London, 1828. In the eyes of society, famous actress Catherine Jones is the virginal Angel of London. Her spotless reputation is essential if she’s ever to get her son back from his overbearing grandparents. But her secret desire for the dashing Lord Valbourg could threaten to destroy everything she’s worked so hard for. . . .
The moment he hears Catherine sing, Valbourg is intoxicated. As guardian for his newly orphaned nephew, a dalliance with an actress is out of the question. With so much at risk, can these two burdened hearts find happiness in each other’s arms?
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The Gryphon Theatre, LondonSummer 1828
The single rose arrived precisely on schedule, exactly one half-hour after Catherine Jones took her bows and walked off the stage at the Gryphon Theatre.
The rose, cut at the peak of perfection and tied with a white satin bow, was brought to her dressing room by the same young man who appeared after every performance; an envoy sent to deliver the long-stemmed tribute on behalf of an admirer who preferred to remain anonymous.
'Curious, don't you think, Lily,' Catherine mused to her dresser, 'that after all this time, the gentleman still refuses to identify himself.'
'Downright queer, if you ask me, miss,' Lily said bluntly. 'The other men who send you gifts all want you to know who they are in the hopes you'll offer them the appropriate thanks. Why not this one?'
'I don't know.' Catherine drew the velvety pink petals across her lips. 'Perhaps he is married and does not wish his wife to know he has been showering roses on another woman for the better part of five months. I know I wouldn't.'
'I'm not sure rich men care about that sort of thing, miss,' Lily said. 'And he must be rich, given what he's spent on all those flowers. Lord, what if he's a duke or one of those handsome Arabian sheiks!'
Amused that the girl would think one as significant as the other, Catherine smiled. 'It can be of no consequence to me what he is. A dear friend once told me I can encourage neither prince nor pauper, no matter how rich one or poor the other. And she was right.'
'But why? You're not married or engaged, so why shouldn't you enjoy the company of gentlemen the same as everyone else?'
'Because I have responsibilities and obligations others do not,' Catherine said quietly, preferring not to think about the meeting she was to have in two weeks' time with the man who had taken control of her life five years ago. A man who might have been her father-in-law had a terrible accident not happened to prevent it. 'Never mind that. What's this I hear about you and Mr Hawkins walking out together? Is it true?'
The question, introduced as a way of diverting Lily's attention, launched the girl into a blushing recital of the young man's attributes, allowing Catherinewho wasn't expected to answerto close her eyes and let the sound of the girl's voice drift around her. She didn't mind that Lily enjoyed the occasional night out. The girl had a good head on her shoulders and knew better than to let any man take advantage of her. Still, it was difficult at times not to feel a little envious of her dresser's amorous adventures.
What wouldn't she have given, Catherine mused, to be able to flirt with a gentleman without fear of reprisal? To have the freedom to spend an evening in his company and not have to worry about who might be watching. To indulge in a few hours of harmless pleasure for a change.
But such choices were no longer hers to make. The errors of her past dictated the path of her future, and the price for straying from that path was too high. She had already sacrificed more than any woman should have to.
'I mended the tear in your rose-coloured silk,' Lily said now. 'And I added a new piece of lace around the neckline. But I don't know why you would want to wear that gown tonight when your turquoise satin is far more fashionable.'
'Yes, but it is also a great deal more revealing and, given that I shall be performing in front of the Marquess of Al-derbury's entire family, I think it best I appear in something a little more conservative,' Catherine said. Plunging necklines and diaphanous gowns were all very well for her performances on stage, but for private concerts like the one she was giving tonight, she preferred a more modest appearance. One never knew who might be watching.
She glanced at her rose again and stroked the petals with a lingering caress. Who was he, this mystery man who bestowed such exquisite flowers yet refused to show his face? Someone who had no desire to reveal his identityor someone who dared not?
'Are you sure you're up to singing at Lady Mary's reception tonight, miss?' Lily asked. 'You've already been on stage the best part of four hours, and Mr Templeton's scheduled an early rehearsal for the morning. You should be home resting.'
'I will have plenty of time to rest when I get back from my trip,' Catherine said, slipping the rose into the vase with the others. 'Besides, I have only been asked to sing six songs. Hardly an arduous task.'
