A riotous passion and a forbidden love jeopardize the future of the Emperors of London . . .
Ravishingly beautiful and accomplished, Helena has her pick of suitable bachelors—and because she is the only daughter of a powerful duke, her mother is determined she makes a good marriage. But Helena won't marry any of them, because she is in love with the son of her family’s most dangerous enemy. Though she has now been rebuffed by her beloved, she is resolved to win him back—no matter the cost.
Tom’s forbidden love for Helena has only intensified over the years of their separation. But the discovery of his true roots has changed everything. His secret spells danger for his family and everyone he loves. Devoted to Helena, he will sacrifice anything—even his one great love—to keep her safe. And soon, caught between warring factions and hounded by a deadly assassin, the couple will be swept back together in a fight for their lives, and their destiny…
“Lynne Connolly writes Georgian romances with a deft touch. Her characters amuse, entertain and reach into your heart.”
“Plots, deviousness and passion galore…a truly enjoyable read.”
—Fresh Fiction on Temptation Has Green Eyes
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An Emperors of London Novel
By Lynne Connolly
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Lynne Connolly
All rights reserved.
The maid stood back to admire her handiwork. "There, my lady. You look perfect."
Helena stared doubtfully at the stranger in the mirror. "Thank you. You are dismissed. I wish for a few moments to compose myself."
The maid bobbed a curtsey and backed away. An angry yowl made her shriek, and then she bent to pick up the cat. "This creature should not be here. I'll take him back down to the kitchens."
Tabby had been sitting before the fire, minding his own business, before Sharman had tripped over him.
"No, leave him. I like him here."
The maid sniffed and dropped the animal like a hot coal. "Does her grace know you have a cat up here?"
Helena shrugged, trying not to show her fondness for the cat. If she did that, her mother would be sure to use him. She used everything to manipulate everyone around her. Nothing was safe, not even a scraggy cat. "He sleeps here sometimes. I don't mind. Yes, of course she knows."
The maid turned around and left the room, leaving Helena to face the horror she had wrought. She could not go out like this.
At least she'd had a say in the selection of her gown. The lavender-and-silver scheme pleased her, and the triple lace ruffles at her elbows were the finest she'd ever owned, but the jewelry was too heavy for a young woman and far too old-fashioned for her taste.
The rest was just ... not her. Her mother had insisted Helena use her personal maid, and Sharman had turned her into someone different. Her face was painted white with a red dot on each cheek, and her lips tinted a bright scarlet. Her eyebrows had gone, covered with that white paint so she had a look of perpetual surprise. The stuff was smooth, not unlike plaster applied with a trowel. To protest to the maid would have sent the woman running back to her mother, who would have ordered the change, so she'd allowed it, praying for a moment when she could rectify the damage.
It had to go.
Crossing to the washstand, Helena draped a towel over her shoulders and tucked it into her bodice to protect her gown before she leaned over the bowl of tepid water. The can of fresh water by the stand was only half full, but it would have to suffice. She might be better scraping the muck off her face. It was so thick.
What the maid had done took Helena ten minutes to scrub off. Although she used fine white soap, her face was stinging when she finished the job. Then she could see herself again. Her face was rather pink, but that should wear off, and it was better than corpse white. Crossing to the dressing table, she picked up her usual pot of rouge and applied a small amount to her cheeks and lips. She could not appear at a ball without any paint. Even she knew that.
The jewelry went next. The heavy priceless sapphire necklace came first and then the matching bracelet and all but one of the brooches. They fell on her dressing table, dead weights that tumbled with a heavy clunk.
She replaced the necklace with her string of pearls, the ones inherited from her grandmother. They weren't family treasures, but they meant more to Helena. In a way, her beloved grandmother would be with her tonight.
Her nerves settled as she changed her clothes. While the maid had been arraying her in all her glory, Helena had watched the transformation in the mirror, her misgivings growing with every change and her stomach tightening with each stroke of the brush and each piece of extra jewelry. That piece was for the more mature woman, maybe even her brother Julius's wife, Caroline, whose flamboyant beauty could cope with such magnificence. But if Helena was beautiful, something she doubted every time she went out of doors, it was the quieter kind of beauty.
After her formal presentation, she'd fallen ill of a malady that had lingered long enough for her to miss her second season. That was last year, since she had been nearly eighteen on her first presentation. So this, her first London ball in two years, was little short of her debut into society. She had looked forward to it for a long time.
But she had never imagined doing it dressed like an actress and decked out in gaudy, outdated jewels.
She clasped a slim gold bracelet around her wrist. She was ready. She could do nothing about her hair, but at least the powdered style suited her pale skin. She'd seen creamy-skinned misses who looked positively ill. She would never criticize them again if they went through the same process she had just suffered.
She turned and faced the cat, who had gone back to snoozing in front of the fire. "Does that look better?"
The cat licked a paw and settled down again.
