery flung open the door and led her toward freedom and the outside.
The day after Langley’s soiree, Serena rose from bed and went through the motions of her morning routine. Bathed and dressed, she wandered downstairs. The breakfast room at the back corner of the house was unoccupied, and she went to the sideboard and collected a cup of coffee and a crescent-shaped roll.
Since Serena had last been in London, her aunt had hired a French cook, and she demanded a plate of fresh bread at the breakfast table every morning. Serena loved these fluffy concoctions—they were so different from the heavy breads she was accustomed to—and she’d taken to eating these wonderful, flaky rolls for her breakfast. Aunt Geraldine’s permanently narrow frame hadn’t widened from all this bread, but Serena knew her own would suffer if she ate too much, so she limited herself to one every morning.
Sitting at the end of the breakfast table closest to the window, she nibbled on the roll, sipped at her coffee, and gazed out the window looking onto Duke of York Street.
The sky was jewel blue and cloudless, and it would be simply lovely when she met with Langley for an afternoon drive later in the day. For now, the sun had half risen over the buildings on the opposite side of the street, casting a bright golden glow over them, making them look like they’d been touched by Midas.
She remembered the summer she’d met Jonathan. The weather then had been equally lovely. She’d think every summer in London was this beautiful if Aunt Geraldine didn’t often proclaim that it was not. Sometimes it rained every day in June, her aunt assured her. Sometimes, frost still covered the ground this time of year. And sometimes, Aunt Geraldine said, London could be hotter than the depths of Hell.
As if summoned by her thoughts, the brisk tapping of heels over the wooden slats of the corridor outside heralded Aunt Geraldine’s entrance. Her aunt, dressed in a dark red pelisse, strode into the breakfast room.
“Good morning, Aunt,” Serena murmured.
“I doubt it.” Aunt Geraldine didn’t look at Serena; instead, she turned her attention to the sideboard.
Serena raised a brow at her aunt’s straight, narrow back. “Why do you say that?”
Aunt Geraldine muttered something unintelligible. She turned and plunked her plate on the table opposite to where Serena sat, then deposited her slight body into the corresponding heavy wood chair. Her gaze settled on Serena, and she frowned. “Where is your sister?”
“Still in bed,” Serena replied.
Aunt Geraldine’s lips drew into a narrow, straight line. “She is a lazy chit.”
Serena chuckled. She’d learned quickly that if she took offense to every slight her aunt offered to her or someone she loved, she’d be angry forevermore. So she shrugged away most of the older woman’s smaller jabs.
“She’s just nineteen,” she murmured between nibbles of the delectable bread. “We were out very late last night, as you’ll recall. In any case, people her age need more sleep than the rest of us.”
So their mother had told everyone during those days after Serena had just returned to Antigua. Having lost her reputation, her love, and her sister, her spirits had sunk so low that she’d found it impossible to drag herself out of bed until long after noon almost every day. Mother had used that explanation on her younger sisters, and though it was mostly to protect her, Serena still believed there was some truth to it. It hadn’t been until she was twenty that she’d been able to rise at a decent hour on a consistent basis.
Taking a bite of her roll, Aunt Geraldine stared at her. After she swallowed, she plopped the bread back down on her plate, pushed it away, and narrowed her eyes. “I must speak with you about something.”
Oh, dear, what now? Serena gazed steadily at her aunt, but inwardly she braced herself.
“It is about my neighbor, the young Earl of Stratford.” Aunt Geraldine gazed at her, studying her reaction.
Serena did her best to keep her face perfectly blank. “Oh. I wasn’t aware that the new earl occupied his father’s old London home.”
When her aunt didn’t speak for several moments, Serena asked, “What about him do you wish to tell me?”
Aunt Geraldine’s thin lips disappeared altogether. “I believe you have been sheltered since you were last in London, Meg. I know you have a forgiving nature—you always have—but hear me on this: That man is not to be trusted. I saw him speaking to you last night. I don’t know what game he’s trying to play by insinuating himself into your good graces.”
“Goodness, Aunt. He’s not in my good graces in the least, but since he appears to be the closest friend of my betrothed, what choice do I have but to be polite to him?”
“You have no concept of what that man is, Meg, and you should feel quite free to cut him if you wish to do so. Do whatever is necessary to discourage his attentions.”
“But, Aunt… I cannot cut him. He…” Wildly, she racked her brain for a reason. “He’s an earl.”
“I might agree if you had a chance of becoming his countess.” Aunt Geraldine sniffed, and Serena stared at her in astonishment. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, Meg. He’s an earl, for goodness’ sake. It wouldn’t matter if he were a three-foot-tall simpleton—if it were possible for one of my nieces to marry an earl, I’d do whatever I could to encourage it.”
“Aunt…” Serena breathed.
