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Harlequin Historicals

Release Date: August 2013

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Prologue—London, 1810

The most spectacular marriage in London...

Jane Fitzwalter, the Countess of Ramsay, almost laughed aloud as she read those words.  They looked so solid in their black, smudged newsprint, right their in the gossipy pages of the Gazette for everyone to see.  If it was written there, so many people thought, it had to be true.

Once she had even believed in it herself, for a brief moment.  But not now.  Now the words were hollow and false, mocking her and all her silly dreams.

The beautiful Ramsays, so young, so wealthy, so fashionable.  They had a grand London house where they held grand balls, great crushes with invitations fervently sought by every member of the ton.  A grand country house where they held grand shooting parties, and the laughter and merriment went on until dawn.  Lady Ramsay's hats and gowns, stored in their own grand wardrobe room, were emulated by all the ladies who aspired to fashion in London. 

And everyone knew the tale of their marriage.  How the young Lord Ramsay glimpsed the even younger Miss Jane Bancroft across the crowded salon full of tall, waving plumes at her Court presentation and strode past the whole gawking gathering to demand an introduction.  How they danced together at two private balls and once at Almacks and went driving once in Hyde Park, and Lord Ramsay insisted she marry him.  Her guardian wasn't sure, having doubts about the couple's youth and short acquaintance, but they threatened to elope and the next thing Society knew they were attending a grand, glittering wedding at St. George's. 

Grand, grand, grand.  The life of the beautiful Ramsays was the envy of everyone. 

But Lady Ramsay, now slightly less young and much less naďve, would gladly sell all that grandness for a farthing.  She would give it all away to go back to that sunny day in Hyde Park, her shoulder pressed close to Hayden's as they sat together in his curricle and laughed.  As they held hands secretly under the cover of her parasol.  On that day the world seemed to stretch before her in glorious, golden promise.  That day seemed to promise everything she had dreamed of—love, security, a place to belong, someone who needed her. 

If only they could start again there and move forward in a whole different way.  But sadly that was impossible.  Life would simply go on again as it had done already, because they were the Ramsays and that was the way of their world. 

But she was heartily sick of this world of theirs.  She had expected that Hayden's title would give them security in the world, a security she never had with her own family, but she had been naďve.  She hadn't realized how a title took over everything else, became everything.  That a title gathered empty friends, empty marriages. 

Jane let the paper fall to the floor beside her bed and she slid back down amid the heaps of pillows.  It was surely very late at night by now.  Her maid had tried to close the satin draperies at the windows, but Jane wouldn't let her.  She liked seeing the darkness outside, it felt safe and comforting, like a thick blanket wrapped around her.  The moon, a silvery sliver sliding toward the horizon, blinked at her. 

Out there beyond her quiet chamber there were balls still twirling on with music and dancing and wine, laughter and conversation.  Once she would have been in the very midst of one of those balls, laughing and dancing with the rest or gaily losing in the card room.  Now the thought of it made her feel faintly ill. 

She rolled onto her side to face the crackling blaze in the marble fireplace, and her gaze fell on the bottle of laudanum the doctor left for her.  It would take away all the memories, draw her off to a dream-land, but she didn't want that either.  She had to think now, to face the truth no matter how painful it was. 

She pressed her hand to her stomach, perfectly flat again beneath her linen nightdress.  The tiny bump that had been growing there, filling her with such joy, was gone.  It had been gone for days now, vanished as if it had never been.  Lost in a flurry of agonizing spasms—and Hayden was not with her.  Again.  When she lost their child, the third child she lost so early, he was off gambling somewhere.  And drinking, of course.  Always drinking.  Now there was only that hollow ache to remind her.  She had failed in her duty.  Again. 

She couldn't go on like this any longer.  She was cracking under the pressure of their grand lie.  She had thought she was getting a new family with Hayden, yet she felt lonelier than she ever had before. 

Suddenly she heard a sound from downstairs, a crash and a muffled voice.  It was explosively loud in the silent house, for she had sent the servants to bed hours ago.  Hayden wasn't expected back until dawn. 

But it seemed he had come home early.  Jane carefully climbed out of her bed and reached for a shawl to wrap around her shoulders.  She slowly made her way out to the staircase landing and peered down to the hall below. 

Hayden sat sprawled on the lower steps, the light of the lamp the butler had left on the pier table flickering over him.  He had knocked over the umbrella stand, and parasols and walking sticks lay scattered over the black and white tiles of the floor. 

