She was lost in the depths of his emerald eyes, amber drops floating in the seductive pools. The man reclined in a wingback chair, surrounded by shelved books. His head was tilted slightly downwards, his gaze piercing her where she stood. Hair the colour of antique gold shimmered in the dim candlelight. His skin was bronzed like the helmet of an ancient Greek warrior. His harsh features seemed to be chiselled from stone, but laugh lines encircled a passionate mouth. A white cravat covered his neck. The navy blue coat and white waistcoat hid what she imagined to be a perfectly sculpted chest. Pearl grey breeches accentuated muscular legs.
The man reminded her of a golden lion, the king of a pride. His soul must’ve been older than time itself, for his eyes seemed to hold the secrets of the universe. This man embodied temptation.
‘Back again, my dear?’ he inquired, his voice like velvet.
Although confidence rang in his tone, his bright green eyes revealed the humanity of this divine creature[VG5] . At the bottom of those depths lay an expanse of loneliness, as if he were a traveller lost in a desert with only mirages to keep him company. Blessed with beauty, he was lacking in companionship and love.
‘I could not stay away,’ she declared, her voice quaking as the man rose from his chair and stalked across the room.
Evangeline took a sharp intake of breath, for the full sight of his robust body was more than a woman could take. He was tall, over six feet. His build was as formidable as the strongest castle wall, built to protect from the worst of sieges. That handsome face of his, a face Adonis would’ve fought for, matched the masculine beauty of his body.
Settling beside her, he said, ‘Nor could I. Not now. Not ever.’
The two studied one another. Both seemed to find it hard to believe the other was there. The silence that shrouded the room as they studied one another deepened the strength of this ethereal spell.
‘Is it because I am a diversion?’
‘Nay.’ He raised her hand to his lips. ‘Life would be meaningless without your visits.’
‘I could not endure my own existence without you,’ she replied, a bit breathless.
‘As a man without friends or comrades, I would be the most lonesome wretch wandering the earth.’ Pain entered his expression, the pain of one who had suffered years of isolation. His voice cracking, he continued, ‘I would be completely alone.’
Her heart nearly split in two upon witnessing his agony. She lifted a hand and caressed his cheek. ‘You never shall be.’
‘You have been vital to my life, my dreams, for these past few months.’ Turning his head, he kissed the palm of her hand. He exhaled, his breath tickling her skin. ‘Without you | — | fear | would not know how to live.’
‘Do not say such things.’ Framing his face, she forced him to gaze into her eyes. ‘I shall always be with you.’
‘And I with you.’ Desperation was threaded throughout the statement. ‘I am entirely yours,’ he murmured as he angled his head, preparing to taste the sweetness of her lips…
‘Evangeline wake up or we will never arrive at the ball in time!’ shouted a feminine voice.
The command broke Evangeline Vernon from the clutches of the sandman. Her eyelids fluttered open, her gaze finding the irritated eyes of her sister.
‘Come on, sleeping beauty. It is time to prepare. Mother wants you to look dazzling so your beauty makes an impression on the Duke of Manchester,’ explained her sister.
Evangeline groaned at the mention of Manchester. Covering her head with a pillow, her voice was muffled as she shouted, ‘Nay, Angela! I have no wish to see that pathetic man!’
Angela tore the pillow from her clutches. ‘It is your duty to attend this ball.’
Glaring at her sister with indignation, Evangeline proclaimed, ‘I regret waking! If only my dreams were reality and reality was but a dream!’
Her sister whacked her over the head with the pillow. ‘The Duke is the most eligible bachelor in London. As the eldest, our mother is hell-bent on seeing you marry before you become a spinster.’
‘Yes! She shall not rest until I am clad in virginal white and walking down a church aisle!’
‘Our father is the Earl of Upton. Marriage to a duke with a flawless pedigree shall raise our family’s position in society,’ pointed Angela, impatiently fidgeting from side to side.
‘I have no desire to attend, Angela,’ said Evangeline. ‘What I crave to do is return to the world of slumber.’
Her sister pursed her lips, her annoyance poorly concealed. ‘You have no choice in the matter. Our entire family is attending.’
Evangeline rose to a sitting position, her back supported by a pile of pillows. ‘I do not want the attentions of Manchester forced upon me.’
For the faintest instant Evangeline could’ve sworn she saw envy cross her sister’s soft features. But surely to entertain such a notion was pure folly, for what resentments could Angela harbour against her?
‘What objections could you possibly have over an attractive fellow like Manchester?’ Evangeline was perturbed by the dreamy glint in her sister’s eyes as she continued, ‘He is more divine than heaven itself.’
Crossing her arms over her chest with a harrumph, she said, ‘I still remember what happened last week when I was trapped in the seat beside him at the theatre. Throughout the entire first act of the Merchant of Venice he kept ranting about how his valet chose the wrong colour coat for him! On grandmother’s tombstone, I vow I wanted to sew that man’s lips shut.’
Angela shrugged. ‘So what if he chatters like a chipmunk? Ignore his words and focus on his handsome face. Any other reasonable woman would love to just sit before him, to study him as if he were a painting.’
‘There is more to a person than looks, which is all Manchester possesses. I long for excitement, for passion! I want a man that can make my heart quake with just one glance. I want a man that has something interesting to say.’ Thinking back on the outing to the theatre, she added, ‘I want a man, not a preening peacock!’
‘Tell that to mother. She will not give two figs what your desires are. All that matters is what she wants, and what she wants is for you to marry Manchester.’ Tired of their bickering and eager to finish her own preparations, Angela ripped the covers off Evangeline. ‘Rise or you will face the wrath of mother alone.’
Evangeline let out a sigh of exasperation. ‘Very well. Lord knows the last thing I need is for that old harpy to swoop down on me.’
The irreverent reference caused her sister to chuckle, despite her best attempts to keep a stern look on her face. ‘I believe anyone who is acquainted with our mother would rather walk through the flames of hell blindfolded with their hands tied behind their back than risk her fury.’
The sisters giggled until they were gasping for air. Once recovered from the bout of humour, the two went about their preparations for the ball. Angela rummaged through her jewellery, searching for a necklace to complement her soft pink gown. Evangeline allowed her maid to dress her in her undergarments, her face one of pure agony as her corset’s stays were tightened.
Within the space of two hours the sisters were ready. Angela had found a string of rubies to wear; the dazzling gems a perfect match for her dress. Her dusky hair was piled high on her head. She looked younger than her twenty years, a petite beauty.
However, it was Evangeline who could boast the appearance of a goddess. She was adorned with a gown of blue silk, the garment hugging her curvaceous figure and the skirts billowing around her legs. The bodice dipped low enough so that the tops of her breasts peeked out, just enough to capture the interest of a gentleman. Diamond baubles hung from her ears and a diamond necklace surrounded her swan-like neck. Her chocolate locks, streaked with gold when under the right lighting, were swept up into an elegant coiffure. Her rosebud lips were luscious, the kissable temptation enhanced by a beauty mark at the corner of her mouth.
Seated beside a mirror, Angela assessed her sister with a tinge of jealousy. ‘You are absolutely stunning. If only the fates had graced me with your beauty!’
Evangeline’s lips curved into a slight frown. ‘If I attract Manchester tonight, my looks are a curse. Not a blessing.’
Angela rolled her eyes. ‘Do not be absurd! You are a very lucky woman to have the most sought after bachelor vying after you!’
‘Then why do you not stake your claim on him? Seduce him,’ challenged Evangeline.
As Angela turned to assess her reflection, Evangeline didn’t miss the sadness that shone in her sister’s eyes. ‘He would never bother to look twice at someone like me.’
‘Angela!’ cried Evangeline. ‘How could you say such a thing about yourself? You are a lovely girl!’
Peeking over Evangeline’s shoulder, Angela looked into a gilded mirror hanging from the wall. ‘My looks are average. There is nothing remarkable about me. Manchester is interested in claiming a stunning beauty, which happens to be you.’
Realisation dawned on Evangeline. ‘Lord! Why had I not realised it before? The source of your misery is obvious! You are in love with Manchester!’
Their eyes met in the mirror. The sad truth was written all over Angela’s face, it was etched on her very soul.
‘I am,’ admitted Angela.
Evangeline’s mouth gaped wide open. She was being courted by the man who had caught her sister’s eye, and poor Angela had to suffer through seeing them together. ‘My dear! If I had known I would never have gone on with mother’s plans for the past month. I will set everything to rights tonight by telling Manchester I do not have the slightest interest in him. That is the truth.’
Her sister’s eyes rounded, looking crazed. ‘No! You mustn’t! Mother wants you to marry the duke. She intends on having you married before you become a spinster, which will happen if you do not marry by the end of the season.’ Angela heaved a sigh. ‘Besides, she already has plans for me to marry another.’
‘The Earl of Cheshire.’ Angela said the name as if she were speaking of Satan himself.
Evangeline furrowed her brow. ‘I have never heard of him. What is he like?’
‘Mother informed me that when he was younger he travelled across India and Egypt. After he returned to England he found that his elder brother had died in a carriage accident, thus making him the heir. He became a recluse after his father joined his brother in the hereafter. I suppose the burden of his sorrows led him to a life of seclusion.’
‘If he is a recluse how does mother expect you to win him?’
‘A friend of mother’s relayed a rumour that the earl was to come out of hiding in search of an appropriate wife.’ Angela pretended to smooth out a tendril of hair as she said, ‘A wife to bear him an heir, since it is his duty.’
‘His intentions sound romantic,’ Evangeline said rather dryly.
Ignoring the comment, Angela continued, ‘According to the rumour he will be making his first appearance at tonight’s ball. It is the first time in years he has bothered to join the company society has to offer.’
‘And mother wants you to marry him? Why?’
Angela shrugged, a frown curving her lips. ‘I suppose as a means of bragging rights. She could boast to all her friends that her youngest daughter married London’s famous recluse and her eldest snagged a duke.’
‘Oh, Angela.’ Catching a glimpse of Angela’s downtrodden reflection, Evangeline exclaimed, ‘You look so unhappy with the prospect!’
Angela shrugged. ‘It is what mother wants. Who am I to argue?’
Evangeline erupted, ‘We are speaking of your future husband! The man you will spend the rest of your life with; and who will sire your children. Of the man who will share in all your triumphs and miseries. We are talking of your lifelong partner! How can you leave the matter in mother’s selfish hands?’
Angela walked over to the door. Evangeline thought that her sister was about to leave without a final word, but Angela paused at the door, her hand on the knob. Calling over her shoulder she said, ‘I am a dutiful daughter. I will do what pleases my family, and especially the mother I love dearly. If you ruin in it by telling Manchester I have feelings for him, I will deny it. And I will never forgive you.’
Before Evangeline could muster a reply, her sister had slipped through the doorway.
Standing in a long procession of lords and ladies, Angela listened disapprovingly as Evangeline bickered with their mother. The two put on a show for the ton as she stood quietly by. As usual, her father had opted to spend the evening at White’s. No wonder, considering the company.
The curious stares of earls and viscounts didn’t offend her, for all she could ponder on was her aching feet. Her flimsy slippers offered little protection from the hard marble floor. She fidgeted to ease the soreness, and thankfully no one noticed her discomfort because all eyes were on her feuding family.
All this waiting was only for the sake of receiving greetings from the generous host, but she’d walk barefooted through desert sands to lay eyes on him. As the line inched forward and the arches of her feet ached from the trial, Angela watched Manchester greet his guests with a cordiality befitting a duke with a spotless reputation. He bantered playfully with those who sat in the House of Lords and sprinkled words of flattery on their neglected wives. He alleviated the apprehension of debutantes in their first season with a charming smile and a wink, all while avoiding capture from the mothers attempting to bait him. Manchester was perfect in every way, but Evangeline was blind to her prospective fiancé’s attractions.
The line moved forward once more, placing her family before Manchester. By then Evangeline had pasted a smile on her face at their mother’s urging. Her heartbeat faltered as Manchester reached for her sister and bowed over her gloved hand.
‘As always, it is a pleasure to see you, Evangeline,’ murmured Manchester.
Although undetectable to an outsider, Angela noted a flash of distaste in Evangeline’s expression. ‘And the pleasure always is yours.’ Their mother elbowed her, and Evangeline added, ‘As well as mine.’
Manchester straightened. ‘For the moment I am preoccupied with greeting my guests, but as soon as this business is done I shall claim you for the first three dances.’
Taking a ragged breath, Evangeline replied, ‘As you wish.’
Their mother chuckled, her nerves clear. ‘Evangeline is ecstatic that you singled her out for such an honour.’
Manchester’s lips curved into a smile so bright, not even Evangeline’s dark mood could eclipse it. ‘Three dances are a bit excessive, but I do appreciate your companionship.’
‘One dance is one too many,’ Evangeline muttered under her breath.
‘Did you say something, my dear?’ inquired Manchester as he tore his attention from their mother.
Evangeline fluttered her lashes with a mock coyness. ‘I said perhaps one dance shall suffice. Three dances might cause rumours to whirl about a…serious courtship.’
