An inconvenient engagement turns a marriage of convenience into so much more in this sparkling new series from award-winning author Sara Portman . . .
Lady Emmaline Shaw’s reputation was irreparably damaged when her fiancé, John Brantwood, disappeared immediately after their engagement four years ago. Since then, she’s grown from a shy, uncertain girl to a woman who knows her own mind. And what she knows is that London society holds nothing for her.
Rumor has it that John ran off to war and died in battle. Now, as the new Duke of Worley, his shocking resurrection throws the ton into a tizzy and makes him one of England’s most sought after bachelors—except that he’s already engaged.
John needs a wife capable of smoothing his beloved sister’s introduction into society. But though Emma
happily grants him his freedom, her fiery beauty and resilient spirit hold him captive. In fact, John has no intention of letting her go. Her fate is now in his hands, but will her heart be safe there as well?
“Smart, sharp, and insightful . . . a must-read.”
—RT Book Reviews, 4.5 stars, TOP PICK
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Resurrections can be dreadfully disconcerting.
London society had weathered all manner of scandals and while each new transgression never failed to result in heads bent in hushed whispers and even the occasional matronly gasp, few incidents inspired waves of true shock among the ton. It appeared, however, that a duke's return from the dead was among these few scenarios able to truly discompose the titled elite.
With frustratingly little information available in the four weeks since the miraculous return of the Duke of Worley, rumors abounded regarding his whereabouts for the four years of his absence. Theories existed of such variety and outlandish improbability, it was impossible to determine which, if any, might hold a thread of truth.
Discussion of the duke's mysterious return dominated all society events, second only, of course, to conjecture on his marital state and physical appearance.
"I have heard he is only half a man," whispered Lady Grantham at one such event, "and had to be carried into his ancestral home because his legs were severed."
"That cannot be," insisted Lady Wolfe. "I have heard he is quite well, but has shamed his family by marrying an American actress and living abroad with her these past four years."
"You are both incorrect, I'm afraid," interjected their hostess, the Duchess of Fairhaven. "My son informed me just this morning that Worley has been gravely ill and is still now recovering. He hopes to be well enough before the end of the season to assume his responsibilities. My son attended Eton with him, you'll remember."
The other ladies nodded, neither one inclined to contradict the duchess, who outranked them by a significant margin. All three women understood without clarification that Worley's assumption of his responsibilities referred to the necessity to choose a bride. With four years wasted and his father now deceased, it was imperative he begin a family and continue the line.
This was likely of particular interest to Lady Wolfe, whose daughter, Georgiana, was currently enjoying her second season in London, much to her mother's dismay and her father's expense.
It was not of particular interest, however, to Lady Emmaline Shaw. She'd had the unfortunate luck to step out onto the terrace for a spot of privacy and fresh air mere moments before the gaggle of clucking matrons proceeded to congregate just inside the only set of French doors that would allow her to return to the ballroom. She didn't want to hear another word about the elusive Duke of Worley, amazingly returned from the dead after four years missing. She cursed the unfortunate timing that placed her in London on the occasion of his reappearance. She was only in the city for one month out of the year, and only then to appease her aunt. Couldn't the man have selected any of the other eleven months for his triumphant return, when she would be safely ensconced at her cottage? She rubbed her bare arms against the evening breeze and prayed for the gossiping ladies to move their conversation elsewhere. She considered simply excusing herself and walking through.
"You realize, of course," Lady Wolfe whispered conspiratorially, "what a tangle this creates for the unfortunate Lady Emmaline Shaw."
Emma stepped deeper into the shadow and tossed out the idea of charging through their conversation.
"I would hardly call the girl unfortunate," the duchess said sharply. "Her conduct over the past four years is the reason for her present lack of prospects. She's been naught but a burden to her aunt and uncle."
From the terrace, Emma's brow lifted.
"Not that I'll harbor any pity for that woman either," the duchess added. "To my mind, Lady Ridgley has failed in her responsibility by allowing her niece to behave as she has."
Emma pressed herself against the cold stone wall and fumed at the voices filtering out to her. She would accept their judgment as a predictable consequence of her choices, but she was incensed at their attack on her aunt, who had been a pillar of love and support after the death of her parents. These women had no intimate knowledge of Emma or her beloved aunt. They were certainly not in any position to pass judgment.
"One cannot question her decision to withdraw from society, really, for that first season," Lady Grantham ventured. "Grief can be so damaging, after all."
Well, thank you. Emma resolved to extend her kindness to Lady Grantham when next they met.
"It is only during the following three seasons, by my estimation," Lady Grantham continued, "that her behavior became truly insupportable."
Emma's fists clenched. Humph. Insupportable, indeed. It was not as though she'd spent the past three years gadding about society, engaging in flirtations and clandestine rendezvous. She'd simply chosen not to parade herself through an endless stream of social events to shop for a husband.