“However, the wretched man has made it perfectly clear to the world that he shall never marry, and you”—picking up her bread, she pointed it at Serena—“are otherwise engaged. I can only see trouble when it comes to any association you establish with Stratford, earl or no.”
“Why do you say that?” Serena asked. “You must understand that after… after what happened with Serena, I have no intention of establishing any association with him beyond as a friend of my future husband.”
Her aunt made a low noise of distaste. “What he did to your sister was wretched enough, but after you left London, he became the most insufferable of scoundrels.”
Serena shook her head, confused. “How do you mean?”
Aunt Geraldine raised her coffee cup to her lips and took a long, fortifying swallow, wincing a bit at the scalding heat. She took a deep breath as she set the cup down. Serena’s heart began to hammer against her chest. She couldn’t fathom why. Whatever Aunt Geraldine was about to say, it had no bearing on her. It shouldn’t matter at all.
“Stratford remained in London until we received word that your sister had perished by drowning. Upon hearing this dreadful news, the young man tore his father’s home apart and then ran to Bath.”
Under the table, Serena gripped her knees through her dress. “Why would he do such a thing?”
“Because he went mad, that’s why. He was never entirely stable, you know.”
Serena blinked at her aunt. “Aunt, instability is one thing, but I fail to see what this has to do with him being an insufferable scoundrel.”
“Within a week, he’d cuckolded a curate in Bath and then fled back to London.”
“Oh, goodness.” Serena could virtually feel the cracks spreading over her heart. A week after he learned she’d died, he was tupping a curate’s wife in Bath?
Serena took a slow, measured breath, willing her pattering heart to slow down. She’d wondered so often about what Jonathan had become. But she’d thought he’d been on the course of becoming a vicar. With that image so firmly entrenched in her mind, she couldn’t picture him as a dissolute. But now it seemed as though she needed to reform her image of him.
Aunt Geraldine seemed not to notice her consternation. “He grew worse after that. He drank, he gambled, he cared nothing about anyone or anything. He took loose women into his bed, then turned them away, one after the other. He flaunted his mistresses at social functions at every opportunity. He did whatever he could to spit in the face of propriety, and he didn’t care a whit what anyone thought about it. He still doesn’t, though in recent months it seems he’s become less of a topic of gossip.”
Serena stared at her aunt, speechless.
How could it be true? Jonathan, the man who’d loved her with such passion, had turned into a cold, ruthless rake? A debauched seducer lacking in every scruple?
The first time he’d bedded Serena, in the stables behind her aunt’s house, he’d been a virgin, too. They’d been equally overcome, equally nervous. That bedding was a fumbling, awkward thing, but so sweet. They’d lain in the fresh hay and held on to each other for hours afterward, sharing the pleasure of what they’d just experienced together.
Whenever she remembered that night, Serena’s recollections contained nothing of the bitterness she held in every one of her other memories about Jonathan. Even after all that happened later, she believed in him that night. That had been the true Jonathan, layers peeled away, raw and sensitive, giving and taking, open to her as she’d been open to him.
She blinked hard, banishing that memory.
“It is quite for the best that he turned your sister away,” Aunt Geraldine announced. “The man is a louse and would have made her miserable.”
That was probably true. If, by some turn of fate, he’d ended up marrying her, he probably would have turned away from her as soon as he’d tired of her, just like he’d turned away from all those other ladies he’d bedded.
Aunt Geraldine made a growling noise. “God save us from the fools overrunning this society.” She looked at Serena, her blue eyes speckled with yellow sparks from the glow of the sunlight flooding through the windows. “This is what we have become. Amoral, gambling, rutting… idiots.”
Serena felt sick down to the marrow of her bones.
Aunt Geraldine frowned into her cup. “Of course, news of his exploits has done no irreparable damage to his reputation, though it should have. Every wretched thing he did just seemed to increase his popularity among his peers. He’s admired.” She shook her head in disgust. “He’s fashionable.”
What would Meg say?
“But Aunt, Captain Langley is the earl’s close friend. Surely Captain Langley would not befriend him after all that, even if he is considered fashionable.”
Aunt Geraldine sighed and took another swallow of her coffee. “Captain Langley is a kindhearted soul, and moral, too. Yet he was in Bath with Stratford, and he was the one who helped him escape after that incident with the curate. To what end, I’ve no idea. I’ve never understood why Langley, as proper as he is, as much of a gentleman as he is, remains such a staunch supporter of the earl.”
Serena thought of the way Jonathan had cut her after they’d been discovered making love at the Dowager Duchess of Clayworth’s ball. It had been enough—more than enough—that she’d been branded a brazen whore unworthy of London society. She’d felt so scared and alone, but she’d known Jonathan was close and she’d clung to the knowledge of his love.
But a few days later, she’d passed Jonathan in St. James’s Square. She’d called his name, hoping, praying that he would have a solution for them both. That he’d say he didn’t care and that they could run away and be married, to hell with the gossips. But that hadn’t happened.