‘Exactly,’ remarked Manchester.
Evangeline’s jaw tightened as his meaning registered, and Angela’s heart nearly failed from the envy poisoning her veins. Manchester was staking his claim on her sister, and she stood in the shadows with an unrequited love. If only she could trade places with Evangeline and bask in his admiration. Alas, a life with Manchester wasn’t what fate intended. Or their mother.
Her sister nodded and sauntered off without another word. Their mother followed, her step betraying her bottled fury. Angela thought her time here finished, so she moved to join them, but Manchester caught her hand.
Startled, Angela scanned the nearby crowd to see if anyone perceived the lapse in etiquette. Caught in the excitement of the evening, no one had bothered to even look their way.
‘Angela.’ His softened voice wrapped around her, enticing her to meet his intent gaze. ‘I suggest you sit down for a while. A little rest shall ebb the ache in your feet.’
Her eyes widened, for he had noticed her. He had seen her pain.
‘I — I shall,’ stammered Angela.
Manchester searched her face for a moment, and then bent to kiss her hand. His lips remained on her hand longer than what would be deemed proper, or at least that is what Angela thought.
Standing tall once more, Manchester said, ‘Go and enjoy the night.’
Angela nodded before departing from Manchester, her hand slipping from his hold.
The Duke of Manchester’s ball was a tedious affair with tedious company. The Grande Dames sat in chairs lined along the walls or talked in clusters, gossiping about the latest scandals and intended marriages. Young society misses, most on their first season, eagerly awaited the gentlemen to approach and ask for their hand in the next dance. The elder gentlemen played cards in a parlour abutting the ballroom. Young bucks and dandies flirted with many of the girls, a few of the rowdier ones attempting to lead an innocent outside for a quick tumble by whispering promises of affection. In the background a band of musicians performed joyous and upbeat tunes, occasionally playing a romantic melody.
Amidst the scene Evangeline danced with the Duke of Manchester, his elegance guiding her through the steps. While he twirled her about and talked about his prized hunting dogs, she took a curious peek at her sister.
Angela was sitting on a settee beside their mother. Her mother was methodically scanning the crowd, no doubt looking for the Earl of Cheshire. The moment her mother saw the earl she would hunt him down and demand an introduction. Evangeline felt half sorry for this unknown recluse, but her real pity lay with her sister.
Upon seeing the envy encasing Angela, Evangeline wanted to shake some sense into her, to tell her it would be a grave mistake if she let Manchester slip through her fingers. Not because she herself wanted to be rid of the duke, but because her sister’s happiness was important.
Manchester’s voice seeped into her thoughts, demanding her focus. ‘You seem distracted, Evangeline. What is the matter?’
Her gaze slipped from her sister to the duke. The man was heavenly, what with his sapphire eyes and perfect smile. His ebony hair shimmered like a raven’s feather, the light of the chandeliers finding hidden streaks of blue. Towering over her, his figure was imposing but alluring. No doubt underneath all that clothing he wore was a body of muscles and sinew. The Duke of Manchester was attractive, but in looks only. Once he opened his mouth Evangeline lost all interest.
‘I am feeling a tad bit faint. A turn about the room might be just the cure,’ she lied.
Manchester obligingly led her off of the dance floor.
He must believe that women are as delicate as hothouse flowers, mused Evangeline.
Being a gentleman, Manchester was about to guide her in a turn about the room before Evangeline protested. She could not bear another moment in his presence!
‘It is not necessary to accompany me,’ she said.
Manchester frowned at the suggestion. ‘It would be most improper to leave you by yourself.’
Evangeline searched for an excuse, another lie to tell. ‘I—I will not be alone. I wish to walk with my sister. We have a few matters to discuss.’
He smiled down at her. ‘I suppose you have sisterly issues to talk about. Go to her.’
After swooping down into a curt curtsey, Evangeline walked off in the direction of her mother and sister. When she was certain Manchester was no longer watching she went in an opposite direction. The last thing she needed was to be with her demanding mother and fuming sister.
She strolled about the room at her leisure, watching couples dance and groups chatter. A smile crossed her face. She did enjoy such events, but from a distance. Evangeline loathed being a part of the social aspects. All she wanted to do was observe, like a fascinated birdwatcher spying on a variety of birds.
But she wasn’t the only one interested in observing. Another was watching from the shadows, and Evangeline felt the intensity of the person’s gaze. She turned her head to the entrance, only to see a flash of golden hair as he moved away. Her heart caught in her throat, for she was instantly plunged back into her dream.
Could it be?
Evangeline’s gaze was diverted when her mother came bustling towards her. By the glowing rage on her face, her mother was displeased, and she would soon find out why.
‘Daughter, may I join you?’ asked her mother as she approached.
‘No.’ Evangeline glanced back at the entrance, only to find no one there. ‘I am finding pleasure in this solitude.’
Her mother grabbed her hand and tucked it in the crook of her arm. ‘I was not asking.’
‘It sounded as if you were.’ countered Evangeline.
Her mother shot her a glare that promised retribution for the insult when prying eyes were not everywhere. ‘Why are you not with the duke?’
‘Not even a mask of pleasantry? As usual, you come right to the point. No inquiries as to whether I am well or what I think of this ball.’ Wagging a finger in the air, Evangeline chided, ‘You are losing your finesse, mother.’
‘Do not try to provoke me, now of all times. We came here with the sole aim of attracting the duke.’
Evangeline let out a most unladylike snort. ‘Surely you mean you wanted me to come so that I could unwillingly suffer in Manchester’s presence?’
Her mother looked about nervously. ‘Hush, you insufferable girl. What if someone were to overhear you and relate the information to the duke?’
‘You were the one who started this conversation, knowing full well my opinion on the subject.’
Casting a sidelong glance with narrowed eyes, her mother said, ‘Cease trying to fight me on this match. Can you not see I am arranging this union with your wellbeing in mind? You are four and twenty. I want to see you wed before you are firmly put on the shelf. Despite your age, the most eligible bachelor in London is interested in you.’
‘As I am constantly reminded,’ said Evangeline bitterly.
‘Your sarcasm is not needed here,’ scolded her mother. ‘As I was saying, I want to see you with a family of your own before death claims me. I want to see you heavy with child. I want to buy fripperies for granddaughters and fuss over grandsons. I want you to be looked after by a respectable husband. Manchester can offer you all of that.’
‘He will also offer you the right to boast of having a duke as an in-law and the satisfaction of covetous friends. Manchester will offer wealth and a title. You are not pulling the wool over my eyes, for I see to the heart of your true motives.’
There was no denial. Instead, her mother’s grip on her arm tightened, almost to where nails were digging into her sleeve.
‘Put a smile on your face, Evangeline,’ ordered her mother. ‘You will marry Manchester whether you like it or not.’
‘If I am forced into this marriage I will resent you until my dying day.’
Evangeline’s mother delivered a forced smile. Yet, through gritted teeth, she hissed, ‘I would rather have a married daughter who loathes me than an unwed spinster.’
‘If you do not want me to make a scene by marching out of here in a fit of rage, I suggest you leave me be.’
Turning to Evangeline with absolute horror written on her face, her mother said, ‘You would not dare.’
With an arctic chill, Evangeline swore, ‘We both know I am strong willed. Mark my words. I will carry out my threat to the fullest extent.’
Her mother pursed her lips. ‘As you wish, but my word is final. You will marry the duke, or I will have your father cast you out on the street.’
Without ceremony, her mother abandoned her. Evangeline continued her walk about the ballroom, a dark cloud hovering over her head. The reappearance of Manchester riled her even further. He came to her like a smitten puppy. The look of ardour on his face repulsed her beyond comprehension.
‘I see you are not with your sister,’ he said.
Evangeline didn’t bother to hide her scowl or to put on an air of cheerfulness. ‘My sister did not accompany me. It was my mother who did the honours.’
The sarcasm went right over Manchester’s head. The man was a fool, or he simply refused to acknowledge her apparent irritation. ‘That sounds like a delight. I admire the close bond displayed by your family.’
‘Oh, yes,’ she scoffed. ‘We are close. Perhaps too close, for we fight like cats and dogs.’
‘Arguments are expected in all families.’
My family argues every second of every day. Would you expect that detail if I were to admit it?
Evangeline considered speaking her thoughts aloud, but she held her tongue. ‘I suppose.’
A silence fell over the two. Manchester extended his arm. Evangeline took it, for to not accept would be a sign of rudeness. He guided her through another turn about the room.
‘I was wondering if you would accompany me on a drive through Hyde Park tomorrow,’ offered Manchester.
Evangeline gritted her teeth. Thinking on her mother’s warnings, she said, ‘I would be delighted.’
The duke’s face lit up. ‘I will call on you tomorrow at noon.’
All she could do was nod. Is this what their marriage would be like? This proper stiffness? What she desired was passion and ardour. A man with whom she could easily converse and easily love. Manchester wasn’t this man. The golden haired god from her dreams was the one, but he was only a figment of her imagination.
Seated beside the dowagers and their swarms of flounces, Angela had not the gusto to lift her gaze from her intertwined fingers. If she were to glance through lowered lashes and across the crowded ballroom, she would see Manchester shedding soft adoration on her sister. Sadness and forlorn would swallow her wilting soul if she simply looked up.
Instead her eyes sidled to the right, to where her mother chatted with the other Grande Dames. Her mother desired a marriage between Evangeline and Manchester, and for good reason. Angela’s loyalties to her mother silenced her yearning, for despite her shortcomings her mother had always been devoted to her and Evangeline.
‘Excuse me, miss,’ said a velvety voice, breaking into her contemplations.
Angela turned to find a striking gentleman hovering over her. What with his burnt golden hair and emerald eyes flecked with amber drops, the man could be mistaken for a hero that just sprang from the pages of a Greek tragedy. Exotic and intoxicating, wherever he went he was sure to leave a trail of swooning women in his wake. Yet despite his handsome beauty, Angela remained unaffected as thoughts of Manchester spun in her mind.
‘May I entice you to dance?’ inquired the man as he extended his hand.
Angela perked a brow. ‘We have not been introduced, sir.’
The man glanced towards the waltzing couples, as if his own mind was fixated on another. ‘My name is Alexander.’
‘A formal introduction has not been conducted here,’ objected Angela.
This man, this Alexander, returned his focus to her. ‘I rarely leave the confines of my home, so I know no one here to secure an introduction.’
Angela crossed her arms and shrunk into the chaise. ‘I can only refuse you.’
‘Then I shall stand here until you accept my hand for a dance.’ Alexander’s eyes strayed back to the dance floor. ‘The sight of a strange man standing near you might cause others to glance our way.’
The wisdom in his statement struck Angela. Scanning the faces around her, she discovered an inquisitive dowager or two watching their interaction. Rumours were bound to swirl if she and Alexander were to continue debating on the issue of introductions. And he was determined to sweep her into a dance.
‘You win,’ muttered Angela as she placed her hand into his.
‘Excellent,’ said Alexander, a little distracted.
Alexander tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. No other words were exchanged as he led her onto the floor, for he was evidently preoccupied with other thoughts. He was staring at someone with profound passion, like she often did with Manchester.
Angela followed his line of vision and was startled to learn the object of his attentions. Evangeline, who was dancing with her beloved on the other side of the room.
‘Why do you leer at my sister, sir?’ exclaimed Angela, unable to smother the question.
Alexander started at her shout, as if he’d forgotten she was there. ‘Your looks are deceiving for beneath that shy exterior is a small measure of feistiness.’
Before she could object further at the oddity of his behaviour, Alexander whisked her into the dance. The tune guided their steps, commanding a twirl here and a whirl there.
‘Answer me,’ demanded Angela, her tone lowered several fractions.
‘I am curious as to the extent of her relationship with the Duke of Manchester,’ replied Alexander, as if his answer was not peculiar in the least.
Angela arched a brow. ‘Why might that be?’
‘You are a well of questions,’ he remarked with dry humour.
‘When a gentleman I have never met until a scant five minutes ago asks after my sister, I am bound to launch an inquisition.’
He hesitated. ‘My motives are my own —’
Angela considered probing further, but the face of stone peering down at her prevented the words from passing her lips. Tilting her head slightly, she discerned that embedded in this man’s handsome features was determination. She fancied he possessed the fortitude of a soldier on an expedition of the utmost importance. But what was his mission? And why was Evangeline entangled in his web?
Narrowing her eyes slightly, she decided to feed Alexander morsels of information in the hopes he’d betray his secretive motives. ‘Evangeline is being courted by Manchester. Most of the ton knows a betrothal is looming in the not-so-distant future.’
Emotion slipped into Alexander’s face, weathering the stone until a glint of a gem showed. ‘She is to be engaged?’
‘Yes,’ affirmed Angela.
He directed his gaze to Evangeline, who remained in the arms of Manchester as the violins continued to whine out a tune. His crestfallen bearing suited the melancholy cries of the notes, as if a quiet duet were being sung between the music and his soul. ‘Engaged,’ he repeated, as if the word were a death sentence.
