Read an Excerpt
London, July 1816
“I, Adrian Philip George Stuart Fitzhugh, take thee, Jeannette Rose, to be my wedded wife . . .”
Violet knew she was going to faint, or else be sick, right here at the altar in front of Adrian and the Archbishop. In front of everyone, nearly the entirety of the Haut Ton, assembled in St. Paul’s Cathedral to witness what was being hailed as the wedding of the year.
One thousand people lined the aisles. Two thousand eyes locked in rapt fascination upon Jeannette Brantford, this Season’s Incomparable—and last year’s as well—as she exchanged vows with Adrian Winter, Sixth Duke of Raeburn, England’s most eligible bachelor.
Trouble was, the bride wasn’t Jeannette Rose Brantford.
The bride was Jeannette’s identical twin sister, Jannette Violet Brantford, or Violet, as her family called her. And right now she thought perhaps she had gone a little insane.
She fixed her eyes upon her blue silk slippers, studied the intricate designs wrought upon the marble floors beneath the elegant shoes. Light swam around her in a brilliant mist. A few tiny motes of dust winking in the mix of candlelight and natural sunshine that cascaded through colorful stained-glass windows in intense shades of blues and greens.
The scents from the great bowers of blush roses and creamy white gardenias arranged for the ceremony curled inside her nostrils, their overly sweet fragrance only adding to her discomfort. She swallowed, her throat dry as sand. A trickle of nervous perspiration slid between her shoulder blades, making her long to wiggle her shoulders against the damp.
She should be a bridesmaid, she thought in dizzying panic. She should be waiting off to the side by now with the other attendants. Instead she was standing here next to Adrian in front of a pair of massive Baroque columns with their swirled bands of dark marble and mellow gold, the cathedral’s great dome rising more than three hundred feet above her. Paintings of the life of St. Paul stared down at her from the ceiling, scornfully disapproving her every move, she imagined.
She willed herself to be calm.
How could she possibly be calm when she was perpetrating the most appalling deception of her life? She kept expecting someone to notice who she really was, to stretch out an accusing finger and shout, “Fraud!”
But as her twin had accurately predicted, people saw exactly what they expected to see. Certainly her parents and the servants had earlier, accepting her as Jeannette when she’d presented herself in her sister’s elegant wedding gown, a lustrous confection of ice blue silk with elbow-length half sleeves and an overskirt of snowy white organza, hundreds of seed pearls arranged in the shape of rose blossoms and trailing leaves sewn into the scoop-necked bodice. No one had questioned her identity, not even when she’d sent her sister’s dresser into a tizzy by needing to have her hair arranged for a “second” time that morning, the servant forced to painstakingly rethread pearls and tiny sparkling sapphires into her upswept coiffure.
Oh, merciful God, Violet fretted for the hundredth time, how had she gotten herself into such a fix? Everything had been so blessedly normal when she’d awakened this morning. As normal as a wedding day could be, that is, the entire household thrown into a flurry of anxious activity. In hindsight, she would have been a lot more anxious herself had she realized it was to be her wedding day and not her sister’s. She wished now she’d skipped the breakfast of eggs and kippers she’d eaten. The meal wasn’t sitting too pleasantly in her stomach.
Oh, what an idiot she was. She’d never get away with it.
Her hand trembled inside the duke’s, his clasp strong and masculine, so very warm against her own icy skin. Since walking up the aisle, she’d given him little more than a cursory upward glance, too nervous to dare look at him fully. She couldn’t help but be aware of him as he towered beside her. Dark and beautiful, powerful, utterly resplendent in his formal wedding attire.
Did he know? she wondered. Did he suspect? Oh, Lord, what if he did? Would he denounce her right there in full view of the entire Ton? Or would he wait until they could be in private and demand the marriage be annulled forthwith? Either way, how would she ever be able to explain?
What could a woman say when her very identity was a lie?
Whatever had possessed her this morning? How could she have allowed Jeannette to talk her into such an appalling ruse? Isn’t that why she had vowed years ago never to trade places again with her elder twin? Because it always led to trouble—for Violet!
Why, oh why, had she let herself be lured down such a treacherous path?
Was it because Jeannette had decided to renege on her promise to marry her rich, handsome, influential bridegroom barely two hours before the ceremony? An action sure to create a scandal so disastrous her family might never recover from the humiliation and shame of it.
Was it because Adrian had settled twenty thousand pounds upon Jeannette for the marriage—money their family had spent like water drained from a well to pay off their father’s and wastrel younger brother, Darrin’s, prodigious debts?