Instead, his eyes had turned an icy cobalt. He’d said, “I’m sorry, I’ve not had the honor of your acquaintance,” in a frosty voice, then pressed his lips together and turned away.
Yes, he was capable of becoming a heartless rake. If he was capable of professing sweet, undying love to her and then treating her like so much rubbish, he was capable of anything.
Slowly, Serena removed her grip from her knees, thinking she’d surely bruised them. She reached for her bread and finished it, savoring the flaky layers and swallowing a sip of coffee before looking back to her aunt.
She tipped her lips up at her aunt in the semblance of a smile. “Never worry, Aunt. When I encounter him, I shall be polite but aloof, but I will never, ever forgive him for what he did to Serena.”
Meg Donovan had changed. When Jonathan had leaned toward her last night, he’d inhaled and caught the scent of fine ocean sand baked for hours in the sun. He’d glanced at her face, shocked, his heart pounding frantically against his breastbone. That wasn’t Meg’s scent at all. That was how Serena had smelled.
Then he’d opened his damned mouth and called her by the wrong name.
Jonathan took a sip of his morning coffee—despite the fact that it was after noon—and pushed away his copy of the Times so he could rest his elbows on his breakfast table.
Could she be Serena posing as Meg? Why would she do such a thing? Why would she deceive Langley?
Shaking his head, he chuckled into his coffee. Surely not. Ridiculous even to have considered it. Only his own scoundrel’s soul could conceive such a thing.
Six years could certainly change a person. Meg had changed physically, too. Her hair had darkened to a golden blond, framing her face with waves he was certain were natural. She seemed thinner—no, that wasn’t quite right. Her curves had developed—her waist had slimmed above flaring hips, and the tops of her breasts rounded over the edge of her bodice. Her skin was darker than most London ladies’, no doubt due to the climate of the island where she lived, but it wasn’t heathen dark. It was a subtle golden shade that complemented her hair.
Her gray, soulful eyes seemed larger, and sadder. Meg had never been as lively as her twin, but she’d glowed with happiness that summer so long ago, especially when Langley was near. Now, she didn’t glow at all.
Jonathan understood that was probably because she’d lost a sister and her closest companion. He completely comprehended the tragedy of that, because not a day passed that he didn’t think about Serena Donovan. But it had been six years, after all, and finally Meg was marrying the man she’d loved for a very long time. Shouldn’t she be glowing?
This afternoon, Jonathan was going to Mayfair to call on the Duke of Calton, but afterward he was free. Meg Donovan was residing at her aunt’s house, only two doors down from his own. He wanted to see her again. She reminded him so much of Serena. So much more than even he had expected.
A footman came in to offer Jonathan a tray of sliced ham, but Jonathan waved him away.
Meg had the bearing of a true lady, which probably surprised some of the soiree attendees who might expect her to be provincial and awkward, but it didn’t surprise Jonathan. Serena had told him that her mother’s life goal was to see her five daughters appropriately situated in London society, and that she’d spent years instructing the girls on how to behave like proper ladies.
He smiled slightly, remembering Serena’s fiery blush as she’d admitted to him she’d always tried her best to ignore her mother’s teachings. At the time, she hadn’t seen any benefit in behaving like a lady. There was a wild edge in her that couldn’t be tamed, and he didn’t want it tamed. He’d loved her just the way she was.
“I’m glad you ignored your mama,” he’d told her. “I don’t want a perfect lady. I want you.” Then he’d kissed her soundly, and all talk of her family was forgotten.
In the months they had known one another years ago, he’d found Meg to be so different from Serena. In temperament, she was the opposite of her sister. He’d always been amazed that so many people couldn’t tell them apart. Yes, their features were identical, but to him, the two women were like night and day. From one glance at their eyes, he’d been able to tell one sister from the other.
But Meg had changed. In the six years since he’d last seen her, and in ways he couldn’t properly define, she’d grown so much more like Serena.
For some reason, that terrified him.
That afternoon, the sisters sat in Serena’s bedchamber, Serena composing letters home while Phoebe fidgeted with a book in her lap.
“It was a lovely party.” With a soft smile curving her lips, Phoebe cast a dreamy look toward the window.
Aunt Geraldine had given Serena the room she’d shared with Meg on her last visit, a guest chamber decorated in crimson. Six years ago, Meg and Serena had giggled about how stern, how heavy this room had seemed, with its thick velvet drapes and bed curtains, mohair hangings, walnut bed with posts as thick as tree trunks, and opulent tables and dressers made of rich woods and covered with black-veined marble.
Now the place brought back memories of Meg. Serena stared into the heavy round looking glass of the dressing table, recalling how she’d wept in Meg’s arms here after she’d been caught in flagrante delicto with Jonathan Dane.
