London, England June 1806
lis a shame, is what it is." Cornelia Thorne, Lady Brookfield, stood near the center of the ballroom. "Just look at him out there dancing
so completely bored. Him a duke and her such a mousy little thing, completely terrified of the man, I'll wager."
The Duchess of Sheffield, Miriam Saunders, raised her quizzing glass to peer at her son, Rafael, Duke of Sheffield. Miriam and her sister, Cornelia, were attending a charity ball along with Rafael and his betrothed, Lady Mary Rose Montague. The evening, a benefit for the London Widows and Orphans Society, was being held in the magnificent ballroom of the Chesterfield Hotel.
"The girl is actually quite lovely," the duchess defended, "so blond and petite, just a bit shy, is all." Unlike her son, the duke, who was tall and dark, with eyes even bluer than her own. And there was Rafe, himself, a strong, incredibly handsome man whose powerful presence seemed to overshadow the young woman he had chosen to be his future bride.
"I'll grant, she is pretty," Cornelia said, "in a rather whitewashed sort of way. Still, it seems a shame."
"Rafael is finally doing his duty. It is past time he took a wife. Perhaps they don't suit as well as I would have liked, but the girl is young and strong, and she will bear him healthy sons." And yet, as her sister had said, Miriam couldn't miss the bland, bored expression on her son's very handsome face.
"Rafael was always so dashing," Cornelia said a bit wistfully. "Do you not remember the way he was before? So full of fire, so passionate about life in those days. Now
well, he is always so restrained. I do miss the vibrant young man he used to be."
"People change, Cornelia. Rafe learned the hard way where those sorts of emotions can lead."
Cornelia grunted. "You're talking about The Scandal." Thin and gray-haired, she was older than the duchess by nearly six years. "How could anyone forget Danielle.? Now, there was a woman Rafael's equal. 'Tis a shame she turned out to be such a disappointment."
The duchess cast her sister a glance, not wanting a reminder of the terrible scandal they had suffered because of Rafe's former betrothed, Danielle Duval.
The dance ended and the couples began dispersing from the dance floor. "Hush," Miriam warned. "Rafe and Mary Rose are coming this way." The girl was nearly a foot shorter than the duke, blond, blue-eyed and fair, the perfect picture of English femininity. She was also the daughter of an earl, with a very sizable dowry. Miriam prayed her son would find at least some measure of happiness with the girl.
Rafe made a polite, formal bow. "Good evening, Mother. Aunt Cornelia."
Miriam smiled. "You're both looking quite splendid tonight." And they did. Rafe in dove-gray breeches and a navy-blue tailcoat that set off the blue of his eyes, and Mary Rose in a gown of white silk trimmed with delicate pink roses.
"Thank you, Your Grace," said the girl, with a very proper curtsy.
Miriam frowned. Was her hand trembling where it rested on the sleeve of Rafe's coat? Dear God, the child would soon be a duchess. Miriam fervently prayed she would manage to infuse a bit of backbone into her spine as the months went along.
"Would you care to dance, Mother?" Rafe asked politely.
"Later, perhaps." "Aunt Cornelia?"
But Cornelia was staring at the doorway, her mind a thousand miles away. Miriam followed her gaze, as did Rafael and his betrothed.
"Speak of the devil." Cornelia whispered beneath her breath.
Miriam's eyes widened and her heartbeat quickened, turned wildly erratic. She recognized the short, plump little woman entering the ballroom, Flora Chamberlain, Dowager Countess Wycombe. And she also knew the tall, slender, red-haired woman who was the countess's niece.
Miriam's mouth thinned into a hostile line. A few feet away, her son's expression shifted from incredulity to anger, deepening the slight cleft in his chin.
Cornelia continued to stare. "Of all the nerve!"
A muscle tightened along Rafe's jaw, but he didn't say a word.
"Who is that?" asked Mary Rose.
Rafe ignored her. His gaze remained locked on the elegant creature entering the ballroom behind her aunt. Danielle Duval had been living in the country for the past five years. After The Scandal, she had been banished, shamed into leaving the city. Since her father was dead and her mother had disowned her for what she had done, she had moved in with her aunt, Flora Duval Chamberlain. Until tonight, she had remained in the country.
