Authors: Melissa Schroeder
To Brandy Walker who has always supported me and listened to me gripe. Only other military wives can understand the idiocy we deal with on a regular basis. I truly value your friendship each and every day.
No book is ever written without a lot of help. Special thanks for love and support from Kris Cook, Brandy Walker, Ali Flores and Joy Harris. A massive thank you to my Mel’s Book Chatters and all of you who continue to support me with each and every book. Always a big thank you to Samhain Publishing for the support they give my writing. And of course, a big, wet, sloppy kiss to Heidi Moore who actually makes the editing process something I enjoy and keeps me on track (even if bright shiny things are so much more fun).
And last, but not least, Les, Audrey, Eliza and Belle. Thank you always for your love and support.
Lady Anna stepped over the threshold to her brother’s study and found herself facing a tribunal. Her brother, Sebastian, sat behind his desk. From the irritated look on his face, he was not happy either about what was going to happen, or about having to be the one to do it. Her sister-in-law, Colleen, sat to his right. She offered Anna a reassuring smile that did nothing to reassure her. And then there was her mother, Lady Victoria.
Though she was the mother of two grown children, it was hard to tell. Her face was unlined, her figure trim and womanly. They shared the same cornflower blue eyes and usually an even temper. At the moment, irritation sharpened her usually pleasant features.
“Is there some meeting I had not been told about?” She tried to keep her tone light, but even she heard the thread of fear in her voice and hated herself for it.
No one spoke for a few moments. The ticking clock was the only sound in the room. With each click, the air grew heavier.
“You act as if you are going to gallows,” Sebastian said.
She glanced at him. The sun streamed through the window behind his desk showing off the few gray hairs he had acquired in the last several years. Since he’d married, he had become downright stodgy.
“What would you call it?” she asked, crossing her arms beneath her breasts.
Her mother sniffed. “Please, Anna, sit down so we can have a discussion.”
It was not a request. It was a command. Lady Victoria rarely ordered, until recently. She’d turned into a veritable general in the last months.
Anna hesitated, but the hard look from her brother warned her not to buck them on this. With a frustrated sigh, she walked to one of the chairs in front of Sebastian’s desk.
“Mother wants you to understand that going to your cousin’s ball is not a choice. You must attend.”
She had known her mother would insist. Anna was irritated she had yet to come up with a reasonable reason not to go. “I do not know why.”
“Why?” Her mother’s voice had gone shrill. It was so uncommon that it startled Anna. Lady Victoria was not a woman who yelled, and she definitely didn’t argue in the tone of a fishwife.
“Yes. Mother, I understand why most women must go, but I do not. I have no need for a husband.”
A strange mixture of pain and sympathy flashed over her mother’s face before her features softened. “Anna, darling, you need to stop blaming yourself for what happened.”
Just the mention of the events from three years earlier with Dewhurst caused her spine to stiffen. The easy smile Lady Victoria had offered Anna faded. With a resigned air her mother walked to the window.
“You will go tonight,” Sebastian again ordered. His voice had hardened, his expression growing colder. This was the brother she had known before Colleen had come into their lives.
Aggravation swept through her and she ground her teeth to keep the frustrated scream from escaping. In recent months, everyone seemed to have an opinion about what she should or should not be doing. They had begged her to attend functions, told her she was wasting her days at the orphanage. This was the first time they had ordered her to go. They acted as if she were the empty-headed twit she used to be.
She wanted nothing more than to tell Sebastian to go bugger himself. The moment that thought popped into her head, she pushed it back to the recesses of her mind. While it might make her feel wonderful for a moment, her brother would not be happy. She shrugged, knowing that now there was no way to avoid his command.
“Anna.” Colleen smiled at her. “I know that you would rather do other things.”
“Then why are you siding with them?”
“Because I know that this is important. Not going would be a slight to Cicely and Douglas. Finding a husband is not what is important here. Showing your support is.”
Anna closed her eyes and willed away the pain. She didn’t hate Cicely or Douglas. She loved them both as if they were siblings. Knowing she had almost gotten her cousin killed was sometimes too much to bear. Just thinking about Cicely made her heart ache. Seeing her reminded Anna of her folly. It physically hurt to be in the same room.
Anna opened her eyes and studied her brother. She knew he did this out of love, and Colleen had been correct.
“I will attend.”
She said nothing as she walked to the door. The sharp jab of betrayal she had felt earlier could not compete with the fear now fluttering in her chest. She was not prepared to be in the presence of her cousin.
“Anna,” her mother called out.
Anna did not turn around. She was not able to. For a moment, she wasn’t sure if her mother would say anything, then she said, “Please dress accordingly.”
Anna slipped out the door and closed it behind her. She noticed Templeton standing beside the door and frowned at him. “You knew what they were about.”
The impassive servant frowned back. “I work for your brother, my lady.”
“It would not hurt to warn me.”
“I believe if I had, you would have found something else to do, and that would not have pleased your brother.”
With a huff, she headed to the stairs. Templeton knew her better than most of her acquaintances. She had been a mischievous girl and had many adventures. Some of which would have landed her in trouble had she not had Templeton’s help. There were many times he had outright lied to Sebastian. It was another layer of betrayal that he seemed to be in the enemy camp.
She entered her room and found her maid, Dory, readying a bath.
The young woman stared at her, her blue eyes rounded. “
Anna shook her head. “You knew what they were up to and you allowed me to go?”
Dory rushed forward, worry etched on her facial features. “Oh, no, my lady. It was after you left that Mrs. Flowers told me to get a bath ready.”