Sighing, she laid down her pen and bent her head, pressing her fingertips to the bridge of her nose.
She wished she could agree with Phoebe and say it was a lovely party. Instead the soiree had unsettled her. If only Jonathan hadn’t come, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But his arrival had thrown her hard-won equilibrium into confusion. Images of Jonathan, past and present, had disrupted her sleep all night long, and she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about him all day.
That surge of attraction, that rush of feeling when she’d first seen the earl, disconcerted her. She should not feel this way about someone who had proven himself the very worst breed of scoundrel, not only with her, but in all of his actions in the years following their separation. Where was her pride?
She must remember her hatred. On the ship that fateful morning, she’d told Meg that she despised him. She must hold on to that feeling. She must remember what he’d done to her, how he’d devastated her.
“Do you know I met twenty-three unmarried gentlemen?” Phoebe said.
Serena raised her brows. “You counted?”
“Of course I counted.”
“How did you know they were all unmarried?”
Phoebe gave her a sly smile. “By the way they looked at me.”
Serena considered telling her sister that the way a man looked at a lady could mean nothing at all, for some married men were scoundrels, but then she thought better of it. A part of her wanted her sister to hang on to her sweet näiveté for as long as possible. Instead, she asked, “How many ladies did you meet?”
“Goodness! Why would I have counted the ladies?”
Serena eyed her. The gleam in Phoebe’s eyes told her she wasn’t revealing everything. And she wouldn’t, if Serena didn’t tread carefully. “Do you think there might have been a potential suitor for you among those twenty-three?”
“Hmm.” Phoebe brought her fingers to her chin and tapped it thoughtfully. “Perhaps. I danced with Mr. Pultenoy twice. He is the grandson of a duke, you know, and very handsome.”
“If I recall,” Serena said dryly, “he is seventeen years old.”
Phoebe shrugged. “That doesn’t matter, does it? It is only two years younger than I am, after all.”
Serena shook her head. “Ladies mature far faster than gentlemen, Phoebe. A lady at seventeen is ripening for marriage. A man, however, requires at least another ten years to reach that point.”
“And how would you know?” Phoebe scoffed. “As if you can claim to know anything about men, Meg.”
Serena pursed her lips. Phoebe knew of the scandal that Serena had caused, but not the details. She’d only been thirteen when Serena had returned to Antigua, and the loss of Meg had taken the focus off Serena’s disgrace.
Her three sisters did know that Serena had made a terrible, reprehensible mistake, one that would make her a pariah, and Mother had told them that the change of identity was an absolute necessity if any of them wanted any chance of being accepted by the ton. To Phoebe, that reasoning made logical sense, and that was all she required.
“I met another man of interest. I believe he is twenty-eight. Mature enough for you?”
Serena ignored her sister’s sarcasm. “Maybe. Who was this gentleman?”
“Oh, he’s more than a gentleman. He’s an earl.”
Serena stiffened. She knew of the presence of only one twenty-eight-year-old earl last night.
“But I daresay you would advise me to look elsewhere.” Phoebe sighed, but there was a glint in her blue eyes.
Serena stared hard at her sister for a full minute, then decided, grudgingly, to play along. “Why would I advise you to look elsewhere?”
“Because… oh, goodness, the stories I heard about him last night…”
Serena’s breath caught in her throat. Surely no one would tell Phoebe about her history with Jonathan Dane! “What kinds of stories?” she choked out.
Phoebe leaned forward and lowered her voice. “His name is the Earl of Stratford. He came in late, quite unfashionably so. Were you introduced to him?”
“Yes. I was.”
“Well, I’m sure you saw that he’s quite a dashing man, if you look very hard at him from certain angles, ignore his wrinkles, and pretend he’s not quite as old as twenty-eight.”
“Heavens, Phoebe. Twenty-eight isn’t old at all.”
Phoebe snorted. “Easy for you to say, considering that your betrothed is even older.”
“You’re speaking nonsense. Captain Langley is only six years older than I am. It’s a perfect age difference.”
“He’s in his third decade. I shall always maintain that once you reach that advanced age, you are firmly on the shelf, whether you be man or woman.”
Serena had to laugh. “Good heavens. Where do you get your ideas?”
Giving Serena a look she attempted to infuse with wisdom, Phoebe tapped her skull, and they both chuckled.
Phoebe took a sip of her tea, which must have been completely cold by now. “I met a young lady last night, a Miss Trumpet, who told me that Lord Stratford is the most dissolute rake in all of London. She says that despite his terrible reputation, he’s still invited to the very best parties, but only because he is an earl.”
“The most dissolute rake in all of London?”