The duchess couldn't imagine what Danielle was doing back in London, or what had possessed her to come to a place where she was so obviously not welcome.
"Rafael.?" Lady Mary Rose looked up at him with a worried expression. "What is it?"
Rafe's gaze never wavered. Something flashed in his intense blue eyes, something hot and wild Miriam hadn't seen there in nearly five years. Anger tightened the skin across his cheekbones. He took a steadying breath and fought to bring himself under control.
Looking down at Mary Rose, he managed a smile. "Nothing to be concerned about, sweeting. Nothing at all." He took her gloved hand and rested it once more on the sleeve of his coat. "I believe they are playing a rondele. Shall we dance?"
He led her away without waiting for an answer. Miriam imagined it would always be that wayRafe commanding, Mary Rose obeying like a good little girl.
The duchess turned back to Danielle Duval, watched her moving along behind her rotund, silver-haired aunt, head held high, ignoring the whispers, the stares, walking with the grace of the duchess she should have been.
Thank heaven the girl's true nature had come out before Rafael had married her.
Before he fell even more in love with her.
The duchess looked again at petite Mary Rose, thought of the biddable sort of wife she would make, nothing at all like Danielle Duval, and suddenly she felt grateful.
Crystal chandeliers gleamed down from the lavish, inlaid ceilings of the magnificent ballroom, casting a soft glow over the polished parquet floors. Huge vases of yellow roses and white chrysanthemums sat on pedestals along the wall. The elite of London's elite filled the room, dancing to the music of a ten-piece orchestra in pale blue livery, members of the ton attending the gala in support of the London Widows and Orphans Society.
At the edge of the dance floor, Cord Easton, Earl of Brant, and Ethan Sharpe, Marquess of Belford, stood next to their wives, Victoria and Grace, watching the couples moving around the floor.
"Do you see what I see?" Cord drawled, his gaze turning away from the dancers to the pair of women walking along the far wall of the room. "I swear my eyes must be deceiving me." Cord was a big man, powerfully built, with dark brown hair and golden brown eyes. He and Ethan were the duke's best friends.
"What are you looking at so intently?" His wife, Victoria, followed the line of his vision.
"Danielle Duval," Ethan answered, surprised. "I can't believe she has the nerve to come here." Ethan was as tall as the duke, lean and broad-shouldered, with black hair and very light blue eyes.
"Why, she's beautiful
." Grace Sharpe stared in awe at the tall, slender redhead. "No wonder Rafe fell in love with her."
"Mary Rose is beautiful, too," Victoria defended.
"Yes, of course she is. But there is something about Miss Duval.can you not see?"
"There is something about her, all right," Cord growled. "She's a treacherous little baggage with the heart of a snake and not the least bit of conscience. Half of London knows what she did to Rafe. She isn't welcome here, I can tell you."
Cord's gaze found the duke, who was concentrating on his petite blond dancing partner with an interest he had never shown in her before. "Rafe must have seen her. Damnationwhy did Danielle have to come back to London?"
"What do you think Rafe will do?" Victoria asked. "Ignore her. Rafe won't stoop to her level. He has too much self-control for that."
Danielle Duval fixed her gaze straight ahead and continued walking behind her aunt. They were headed for a spot at the back of the room, a place where Dani could remain for the most part out of sight.
From the corner of her eye, she saw a woman turn abruptly away from her, giving Danielle her back. She could hear people whispering, talking about The Scandal. Dear God, how could she have let her aunt convince her to come?
But Flora Duval Chamberlain had a way of convincing people to her will.
"This charity means everything to me, dearest," she had said. "You have been instrumental in all the good work we have accomplished and received not a single word of thanks. I refuse to go without you. Please say you will agree to your aunt's one small request."
"You know what it will be like for me, Aunt Flora. No one will speak to me. They will talk about me behind my back. I don't think I can bear to go through that again."
"You have to come out of hiding sooner or later. It has already been five years! You never did anything to deserve being treated the way you have been. It is high time you reclaimed your place in the world."
Knowing how much the ball meant to her aunt, Danielle had reluctantly agreed. Besides, Aunt Flora was right. It was time she came out of hiding and reclaimed her life. And she would only be in London for the next two weeks. After that, she was sailing for America, embarking on the new life she intended to make for herself there.
