Some marry for love. Some marry for money. But Violet Hagen’s quick wedding to irresponsible James Branham, heir to the Earl of Ellsworth, was to avoid scandal.
Though her heart was broken when she learned James never wanted marriage or her, Violet found consolation in traveling the world, at his expense—finding adventure and enjoying an unconventional, independent life. And strenuously avoiding her husband.
But when James inherits the earldom it comes with a catch—Violet. To receive his legacy he and Violet must live together as husband and wife, convincing society that they are reconciled. It’s a preposterous notion, complicated by the fact that Violet is no longer the quiet, meek woman he married. But then he’s not the same man either.
Chasing Violet across Europe to earn her trust and prove his worth, James realizes with each passing day that a marriage begun in haste may be enjoyed at leisure. And that nothing may be as scandalous—or as perfect—as falling hopelessly in love. Especially with your wife.
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Nearly six years later ...
"Have I told you how fortunate I am to be dancing with the loveliest woman here?" Lord Westmont said in his most charming manner. A manner designed to persuade whatever lady he was speaking to that he had never said those words — or words at all like them — to any other woman.
"Why no, my lord, I don't believe you have." Violet Branham followed his lead flawlessly. Westmont was an excellent dancer but then so was she. She flashed him a knowing smile. "At least not tonight. Although you might have mentioned it last year when we danced together at this very ball. And I believe the year before that, as well."
His eyes widened in surprise. Poor Evan never would have expected a woman — a mere woman no doubt — to be so horribly honest. It was not how the game was played. But then Violet was tired of playing games by other people's rules.
A stunned moment later, he laughed. "Lady Ellsworth, you are as outspoken as ever. I don't know why I didn't notice how truly delightful you are years ago."
"Years ago, I wasn't particularly delightful. But you don't recall meeting me years ago, do you?"
The most charming look of panic crossed his face.
"Goodness, Evan, we met some nine years ago during my first season and again during my second and third seasons, as well. You simply weren't, oh, aware of me, I would say."
He frowned. "That's a dreadful accusation."
"My apologies." She widened her eyes in an innocent manner. "Was I supposed to be kind?"
"I'm beginning to suspect I don't deserve kindness," he said slowly.
"Not in that respect. It was indeed a dreadful thing to do, you know. At least it seemed so at the time." She shrugged. "Although you were not alone in your complete lack of acknowledgment of my very existence."
He winced. "My apologies, Violet. All I can say in my defense is that I was much younger, rather full of myself and somewhat stupid. Well, extremely stupid." He paused. "You may object, should you feel the need."
"Oh, no, please continue."
It was rather fun, making Evan pay, as it were, for the rudeness of his youth. There was a time when she never would have thrown his vile behavior back in his face. But she was not the same girl he had ignored all those years ago. It wasn't so much that she had blossomed as she had simply come into her own, aged like a fine wine. When she had first come out in society, she had been one of those vast numbers of girls who were not so pretty as to catch the eye of every available gentleman, but not so dull as to be considered a true wallflower. Admittedly, that changed with every passing season as her prospects for marriage grew dimmer. There was hope for Violet, her mother had often said, if only Violet would pay more attention to her appearance and at least pretend to enjoy flirtatious chatter and social occasions even if she thought such things inane. No, much to Mother's annoyance, Violet preferred her own company and the solitude to write bad poetry or read Lord Byron's works or ride alone. No wonder men like Lord Westmont tended to overlook her.
Those days were past. Years of travel abroad, meeting fascinating people and having assorted adventures had polished her. Provided her with the kind of confidence one could only acquire from living life. And she knew it. She was not the girl she used to be. Nearly six years of a separated marriage was enough to change anyone. As well as force them to grow up and discard silly thoughts of love and romance and other such nonsense.
"And I was rather shallow as well it appears." Genuine regret shone in his eyes. Perhaps she wasn't the only one who had changed. "Once again, my apologies for my thoughtless behavior. But tonight, I do think you are the loveliest, as well as most interesting, woman in the room."
"And tonight, my lord," she said, and smiled up at him, "I will believe you."
"Am I forgiven then?"
He laughed then sobered. "Why don't you come back to England more often? Allow me to make up for the past."
"I am considering it."
He gazed into her eyes and smiled. "Good."
She returned his smile but was not so foolish as to believe his words. Evan was an outrageous flirt and Violet had no intention of becoming any man's conquest.
In spite of any number of admittedly silly concerns, it was good to be back in London. It was always good to come home. Although the house in Mayfair she resided in when she was in the city was scarcely home. But as it was her husband's house, it was hers, as well. She refused to stay with her parents. Returning to the house of her girlhood would be an admission that her marriage was a dreadful failure. It was true, of course, and everyone in London knew it, but she had no desire to listen to her mother tell her exactly what she had done wrong.