Phoebe nodded, full of self-importance that she should be the imparter of such significant gossip. “Indeed. Miss Trumpet said it began years ago, when he ruined a poor young lady and then broke her heart. Since then, he’s blazed a trail of broken hearts through England. And…” Phoebe’s voice lowered to a whisper. “It’s said he fathered a child out of wedlock five years ago. He keeps the child—a boy—living in the lap of luxury and occasionally uses the mother as his mistress.”
Serena closed her eyes. It was too much. His presence at Langley’s soiree and then her aunt’s gossip had nearly undone her… but this news… She swallowed hard.
Jonathan had a child.
She had once wanted to be the woman who bore his children. In times of great weakness, she’d let herself dream.
It was over between her and the Earl of Stratford. It had been over for several years. She should not be affected at all by this news. This was common behavior for London aristocrats, after all—many of them had illegitimate children. Jonathan had become just like his forebears. Really, she shouldn’t be surprised at all, especially after what he’d done to her. She knew what he was capable of.
Glancing at Phoebe, she saw that her sister’s attention had turned to the window again. “What is it, Phoebe?”
“What? Oh, I thought I heard a carriage outside, that’s all,” Phoebe said absently.
Serena watched her, tapping her chin thoughtfully. Phoebe was keeping something from her. “So, which of the gentlemen made the strongest impression on you last night? Surely it wasn’t this debauched earl.”
Keeping her eyes averted, Phoebe sucked in her lower lip, hesitating.
“Tell me,” Serena murmured.
“That would be… Well, that would have to be Mr. Harper.”
“Mr. Harper,” Serena repeated, trying to remember him.
“Yes. He is the younger brother of one of Captain Langley’s Navy associates.”
“Did you dance with him?” Serena asked.
Serena raised her brows. “Really?”
Once again, Phoebe’s gaze darted away. “I was supposed to dance the waltz with Sir Sheffington…”
“But he twisted his ankle, of course.” Serena remembered the poor man’s whimpers of pain as a footman had helped him limp to a chair, where he had sat like a prince for the remainder of the night. Serena had checked on him often to make sure he was still enjoying himself despite his fall.
“Yes, so Mr. Harper asked me to waltz instead.”
“I assume this didn’t disappoint you,” Serena said.
“Oh, no!” Phoebe grimaced as soon as the vehement words emerged from her mouth. Once again, her gaze flitted to Serena and then to the window. She made her voice light. “He was very kind.”
“And handsome?” Serena asked.
“Yes,” Phoebe confirmed. “Very handsome.”
Phoebe’s gaze met hers, and a jolt of unease ran through Serena. She’d seen that stubborn look in her sister’s eyes before. But what could it mean in this circumstance? They’d just arrived in London. Surely Phoebe couldn’t have set her sights on one gentleman after a single meeting.
Serena kept her tone mild and unconcerned. “You’ll have to point him out to me when you see him next.”
Phoebe stood, craning her neck to look down from the window. “There’s a carriage parked in the front of the house. I think Captain Langley has arrived.”
“Oh, dear,” Serena muttered. “Is it four o’clock already?”
Last night, Langley had said that the day promised to be lovely—and it was—so perhaps she would like to go for a drive with him in Hyde Park. She’d said yes—it certainly wouldn’t be proper to turn down such a request from one’s betrothed.
That wasn’t the only reason she’d agreed to go. She was feeling cooped up and restless as a chicken inside her aunt’s house, and she craved the outdoors. And then there was Langley himself. She dreaded being in his presence, but that had nothing to do with him—it was all her own feelings of guilt and dread over what, or rather who, she had been forced to become. It was the lie she was too much of a coward to recant and almost too much of a coward to enact.
Serena had changed into her carriage dress earlier, a lavender gown of gros de Naples covered by silvery netting with sheer, long sleeves, their puffs contained at her elbows and wrists with silver ties, but had since forgotten all about the planned excursion.
She leaned down to give Phoebe a quick kiss and then she left the room. “Don’t forget your hat,” Phoebe called after her.
“Oh, drat. I forgot again.” Serena made an abrupt turn toward her dressing room. She always forgot about her hat, which was all very well in Antigua where nobody cared and she was always running in and out of the house, but going out hatless would not be considered at all proper in London. Flannery met her inside her dressing room to help her don the wide-brimmed behemoth bedecked with a flower garden that felt like it weighed half a stone.
Finally, she hurried downstairs, girding herself for an afternoon with the man she must find a way to love as much as her sister had.
Jonathan stood at the door of Lady Alcott’s house, unsure what exactly had driven him here. After leaving the Duke of Calton’s house, he’d instructed his coachman to take him here, rather than his own residence, just two doors down St. James’s Square.
He stared at the viscountess’s door. What had he been thinking? Was he mad? The very last thing he wanted to do was poach on William Langley’s territory. Langley was his friend, and the list of people who Jonathan could name as friends had grown very short in the past few years.