She'd done that once. And frankly, the experience left her with little desire to repeat it.
Emma mentally retracted her vow to make a friendly overture to Lady Grantham.
"Either way, the betrothal will have to be dealt with," the duchess concluded.
Lady Wolfe gasped. "You don't believe ... they would still consider themselves ... engaged?" The excitement of that delicious tidbit added a hint of tremor to her voice.
No! Stifling a gasp of her own, Emma reached a hand out and gripped the stone balustrade for support. It wasn't possible, was it?
"There's no question of him actually marrying the girl. Not now, anyway. But she'll have to be dealt with in some manner." The duchess sniffed importantly. "I expect she'll be difficult."
Well. That was just unfair. Emma stood in the shadowed corner of the terrace and glared in the direction of the unseen duchess. The Duchess of Fairhaven couldn't have any idea whether Emma would prove cooperative or difficult in regard to the issue of her prior betrothal.
How could the duchess know if Emma didn't know? Biting her lip, she cursed herself for not recognizing the complication on her own. Naively, she'd never even thought of it. Certainly, if anything ended a betrothal as neatly as a death, it was a presumed death, wasn't it? Of course they were not still engaged. It violated common sense. Why, she could very easily have been married to someone else. It had been four years, after all.
Admittedly, she'd been uncooperative that first season. She was only seventeen, and being forced to spend the summer attending parties in London rather than back home riding her horse had seemed more punishment than privilege. She'd never expected her father to take it upon himself to select a husband for her after only one season — particularly not one who so openly disliked her.
Then he disappeared. Presumed dead, they were told — killed in battle — when no one had even known he'd run off to the war. He was only Viscount Brantwood at that time, but his father's ill health was common knowledge. The shock at his running off to fight when the responsibilities of the dukedom loomed was eclipsed only by the shock of his death. All society mourned with the Duke of Worley who'd lost his wife and young daughter years before and had now lost his only son to the war.
Emma became infamous among the ton as the subject of the most notorious and dramatic rejection in recent memory, yet she was still expected to mourn the loss of her betrothed. In place of grief, she had felt ... relief. The relief was accompanied by a horrendous guilt. She had dreaded marrying him, but she would never have wished for his death.
Then, in the year that followed, she'd lost her parents and her life had completely changed. Emma herself had changed over the past four years, but the girl she had been and the woman she had become had one important trait in common.
Neither one wanted to marry the Duke of Worley.
"Of course she'll be difficult," the duchess continued mercilessly. "She's no prospects, I'm sure."
"I believe there is someone actually." Lady Grantham's voice rose with the honor of holding information the duchess had not yet learned. "I have heard she is being courted by a widower — a Mr. Greystoke, I believe."
"Ah, yes, Mr. Greystoke," came Lady Wolfe's contribution. Emma would have wagered her dress that Lady Wolfe had never heard Mr. Greystoke's name before that very moment.
"So you can see my point," the duchess said, her tone ripe with disdain. "Her only suitor is an aging nobody. She will humiliate herself clinging to the chance to become a duchess."
"Will she refuse to break the engagement?" Lady Grantham asked.
"Of course," the duchess answered. "He cannot break the engagement. He is entirely reliant upon her to do the decent thing."
"He can't possibly consider her a desirable match."
Emma wasn't sure which of the ladies had spoken last, but the words spread relief through her body. Of course the matter of the betrothal contract would not be a problem. Wanting to thank the viper-tongued duchess and her cohorts, she realized her choice to shun society and become a veritable pariah over the past four years would be her salvation. The duke would seek her out and demand an immediate release from the contract, which she would grant.
Emma was no longer disturbed by the comments filtering to her through the open terrace doors. The very social unacceptability that fed their gossip would ensure her freedom. Determined to contribute to it, she stepped out of the shadow. Reaching up to smooth her twist of chestnut hair, Emma straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and charged into the room — straight through the gossiping matrons without nod or recognition to any of them.
The initial silence she inspired was quickly replaced with a chorus of gasps, disapproving clucks, and even one "Oh, my," as she walked away. Her back to the ladies, she felt her lips turn upward.
It was deliciously freeing, that short walk. It was unforgivably rude, which had been exactly the point. She'd failed to acknowledge any of the ladies, regardless of rank, and it was quite clear she'd been in a position to overhear their conversation. Such blatant disregard for propriety was out of character for Emma and she enjoyed it.
Exhilarated by the minor rebellion, she scanned the sea of faces and feathers to locate her aunt. She would discuss the issue with Aunt Agatha. Disgrace, indeed. Aunt Agatha had the kindest heart of anyone Emma had ever known. Her aunt's opinion on this matter would be reasonable and her advice judicious. She would certainly know the best way to handle the dissolution of the engagement. Perhaps a well-drafted letter would suffice.