Violet knew all too well that she had allowed a bit of foolish girlhood longing and a remarkable kiss to sweep aside all reason, overcoming good sense and any sort of primal instinct of self-preservation.
The music faded. She stepped out of Evan's arms, and he escorted her off the dance floor.
"In spite of your painful candor —" Evan raised her hand to his lips "— I would very much like to call on you. I would be honored if you would allow me the opportunity to make amends for my past stupidity." He grinned. "I do so like a challenge."
"You do realize I'm a married woman."
He gasped in an overly dramatic manner. She doubted if anyone in London was not aware of her sham of a marriage. How she and James had married and then gone their separate ways. It was a long time ago but society had a very long memory. "Violet, you misunderstand. I only wish to further our friendship."
"You are no more than a breath away from becoming a true cad, aren't you, Evan?"
He grinned, then caught sight of something over her shoulder and froze like a frightened bunny. And she knew. "Lord Westmont," the voice that shouldn't be at all familiar and yet was recognized somewhere in the vicinity of her soul, sounded behind her. Her heart clenched. "Ellsworth," Evan said with far more composure than she would have thought he had a moment ago.
Violet summoned the most awful sense of determination. She had anticipated this moment, planned for it ever since she had finally accepted he had absolutely no interest in her whatsoever. She turned and smiled politely, ignoring the hitch in her throat. He had always been the handsomest man in the room with his dark hair and deep blue eyes. No doubt if she'd stayed with him, he would have broken her heart. Again. The man didn't have a faithful bone in his body. "Lord Ellsworth."
His gaze bore into hers. She refused to flinch. "Lady Ellsworth." He took her hand and raised it to his lips, his gaze never faltering from hers. If she were a fanciful sort, she would have thought a hush fell over the entire ballroom, all eyes on the estranged Lord and Lady Ellsworth. Once, the very thought would have terrified her. Now, she didn't care. "Never is a very long time."
"Apparently, not long enough."
The look in his eyes was an interesting mix of caution, curiosity and challenge. But then they hadn't seen each other face-to-face in close to six years. God knew what her eyes were saying to him. "I believe this is our dance."
"Is it?" She tilted her head. He appeared exactly as she remembered. His shoulders were as broad, his gaze as endless, his hair as thick and dark and just the tiniest bit disarrayed — as if it was the last stronghold of the rebellious nature of his youth.
Oh, certainly, over the years she'd seen him on occasion from the window of her room as he was leaving the London house, scampering off to the country or wherever he went so as to avoid her during her visits home, thus keeping a promise he'd made long ago. But this was the closest they'd been to each other since the day after their wedding. On further consideration, he wasn't entirely unchanged. There were a few creases around the corners of his eyes but beyond that, something had shifted, matured perhaps. The look in his eye had once been carefree and flirtatious and brimming with ill-concealed amusement. Now it was direct, firm, compelling. His lighthearted manner six years ago was that of a young man with no particular cares or responsibilities. The air of assurance and confidence about him now was that of a man who had no doubt of his place in the world. This was no longer the happy-go-lucky young man she been forced to wed when she had just turned twenty-one and he was twenty-four. But then she was not the quiet, pale creature she'd been then, either. "Are you sure you're not mistaken?"
"Violet," Evan interrupted. "Do you need my assistance?"
What a surprisingly gallant thing to say. Perhaps she had misjudged him.
"No, Evan, but I do appreciate your offer." She smiled in polite dismissal then paused. "Although might I request a favor?"
"Anything," he said with a smile.
"Do you see the young ladies over there?" She nodded toward a group of young women sitting together, desperately trying to appear as if they were having a wonderful time and not counting the minutes until they could flee for the safety of home. "They are no doubt reserved and quiet but are probably quite interesting and very nice. Would you ask at least one of them to dance?"
"I shall do better than that," Evan said gallantly. "I shall ask my brother and a few of my friends to dance with them, as well."
She cast him a brilliant smile. "In which case you are most certainly forgiven."
Evan grinned and took his leave.
Violet turned her attention back to James, who, as of two months ago when dear Uncle Richard had passed on, was now the Earl of Ellsworth. The man who had ruined her life. Her husband.
"There are any number of things I may be mistaken about. Nonetheless, this is our dance." James leaned in and spoke softly. "People are staring."
She laughed as if he had just said something amusing. "Of course they are, James. We've never been seen together in public before. No doubt everyone is expecting we'll do something they can talk about for days. Now the question is — will we?"
"Shall we disappoint them instead?" He held out his arm. "Dance with me, Violet."
"There's nothing I'd rather do." In truth, there were any number of things she'd rather do including walking on hot coals and being thrown into a lion's den. There was little difference and little choice. She placed her hand on his arm and allowed him to escort her onto the floor.