She said nothing as she walked to her window to look out upon the day. Everything on the busy street looked normal, somehow in the right order of things. No one looking at her would know the turmoil that tumbled through her. The sounds of Dory readying her bath faded into the background as she mentally prepared herself for the evening ahead. People knew she did not go out in public unless she was looking for funds for the orphanage. But those were usually smaller gatherings, without the need to explain why she was there. Yes, the fact she was related to the Duke and Duchess was reason enough, but that would not discourage the fortune hunters. She would be fending off advances all night long.
“My lady,” Dory said, her voice tentative.
Anna looked over her shoulder at her.
“Your bath is ready.”
She nodded then looked back out the window.
“Don’t let it get cold.”
“I won’t,” she promised, but did not look around. She did not have the patience to be nice to anyone. The moment she heard the door click shut, she sighed and stepped away from the window. Alone, with only the faint sounds from the street below, Anna allowed her shoulders to slump and take in the betrayal she felt. She knew her mother and Sebastian meant well. They would never do anything to hurt her…not purposely. She needed to be reminded of her duty, that was true. But there was a tiny part of her that yearned to defy them.
She had paid her penance these last three years. She had dedicated herself to good works and the broadening of her mind. At first, her family had seemed happy with her choice in activities. The trips to the lending library paired with her charity work had even earned her respect with some of the matrons of society. For the first time in her life, Anna had felt…useful. When she discovered St. Mark’s orphanage, she knew she had found her calling. But as she found peace in her work with children, her mother had grown restless. Anna did not know what had prompted her mother, but she had slowly turned from the understanding mother Anna had known her life, to a formidable foe. She had been able to ignore her mother’s requests and orders, until Sebastian had added his voice to them. Now the only feeling she had was that of being trapped.
If she were truthful with herself, she was angrier at herself. She was in this situation because of her behavior with Dewhurst. She had made a total fool of herself over a man who should not have been trusted. Still, she was happy for her cousin. Cicely had found true love with Douglas. What she could not understand was why her family could not be happy for her.
Forcing her mind away from her morose thoughts, she moved toward the bath. There was no fighting over what would happen tonight. She would make the best of it and possibly gather up some more money for the orphanage. Before she could disrobe, a knock sounded at the door. Colleen did not wait for an invitation and poked her head through the opening.
“Are you all right?” Concern filled her expression.
She offered her sister-in-law a wry smile. “For being bullied and manhandled, I seem to be holding up.”
Colleen grimaced, slipped through the doorway and shut it behind her. “I was not completely in agreement with their tactics.”
“But their purpose?”
“Anna, you cannot go about as you have. And this ball is important. Not going is a slight to your cousin and mine.”
Colleen’s cousin was the Duke of Ethingham, Cicely’s husband. “I don’t think that I would be missed.”
Colleen let one eyebrow rise.
“Oh, all right, I understand that some will think it a slight, but both of our cousins will understand. More than likely, they will not want me there.”
“It is true.”
Colleen shook her head. “They both think that you are coming.”
“Only due to the fact that Sebastian said I would.”
“You cannot think they would not want you there. That is absurd.”
Panic, irritation and fear entwined a tight fist around her heart. Before she could stop herself, her cloistered feelings spilled out. “Think, Colleen. Would you want the person who helped a madman abduct your love? Why everyone does not understand is beyond my comprehension.”
The outburst happened so quickly that the silence that followed stunned Anna. For a moment, Colleen said nothing. Then pity filled her expression. Embarrassment and shame shifted through Anna and she had to turn away. She rarely talked about her feelings on the subject.
“Anna?” Colleen’s voice was gentle. “You should not blame yourself. Cicely and Douglas do not blame you.”
Anna swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. “They should.”
She could feel the burning of tears against the backs of her eyes as she tried to hold onto her composure. “I do not understand why they even want to see me there. And I have much to do at St. Mark’s.”
Colleen said nothing. Anna glanced over her shoulder at her.
“Dear heart, you are not responsible for what Dewhurst did.” Anna opened her mouth to argue but Colleen raised her hand. “But I do understand that while the rest of us do not fault you, you do. How much longer will you blame yourself for the actions of a devious man?”
Anna blinked, but the tears fell. “I do not know if I can.”
Colleen pulled her into her arms briefly. “You must, Anna, or you will never be happy. That is all we want.”
“I understand that, but I do not know if I am ready.”
If I will ever be ready.
Colleen pulled back and smiled at her. “You will. You just need to open your mind to it. Now, young lady, please do get dressed and for goodness’ sake wear something bright. Your mother will have an apoplexy if you wear something gray.”
She thought back to her mother’s behavior. Lady Victoria was usually a bit more subtle in her ministrations. In the past few weeks, she had become more and more adamant and well…pushy. “Is something bothering Mother?”
“She has a daughter who will not go to a social event unless it is tied to good works.”
Anna shook her head. “No. Have you noticed that she has been a bit…well, shrill lately.”
Her face softened into an understanding smile. “Your mother loves you. Since you are hurting, she is hurting. It is a motherly thing, dear. I will leave you to your bath.”
Moments later, Anna slipped into the heated, fragrant water. It eased her muscles but not her mind…or her heart. She wanted to be a good daughter. Anna had thought she had succeeded—until recently. When she was a frivolous debutant, she never gave a passing thought to the poor, or just how people suffered. It shamed her to admit, but it was true. She would have never thought people would criticize her choices now. She had promised her mother and Sebastian she would go, and she would keep that promise. But that did not mean she had to stay all night. As she slipped further into the warm water, Anna calculated just how long she had to stay at the ball to satisfy her mother.