Authors: Jane Feather
“Intriguing and satisfying…. The captivating romance is buttressed by rich characters and an intense kidnapping subplot, making this a fine beginning for Feather’s new series.”
“Consummate storyteller Feather entices with a mystery tinged with humor that will enchant readers who desire a sprightly story filled with marvelous characters—and just enough suspense to keep the midnight oil burning.”
More praise for Jane Feather’s extraordinary novels
“An accomplished storyteller…rare and wonderful.”
—Los Angeles Daily News
“[A] boundary-pushing page-turner…rich with details that put ‘historical’ back into historical romance, this tale seethes with breathtaking tension.”
“Delightful…fascinating and entertaining characters.”
“A devour-it-like-chocolate page-turner that takes the reader through the vivid landscapes of the time.”
A Wicked Gentleman
Almost a Lady
Almost a Bride
The Wedding Game
The Bride Hunt
The Bachelor List
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Jane Feather
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HE CRASH OF THE SURF
on the rocks far below was the only sound in the chamber in the stone house on the cliff top. The room’s occupants were each absorbed in their own silent reflection. The woman in the bed was gazing down into the face of the sleeping babe in her arms. The man stood by the open latticed window, looking out into the summer night.
A knock at the door disturbed the quiet. The man turned and looked at the woman, who gave an almost imperceptible nod. He called softly, “Enter.”
The door opened to admit a man dressed in the green uniform of a major in the elite Preobrazhensky regiment of the czarina of Russia’s palace guard. “Forgive me, Prince, but it is past time for the rendezvous.” The words were courteous, the tone almost conversational, but no one was under the illusion that this was anything other than a final demand.
“I’ll be down in five minutes,” the prince said, and waved a hand in dismissal. The major left, closing the door softly in his wake.
The woman in the bed looked up to meet her companion’s steady gaze. Tears glittered in her eyes, accentuating their blue brilliance, but her voice was firm. “Go, then,” she said quietly. “Take him now.”
“If there was another way…” The words trailed off as he shook his head helplessly. “You could still come with me, Sophia. We could be married…”
She shook her head in response. “You know that’s not possible, Alexis. The empress would never forgive you. Your career would be in ruins, your family’s honor destroyed.” A smile softened her set expression for a fleeting instant. “You forget, my love, how well I know you. I know you could not live forever in exile, it would break you.”
“With you I could,” he said simply.
She tried to smile again, but it was effortful and did nothing to hide the pain and grief in her eyes, or lessen the deep purple shadows beneath them. “The empress will embrace your son, where she would not embrace either your wife or your mistress.” She looked down at the child again. “Catherine does not hold illegitimacy against children, she takes the greatest care of her own, does she not?”
“True enough,” Alexis agreed somberly. “Her son is brought up at court, given every advantage. Catherine has a certain fondness for children.”
“And she will be fond of your child, because he is
child,” she said. She touched the baby’s cheek with a lingering fingertip, tracing the soft curve of his jaw. Her voice was thick with unshed tears as she said, “Alexis, this little one must have a future. The best possible future. If he stayed with me, the stigma of illegitimacy would deny him that future. He would grow up in obscurity, with an outcast mother.”
She looked up at him and met his gaze this time with an almost ferocious stare. “I have nothing to give him. You have a noble name, a position of power in your society. You can give him education, opportunities, everything that I can’t.”
“I would go into exile with you, Sophia,” he repeated. “Together, we could make a life.”
She shook her head and a hint of iron entered her voice. “You would condemn our child to a life in the frozen wastes of Siberia at Catherine’s whim. You know she would never forgive you…or me. And our child would suffer.”
She shook her head again, more vigorously than ever. “I cannot give our son the opportunities you can give him. And I will not sacrifice you and him for an ephemeral ideal of romantic happiness.”
A smile touched his mouth. “Ah, Sophia, you are a woman made of steel. Catherine would appreciate that in you.”
“I doubt that,” Sophia stated with a touch of derision. “She would see me as a rival for her bed, no more, no less. And while you might with tact and skill avoid being her bedfellow again, she would banish you rather than see you in the arms of another woman. You know how jealous she is of her erstwhile lovers. They must still dance attendance on her, even if she doesn’t want them in her bed any longer.”
Alexis inclined his head in acknowledgment of this truth. They had been over and over it for so many months now and they both knew there was no escape from the inevitable. “Well, then…” He took a step towards the bed.