'I might agree if you hadn't performed twice that many in the last four hours,' Lily said, pinning the last of Catherine's golden curls into place. 'Still, I suppose you know best. Is it to be the pearls or the rubies tonight?'
'The pearls, I think. They look better with the gown.'
'Either work nicely.' Lily unlocked the jewellery box. 'Both make you look like a lady.'
Yes, Catherine reflected, just as jewels and costumes had made her look the part of a siren, a goddess, a street waif and a witch. All roles cast by the charismatic theatre owner, Theodore Templeton, and for which she had achieved a level of fame unimaginable five years ago, when she had left Miss Marsh's house in Cheltenham with few hopes and even less money. Now she had the wherewithal to afford a house in a decent part of town, the staff to maintain it and the clothes necessary to play the part. She might not be as well known as the illustrious Mrs Sid-dons, but many favourable comparisons had been made in terms of their acting abilities.
But it was her voice that had catapulted Catherine to the forefront of the industry, her incredible four-octave range making her one of the most talked-about performers of the day. She had even been invited to sing before one of the royal dukes on his birthday.
Sometimes it was hard to remember she had been born the only daughter of a governess and a schoolmaster, so far had she risen from those humble beginnings.
'Here's your shawl, miss,' Lily said, draping a lightweight silk wrap around Catherine's shoulders. 'I'll just get my things and we can be off.'
'We?' Catherine glanced at her dresser in confusion. 'It isn't your job to accompany me to private engagements, Lily.'
'I know, but you had to send poor Mrs Rankin home early, and I know she doesn't approve of you going out on your own,' Lily said, referring to the widow who had been Catherine's companion since her arrival in London. 'So I thought I would go myself.'
'But you told me you were seeing Mr Hawkins this evening.'
'I was, until Mrs Rankin fell ill. Then I told him I wasn't available.'
'Well, go and find him and tell him you are available,' Catherine said, slipping the strap of her fan over her wrist. 'I doubt he will have left the theatre yet. He's likely still helping Mr Templeton take the sets down.'
'But what if that man Stubbs sees you gallivanting around Mayfair without a chaperon?' Lily persisted. 'Mrs Rankin told me he makes notes of everything you do and everyone you see.'
'I will hardly be gallivanting and so I shall tell Mr Stubbs if and when I see him,' Catherine said, surprised the normally tight-lipped Mrs Rankin had been so forthcoming with information. 'Lord Alderbury is sending a private carriage to collect me, and at the end of the evening, I shall take a hackney home. Now go and find your young man.'
Lily did not look convinced. 'I don't think Mrs Rankin is going to be very pleased about this, miss.'
'Don't worry, Lily, everything will be fine. I shall go to Lord Alderbury's house, sing for his guests and then leave,' Catherine said confidently. 'You'll see. There won't be any trouble at all.'
'Are you going to read me a story tonight, Uncle Val?' the little boy asked. 'I'm really not very sleepy.'
'You never are, even when you don't have a fever,' Val-bourg said, stowing the last of his nephew's toys in the large wooden box. 'I would be quite worn out if I did all you do in a day.'
'Is that because you're old?'
'I beg your pardon?' Valbourg straightened. 'Who told you I was old?'
'Aunt Dorothy. Right before she told Grandfather it was time you were married.' Sebastian gazed up at his uncle with wide, trusting eyes. 'Are you getting married, Uncle Val?'
'I wasn't planning on it, no.'
'It would be all right if you did. I mean, as long as you didn't send me away.'
'Send you away? Why on earth would I do that?' Val-bourg asked, sitting down on the edge of Sebastian's bed. 'This is your home now and has been for the past two years.'
'I know, but Aunt Dorothy said the lady you marry might not want me to stay here any more,' the boy whispered, his flushed face evidence of the fever that had only recently broken. 'She said she might prefer to have her own children around her rather than someone else's.'
Anger swelled like a balloon in Valbourg's chest. Damn Dorothy! Why couldn't she mind her own business? She should have known better than to say something so hurtful in front of an impressionable young boy. 'I am not going to send you away, and you mustn't listen to anything Aunt Dorothy says. I shall marry when I am good and ready and not a moment before. So let's have no more talk about you leaving, understood?'