‘Evangeline is not in love with him.’ Angela cringed as she finished the sentence, for she had spoken without thinking. If this information were repeated by Alexander, her mother’s dreams of watching Evangeline marry a duke would be crushed.
Alexander’s focus honed in on her. ‘Does she even want the engagement?’
‘Sir,’ Angela shook her head frantically, her eyes wide. ‘I already revealed too much.’
‘Please, tell me.’ His fingers tightened on her waist and hand. ‘My sanity depends on your answer.’
Angela forgot to breathe as she supplied him with a frantic explanation. ‘Sh — she loathes Manchester, for she deems him a bore. I believe she even compared him to a preening peacock before we came to the ball.’
The pressure of his grip lightened. ‘Then there is still hope,’ he said more to himself then to her.
‘Hope for what?’ asked Angela, alarmed by the fervour in his tone.
‘Hope for a life without loneliness. With love.’
And with that the song ended. Alexander bowed and strode off the dance floor, not accompanying her off like the other gentlemen with their partners. His manners would lead one to conclude he hadn’t been out in society for years.
Angela watched with befuddlement as Alexander exited the ballroom. He was leaving. For that very reason her thoughts wavered from the strange incident and to Manchester, who was now taking a turn about the room with Evangeline. Jealousy clutched at her, causing her to forget all about Alexander and his lack of etiquette.
Inside the dark confinements of their carriage, Evangeline listened to her mother’s tiring complaints. Her mother’s foul mood had little to do with their disagreements and more to do with the elusive Earl of Cheshire, who hadn’t come to the ball. Her mother had meant to goad an introduction between the earl and Angela, but all this planning had been for naught.
Her mother had been naïve to place her confidence in a rumour about a recluse making a sudden appearance in society after three years of solitude, thought Evangeline.
If the man was to suddenly emerge from his lair, there would need to be a spectacular reason for the miracle. And the reason had nothing to do with marrying Angela. Since there didn’t seem to be an answer as to why the infamous but unidentified Earl of Cheshire could transform into a socialite overnight, the only possible explanation was the rumour was a falsehood.
However, her mother refused to believe the rumour relayed to her by the gossip-mongering Lady Geraldine was not true. Her mother wanted the compliant Angela to marry the earl, for the exultation that one of her daughters ensnared the famous recluse into husbandry would ensue.
And, by God, she shall make it happen! Even if it means selling her soul to the devil!
‘There must be a valid reason for the earl’s absence,’ wondered her mother.
‘Perhaps he was kept away by a friend in need or a problem with his staff,’ supplied Angela.
Although Angela attempted to comfort their mother, she was staring out the window without an expression to betray her emotions. Still, Evangeline could sense her sister was dejected and upset, and it was not difficult to guess the cause of this gloomy mood.
Her mother nodded in agreement. ‘You may be right. Certainly he will attend another ball or a soiree in the foreseeable future.’
Evangeline snorted a most unladylike snort. ‘Mother, you must come to terms with reality. The bit of gossip Lady Geraldine told you was wrong. The Earl of Cheshire never meant to come to tonight’s ball.’
Her mother pierced her with a glare. ‘How dare you spout such ridiculous things? Lady Geraldine is never wrong. She knows everything that is occurring in London, and she knows what everyone is up to. She must be up-to-date in her gossip to write her weekly column for the tittle-tattle.’
‘One cannot always trust what is heard through the grapevine,’ countered Evangeline.
‘Intolerable girl!’ Her mother flung a dramatic hand over her forehead. ‘You are wearing on my nerves! Why could you not be more obedient, like your sweet sister?’
Angela’s gaze was diverted from the buildings passing by the carriage window to the conversation. Although she pasted a smile on her face, her eyes were brimming with despair.
‘Evangeline, you should try to abide by our mother’s advice.’
‘I have no need for her tyranny, nor do you! Surely you must see that following her advice is making you miserable, and it is keeping you from following your heart.’ Evangeline didn’t say more, for Angela’s warning gaze told her that her sister understood what she meant.
‘We cannot always have our way. As young ladies, we must heed our family’s wishes for the betterment of the family name’ lectured Angela.
‘And the family coffers,’ added Evangeline, sarcasm dripping from the comment. ‘Enough of your cynicism! Your father and I have your best interests at heart.’
‘Nay. Only your own interests. I have repeatedly said I do not wish to marry Manchester, but I am continuously urged to encourage his pursuit of me. If I refuse to do so, both you and father have made it clear the consequences will be severe,’ shouted Evangeline.
‘Sister!’ said Angela after a surprised gasp.
A barely contained rage shrouded her mother. ‘Lower your voice! Our coachman will hear your caterwauling. Your father and I want this marriage for you, because you are nearly a spinster. From a stroke of fortune the most eligible bachelor of this season has taken an interest in you. He will provide for you, and you will no longer be a burden on your family.’
Evangeline let out a mocking laugh. ‘Is that what I am to you? A burden? You paint a lovely picture of our relationship, but I see one correction that must be made. You are the burden of my existence.’
Her sister laid a hand on her arm. ‘You have said quite enough. Hold your tongue, for we both know this arguing is pointless.’
‘At least in that you are correct, Angela. Talking to mother is like talking to a wall.’
Evangeline crossed her arms, and ignored her next biting comment. She remained silent as her mother assaulted her with insult after insult. Once her mother was finished venting, Angela and her match with the Earl of Cheshire resumed the centre of the conversation.
‘The earl must be planning another venture into society,’ calculated her mother. ‘We only need to know where he will be, and an introduction can be procured. I will visit Lady Geraldine on the morrow to see if she can be of any use.’
‘A brilliant plan.’ commented Angela, although Evangeline noted her illustrious praise lacked enthusiasm.
Her mother beamed at Angela, clearly gratified that at least one daughter was trained like a lapdog. ‘My sweet girl, you will be more than happy with this match. I am certain of it! Mayhap you will even fall in love with the earl.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Angela, and her gaze returned to the carriage window.
Evangeline pursed her lips, disappointed in her own mother for her blindness to her daughters’ melancholy and in Angela for her unquestioning obedience. But what could she do when her complaints, advice, and wishes fell on deaf ears? She could only dream.
His lips were approaching hers, but she could not taste sin. Not yet. Not until she knew the name of this golden haired man, so her soul could sing his name for the rest of eternity.
Evangeline placed a hand on his chest, stilling him. He arched a brow, questioning her hesitation. Staring into the deepness of his confused eyes, she knew she was his willing slave, bound by an unspoken love. But she needed a name!
‘We have known one another for several months,’ said Evangeline.
‘A lifetime,’ interjected the man.
‘We have discussed many things. Literature. Poetry. The arts. Our likes and dislikes. You have listened to my woes and miseries, my joys and delights.’
He brushed his knuckles against her cheek, as if he could not resist touching her. As if she might vanish at any moment and never return. ‘I know all there is to know about you, Evangeline.’
She gifted him a small smile. A lover’s smile. ‘You know everything there is to know about me. Even my name, but I do not know yours. I do not know how you live, whether you even have family.’
‘You know the essence of my being.’ He covered his heart with a fist. ‘Of my soul, and that God has intended to merge us as one.’
‘There is much you have neglected to tell me,’ pointed out Evangeline.
The man nodded, relenting. ‘I have neglected to tell you the particulars.’
‘Such as your name?’ Evangeline added playfully.
He chuckled softly at her impishness. ‘What is in a name?’
Evangeline sighed in exasperation, though her heart was light. ‘Must you quote Shakespeare?’
‘Yes,’ he said with a half-smile, which gave him almost a boyish charm. ‘My name is Alexander.’
The tone of his voice as his name rolled off of his tongue was enough to tempt an angel into sin. Evangeline was a woman with values and morals, but she was no angel. She wanted to take a bite from this forbidden fruit. She wanted to experience a crazed ardour in this man’s arms. She wanted him, this mysterious Alexander.
‘There. Was that so difficult?’ she asked with a coy smirk.
‘No.’ Alexander’s smile faded, giving way to a solemnity. ‘How long have you felt this?’
‘Felt what?’ she asked, staring at his mouth.
Alexander reached out and caressed her cheek. ‘This magic that seems to be pulling us together. I have dreamt of you so many times, too many to count. It’s as if fate wove this meeting into our destinies.’
She covered his hand with her own and peered into the sincerity etched in his face. ‘Yes. I have felt this strange enchantment since you first entered my dreams.’
Alexander lowered his head a fraction, as if an invisible string was reeling him to her. ‘Then this is mutual. It is not a one-sided fantasy.’
‘Yes, Alexander,’ she luxuriated in finally being able to say his name, ‘this is a shared attraction.’
‘Perhaps this is more than an attraction.’
‘One could dare to hope.’
Silence swooped in like a thief in the night. Alexander could no longer resist her lips. His head leaned in, conquering her mouth in a kiss. And Evangeline could not resist her capture. She had wanted this for what seemed like centuries.
Evangeline threw her arms around his neck. He took her head in his hands and deepened their kiss, their tongues dancing. He took and plundered, gave and delighted. The kiss was sweeter than honey, nectar straight from Mount Olympus…
The dream abruptly ended as the chiming of a grandfather clock in the hall tinkled into her bedroom. Evangeline’s eyes opened, regret furrowing its way into her heart. How she wanted to close her eyes and return to Alexander’s embrace!
This dream had been more vivid than the others. Every word he uttered had seemed crystal clear. Her skin tingled, as if traces of his touch still lingered on her flesh. Her lips felt swollen and ravished, as if the kiss they’d shared happened only seconds before.
Was her sanity failing? Was she imagining this infatuation was crossing over into reality? Was her plight with Manchester and her need for passion causing these fantasies to seem real?
The door opened and Angela entered, whose nose crinkled in disdain. ‘Evangeline! It is past eleven o’clock, and Manchester will be here within the hour to escort you to Hyde Park! Why are you still in bed?’
Looking up at the ceiling, Evangeline said, ‘Do not fault me for finding my dreams more enticing than the company of that cold fish.’
She heard Angela gasp in surprise. ‘How dare you compare him to such a creature? Manchester is kind, proper and generous. You are lucky to have captured his notice. And I need not remind you why I feel this way.’
Evangeline propped herself up onto an elbow and glared at her sister. ‘Tell Manchester I am feeling unwell, and offer to go to Hyde Park with him. Reach out for what you desire, just this once. And mother’s opinion be damned.’
‘There is no need for profanity, Evangeline. Unlike you, I heed mother’s commands. I respect her wishes. I may be in love with Manchester, but I will never go against mother’s will.’
Evangeline yearned to show her sister what the future would be like if she didn’t chase after her heart’s desire! If only she could break into the inner workings of time, pull back a curtain and show Angela how dismal her future will be without love! ‘If you do not stake your claim on Manchester, this will be the greatest regret of your life. If I do become his wife, you will always look at me with resentment. Your resentment will melt away and ignite into an irate hatred. You are my sister, Angela. I want you to be happy, and I always want to be your closest friend.’
Tears were welling in her sister’s pale grey eyes. ‘I could never loathe you, but I will be insanely jealous. I am rather possessive, but Manchester is not mine for the taking. It is clear that you are the sister he desires. It is more than obvious that mother is thrilled with the match. Sister, you are on the verge of spinsterhood, and the match will settle you into a practical marriage. This union between Manchester and yourself will suit nearly everyone. Though I am less than pleased, I will swallow my pride, and make way for you. Now rise from your bed, and make haste. Manchester will be here very shortly.’
A tear rolled down Angela’s plump cheek. Her dignity already in tatters, she spun on her heels and fled the confinement of the bedroom as if it were ablaze with flames.
‘Angela, do not be a martyr!’ Evangeline called after her sister.
Any words were lost on her sister, for she was already out of earshot. Even if Angela had heard Evangeline, it was useless. She knew her sister’s stubborn mind was set, and any attempt to talk sense into her would prove futile.
Evangeline felt the hot sting of tears in her own eyes. It hurt to see her sister in pain. Matters were made worse knowing that she was the root of Angela’s unhappiness.
Taking a deep breath, Evangeline forced the tears away. Manchester was due to arrive in half an hour. She needed to hurry up and dress if she was to perform her role of courted society miss. It was time to go to Hyde Park, her theatre, where the prying eyes of society would be her audience. She would take centre stage as the leading actress, though the insides of her soul were in turmoil like a frothing ocean in the midst of a storm.
Angela fled down the staircase in a hurry, her world misted by lamentations without any chance of reprieve. Her hands shielded her face, muffling the sobs eager to be freed. She couldn’t cry. Not yet. Not until she found a quiet sanctuary. As she reached the bottom of the steps, she assumed the drawing room was her safest gamble.
Dazed by her sorrow, the hall she hurried down was a blur of portraits hanging on walls, rosewood chairs, and vases of bouquets tucked into alcoves. She saw none of these details, and so it came as no surprise that she collided into another.
She teetered backwards by the force of the impact, but two muscular hands grasped her shoulders and steadied her. Angela glanced up at her saviour, mortified to lock eyes with Manchester.