Sophia lifted the child and kissed his brow, then closed her eyes on her tears as she held him out. “Take him and go.
He hesitated. “My love…”
“For God’s sake, Alexis, have pity.
” There was no concealing the agony in her voice.
He took the child from her, cradling him close, as he bent and kissed Sophia’s lips. They were cold and unresponsive, so unlike the warm, deeply passionate woman he loved that he felt his own tears prick behind his eyes. But to linger now would merely prolong the pain. He turned on his heel and left, closing the door behind him.
She lay listening to the sound of his steps receding on the stairs. And when she could no longer hear him, then and only then did she allow the tears to flow, as she cursed the woman in her grand palace in St. Petersburg whose thoughtless power had destroyed all possibility of happiness for a woman of whose identity she was probably unaware, and whose existence she considered merely a nuisance, as irritating as a mosquito and as easily dealt with.
ACEY TAPPED HER CLOSED
fan into the palm of her hand, trying to conceal her impatience as the orchestra struck up the beginning strains of the cotillion that as always made her toes twitch. Her dance card was full, but her designated partner for this dance was conspicuous by his absence, and the music was going to waste.
She was vaguely aware of the interested glances from a group of elderly chaperones gathered in a circle at the far side of the ballroom and she knew she was the subject of their chatter. They must have heard the story of her indecorous jaunt to the masked route at Vauxhall the other evening. Ordinarily she was the soul of discretion, obeying the constraints of this etiquette-ridden society, but just once in a while the urge to throw off the traces took her by storm. An excursion to Vauxhall in the company of a group of young bloods, dressed as one of them, had seemed irresistible at the time, but the thrill had palled soon enough and she was left with the irksome consequences.
Of course, if Aurelia had been in Cavendish Square instead of visiting Nell and Harry in Scotland, Livia reflected in hindsight, she would never have indulged such a ridiculous scheme for an instant. But loneliness and boredom had overcome her customary common sense. However, she told herself firmly, it would be a nine-day wonder. The gossips would soon find something else to amuse them, and she would conduct herself with impeccable correctness from now on.
She looked across the ballroom where couples were forming for the elaborate dance. If Bellingham didn’t claim her soon, the sets would all be formed and there’d be no place for them. And the cotillion was her favorite dance.
“Lady Livia, you’re not dancing. May I present Prince Prokov as a partner.”
Livia turned her head and looked in surprise at her hostess, the duchess of Clarington, who now stood beside her with a slender, fair-haired gentleman.
The gentleman bowed. “Would you do me the honor, Lady Livia.” He extended his hand. He had a slight accent that she found attractive and as exotic as the massive ruby carbuncle in his signet ring. A gentleman of means, it would seem, and there was something about the lean physicality of his frame that promised a competent dance partner.
Livia consigned Bellingham to the devil. He was a dreary partner at best, always watching his steps and expatiating on the origins and social significance of the dance. He would never have been her preferred choice for the cotillion, but unfortunately he’d been the first to mark her card, so short of refusing to dance altogether, she’d had no option but to resign herself to half an hour in his somewhat tedious company. However, if he couldn’t do her the courtesy of presenting himself for the dance in a timely fashion, then he had only himself to blame if she accepted another offer.
She smiled and took the proffered hand as she rose to her feet. “I’d be delighted, sir.”
His fingers closed over hers as he led her to the floor and she was aware of a certain frisson in a warm, dry clasp that felt strangely authoritative. He guided her to her place in the set and bowed with a little flourish that made her smile. She responded with the requisite curtsy as the dance began.
He was a very good dancer. As good as herself, she reflected without false modesty. She knew herself to be graceful and light on her feet and her present partner certainly matched her in the complex steps of the set piece. Conversation was not the point of this particular dance, and he seemed content to exchange complicit smiles as they came together and parted according to the stately rituals of the dance. When it was over, they exchanged salutations once more and he offered his arm to lead her off the floor.
“I enjoyed that, thank you,” she said as he led her towards a window embrasure where the light summer curtains were drawn back to let a cool breath of air into the overheated ballroom. “You’re a good dancer, Prince…Prokov, is that right?”
“Absolutely correct, Lady Livia,” he returned with another little bow. “Alexander Prokov, at your service.” He held the curtains aside so she could step onto the narrow railed balcony that looked down over the rear garden of the mansion. “May I procure you a glass of lemonade…or champagne, perhaps?”
