Adam and Fabienne came of age and fell wildly in love during a time of revolution but times have changed. Now he's a respectable country gentleman and she's a powerful patroness of the arts and they have little in common ... or do they? She's falling in love as she exchanges letters with a reclusive female Gothic novelist, and Adam can't help responding--surely she knows who he really is, a man writing women's books under a woman's name? As their lives become entangled again after two decades apart, dark secrets and betrayals from the past are revealed, threatening them and others they love.
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April 16, 2012
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Excerpt from Dedication by Janet Mullany
It was a devil of a way to celebrate his forty-third birthday. Adam Ashworth stood in the smoke-flecked dampness of early morning on the doorstep of Viscount Tillotson's London house and crashed the knocker again. From the other side of the door, he heard whispers and saw a shutter swing back into place inside the nearest window.
The door opened to reveal the viscount's butler, a leather apron over his livery and a polishing cloth in one hand.
"His lordship is not home, sir. If you would care to leave your card--"
"Balderdash," Adam said as he pushed past the man. "He's home, and you damned well know it. Please tell him his guardian, Mr. Adam Ashworth, is here."
"Very well, sir." The butler, lips in a tight line of disapproval, took Adam's hat and gloves. "I shall tell him immediately."
"Please do," Adam said. "And I don't care what he's doing; tell him I am here on urgent business."
"It's all right, Simpson."
At the sound of his ward's voice, Adam breathed a sigh of relief.
Luke, wearing a gaudy dressing gown, bounded barefoot down the stairs. He flung his arms around Adam. "Sir, it is so good to see you. But why did you not tell me you were coming? You'll have some breakfast, won't you? And how are..." His voice trailed away, and he gulped. "There is not bad news, is there, Uncle? Is everyone at home well?"
"Where is she?" Adam muttered. He noticed the butler edging slowly away.
"Damn it, Luke, you know well what I mean. You are scarce in town a month before you get yourself in a scrape. May I remind you I sent you to town to find a wife? And then my sister writes to me--" Adam produced the creased letter from his pocket. Luke's butler, the one hired from the agency, continued to move at a pace that made a slug look skittish. "I suggest we go somewhere more private for this conversation."
"Very well." Luke nodded to a footman who opened the door of the drawing room. When they were inside and the door closed, he said, "Sir, I can only think that you have serious business to arrive so early in the day. What's the matter?"
"The matter, sir, as you know very well, is this. My sister writes that you blatantly keep a mistress in this house for the best part of a fortnight, during which time you shun polite society. Luke, what has possessed you to act so imprudently?"
Luke stared at him and pushed his fair hair back. "A mistress? That is what she says?"
Adam gripped his ward's arm. "I was hoping it not true. Luke, if you have an itch, then satisfy it, but in a way that society will accept. It is one thing to take a mistress and keep her in a discreet sort of way, but to have her openly in your own house--" He broke off and paced away from the young man. "You are not yet one-and-twenty. You are supposed to be in town to find a wife; this is not a good start. Obviously I failed as your guardian in not explaining in exact detail the etiquette of such matters-- Why are you laughing?"
Luke shook his head. "Aunt Priscilla wrote you this?"
"I am gratified it amuses you. Now tell me the truth of the matter. You have a young woman in this house?"
"I do, sir. But it is quite respectable, I assure you. She is a lady and has a companion, an older lady, with her--"
"A lady? No lady would allow herself to be in such a compromising situation. Doubtless her companion is her bawd. Oh, good God." Adam sank into a chair. He should never have let Luke come to town alone, a handsome innocent about to inherit a great deal of money. "Tell me, I beg you, that you have not made an offer of marriage to her."
Luke's gaze dropped. "I did, sir."
"What?" Adam sprang to his feet.
"She refused me. She said I did not know my own mind."
"Thank God. Get her out of the house now before she changes hers."
"I don't think she will, sir." Luke sat in a chair opposite Adam. "Uncle, I assure you my aunt has it all wrong."