‘Oh!’ she wailed. Angela covered her face once more, wishing she could burrow beneath her blankets and hide from Manchester for the rest of her days.
Manchester shushed her and guided her into a nearby sitting room. With a quiet thud, he shut the door behind them. The afternoon was turning into a nightmare, for here she was alone with Manchester in a vulnerable, pitiful state.
‘What is the matter?’ he asked with grave concern.
Angela covered her heart with two hands. Sniffling, she almost let loose the screams of her devotion. ‘I love…’
But reason cut the last word off from her declaration.
Manchester waved his hand in the air, a gesture for her to finish. ‘You love?’
She scanned the sitting room for an excuse. Any excuse, and settled for the first that came to mind.
‘I love the view from this room,’ commented Angela as she crossed over to the window. ‘Whenever I peer through this pane of glass, the sight of the buildings and street below stirs tears in my eyes.’
‘My dear, you are too sensible of a woman to be moved to weeping simply because the sun shines today. Besides, you were crying before you even saw the view.’ Manchester withdrew a handkerchief. Instead of offering it to her, he tucked two fingers beneath her chin, tilted her head upwards and dabbed at the falling droplets. ‘Why does this angel cry?’
The tears streamed harder, like a river flooded during a tempest. ‘I cannot say,’ she murmured.
Manchester gave her a faint smile. ‘These wasted tears heighten the colour in your cheeks, giving the illusion of two pink roses.’ He rubbed the pad of his thumb against her cheek. ‘You are lovely.’
Tenderness shone through the depths of Manchester’s eyes, as if his compliment was spoken truthfully. He never looked at Evangeline like this, for the glint went beyond mere appreciation for physical beauty. A name couldn’t be pinned to what Angela saw, but it allowed her one short instant to believe Manchester could love her. A click reverberated throughout the room, and the doorknob turned. Angela’s gaze dropped to the floor, and she separated herself from Manchester. Not wanting to be seen with tearstained cheeks, she peered out the window.
Beside her, Angela heard Manchester say, ‘Evangeline, you are rather fetching in emerald green.’
Her sister heaved a heavy sigh. ‘The colour is something I fancy, for it often haunts my dreams.’
Manchester stepped away from Angela, leaving her feeling barren. ‘You ought to wear the colour more often. Are you ready to depart?’
‘Yes,’ said Evangeline shortly.
Footsteps echoed throughout the sitting room as the two retreated. Angela gasped, a sob that might be heard from a wounded soldier lying on a battlefield. Dizzy from a pulsing migraine, she clung to the pane of glass.
Bending her head, she observed the bustling street below. Two figures emerged from the townhouse. Manchester chattered about while holding Evangeline on his arm. Her disinterested sister flicked at the ribbon dangling from her bonnet.
Nearing his coach, Manchester assisted Evangeline into the vehicle. He boarded the driver’s seat and urged his horse onward. As the coach disappeared down the street, Angela cried at the window’s view.
Manchester drove his open coach down a row in Hyde Park, Evangeline sitting beside him. The coach moved past other coaches and hacks. There were also a few gentlemen on horseback and fair ladies walking amongst the greenery. Curious stares shot towards the pair, interested in the status of Manchester’s and Evangeline’s relationship.
Evangeline could almost hear the questions whirling around in their heads. Will the daughter of the Earl of Upton soon be the wife of the Duke of Manchester? Are the two engaged, but keeping the betrothal a secret? When will Manchester find the courage to ask for Lady Evangeline’s hand? When will the two be engaged? When will the two be engaged? When will the two be engaged?
This was her first public coach ride with Manchester. By showing her off like a trophy, he was practically announcing to all of London that she would soon be his betrothed. This was the seal that she was as good as his. All he had to do was offer the ring.
Evangeline quaked at the thought of marrying him. Visions of her walking down a church aisle with him waiting at the end terrified her beyond reason. It tore her apart to think that she may have his children, share her old age with him and die never knowing true love. She could not be the wife of this man, whose spirit was as wintry as a snowy December night. What she desired were fireworks, raw need, and white-hot passion. The only person who fit her definition of the perfect man was Alexander, a figment of her imagination.
She cast a sidelong glance towards Manchester, the man her sister loved. Could she betray her own flesh and blood for the sake of appearances and her mother’s demands? The answer was no.
‘I happened upon your sister before we left,’ said Manchester, cutting through the silence.
At the mention of Angela, Evangeline’s interest in what Manchester had to say was piqued for the first time in their acquaintance. ‘Angela is a darling. Don’t you think?’
‘She was in tears.’
The blatant remark caused Evangeline to whip her gaze at Manchester. She teetered at the jerky motion, but clutched the edge of her seat as if her fingernails were claws. ‘She was still crying when you found her?’
Manchester glanced at her, distressed by this revelation. ‘Still crying?’ he repeated.
Evangeline’s throat tightened. The last thing Manchester needed to learn was that Angela’s tears were spent on him. It would embarrass Angela to no avail! ‘No. I mean, Angela was grieving for a…personal loss.’
‘What has she lost?’ he asked.
You, you blind buffoon! ‘I am certain she would wish me to remain silent on the subject.’
‘I understand,’ murmured Manchester, although his grip on the reins was taut.
Another hush fell on the two. Unlike his normally cheery self, drolling on about a stain on his coat or the latest trip to his country estate, Manchester seemed to be in low spirits. Although she knew not the reason behind his sullenness, Evangeline was grateful for the chance to contemplate.
She was about to delve into her guilt when movement in the forestry not too far up ahead caught her attention. The coach inched closer; the shape of a man on horseback appeared. His features were still undistinguishable from her viewpoint; the golden hair shimmering in the sunlight reaching through the branches robbed her of breath.
Could it truly be?
Her nails dug into the seat, her knuckles white from the intensity of her hold. The coach rolled forward at a snail’s pace, too slow for the impatience bubbling up inside of her. Evangeline strained to catch a better glimpse of the man, and as the coach came within paces of the horse and rider her suspicions were confirmed.
Beneath the shade of a tree was the man of her dreams atop an ebony stallion. Decked out in doe-brown breeches, dark waistcoat, and burgundy coat, his unearthly beauty shattered her every thought. The sight of him left her aghast. Dumbfounded.
She studied every speck of him, ensuring that her vision was not deceiving her. Or perhaps her mind was failing. Even as she questioned her sanity, emerald eyes peered back at her with equal fervency.
As the coach crept onward, Evangeline twisted in her seat to keep her eyes trained on him. Alexander. Never did he look away, nor would he have even if a lunatic waving a pistol ran up to him. But the locked gaze broke by force when a minute later the greenery had swallowed him whole.
Evangeline blinked several times, certain her mentality was crumbling. Turning in her seat, she rubbed her eyes until it hurt. She gripped the seat, her strong hold making it possible that she could break off the edge.
Goodness, what is happening to me? Why do I keep seeing him?
The answer sprang into her mind without any reluctance. Her wish to live in a dream was crossing into reality. Her dreams were centred on passion and love. And a future with Manchester promised to be riddled with desolation and misery. She could never love him, and he could never love her. Not truly. But he could love Angela.
‘Do you believe in love?’ Evangeline asked out of the blue.
Manchester glanced over at her, confusion lying in his expression. ‘Did that question just pop into your head?’
‘Yes. Could you please answer me?’
The duke bit his bottom lip, as if considering her question. Like the gentleman he was, he reflected on her simple query. However, it was apparent he was uncomfortable, as if he were wearing a scratchy wool shirt. ‘Love is a fantastical notion created by playwrights, poets and musicians to entertain those with too much time.’
‘So you do not believe it exists?’ Crestfallen, she added in a hushed whisper, ‘Not even in marriage?’
‘I suppose it is possible such a concept exists, but it is something meant for the poor. People of our class marry for titles, wealth and power.’ He patted her on the knee. ‘Of course, we will be content in our own arrangement. You are a beautiful girl, and I am rather content at the prospect of marrying you.’
Good Lord, the casual mention of what he assumed, that they were to marry, was hardly a revelation. Nonetheless, it was still disturbing to voice the unavoidable.
‘Why, you could make a girl’s heart melt with your romantic spurts of poetry,’ mocked Evangeline. Her sarcasm had not gone unnoticed.
Manchester arched a reprimanding brow. ‘My dear, I was under the impression that you were a reasonable lady. Do not tell me that castles in the sky and hot blooded follies fill that head of yours, for I will be sorely disappointed.’
She could no longer hold back her abhorrence. The dam broke, and the actress was about to step outside of her role. ‘Disappointed in what you are purchasing?’ she countered.
The duke’s eyes widened. ‘Where is this coming from? I thought you were pleased at the prospect of marrying me.’
‘Never in my life have I been more dissatisfied with my future. I only play the role of a willing female, because it is what my family mandates. If I do not follow through with ensnaring you my mother has stipulated I may find myself without a home.’
‘Surely this is a terrible quip? We have gotten on well up until now. What has inspired this sudden change?’
Evangeline crossed her arms over her chest and stared straight ahead. ‘This is what I have felt since our first introduction two months ago. You were never one to inspire my sentiments. I do not want you. I never wanted you.’
She saw a sudden flash of anger in his eyes, but it was snuffed out as quickly as it appeared. No matter how brief the fury had been there, it was the first true emotion Evangeline had ever seen in him.
‘This entire courtship is a falsehood.’ Manchester looked to her, as if he expected some sort of reassurance. ‘Every smile, every coy glance and every brush of the hand? It has all been one grandiose and calculated lie?’
‘I have been a fool?’
Manchester grew very quiet. He mulled over this new information, considering every detail of his intended bride. The two drove around Hyde Park for another quarter of an hour before another word was said. It was the duke who spoke first.
‘I never believed love was a foundation for marriage. Familial alliances, dowries, and money are what dictate these arrangements for our blue blooded species. It is what our kind has thrived on since the days of knights. I still mean to bestow upon you the honourable title of Duchess of Manchester. I shall forgive you for your unkind words. I shall tolerate your whimsical ideas of love. I shall accept you for who you are, Evangeline, because I am very fond of you. Even if you find the sight of me loathsome, I am certain our marriage will grow into a warm-hearted friendship.’ He took her hand into his and gave it a slight squeeze.
It was then Evangeline’s puzzling question was answered. She finally understood why her sister was in love with Manchester. He was kind, generous, composed and forgiving. He was not one to burst into a temper or drown his sorrows with alcohol. He would be faithful to whomever he married, and he would treat her with respect. Manchester was the perfect man for her sister, but not for her.
‘I meant no offense. I spoke from pent up anger. Please, forgive me for my slight,’ said Evangeline, wholeheartedly wanting to be forgiven.
Manchester cast a smile in her direction. ‘You are forgiven.’
They drove on, Manchester shifting the seriousness of the conversation to something lighter. He spoke of his mother and her activity in charities benefiting the poor.
As he chattered incessantly, Evangeline had time to think. Now more than ever she was convinced she couldn’t enter holy matrimony with Manchester, but she couldn’t hate him for it. He was too kind to be the target of her detestation. If anything, she had to come up with a scheme to end her plight and join Manchester and Angela together. The problem was how could such a difficult feat be achieved?
Scanning the park for any sign of Alexander, she contemplated that very question.
Evangeline entered the sanctity of her home an hour after her drive with Manchester. She hadn’t taken her first step across the threshold when a familiar whine sounded from the parlour.
‘Evangeline, come here this instant!’ shouted her mother.
She heaved a sigh. What on earth have I done now?
Evangeline marched down the hall with her head held high, prepared to do battle. Only when she rounded the corner to the parlour did she realise her mistake. It was one of those rare occasions where her mother’s face was alight with joy. A very rare occurrence indeed.
Sitting beside her mother was Angela, who was as pale as a ghost. She noticed her sister’s eyes were glassy, as if she were on the verge of tears. Oh, the life was being sucked right out of Angela, and her mother was oblivious to it!
‘Sit down, silly girl! I have wonderful news,’ said her mother with absolute elation.
Evangeline did as she was bid and sat in a rosewood chair across from her mother. Angela refused to meet her gaze.
‘I visited Lady Geraldine today, and she informed me that the Duke of Manchester means to propose to you at a masquerade. You have accomplished the unthinkable. You have secured yourself a duke!’ squealed her mother.
Evangeline glanced at Angela, who was intently studying the tip of her slipper.
No wonder why she looks so horrid! The man she loves is to propose to me, her own sister! Her heart is being torn in two because she cannot fight for what she wants. And her distress is all for the sake of this ridiculous notion of doing right by our family.
‘Who is to host the masquerade?’ Evangeline heard herself asking.
If her mother was not shining as bright as the sun before, she was on the verge of becoming an exploding star. ‘That is the best part of the news. The masquerade is to be held in two days at the home of the Earl of Cheshire. He is certain to make an appearance before society, for he is the host!’
Angela abruptly rose from her chair. ‘Excuse me, mother. I am feeling a bit poorly.’