'Understood,' Sebastian said, relief chasing the shadows from his eyes. 'I'm not getting married either. I think girls are silly,' he proclaimed with all the certainty of a six-year-old. 'Don't you?'
'They certainly can be.'
'Uncle Hugh doesn't think so. He said I'll come to like girls very much when I am his age, because he started liking them very much when he was mine.'
Valbourg sighed, wondering if there was any member of his family he wasn't going to have a word with. 'I think we'll leave that discussion for another time. Your aunt Mary's betrothal ball is this evening and she won't be pleased if I am late.' He tucked Brynley Bear, Sebastian's loyal companion, into the bed next to him. 'Nanny Lamb will be in to read you a story, all right?'
'Yes, all right,' Sebastian said, though Valbourg could tell from the expression on the boy's face that his thoughts were still distracted. 'Don't you want to get married, Uncle Val?'
'I suppose, when the right lady comes along. But for now, it's just going to be you, me and Brynley Bear rattling around in this big old house. And here's Nanny Lamb to read you a story.' Valbourg leaned forward and kissed his nephew on the forehead. 'Sleep well and I'll see you in the morning.'
'I'm glad you don't want me to leave. I do miss Mama and Papa, but I'm happy I came to live here with you rather than with Aunt Dorothy,' Sebastian confided. 'She looks a lot older than you and, sometimes, she smells funny.'
Valbourg's mouth twitched. 'Yes, she does, but it isn't polite to tell ladies things like that, so we'd best keep that to ourselves, all right?'
'If you say so. Goodnight, Uncle Val.'
Valbourg ruffled the boy's dark curls and then vacated his seat on the bed. He regretted not being able to stay and read Sebastian a story. Reading to his nephew had become one of the highlights of his day. The childishly innocent stories took him back to his own untroubled youth, and the quiet time he spent with Sebastian was a reminder of what really mattered in life. It was only when he had an important engagement like this evening's that he let Nanny Lamb take over.
It might seem a surprisingly domestic arrangement for the Marquess of Alderbury's eldest son and heir, but Valbourg had no complaints. Having Sebastian living with him was the best thing that could have happened to himeven if it had come about as the result of the most unfortunate circumstances and a promise rashly given to his youngest sister six years ago.
A promise he never thought he'd be called upon to fulfil.
'Ah, good evening, my lord,' Finholm said as Valbourg arrived at the bottom of the stairs. 'Is Master Sebastian feeling better?'
'I believe so, though Dr Tennison said he would stop by again in the morning,' Valbourg said. 'If you need me, just send word to Alderbury House.'
'I'm sure everything will be fine,' the butler said. 'Master Sebastian is a plucky little lad. I doubt there will be any cause for concern.'
'I hope not, Finholm. Goodnight.'
With the butler's reassurances ringing in his ears, Valbourg set off for his sister's engagement celebration, content in the knowledge that he was leaving Sebastian in good hands. It was amazing how completely the responsibility for raising a child changed his priorities. Before his nephew had come to live with him, Valbourg had lived a life as irresponsible as most; gambling too often, drinking too much and amusing himself with a string of beautiful young mistresses. He had given no thought to his future because he'd had no reason to expect it would be any different from his past.
He certainly hadn't expected Fate to walk in and turn his life upside down. Who could have foreseen that his youngest sister and her husbandboth only twenty years oldwould be struck down by illness, forcing Valbourg into the role of guardian to their four-year-old son? Who could have known that with Sarah's death, the sybaritic lifestyle he'd led would come to an abrupt end? That the room he had used as a study would be converted to a nursery, or that Nanny Lamb would be coaxed out of retirement and that overnight, the heir to a marquessate and one of London's most eligible bachelors would become a sober and responsible family man. Certainly not him.
But, in fact, that was precisely what had happened, and in the two years since Sebastian's arrival, Valbourg had become a model of sobriety and restraint. A paragon with no vices and few regrets.
Except oneand he would be seeing her tonight. Miss Catherine Jones. The Angel of London. The one temptation he had triedand so far succeeded inresisting.