"Oh, Emma," Aunt Agatha said as Emma approached. "You've saved me coming to find you. We were just discussing you, dear." Her tone was carefully calm, but Emma observed the way one of her hands anxiously gripped the fingers of her other.
"Oh, not you too." Had everyone abandoned reasonable thinking? Emma brought her hand to her brow and wondered if the growing ache in her head was real or simply the result of her great desire for an excuse to remove herself from this event and this city.
"What do you mean, dear?"
"Please tell me you were not discussing my surely long-expired betrothal to the duke."
Aunt Agatha's pale eyes shifted to meet those of the other ladies.
Emma sighed. They were discussing it.
"I worried this might happen." Aunt Agatha's lips formed a grim line as she regarded her niece.
Lady Hawthorne stepped forward. "Memories can be inconveniently long among our society, I'm afraid."
Emma looked into the caring eyes of a woman who had been her mother's friend as well as her aunt's. Her kind regard was mirrored in Lady Blythe's expression, and Lady Markwood's. If these women had been discussing her, she trusted it was not for the sake of heartless gossip. It was rooted in genuine concern.
"But it has been four years. I ... I could have married in that time. He could have married in that time."
Agatha laid her gloved hands gently over Emma's. "But you didn't, dear. I'm afraid you are betrothed regardless of your feelings or the duke's."
Emma straightened her shoulders. "Then it will have to be dealt with as soon as possible. We will have to sever the arrangement by mutual agreement. I'm certain he will find me as unacceptable as I find him."
Again, the ladies exchanged glances. This time Emma could not guess their thoughts.
Aunt Agatha spoke softly. "Are you entirely sure you will find him unacceptable?"
"Aunt Agatha!" Emma lurched back from her aunt as though she could distance herself from the very suggestion. She could not fathom marriage to such a hateful, arrogant man. She remembered every cutting word as he'd stared at her with disgust, asking if she was even out of the schoolroom, demanding to know if she was old enough to speak, and accusing her of being old enough to know she wanted to be a duchess. Having just learned of the betrothal, she'd been mute with shock and betrayal. That day and many days since, she'd regretted not gathering her wits to give the answer he deserved.
Her outburst drew looks from people nearby and she lowered her voice. "I am certain. Four years ago, he found the prospect of marriage to me so abhorrent he fled the country, completely disregarding the shame to both families. You could not love me so little that you would want me to marry such a man."
A pained look crossed her aunt's delicate features and Emma felt a stab of guilt at the harshness of her words. Aunt Agatha was simply concerned for her future, but she was not without alternatives. She'd given serious consideration of late to the suit of Mr. Greystoke. He was a widower at least fifteen years her senior, but he was kind and seemed to share her preference for the peace of life outside London. Even if she never married, she had the cottage she'd inherited — the only unentailed portion of her father's estate. The house was little more than a hunting box and her existence would probably be considered genteel poverty by most in attendance here, but the cottage held a special place in her heart.
"Perhaps you shouldn't be too hasty to sever your arrangement, at least until you've had a chance to become reacquainted with the duke," suggested Lady Blythe, a fair-haired, petite woman who managed to assert a good deal of authority when she so chose.
"Reacquainted? I was never acquainted with him in the first place." Emma exhaled slowly and reminded herself of the ladies' good intentions. "Please, I know you are only concerned for my happiness," she began, but she was interrupted by ... Silence.
The music stopped, but that phenomenon alone would not have been sufficient to give her pause. No, the entire ballroom stopped. The crowded room was startlingly silent, conversations and dances utterly frozen. It was as though the candlelight stopped twinkling and the potted ferns stopped growing.
She followed their eyes and released a small gasp before she could prevent it.
He strode into the room with nothing more than a sweeping glance for its occupants and still the silence reigned.
Emma watched with the others. He was there — all in one piece, looking every bit the duke.
John Brantwood, Seventh Duke of Worley, walked directly into the crush at the Fairhaven ball and scanned the room, pointedly ignoring how the entire populace stared at him as though he were about to give a speech. He had some notion he'd become the favored subject of gossip, but the lack of subtlety unnerved him. He would be more comfortable once the gawking stares reverted to surreptitious glances made over shoulders and peeks from over top of lemonade glasses. Four years away now seemed like twenty. His life in Boston had been a modest one and it felt deuced awkward to be strolling into the ballroom as though he were the duke. Christ. He was the duke. And his damned valet had him tied up so tight in his clothes, he thought he might start pulling at his cravat and fidgeting like a child in church.
He didn't, of course. Nothing that occurred in his time away could undo the years of training and experience that preceded it. He adopted the bored mien expected for his position and sauntered into the room because he belonged there — even though he didn't quite feel that he did.
Excerpted from "The Reunion"
Copyright © 2017 Sara Portman.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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