"I suggest to you she does not. Why would any decent woman risk her own reputation to live in your house and after she has refused you?"
"She does not live here."
"It's nine in the morning," Adam said. "You are in your dressing gown, just risen from your bed. And you admit she's here now."
"Yes, sir, she is. But she's not my mistress. She's here for the light. Come, Uncle, I'll explain everything."
"The light? What are you babbling about? Have you lost your wits?" He allowed Luke to lead him up the stairs. Doubtless he could bribe the girl into silence, the bawd too, and with any luck, society might laugh this off as a youthful indiscretion. And he, Adam, could get back home.
"Sir," said Luke, flinging open the library door, "this is Miss Elaine Twyford. Miss Twyford, this is Mr. Adam Ashford, my guardian."
"Good morning, sir." The young woman dropped a curtsy, graceful despite the shapeless, paint-spattered smock she wore. She wiped her hands on a rag as a radiant smile lit up her oval face. "The viscount has spoken often of you. I am very glad to meet you."
Adam ignored her outstretched hand. "I regret that I cannot say the same, Miss Twyford. I only learned of your existence yesterday from one concerned for my ward's well-being."
He saw her blink in surprise, and a flush stained her high cheekbones. "I see, sir." She turned away from him and spoke to Luke. "We shall resume when you are ready, sir, unless you would like me to leave so you can speak with Mr. Ashworth."
"No, we should not waste this light, and my guardian is most anxious to see what we are up to here. Uncle, do have some coffee." Luke pushed him into a chair and handed him a cup. "There, you will feel better now. Shall I order you some breakfast?"
"No, thank you, and don't treat me like a senile idiot, Luke," Adam muttered. He took a grateful sip of coffee and looked around the library. Furniture had been pushed aside, and a dais draped with velvet erected in the center of the floor. In front of this, Miss Twyford stood at an easel, intent on mixing paint. The pale sunlight of an early summer morning poured through the large windows.
With a rustle of silk, Luke discarded his dressing gown and stepped onto the dais. Adam nearly choked on his coffee. Thank God, he thought, after his initial shock, Luke was wearing a pair of linen drawers. The young man lay down and draped a piece of fabric over his hips, pinching the material into folds.
"Your left leg bent a little more, if you please." Miss Twyford had the dispassionate tone of a tailor measuring a customer for a coat. She glanced at Adam. "I had the greatest trouble in persuading the viscount to pose for me. For such a beautiful man, he is extraordinarily modest."
"I shall take your word for it," Adam said. "And who is the viscount supposed to represent?"
"Narcissus, Mr. Ashworth. The edge of the dais represents the bank of the pond." She hesitated. "You may look at some of my work in the portfolio on the table, there, if you wish. I fear I do not allow people--only a few, at any rate--to see my work before it is finished."
"In a moment, Miss Twyford. What I really wish to know is why you are so eager to compromise yourself. My ward will be thought of as wicked or dashing, no bad things for a man. But you, madam, if you have any reputation whatsoever, are lost in the eyes of society."
A voice came from behind him. "Fortunately, sir, we have little credibility in the eyes of polite society to begin with."
Adam's cup rattled on its saucer. He turned in disbelief to the new speaker.
Miss Twyford gave another of her startling smiles. "Mrs. Craigmont, we wondered where you were. This is Viscount Tillotson's guardian, Mr. Adam Ashworth."
"Mr. Ashworth, what a pleasure to see you again. I regret I was not here when you arrived. I have been exchanging recipes with the viscount's cook." She still had the same smile, damn her, that same velvety growl to her voice. Once he had found it enticing that she had not known her power; now, he was fairly sure she did.
"Mrs. Craigmont," he said and bowed. "You look very well."
"So do you," she said. "How strange that we should meet again after all this time."
"Good Lord, I had quite forgotten," Luke said. "It is Uncle Adam's birthday. He is forty-three," he added. "Many happy returns, sir."
I'll kill you, you little bastard, Adam thought and forced a smile on his face.