‘Of course. You must be dizzy from all this excitement, for you will be meeting your future husband in a matter of days! Go rest your pretty, little head.’ said her mother with a flick of the wrist.
Angela fled the parlour. Her soft footsteps treaded down the hall and towards the staircase.
Evangeline eyed her mother. Surely she must see that her daughter was not unwell but despondent?
The dreamy glint in her mother’s gaze confirmed she was ignorant of Angela’s stance.
Good Lord! How could a mother, whom nature intended to possess the ability to recognise her children’s emotions, not know what her own daughters were feeling?
A footman holding a tray brushed past Evangeline. On the tray was a crystal glass and a decanter filled with wine. The footman placed the tray on a table and began to pour wine from the decanter into the glass. It was her mother’s celebratory toast for the fruition of all her scheming and plotting.
‘I will leave you to your celebration,’ said Evangeline, her voice tinged with disgust.
The footman handed the glass to her mother, who raised it in Evangeline’s direction. ‘Do as you will. And congratulations on your engagement.’
‘He has yet to propose,’ spat Evangeline
‘Oh, but he will. He will. At the Earl of Cheshire’s masquerade! There you will become engaged, and Angela will be introduced to the famous recluse!’ Her mother downed the wine in one swift gulp, and handed it to the footman for a refill.
Evangeline shook her head and departed without another word. She went straight to Angela’s bedchamber. There, she found her sister sitting in a chair before a mirror, a handkerchief in hand to dab away her tears.
‘Oh!’ exclaimed Evangeline.
She rushed to her sister’s side and kneeled beside her.
‘I—am—fine,’ said Angela through strangled sobs.
Evangeline took her sister’s fragile hand in her own. ‘You are not. Do not try to spin untruths, for the tears streaming down your face betray you.’
‘I may seem upset at the moment, but within the hour I will have regained my composure. There is no need to fuss over me.’ Angela blew into the white handkerchief.
Evangeline squeezed Angela’s hand. ‘Sister, please. I cannot bear to see you unhappy. There must be some way we can correct this situation.’
Her sister’s head snapped in her direction. Angela sniffled before saying, ‘No! I will not have you ruin mother’s happiness.’
Evangeline’s gaze bore into Angela’s eyes with a silent plea. ‘At the expense of your own?’
‘Oh, what a ridiculous excuse!’ she chided. ‘The only plausible explanation for your unwillingness to express yourself to Manchester is because you are afraid! You fear he will rebuff you, or that mother will disown you.’
‘The notion of mother throwing me out on the street is not too farfetched,’ Angela pointed out. ‘She threatened to do the same to you if you choose not to accept Manchester’s courtship.’
Evangeline pursed her lips. ‘Is that what you fear? If so, surely we can find some solution to please everyone, including mother.’
Fresh tears began to rain on Angela’s muslin frock. ‘Any attempt to unite me with Manchester would be useless. He is smitten with you. I see how he looks at you when he holds you in his arms during a dance or when you enter a room. He loves you!’
Evangeline shook her head. ‘That is not the case! He does not love me in the least.’
Angela stifled a sob to stare her sister down. A tear rolled down her cheek as she asked, ‘What do you mean?’
‘During our ride in Hyde Park Manchester informed me that he was not in love with me. The look you saw in his eyes was an appreciation for my beauty. What he wants from me is a marriage of convenience, a pretty wife to warm his bed and a woman to beget him an heir.’
Evangeline neglected to say that the duke believed love to be a fable, but it would not do to crush the scant hope she saw growing in her sister’s eyes. Angela was shy and demure, the perfect match for the duke. If Manchester just considered courting Angela, or if Angela confessed her true feelings surely love would follow. Oh, love should bloom in the heart of the duke, for her sister was hopelessly in love with him and this had to have some effect on the prim and proper gentleman!
Angela wiped away a few more salty droplets. ‘You jest,’ she accused.
Evangeline huddled even closer to her sister’s chair. ‘Not at all. What I say is the absolute truth.’
‘Even if this is so, he is set on making you his wife. If I were to pour my heart out to him there is no guarantee he will accept me. Manchester might turn me away with no more than a light letdown and a pat on the head.’
‘Take the risk.’
Angela’s jaw slackened. ‘And make myself a laughing stock? Ha! I think not.’
‘If you do not take this gamble it will be your life’s greatest regret.’
Evangeline’s words must’ve struck a nerve, for Angela paused to consider this advice. Seconds stretched into minutes until Angela opened her mouth with new objections. ‘What of Mother’s ploy for me to ensnare the Earl of Cheshire?’
‘Goodness, is that the best excuse you can muster?’
‘I am perfectly serious. Mother wants me to marry the earl. What will happen if I do happen to marry Manchester, and you remain a woman on the brink of spinsterhood? She will not be pleased to only have one married daughter and her eldest still unattached.’
Evangeline nodded. ‘There is also her need to own the ridiculous bragging rights of having a daughter marry London’s infamous recluse.’
‘See. Any attempt to change our set courses is futile.’
Suddenly, an idea popped into Evangeline’s head. It was a simple plan, to be sure. And it would be one of unselfish sacrifice for the sake of her sister’s happiness. ‘I will marry the Earl of Cheshire.’
Angela’s eyes rounded into two large saucers. ‘What?’ she exclaimed.
‘Do not look at me as if I need to be locked into Bedlam. On the night of the masquerade, before Manchester proposes to me, you must confess your love to him. Convince him to offer for your hand, not mine. I will secure an introduction with the Earl of Cheshire, and hopefully woo the man. If it comes down to pleasing mother I will marry the earl myself, and Manchester will be yours for the taking.’
‘The plan sounds viable, but you cannot be serious.’
A devious smile crossed Evangeline’s lips. ‘Of course I am. I want you to be happy, and I want to be free of Manchester. Everyone wins.’
‘Only if it works in our favour,’ pointed out Angela.
‘Oh, it will.’
A grin spread across Angela’s face like wildfire. ‘This might be possible.’
‘It certainly cannot be impossible if we act together.’
Angela bent down and flung her arms around Evangeline’s neck. She whispered into her sister’s ear, ‘I will forever be in your debt.’
Evangeline returned the embrace. ‘You will not be, for I must admit a part of my motivation is this need to be rid of Manchester. But our ride in Hyde Park revealed to me why you are besotted by him.’
‘He is kind and sweet and generous and caring and…’
Evangeline giggled at her sister’s eagerness to spout a well of praise for the prudish duke. ‘Alright. Alright. I understand the extent of his charming qualities.’
Angela drew back. ‘I am so grateful to you, Evangeline. Oh, I love you so very dearly!’
Rising from the floor, Evangeline said, ‘I love you as well. Why else would I agree to marry the Earl of Cheshire for your sake?’
‘What if his hair is thinning or he has a potbelly? What if he has yellowish teeth or a lisp that causes spit to spatter everywhere? Would you still marry him for me?’
‘Anything is better than Manchester. More importantly, I would do anything for you.’
Angela clapped her hands together. ‘I may be Manchester’s betrothed in two short days!’
Evangeline chuckled at her sister’s uplifted spirits. ‘Ha! I have a nagging suspicion that you will be.’
Angela turned in her chair. Resting her chin on folded hands, the mirror reflected the look of a girl in love. ‘Oh, what a blessing fate has bestowed on me.’
Thoughts of the man dwelling in her dreams entered Evangeline’s mind. Theirs was an impossible passion that was edging on madness. Saddened, she said, ‘A person is fortunate whenever an elusive love is within reach.’
Angela glanced over at Evangeline. Her brow creased, and she said, ‘I just remembered something.’
‘Last night, at Manchester’s ball, there was a man asking after you.’
Evangeline snorted. ‘This suitor is a bit late in being able to court me.’
‘Do not be cruel,’ chided her sister. ‘I pity the fellow, for he seemed to be quite besotted by you.’
Despite the ridiculousness in a gentleman pursuing her when the whole of the ton believed her to be matched with Manchester, Evangeline’s curiosity regarding this suitor was perked. ‘What was his name?’
‘I could never forget, for he shares the name of a famous Greek.’ Angela twisted to face Evangeline. ‘Alexander.’
‘Alexander?’ repeated Evangeline in disbelief.
Angela paused, considering the mirth that had faded from Evangeline. ‘Are you ill?’
‘No. I am fine.’ Evangeline forced a smile. ‘Tell me what this man looks like.’
‘Well, he was tall and muscular with defined features. His hair was the colour of pure gold, but that was not his most remarkable feature. It was…’
‘His eyes,’ interjected Evangeline.
Her sister tilted her head to the side. She opened her mouth, perhaps to ask how Evangeline knew this detail, but thought better of it. Instead, Angela continued, ‘Yes, his eyes. Two emeralds flecked with amber.’
‘I must excuse myself.’ Evangeline rose, a distant look in her eyes. ‘I am feeling rather sleepy all of a sudden. I think a well-deserved nap is in order before we must all suffer through another tedious soiree.’
‘I will send your maid to wake you in two hours.’
‘Thank you,’ said Evangeline.
Evangeline spun on her heels and left Angela’s bedchamber for her own. She locked herself in her room and leaned against the door. Tilting her head against the door, she pondered the information her sister had divulged. She ran over the two sightings of her dream man and the fact that a possible suitor matching his description had searched for her the previous night.
The entire situation seemed too complex, beyond anything she could ever comprehend. She was hoping for Alexander to exist outside of her imagination and in the waking world. Only, these wishes were leading to the demise of her senses.
She was searching for someone who did not exist. Someone who could never exist; he was simply a figment of her imagination. The sightings at Manchester’s ball and Hyde Park could easily be explained as a trick of the eyes, like spotting a ghost. And Angela’s encounter with a man named Alexander sharing her dream man’s outward appearance was only coincidence.
Evangeline rubbed her aching temples.
All I want to do is sleep. I want to forget about this madness and find comfort in Alexander’s arms.
The bed loomed in the centre of the room, tempting her into the realm of slumber. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse. Evangeline strode over to the bed and flung herself onto the mattress. The second her head hit the pillow she was sound asleep and dreaming of her golden haired gentleman, the only man who had ever captured her heart. The only man she would love but never come to marry, for he was not one with reality.
The two stood before the door to the library. Alexander held her in his powerful arms, a solace from the disappointments of the waking world. Her head rested against his chest, and she could hear the rapid beating of his heart. His chin rested atop her head, and a hand glided over her back.
‘I think I love you,’ whispered Evangeline.
A chuckle rumbled throughout his body. ‘I know I love you. I have since you first came to me, when you first stepped through this door.’
She drew back a fraction so she could gaze up into his emerald eyes. The light from the chandelier above caused the amber flecks in those green pools to sparkle like a rare gem. ‘I adore you with every part of myself. My every dreaming and waking moment is dedicated to you, but this is a love that can never be. A part of my mind knows this is only a dream, Alexander.’
The smile on his face faded. ‘Let us not speak of dreams and reality, but I will say this. I have dreamt of you as well.’
Evangeline’s brows knitted together. ‘How can that be?’
‘Because this is my dream,’ he whispered.
Her confusion heightened. Before she could ask what he meant, his lips were upon her. All rational thought flew out the window. What mattered was his kiss, his hands and his touch. Nothing else existed in this moment but him. Her Alexander.
His hands lowered to cup her buttocks, and he moulded her to him. She felt his hardened shaft against her belly, and Evangeline released a strangled moan. As if they had a will of their own, her hands glided into his golden hair. Evangeline tugged at his hair, so the kiss was broken.
‘I want you,’ she whispered. ‘I want all of you.’
Alexander growled at her eagerness. He backed her against the door, pinning her in place. And oh, how Evangeline luxuriated in having his entire body pressed against hers.
His mouth was on her again. His kisses left a wet trail as he tasted every spot from her jaw line to her slender throat. He slid a hand along her thigh and hoisted her leg around his waist. Instinctively, Evangeline bucked against the hardness pressed against her swollen centre. He lifted her off the ground, and she wrapped her other leg around him.
‘You are so beautiful. My goddess ,’ he muttered against her skin.
She framed his head with her hands and returned his mouth to her own. Alexander carried her over to a wooden and outdated table, settling her on the edge.
Evangeline tore his white cravat, a contrast from his bronzed skin, away from his neck. She helped him shrug out of his coat and waistcoat and pulled his linen shirt over his head. He moved towards her, but she laid a hand on his chest to halt his progress.
Goodness, she just wanted to sit there and stare at his perfection, even if for a few seconds. Alexander’s chest was as perfect as any grecian sculpture. He was flawlessly chiselled where every male ought to be. The contours and ridges of his muscles signalled years of exercise and sweaty exertions. His bronze skin made his chest look like armour.
‘My, my, my . You are splendid,’ she said with complete honesty.
He laughed at her blunt remark. ‘I am glad I please you.’
Alexander bent his head to kiss her yet again. His mouth worked wonders, he tore at her bodice, corset and chemise until her breasts were displayed before him. He kneaded one globe with a hand and lowered his mouth to suckle the other.
