Harlequin Historical July 2021

By: Madeline Martin

CHAPTER ONE


June 1816, London, England


The ring on the table required an answer.

Lottie turned away from it so abruptly that the hem of her skirt snapped against the Brussels weave carpet in her parlour. Her pulse beat heavily in her ears.

This was what she had wanted. Years ago. When she’d been a girl. But she was no longer that girl. She was a woman.

One who understood the effects of love.

One who had sacrificed far too much.

She hadn’t even opened the box yet. Not that it mattered. The jewel within was of little consequence. She had a good deal of wealth. She could purchase her own bloody ring.

What mattered was what it stood for.

Everything.

She’d had a ring on her finger once before and its presence there had scored her heart with what ought to have been eternal love. How wrong she had been.

Evander’s timing had been planned to perfection. Lottie had completed all her lessons that day—instruction to the women of the ton, who came to her to learn the art of seduction and flirtation. After all, why else would they come to a former courtesan.

Not that Lottie had wanted their life. What vicar’s daughter did? But then she’d had little choice in the matter. She’d offered too much to Evander in her youthful infatuation and ruined her prospects for anything else.

It rattled the soul to know what one must do to get by. To protect those one loved.

That was why her decision was so hard now. When the fantasy of love warred with bitter reality. When desire arose despite obligation. When society stood in the way of dreams that could never be.

There was no other man in her life. Her protectors were a thing of the past. Their financial support was no longer necessary now she had established herself as an educator of the ton’s ladies.

Those rumoured to be under her instruction received extraordinary attention at balls and soirees, and their suitors were endless. Those on the outside assumed her lessons were of a sensual nature. In truth, Lottie’s focus was always on the lady—on teaching her to accept herself.

All of which comprised the reason she should send the ring back to Evander. The Earl of Westix did not need a woman of ill repute at his side, mingling her tarnished reputation with his esteemed reputation.

She snatched the box off the cool marble tabletop, just beneath yet another glorious bouquet of the hothouse flowers Evander insisted on sending. Irises and white tulips this time. Just as beautiful as they were unwanted.

The box with the ring in it was cold against her palm and she found herself prising it open, doing to the little box what she had only recently been able to do to her heart.

Nestled within a nest of glossy black satin was a small diamond ring, winking up at her. She staggered back, as if at a blow to her chest.

Her expectations had settled on something large and grand—an opulent bauble befitting the Earl, who had seen the world and gained a fortune. This stone was a modest little thing, almost a chip. Once upon a time, it had been the most beautiful ring she ever seen. She’d thought it lost for ever when she’d thrown it across the drawing room at Comlongon Castle, and had bade the bit of jewellery good riddance. Yet here it was once more, begging for a piece of herself she could not give. A piece of herself which could not exist.

Because all that was left were memories of better times, of beautiful places, of a love that was innocent and precious, of things that could never be.

And things she could not stop herself from wanting.





CHAPTER TWO


August 1809, Bedfordshire, England


Music tinkled with refined elegance through a ballroom dripping with crystal chandeliers, where candles shone from gilt sconces and reflected their golden light throughout the room. It was beautiful in a way that was nearly indescribable to a girl like Lottie, who had spent her life in a small village in the vicar’s cottage with her father.

The borrowed gown she wore—pale blue satin, with gems sewn into the delicate fabric—sparkled as if it too was as otherworldly as the scene glittering before her.

‘Is it everything you thought it would be?’ a familiar voice asked.

She spun around and beamed up at Charles, the only son of the Duke of Somersville, a man whose station meant she ought never to associate with him. Except that his manor was near Binsey, the village where she’d lived. They’d spent every summer together before such a thing as class had ever entered Lottie’s thoughts.

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