Miss Twyford returned to her easel. "Please keep still, sir."
Adam was acutely aware of Fabienne Craigmont settling into a chair to his side but slightly behind him. He longed to turn around and look at her, just look at her, to see how the years had treated her. Instead he got up and went to the table to look at Miss Twyford's sketches.
"You should put your spectacles on," Luke commented.
I'll kill you very slowly, you little bastard. Adam put his spectacles on. He leafed through the portfolio, then took a deep breath. "Miss Twyford, forgive me if I have seemed less than courteous. I know nothing of you, but clearly you are an artist."
Miss Twyford appeared to be biting back a laugh. "Thank you, sir."
"It is a pity you are not a man," he blundered on.
There was a loud snort of laughter from behind him.
"It is not a pity at all," Luke commented.
Miss Twyford blushed.
"I must agree with your ward, sir. I quite like my prot?g?e as she is." Fabienne stepped forward. "Viscount Tillotson's butler told me you were somewhat concerned about the propriety of this venture. I assure you, you have nothing to worry about. The viscount is a gentleman and Miss Twyford, as you noted, an artist."
"You are her patroness?"
"Yes. I have a salon and several artists and writers I try to help. You should come while you are in town, Mr. Ashworth. We meet every Wednesday afternoon."
"A salon--how charming. It has such an old-fashioned yet revolutionary sound. It is a shame I shall not be able to attend."
She shrugged, apparently oblivious to his sarcasm. She had lost virtually all of that pretty accent, but she still shrugged like a Frenchwoman. "A pity. The viscount always enjoys our discussions."
"I imagine he does. He tells me, Mrs. Craigmont, that he made an offer for Miss Twyford's hand. He is underage. Although I am not a blood relative, I am his guardian. He cannot marry without my permission, and I certainly do not intend to give it."
Both women looked amused.
"But I refused him," Miss Twyford said.
"So you did. It is one of the few things in your favor, Miss Twyford."
"Uncle!" Luke sat up, and his improvised covering fell off.
"Please resume your position, sir." Miss Twyford stuck a paintbrush behind her ear.
Adam watched as his ward lay motionless, Miss Twyford continued to paint, and Fabienne Craigmont, although silent and out of sight, continued to make her presence known. He heard the sound of a page turning and wondered what she read.
The clock ticked, and Miss Twyford's brush made faint hissing sounds on the canvas.
He stifled a yawn.
Despite the unsettling presence of Fabienne and several cups of his ward's excellent coffee, the effects of a night awake began to tell on him. He must be getting old, he thought.
He just stopped his head rolling as he began to doze.
"I see I've been sent here on a fool's errand," he said eventually and stood. "I'm not saying I approve of this, Luke, but it seems a harmless enough occupation. I hope you don't catch cold. I'll go to visit my sister."
He bowed over Fabienne's hand, warm and small in his own, and felt an undeniable sizzle, a shock of recognition that alarmed him. She was still beautiful--she was, what, seven-and-thirty now?--although fine lines appeared around her dark, almond-shaped eyes when she smiled at him, and there was a trace of silver in her hair.
"How delightful that we should meet again, Adam," she murmured. "I can scarcely believe it."
"Indeed, madam." He pressed his lips briefly to her hand. "Good-bye, Mrs. Craigmont, Miss Twyford. Luke, we should dine together this evening at my club."
"Excellent, Uncle." Luke flung his arms around him. "You must tell me all the news, how the babies are."
"Your babies, sir?" Miss Twyford asked.
"No, no, they are his daughter, Barbara Sanders's, children," Luke explained before Adam could say a word. "She is widowed and lives with him."
Fabienne raised her fine eyebrows. "So you are a grandfather?"
"Yes. Good day, madam." And I will kill you, Luke, slowly and painfully several times over.
* * * *
"You are a silly ninny," Adam remarked. A shave, a change of clothes, and the company of his sister, Priscilla, had revived his energy and good spirits.