This couldn’t be Serena, he reminded himself. It was Meg. He’d liked Meg well enough, but she wasn’t the woman he’d loved.
Serena had died six years ago. She’d drowned on the way home to Antigua. Her disgrace and subsequent banishment had been his fault, so it followed that her drowning was his fault, too.
He turned and lifted a hand of dismissal. His coachman nodded, then flicked the reins, driving the team down the street, then turning the corner at Duke of York Street, where he’d take them to the stables behind Jonathan’s house.
He raised the knocker and lowered it. Once, twice, three times, before he chastised himself for being a damn fool. Lady Alcott knew who he was, knew what he’d become. The woman had smiled and nodded at him last night as if she didn’t hold him in contempt for what he’d done to her niece. But she did. The knowledge of it lurked deeply in her eyes, as did dislike. This is the man who embarrassed my family, debauched my niece, and was the cause of her demise…
He lowered the knocker for the fourth time and heard the sound echo through the house.
He wanted to lay eyes on Meg Donovan again. Hear her voice. If he spent any time pondering the reason for that, he’d only realize how absurd this notion was. So he stopped thinking about it and instead allowed that burning desire to see her again flow through him.
A butler answered the door, and Jonathan handed the man his card. “The Earl of Stratford here to see Miss Donovan.”
The man bowed and promised to see whether the lady was at home. Jonathan translated that to, “I’ll check with Lady Alcott to see whether you are an approved caller.”
No doubt he was not.
The butler reopened the door and stepped away. Lady Alcott stood at the threshold, her arms crossed over her chest, her eyes glaring azure daggers at him.
“What are you doing here?”
Jonathan met the older woman’s gaze, keeping his own steady. “Good afternoon, ma’am. I’ve come to see Miss Donovan.”
Good question. One he honestly could not answer. So he gave her the response she was most likely to accept. “I should like to wish her felicitations on her upcoming marriage.”
Lady Alcott’s eyes narrowed. “I believe you were given the opportunity to do that last night.”
“Indeed not,” Jonathan said casually. “It was a crush, and as the honored guest, she was in high demand.”
The lady’s turquoise eyes were so narrow they appeared reptilian. “I don’t believe you.”
Jonathan widened his own eyes as if he were surprised. “Oh?”
“Have you plans to destroy her as you did her sister?”
Lady Alcott had nearly as much of a hand in Serena’s destruction as he did, and she damn well knew it. “No, ma’am.”
“Then what could you possibly want from my niece?”
“As I said—”
Jonathan raised a brow.
“She is not at home,” Lady Alcott said stiffly.
Jonathan hid his seething annoyance. He hadn’t expected anything less. He deserved to be cut by this woman and by her family.
He leaned forward. “Very well, my lady. I’ll tell you the truth.”
“I’ve come to apologize.”
The woman’s gaze narrowed. “Why?”
“I fear I embarrassed Miss Donovan last night. It was quite unintentional and I wish to tell her so.”
A flash of silver caught his eye, and he looked past Lady Alcott’s shoulder to see Serena—Meg—reeling to a halt on the black and white tiles of the entry hall. Beneath her fruit tree forest of a hat, she stared up at him, her gray eyes wide, her mouth opening to breathe a whispering, “Oh!”
He inclined his head. “Miss Donovan. Good afternoon.”
She walked forward, slowly as if she were dragging herself through syrup. “Good afternoon, my lord.”
Lady Alcott hissed out a breath, and for a moment, Jonathan was certain she’d slam the door in his face. But some sliver of propriety must have remained somewhere within her, because she relented. “The earl wishes to have a word with you, niece.”
Those gray eyes widened even farther, as if to say, “Whatever for?” Instead she held firmly to ladylike politeness. “Oh? I will be going out shortly, but I might have a few moments.”
“Come in, then,” Lady Alcott said from between clenched teeth. She widened the door, giving Jonathan space to enter. Removing his hat, he stepped inside.
Both he and Meg turned to Lady Alcott.
“I’ll be in the drawing room if you need me.” She swiveled and strode down a corridor lined with enormous family portraits.
Serena—Meg—stood in silence until her aunt was out of sight, then the smile that she’d plastered on her face melted away.
“How can I help you, my lord?”
“Thank you for seeing me,” he said, studying her. So, so much more like Serena than the Meg he remembered. Whenever the sisters had stood side by side, even motionless, he’d known which one of them was Serena. He’d been proud of his rare ability to distinguish between the two of them. Even Langley, who’d fallen in love with Meg, had confused Serena for his beloved once.
“I wished to apologize for my rude behavior last night.”
“Your rude behavior?”
“For calling you by your sister’s name,” he explained.
Her eyelids fluttered in a quick blink. She gave him a tight smile. “Think nothing of it. It’s a common mistake.”
“Still… I… I know how close you were to your sister. How much you must mourn her.”