Evangeline arched into the sensation, offering more of herself to him. She glided her hands through his hair, holding his head against the one breast. She was wet where his shaft pressed against her molten centre. Oh, she felt so wanton sitting here half naked before this man!
He gathered her skirts in his fists, dragging the silk fabric against her tender skin. His hands skimmed along her thighs as he pulled her drawers and garters away, leaving her vulnerable to his exploring touch.
Two fingers slid into her wetness, and he began to massage away some of the building ache. In a few short instants, she felt her world explode into a million pieces. She went limp in his touch as she experienced her climax, the pleasure rippling through her body like the gentle waves of a peaceful ocean.
But it was not enough. She wanted to be filled to the hilt with him. It was as if Alexander heard her thoughts, for he loosened the buttons of his breeches. He plunged into her with an urgency that surprised both of them.
‘This might sting, but it will subside,’ Alexander whispered as he slid into her bit by bit.
The head of him broke her maidenhead, and to Evangeline’s astonishment it stung. She let out a cry of surprise, but he muffled it with a kiss. The pain slowly ebbed until all she felt was pleasure. Her hands slid under his breeches, and she grasped his buttocks, urging him closer.
Alexander withdrew from her and thrust into her again. He withdrew and thrust. Withdrew and thrust. Withdrew and thrust, bringing her to the brink of another climax. Evangeline reached the cliff of passion and surrendered to the pleasure. He thrust once more, spilling his seed into her. The two were cloaked in silence, save for their ragged panting.
Alexander joined their lips once more before saying, ‘I feel as if the love I bear for you will be the death of me.’
She smiled, satisfied with having secured this man’s adoration. ‘And you are an addiction.’
Alexander stared into her eyes, entranced by whatever he saw there. Love radiated from those depths. The passionate love she had always desired.
‘You are mine. And I will find you, for without you I am destined to live out a lonely life,’ he vowed…
Evangeline’s eyelids slowly opened, even though she hated for her dream to end. Alexander loved her, and she wanted to return to his warm embrace. But it was useless to pin so much emotion to a mere dream. It was pure folly, and she knew the great extent of her silliness.
But the reverie had seemed so real. Even now, she could feel the aftermath of their lovemaking. And she relished in it: the soreness between her legs, her heated temperature, and the swollenness of her ravished lips.
There was no reason why her dreams kept crossing over into reality, but Evangeline didn’t care. If these sensations were to be all she had of Alexander, she would savour every bit of it.
The door creaked open. Foreboding crackled through the bedroom, Evangeline could only assume it was her mother paying her a call. They were to attend the Earl of Cheshire’s masquerade in two days, and her mother was bound to give her instruction on how to accept a proposal. Only, she wouldn’t have to.
Evangeline tensed as the door continued to open, and fingers curled around the edge. Just when she was certain her mother’s hawkish features and narrowed eyes were about to appear, a welcome face peeked around the corner.
‘Angela!’ cried Evangeline as she threw off the covers.
Her sister gave her a half-smile, the first in several months. ‘I presume I am allowed to trespass?’
‘Of course you are, and you always shall be.’ Evangeline scurried to sit on the edge of the bed. Patting the space beside her, she added, ‘Come here.’
Angela’s entire body emerged from behind the door, revealing a bouquet in her grasps. As she walked over, Evangeline’s brow furrowed at the arrangement of white orchids and feathery lilac. The pairing of the delicate with the hardy was breathtaking. Whoever chose it had an eye for beauty.
‘I see you are curious about these flowers,’ remarked Angela as she seated herself beside Evangeline.
‘Is it from Manchester?’ inquired Evangeline, who thought the duke hadn’t a romantic thread in his body.
Angela’s joy fell for a moment but was quickly regained. ‘No, silly. These are from…well, I do not know who sent these flowers.’
‘Where did you find it?’
‘After I returned from my call to Lady Geraldine, I found it on the doorstep. Can you imagine my surprise at finding this lovely heap?’
‘No. One does not often find gifts waiting on her doorstep.’
Holding out the bouquet, Angela said, ‘The flowers are for you.’
As Evangeline’s hand encompassed the stems, she asked, ‘How do you know it is for me? What if it is for you from a forlorn suitor?’
‘If you look,’ said Angela with a pointed finger, ‘you shall find a card that is addressed to you.’
She found an envelope nestled in a cluster of lilacs She bit her lower lip, marvelling at who could’ve possibly sent her the bouquet. If it was not Manchester, who would be daring enough to court her when all of London thought her on the brink of an engagement?
‘Well, aren’t you going to open it?’ urged Angela.
Evangeline lifted a hand, hesitated but decided her reluctance was impractical. It was not as if it concealed a cache of snakes. The envelope was too small for that.
Careful not to snap the flower stems, Evangeline tenderly reached for the envelope. She laid the bouquet on her covers and flipped the white rectangle over. Her name scrawled out in an elegant script.
She slowly opened it. A snake didn’t lurch out, but there was the expected leaf of paper. Evangeline unfolded the contents and read the same elegant hand. Her jaw slackened as she read the words, ‘You are found.’
The paper slipped from her hold and into her lap. Alexander’s words from within her dream beat through her mind. And I will find you, for without you I am destined to live out a lonely life.
Could it be him? Could it truly be the man of her dreams? And I will find you…
Maybe she was already found. Just, maybe.
Angela placed a hand on her shoulder, breaking her away from her uncertainty.
‘What does it say?’ asked her sister with evident concern.
Without finding a viable lie, Evangeline said, ‘Nothing, really.’
Her usually dignified sister snorted. ‘Come, now! Someone sends you a lovely bouquet with a card and you expect me to believe nothing is written on the card? No profession of love? Not even a little poem?’
‘I cannot say.’
‘At least tell me who sent it,’ pled Angela.
Evangeline let out a nervous laugh. ‘Either it is from destiny, or I am simply losing my sanity.’
Thankfully, Angela didn’t ask for a translation of the cryptic riddle. Angela only stared at her as if she had growna second head, but the look wasn’t what consumed Evangeline. It was Alexander and the several coincidences connecting him to her reality.
Two days later, Evangeline was nestled in the comforts of the family carriage with her father, her mother and Angela. Sitting opposite of her pompous parents, Evangeline smother a chuckle as she watched her father study their appearances before nodding his approval.
And who could blame him? We are a breathtaking lot, mused Evangeline.
Angela was dressed as a fairy for the masquerade. She wore a shimmering mask, canary feathers sprinkled on the top portion. The sparkling fairy wings attached to her back were lovely but could prove to be a hazard in what would be a large crowd. She was garbed in a yellow gown, silk-stitched with red lace. Red garnets hugged her throat and dangled from her ears. Rouge added colour to her pale features, and her lips were painted red. She was a confection.
Evangeline’s mask was outlined with gems and fashioned from red cloth. A ruby red domino gave her the appearance of a beguiling temptress. Her chocolate locks were swept up with brilliants glinting in the moonlight shining through the window. A string of moonstones graced her neck. Although her clothing was not much of a costume and more of a stunning disguise, her beauty was sure to capture the attention of curious gents and jealous young misses. Her eyes shimmered with excitement; tonight was the night she would free herself of Manchester. The twinkle in her gaze shone brighter than any adornment.
‘Tonight one of my lovelies will be engaged, and the other shall set off on the path to attract a man of her own,’ boasted her father, whom seemed more than pleased his daughters would soon be on their way to the altar.
‘You are correct father, but perhaps matters will not turn out as you believe,’ said Evangeline with a smirk.
Angela elbowed her side, a warning that she wouldn’t have their plans foiled by Evangeline’s loose tongue.
‘What do you mean, my girl?’ asked her father with a quizzical brow.
‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’ Evangeline gave him an innocent smile.
Her father brushed aside her foreshadowing. ‘You are a silly creature, Evangeline.’
‘Yes, father,’ she said.
Suspicion fuelled the glare her mother was sending her way. Her mother sensed something was amiss. She was acting too submissive, too obedient. It was out of character.
‘Why do you stare at me as if I am Satan incarnated, mother?’ asked Evangeline as she batted her eyelashes.
‘No reason,’ assured her mother. However, the infernal glare continued.
Evangeline flashed her mother a mockingly sweet smile before returning her attention to her father. ‘Tonight shall be a very interesting masquerade. I expect a night filled with surprises and grand luck.’
‘I see you are spinning fantasies in your head now that we will see the innards of the famous Earl of Cheshire’s home. Have a care, Evangeline, to try and remain level-headed,’ warned her father.
‘She will, father. I will be by her side much of the night to keep her in line,’ promised Angela, who winked towards Evangeline.
The carriage pulled to a halt. Everyone peered outside the window to catch a first glimpse of the recluse’s famed lair. The townhouse was actually quite charming. The architecture must have been inspired by a French chateau. The walls were of golden stone and pavilions dominated the front of the building. Windows lined the three levels of the home. The staircase leading to the entrance was large and opulent, complete with interlacing iron cast railing. Faux Roman statues stood outside the doorway to the home, the marble ancients acting as quiet guards. Several of society’s men and women were already mounting the steps. Their bodies were specks compared to the large building.
‘To think, Angela, you will be the mistress of all this,’ said Evangeline’s mother, a dreamy look in her eyes.
‘Perhaps,’ said Angela.
The family’s footman swung the door wide open.
Before being the first to leave the carriage, the earl turned to look at his daughters. He said, ‘Make me proud.’
And out he went, his wife following him.
Evangeline squeezed her sister’s hand. ‘Remember the plan?’
‘Yes.’ Angela released a giggle she could no longer contain.
The two shared an affectionate smile.
‘Then let us proceed,’ said Evangeline.
The two girls clambered out of the carriage and purposefully walked up the steps. It was time to begin.
Nearby Angela heard the whispers of two dowagers. The old biddies were gossiping about how the reclusive Earl of Cheshire had yet to appear at his own masquerade, which was a certain blessing. As long as the earl was tucked in his lair, her mother would not search for her. And as long as her mother stayed away, Angela could profess her true feelings to Manchester.
She stepped away from the chaise where the two dowagers were seated. Stalking over to a tall, potted fern, she attempted to conceal herself from most of the eyes in the ballroom. The plant might not be the best shield, but it kept her hidden from the eyes that mattered most, Manchester’s.
Shoving aside the fern’s fanned leaves, she spied Evangeline leading Manchester out into the gardens. Excitement buoyed her nerves, for their scheme was about to commence.
‘Shouldn’t a young lady be dancing and not scouting from behind the leaves of a plant?’ asked a deep voice to her left.
Angela’s eyes whipped to the side, and her cheeks burned a deep crimson when she found Alexander. His grin mocked her.
‘I…I only meant to…’
‘Mumbling shall do you no justice.’ Alexander positioned a hand behind his ear. ‘You only meant to?’
‘I meant no harm,’ she managed to say through a stutter or two.
Alexander chuckled. ‘Calm yourself, Angela. I shall not scold you for spying on your sister and her presumed fiancé.’
‘I was only watching, because Evangeline hatched a plan to rid herself of Manchester,’ divulged Angela.
He froze. ‘A plan, you say?’
Without considering her confidant, she continued, ‘Yes. Evangeline is out in the garden with Manchester. After they stroll for a few minutes, I am to appear and tell him of my love.’
‘A flawless plan,’ mused Alexander. The look in his eyes showed he was not convinced in the ability of the plot.
‘It shall work!’ shouted Angela, perhaps a tad louder than necessary. The two dowagers seated on the chaise turned their heads and glared at her.
‘Must you always make us the centre of attention?’ smiled Alexander.
Angela let out a sigh of exasperation. ‘The plan will work, for it shall bind me to the one I adore body and soul! And it shall free Evangeline.’
Alexander’s grin deepened. ‘Believe me, I am hoping your plan achieves its aim. It if does, I shall be free to pursue my own love.’
She paused, absorbing the immensity of his words. After a time, she said, ‘You sent Evangeline the bouquet.’
He spread his hands out, palms facing upwards. ‘I am caught.’
‘She was rattled after reading the note,’ said Angela.
‘I do not doubt it.’
Angela narrowed her eyes, angered by his lack of empathy. ‘What did the note say? What dishonourable words did you feed her?’
‘Hush now,’ demanded Alexander. His mischievous air evaporated, replaced by offensiveness. ‘My note might very well of upset her, but she shall reconcile with the strangeness of our courtship once she realises I am here. That I exist.’
Angela brushed over his last statement. ‘What did the note say?’ she repeated.
‘If you must know,’ began Alexander, ‘the note was rather innocent. All it said was “You are found.’’’
‘That is all?’
‘That is all. Do not trouble yourself with further questions, for you shall never grasp the answers.’ He gestured towards the entrance leading to the gardens. ‘It is time for you to find your own love.’
Angela realised that her conversation cost her several precious minutes. By now she should have been with Manchester, but instead she’d wasted precious time in Alexander’s presence.
‘Pardon me,’ she said, staring at the doorway. ‘I must go.’
‘So must I.’ Before he stepped away, he murmured, ‘May fortune guide you.’