Helena grinned. "Oh, you're no use." Gazing at her newly recognizable features in the mirror, she made herself a promise. "I swear I will never allow my mother's maid to attend me again."
When she turned around, she nearly overbalanced herself with the unexpected width of her skirts. She strode from the room, picking up her fan on the way out.
Downstairs, her mother looked at her as if she were a specimen in a cabinet. "Did Sharman do that?"
So her mother had asked her maid to make Helena look like a Covent Garden doxy.
Helena swished her skirts, catching the hoops when they threatened to go too far. "Yes." She didn't even cross her fingers.
Julius stood with her father, smiling at her. "You look beautiful. Shall we go? Caro will meet us there."
Typical that Julius's wife was not here. Also typical that Julius outshone Helena in splendor, and would have done even with her previous appearance. Julius was not afraid of standing out in a crowd. He'd explained to her once, "As the heir to one of the greatest dukedoms in the country, people will stare at me. So why should I not give them something to stare at?"
He even smelled wonderful. He wore pink tonight, but never had a man appeared more utterly masculine than Julius, Lord Winterton. His stance, the hint of muscle under the satin sleeve, and the breadth of his shoulders all spoke to his gender. Perhaps that was why he flirted with the pretty and exquisite clothes he preferred. Or maybe it was because of the way their mother glared at him when he appeared.
They were here, in London, for the birth of Julius's child, the grandson of the Duke of Kirkburton and the heir to the estate, after Julius. A great event.
As they left the brightly lit hall and stepped into the soft September night, Julius drew her back and leaned closer. "Grandmother would be proud," he murmured. "You look lovely. I was so afraid mother would turn you into a doll."
"She tried. I scrubbed it off."
Their mother turned around at Julius's shout of laughter, but she said nothing, merely allowed the footman to help her into the vehicle.
The duchess did not declare herself satisfied until the ladies were settled, which took some time. The current fashion for wide skirts made arranging two ladies in a carriage more difficult than it should have been. Although she addressed her mother as "Mama," Helena never thought of her that way. In her mind, the diminutive but formidable woman sitting opposite her was always "the duchess." Her two older brothers always called her "madam" or "mother." Her younger sister, currently sulking in the country, recovering from a bout of influenza, was the only person to call the duchess "Mama" in any fond way.
While aware of her mother's voice, Helena did not listen to her mother's diatribe. Helena had become inured to her mother's lectures. Even as a child, she could enter her own world and shut off unpleasant things.
They passed a house with lights blazing outside and in, but it was not the one they were visiting tonight. London being thin of company meant only two or three dinners and gatherings every evening, not half a dozen or more. People waited to go in through the front door, and several beggars and other unsavory characters lurked in darker doorways or held out their hands for succor.
"Someone should do something about those poor people," she murmured, barely aware she spoke aloud.
"Some people are doing their best," Julius said.
That included him. If Helena had control of her own money, no doubt she would help, too, but she was a female, and although she was worth a great deal, she could touch none of her fortune. Julius had promised he would do what he could, but he had his hands full with Caroline. Pregnant, Caroline was even more volatile than usual.
The carriage jolted around a corner and entered Hanover Square, lined with the elegant houses that had sprung up over the last fifty years and made the West End fashionable. Although elegant, the houses were already marked by the ever-present smoke, the creamy stone stained and streaked with soot. Helena had not visited London often enough to become accustomed to the sight yet, but she knew from bitter experience that coming into contact with the smuts left stains almost impossible to get out. Powdery and hellishly greasy, they only got worse the more a person scrubbed at the stain.
She would take care not to brush against the wall when she left the carriage and went into the house.
The carriage drew up, the jolt enough to make Helena grab the strap. The leather pressed against her hand, and she gave it a final squeeze before she released it.
Julius helped her down himself instead of allowing a footman to perform the task and waited until the servant had assisted their parents to alight. The duchess gave a sharp nod and took her papa's arm.
He winked at Helena. "You look lovely," he said.
The duchess shot him a quelling glower, an expression she excelled at, but he took no notice. He intervened whenever necessary but for the most part preferred to ignore family disputes. He merely took himself to another place.
Helena took a deep breath.
"Ready?" Julius said.
When she nodded, they went in.
Inside, elegantly dressed people glanced at them. Some smiled, some bowed, but they were all intent on divesting their cloaks and hats.
Helena flicked her ruffles, but a glance in one of the mirrors in the hall told her the short journey had not caused any great depredations.
Her mother drew her aside to a space by the window by dint of grabbing Helena's elbow and pinching hard. "Tell me, Helena, why did Sharman deliberately disobey my orders? Where is the sapphire set?"
Helena avoided meeting her mother's glare by gazing at her ruffles. "They did not become the gown."
"And the face paint? You are positively naked, my girl." The duchess had not worn the white and red, but she was wearing more face paint than Helena.
"I disliked it."
"It is not your place to dislike." The duchess's voice chilled Helena's heart. Trouble would come from her small rebellion. Maybe the duchess would prevent her from attending London for the season next year. That would be too hard, and oh, Helena had been looking forward to the visit!