Hayden studied them with a strangely sad look on his handsome face.  The pattern of shadows and light carved his starkly elegant features into something mysterious, and for a moment he almost looked like the man she had married with such hope.  Could it be possible he was as weary of this frantic life as she was?  That they could somehow start again?  Despite her cold disillusionment, she still dared to hope.  Still dared to be foolish. 

Jane took a step down the stairs, and at the creak of the wooden tread Hayden looked up at her.  For an instant she saw the stark look on his face, but then he grinned and the brief moment of reflection and hope was gone. 

He pushed back a lock of his tousled black hair and held out his hand to her.  The signet ring on his finger gleamed and she saw the brandy stain on his sleeve.  “Jane!  My beautiful wife waits to greet me, how amazing.” 

As Jane moved slowly down the stairs, she could smell the sweet-acrid scent of the brandy hovering around him like a cloud.  “I couldn't sleep,” she said.  She hadn't been able to sleep for days and days. 

“You should have come with me to the Westin rout, then,” he said.  “It was quite the crush.” 

Jane gently smoothed back his hair and cupped her palm over his cheek.  The faint roughness of his evening whiskers tickled her skin, and the sky-blue of his eyes glowed in the shadows. 

How very handsome he was, her husband.  How her heart ached just to look at him.  Once he had been everything she ever wanted. 

“So I see,” she said. 

“Everyone asked about you there,” he answered.  He turned his head to press a quick, careless kiss into her palm.  “You're missed by our friends.” 

“Friends?” she murmured doubtfully.  She barely knew the Westins, or anyone who had been there tonight.  And they did not know her, not really.  She always felt shy and uncomfortable at grand balls, another way she failed at being a countess.  “I don't feel like parties yet.” 

“Well, I hope you will very soon.  The Season is still young and we have a brace of invitations to respond to.”  He kissed her hand again, but Jane had the distinct sense he didn't even feel her, see her.  “I hate it when you're ill, darling.” 

Feeling a tiny spark of hope, Jane caught his hands in hers and said, “Maybe we need a little holiday, a few weeks in the country with just us.  I'm sure I would feel better in the fresh air.  We could take my sister Emma from school to come see us.  It's been so long since I was with Emma.” 

As she thought about it she grew more excited.  Yes, she was sure a holiday would be a wonderful thing.  A time in the country at Barton Park, just the three of them, no parties, no brandy.  She and Hayden could talk again, as they used to, and be together—maybe make a new baby.  Try one more time, despite her fears.  They could leave the grand Ramsays behind, and just be Hayden and Jane.  That was what she had once hoped for so much. 

But Hayden laughed at her words, as if she had just made some great joke.  He let go of her hands and sprawled back onto the steps.  “Go off to the country now?  Jane darling, it's the very midst of the Season.  We can't possibly leave now.” 

“But it could be...” 

Hayden shook his head.  “Staying in London would do you more good than burying yourself in the country.  You should go to parties with me again, enjoy yourself.  Everyone expects it of you, of us.” 

“Go to parties as you do?” Jane said bitterly as her faint, desperate hope faded away.  Nothing had changed.  Nothing would change. 

“Yes, as I do.  As my parents always did,” he said.  “It's better than wallowing in misery alone at home.” 

Jane wrapped her arms around herself, feeling suddenly hollow and empty.  Cold.  “I am tired.  Perhaps I will go away by myself to visit my sister.  Poor Emma writes that she doesn't like her school, and I miss her.  I just need some time away from London.  I want to go home to Barton Park for a while.” 

Hayden closed his eyes as if he was weary of her and this conversation.  Weary of her emotions.  “If you like, of course.  You will have to return before our end-of-Season ball, though.  Everyone expects that.” 

Jane nodded, but she already knew she would not be back for any ball.  She couldn't return to this life at all.  She needed to find her own soul again, even if she couldn't make Hayden see that he needed to save his.

He gave a faint snore, and Jane looked down to find that he had drifted to sleep right there on the stairs, in the middle of their conversation.  His face looked so beautiful and peaceful, a faint smile on his lips as if he had already floated out of her life and into the one he had chosen for himself long before he met her.  She leaned down and softly kissed his cheek and smoothed back his hair one last time. 

“I'm sorry, Hayden,” she whispered.  “Forgive me.” 

She rose to her feet and stepped over him, going back to her chamber and closing the door quietly behind her.  It didn't even make a sound in the vast house that had never really been hers.

 

.....

 

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