The two went their separate ways, each with a serious purpose. And each depended on her ability to direct Manchester’s eyes towards her. To allow Manchester to see her and all she offered, including her endless adoration.
Out amongst the perfectly trimmed bushes, winding clematis, fragrant rosebushes, white myrtle, colourful hydrangeas, and a few towering trees, Manchester and Evangeline sat on a marble bench. She was the sole focus of his gaze as he leaned inappropriately close. Her fragile hand was trapped in his two large paws. A smile graced his face as he sat there, listening to her talk of the masquerade’s wondrous atmosphere.
‘The entire affair has a flare of exoticism,’ she said as she peered over his shoulder.
Where was Angela? Surely by now she was able to escape their mother.
‘Yes,’ agreed Manchester.
‘What do you think?’ she asked.
Before he even opened his mouth, shadowy movement only paces away caught Evangeline’s attention. What she saw made her grin like a Cheshire cat. Angela had finally come. Lord above, it was about time!
‘I think the masquerade is charming. It is the opportune event for me to pose a certain question,’ he said.
Manchester slid from the bench and knelt on one knee. ‘Evangeline, your wit and beauty have me ensnared. Despite your advancing age, you are the perfect woman. If I may be so bold as to ask–’
She laid two fingers on his mouth, causing his lips to stop flapping. ‘We both know that you are about to ask for my hand in marriage. We both know I do not want to be your wife. We both know my answer shall be a no. But before you begin to object, let me introduce you to someone who truly loves you.’
Angela appeared from the darkened backdrop. Her fairy costume gave her the appearance of a nymph. As she came to the marble bench, her face was beaming. It was then Evangeline understood her sister didn’t just love Manchester. Angela was his soul mate, his better half.
Now it is up to Angela to convince him of this, thought Evangeline.
Manchester stood up, utter shock fixed on his face. He glanced over at Evangeline. ‘Your sister?’
Evangeline nodded. ‘We will never suit one another. But my largest motivation in rebuffing you is because Angela is your woman. It would be wrong of me to take the man she loves, and perhaps your one chance at realising love does exist. Please listen to what she has to say.’
Manchester looked over at Angela expectantly. ‘Is this true?’
‘Every word.’ Angela extended an arm, a silent gesture for him to come. ‘I will explain everything as we stroll through the gardens.’
Still dumbfounded, he walked over to Angela and tucked her hand in the crook of his arm. ‘Please do.’
As the two disappeared down a narrow path, Evangeline could not help smiling a brilliant smile. Her plan was working! Manchester hadn’t put up a fuss like she expected. The duke had gone willingly. Perhaps he was interested in her sister after all.
Evangeline turned towards the house only to find her mother staring her down from the doorway that led to the ballroom. She narrowed her eyes, returning the glare. So, her mother had witnessed all that occurred. No doubt she was in for a verbal thrashing.
Defiantly, she held her head high and started towards her mother. She would protect Angela’s budding romance. Their mother wouldn’t destroy this, even if Evangeline found herself without a home on the morrow.
‘I see you have mucked up the duke’s proposal,’ seethed her mother.
‘Out of curiosity, would it make a difference if I told you I did this out of selflessness?’
Her mother’s fingers curled into fists. ‘It would be selfless of you to marry him! Our family needed the alliance.’
She shook her head. ‘I could not. Not when Angela was in love with him.’
‘What does love have to do with anything? For our class love is a myth! Marriages are built on titles, money, lands and power! Look at your father and I. We married because our parents dictated it. There is not a trace of affection, only chilly indifference.’
‘You would condemn your daughters to such marriages?’
Evangeline couldn’t believe her ears! This was coming from the woman who lectured her on selflessness. ‘Mother, there will be a union between our family names. Only I will not be the daughter to achieve your aim. Angela shall be the duke’s bride before the season is out, for she loves him. And I have faith he will come to return her love.’
Her mother’s eyes narrowed. ‘Foolish girl! Your father and I needed you to be the bride! You are nearly a spinster. There are those in our ranks who already say that you are. This was your last chance to acquire a husband! No one will propose to you now! You have ruined everything!’
‘I was never interested in marrying someone less than the man of my dreams,’ said Evangeline, her voice eerily calm.
Her mother slapped her across the face. The whack resounded into the night. Evangeline was not surprised they’d finally come to blows. It was a miracle that they’d survived this long without becoming physical in their fighting.
Although she wore a mask, Evangeline was certain a red handprint decorated her cheek. She laid a hand on her face. ‘Did I truly deserve that?’
Jabbing a finger in her face, her mother spat, ‘Absolutely. You are a burden to your family. Even if we are wealthy, our family could’ve used a few alliances. Additional power and wealth would have been welcomed. Yes, our name will be united with Manchester’s, but we will never be in the Earl of Cheshire’s family! You will rot and wither away in your father’s home!’
‘Ah. So your threats were hollow. I shall continue to live under your roof.’
‘Unfortunately. If I were to cast you out the ton would never cease gossiping about the Earl of Upton’s shunned daughter. You shall stay,’ her mother’s eyes narrowed into slits, ‘but I will make your life hell.’
Evangeline snorted. ‘It already is. I have you.’
Indignation flowing through her veins, her mother whirled around. She strode through the ballroom’s door, holding her head high out of her belief in her supremacy.
Tears welled in Evangeline’s eyes. Where was the mother who once bought her pasties and lemonade? Where was the mother who once read to her at night before tucking her in? Where was the mother who once encouraged her dreams and hopes? How did the mother who once showered her with love come to loathe her?
Salty droplets streamed down her face, wetting her stinging cheek. Evangeline tore the mask away. Returning to the masquerade in her current state was not an option. She needed a moment alone to gather her wits.
She didn’t return to the ballroom, instead she turned down a corridor and ran up a flight of stairs. At the end of the hall on the second level was a door. She ran right for the handle and threw open the door. Inside was her destiny and fate. Her dreams.
‘You have loved me?’ asked Manchester, staring straight ahead in disbelief as they strolled through the gardens. ‘After all this time, while I courted your sister, you stood in the shadows with adoration in your heart?’
‘When Cupid strikes, one cannot choose to avoid the arrow’s poison.’ Angela covered her heart with a dainty hand. ‘It floods you to the core, and either you embrace what has been dealt or you fight against it.’
Beneath the hand that rested on his forearm, Angela could feel his muscles tense at her candid admission. She closed her eyes and sent up a quick prayer, begging for the reciprocation of her love.
‘How long did you fight it?’ he inquired, not even casting a sidelong glance in her direction.
‘For weeks I struggled in vain to please my mother’s whims.’ Her fingers dug into his coat sleeve as she persisted, ‘But when it seemed your betrothal to Evangeline was on the nigh, I reached a point where the emptiness was breaking my soul.’
The two diverted from the path, seeking an enclosed space to be alone.
‘I must confess something to you, my dear,’ said Manchester, his voice hoarse.
‘What?’ whispered Angela.
The smell of roses tickled her nose, the aroma heightening the sweetness of this vulnerable moment. Following the scent, they entered a tranquil area enveloped by rose bushes. Tucked near the thorny plants was a statue of Aphrodite, her scantily clad marble body posing like any temptress would.
‘I am in love with you,’ he said.
Angela faltered when his words were spoken, but Manchester caught her. He collected her in his arms, holding her with a tenderness she had never known. Above, the night sky sheltered their blossoming romance, but neither noticed its beauty. The heavens were alight in their eyes.
Angela peered up at him in wonderment. ‘You do?’
‘Yes.’ He tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear, his finger brushing against her cheek. ‘I also struggled against these feelings. I thought your quietness was a sign of disinterest, but now I understand it was only uncertainty and shyness.’
‘Then why nearly commit yourself to Evangeline?’ asked Angela, her pride wounded by this reality.
Manchester closed his eyes, but his twisted face revealed his anguish. ‘It was a part of my battle. I tried to convince myself that love was a myth. When I accompanied Evangeline to Hyde Park a few days ago, I told her that very fallacy. Perhaps I told her in the hopes that if I said it aloud it would come true.’
Manchester’s eyelids fluttered open. ‘Now I cannot wade out of these emotions, even if I desired it.’
A tear streamed down her cheek. ‘Then drown with me.’
‘I shall.’ Manchester smiled a little and wiped away her tear. ‘I might not be the most poetic sort, but I am able to say I love you.’
‘I don’t need words,’ she said, sharing in his smile. ‘All I need is you.’
Manchester bent his head and kissed her, a gentle caress. He leaned his forehead against hers and stared right into her eyes, into the abyss of her soul where the emptiness was quickly filling with mirth.
‘Then marry me,’ he whispered. ‘Marry me and always be with me.’
Despite the tears now running rampant down her face, Angela laughed at the answer to her prayers. ‘Yes! With every piece of me, yes!’
Their lips met once more, sealing a future that paved the way for two others to find happiness. A happiness long in the making.
Evangeline gasped at the spectacle before her. Her eyes rounded in disbelief.
Staring back at her was a set of emerald eyes, amber drops floating in the seductive pools. The man reclined in a wingback chair, surrounded by shelved books. His head was tilted slightly downwards, his gaze piercing her where she stood. Hair the colour of antique gold shimmered in the dim candlelight. His skin was bronzed like the helmet of an ancient Greek warrior. His harsh features chiselled from stone, but laugh lines encircled a passionate mouth. A navy blue coat and white waistcoat hid what could only be a perfectly sculpted chest. A white cravat covered his neck. Pearl grey breeches accentuated muscular legs.
Was she dreaming? She pinched herself to make sure she was awake. She was.
‘Evangeline,’ said Alexander, his voice as smooth as velvet. ‘I said I would find you.’
‘It’s talking to me,’ she said, on the verge of hysterics.
The only plausible explanation for Alexander to be sitting before her was she was losing her mind. Her dreams were meshing with the physical world. All this stress must have been driving her insane, for before her was certainly a mirage. She rubbed her eyes. When she moved her hands to find the man still sitting in his chair she nearly swooned.
‘I am losing my mind. I belong in Bedlam, for surely this is an illusion. My mother will have a field day if she ever discovers I am crazed.’
Alexander’s solemn mouth stretched into a dazzling smile, a smile Evangeline could willingly lose herself in. Lord knew she already had. ‘I am as real as you.’
‘That cannot be. You are a dream. At least, you were nothing but a dream.’
Standing from the wingback, he stalked towards her. He stood mere inches from her. He was so close Evangeline could feel his breath brushing against her face. ‘You were also in my dreams, but no more. We are now together in the waking world.’
Peering up into his green gaze, she asked, ‘What are you? A sorcerer? A warlock? A demon?’
He reached out for her. He brought her hand to his lips. ‘I am none of those things. I am a mortal, just like you. I am Alexander Layton, the Earl of Cheshire.’
If she wasn’t shocked before, she was now delirious with astonishment. ‘You are the famous recluse?’
‘The gossips say you never leave your home. If that is so, how did you find me?’
Running the back of his hand along her cheek, the cheek her mother hit, he said, ‘For months my dreams were plagued by visions of you. For the longest time each dream was very quiet. I sat in my chair while you stood before this door. We would watch one another from a distance but never daring to approach. I fell madly in love with you, despite the fact I never heard you speak.
‘Thoughts of you filled my every waking moment. I thought I was mad for loving a dream, but then I came to the conclusion you had to be a real, breathing person. How could you not be? So I decided to re-enter society to find you. At the Duke of Manchester’s ball I saw you for the first time, but I left because I was too nervous. I thought you would find me insane if I explained my love. So I withdrew to the comforts of my seclusion, but I could not live without you knowing that you were real. I held this masquerade to lure you to my home, to my arms. Your reaction to me tells me you have had the same dreams as I.’
Evangeline reached out to place a hand on his cheek. And she felt the warmth of his skin. She placed another hand over his heart. There she found a rapid beat. Alexander was real. This was not a dream but grounded reality. ‘I experienced the same dreams. I believe I saw you spying on me at Manchester’s ball, for I noted a gentleman with your coloured hair.’
He wrapped two arms around her waist, drawing her near. ‘It was me.’
‘Why is this happening? Why did we share the same reveries?’
‘Fate. Destiny. Our Creator. Who knows? All that matters is that it led me to you.’
Alexander lowered his head, sealing their love with a kiss. He withdrew a fraction, his tenderness already leaving Evangeline drunk on passion.
‘I know we have just met. At least in this realm, but I love you with all my heart.’
Tears misted her eyes. Dreams could come true. ‘I love you, too.’
He ran the pad of his thumb along the seam of her bottom lip. ‘Let me be yours forever. Marry me, Evangeline.’
‘How could I say no to you?’
Evangeline guided his mouth back to hers, an exquisitely tender kiss that revealed several tiers of ache and need. This heady sensation, sweeter than the most expensive wine, was making her lightheaded. If Alexander continued she was certain her weakening legs would give way, but he placed a supportive hand on her back. He wouldn’t lose his grip on her. He never would.
Alexander broke the kiss. His voice was gravelly when he said, ‘This time I will make love to you properly. In my bed.’