She would put up with any number of her mother's diatribes. And she would marry the first half-decent man who came her way and showed an interest in her. Plenty would appear because of who she was, but she still held the dream of finding a man who would want her. Or at least someone who would respect her, even like her.
People were listening, moving closer, but her mother did not seem to care.
"You are a disobedient girl, and I am tempted to turn around and take you home. The next time I send Sharman to you, pray do as you should and let her guide you."
Helena stuck to the promise she'd made to herself. "She made me look unnatural. People would have laughed at me."
"Do not cause a scene!"
If anyone was doing that, it was her mother. "Of course not, madam." From experience Helena knew that seeming obedience would calm her autocratic parent best. Then she would do as she chose anyway. Her mother liked to pick on something and make it symbolic of the conflict between them, causing trouble and giving herself another needle to taunt Helena with.
Although she tried not to let it concern her, of course the barbs stung. Helena received more opprobrium than her brothers and sister. For some reason, her mother had chosen her as the recipient of most of her attacks. Perhaps because Julius and Augustus had passed out of her reach, living their own lives in their own way. Gemina — or Lucinda, as she preferred to call herself — was their mother's pet.
Fire sparked and spread as anger flushed the unhappiness out of her. She needed to get away before she did something disastrous like rip out at her mother. The people watching her very public dressing down would no doubt be delighted with the fuss and would discuss her behavior with the glee reserved for someone enjoying someone else's discomfiture.
No. She would not allow her mother to ruin her evening.
Without listening to what her mother was saying, Helena spun around and strode away, her hooped skirt bouncing around her instead of gliding as it should. She did not care. She would not stay to make a fool of herself or appear as the subservient daughter who would not answer to a nagging parent.
Helena used the confusion engendered by the arrival of a bunch of people as cover for her flight. Keeping her head down, she ran up the stairs. She needed a place to cool down before she faced the people in the main rooms.
The guests headed to the set of double doors at the top of the landing, which were flung wide, lights blazing. Without hesitation, Helena headed the other way, narrowly missing cannoning into a man who uttered a curse rarely heard in a polite drawing room.
Helena did not give a toss of her head for that. Not pausing in her headlong flight, she continued until she reached the end of the corridor. Doors led to her right and her left. The right-hand doors would take her to the rooms open for tonight. She took the left and dragged the door closed behind her.
Before the door hit the frame, someone else caught it and came in.
Helena sighed and turned. "I would advise you to leave me alone —"
She stopped abruptly. Before her stood the man. Just The Man. Words failed her. He was tall, with liquid dark eyes. Not many had the felicity of seeing their dream standing before them, but Helena had that experience now.
All emotion leached away from her except one, and she didn't have a precise name for it or would not dare speak it.
"It's you," he said.
Helena licked her dry lips. "Yes, it's me."
* * *
Tom walked into Lady Compton's house, determined to escape his family's problems for an hour or two.
At first his father had shown understandable reluctance to let him go, but as Tom pointed out, if he were seen in a place enjoying himself, suspicion would be so much the less. Since they had been engaged in less than legal activity, his words had done the trick. And the Emperors would be there.
Tom saw no harm in irritating them a little. After all, they had annoyed him more than somewhat ever since he could remember. An old personal grudge had turned into a political dispute and now had become a full-fledged feud, akin to the vendettas in Renaissance Italy. Probably not as deadly, though. Tom possessed no rings that contained secret compartments for poison. Tonight, especially, he needed to get away from the disaster that threatened his family. If they caught his father this time, that would be the end.
He took his time walking up the red-carpeted marble stairs, pausing to speak briefly to people he knew and receiving smiles and nods in return. The stairs were not the best place to kiss hands, but he managed it with a widow he'd had his eye on for some time. Going to a bedroom in another house would be a bonus tonight.
Then a lady in lavender piled into his side, almost knocking the wind out of him. Murmuring an apology to her, Tom quickened his pace, for something had appealed to him about the woman who had rushed past. All he'd seen of her was her white powdered hair and gown, but he caught the scent of violets and lavender, with a hint of something else he couldn't identify and he wanted to know what exactly it was. And what had caused such agitation in the woman.
At the top of the stairs, he caught sight of a flick of lavender silk as she turned into a room he was sure wasn't open for the ball. He followed her. The night had just become interesting.
Before she could close the door behind her, he caught the edge. Ignoring the sting of catching a door slammed with some force, he turned to face her.
Her shoulders lifted as she sighed. "I would advise you to leave me alone —"
His mind reeled. He knew her. How he did he had no idea, but here she was. "It's you," he said.
She licked her dry lips. "Yes, it's me."
She took the weight of the door from him. "Please," she said. "Go."
As if there were any chance of that happening.
Excerpted from Wild Lavender by Lynne Connolly. Copyright © 2016 Lynne Connolly. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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