Her tight smile didn’t break. “I’d prefer it if we didn’t discuss my sister, Lord Stratford. You will certainly understand.”
He couldn’t tell, not for certain. She looked like Serena, but she also looked like Meg. There were the subtle things, the turn of her lips, the flash in her eyes, that reminded him of Serena, but damn, six years was a long time. And no matter which sister this was, she would be changed from the last time he’d seen her. She’d lost the person closest to her.
“I do understand,” he said softly. “Forgive me.”
She nodded. “Of course.” She hesitated. “I didn’t expect to see you last night. I’d no idea you’d become such a good friend of Captain Langley’s.”
“We’ve been good friends since—” He broke off abruptly and revised his statement. “We’ve been acquainted for several years. He is a very good friend, and a good man.”
Her smile widened, but it did not reach her eyes. “Yes,” she murmured.
“Indeed, Langley has asked me to be his best man for your wedding.”
The smile dripped away, leaving her lips flat. A light line appeared between her brows. This news seemed to have angered her.
Well, he shouldn’t be surprised, should he? After all, he’d been the cause of her sister’s demise. Surely she hadn’t forgotten that.
“You look very well, Meg,” he said in a quiet voice.
She startled like a bird at that, realized he’d addressed her informally, then forced the return of her ever-present smile. “Thank you. And you as well.”
He returned her smile, his body heating in a slow bloom from the inside out. He needed to leave this place before he did something he would regret. Like pull her into his arms, take her lips, and test once and for all who this woman was.
Langley. Think of Langley.
He did think of Langley. He thought of how much Langley had been through in the past six years. Most of that pain was rooted in Jonathan’s wrongdoings, and Jonathan had no intention of wounding his friend yet again.
Taking a step backward, he returned his hat to his head. “Well, I know you’re leaving. Thank you for seeing me, Miss Donovan.”
“Thank you for your apology, Lord Stratford,” she said, not exactly disingenuously, but the words were coated by a layer of brittle politeness.
He gave the lady a proper bow, said he hoped to see her again soon, and withdrew. He paused at the street corner as a phaeton driven by a familiar dark-haired man passed him, and then he turned to watch it halt at the Alcott residence. Langley hadn’t seen Jonathan as he’d driven by. He unfolded his tall body from the conveyance, straightened his coat, then walked to the door and knocked. The door opened, and he was immediately granted entrance.
Fury surged in Jonathan, hard and hot. He raised his clenched hands and saw that his knuckles had whitened.
He forced himself to turn and walk away from the house, hating that Langley could see her, be close to her, speak with her all afternoon… forever… and he couldn’t. Hating that, for the first time in six years, a woman had the ability to make him feel.
Excerpted from Confessions of an Improper Bride by Haymore, Jennifer Copyright © 2011 by Haymore, Jennifer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Meet the Author
As a child, Jennifer Haymore traveled the South Pacific with her family on their homebuilt sailboat. The months spent on the sometimes quiet, sometimes raging seas sparked her love of adventure and grand romance. Since then, she's earned degrees in computer science and education and held various jobs ranging from bookselling to teaching inner-city children to acting, but she's never stopped writing.
You can find Jennifer in Southern California trying to talk her husband into yet another trip to England, helping her three children with homework while brainstorming a new five-minute dinner menu, or crouched in a corner of the local bookstore writing her next novel.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Serena Donovan made a mistake six years ago that ruined her reputation and left her heartbroken. She gave her heart to Jonathan Dane and paid a very steep price. Now because of that mistake she has had to take on the identity of her dead twin sister. This is the only way she will be able to return to London and save her family from the peril they are facing. But to do what she needs to do she will have to marry a man she doesn't love. And the rest of her life is going to be one continual lie. Serena is going to have to find a way to live with that lie because if she doesn't her family will pay the price. Jonathan Dane, Earl of Stratford made the biggest mistake of his life six years ago and turned to drinking, gambling and becoming an incorrigible rake all in the aim of forgetting Serena Donovan. Now he meets Meg the very prim and proper sister of his beloved Serena only to see that Meg is the one woman he has never forgotten, Serena. Now he has the chance to win Serena again and this time he has no intention of losing her. But for him to claim Serena he will have to destroy the lies Serena has so carefully built and all the sacrifices she has made. The first thing Jonathan will have to do though is convince Serena that she can trust him this time around that he will never let her down again. That isn't going to be as easy as he would like but he knows that the only way either of them will have a chance at happiness is for him to prove himself to Serena. This story is one that will pull on the reader's heartstrings and have them turning the pages just to see if Serena and Jonathan are going to have their happy ending. This one has some very strong secondary characters that really help move the story along and draws the reader into the story and won't let go until the very last page. It also shows the power of love and how sometimes it helps to overcome the things that have gone wrong and even when you think there is no way for things to work out that with a little luck and love things do work out in the end. This is the start of a series that will have the reader eagerly awaiting the next book in the series. This one is worth picking up and reading.