Dani had accepted a proposal of marriage from a man named Richard Clemens, whom she had met in the country, a wealthy American businessman, a widower with two young children. As Richard's wife, Danielle would have the husband and family she had long ago given up hope of ever having. With her new life on the horizon, coming to the ball at her aunt's request seemed a small-enough price to pay.
Now that she was there, however, Dani wished with all her heart that she were somewhereanywherebesides where she was.
They reached the back of the elegant ballroom and she settled herself on a small gold velvet chair against the wall behind one of the urns overflowing with flowers. A few feet away Aunt Flora, undeterred by the hostile glares being cast in their direction, made her way over to the punch bowl and returned a few minutes later with crystal cups filled to the brim with fruit punch.
"Here, dearest, drink this." She winked. "I put a splash of something in there to help you relax."
Danielle opened her mouth to say she didn't need alcoholic spirits to get through the evening, caught another hostile glare and took a big drink of the punch.
"As co-chairman of the event," her aunt explained, "I shall be expected to give a brief speech a bit later on. I shall ask for a generous donation from those in attendance, express my gratitude to all for their past support, and then we shall leave."
It couldn't happen soon enough for Dani. Though she had known what to expectthe scorn she read in people's faces; the acquaintances, once her friends, who would not even look her wayhurt even worse than she had imagined.
And then there was Rafael.
Dear God, she had prayed he wouldn't be here. Aunt Flora had assured her he would simply send a hefty donation as he had done every other year. Instead, here he was, taller, even more handsome than she remembered, exuding every ounce of his powerful presence and aristocratic bearing.
The man who had ruined her.
The man she hated more than anyone on earth.
"Oh, dear." Aunt Flora waved her painted fan in front of her round, powdered face. "Apparently I was wrong. It appears His Grace, the Duke of Sheffield, is here."
For an instant, Dani's back teeth ground together. "Yes.so it would seem." And Rafe had seen her walk in, Danielle knew. For an instant their eyes had met and held, hers as green as his were blue. She had seen the flash of anger before his gaze became shuttered, then the bland expression he had been wearing before he saw her fell back into place.
Her own temper climbed. She had never seen that look on his face before, so calm, so completely unruffled, almost serene. It made her want to hit him. To slap the smug, condescending look off his too-handsome face.
Instead, she sat in her chair against the wall, ignored by old friends, whispered about by people she didn't even know, wishing her aunt would finish her speech and they could go home.
Rafael handed his betrothed, Lady Mary Rose Montague, back into the care of her mother and father, the Earl and Countess of Throckmorton.
"Perhaps you will save another dance for me later," Rafe said to the little blonde, bowing over her hand.
"Of course, Your Grace."
He nodded, turned away.
"They will be playing a waltz a bit later," said Mary Rose. "Perhaps you would."
But Rafe was already walking away, his mind on another woman far different from the one he intended to wed.
Danielle Duval. Just the sound of her name, whispering through the back of his mind, was enough to make his temper shoot to dangerous levels. It had taken him years to learn to control his volatile nature, to bring his emotions under control. These days, he rarely shouted, rarely lost his temper. Rarely allowed his passionate nature to get out of hand. Not since Danielle.
Loving Danielle Duval had taught him a valuable lessonthe terrible cost of letting one's emotions rule one's head and heart. Love was a disease that could unman a man. It had nearly destroyed Rafael.
He glanced toward the rear of the ballroom, catching a flash of Danielle's bright hair. She was here. He could scarcely believe it. How dare she show her face after what she had done!
Determined to ignore her, Rafe went to join his friends at the edge of the dance floor. The instant he walked up, he knew the group had spotted Danielle.
He took a glass of champagne off the silver tray of a passing waiter. "So
from the astonished looks on your faces, I gather you have seen her."
Cord shook his head. "I can't believe she had the nerve to come here."
"The woman has unmitigated gall," Ethan added darkly.
Rafe flicked a glance at Grace, who studied him over the rim of her glass of champagne.
"She is quite beautiful," Grace said. "I can see why you fell in love with her."
His jaw tightened. "I fell in love with the woman because I was an idiot. Believe me, I paid the price for my folly, and I assure you it won't happen again."