Or was it because she loved Adrian Winter? Had loved him since the moment she first laid eyes upon him at her come-out ball two Seasons before. Had continued to love him, aching and unrequited, even after he offered marriage to her sister. Even though he’d unknowingly captured her heart and left her to bleed.
“Ahem . . . my lady,” the Archbishop whispered, “it is your turn.”
“What? Oh, beg pardon. Y-yes, of course,” she replied softly, cringing to realize she had been caught woolgathering.
She glanced upward, caught a glimmer of curious puzzlement in Adrian’s gaze and immediately looked away.
The Archbishop recited the words for her to speak. “I, Jeannette Rose, take thee, Adrian Philip George Stuart Fitzhugh, to be my wedded husband.”
“I, Jannette Vi . . . umm.” She cleared her throat and coughed. What was wrong with her? If she didn’t take herself in hand she would give the whole thing away without any need for thought from anyone else. Try again, she thought frantically, concentrate. She drew a deep breath. “I, Jeannette Rose, take thee, Adrian Philip George . . .” Her mind went suddenly blank. Oh, heavens, what was the rest of it?
“Stuart Fitzhugh,” the Archbishop prompted gently.
“. . . Stuart Fitzhugh, to be my wedded husband . . .”
The Archbishop recited the next line.
She listened intently, repeating the words when it was her turn. “. . . to have and to hold from this day for- ward . . . for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer . . .”
She raised her eyes again, met the steady regard in Adrian’s rich, sable brown gaze.
“. . . in sickness and in health . . .”
She felt some of her nerves melt away, knowing she meant each word.
“. . . to love, cherish and obey, till death us do part . . .”
She did love him. Promised to cherish him all the days of her life. As for the obey part . . . well, she rather feared she might already have violated that one, but she’d try her best to make amends in the future.
“. . . according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.”
The Archbishop spoke again. This time to Adrian, who lifted her left hand and slid a slender gold band in place next to the immense emerald and diamond ring Jeannette had thrust onto her finger a little over an hour before. Her ring now.
“With this Ring I thee wed . . .” Adrian intoned, his honeyed voice deep, solemn. “. . . with my Body I thee worship and with all my worldly Goods I thee endow: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
“Let us pray.” The Archbishop lifted his prayer book in readiness.
Legs shaking, Violet knelt beside the man who was now nearly her husband. Bowing her head, she closed her eyes and said her own prayer, asking God to forgive her. She was weak and human but she loved this man at her side more than he could possibly imagine or would probably ever know. How could the falsehood she committed be so very great a sin when her heart adored with such steadfast devotion and truth?
It seemed to her God answered her silent entreaty when He allowed the Archbishop to conclude the ceremony unchecked. “Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.”
Adrian assisted her to her feet, keeping her right hand tucked within his own. A shiver raced through her as he curved an arm around her waist and drew her nearer.
“Your Grace,” the Archbishop smiled, “you may kiss your bride.”
Violet couldn’t read the expression on Adrian’s chiseled, saturnine features as he bent close, closer.
She had been kissed one time before, a stolen peck in the shade of an apple tree by one of her Brantford cousins when she was twelve. At the time she found the idea of the kiss far more exciting than the actual event, she had to confess.
Adrian’s lips touched hers. Warm and smooth, hard yet tender. And proved to her she had never really been kissed before at all. A rushing hum filled her ears, blood thrumming like racing rivers in her veins as the world melted away; guests, the Archbishop, everyone. Instinctively she parted her lips to let him take more. And for a brief instant he did, intensifying the kiss in a way that stole the air from her lungs, blanked every thought from her brain.
Then suddenly it was over. He straightened and tucked her arm in the crook of his own to lead her back down the aisle.
“Smile, my dear,” Adrian said for her ears only. “You look pale as death. Although that kiss seems to have put a touch of color back in your cheeks.”
At his mention of the kiss, her blush deepened. Because he had asked, she planted a beatific smile upon her lips and beamed at the blurry mass of guests as they walked past. Look happy, she told herself. Look like Jeannette. She playacted and did her best to keep from shivering.
She kept pace as they retraced their steps down the long quire, past additional rows of smiling guests seated in the carved dark oak pews, before stepping into a crowd of well-wishers gathered in the cathedral’s wide, domed transept.
Adrian kept her close at his side. She clung gratefully to his supporting arm and did her best to smile and chat instead of withdrawing into shy silence the way she longed to do.
Thankfully they were soon interrupted. One of the Archbishop’s assistants appeared, drawing her and Adrian aside after a few murmured words to the duke. Words she wasn’t able to overhear. Violet said nothing as the man led them into the quiet privacy of a nearby chamber, turning to inform them with grave politeness that the Archbishop would wait upon them directly.
Then he closed the door, leaving her and Adrian alone.