In 1822 Serena Donovan fell in love with Jonathan Dane, who ruined her reputation. She left London accompanied by her twin sister Meg. Off of Antigua on the Victory, a rope accidentally pulls Meg into the water where she apparently drowns. Already feeling remorse for the shame she brought to her family, Serena suffers from survivor guilt. In 1828, Serena's mother demands she come home to pose as her dead twin sister Meg. Her mother kept in touch with Commander William Langley pretending to be Meg. He has written a proposal of marriage to Meg; her mother says Serena owes the family who is in in dire straits to masquerade as Meg for the rest of her life as Langley's wife. Jonathan has become a wastrel feeling guilty over what he did to the late Serena to cause her death at sea six years ago though he fulfilled a deathbed pledge he regretfully made to his father. When he meets Meg, Jonathan knows she is his Serena. He knows he will betray his friend Will, but must persuade his Serena to give him a second chance. To do so would ruin Serena's life and that of her family. The Donovan sisters' Regency romance is an entertaining historical due to the triangle as each of the trio has strengths and weaknesses, but none are evil. A secondary romance between Serena's sister Phoebe and a Mr. Harper enhances the insight into the 1822 relationship between the older twin and Jonathan as Serena realizes her sibling is doing what she did. With Meg not miraculously coming back from the dead (except in Serena's portrayal), fans will appreciate this enjoyable early nineteenth century second chance at love tale. Harriet Klausner
Given that I've loved Ms. Haymore's three previous historical romances with such fervor, I was surprised to find I wasn't immediately loving Confessions of an Improper Bride. Now that I've had time to reflect, I think the deception angle really affected my enjoyment. It's the main plot -- how is Serena going to marry a man she doesn't love, especially when the man she does love is her intended's best friend? -- so it's unfortunate I had issues with it. I felt that Langley would be a cuckold, and he didn't deserve such treatment because he is such a nice man. Serena and Jonathan, however, could not deny their attraction, the very reason Serena left London in disgrace six years earlier, yet their happy ending didn't leave me 100% happy. Heroines sacrificing themselves for the good of their siblings is not an uncommon trope, especially in historical romances (Seven Nights to Forever by Evangeline Collins comes to mind immediately). Something about Confessions of an Improper Bride seemed off . I could put it down with ease, which I'd never experienced with Ms. Haymore's previous work. Despite my lukewarm feelings about this novel, I am excited to pick up the next book in the series, Secrets of an Accidental Duchess (February 2012).
What would you do if your beloved twin sister was swept overboard, while you returned home in disgrace? If the only way to provide for your beloved younger sisters was to assume your lost sister's identity, and marry her fiance, even though you were actually in love with another man? Who had behaved like a complete jackhole to you, in the past, who fully disgraced you in the eyes of society, and yet... you still yearned for him? Been there, done that. (As far as yearned for a man who had been a jackhole to me in the past, AND publicly disgraced me. The being a twin part, not so much - but I wanted a twin.) So I could both relate to Serena Donovan, AND wanted to scream at her, "Run, run, and don't look back." Despite my personal feelings, this story sucked me in, and got me rooting for Serena and her flawed but hot (is there any other kind?) hero. I loved the high stakes, the emotional connection between the hero/heroine, the hot sex scenes, and the very satisfactory ending when I was sure there was NO WAY Serena and Jonathan could work it out. Now I want to read ALL the Donovan sister novels.
I read other books from this author and liked very much. I was looking forward this book sinse the earl was presented in the other book. But until pg. 220 it was too boring. After that it was better but still didn't make me want to read the others from the serie.
A bodice ripper with a new perspective. I really enjoyed it.
Couldn't relate to the characters or situation.
Serena Donovan's season ends in disgrace as the man she loved and willingly gave herself to was too much of a coward to stand up to his father and brother and marry her. Serena and her twin sister intend to return to their home in Antigua to live down the scandal. But before they reach their destination, Serena's sister falls overboard and dies. Serena's mother declares Serena, herself, died and has Serena fill in her twin sister's shoes. Seven years later, Serena heads back to London as her twin sister with an idea to marry her sister's long ago suitor, Will. Will is now best friends with Serena's ex-lover, Jonathan who recognizes her almost immediately. Serena fights off her old feelings for Jonathan, determined to remain free from scandal this time around. At the crux of the matter is her inability to forgive him for his youthful cowardice. Yet, it seems disingenuous for Serena to be so unforgiving when she is lying to everyone she knows, particularly Will, who was deeply in love with her twin sister. It was hard to get past all the lies to see the beauty in the love between Serena and Jonathan. Still, if Serena had been Serena and not her twin, this might have scored higher on my list.
Well written, enjoyed the story and characters