“Champagne, I think,” Livia said definitely. There was a tingle in the air, rather like champagne bubbles, she caught herself thinking, and instantly castigated herself for such a romantic fancy. It must have something to do with the huge harvest moon hanging over the garden.
“Yes, it’s an evening for champagne,” he agreed with a solemnity belied by the gleam in his eyes, which were an astonishingly deep blue. “Wait here.”
Livia watched him move through the crowded ballroom; a hand on a shoulder here, a soft word there, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea for Moses. Where on earth had he sprung from, this Prince Prokov? London had been bare of company all summer and only now, towards the middle of September, were people beginning to trickle back, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising she hadn’t met him before.
She watched his return, two glasses in hand, the same deft progress through the throng, and then he was beside her, handing her a glass.
“A toast,” he said, raising his glass. “To new friends.”
Livia touched his glass with her own and drank the toast, eyebrows raised a trifle at such an unambiguous statement. “So, we’re to be friends, are we?” she said, her tone a little dry.
He looked at her, his eyes narrowed. “Is there a reason why we shouldn’t be? I see none.”
Livia shrugged and delivered what she hoped was enough of a snub to puncture a confidence that now struck her as arrogant. “I don’t choose my friends lightly, sir. I like to take my time before making up my mind about something so important.” She regarded him through slightly narrowed eyes and he returned the look with a quizzical air that discomposed her somewhat. Her snub appeared not to have hit its mark.
After a minute she turned away from him to look back into the ballroom. “I don’t understand what could have happened to Lord Bellingham. He was supposed to partner me in the cotillion.”
“Ah, Bellingham, so that was his name,” her companion murmured, nodding his head thoughtfully. “I’m afraid I didn’t know it when we met a little while ago.”
Livia spun around in surprise. “You met him…where?”
“Oh, forgive me. I should have mentioned it earlier. I’m afraid Lord Bellingham met with a little accident, which prevented him from claiming your hand in the dance,” he returned.
Livia stared at him. “A little accident?”
“Yes, he…uh…he fell into the fountain,” the prince informed her with a sorrowful shake of his head. “Most unfortunate.” He gestured towards the spouting water in the middle of the garden below.
Livia began to feel as if her hold on reality was slipping. She was convinced the man was laughing, although his expression remained grave, but he could do nothing to hide the deep-seated gleam of amusement in his eyes. “I think you had better explain,” she said, trying to inject a little frigidity into her voice but aware that she was failing miserably. The image of the stout and pompous Bellingham falling into the fountain was too absurd.
The prince waved one hand in an all-encompassing gesture. “There’s nothing really to explain, ma’am. The unfortunate gentleman just happened to topple into the basin.” He shook his head. “Most unfortunate for him. I daresay he’s had to return home for dry clothes and was thus unable to keep his appointment with you.”
Livia looked at him in startled and dawning comprehension. “Uh…you wouldn’t perhaps have had anything to do with this accident, Prince?”
“Oh, very little,” he assured her, taking a sip from his glass.
Livia’s voice trembled with laughter as she said, “Exactly
little would that be?”
He shrugged. “Just a touch to the shoulder, a mere brush, I assure you. Unfortunately it appeared to be sufficient to throw the gentleman off balance. I’ve noticed that some people are less well balanced than others. Perhaps you’ve noticed the same thing?” He raised an arched eyebrow as he looked at her over the lip of his glass.
“Just why would you push Lord Bellingham into the fountain, Prince Prokov?” Livia demanded, trying to control her mirth. It would be too unkind to laugh at the unfortunate Bellingham, a man for whom dignity was more important than anything.
“Well, he was in my way,” her companion explained, as if it were the most natural and logical way of removing obstacles in his path. “And the fountain was there, and he was standing beside it…indeed, I believe he had one foot on the rim of the basin. It seemed an obvious thing to do.”
“How could he possibly have been in your way if he was standing by the fountain? It’s a good five feet from the path,” Livia demanded, feeling once again the reins of reality slipping from her grasp. It was the most ludicrous conversation.