He reached behind her and turned the doorknob. The two abandoned the library, the scene of their dreams, and were amongst a different vista for the first time. It wasn’t as if the engaged lovers noticed this, for they were too enraptured with exploring one another as Alexander led Evangeline to his bedchamber.
Evangeline was naked and sprawled out on his bed, streaks of moonlight creating brushstrokes on her pale skin. Propped up on her elbows, her hungry gaze watched as Alexander shed the last piece of his clothing.
Towering over the edge of the bed, Alexander resembled a cross between a mythical god and a handsome warrior. His wavy, golden hair and tanned skin made him look divine, a fallen angel. His chest consisted of a network of ridges and contours. If Hercules ever existed, well, Alexander would put the demigod’s muscled strength to shame. Jutting from an obsidian nest was his throbbing sex. From the looks of it, he was ready to stake his claim on her. In a word, he was stunning. And he belonged to her.
Alexander crawled onto the bed, piercing her with the intensity of his emerald eyes. Naturally, her legs opened wide for him, and he settled into her softness. His shaft rubbed against the inside of her thigh, causing greedy visions of him filling her to dance in her head.
He lowered his head, beginning the long worship of her body. He nuzzled the bend of her neck as his left hand skimmed her curvaceous sides. He kissed his way down to the valley between her breasts and trailed his way to a globe. His tongue circled and teased until her nipple puckered. When he began to suckle her, Evangeline arched into him with a moan.
Alexander moved lower still, until his mouth was on her wet centre. Evangeline jolted up in surprise when his tongue slid into her, but he pushed her back onto the pillows, whispering assurances. He licked and teased and tormented with that wicked tongue until her world was an explosion of fireworks.
When he could no longer bare listening to her soft moans and cries, Alexander covered her once more with his magnificent body. The two shared a kiss, their mouths expressing what words could not.
He reached between them to guide his shaft into her sweet folds. Although he craved to hammer into her, he controlled his greedy need and slid in inch by tender inch. The head of him reached her maidenhead, and he broke through with a swift thrust.
Evangeline tensed beneath him, but she didn’t cry out. He kissed her to distract her from the pain. Once the pain subsided, Evangeline wrapped her arms and legs around him, as if she were trying to merge them into one.
Alexander plunged into her, filling her completely. He retreated and drove into her again repeatedly. Evangeline lifted her hips, meeting him thrust for thrust.
The build-up of pleasure was the most intoxicating experience of her life. Her release came instants later. A satisfied cry escaped her throat, echoing throughout the bedchamber. Alexander shared in her climax before collapsing on top of her. His head settled on the pillow beside her, his breath tickling her ear.
In the haze of the aftermath, Evangeline luxuriated in his crushing weight. Her hands wondered up and down his sleek back, over his muscled biceps and forearms, and down to his buttocks. She squeezed, causing him to groan. Her exploring was making him harden, again.
‘If you continue to touch me in such a manner you shall never leave this room,’ he mumbled.
‘I am a willing captive.’
‘God Almighty, I love you.’
A lazy smile stretched her lips. ‘Shall we have another go?’
He chuckled. ‘We cannot. In case if you have forgotten, I am the host of the masquerade that
is taking place downstairs. I must go and play my role.’
‘I know, but I do not want to share.’
Alexander rose onto his forearms, possessiveness glinting in his eyes. ‘That makes two of us.’
Despite his earlier objections, they continued to make love until the clock struck midnight. It was the hour of the masquerade where all the guests would dispense of their masks, revealing their faces for all to see. When their desires and passions were spent, the two dared to venture downstairs to join the crush.
Whispers erupted throughout the crowd the instant Alexander and Evangeline descended the grand staircase leading to the ballroom. Elderly matrons, strict lords, gossiping misses, and randy bucks began to discuss the scandalous entrance, for more than one person had noted Evangeline’s long absence.
Curious gazes darted between them, wondering why a spinster was on the arm of the famed recluse. Several matchmaking mothers were disappointed to see another woman with the Earl of Cheshire.
Evangeline searched the crowd for her family. On a bench along the wall she found her mother sitting with Lady Geraldine. Her mother’s face was beet red, her demeanour screaming bloody murder. Lady Geraldine couldn’t hide the sparkle in her eyes, for she was already plotting the outline for her next gossip column. Behind her mother stood her father, who seemed puzzled by the sight of his daughter with someone other than the Duke of Manchester.
Glancing towards the other side of the room, she found Angela and Manchester. The duke casually leaned against a pillar as he listened to Angela talk, his usual stiffness gone. Replacing the prim gentleman was an easygoing fellow with a besotted air about him. Angela shone brighter than the sun, her happiness contagious to all that looked her way.
Evangeline congratulated herself for the success of her plan. Angela was dazzling Manchester, clearing the path for her and Alexander to marry. Most importantly, Angela was no longer distraught, her joy rivalling Evangeline’s.
Her gaze flickered over to Alexander, who was admiring her with gentle warmth. The two shared an intimate smile before being swallowed by the crowd.
Alexander and Evangeline crossed the ballroom floor, his fascinated guests making way for the pair without any objections. He guided Evangeline to where her parents resided.
‘Mother, Father, it is my pleasure to introduce you to the Earl of Cheshire, my betrothed.’
‘It is an honour to meet Evangeline’s family,’ declared Alexander.
Her father arched a bemused brow, baffled as to why his daughter was on the arm of someone other than Manchester. Her mother was clearly angered, for she looked as if she recently acquired sunburn. Evangeline relished the expressions on her parents’ faces.
‘Whatever happened to your courtship with Manchester? I was under the impression he was to ask for your hand tonight,’ said her father.
Evangeline’s mother batted her fan at her husband, who was lacking his social graces in the midst of all this confusion. ‘Now is not the time or place to discuss this, Henry.’ Looking beyond the young couple in front of her, she continued, ‘There are too many prying eyes here.’
It was at that moment Angela and Manchester decided to join the group. All eyes fixated on the beaming couple.
Manchester, ever the gentleman, gave a swift bow before saying, ‘Good evening everyone. Angela and I have news to impart, but I believe she is eager to announce it herself.’
Angela gave the duke a gleeful glance before saying, ‘Mother, Father, the Duke of Manchester and I are engaged.’
If their mother was not furious before, her head was now spinning. ‘What? Is this some ill-conceived jape?’
Their father directed his gaze towards his wife. ‘Our daughters and their supposed bridegrooms look perfectly serious.’
With her hands tightening on her closed fan, their mother said, ‘Our girls have some explaining to do.’
‘If you wish, we could discuss this in my study,’ offered Alexander.
‘Superb idea,’ agreed their father.
A few minutes later, everyone gathered into Alexander’s study. The two joyous couples stood in the centre of the room, Evangeline’s and Angela’s parents seated in two wingbacks.
Sitting on the edge of her seat, their mother asked, ‘Why must you two girls always foil my plans? Evangeline was to marry Manchester and Angela was to marry the earl!’
Alexander mischievously glanced towards Angela. ‘Was she?’
‘Well, I have taken a fancy to the other sister,’ Alexander said wryly, tightening his hold around Evangeline’s waist.
‘What I would like to know is why Manchester has taken a sudden interest in Angela,’ said their father.
Manchester cleared his throat before saying, ‘I shall be the first to admit Evangeline is a radiant creature.’ He ignored Alexander’s murderous glare as he continued. ‘I regarded her with chaste admiration, believing her to be my ideal wife. Ours was to be a marriage of convenience. I was to provide for her, give her my name, and protect her from harm. She was to oversee my household, bear my children, and raise my heir. Throughout our courtship my sights were set on her, but a part of me always adored her meek and mild sister. I never approached Angela because of her shyness, for I thought she would slight me in some way or another. However, only hours ago, she confessed to a deep love for me. I once doubted in the concept of love, but Angela has converted me. Her warm regard melted the ice around my heart, and I have come to realise my earlier adoration is love.’
‘You intend to marry her?’ asked their father.
‘Absolutely. She is the woman I want to grow old with, to raise a family with, and to shower with love.’
Their father nodded, appreciating the frank answer. ‘Very good, Manchester. You always were a decent fellow.’
‘La-di-da ! Angela will marry a duke. But why is Evangeline parading on the arm of London’s famous recluse when she was to be engaged to Manchester?’ roared their mother.
‘Is the answer not obvious, Mother? We are in love.’
‘Headstrong child! Before tonight, you have never laid eyes on the Earl of Cheshire. How could you fall in love in a span of hours? How could you just swoop in and capture his heart?’ questioned her mother.
‘Mayhap you have underestimated the allure of a spinster?’ offered Angela.
Their mother’s jaw slackened, for Angela had never needled her before. ‘Your sister is a terrible influence!’
A sincere smile crossed Evangeline’s lips. To answer her mother’s questions, she said, ‘We have known each other for quite some time.’
Her father’s eyes narrowed. ‘When have the two of you met?’
Alexander and Evangeline shared a knowing glance.
‘If we were to tell you how we met, you would never believe us,’ replied Evangeline.
Her father was quiet for a time, but he seemed to accept her answer. Perhaps it was because he expected the worst and wished to remain ignorant of the details. Or perhaps he supposed it was at an innocent social function, such as a ball or a soiree. ‘Have the two of you been meeting in secret?’
‘Not in the least,’ assured Alexander.
‘How have you been courting my daughter?’ demanded her father.
‘In my dreams,’ Alexander said cheekily.
Evangeline chuckled at his intended pun. ‘Father, he has courted me in a gentlemanly manner. There are no scandals or rumours that can be attached to the family name.’
Her father searched her face for any deception. He must have seen absolute honesty, for he heaved a sigh of relief. ‘I do not understand when the two of you met or how this courtship took place, but it is of little concern as long as there is a marriage.’
‘Oh, there most certainly will be a wedding. I intend to make Evangeline mine as soon as possible,’ said Alexander.
‘I myself cannot wait to give Angela my name,’ interjected Manchester.
Their father clapped his hands together. ‘A double marriage, you have my blessings!’ Rising from his chair, he crossed the room to shake hands with the men who would marry his daughters.
‘But what of my plans? This is not what I intended!’ whined their mother.
Their father turned to deliver a stern look at his wife. ‘Hush, woman. Angela may not be marrying the Earl of Cheshire, but she shall be the wife of Manchester. Evangeline shall not belong to Manchester, but she is to be with the Earl of Cheshire. The only difference between this outcome and your scheming is the pairing. Be happy that you shall have a daughter who will be a duchess, and you can claim that your spinster daughter bewitched the reclusive earl. What do you have to complain about?’
Their mother blinked several times. Never in her life had her husband stood up to her in such a manner. Never had everyone gone against what she dictated. She was outraged by this treatment. But her husband’s words rang true. She would still benefit from this arrangement, even if it was not what she planned in the first place.
After several instants of contemplation, their mother grinned. She rose from her seat and crossed the room. Spreading her arms wide, she gathered Alexander and Manchester into an embrace. The two men returned the awkward hug.
‘My sons-in-law!’ she exclaimed.
Two months later, Evangeline and Angela stood before a vicar in matching wedding gowns, complete with white silk, cream trim, and decorative flowers. Flanking the brides were their besotted grooms. Neither of the gentlemen could focus on the vicar as he read from the Book of Common Prayer. They were too enraptured with their glowing brides.
The vows were exchanged with longing stares. Hands brushed against skin as the rings were slid on. The vicar said a few more words before saying the most anticipated words of the ceremony.
‘You may now kiss the bride,’ he announced. His gaze flicked between the sisters. ‘Well, brides.’
A wave of chuckles rippled through the congregation. Even Evangeline’s and Angela’s parents, who had come to approve of their sons-in-law and the arranged pairing, joined in the laughter.
The bridegrooms didn’t catch the humour, for they were too eager to seal the vows with a kiss.
Alexander lifted his bride’s veil and peered into her eyes. ‘I love you, Evangeline. I am yours, forever.’
Evangeline’s heart would burst from her overwhelming happiness. ‘Even the wildest of fantasies come true, for I now have you. The golden haired beast from my most sinful reveries.’
‘And now we shall share a life in reality, not just our dreams.’
A cheer went up throughout the congregation. Alexander and Evangeline looked to find Angela and Manchester sharing in a chaste kiss.
Their gazes returned to one another. The two smiled before sharing their own kiss, which was far from innocent. Passion sparked between the couple.
‘Sister, indulge yourself on your honeymoon, not on God’s altar before half of the ton!’ exclaimed Angela with a giggle.
Alexander and Evangeline reluctantly broke the kiss.
Evangeline turned to her sister and said, ‘Sage advice, but when have I ever listened to the words of others?’
‘Never, and I am grateful that you follow your heart.’ Glancing towards Manchester, she added, ‘With your encouragement, I learned to follow my own.’
Taking her sister’s hand, Evangeline said, ‘The strength was always in you. All you had to do was find it.’
The two couples shared smiles before walking down the church aisle and into the streets of London to a waiting carriage. Into a new life with the ones they loved.
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