The Countess of Eglinton smiled and poured tea. "So you've always said, dear brother. Well, it is delightful to have you visit, now you are recovered from the shock of your advanced age. That has never been a problem for me, as you know."
He grunted. "Yes, it's remarkable that you are three years my senior but have never achieved your fortieth birthday."
"I doubt I ever shall," Priscilla replied. "Are you sure you cannot stay longer than one night? Eglinton and I should so like to have more of your company."
"I have had quite enough of my birthday already, thank you. But tell me what you know about this Mrs. Craigmont."
"Well." Priscilla pursed her lips. "She is most elegant. You should have seen the gown she wore to the play the other night; it was--"
"Prissy, I did not travel all night from Sussex to hear you blather of gowns. Who is she? Is she respectable?"
"She is not of the ton, of course, but I have seen her at some very select gatherings. She is a widow, I believe, or at least her husband is absent. She has a younger brother, the Count of Argonac, a very charming man; I wonder he is not married, although of course he has only his title and looks to recommend him. But he is French and in exile, so what can you expect? He has a fencing academy which Luke and some of the other young men attend--it is quite fashionable. I believe she is sponsor to several artists and writers, and many people from society attend her soirees. But you must understand my concern. I would not write to you unless I were truly worried."
"Hmm." Adam sipped his tea and regarded Priscilla with affection. "I do appreciate your concern, sister, I assure you. What is this you're reading?" He picked up a book from the sofa and fumbled for his spectacles.
"Nothing that would interest so learned a person as you. It is Mrs. Ravenwood's latest novel, The Ruined Tower." She snatched it back from him. "It is delightfully horrid. All London is mad over it, and I am not yet finished with it, so do not even think to borrow it. Tell me, how are all your brood?"
Adam smiled. "We are all well. I have Jonathan's latest letter home to show you, and Barbara and the little ones send you their love and kisses. The children are into all sorts of mischief, and they chatter incessantly--they must take after their great-aunt. Julia speaks her own baby language still, but with Will, you can almost have a sensible conversation."
"Adam." His sister stared into her teacup. "I do wish you would marry again."
"What?" He laughed. "Why should I? I do very well as I am. I look after my land and my pigs, I play with my grandchildren, and I write my treatise..."
"Oh, your treatise. Pooh. I trust you will not talk of it. I never understand a word you say. Sometimes I think you make things up to confuse me."
"Be thankful I did not stay at Cambridge, then," he said, smiling. "I would be even more unintelligible, barely able to converse except of mathematics, and a great bore. And unmarried, of course."
"I suppose that is what you would have done if Papa had not died so suddenly."
"Possibly." Adam put his teacup down and wandered across the room. He stood at the window, looking at the bustle of the street outside, and tapped his fingers on the windowsill.
"Pray, brother, do not do that. It is most annoying."
He grinned. "Yes, it used to drive Margaret to distraction. She would always scold me for it."
"And you really don't wish to remarry? I know some quite charming eligible women who would probably tolerate you. Why don't you stay in town and let me introduce you to them?"
"No, Prissy. Thank you, but I'm content. And I couldn't find anyone to match Mags."
"Oh, Adam." She sighed. "You have been alone so long now, buried in the country, and I wish..."
"Let me show you the letter from Jonathan," he said. "I think he wrote it aboard during a storm, but you can make it out. Of course it is from some weeks ago, but he seems well and cheerful."
Her face brightened as she unfolded the letter from his son. Dear Prissy, he thought, watching her as she read, still ready to play the protective elder sister. Even she did not truly understand what Mags had meant to him.
He had married because it was expected of him, for her dowry, and because he needed an heir--and because he smarted from an unexpected rejection. He did not plan to commit the unfashionable act of falling in love with his own wife or to find perfect happiness in the country with his family. He had experienced absolute desolation at her death; later, painful guilt as the memory of her beloved face and voice began to fade. Mags had been his center, his refuge. She had rescued him from madness.
And today, a reminder of that madness, of the man he had been, had come back into his life.