“Ah, no, you misunderstand. He wasn’t in my way to anywhere, he was in the way of my desire to dance with you. I requested most politely that he yield his place on your card but he saw fit to give me a lecture on the dire impropriety of altering the order of the dance. He had rather a lot to say on the subject, and most of it struck me as somewhat irrelevant…I have never cared to be lectured.” He smiled benignly as if all must now be explained to her satisfaction.
“You wanted to dance with me?” Livia was incredulous. It was flattering, or would be if the compliment weren’t coming from someone who had clearly lost his mind.
“Yes,” he said. “I have been watching you all evening, and I wished for an introduction.”
“And you couldn’t simply have asked our hostess for one? You had to push someone into a fountain instead?”
“Well, it seemed to kill two birds with one stone,” he said, sounding apologetic. “I wanted an introduction, but I also wished to dance with you, and it seemed the only way to do that would be to remove one of your prospective partners. And since I particularly enjoy the cotillion, that seemed the obvious choice. Besides,” he added, “I didn’t consider this Bellingham to be much of a dancer when I saw him in the country dances. You were much better off with me. And he was most inconveniently intransigent about a perfectly civil request, you understand.”
Livia didn’t know whether to give way to the gales of hilarity threatening to overcome her, or deliver an icy snub for his impossible arrogance and stalk off. The problem was that he spoke only the truth. And while she knew she should feel sorry for Lord Bellingham, she’d often enough been tempted to douse his pomposity herself with a jug of very cold water.
She laughed, and he stood leaning against the railing, watching her and smiling until she had herself in hand again. He took her fan from her slack grasp and flipped it open, fanning her until the flush on her cheeks had faded somewhat and she’d dabbed at her eyes with a flimsy lace handkerchief.
“Oh, dear,” she said. “That’s so unkind of me to laugh…poor Bellingham.” She shook her head as if to dispel the last threads of amusement and looked at him. “I have to tell you, Prince Prokov, that that’s a very un-English way of handling an inconvenience.”
“But of course I’m not English,” he pointed out, giving her back her fan. “The Slav temperament tends to the impulsive. We choose the quickest and most efficacious solution to our…our inconveniences.”
She looked at him more closely now, noticing the high, broad cheekbones, the long, thin nose, the finely drawn mouth, and the luxuriant head of wheat-colored hair brushed back from a broad, intelligent forehead. It was a refined face dominated by those amazing blue eyes.
And there was that slight, attractive accent. Slav? Strangely, she’d always thought of dark complexions and black hair in such a context. But there were exceptions and she made a guess. “Are you Russian…or perhaps Polish?”
“Mostly Russian,” he told her. He took her glass and set it on the balcony rail. “Shall we dance again?”
“I’m afraid I can’t,” Livia said, glancing at her dance card, suspended from her wrist on a silken ribbon. “Unless you think you could arrange for the next six gentlemen on my card to have a contretemps with the fountain.”
“Whom should it be next?” he asked promptly, and she went into another peal of laughter. But she turned from him and resolutely went back into the ballroom, where her next partner was looking rather disconsolately around the floor.
Alexander Prokov remained on the balcony gazing down into the garden, a fairy-tale garden on such a beautiful late summer evening, lit by pitch torches and myriad little lamps suspended from the trees. He had no interest in dancing with anyone else tonight.
Livia found it difficult to pay attention to her partner and was glad that her feet at least performed the steps without too much mental guidance.
“So, I was thinking that Gretna Green would be best…we could elope the day after tomorrow. How would that be, Livia?”
Her gaze focused abruptly and she blinked at her partner, Lord David Foster. “What, David? Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”
“Gretna Green,” he said gravely. “I was suggesting we elope the day after tomorrow and drive straight to Gretna Green.”
She stared at him.
“You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said for the last twenty minutes, Liv,” he declared. “I’m beginning to feel like a wooden doll with moveable feet.”
“Oh, David, I’m sorry.” She was instantly remorseful. “I admit it, I was miles away. But I’m listening now. Do you really want to go to Gretna Green? This is all very sudden…but I’ve always wanted to elope, climb down from my chamber on a rope made out of sheets. And you could wait in an unmarked carriage in the alley…”
“Enough,” he said, laughing with her. “Not that I wouldn’t marry you in a heartbeat if you’d have me.”
“That’s very gallant of you, David, but you couldn’t possibly afford to marry me. I don’t have nearly enough of a fortune,” she said with blithe candor.
“Alas, I fear you’re right,” he said, sighing. “I shall just have to live with a yearning heart.”