Regardless of how often she'd practiced exactly what she'd say when this moment came she couldn't quite summon the right words. Perhaps because it was deeply unsettling to be in his arms again where she never should have been in the first place.
Six years ago, on the night his engagement was to be announced to her friend Marie Fredericks, he had kissed quiet Violet Hagen on the shadowed terrace — later claiming he'd mistaken her for Marie as they were both red-haired and wearing blue gowns. Although really one was a sky blue and the other a sea foam, and Marie's hair was more blond than red. Aside from that, Violet was decidedly taller and not as curved as Marie. His friends also admitted they had challenged him to give his fiancée a real kiss — the kind of kiss a man gives the woman he intends to marry — and had directed him to the terrace where they later swore they truly thought Marie was. There was as well far more partaking of spirits than was perhaps wise. Unfortunately, in their zeal to witness this real kiss, they tangled in the draperies covering the windows overlooking the terrace, ripping them down in the process and directing the attention of everyone in the room to the real kiss currently in progress right outside. It wasn't bad enough that he had kissed her but that she had kissed him back with a shocking amount of enthusiasm for a girl who had scarcely been kissed at all up to that point. And really did the hesitant brush of lips she'd experienced previously with two cautious young men even count as legitimate kisses? Admittedly, Violet had thought them rather thrilling until James had kissed her. She'd been shocked when he'd swept her into his arms. Then, with no more than a moment of hesitation, she had wrapped her arms around him, thinking surely he had realized Marie was the wrong match for him and Violet was so very right. When their lips met and his body pressed against hers, she'd discovered a passion she'd never imagined. It was a real kiss, or at least she had thought it was. She didn't question the why of it. Stupid, as it turned out. She had no idea he had mistaken her for Marie until he raised his head and realized what he'd done. And that was the first crack of her heart.
The second was the shock on his face and he'd uttered, "Bloody hell, it's you."
What could she do but slap him hard across his face?
Still, the damage was done. Which apparently, in the more scandal-prone minds of society, was in the intensity of the embrace — just to add yet another layer of humiliation — rather than the slap. All in all it was the Holy Grail of gossip. A man whose engagement was about to be announced found in a compromising position with the friend of the intended fiancée. Her parents had then insisted on marriage as the scandal was such her mother warned she would never make a decent match now. James's uncle Richard, the Earl of Ellsworth, had left James's decision up to him but left unsaid the questions of honor and responsibility involved. In spite of James's devil-may-care reputation, no one had ever questioned his word. Violet had protested — obviously James had no desire to marry her. It was pointed out James no longer had a choice, nor did she. James did what was expected and two days later they were married.
Through the years Violet did wonder what might have happened if she had refused to marry him. If she had stood up for herself.
She certainly did the morning after their wedding night when she learned he intended for their marriage to be little more than a pretense. When her heart had shattered. Violet had truly thought, up until that moment, there was the possibility they might make the best of this. They had been friends of a sort. If she had, in the back of her mind, wanted more, well, that was a silly thought. But she absolutely would not stay with a man who didn't want her. A week later, Violet engaged a companion — Mrs. Cleo Ryland, a delightful widow only a few years older than Violet — packed her bags and headed to Paris. James had provided her with the resources she needed to see everything she had ever read about, everything she'd ever dreamed of seeing. If he did not intend to be her husband, she intended to take full advantage of his generosity.
She had earned it.
"it's Been a long time since we danced together," James said mildly.
He had danced with Violet any number of times before their marriage as he couldn't dance exclusively with Marie. There were rules about that sort of thing. Violet and other friends and acquaintances were always with James and Marie and the couple was quite properly never alone. Marie wanted a dashing, handsome husband with a respectable title and a tidy fortune to provide her an unsullied position in society. She was not about to let so much as a hint of impropriety jeopardize that. In Marie's eyes, James was a perfect fit.
"It's been a long time since we've spoken." Violet summoned a nondescript smile.
"Pride is a cruel mistress, Violet."
"One of many mistresses, no doubt," she said lightly. Regardless of how rarely she was in London, gossip about his numerous liaisons inevitably reached her, thanks to her mother and a handful of well-meaning friends. She'd ignored them for the most part. He had his life and she had hers.
"Regardless of what you might think of me, I meant that with all due sincerity." He paused. "I am trying to admit to my past mistakes."
"And then what?"
"Then atone for them." He met her gaze directly.
She drew her brows together. "I'm not quite sure what you're trying to say, James, but I am certain the dance floor in the middle of Lady Brockwell's annual ball is not the best place to do it."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Lady Travelers Guide to Happily Ever After"
Copyright © 2019 Cheryl Griffin.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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